During this brief time of year the following events took place, Jethro had been very busy. He'd reached maturity and was expected to behave accordingly; however, he didn't understand what that meant. He saw life differently than most of his peers. They had rules they lived by; for instance, grown frogs fraternized only with other frogs and gathered at the south end of the pond at dusk during the warm time to listen to speeches by the bigger, tougher frogs. Jethro rejected that whole lifestyle and went his own way. Life was a celebration of life, he believed, and submission to rules was simply not for him.
It was a beautiful warm day, he'd been hopping about investigating, exploring, looking for treasure, when he heard a violent commotion nearby, brush rattling and strange muffled sounds. Spotting a hole gouged into the base of a large oak, he scurried in, dragging twigs across its opening to conceal himself. The crash of struggling grew closer, he held his breath and closed his eyes. He knew closing his eyes wouldn't help, but he didn't want to face the back of the hole either. In fact, now that he was dug in, covered with old moldy leaves and twigs from last fall, he'd rather not move at all. Besides, whatever was making the horrible noise would soon be upon him and he needed to be ready to jump if necessary. But only if absolutely imperative. He was nobody's hero and didn't wish to be. He had no desire to impress anyone, leave that to the bullfrogs.
Mixed in with a shrill strained screeching and tight throaty sounds, deep in tone, a mad flapping of wings and rush of air stirred his cover. Two creatures of indeterminate type fought a life and death battle within inches of his hideaway. Jethro clamped his eyes shut tighter, if possible. Suddenly, he heard rapid footfalls and then more fluttering going away. Momentarily, all was silent. Still, he didn't move or open his eyes. He waited, they might come back, he thought. He started to stiffen-up, the beginnings of a cramp in his right leg. He listened intently. All he heard was the breeze blowing by, gently rustling the leaves. Popping one eye open, he peered through a narrow space in his covering. Nothing. Then the other eye. He had to move, to stretch. With a burst of will power, he pushed his way out, studying the terrain of trees and brush, straining to see into the tall grass.
Deciding all was clear, he quickly hopped down the slope to the relative safety of his pond. But, being a cautious frog, he stopped to rest in a clump of thick grass a few feet from the water. From there, he studied his surroundings, one section at a time, in a circle. Despite his fear and draining rush of adrenaline, he found himself pretending to be on a mission. His job was to sneak up on anyone who might be invading his home. No sooner had he elected this course that the distinctive sound of lapping could be heard off to his right. He crept closer. Through a smattering of daisies, he spotted a doe with her two fawns, drinking. He took in the scene. He knew these creatures didn't pay any mind to his kind, but the fawns were known to ocassionally sniff and prod at his cousins, at least that's what they said.
A few moments later, the mother abruptly stood erect. Jethro thought he'd given his cover away and held his breath. But she looked off in the other direction, towards the opposite side of the pond, her pointy ears shifting position on their own. She sniffed, looked, and listened, her two young ones continuing to drink, oblivious of any danger. Jethro heard a crashing sound and then saw the brush on the other side shake and part as though something large pushed its way through. With that, the doe made a muffled sound, then turned to run, her two children hot on her heels. They quickly vanished up the hill, melding to invisibility in the trees.
Jethro was lost in fascination as a huge bear poked its head out of the surrounding growth on the opposite bank. He didn't even bother to look around, just put his enormous head down to drink. If I was that big, Jethro thought, I wouldn't be afraid of anybody either. Knowing for certain that a bear couldn't care less about a frog, he relaxed but stayed put. He liked this new game -- the spy. He casually lashed his tongue out at a few passing insects -- denomination unknown -- and savored the warming day as the sun rose higher in the sky. Suddenly, he heard a tiny voice off to his left. It seemed very close.
"Hello, there, frog," it said, "why are you hiding?"
Nervous but refusing to show fear, especially at such a small voice, he turned. There confronting him was a winged creature almost as tall as he dressed in pale-yellow shimmering clothing hovering in the air. He'd heard of such creatures through stories the grown-ups told one another late at night when they thought the children were asleep. But he'd always thought they were just making them up to scare one another, as they sometimes do. Not so, apparently.
"Well?" the little one persisted, continuing to flap vigorously. "Are you hiding from someone? Playing a game, are you?"
Finding his voice, he said, "No, I'm not playing a game." Pushing himself up to her level, he continued with all seriousness, making a show of whispering, "I'm a spy."
"Ohhhh, a spy you are?" She smiled and winked, then very daintily flew down to sit on a flat moss-covered stone. "And just who are you spying on, and why?" she asked, while smoothing out the wrinkles in her dress.
Jethro thought quickly. He could never lie to his mother when she'd question him about some trouble he'd gotten into, but this was different. He was being interrogated by a total stranger who might be up to something. But it was too exhausting trying to think of a story, so he just said, "I was spying on a bullfrog who,..." and then stopped, his voice running out of air. He couldn't think of a reason. He wasn't very good at this lying stuff, he had to admit. But he'd already said he was spying so he had to think of something and plenty quick.
He blurted out, "The bullfrog I was watching likes to push the smaller ones around and the parents complained to the elders about it so they asked me to spy for them to see who it is. He must be stopped." He spoke that last word with determination, hitting the ground hard with his foot. He believed in what he was doing, or rather had to appear that way; he was committed. It was hard work -- lying -- the fun was going out of the game already.
Convincing as he'd thought he'd been, however, the little faery smiled even more broadly at this telling. Jethro wished she would go away but didn't want to be rude. He turned back towards the pond to continue doing his job, but he couldn't relax; he felt her eyes on him. The only way he could get back into enjoying himself was to forget all about her, so he tried. He furrowed his brow and concentrated hard on pretending she'd flown away. It was beginning to work when of a sudden she said, "My name is Melinda, but most folks call me Linda or Mel. You can call me whichever you wish."
Jethro let out a long breath. He hardly ever felt annoyed at anyone, preferring to simply ignore people who bothered him, but she was starting to get on his nerves. He turned her way once again to say something, as politely as possible, that would make her go away when right behind her he saw a ferret reared up on his hind legs about to pounce.
His eyes widened; she saw. Before he could shout an alarm, she flew up to her left, spinning as she did so, and just as the ferret jumped, she threw sparkly dust or tiny pieces of alabaster shell or something glittery like that at the ferret who immediately vanished into thin air. Jethro was stunned, to say the least. But Melinda simply composed herself, then smoothly flew back to her perch, once again pressing the wrinkles out of her dress as though nothing very important had just occurred. If Jethro had been able to move he would've hopped home, but all he could do was stare. She, of course, only smiled back, trying to dispel his disquiet, as she saw it. But from his point-of-view, he was disoriented and mystified by what he'd seen; things about him -- the tall grass, the blue sky, the earth under his feet -- seemed to whirl and mush together. Fearing he might pass-out at any moment, he forced himself to speak, or rather, stammer, "What was that?"
She raised her head to smile demurely, feigning innocence. "What was what?" she asked as though genuinely unsure what he meant.
"That,..., that stuff you threw; the ferret,..., disappeared. How did you do that? And where did he go?"
She peered off, thoughtful, considering the most accurate choice of words, either to reveal or conceal. Her choice. She faced Jethro and said simply, "Magic." Followed by, "I don't know."
Jethro felt queezy, the moment s m e a r e d out before him like thin ice on the pond. He wasn't quite certain how to take it. In fact, he had no idea at all how to take it. He'd heard of magic, sure, everybody has, but to actually see it work right in front of him. He wasn't really prepared to accept it. He wasn't a scoffer like so many grown-ups, pushing the very idea aside with a derisive laugh, accusing anyone who believed in such nonsense crazy and worse. He was open to anything, or at least that's how he saw himself. And he wasn't afraid; again, how he saw himself. But this morning was happening so quickly. A fight, a faery and now this,..., magic.
Melinda understood. Vibrating her four wings to a dangerous-sounding pitch, she drew his attention back to the real physical world about them. "You haven't told me your name, young frog."
"Jethro," he replied quietly, his throat dry. "My name is Jethro, and I live not far from here." Pausing while his heart slowed -- a trick all frogs know -- he then asked, "Do you live around here? I've never seen you before."
"Why yes," she said, "my whole family, my mother and father and three sisters. We moved from up north. Too cold, my mother complained. So, here we are. It's nice."
"Three sisters? Boy, I only have one and that's too much."
Melinda stood to walk towards a dandelion. Peering up at its plumage folded in the shade of the bower, her wings hanging by her sides, she asked, "If you're not too busy later on, would you like to come home with me? Meet my family?"
Jethro felt confused and a little stunned. They'd only just met; should she be so trusting? Or should he? he almost laughed. She's the one who can make someone vanish into thin air. Most of his friends were frogs, but he did know a couple of squirrels, a chipmunk, and a bushbird, or maybe it was three bushbirds? They moved so fast it was hard to tell. His best friend was a turtle nicknamed Knuckles because of his habit of walking around on his knuckles in order to appear taller whenever girl turtles were around, hence the name. They spent a lot of time together just sitting around by the pond catching flies and talking about stuff.
Having a faery for a friend, Jethro thought, someone who could do magic, that might be fun. Besides, after what she did to that ferret, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have her on his side. "Sure," he finally said. "How 'bout now?"
She smiled at the ground and said, "Well, I thought you were on a mission -- spying?"
He looked down quickly. "I could take a break," he said, in a serious tone. "I've been doing this all morning, you know," trying to look world-weary, his best shot. "It gets tiresome."
"Well then, let's go." And without further ado, she began to skip-fly across the tops of the grass. Jethro hopped behind, trying to keep up. They left the security of the pond and ventured deeper into the dense woods. This made going a little tough for him, but he managed, never complaining, wanting to make a good impression. Strange noises filled the air, but most he was familiar with. Just as he heard a particularly loud squeal that startled him, they came upon a large oak. Above his head he could see a hollow, dark and foreboding. Melinda flew up to it and went inside, disappearing from sight. He waited, a little concerned, peering around in all directions, trying to collect his bearings. He could still smell the pond, so he relaxed. She poked her head out and waved him up. With a solid jump on his strong young legs, he landed on the lip of the openning. Inside he could see light coming from somehwere. Seeing his uncertainty, she smiled reassuringly, then turned to walk inward. He followed, a bit shyly but with purpose. No time to show timidity, he thought.
Abruptly in front of him he noticed a bluish-yellow shimmering, a disturbance as when a fish jumps out of the water and dives back in, something they did for fun, he knew. She passed through it and he followed right behind, he was committed. The hollow opened up to a bright colorful vista going out every which way as far as he could see. He stopped dead in his tracks, amazed. A waterfall cascaded from a great height into a blue-green lagoon; steep cliffs widened out to the horizon, fading from view; strangely-shaped trees and brush sprung up all about; a brook meandering through the center suddenly ended as though pursuing a deeper path beneath the ground.
Nearby he saw a stick-framed house encircling a most mysterious tree, its smooth bark glistened and seemed to breathe, moving in and out, looking healthy and strong. On the house porch he made out two other faeries who suddenly ceased their conversation and stared at them for a moment, then waved energetically and flew down, landing cautiously some distance away. It's because of me, thought Jethro, pleased at their reticence in spite of himself.
Melinda flew to them, and while hovering, quickly introduced him. "Jethro, I'd like you to meet my sisters, Olivia and Dusty. Dusty's not her real name but that's what we call her." They smiled demurely then glanced furtively at Melinda. Jethro had seen this look before. He was a frog and most woods folks didn't fraternize with frogs. Being faeries, however, they couldn't help but see his crestfallen look. Immediately, they surrounded him and started chittering away. "Hello, Jethro," they said as one, then Olivia continued in a sing-song way, "Welcome to our land. We were about to go to the Black Forest on the other side of the stream for an afternoon picnic with wine and cookies and cheeses and all the best. Come along, why don't you?"
Jethro smiled from ear to ear and even hopped a bit in place, forgoing his care-worn gravity for the moment. All about in the trees and under bushes he could see others going through their morning rituals, some laying about in the sun, others huddled over tiny bowls, nibbling and chewing, still more further afield, little ones mostly, already out vigorously playing some tagging game, squealing and laughing. No one was working at chores as far as he could tell.
"Where's Rebecca?" asked Melinda. "Is she awake yet? After last night, I have my doubts."
Her sisters glanced at one another, then broke into laughter. "She never came home," one volunteered, a devilish look in her wide green eyes. "Her sprite tempted her with all manner of diversions, not the least of which was he himself." Then they all broke into laughter.
"But what of mother, what does she think?"
They looked downcast at that, almost fearful. "You know," Dusty said, in a serious tone, "mother approves but disapproves, all at the same time. It's hard to fathom. Stories abound but, Rebecca is the oldest after all. Soon she may marry."
"She better," commented Olivia. "Father is angry. He says he will talk to this Jasper fellow before the day is out. And I think this time he means it. He's determined to put an end to their trysts. It simply isn't proper behavior for a princess, he says."
Others came over and Melinda made introductions while her sisters darted up to the house to gather things for the picnic. A friendly group, they treated Jethro with courtesy and kindness, asking him questions about himself and his life by the pond. He was surprised to discover that they'd been living in their magical world since he'd been a tadpole; he wondered how he managed to have never seen them before. But, smiling good-naturedly, they assured him that they'd seen him. He was a little embarrassed by the news, trying to remember the many compromising situations--and positions--he'd gotten into over the years; not many to be sure, but to him, one was enough.
The three sisters and Jethro walked the well-worn path leading to the bridge across the stream. Jethro gladly carried the straw basket, a strap of reeds over a shoulder, while the sisters chattered amongst themselves, ignoring him. He passed the time taking in the wonders of this new world. Houses scattered about on tree limbs and huts snugly placed under bushes and beside tiny brooks. Flowers of the brightest colors imaginable seemed to wave in unison as they passed. He saw faeries and sprites and others of unknown nature, some flew, others walked, and a few, understandably but impolitely nonetheless, stopped what they were doing to stare at what must be an unusual sight. Ordinarily, he would be nervous at such scrutiny, but because here he felt only warmth and friendliness, he instead walked a bit taller, proud to be with such lovely princesses.
Melinda noticed a trace of sweat on his brow and asked if he would like to rest. Mustering a smile, Jethro waved her off; although, in truth, he wondered at the heaviness. It was only a basket of picnic stuff, and he was a frog. Things were not as they seemed, or should be, in this land of theirs.
Shortly, they arrived at the stream, not very wide, but fast moving and clearly deep, swirling round and through rocks and tussling the long thick reeds lining the banks. The bridge was strongly built; its deck was planked with hewed timbers that, despite their roughness, joined perfectly seam-by-seam, and it was enclosed from rail to rail by cross-stiched intertwining poles that curved gently overhead to join at the center, the roof layered over with broad leaves. Olivia and Dusty walked ahead while Melinda accompanied Jethro. The stream was a good twenty feet below. Fascinated, Jethro stopped to watch its raucous wildness as it sped away to,..., where? All along were rapids spread without rhyme or reason across its surface; passed a huge boulder beyond, it sharply turned to the left and coursed out of sight. He closed his eyes to listen, its sound roaring in his ears; it made his blood pulse stronger. After a few moments, Melinda tugged his arm as she pulled her shaw around her shoulders, and together they continued, the two other sisters already at the far bank, waiting.
Entering the Black Forest, the tumult of the stream quickly faded to nothing. Strangely, the sisters grew quiet, watchful. Filtered through the thick canopy and lush leaf-covered branches, he heard chittering calls off in the distance. In no time, it became dark, not so dark that they couldn't see, but definitely not as pleasant as the open field on the other side. As though reading his thoughts, Melinda told him that the darkness was why it was called the Black Forest.
"But, where are we to picnic?" he asked. The strain of the basket beginning to work its way into his mood.
Melinda looked to the ground, smiled and said, "Not too far is a meadow with a single tree at its center. There we will lay our blanket."
Jethro winced and switched the basket to his other shoulder. The crying sounds grew louder. He carefully surveyed the upper branches of the great trees, taller than any he'd ever seen, expecting anything, but saw nothing. Whatever was making that horrible noise, he thought, must be very good at concealment. After a time walking in silence down the narrow path, light began to show through. Suddenly, they broke out into the promised meadow, the many fragrances of flowers invading his senses in ways unfamiliar to him. The sisters renewed their talking and laughing as they made their way to the huge misshapened tree, its branches shooting off in all directions, bending at impossible angles. Finally, unable to squelch a sigh of relief, Jethro laid the basket on the ground. Surrounded by foxglove, cowslips, and clover, they threw their blanket amidst a circle of orange-topped toadstools, the shade from the tree just right. In the meadow, the air was cool and the sounds of unknown creatures but a distant murmur.
Olivia pulled a large bottle of red wine from the basket and worked to open it. Dusty pulled out a towel within which were four glasses. Melinda unwrapped a block of cheese and filled a plate with fruit of varying colors and sizes. Jethro spent his time scanning the trees that encircled the meadow, looking for anything suspicious. The sisters talked amiably amongst themselves while drinking and eating. They didn't exactly ignore Jethro, but their lack of curiosity about him didn't seem quite right. He hoped it wasn't because he was a frog; Melinda invited him into her land, and they, in turn, invited him to their picnic. Would they had done so if they didn't like frogs? But he had to admit he knew nothing of faery folk and so could not judge them by frog standards.
Dismissing his worries, he examined the many colorful flowers in the field, how they moved and mingled with one another, how they seemed to stretch and shrink as though under water. At length, he asked no one in particular, "Why are there no trees here? It seems odd, don't you think?"
They stopped talking and looked his way. Smiling, Melinda explained, "Long ago there was a war between the folk on our side of the stream and the forest folk. They'd banded together, elves, trolls, brownies, a whole assortment of woods creatures, led by a fearsome dryad. There were creatures with hideous faces and misshapened bodies, ones who could fly, ones who lived underground, and even stranger ones who could take the shape of anything, especially trees. So, after years of war, we won by learning how to combine our magic, and part of the settlement included this place. The trees were cut down, the roots pulled, and this space, sacred and protected by layers of spells, is forever a living symbol of our victory. We come here often." Pleased at her summary, she sipped wine, her eyes glistening with an exhuberance and joy that marked her nature.
The three princesses returned to their conversation, occasionally using words Jethro did not understand. Feeling left out, but not in a painful way, believing that perhaps Melinda had been gone for some time and much with their family and the community had transpired, he stood to wander the meadow, stopping to examine the bizarre flowers and curious fluttering insects. Not bees or butterflies exactly or even similarly, they seemed to possess a keen sensibility as though at any moment they might speak. And the flowers, some as tall as he, stood in clumps, gesturing with leafy branches, their tops wagging, apparently engaged in an animated, albeit silent, discussion. At any rate, just as with the princesses, they all ignored him as though invisible. Respecting a person's privacy can go too far, thought Jethro. He was beginning to wish someone would ask who he was and what he was doing here, friendly-like or not, even if that someone was an insect or a flower.
He walked about, getting further away from the center tree, until he could no longer hear the princesses. The sun warmed him at just the right temperature. Reminding himself that he was inside a great tree that, nonetheless, housed a vast magical domain with its own rules, he wondered what this sun actually was, so far away in what appeared to be the familiar blue sky. A shadow passing to his left brought him out of his reverie; at once he noticed that he had meandered to the edge of the circular meadow where it met the forest. Blood racing, he turned to look for the great, gnarled tree under which his companions were sitting. Even among the giant flowers, it should be clearly visible. But he spied it not. He thrashed through the flowers, oblivious of their sways of disapproval and indignation, away from the forest towards the center of the meadow where he knew the tree had been. But when he arrived, only more flowers stood. No tree, no princesses, no sign of a picnic, even the toadstools were gone.
Unsure of the exact position where the tree had been, Jethro broadened the circle, scrutinizing details, looking for clues. Not so much as an indentation in the ground gave evidence that three faery princesses--and himself for awhile--once sat here on a blanket, a large basket on the ground nearby. No trace of fruit or bread or cheese or spilled wine. Nothing. As he stood stock still, bewildered and worried, he became aware of the deep quiet that now pervaded the field. The flowers no longer moved and the many fluttering insects had vanished along with the sisters. The fact that the huge center tree had somehow erased itself from existence told him that it was not just a question of the sisters leaving, for some reason, and forgetting him. Unlikely. Or, of someone having taken them away, forest folk still begrudging the war.
The tree was gone, plain and simple. Flowers now filled in where he was certain it once stood, flowers that now behaved like those he was used to.
Jethro sat on his haunches to contemplate the situation; all his senses were wide open and attentive. He tried to put himself into the tall grasses and lush smells near his pond, hiding, skulking, pretending to be a spy, but it was no use. He was in a magical land, a land where the expectation of normalcy--what he considered normal--would lead only to shock--the stun kind--confusion and awe. Because he couldn't trust what he did to have the usual effect, he felt numb. He had to abandon his assumptions, adopt new ones. It wouldn't surprise him if there was some reasonable explanation, something they forgot to tell him. At that moment, he remembered the shadow that passed overhead when he was daydreaming. Was that really a shadow of something else, something physical, or do shadow beings live here?
Off in the distance he could see the break in the tree line where the road was. Should he hike back to the king and inform him? They might be there, just transported home for a brief respite. Would they do that without telling him? Wouldn't it make more sense to call him over and inform him of their intentions? And would they take everything with them? Including that darn tree?
Or, perhaps they slipped into another reality, he'd heard of such things but had never known any firsthand. One invisible to this one. But no, that can't be. What of all the other things that changed? What could explain them? The tree is gone, the flowers don't move, and the insects are nowhere to be seen or heard. His mind examined all the nooks and crannies, with one conclusion: it is I who have crossed over into some land involuntarily. Lost in another world.
Not wishing to accept that, Jethro shook it off and held onto the reality he knew. If he returned to tell what happened, to get help--he didn't know the ways of Faeryland--the king might be a little upset, leaving his daughters unattended in dangerous circumstances. Recalling how Melinda had dispatched that ferret in short order, however, he believed they were quite capable of taking care of themselves. Nonetheless, their father may have forbiddden them from coming here, and so, naturally enough, being adventurous and strong-headed, gave them sufficient reason to do just that. And where was he when whatever occurred? Out wandering about, outside of earshot. Not good.
Jethro's mind skittered from one scenario to another. faerytales, myths, legends he'd been told when younger raced and mingled, stood out, then faded to nothing, pieces and parts of one joined with that of others. Nothing gave sense to current events or could be brought to bear. He sat, in the now still, quiet, eerie, treeless meadow, trying to decide what to do, and what to base it on. Homesickness crept its lonely way into his heart. It was a mistake to come into Faeryland, he thought. It all seemed so exciting and harmless in the beginning, but now, not so much. What had he gotten himself into?
He was about to concede defeat and start hopping towards what he hoped was the bridge, when he heard a small cry from behind. He turned and for the briefest of moments saw a silhouette of the great tree at the center of the meadow. It was there, and then wasn't. Again he heard the feint call and this time saw a hand floating in midair, then another a few feet away. With a rush of air as though a wall of reeds had been broached, the three princesses, the blanket, the basket, the plates of food and bottle of wine, and especially the gnarly tree, all materialized at once. The sisters were standing around him, concern on their faces. Melinda brushed his forehead and asked if he was all right.
Stunned, he found his tongue nonetheless. "What happened?" he blurted out. "Where did you go?"
Melinda asked, "When you went for your walk, did you see a shadow creature?"
He confessed yes, and she and her sisters went on to explain that such a creature can influence those who don't have a magical barrier to perceive a reality at angles to our own. "We saw you when you came back," said Melinda, "and watched your movements, saw that you were unaware of us. The shadow creature went by at the tree tops and you were at the edge of the meadow; we had no time to warn you. Together we conjured a spell to shift space and bring you out of it, or rather, into it." She took his hand and said, "Sit, Jethro; have some wine and cheese."
He made himself comfortable on the blanket as the faery sisters whispered an incantation, their eyes ablaze with magic fire. "Now you are protected from the shadow creatures, Jethro." Melinda smiled fondly. "You are immune to shifts in time and space." They ate and drank and talked the afternoon away. Feeling as though he'd been inducted into the world of magic, or at least, survived his first encounter with one of its pitfalls, he expanded like a bullfrog about to croak. He described his life and world with confidence, unabashed, painting a true picture, warts and all. For reasons unknown to him, he felt smarter.
On the way back, he stopped again on the bridge, faced upstream this time, closed his eyes and opened himself to the roaring wildness of the torrent as it cascaded over the many rocks strewn its length, the upwelling spray freshening his face. It seemed to be of a deeper resonance than before, he mused, unconcerned at how much louder it was. And what had been a cacophany of chaotic sounds crashing together, stinging his senses, now harmonized as they reverberated through his body. Enunciating, competing, engaging, he could pick out each separate chord, note, blare and boom, loud and low, mingling, merging, suspended in flight as one grand symphony. Melinda stood beside him, her shawl pulled around her shoulders; patiently, she watched and waited. He felt her near, a tangible presence, a warm sensation, and opened his eyes. Together they walked towards home, Olivia and Dusty strolling ahead.
As they reached the road, a glimmer of light near the bank to the right, tucked into some bushes, caught his eye. He slowed with Melinda holding his arm. She asked what was wrong, but the bright flash was gone. "Nothing," he mumbled, as they picked up the pace. But Jethro remained alert; no more surprises, he decided. Had it been a shiny thing the light had glanced, or a creature of light to counter those of shadow? And what mayhem did they play?
"Water sprites," she said at last. "What you saw, Jethro, was a sprite, they brighten when saying hello. But, thank you for being so protective." She squeezed his arm harder and smiled. Jethro's chest swelled as he walked side-by-side with Melinda, his new best friend. A friend who, apparently, could read minds and feelings.
Jethro had, for some time now, been on his own, living around the pond. He visited his parents often, but it was not unusual for a young frog to stay out all night, croaking and cavorting with friends. That evening, he had dinner with the king and queen of Faeryland, sitting beside Melinda, her two sisters on the other side of the long ornate table, well-stocked with plates and bowls of food and goblets of wine. The room was not huge, but its splendor awed Jethro. Tapestries of figures and scenery, intricately woven together, depicting all manner of faeries, sprites, and gnomes hung here and there, interspersed with paintings of individuals--prestigious faeries, he assumed. And tables ordained with bizarre flowers and figurines stood on rugs of the most incomprehensible patterns and colors. The high curved ceiling was emblazoned with scenes of characters and country that seemed to shift and move. The main chandelier sparkled with lights from another world, this world.
The king behaved graciously towards Jethro, remarking that they had never had a frog visit before. The queen seemed intrigued by the obvious affection Melinda showed Jethro, helping to choose certain dishes for him, and teasingly warning about his choice of wine, the strongest they made. Others entered the room and, after bowing respectfully towards the monarch, seated themselves down the length of the table. In short order, it was fully occupied, the guests chatting amiably amongst themselves, expressing a warm curiosity about Jethro as though he wasn't there. In frog society, this would be considered rude, but he once again had to remind himself that standards were different here and that they probably didn't mean anything unkind towards him.
The king questioned him at length about his life by the pond, displaying the usual fatherly concern one might have for his daughter's companion, while yet not appearing to interrogate in an overbearing way. He told him of how they met, the encounter with the ferret, and how surprised he was that she had invited him to visit her land. None of the sisters mentioned the shadow creature, and so Jethro didn't either. Perhaps, he thought, it would anger the king that such a creature would dare to intrude on their outing, or that it would change the mood of the gathering, dredging up bad memories of the war.
After dinner, the king and queen retired first, nodding to the assemblage and smiling towards Jethro, the king maintaining a regal pose, the queen displaying a warmer, more motherly countenance. In due time, the others also left with comments of goodwill and friendliness towards him, a few giggling with hands over mouths. Frogs were, after all, Jethro believed, an uncommon sight in the land. Olivia and Dusty thanked him for a pleasant day and together left to go to their sitting room to continue, no doubt, conversing about suitors and potential suitors, especially about Jasper and Rebecca. In spite of his nervousness at the novel circumstance, Jethro couldn't help but notice that Rebecca did not attend and that no one mentioned her. He had yet to meet this eldest sister. Where could she be?
While Melinda and he sat alone eating a delicious dessert of chocolately richness, Jethro finally broached the subject. At first, Melinda frowned, but in short order smiled, her green eyes sparkling. "Rebecca is the true rebel of the family," she said. "Father disapproves of her refusal to obey, but mother, although agreeing with him for appearances sake, secretly admires her independence and willfulness. Nonetheless, they both recognize her naivete and fear for her safety. But, she is in love, in love with a wild sprite who obeys nothing save his passion for her. They, no doubt, are together even now, somewhere on Jasper's estate.
"His father, Altimeer, rules the forest folk, a kingdom unto itself, recognized as independent, and that, you see, is a problem. Since the war between our people ended, there have been many cross-over relationships forged. This has been seen by father to be a good thing, to maintain peace and bring all of our peoples together as one, strengthening the power of Faeryland. Jasper's father and mine have only spoken once, at the meeting of reconciliation ending the war. They lost and surrendered, but not with ill will. They both wisely agreed that in that event feelings would only fester, eventually leading to another war, which neither side can afford, either in lives or fortune. So, Altimeer retains his kingdom and cross-over relationships have been encouraged and attempts to intervene and rules to block such are strictly forbidden by both parties."
She paused as she licked her spoon, then said, "Nonetheless, father is not pleased with Rebecca's choice. He feels she does it soley to antagonize him and not for true love's sake. Jasper, for his part, is a genuine rascal living wild, doing whatever he wishes in his kingdom, but, we feel, my sisters and I, that he truly does love Rebecca." Melinda again paused, looking down the length of the table at the servants clearing away dishware and goblets in perfect silence, then said in a serious tone, "And that, dear Jethro, may lead to troubles if she decides she's had enough and rebuffs him. That would not be good."
"But," Jethro began, "wouldn't it be good for the alliance to have a wedding between them? A marriage to bring both houses together? Why is it seen as a problem? I don't understand."
Melinda stared at her now empty bowl, a servant about to remove it. In a moment she said, "Ordinarily, it would be the most desirable of events, to bond our two households, to cement our alliance, to end hostilities in an official way, but, you see, it is Jasper who is the problem. He refused to attend the reconciliation meeting, refused to accept defeat. So, father fears he is using Rebecca to undermine the peace, not strengthen it. If Jasper were in charge, he would most likely launch another war, his rage and pride are that strong, but his father holds him in check and has the loyalty of most of his people. There are those who side with Jasper, who feel the same resentment and chafe at defeat.
"What Rebecca sees in him,..., that's why father mistrusts the whole affair and would rather it end. Mother thinks her love will mellow him; father fears the worst, and, he is responsible for our welfare, a burden he does not take lightly. In truth, though, I think he worries that Jasper might turn Rebecca against him, a worry that if come to pass would break his heart and cause a rift unhealable. She is the eldest and dearest and is also very powerful in her own right, almost that of mother. If she were to join with Jasper and turn against us, the balance of magic might shift in his favor. It is unknown, there are so many factors."
Melinda stood abruptly. Jethro sensed her mood had darkened along with the brightness of her aura and wished only for both to return to their former enchanting state; he regretted having mentioned Rebecca, but what was done was done, his mother taught him that.
"Let's go to the garden, Jethro. The fruit trees are in blossom and the air is heavy this time of day. We have the most wondrous fish in the pond, they glow and shift color when speaking to one another. Please, come." She held out a delicate hand, her smile warming the very air itself; he was grateful and stood to join her.
As they walked, he asked, "Does everything here talk? In my world, only animals talk."
With a trace of appreciation on her lips, she studied a painting of a tall thin sprite bedecked in glossy silver pantaloons, a knitted shirt of gold, and buckled shoes that all appeared to vibrate rhythmically as they passed. His hair was the colors of the rainbow. "Yes," she said, "and no. We don't think of it as talking. We see the inner thoughts of beings, of all living things as we share in the mystery of life. It is most acute with those who are most alike. Thoughts are sensed and known as though one's own. As well, every sound, every look, every movement has meaning."
"But," he asked, confused, "how is it that I see these thoughts; although, I must admit, I cannot understand what they're saying?"
"You are here, Jethro," was her only reply as they stepped through the doorway into the garden.
It was evening, lamps of amber spread an even under-light throughout. As well, the moon, almost full, was rising and the brightness of the flowers illuminated their immediate surroundings with their own special colors. Jethro, awed, held his breath as he gazed in wonder. Melinda, amused, pulled him gently along the cobblestones of the winding path. At length, they reached the greenish-blue pond, lillypads clumped together at its center, and sat on a bench. Except for the strange insects fluttering about and the flickering fish swimming to and fro, it had a familiar feeling to Jethro and he found himself relaxing in its setting, more so than he had. A lush fragrance filled the air and soothed his nerves, still somewhat shaken by his hallucination at the picnic and nervousness at dining with royalty in such splendor. He was but a common frog unused to the opulence of the rich and powerful. His whole experience of Faeryland thus far had been a continual act of stepping through thresholds of novelty and amazement, but here beside this pond, he felt himself to be in his element, though, given his present company, croaking would probably be inappropriate, and lashing out with his tongue to grab a bug was out of the question.
The wine he'd consumed during the day--at picnic and dinner--was having a noticeable effect, it not being something he ordinarily did. Melinda sat quietly, allowing him time to adjust. At length, he asked, "Why are there no frogs here? In my world, they go with ponds and lillypads. I, myself, have spent many an afternoon sunning on a lillypad far from the bank. Do they sleep here at night?"
Melinda didn't answer right away, as though thinking of a proper tactful response. Gazing off into the distance, she said, "No frogs live here, Jethro. Once, long, long ago, frogs were commonplace, croaking at night and hopping wherever they wished. But the lord of the flying insects protested the deaths of so many of his subjects and brought a grievance before the king who reigned over all at that time, an ancestor of my father. The insect lord bargained that his fellows would no longer pollinate the flowers and orchards unless something be done. The king held council with this lord and that of the frogs in the hope of reaching a mutual agreement, an understanding of sorts. The frog king insisted that his people must eat to survive, and what they ate was insects, plain and simple. War was imminent; threats were made. However, reason held sway and the frogs accepted a plan to relocate into the world of the forest where a huge swamp dominates the southern region and ponds are plentiful. At the time, the forest was part of our kingdom, and though its folk lived apart, under a rule of their own, as do the mountain folk, they still owed allegiance to us. The insects there are wild and unruly, having no leader to speak for them. There really was no other choice. Unfortunately, it exacerbated ill-feeling between the forest folk and us. Some scholars believe this was the pivotal event that initiated a series of reciprocal transgressions eventually culminating in the war."
"But surely," Jethro suggested, "there must've been frogs in the forest before. Weren't there?"
"Yes," replied Melinda, "but history tells us that they had long since been bred away from feeding on insects and instead ate flowers and toadstools. They must have eaten other things as well, things that crawl, but their diet is somewhat of a mystery."
"Ate flowers?" wondered Jethro, doubtfully. "I don't see how..."
"No frogs live here, Jethro," she interrupted with finality, her flawless face hardening ever so slightly.
Jethro dropped the subject like a hot bug. She was becoming a friend for which he was grateful, but still and all, she was a princess and he wished not to spoil the moment or his time here, however much longer that may be. Also, he admitted to himself, he certainly didn't want to irritate her. After all, a delightful companion though she be, he'd known her for less than a day only and had no idea, of course, what her full nature was. And he knew nothing of princesses, especially; although, he suspected they could be quite petulant when made to feel uncomfortable or to have their facts questioned. Best to go slowly and carefully, lest he find out just where that ferret went.
They sat on the bench a hands-breadth apart, still and quiet, taking in the ambience of the garden and beyond. The stars shone with a crispness Jethro did not remember ever seeing before, and the patterns he knew from nights alone resting on a lillypad on his pond looked askew, not quite right. They sat and let their senses open to the aroma of flowers and fruit trees, the humming, clicking, and chirping of insects, the colorful flashing of fish, and the warmth of each other's bodies. After a time of deep breathing, Jethro felt Melinda's hand in his; whether she reached for him or the other way round, he didn't know; he just knew it felt wonderful. He heard birds chittering and it crossed his mind to ask if they ate insects, but thought better of it. Only a fool would dare test the patience of a faery princess.
They watched the stars drift by, holding hands, feeling at peace. Jethro thought it might be time for him to leave, to call it a day and go home. After all, he'd almost spoiled their budding friendship and wished not to do so again. Better to leave now before the wine once more puts words in his mouth that shouldn't be there. In the softest of voices, Melinda said, "No, stay Jethro. I've had a room readied for you to spend the night. The morning's are so beautiful here. After breakfast, I'll show you my private hideaway, where I like to spend time alone. Please, stay."
It startled him to recall how she was able to read his mind. He needed to be wary of his thoughts when around her. In response to this, she said, "I only see your thoughts when I choose, otherwise they are unknown to me." She laughed, then said, "Be not afraid, Jethro. I have been doing this all my life and so know what to mind and what not."
Continuing to hold his hand, she stood. "Let's walk about, I'll show you what we grow here. You won't find flowers like these outside in your world." And so they did; the garden was extensive and creatures great and small lived here. Tiny houses hung from tree branches with whole families within engaged in going about their lives, completely ignoring them. Insect folk sharing an evening bite on a leaf, conversing, were also oblivious to their passing. Off to the side of the path, birds laughed and splashed in a marble bath set on a pedistal. Enthralled, Jethro was glad he decided to stay and that he and Melinda had not argued over the plight of frogs, none of whom he knew.
The urge to laugh built up like the irresistible flood of water behind a beaver dam, he tried to suppress it, to keep it from escaping so he wouldn't look like a fool, but, it was no use, he burst out with a deep, croaking laugh that rolled on and on, uncontrollably. Melinda joined in with her light and frothy melody of laughter. They communicated in this manner sporadically while promenading, eyeing one another as they did so as though acknowledging a secret only they knew, sharing in the happiness that permeated the garden. They walked about on the cobblestone path, stopping occasionally for Melinda to explain the nature of certain flowers and creatures, until, in due time, she led back to the house and turned Jethro over to one of her servants to be shown the way to his room. They said good-night in a parody of formality--for the servant's sake, it is supposed--smiled deeply, then went their separate ways.
His room was well-adorned and more splendid than anything he'd ever known, certainly grander than his bedroom at home. The thick rug, a mosaic of birds, trees, and faery folk intracately enlaced--it was difficult to tell where one left off and another began--felt warm and soothing to his tired feet; split-drapes of gold and lavender covered the three ceiling-high windows; in front of these were wooden benches laden with brightly-colored cushions. Two tables, inlaid with polished stones of every color, forming patterns within patterns, held bowls of flowers that filled the air with a rich fragrance, sat astride the four-posted bed. It was covered by a rich canopy of golden creatures, some recognizable, set apart against a smooth turquoise background, liquid-like in aura. A long table sat a few feet from the high windows, on it was a bowl and large ornate pitcher of water, as well as a vase of flowers and two figurines at each end depicting some inhabitants, he guessed, he hadn't seen yet. He stood in the middle and took it all in. The white pasty ceiling was embossed with figures of unfamiliar creatures where it met the deep-blue walls, a blue that drew the ambient light, its source undetectable as though the room itself radiated the soft coolness. Otherwise, the walls were bare. After the overwhelimg magnificence of the main dining room, he found this a welcome relief and, in spite of everything else, more to his simple taste.
Deliberately, as the splendor of the room resonated a chord deep within, he laid his brown plaid waistcoat and pants, made from the inner soft bark of a dried Juniper tree, across the back of the chair next to the door. Gingerly, he squirmed under the billowy blanket, its softness belying its warmth, and when his head hit the pillow, the light faded to near darkness. He listened to the chatter of night creatures through the small open windows on either side of the bed as he thought of Melinda and the events of the day. What would tomorrow bring? he wondered. But he spent little time pondering, the combination of wine and more exercise than he was used to had worn him out and in no time he was fast asleep.
That night, Jethro entered Dreamland by a different door. He was on a lillypad racing pell-mell down a wild and turbulent stream, passing between rocks and flying over rapids. There was nothing to hold onto, but somehow, miraculously, he managed to stay on the pad. His blood raced and his head pounded. Soaking wet, he was having trouble seeing. As he was about to pass under a bridge, he looked up and saw himself staring down. He couldn't be sure, a veil of blurriness hung between him and the outside world, but it certainly looked like him standing next to Melinda. He now knew where he was, but not how he got here. He raced on, leaving the stream occasionally, then landing hard on its surface. Maintaining balance was his top priority, fear of being cast off drove his adrenaline, giving him superfrog concentration. When he arrived at the bend, he got close to the right bank and decided to jump for it, but as he crouched low, ready, water ricocheting off a large rock propelled him out into the middle once again.
It all seemed so familiar, as though he'd done this before. Fleetingly, he remembered when he first crossed the bridge over this stream in the real world, and peered down its length at the bend sharply cutting to the left; he'd wondered then where the stream could possibly go. Now, apparently, he was to find out. He rubbed his eyes to get a clear view; it all looked the same, foamy rapids, smoothed and jagged rocks, drop-offs and upwells scattered everywhere, as far as he could see. Up and down and sideways he went. The banks were lined with brush and skinny trees that hung over. If he could jump towards a branch as he was thrust upwards, maybe he could grab one; it was a chance he was willing to take.
Ahead, a group of thin branches seemed within reach, almost in the stream; he timed it perfectly; however, the leafed-branches proved too wet, even for a frog; he slid off into the chaotic tumult. As he was taken downstream, he tried to keep his head above water, but he had never been a very good swimmer, even in Dreamland. When he submerged for a third time, he became wedged into the undercut of a large jagged rock; water rushed passed and pressed him ever deeper into the groove. He was helpless against its force. He thought of his mother and his favorite place to play spy on the banks of the pond. As all seemed lost, the air in his lungs almost spent, a hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out with apparent ease. Only the direction wasn't upward but downward. Down and down he went, deeper into the stream. When he could no longer hold air and started to black out, the hand let go and he felt hard ground under his feet, and, most significantly, no water, although its sound could be heard dimly.
He opened his eyes to discover he was in a lighted room carved from sheer rock, the light coming from lanterns on posts around its perimeter. In the middle stood a long narrow table of many kinds of wood, its surface covered with strange designs. Around it sat several gnomes, eating, drinking, talking and generally ignoring him, a frog. His saviour stood beside him, smiling, then abruptly walked to the table to sit, waving him to follow, offering a chair of mixed shell and wood. Grateful and hungry, he accepted, saying nothing. He sat and ate fish and some pulpy thing that tasted wonderful. They toasted from huge mugs often, saying something in gnome language that sounded important, then they'd all laugh and look at Jethro, who laughed along, so glad as he was to be out of the stream.
When the grog ran out, they left by doorways--carved-out openings--Jethro hadn't noticed when he first entered, and that doorway was nowhere to be found. He was alone, listening to the stream faintly roaring above and off to one side. An irresistible urge overwhelmed him, he couldn't help himself, try as he may, he had to find it. Tracking the sound to the rough rock wall in front of which he'd been standing upon his arrival--he was sure of it--he studied its surface, looking for a seam to a doorway, but could find none. Reaching out to touch it, to feel if it was damp, his hand met no resistance, penetrating as though the wall were mere light. Pulling his hand back, he studied it in amazement, found it unchanged, and so, cautiously, he closed his eyes and walked into it. Immediately, he poked through, the wall being of the thinnest veneer. Several feet over his head was the darkened bottom of the stream, fish swimming and the foam of the rapids upside down. Strangely, its sound was muffled. What could be keeping it up? he wondered. Curiouser still, the greenish rocks hung along its bottom as though suspended in mid-air. He found himself on a smooth flat surface, upstream and down it went into the distance. His impression was one of a road, a road that traveled beneath the surface of things, of what earth-bound folks believed the real world.
Fearing where the stream led, he decided to head up, against the flow, setting off at a good clip, determined to walk his way to safety. His only light was that filtering through from above, the walls were sheer and mottled with brown and green spots. After what must've been several minutes, a head poked through the stream, faced him as he approached and smiled. "What are you doing, frog?" the creature asked. "Are you lost? You'll never get to where you're going that way. It leads nowhere and very soon."
He stopped to consider, taking it all in stride, as we often do in dreams. "Who are you?" he asked. "And how can you stay in one place while the stream rushes past?"
Ignoring the questions, he replied, "You don't belong down there, I can tell." The inquisitor disappeared momentarily, then a hand reached down holding a cloak. Popping his head through the stream, he said, "Here. Put this on. It will get you to where you need to be."
"But," began Jethro, "how do I know where that is?"
"Well, some do and some don't. You'll find out when you get there." At that, he vanished.
Jethro donned the fancy purple cloak; it went all the way down to his knees. At once, he felt a surge of warmth and a profound feeling of safety, as though nothing could harm him. But then the sensation intensified; he tried to remove the cloak, but couldn't, it was stuck like dried mud. The initial pleasure was overcome by tiny pinpricks of pain, like the time he'd fallen asleep in the sun one day and got badly burned. Believing he'd been tricked, he closed his eyes and thought of his pond at home. Immediately, he smelled cool water and the pungent aroma of grass and wildflowers. Opening his eyes he saw that he was indeed in familiar surroundings, his pond right before him. His joy quickly drained away though as he thought of Melinda and that he might never see her again. Could I but think of her and instantly be at her side? he wondered. But before he could try, he heard a series of sharp sounds off in the distance, at first very busy, then slowing and quieting in pitch to silence. Standing stark still, again he heard it and as it faded to quietude he attempted to determine its source. Each successive time it grew louder until, finally, he awoke to find himself lying in the four-posted bed, beneath the luxurious blanket, smelling the fragrant air, the cloak, gone.
Separate frames of varying shapes--no two alike--composing the ceiling-high windows partitioned the moonlight shining through the space where the drapes split. Stark shadows stretched across the room, bending awkwardly as they met its occupants; those of the darker window frames stretched and curved, joining apparitions. The bedposts sliced a tapered smudge of dominance through the softer, gray impressions, themselves twisted into distorted silhouettes against the backdrop of the ever-constant deep-blue wall.
Usually, in the real world, he'd be up at this hour, croaking at the moon with his fellows, but, he thought, this can't be the same moon? Instead of that bawdy vociferous pursuit, he knew this heavy silence down to his bones, strung that much tighter by the creamy moonlight; the ivories, the rich blacks and blurry grays melding into and tugging at one another as the moon coursed the sky, creating figures as mystifying as they were ephemeral. His uncle, a teacher of frog lore and keeper of their culture, had shown him, when he was but a boy, how to slow everything down, how to slow time itself, but here and now, the atmosphere did it for him, and he felt himself sinking more deeply into his nature than ever before, like a rock settling into his pond. It was a good, solid feeling; a sharp sense of clarity rose into his mind. Again he heard the tinkling and caught sight of a mobile made of glass hanging in front of the small open window to his right. A breeze had come up, a breeze with a nip in it. Its dampness and chill brought back the cave of the gnomes even as the dream melted into that oblivion where all dreams go. A shiver went up his spine and he squirmed more deeply under the blanket, pulling it up to his chin. In a few moments, he was fast asleep again, a restful easy sleep.
The morning was sunny and warm, bird calls filled the air as did the smell of the garden wafting through his open windows. He was awakened by the servant who had led him to his room, requesting if he'd like to have breakfast shortly; he nodded yes, she waited outside in the hallway. After splashing some water on his face from the bowl and drying with a towel laying beside it, he dressed and followed the servant at a respectful distance. They walked down a long hall, open windows every so often revealed the garden, chairs and cushioned window-seats lined that side, tables with vases and figurines were set several feet apart on the other. He remembered how the tree-house appeared from outside, it didn't look at all this huge. While plumbing that thought, they abruptly turned into a small breakfast nook, paintings hung on the dendelion-colored walls and next to a window stood a table, a bowl of fruit and two cups sitting on it. The servant told him that Melinda would be down momentarily, then left. Jethro sat alone, staring down at the wondrous garden, taking deep breaths of its exotic perfume.
As he watched the comings and goings of garden visitors, pieces of his dream floated up. He remembered the cave of gnomes, the cloak of transport, the wild ride down the stream, and last, the face of his gnome saviour. It had all been so vivid, so real, he could taste the food and drink, feel the wetness of the water on his skin, and the smell of damp moldy rock on the road under the stream. Abruptly, Melinda entered. She was wearing a bluish-colored something, he couldn't tell what, the colors against her glowing skin and long yellow hair curling round her shoulders took his breath away. She could change hair color at will, but this, by far, was Jethro's favorite. Her gossamer wings were tucked neatly behind. All remnants of the dream dissolved like snowflakes in the palm of his hand.
"Good morning, Jethro," she crooned. "Did you have a restful sleep?" Before he could answer, she said, "Because you're gonna need it." Laughter spilled from her as she sat across from him. He had wanted to talk to her about his dream, but decided it might spoil the moment and chose not to. They spoke of her house and why its outward appearance belied its interior size. She professed to being unsure of the reason herself, saying only that father had created it long ago, before she was born, and his powers with regard to manipulating time and space were formidable. They watched the visitors down below, Melinda identifying those she knew and gossiping delightedly about their lives and what they did. A servant brought tea and a dish of stuffed bread-like fare covered with a silvery sauce. It all smelled and tasted scrumptious to Jethro. Of course, Melinda sitting across from him had its desirable effect also.
After the table was cleared, they sat, drinking another cup of tea, Jethro talking about his experiences by the pond, Melinda of hers in this land her father ruled. A land of magic peopled by magic beings, not all of whom good. Mischief played throughout her peoples' character, their magic could not be without it. They thought each for himself and recognized kingly authority only because it was in their best interest. But her father was a good person, she insisted, he wants only peace and harmony. The war had brought everyone together and made them recognize their strength when doing so. These were happy times, mostly, though a haze of trepidation hangs in the air, its cause not entirely understood.
Jethro spoke of his friends, Knuckles especially. How they'd sit by the pond on a warm day just talking and hanging out. He really didn't have any adventures to recount, except for hiding out in that tree, under the leaves, while unknown creatures fought outside. "Yesterday," he said, surprised. It seemed so long ago. Maybe it has been? he wondered. He talked about his family and the things they'd done together when he was little. And the waterfall. Melinda agreed that it was very beautiful, she'd visited it and flew about its breadth many times. She loved the thunderous sound, and, no doubt, thought Jethro, the danger as well.
They came to a stop in their conversation. The sun was over the trees. Melinda stood and took Jethro by the hand. "Let's go," she said, a twinkle in her eye, and proceeded towards a doorway and stairs to the garden. Once there, she turned down a path leading to the wall where another doorway, carved into the sheer rock, opened onto a narrow, stone-covered road through the woods. They hadn't brought any provisions, so Jethro figured they weren't going far. But he was mistaken. On and on they hiked in silence, taking in the sights on either side. They met no others, not even insects or birds. The brush grew thicker, wilder, less glad to make their acquaintance. After two hours through the jungle, Jethro decided to question their endeavor, but before he could speak, they broke out onto a mesa overlooking a vast sea below and snow-capped mountains far off in the distance. On the water were islands with trees and a few houses. Jethro stood in awe, he never would have guessed their land was so huge.
Off to the side sat a bench and on it was a large straw basket. Melinda approached it and lifted the lid. Inside was a blanket, fruit and bread wrapped in flower petals, and a bottle of wine with two glasses. They spread the blanket on the high grass and sat, Melinda laying out a few items from the basket. Jethro was glad to be sitting, or rather, reclining, and didn'try to hide it. She popped the wine and poured. Jethro took a sip and felt immediately revived. Seeing his reaction, Melinda smiled and said it was a special blend. "We need to replenish ourselves. There is a stairway that goes all the way down to the beach, but our destination lies through a portal halfway. Relax, Jethro, enjoy this wondrous view."
It was all so strange to Jethro. He believed this world existed only in stories, a world of peace and magic. But it's surface harmony hid cracks, it was not perfect, there can be discord. He began to broach the subject of the war, but Melinda refused to discuss it, insisting rather sweetly that they concentrate on the present. He had no problem with that. When the sun was high, Melinda decided it was time to go to her special hideout. They packed up everything and left the basket on the bench.
The stairway was a series of switchbacks that hugged the cliff face. Jethro knew he should've been terrified, he never did heights very well, especially on a narrow wooden stairway. But it did have a banister and appeared to be well-made. Nonetheless, he attributed his newfound courage to the wine, it was indeed a special blend. Looking out over the sea as he descended, he watched boats ferrying to and fro amongst the islands. Sails of every size and shape on craft that seemed, at this distance, to shimmer and change shape with the sea. Alternately, he inspected the ends of the poles jammed into the cliff supporting the stairs. At some point, he became aware of how much more he noticed, how much more his concentration was enhanced compared to life at the pond. He never bothered to be aware of what he was doing when he was doing it before. So why now? he wondered. Could it only be the wine?
At last they arrived at a landing off to the side of the stairs. Carved into the cliff face could be seen a tall dark portal, but nothing beyond the tepid reaches of the sun, now at its zenith. On either side of it sat granite statues of trolls with fierce grimaces on their bearded grizzly faces. Jethro stopped, Melinda pulled at his hand and smiled, "Come along, Jethro. We must pass through the darkness, but only for a brief time."
Shortly after entering the portal, the light from outside faded to nothing. He held Melinda's hand firmly, smelled the rock walls, felt the hard ground underfoot. Over her shoulder, he saw a pinpoint of sharp yet watery light. By step, it enlarged to finally filling the corridor. He could no longer hear the lapping of the waves on the beach far below, it was deadly quiet and incredibly bright. He squinted as he entered. An opalescence filled the massive cavern like moonlight. Several moments in, Jethro's eyes adjusted; although, the pearly whiteness disturbed his calm. Gradually, mercifully, as they neared the center, the glow muted to a soft soothing tone. He could then make out its source. Long smooth crystals--some as tall as the trees by his pond--jutted from the domed ceiling; each side of which exuded a shimmering luminosity. Jammed together, each ending in a point, the collective mass aimed directly at a circular wooden platform. On the platform was a couch and a table, nearly as long, set before it, and on the table sat a pot of tea with two cups and saucers; otherwise, it was completely bare. The ground was covered with a thick layer of sand, a few large boulders and jagged rocks placed--that was the feeling--here and there. The tawny sand's scattering of the light made for a strangely cozy atmosphere. And surpisingly, it was warm, not the damp chill one might expect in such surroundings.
Without the least bit hesitation, Melinda walked to the couch and sat, inviting Jethro to do the same. When he stepped onto the platform, however, an odd sensation caused him to turn quickly and look up at the sharp crystal stalactites all seeming to point his way. Frightened, he instinctively crouched, but Melinda's gentle chiding stayed him. Staring at the deck, he forced a smile as he approached, sitting next to Melinda, but not too close. He tried to relax, but the alienness of it all held him in check. At any moment he might bolt, to his everlasting shame, but to do so in awkward and incomprehensible situations had become a habit of survival, ingrained, and it was too late to unlearn. Melinda, being a faery princess possessed of magical mind- and soul-reading abilities, knew this. Her wish was to dispel Jethro's apprehension and unease, to drive away all care. She suggested he lean back and let himself feel the soft compliance of the cushioned couch. Maintaining a stiff smile, he slowly did so, but it was as if resting on pins and needles. She poured tea and handed him a cup with saucer.
"Drink, Jethro," she said sweetly, almost a whisper, "it will set your mind at ease and,..., something more."
Ordinarily, being the astute frog he was, that last part would've raised an eyebrow. But then, he hadn't questioned the basket on the bench or the pot of tea--hot tea--and two cups either. Fleetingly, he wondered why he hadn't, but perhaps, he thought, in this world one took such things for granted, and its influence on me was having its effect. Most likely, they were Melinda's doing at any rate. What is normal, after all?
He did as she requested, welcoming the chance to shift his attention from the strange and unnatural to something ordinary and familiar--a cup of tea. Staring at the sand, ignoring the pointed crystals aimed at his heart--he was convinced--he sipped the delicate, sweet-tasting tea. Melinda did likewise. Momentarily, all sense of weight pressing down on the couch evaporated, as did the tension of his body. He took another sip and turned to Melinda; she was fairly glowing, radiant beyond her usual sparkling allure. After another mouthful, the dimpled sand floor seemed to flatten out and the separate spears of pointed crystals above merged into one whole glasssy dome of opaque majesty. A shiver of cold coursed upwards from his feet through his limbs and chest to rocket out the top of his head, leaving him with a profound emptiness that was quickly filled with a warmth and sense of well-being he'd never known.
Melinda stood and took his hand, and with a quiet gesture, invited him to stand as well. He placed the cup and saucer on the table, which now appeared a living thing. He couldn't feel the pressure of the saucer on its back, so let go where he thought it made contact. The table rose slightly, accepting it with a gentle undulation. Melinda took his other hand as well, and while standing, facing one another between the couch and table, movement around them began. Slowly at first, then gradually speeding up, faster and faster. They tightened their grip against the dizzying sensation. As though melting into the surroundings, the couch, the table, the pot, the cups and saucers stretched, twisted, and swirled together, forming a cone-shaped whorl of colors, blending and merging. In the center of this, Melinda and Jethro, holding hands, became part of the maelstrom, were tugged along the same contours, were caught up with the swirling mass of colors, becoming indistinguishable from anything else. Fingers of light running through the crystals produced rainbows; they too became immersed in the swift whirling motion, revealing a texture within the flatness of the sand as though unseen creatures set in relief.
Jethro watched in horror as Melinda's form shredded into a million thin strips and was lost in the convoluted cone. Unable to focus on himself, he imagined the same was happening to him. When the chaotic confluence of colors threatened to overload his vision, all went abruptly dark, darker than a moonless night by the pond. Reflexively, he shut his eyes and tried to call out to Melinda, but no sound escaped his tight throat. All sensation left him, he could not even feel his own body. Fear filled his mind, but before panic could overwhelm him, he heard her voice say softly, "Jethro, open your eyes."
At first, he hesitated, uncertain, but feeling Melinda's hands on his, did as she requested. She stood before him, smiling, her wings spread, her aura glistening. Disoriented, he tried to focus. The barrage of swirling rainbows was gone, although the energy it generated remained, reminding him of days by the pond when storms threatened. As though being turned inside out, pulled from within, he felt himself losing all sense of control. But it wasn't like when he was a child and sought security in the presence of his mother; he would give himself to her completely, gladly. Instead, he was on his own, encircled, enveloped, enclosed, a tiny insignificant speck in the midst of a crushing uncertainty. He tried to recall the pleasant and comforting feeling he knew when burrowed in the mud under his pond, but to no avail, all will had left him. He was having trouble breathing and fought his fear of confinement, but all at once, anxiety and trepidation left, to be replaced by an all-embracing calm and tranquility.
Behind her he could see stars, some brighter than others, laid against a rich blackness the likes of which he'd never known. They seemed close enough to touch, yet ever so distant, expanding outward, drawing his mind along with them. Clouds of gas--purple, orange, green, blue--filled pockets between them, bright flashes sparkling here and there within. Euphoria and majesty were feelings of their own, not his and yet, none other. Melinda let go his hands and he trembled at the emptiness that brought, but quickly found another feeling, one he'd never known before--a fullness of being alone, sharing the grandeur of this space as though it somehow belonged to him. He began to laugh, and she along with him. He looked below for the first time and the view was the same. However, no vertigo came over him as he knew in his mind it should. They were floating, buoyant, light as two feathers caught in an updraft.
He looked Melinda in the eyes, those magical, beautiful blue-green eyes, and could see pure joy and warmth. She moved closer without moving, her body an act of will, and kissed him. Never had he known such tenderness. He opened to her with a depth and vulnerability that inflamed his heart as it joined with hers. For a timeless stretch, in this space without time, they stood thus, holding one another, surrounded on all sides by this silent vista, this grand expanse. At long last, she whispered words in a language unknown to him. Immediately, they were back on the couch in the cavern of crystals and sand; only now, sitting quite close.
Meanwhile, Jasper and Rebecca continued their dalliance at his estate deep in the woods. She'd been gone from home for days, and the tension that created with her parents, especially the king, was beginning to mount. Rebecca was not dumb. Even though she loved Jasper, she suspected his desire to keep her at his place had an ulterior motive. Her sisters, Dusty and Olivia, had come to visit, to see how she was getting on, but were refused admittance by Jasper's guards, under orders. Rebecca knew none of this. When they returned, they told father who flew into a rage. Something was amiss; their relationship was not the romantic tryst his wife believed, or wanted to believe. She had such hope, but, like her husband, didn't completely trust Jasper; it saddened her, so she fell into denial. Not so the king. Not the type to delude himself, the king was on the verge of taking his elite personal guard and forcibly retrieving her. But, such a drastic course troubled him deeply, he knew where it could lead; his people were not terribly interested in another war, especially if its cause was a stubborn daughter's refusal to obey her father. However, if Jasper was holding her against her will, that would be sufficient, and he would not hesitate.
Jasper's father, Altimeer, also would not welcome another painful war, the last had almost cost him his kingship. If there would be war again, and they lost, that would be it for him and his family. Jasper had put him in an uncomfortable situation, to say the least, one he wished to reconcile. His son's followers were willing to fight again, if only to regain their honor, their humiliation was difficult for them to bear. And any excuse would do. He needed to confront his son, to take hold the reins of power, now, before it was too late, before his selfishness led to dire consequences for them all. But, besides short-sighted and reckless, his son was arrogant and filled with contempt for what he saw as weakness in his father, he knew, so he too debated what he must, in the end, certainly do, what he had to do.
Melinda and Jethro arrived back at her tree-home at mid-afternoon. Exhausted, bewildered and flush with new sensations, Jethro needed to rest; he felt different, changed; things were not as they were at his pond. He'd stepped into a new and very bizarre world, not to mention magical, its effect on him could not be gauged at this time. He retired to his room and curled under the blanket. Quiet and sweet fragrances wafting up from the garden helped to soothe his aching muscles. Smiling and lost in wonder, he fell fast asleep in no time.
His dreams were of his pond and his friends. Were they calling him? Were they trying to tell him something? Eventually, these changed over to the incident in the cave. And Melinda. He never dreamed he'd meet someone so very special and beautiful who actually seemed to like him, more, to love him. Their kiss formed in his mind as one whole experience of itself. He was holding onto the memory when loud clattering noises woke him with a start. The sun shone through the windows above the tree tops; it was morning already. Although surprisingly rested, he had the distinct impression that he'd only just lay down. Time seemed to have a will of its own here, he marveled. He crawled out from under the blanket and went to the balcony. Armed sprites were forming in rows on the courtyard adjacent the main graden. He heard sharp commands as they came to attention. Just then, his door opened and Melinda entered, her face flush with agitation and worry. Before he could speak, she said, "Rebecca's been kidnapped. Father thought she was at Jasper's of her own volition, but a messenger arrived from their Keep to tell father that unless he return the lands stolen in the war, he would never see her again. That was a mistake, father is angry, and when he gets angry, nothing stands in his way."
She sat on the edge of his bed, head in hand and cried softly. Jethro sat next to her, not sure what to do. He put an arm around her; she leaned into him, but only for a moment. "This is disastrous," she blurted as she sat upright, her demeanor morphing into one of strength and determination and not a little anger. "If my father's guard goes to retrieve her, it'll be an act of war. That's how Jasper's father will see it. I've spoken to father and he's willing to wait, but not for long. I convinced him an attack on Jasper might endanger Rebecca's life. He figures her magic will protect her until she can be found, but as powerful as she is, Jasper is more so. I suggested a small group gain entrance to Jasper's estate and rescue Rebecca with as little confrontation as possible. There's a chance; I know the backways to his Keep from when a child. Father's afraid he might lose me too, but I reminded him that I am a Dragonfly." She stiffened at the declaration, her visage stern but open, sure. Standing, she finished with, "I can take care of myself." After how she'd dispatched that ferret by the pond, Jethro had no doubts.
"I'll go with you," Jethro said in earnest. His mind churned faster than he'd ever known. A plan formed in his head that only he could do. "You told me that the frogs who once lived in your garden were banished to the swamp near Jasper's estate. If I could infiltrate, maybe I wouldn't be noticed as a newcomer. I could sneak up to his house and find out where they're keeping her. No one would ever suspect a frog of spying. I could dress the same as they, surely you must have some of their clothing laying around."
Melinda stared at him for a long time, her eyes burning with an otherworld intensity. Her serious countenance suddenly shifted as a smile creased her perfect features. "Yes," she finally said, and kissed him on the cheek. "I've hand-picked five Dragonflies adept at hand-to-hand fighting and magical abilities." She walked to the balcony to study the sprite warriors, her father's personal guard, standing easy at quiet attention. They were off alert but not off duty. Pain mixed with anger pinched her face. How long will father wait? she wondered. "We must move quickly," she whispered hoarsely. The throaty sound of her voice gave him a rush of pleasure and excitement. Taking in her expression, how she stood, the rake of her wings, he locked his mind onto the job at hand; I must succeed, he told himself, I must.
By mid-morning, Melinda and Jethro, now dressed in his disguise, and the five Dragonflies traveled beyond where the three sisters and Jethro had picnicked, but not directly, not down the road and across the bridge. They left the community of houses by the backway and entered the forest from below the swamp to the west. All eyes of those curious were on the sprite soldiers in the courtyard, admiring and wondering the purpose; no one saw them leave. The Dragonflies were well-armed with bows and arrows and the long curved knife everyone seemed to prefer, sheathed and hanging from their belts. Jasper was to bear none. He was being a spy and needed to melt into frog world and not appear a threat from outside. He wasn't adept at any weapons anyway, he knew, so it mattered not.
Cautiously, they entered Altimeer's domain. Jethro tried his best to move as quietly as they, but his bulk and inexperience at such matters betrayed his wishes. He watched them sliding through the dense underbrush, effortlessly, stepping between every branch and dry downed twig and leaf as though water seeking the course of least resistance. He recalled times by the pond when creatures dangerous to him were nearby and he had to pass without notice. What did I do? he asked himself. Fear had quieted his large footsteps, but he felt it not in the company of these warriors. Thinking of what he was about to attempt, however, and the possible consequences at being captured, sent a jolt of adrenaline mixed with that old fear rushing through his veins. Correcting his movements accordingly, he became as soundless as they.
The brackish smell of the swamp drifted over them. The terrain changed to a soft mushy bog, dragontails with their unmistakable prickly purple flowers dominated the landscape. Insects flourished, busy at their jobs; a few paused midflight to watch their passing and mumble to one another, but soon returned to their pressing responsibilities. At the water's edge, they stopped. Off in the distance they could hear the croaking of frogs. On the other side of the swamp lie Jasper's estate and the house where Rebecca was being held against her will. Melinda and her Dragonflies were to circumnavigate the bog, approach Jasper's home from the other side, kill the guards, and create a diversion within the walls. The five Dragonflies moved off, Melinda gave Jethro a big hug, smiled worriedly, told him to be careful, then followed her warriors. In no time, they were out of sight in the bush; except for the birds and the clatter and buzzing of insects, he heard not a sound.
Jethro stood alone, surrounded by dragontails and indifferent bugs. The heat was oppressive; he dreamed of his cool pond and how, in this heat, he'd be immersed in it, in the shade of an overhanging branch near the bank. A loud croak brought him out of his reverie. Steeling himself, he approached the sound. As he pushed aside a cluster of dragontails, he was startled by a rough looking and shabbily dressed bullfrog, half again as big as he. The bullfrog was splashing his oversized feet on the water-soaked ground, croaking his annoyance. Suddenly, he spotted Jethro crouching in the reeds and froze. They eyed one another, the bullfrog glowering down at smiling Jethro.
"The key," the bullfrog yelled. "Do you see the key? It's here, I know it's here; come, tadpole, help me find it."
Jethro immediately got down on all fours and searched. He'd never seen a key, so had no idea what he was looking for. He wanted to ask about it, but thought better of it. A key was not what everything else was; he had that to go on. Before long, Jethro's knee felt something hard, harder than the mushy ground. He dug his hand into the twisted bog and retrieved a shiny weirdly-shaped object. Holding it up, he asked, "Is this it?".
The bullfrog's eyes lit up as he leaped once to where Jethro was kneeling and grabbed the key. "Yes, thank you, young one, thank you. You've no idea what it would mean to lose this. I must have a hole in my pocket. I was hopping along when I felt it hit my foot. Thank goodness. We must celebrate, tadpole. Come, back to my home; it's not far, near the center of my kingdom."
As luck would have it, he'd apparently run into the leader of the swamp frogs. Jethro smiled fleetingly within himself. This is a good omen, he thought, or else, very very bad. He knew nothing of the local customs and protocols. How do you treat the king of the swamp frogs? How do you address him? Suppose he talks of recent swamp events, things everybody should know? He had to lie, had to, his mother would understand. He'd tell him, I was away, visiting an old friend in faery country. Or, I've been homebound with sickness. But then, where do I live? The good omen feeling was beginning to melt away.
He felt an impulse to run, but stifled it, knowing the bullfrog would be on him in a second, wondering why. No, he had to play it out, be the real spy he only pretended to be the day at the pond when he met Melinda. The thought of her was all he needed to bolster his confidence. A wild and reckless excitement coursed his sinews, sharpening and fine-tuning his senses. The boggy earth, the brushing of the dragontails, the myriad scraping, buzzing, and chittering sounds of the many insects, and the distinctive dank decaying odor of the swamp itself, trapped by the heat, magnified his intensity. He lived completely and utterly in the now.
In due time, they stepped onto an actual path. The dragontails and grassy brush had been cleared and the boggy bottom was fortified with broad leaves and bark; intertwining sticks and branches lined the sides. The bullfrog had been talking the whole time, Jethro had trouble making out some of the words, unique to the area, he guessed. Jethro surmised that the king assumed that he was just one of his subjects who happened by at a fortuitous time. Finding the key, whatever it was, had been a lucky stroke. By midday they arrived at his home. It was two-stories of lilly pads, leaves, sticks, and mud. Windows poked through at random and were shaped in everyway but square. Not the palatial house one might have expected, thought Jethro, but what else did they have to build with? The front door was open, they entered. Inside was very different. Cushioned chairs, hard wood tables, and paintings on the walls only could've been obtained from outside, in faery country perhaps. The bullfrog king laid the key on the central table, stared at it in a threatening manner, then proceeded to a cabinet in the kitchen. He returned with a bottle of something brown and gestured to Jethro to sit. He poured two glasses, offered one to Jethro, then plopped down in a large plush couch. After taking a sip, he asked, "Well, tadpole, who are you and why are you here in my swamp?"
Jethro almost choked on his drink. In a stutter he began to say he'd only recently moved to the area from the swamp across the bridge, but the king only laughed. "Has Jasper sent you to spy on us?" he asked. Directness didn't seem to be one of his shortcomings; he was in control and he knew it. He'd brought Jethro easily into his lair, and now it was time to fess up. Emboldened by the acrid drink and the king's apparent animosity towards Jasper, Jethro told the whole story, leaving out Melinda and the Dragonflies. When he finished, he sat back, not knowing what to expect. The king pondered for a long time, mulling it over, calculating, troubled; the only sounds were from the insects outside, and though the doorway be open, none dared enter the king's home. Abruptly, he stood, emptied his glass, put it on the table in a deliberate manner, then turned to Jethro.
"I believe you, son. I can tell when someone's lying, and you're just obviously too innocent to be a real spy." Jethro bristled at that remark, but held his indignation in check. "Now let me tell you some truth. Jasper--we call him the dark lord--has been threatening to drain the swamp, my swamp, our home, all of us, in order to use it as a buffer between his tiny kingdom and faery country across the bridge. He wants to build fortifications manned by his followers. In spite of his father's wishes for peace, he wants to start a war. I couldn't imagine how; nobody else wants it. Attack faery folk in their homeland? Demand tribute to use country ceded to the faery king after the last war? Put up road blocks to rob passers-by of toll money? Something. It would have to be something big, however; an act that would without doubt incite the faery king to war. Well, kidnapping his daughter, the eldest princess, that's pretty audacious and most certainly sufficient."
He scraped the key off the table and gestured for Jethro to follow. Through the back door they came upon a small wooden shack, concealed by swamp trees and covered with lilly pads. Inside was well lit; where it was coming from Jethro could not determine. At its center stood a round table on which was a tiny model of Jasper's compound: a rock wall surrounding an enormous house and several smaller outbuildings. They stood in silence. Jethro could tell that the bullfrog king had come to some critical decision, his demeanor was no longer one of a monarch suspicious of Jethro's intent, toying with him like a ferret with a frog. He looked quite serious and angry in a controlled intelligent dangerous way. In spite of his appearance, his tone of voice altered to one at once confidential and conspiratorial.
He pointed to a section of the wall nearest the swamp. He said, "The wall is covered with clinging leafy vines, they anchor themselves every few inches as they grow, covering everything. Right here," he tapped his finger on the place, "behind it is a door. It leads to this outbuilding, securely fortified and guarded by magical beings. We know this from our own reconnaisance. There's no reason to guard it unless something valuable lies within. I'm betting that's where Jasper's keeping the princess."
"But," Jethro began, warming to the change in mood and to this unexpected ally, "why not just keep her in the main house?"
"Well, for one reason, if a raid is to come to rescue her, they would most likely suspect that's where she is, the main house. Though a fool he be, Jasper is not stupid. He'd have to expect something, or has been informed so by his many spies."
That's what they all assumed, Jethro and the rescue team; what their strategy was based on. Jethro thought of Melinda and her cohorts. Setting a diversion was only a preliminary; their main objective is to find Rebecca and bring her home. His job was to find out just where she was being held. In light of what he'd just learned, that task had been nothing more than wishful dreaming. How could he have ever entered the main house to look for her with guards everywhere? Melinda must have known how hopeless that was. But still and all, they believe Rebecca to be in Jasper's house; they'll be walking into a trap. He had to act quickly, to warn them.
"This key," he held it forth, "unlocks that door. We were planning a raid of our own, to sabotage Jasper and take down as many of his followers as we could. Not an easy task, many of them are magical creatures, evil and merciless."
Jethro recalled the picnic day when he was spell-bound, lost in another space, blind to Melinda and her sisters.
"Now, thanks to your information," the king went on, "I have to assume that Jasper must be ready to attack us while we're scattered about, off guard. As long as war was not imminent, only a figment of Jasper's ambition, we chose to live with an uneasy peace. We needed a good reason to make war, now we have it; they'll be coming soon, no doubt. We must beat them to it, strike the first blow." He walked off solemnly, head bowed. "Many of my people will be killed, I know. Yet, we cannot stand idly by and let our homeland be taken. We were banished from faery country and so owe them no allegiance; we fight for ourselves and our families. We have no place else to go; here we make our stand, and if Altimeer wants to join his son, so be it."
He opened a cabinet and pulled something out. In front of where Jethro was standing, the king threw a sheathed curved blade of faery steel onto the table. He pulled it out to show Jethro and said, "Anarkus, the faery king, your princess Melinda's father, gave us these a long time ago, when it became apparent that Jasper might be up to something. I think he was angry at his daughter's choice in suitors, trusted it not. He is quite gifted, Anarkus, even more than a sprite of his caliber." He flashed the blade in the sourceless light. Jethro recognized it as the blade of choice for the Dragonflies. "The blade never dulls, never." He resheathed it and hung it from his belt, it seemed at home. "He also gave us these charmed stone crystals with points at several places," he went on, rolling on the table a few, each unique in shape and size, "points that will not flatten, points that can pierce the aura of sprites. We fix them at the end of sticks to give distance from the deadly touch of dryads and spriggans and other poisonous beings." Slapping the sheath, he finished with, "So we are ready."
His eyes fierce, he turned to Jethro, and in a manner at once engaging and alarming said in a deep froggy voice, "Here's the deal, son."
He wasted no time; his forces were ready to go at a moment's notice. Messengers were sent to all corners of the marsh; subordinate leaders came quickly. The king briefed them on the situation and Jethro's mission. He was an outsider, so was greeted with initial distrust. But, regardless, a larger picture loomed now which superceded all misgivings. Besides, they'd been chafing at the bit to end the tension and get on with it. Frogs don't care to be threatened, and they'd been living with it, worrying about their families and children for far too long.
The plan was worked out in detail. They were equipped with weapons of sticks tipped with the charmed crystals, rocks tied to short stout wrappings of dragontails, and the curved knives of Anarkus. Additionally, they were very strong and could leap to come down on opponents with their powerful hind legs, breaking bones and necks. Jethro and a small contingent of expert fighters were to enter Jasper's compound through the wall door, take out the few unsuspecting guards, and rescue the princess. After which, they were to work their way to the front gate, also guarded by Jasper's minions, and open it. They had the element of surpise which was essential; they had to spring before the magical beings could mount a defense. When the gate was opened, the king and his force would then surge into the compound and spread out to surround the main house; that's when the real fighting would begin. Killing Jasper was the main objective.
They had no illusions about their prospect for success; they had faith and so believed it would happen, but it would not be easy. Once the magical beings became aware that it was more than just a foray by a handful of disgruntles, that instead it was a full scale invasion, it would become seriously ugly. Jethro informed them at this time about the Dragonflies circling around to the far end of the compound. He did it for their sakes, so they would not be mistaken for enemy. The king was not overly shocked by the news, certain that Jethro would not have attempted a rescue of this magnitude alone. However, he wished he'd had a chance to coordinate efforts. As it was, it would have to play out in such a way that the Dragonflies realized what was happening and joined in the battle to eliminate Jasper's threat together.
As they readied, Jethro thought of Melinda. He wished she'd stayed behind, but, he was beginning to know her, she would not have done so. An expert fighter and magical being she may be, he worried for her safety, nonetheless. For himself, his fear and anxiety had diminished. Surrounded by warrior frogs, some the size of the king, gave him strength and a courage he'd not experienced before. It was as though he'd matured of a sudden, grown to the occasion, gained in stature. At least for now, he saw himself differently. He was not Jethro playing spy by the pond, investigating curiosities, enjoying games with his friends and languidly lying about with them on a warm summer eve. He thought of them now, saw their faces, heard their laughter, and wished the relative safety of their home would always be so.
"Jethro," a sharp tone from the bullfrog king brought him out of his musings. "It is time." Jethro shrunk within himself; he couldn't help it, his legs turned to water momentarily, but quickly he regained his footing. The king introduced him to those who would accompany him. Six in all, tough looking, three bigger by far, bullfrog size, two his size, and one smaller who smiled broadly. He was the leader. They were all armed with spears tipped with sharpened stone that glittered in the bare sunlight filtering through the trees and swaths of wrapped dragontails secured to their belts along with the everpresent knives of magic steel.
The king recognized Jethro's nervousness and grabbed his shoulders in a fatherly way. "You are with the best of my warriors, Jethro. Keep your head, stay with your objective, and most importantly, remember you're a frog, and all will work out fine." He patted him once, then said good luck to his men. They nodded. Jethro briefly clutched the key hung round his neck. The leader and the two Jethro's size headed out across the swamp, Jethro behind, two bulls guarded the rear, the other strode beside Jethro. As they plunged through the bog away from the path, he said to himself, it's going to be all right. But what he would do when the fighting started, he had no idea.
The swamp was vaster than Jethro had imagined. Insects chittered about, engaged in their own undertakings, oblivious of this small force silently passing amongst them. He was thankful for the turn of events. Had he not accidentally bumped into the king, he would have been hardpressed to accomplish his mission on his own, he confessed, especially as it had been assumed that Rebecca was in the main house.
How would I have gained entrance? he thought again, his mind numb with disbelief. In fact, how would I have gotten passed the wall? Nobody ever mentioned the wall. I was to enter the swamp, mingle with the residents and make my way to Jasper's estate. That's all I knew. Then, find out where Rebecca was being kept. I really didn't think this through. Was it merely remarkably fortuitous, or had magic played some part? The planned commotion by the Dragonflies might be enough to draw the outside guards away from the swamp. Perhaps. But how many are inside? What was I expected to do on my own? He trudged on, lost in thought, wondering if the turn of events had somehow been known in advance by these most strange beings?
They'd been walking through a dense fog for some time, Jethro barely able to see the leaders. They were shadows only, grey outlines bobbing through the swamp. How they knew where they were going impressed him; he had the feeling they were navigating by something more than sight. The creatures of this enchanted land, he thought, are capable of feats I could never have imagined. The boggy surface gradually thickened, then passed some invisible line, the ground of dirt and stones began. Trees draped with long, sloping, moss-covered vines running every-which-way like spider webbing and green plants with sharp tapered leaves that swayed aside as they passed filled the landscape. The constant sounds of birds and insects ceased abruptly as though they'd entered another space entirely, one that insisted on silence. The fog faded, separating into solitary brooding wisps of grey floating about, distorted ephemera that seemed to move on their own as they slowly stretched and shifted. Then all was clear.
Trees thinned out to bare grassy ground. Shortly, they arrived at the wall of grey rock, barely visible with all the vines and moss clinging to it. The leader stopped to study a map. The position of the door was off to the right. Stealthily, they swung in that diretion. When they reached it, they gathered together in a tight band and reviewed their plan. One bull climbed to the top of the wall to reconnoitre. He returned to report that three Redcaps and a Spriggan stood guard. The mention of a spriggan drew a tightness in the warriors. They were closely related to dryads and could shape-shift to enormous size and hide as almost anything, usually a tree, and then attack without warning. Their touch could be deadly. He would have to be taken out first.
Water was poured on the rusted hinges of the ancient door, how long had it been here, no one knows. The wall itself was built before any of the compound's buildings, before Altimeer's reign, and before that. Something lived in the swamp then that was horrific and menacing, responsible for the deaths of many faeries. The wall had been charmed to repel the monster, but it's believed by some he still lives there, waiting for his opportunity, asleep in a far corner of the swamp at the western end. A spy of Jasper's had been caught long ago who used the door to sneak into the kingdom of the frogs. Found by the king's guard asleep in a log, he was doused with milk from the black beetle mixed with salt of the beaches of the far eastern sea. This neutralized his magic and stilled his wings. The key was taken from him and his life spared if he swore never to tell anyone who possessed it. He not only gave his sacred word as a sprite, but knowing his life would be forfeit if he returned without the key, left to live in Melinda's country, ingratiating himself with her father by telling all he knew about Jasper and the location and layout of his compound. Not much had changed.
Jethro was made the key bearer, he was on a mission and they respected that. He slipped the key into the openning below the knob; surprisingly, to him, it entered smoothly. This must be used frequently, he thought. Momentarily distracted, he didn't notice the sudden agitation of his comrades. "Hurry," one said. "Do you hear that?"
Jethro now caught the commotion coming from the far end of the compound. Melinda! Deftly, he turned the key and the knob as one and pushed the door open. They piled in, spears at the ready. The clamor on the far side of the house had stiffened the guards, fixing their attention. The soft footfalls of the frogs went unnoticed. In moments, they were taken down, rendered unconscious, the Spriggan killed. Jethro attempted to unbar the door of the small shack, but was repulsed backward by a sharp jolt. Two of the bullfrogs did what they do best, prying it open with their blades sufficient to get a grip on the door, they ripped it off its hinges and threw it to the ground, shattering the wooden bar into bright dazzling snakes of light that quickly vanished.
He entered and there sat Rebecca on the edge of the bed. She was alarmed at the sight of him; he quickly explained, telling her also that Melinda and a band of Dragonflies were the cause of the racket that now had become much louder and fiercer. As he finished, the two frogs his size entered and told her they wished to escort her to their headquarters for safety until all was over. They encouraged her to get a move on, each grabbing an arm to help her up. Her eyes wide, she remained speechless, but gladly allowed them to hustle her out and through the door of the wall.
Jethro stood in the doorway of what had been her prison, listening. The bulls in his group were fighting their way to the main gate. Fortunately, most of the guards had run off in the direction of the disturbance on the far side of the house. In moments, they had incapacitated all who remained, and with their massive strength, removed the plank barring the two doors of the gate. In surged the bullfrog king and hordes of angry frogs yelling and croaking venomously.
Jethro thought only of Melinda and moved off passed the main group of invaders to circle the house from the side closest to the swamp, skirting the wall for cover. He meant to get to her, to stand by her as she fought. As he rounded the far edge of the building, he saw them, the Dragonflies and Melinda surrounded by faeries of every description, some large and gangly, others with wings fighting the Dragonflies in mid-air. He bulled his way through the attackers; they had their backs to him so he met little resistance. He raced to her side; she noticed him not, engaged as she was in throwing one spell after another at two sprites. They met her assault at every turn, but could not gain an advantage. Jethro recalled the day of the picnic when he'd been given immunity to shifts in time and space by the three princesses. With that in mind, and the welfare of Melinda uppermost, he charged the sprites, leaping as high as he could, coming down on one with unexpected force. He heard something break and a moan issue forth from the sprite under his weight. The other, now alone, had no chance against Melinda. With a few quick gestures, her enemy burst into sparkling shards of aura and was gone.
She now saw Jethro and smiled broadly. The others had gained ground and were closing in on the rear entrance to Jasper's home where they assumed Rebecca was being held. Of a sudden, their few opponents left their positions and turned to run towards shouting coming from the front of the compound. The Dragonflies paused momentarily, giving Jethro opportunity to inform them of the bullfrog king's advancing army and their intent. Briefly glancing at one another and at Melinda, they smiled and nodded. This was it, a chance to not only rescue Rebecca, but to end Jasper's threat. With a loud warcry, the Dragonflies shifted direction, flanking Jasper's followers between them and the bullfrog king's raging force.
Jethro hung back with Melinda who looked at him with raised eyebrows. "They want to defeat Jasper as much as we do." A surge of excitement passed through him on saying we, especially as Melinda didn't bat an eyelash. He told her about Rebecca and thrilled to see a smile of admiration on her face. They watched blinding light in every color of the rainbow issue forth from the hands of Jasper's people and daring flights by sprites trying to get behind the frogs. Spears brought most down, accurately aimed by the strong bulls. They saw frogs caught in whirlwinds of dust and tempests of liquid fog tossed about like toys; some vanished from sight as they attempted to leap to attack. They watched outbuildings and sheds catch fire, their contents exploding, foul smells and acrid smoke billowed.
Melinda said, "We must get to Jasper. That will end this. Magical folk will not fight without purpose. Winning this battle will not be enough to force Jasper's other followers to abandon the cause, especially his spies in Altimeer's court. Jasper himself must be killed."
Jethro winced a bit at the vehemence of this last proclamation, but it created a lull. "I have to know, Melinda. Did you foresee my encounter with the king of the frogs and what would happen after?"
She smiled and looked down. "The meeting with the bullfrog king in the marsh. The lost key. Yes. I could see that far. His animosity towards Jasper is well known. He threatened him and his people; they were itching for an excuse to wage war. The rest was you, my friend. Your trust in others."
"But what about the wall? And the door?" he asked, a touch of consternation in his voice. "Why wasn't I told of them?"
"When I looked into your eyes this morning, I saw in your future that the wall and door would not be a problem, so I didn't tell you. If you had known, would you have gone? I think you would've seen the impossibility of the mission. And rightfully so."
"But if you had told me of my meeting with the king and his decision to go to war immediately,..."
"Then they wouldn't have occurred," she interrupted, her tone flat. She smiled demurely as she said, "Too much knowledge can be worse than too little. It sullies the waters; everything is seen from outside and so actions don't unfold as they naturally would otherwise."
"If you can see the future, how about now, what happens here today?"
"It doesn't work that way. I need another mind to mesh with, as we have. Of all the paths you might've taken, I saw the one you traveled and knew it was a gift from the Mother of Faeryland. I might instead have seen your death, Jethro, in which case, I would not have let you go. It was a vision, you were meant to be here, to do what you've done."
She paused to take him in. "But I can't see ways of the heart, Jethro; they have no rules they live by." She looked away, towards the fierce fighting and explosions. "This was a tactical mission, my father knows this compound. After I told him of my vision, together we formulated a plan. You knew what you needed to know, my friend. And the rest was all you."
She smiled broadly, then abruptly shifted into the warrior princess--it was time to go to work.
The bullfrog king was elated on spotting the unmistakable green and pale yellow uniform of the Dragonflies. He watched their deft swoops and curving arches, their choreographed attacks, their accuracy with bow, and, most of all, their deadly counter spells to those of Jasper's bunch. Now, he thought, we too have magic on our side. He fought harder, fiercer, without restraint, knowing that the chance to free his people from the dark lord's meddling was at hand.
There were bound to be many beings of all types inside the house--Jasper's personal guard. It was only the two of them; they needed a plan. Melinda flew up to the highest balcony of the three-story monolith. No one would be up there, she was certain; at least, not any soldiers. Jethro leapt to the second balcony, that was as high as he could jump. Adrenaline gave him more boost than he anticipated and he flew passed the balcony to land inside the large empty bedroom. Stunned but relieved he'd made it, he cautiously crept to the door. Cracking it, he peeked into the hallway; no one could be seen. His uncle came to mind, what he'd taught him about slowing time down. Its effect was not to cause others to slow, but rather to slow himself down, to enter a space that was free of tension, stress, fear. He used that now as he stepped out of his concealment.
When he arrived at the landing, Melinda was just coming down the stairs. They crouched behind the banister from where they could observe the expanse of the huge main room, its stout ceiling beams criss-crossing the full breadth. Along the walls stood chairs and couches and tables, paintings hung both high and low. The windows were covered by floor-length drapes, the floor by a thick rug bedecked with all manner of colorful figures and designs, symbols of magical meanings. At the middle was a long table, down its center stood lighted candles that threw ominous dancing shadows against the walls. High-backed chairs flanked it. The one at the far end facing them was empty, but they could see a hand on the armrest of the nearer one, its back to them. Shockingly, no one else was present.
"Jasper," Melinda whispered. "That must be Jasper, I can feel the darkness of his aura; his men must've joined the battle. He is such a coward, leaving his people to fight without him. I must confront him, now."
Before Jethro could say anything, ask what he should do, she flew down and landed as silently as a feather falling on grass just behind Jasper's chair. She pulled the long curved blade from her belt and stealthily approached. Before she'd covered half the distance, however, a gravelly voice said, "Greetings, Melinda. I was wondering when you'd arrive."
At that, his chair fell backwards, almost hitting Melinda. Jasper, however, was not to be seen. From his perspective above the room, Jethro had watched the whole thing. He saw the chair fly back as Jasper stood, but before it hit the floor, he'd vanished. Melinda crouched, knife in hand, and slowly turned full circle, then looked up at the wide beams. The room grew densely quiet, holding its breath. Jethro's time space was slower than Jasper's, he knew, and he meant to take advantage of it. He moved to the top step of the broad stairway to take the room in, seeing details in the shadows and every flicker of the candles.
Abruptly, Jasper began to materialize a few feet behind Melinda, a silhouete quickly taking on flesh. He too had a knife in his hand. Nonetheless, Jethro was way ahead of him. He yelled to Melinda as he leapt full force down the stairway and onto the floor with a thud. Jasper, surprised, turned to face an uncertain frog garbed as one of the swamp folk. He gestured his free hand and Jethro felt a surge of wind come his way, driving him back hard against the nether wall.
Before he could turn around, Melinda was on him. Jasper stabbed back, but she was in the air safely above the thrust. Struggling for balance and a firm hold, wrapping her legs around his midsection, she managed to position her knife to draw across his throat. She had barely piecred his aura, however, when he grabbed her wrist. He sheathed his knife and gestured spell after spell; Melinda countered to shunt them off every-which-way around her. Chairs and tables flew in all directions, drapes fluttered violently, candles were thrown onto the floor plunging the room into utter darkness. Jethro could see nothing, he heard only the thrashing of magical beings intent on killing one another. Jasper's hatred brooked no discussion, no resolution of the issues that drove him to such madness was possible. It was all or nothing. If he were to kill Melinda, war would most certainly break out, war that would probably involve his father, the only real chance he ever had for victory.
Jethro got to his feet, determined to do something, anything to help Melinda. Brushing off pain, he moved towards the commotion. Suddenly, the massive front door burst open, the wooden bar across it splintering into a million pieces. Light, light from without flooded the expanse. Jethro could now see the pair grappling before him. Standing several feet behind Jasper, he looked over his shoulder into Melinda's eyes, shining like fiery diamonds. Jasper held back Melinda's knife hand, his was near her throat. She blocked his arm from following through as she strained to stab him in the chest. The tense tableau crackled as the air around them shimmered, each struggling for dominance. Suddenly, with a loud cry, Jasper shoved her back. She tripped over the fallen chair, losing hold of her knife as she pounded the hard floor, knocking the wind out of her. Like a bird of prey, he crouched over her helpless body, stunned from the impact. But before he could finish the job, Jethro sprung with all his might onto Jasper's back, propelling him forward towards the frog army quickly filling the cavernous hall.
He skittered to a stop at the feet of the bullfrog king who, knowing full well the power of Jasper's magic, hesitated not. With a fluid movement at once horrific as it was sure, he grabbed Jasper by the hair, yanked his head up, then slit his throat from faery ear to faery ear.
Altimeer did not retaliate against the bullfrog king; he was not a vengeful sprite and even less a vengeful king. He knew of his son's treachery, the repeated threats, the kidnapping of the eldest daughter of Anarkus. He disapproved of all of it and told his son so, warning him of the dangers, but there was no dealing with him. He was a maverick and a renegade, filled with hatred and anger and hurt. He would not be mollified and found no true happiness in peace.
Jasper was buried in the sacred family grounds. Altimeer withdrew into a deep trance of woe; distraught and inconsolable. His only son was dead and he had no daughters, no heirs to carry on the crown. But he knew if the kingdom had fallen into the hands of his son, war would have ensued, and his people would have suffered greatly. At heart, painful as it was--the end of his blood line--his people were saved by Jasper's death. They would not know another war while he lived, of that he was certain.
The bullfrog king and his people settled back into their traditional easy-going lifestyle. No more talk of war, no need of guarding the border, knives and spears could be put away. The pressure was off, the dark lord had met his end. Casual conversation resumed its banter, anecdotes and stories abounded; humor, foolery, and laughter once again filled the air. One bit of news that found its way into the public arena were occasional rumors of fierce gravely noises and loud rumbling coming from a far corner of the swamp at the western end. But no one took them seriously.
The Ballroom throbbed with manic revelers. Rebecca danced in spite of her hurt and recent travail. It was the way of sprites; life in the here and now was far too important to be wasted on self-pity. And she was her father's daughter, after all. Steel of character ran in her veins.
In the din, Anarkus's voice could be heard, "Please, everyone, I'd like to make a toast." Several seconds later, near calm blanketed the guests. He raised his goblet of wine and pointed it towards Jethro, sitting near him next to Melinda. "I'd like to salute Jethro, not only for his valor in saving my daughter Melinda's life and rescuing Rebecca, but for helping to bring peace to my people and myself." He raised his cup as did they all, and amongst shouts of goodwill, drank their cups dry.
A heaviness that had hung over the land lifted. The people of Anarkus went about their routines in a lighter mood, speaking often to one another in passing, their mind's no longer proccupied with troubles. Magic permeates the air in this world, and when part of it is not in harmony with the rest, when evil influences taint the flavor of it, it affects all.
The party would go on, in true sprite fashion, for days. Jethro, embarrassed yet filled with pride at the king's toast, asked Melinda if she'd like to sit out in the garden, to be in the relative quiet and smell the flowers. It was a beautiful star-studded balmy night, the bright moon had lost a piece. Other couples were milling about, the party had spread onto the grounds. But the garden was vast; Melinda and Jethro found their bench from before, what seemed to Jethro a long long time ago. Fish in the greenish-blue pond darted to and fro, they too were celebrating. They sat in the lush surroundings, saying nothing, listening to the insects chattering and the soft voices of the tiny folk in the houses that hung from branches of the fruit trees.
"Jethro, what will you do? Do you wish to remain here or have you decided to go home?"
Her pointedness caught him offguard; he blanched as only a frog can. He'd not thought about it, didn't want to, caught up in the torrent and glow of events as he was. This was all a dream he didn't wish to end. But he gathered himself and knew he had to decide. Or at least, talk about it. "Melinda," he began, barely able to hear his own voice. "I..." He stood and walked to the pond. Turning, he looked at her, her beautiful face and hair, her gossamer dress of yellow and blue, her wings neatly resting between her soft shoulders, and said, "I love you, Melinda."
She approached him and took his hands in hers. Smiling, she said, "And I you, Jethro." They held one another with love and tenderness, with a joy that brightened the garden. All present noticed and looked their way. "But what are we to do," she whispered in his ear. "You are a frog and I, a sprite."
Jethro had no answer. And besides that, he had to admit to being homesick, to missing his friends and his pond, that life. But how could he now live without Melinda?
Melinda said, "My father knows how to change one body into another. It's rather involved, but he's done it before, the secret has been handed down though our line. If you wanted..." She stopped and looked off to the pond. "If you wanted you could change into a sprite. You would still be you, but then we could marry." She smiled brightly but unsurely. She wished not to frighten Jethro by presenting him with a quandry of such importance--changing form is not something to be taken lightly--but no other way to say it was available. She believed their love would triumph over reservations and fear. She waited, patiently.
Jethro didn't know what to say. Marriage hadn't been on his mind, but now, there it was. She wished to marry him, after such a short period of time. He vacillated, sure of his love, but not so much with changing into another being. He said, "I love you, Melinda, and I wish to be with you always, but..." He paused, hating himeslf for what he was about to say. "I don't know if that's the right thing for me to do. I've always been a frog. With you, though, I don't think of it." He let her go and walked a ways around the pond; she followed, clutching at his hand. "I can't decide now, it's too sudden. I need time. Please, Melinda, my love who I love, let me go back to my pond, to see my mother and friends, let me try to understand what it means."
She pulled him to her and squeezed him tight. "Yes, my love. I want you to be certain; it is not a simple thing. You must be sure."
They stayed in the garden for most of the night, drinking and talking of their adventures, Jethro questioning about this and that, Melinda answering truthfully about most, teasing about the rest, warming to one another more deeply with each passing moment.
The following morning, Jethro awoke to the sound of bells. Festivities were still in high gear. The garden below his balcony was strewn with sleeping sprites of every description. Goblets and bottles of wine lay at all manner of angles, hardly any were upright. A servant entered bearing food, fruit and what looked like grass mixed with mushrooms and a goblet of green liquid guaranteed to sharpen one's wits. She had a habit of doing that, of knowing when he'd awakened. Hung over and barely able to thank her, Jethro sat very still, nibbling on a piece of yellow fruit. The main event of last evening abruptly rose to the surface. Two things: marry Melinda--how unbelievably wonderful and fortuitous, and transform from a frog into a sprite--how unbelievably unimaginable. The whole idea was simply beyond him; he needed to ponder what he'd be surrendering and what he'd be gaining. Who am I? he asked himself. The visage of the bullfrog king holding him by the shoulders as he was about to attempt a rescue of Rebecca came to mind. He'd given him a pep talk. At the end, he said, '... and most importantly, remember you're a frog, and all will be fine.'
Remember you're a frog. Jethro munched absentmindedly. After the previous evening, food had little appeal. A throb of homesickness twisted his inners. How long had it been? he wondered. Time moved at a different pace here, he knew, so he could only guess. Whatever it was, he wished to return to his pond, to reflect and consider, and see what his friends thought about losing him, though, in the end, he would decide. He sat looking out beyond the garden towards the far mountains where the sea lay. He recalled that time with Melinda, the cave of light and sand and shards of intensity. If their love could be on that level, he thought, that space where their differences didn't matter, then perhaps ...
Could he abandon not only his life by the pond but also his very nature? She said he would still be himself, the person he knew himself to be even as he'd grown and realized parts of himself he never before imagined. He felt as though he'd only begun to know himself, matured and responsible and daring. Didn't he owe loyalty to that person he was becoming, that Jethro to be? Shouldn't that be his primary concern? Wouldn't that be forever lost?
He didn't know, could not answer. He bathed and dressed in his old clothes, the ones he arrived in, and sought out Melinda. They spoke of love and caring and the joy of one another's company. She knew he had to retire to his home to mull things over and didn't resent it or hold it against him. On the contrary, she loved him and wanted nothing more than for him to be absolutely certain. There would be no turning back, regrets seeded in an uncertain mind would bring them only sadness and pain.
All the princesses accompanied him to the gateway but held back after hugging him good-bye. Melinda went outside into the grass and the world of Jethro. They hugged and promised their love no matter the outcome; her eyes grew wet and a tear rolled down her cheek. Smiling through it, looking even more precious than ususal, she turned briskly and flew back inside, the gate materializing behind her. Jethro stood staring at the entrance to Faeryland, unable to move away; he thought his heart would break and he would die right there on the spot.
Everything looked different, out here now seemed too bright, too full, too green, too detailed. He turned to hop towards the pond. On arriving at his favorite spot on the bank, he paused. Closing his eyes, he tried to feel those sensations and emotions he'd become accustomed to. But it was no use, he was no longer the person of that time. That relaxed, insolated, naive state of mind had been engulfed by a new way of seeing things; he wasn't sure if he liked it or not. He had to see his mother, he missed her and worried.
She was busy in the kitchen when he pushed the door open. He called to her, she came running. "Jethro, where have you been? We were so worried. We've been looking for you all around the pond and in it. Are you all right?" She felt his arms, then squeezed him tight. "Were you hiding from a ferret or an owl? Where were you all this time? Come, have some porridge. You must be starved."
He followed her into the kitchen and sat in his customary chair. She served a cup and sat. "Tell me." she implored.
Jethro stared at his mother's worried face. She was smart but had a practical bent that couldn't be tampered with. He struggled with the truth. Should he make something harmless up, or just blurt out all he could remember? The pride he felt when the king had toasted his valor and the reassuring words of the bullfrog king rose to the surface. He had no choice. He told her everything, from the moment he'd met Melinda by the pond and she saved him from the ferret, and how she did it, all the way through to the battle and the festivities, ending with he and Melinda in the garden, leaving out the part about changing into a sprite, enough was enough.
His mother sat perfectly still. She was quite familiar with her son's over-active imagination, the games of impersonation he enjoyed, the stories he told of events, stories that were more than slightly exaggerated. "Eat your porridge," was her only comment. She stood and went to the sink to wash dishes. With her back to him, she said, "If you don't want to tell me where you've been and what you've been up to, I understand. You're getting to be a big boy, almost grown-up. If you want to camp out for a few days, let your mother worry, then, that's how it is." She began to cry. Jethro got to his feet and put his arms around her; she hugged him until she stopped. Gently pushing him away, she said, "Eat, then go outside if you wish, go play. Knuckles has been here every day looking for you. You should go find him." She smiled as she wiped the tears from her face, then went back to work. "Dinner's the usual time, Jethro, we're having your favorite, and dessert. Don't be late."
Downcast, he went to find Knuckles. He dare not go to his home, his parents were even more skeptical than his mom, and they were bound to ask. He searched their usual haunts, no luck. The sun was at mid-morning, the air had a tasty sweetness to it. Plopping down in the high grass in the exact spot where he'd first met Melinda, he tried to calm himself so he could think; he had a lot to think about, and none of it would be easy. The quiet serenity of his familiar space on the bank of the pond he'd known since very young worked its own special magic. He listened to the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects. He watched one fly by, studied it carefully, half-expecting it to eye him and make some sarcastic comment as those of Melinda's land were prone to. But no, not here, not in this world. It just flew by, intent on its own practical mission.
"Hey there," came a shout from behind. "Where the heck have you been?" It was Knuckles, his unmistakable reedy voice, always friendly, ready to laugh for the slightest provocation. Pulling alongside, his shell appeared darker than Jethro remembered, darker and more mottled with browns and greens, and the patterns, so intricate the way they merged into each other. Has it always been so and I never noticed till now? wondered Jethro. "You've been gone for days. What's up? Hiding out? Met a girl? What?"
Knuckles was his best friend, so he couldn't lie. He remembered the first time they met years ago. They were both very little. Jethro was practicing jumping, seeing how far he could go when he landed right on Knuckles's back. He'd been sleeping, his legs and head were inside his shell. He woke with a start, frightened he'd been captured by a bird or some other creature with ill intent. Jethro fell off, scared himself, never having seen a turtle before. After apologies, they talked and laughed about it, relieved that all was well. They then began to hang out together, sitting by the pond and adventuring through the tall grass. Jethro would hop high to see what was around, but he never jumped ahead of his slow moving friend. When winter would come, Jethro retired to the muddy depths of the pond, Knuckles would stay with his parents in their home burrowed under a huge rock. It was a lonely time, but when spring would come, they sought out each other, happy to begin another season of play.
He told Knuckles everything, leaving out the more intimate parts; he didn't want to be teased about it. As he expected, Knuckles believed every word. The last part of the story about transforming into a sprite to be with Melinda he also kept to himself. He sensed too much conflict. It would mean never seeing his friend again, not something he wanted to think about just yet or especially talk about. Kuckles looked up to Jethro, he was smart and always came up with interesting things to do. Now, after this tale, his admiration was boundless. Knuckles never regretted his friends' good fortune or enjoyment. He never felt sorry for himself or spiteful. He was not a turtle prone to fits of jealousy. "Let's go tell the others," he said. "They'll love it. C'mon. They're hanging out by that busted tree, the one split by lightning. Let's go, Jethro." And with that they were off, trudging through the high grass, Jethro leaping occasionally to scour the field ahead, Knuckles working through a trail only he knew.
When they arrived, one of his squirrel friends and the chipmunk were sitting high on a branch, talking and taking in their perched view of the pond, commenting on the visitors come to drink, laughing at sarcastic remarks. "Ho, down there. Jethro, where the heck have you been? We thought a ferret or something worse got you," said the chipmunk. He'd been nicknamed Flick because of the way he moved. One instant he was still in one position, the next in another, just like that, timelessly. The squirrel was Jeremiah, shortened to Jerry. He'd make everybody laugh by sticking nuts in his jowels and try to talk. They both scurried down the trunk, letting themselves fall several body lengths from the ground. They ran up to Jethro, looking for injuries or any sign of a battle. Knuckles told them that Jethro had quite the story. Intrigued and excited, they all moved off to their secret hideout, a patch of sand by the brook, dark and concealed by heavy brush this time of year. They drank the fresh cool mountain water while waiting for Knuckles.
After he arrived and they'd settled down, Jethro recounted the improbable events of what for him was only the passed four days. They all listened in rapture, even Knuckles. "A faery princess, my gosh," gushed Jerry. Flick smiled in that way he had when words failed him. "What did she look like? I'll bet she was beautiful, huh?" Jethro described her, choking up with emotion as he did so. They were awash with wonder. "Could we go see this Faeryland too?" asked Jerry, Flick nodded vigorously.
"I don't know," said Jethro. "I don't see why not. When I see her again...," he stumbled, choked up, "I'll ask her." He wanted to change the subject, so he asked what they'd been up to. For them it'd been a solid week. They spoke of the moon, how big and yellow it looked when full, of finding berry bushes new to them which they promised to show Jethro, and games they'd made up. But mostly at night they wondered and worried about him. They were scared he might have been killed or was trapped somewhere, unable to escape. For that reason, they'd searched the entire pond area, going to places they never had before, places their parents had told them were forbidden for danger's sake. They didn't care, they looked anyway. They climbed to the tops of trees to scan and Knuckles ventured into holes in the ground, fearlessly. They were overjoyed that he was all right and beyond that, had had such a wonderful adventure.
They hung around their hideout, talking, joking, and rekindling their friendship, waiting for the sun to move lower in the sky. The cool of the evening was their favorite time to do stuff, to explore.
Just before sunset, Jethro was home for dinner. It was only his mom and he now, his Dad had been gone for some time, no one ever found out what happened, but they all feared the worst. And his sister had married and moved far away to another pond, not staying in contact except for special occasions. His mother was happy to have her son back, she didn't care if he'd chose not to tell her the truth about where he'd been. She allowed him to keep secrets, she found it amusing in a curious frog-like way. They spoke of ordinary things. His mom gossiped about the neighbors, what they'd done, problems they had, and spoke of visitors concerned for Jethro's welfare seeking news. He didn't say much. He was just glad to be here, in his old kitchen-table chair, listening to his mother's voice, her laughter, the familiar comfort of their home, normalcy. After dinner, he went to meet his friends; they had a rendezvous spot where they gathered before setting out at twilight. They liked that time of day, it was mysterious and exciting and dangerous.
Jethro hopped and sometimes walked along, not engaging in the usual back and forth of young ones, trying not to think of the profound dilemma Melinda had placed him in. When he thought of her he almost cried from longing. In spite of his deep feelings, however, what she had proposed was more than he could absorb just yet, if ever. He was born and raised a frog, used to the quiet life here by this mountain pond, how could he live any other way? She said he would still be himself, but, with time, experiencing life as a sprite instead of a frog would have to change him, wouldn't it? How could he be any other person? And most importantly, his love for her, would that survive as is or would it also change? If so, his transition would be an utter waste, and he would be trapped as a sprite in a land not his own. What would he do then? How would he fit in? He had many questions that needed the right answers. He dare not tell his friends, his close life-long buddies. What would they say? How would they feel? Eventually he would have to, of course. Eventually.
As he followed the others through a path in the grass, he decided he'd wait till the end of summer to make up his mind. Not being with Melinda was painful, but he believed it would fade with time. However, the memory of her, what they'd known together, her world, and especially his love, never ever would.