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An Unfortunate Beginning

 

An Unfortunate Beginning

 

The Novel Adventures of Nimrod Vale

 

By Natasha Brown

 

Illustrated by Larissa Clause

 

Text copyright 2013 by Natasha Brown

Illustrations by Larissa Clause, copyright 2013

Distributed by Shakespir

Editor Bev Katz Rosenbaum

 

All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

www.natashasbrown.com

 

DEDICATION

 

I would like to dedicate this book to every child with Attention Deficit Disorder. You are special and unique. Create your own world and become the hero.

 

My thanks go to my husband, family and friends, who are my biggest supporters. My gratitude goes to Bev Rosenbaum, my fabulous editor, and Larissa Clause, who brought the cover to life with her beautiful artwork.

 

 

 

Table of Contents

An Unfortunate Beginning

A New World

Bad Dream

Art Imitates Life

The Escape

Nim’s Secret

Into Hiding

A New Friend

Pepper’s Discovery

Guilt Trip

Back Again

Where’s Pepper

Into the Castle

The Plan

Last Hope

Slag’s Triumph

The Elder Tree

A Surprising Secret

A Hero’s Quest

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An Unfortunate Beginning

 

I’ve decided I’m the unluckiest person in the world.

I stared at the clouds through the large paneled windows. People bustled by me dragging children and luggage behind them. Who would notice me – a pale twelve-year-old, all alone with a backpack slung over his shoulder?

I turned into the baggage claim area, and spotted the familiar, curly mop I was looking for. When Aunt Holly saw me, she smiled and waved. The air left my lungs and it felt like I’d been punched in the gut, or maybe my heart. Her smile was almost the same. Almost the same as Mom’s. My watery eyes flicked to the linoleum floor, I clenched my jaw tight, and walked on.

“Hey, Nim!” Thank goodness she used my nickname. At least I couldn’t be angry about that. “Oh my gosh, you’ve grown – don’t know where you got your genes from, but it wasn’t our side of the family. Say, I’m really sorry I didn’t come out for the service. I’m not good at funerals, or with flying. That’s why you always had to come visit me, right? But you already know that. So, how was your flight?”

Aunt Holly’s green eyes were puffy and red. She appeared tired and I guessed I wasn’t the only one running without sleep.

“Hey, Aunt Holly. It was fine.”

She wrapped her arms around my bulky shoulders in a tight embrace, and her head tucked under my chin, reminding me just how freakishly tall I am. I pulled away awkwardly and stuffed my hands in my pockets.

“How many bags do you have?”

“Crammed everything I could into two suitcases. Everything else is being auctioned off or donated. That’s what Mom’s lawyer said, anyway.”

My heartbeat echoed in my ears as we stood in silence waiting for the bags that held everything I owned. Finally, one by one, they emerged onto the luggage carousel. I leaned forward, grabbed hold of them and dragged them over to her, stumbling over my shoelaces.

Aunt Holly studied me as she asked, “Do you need any help?”

“Naw, thanks.” I adjusted my backpack and started forward with all of my things in tow. No one was going to separate me from the few things I had left, even if it was only underwear and jeans. The handle of my suitcase dug into my palm and its wheels clacked along the tiled floor.

Aunt Holly turned and caught up with me. “Well then, I’m parked just outside. Not too far, I lucked out, got a place right up front.”

Luck? Maybe some of Aunt Holly’s good fortune would rub off on me. Or maybe my bad luck would ruin hers.

We wandered outside and into the lot as she pointed at a beat up silver sedan. You would never know she’d inherited Grandpa’s fortune. It went to her because she’d stayed to take care of the family house. I had to give it to her, she hadn’t stuck around for the money, but because she loved the place.

Aunt Holly popped the trunk and we shoved my luggage inside. She held her hand out for my pack and I stated simply, “It can stay with me.” It took two attempts to latch the trunk, which involved me practically jumping on top of it. Soon we glided past the tollbooths, and turned onto the highway.

“It’s been a while since you were in Portland. The house hasn’t changed at all. You remember it?”

How could I forget? The time I spent there had provided my best memories. It was bittersweet going back without Mom.

“Sure, yeah. I remember it,” I said, picking at some loose threads on my jeans.

“It’s been forever since I’ve lived with anyone else. Grandma died so long ago and then when Grandpa… Anyway, it‘ll be nice having someone else there with me. There’s certainly enough space.”

I exhaled sharply and watched the wilderness flash by my window. I didn’t have any more words left in me, so I pulled my tablet out of my backpack and started to read.

“Oh, that’s fancy.”

I finished the page I was on and reluctantly answered, “Mom gave it to me for my eleventh birthday.” When I wasn’t writing one of my own stories, I was reading one of the many e-books stored in my massive library. I have the biggest library of anyone I know. Okay, I don’t really know many people, but it’s impressive. Seriously.

Aunt Holly hummed along with the radio and after a short time we exited the highway and wove our way through the evergreen lined streets. Just as the neighborhood began to look familiar, we pulled up a steep driveway to the large Victorian house.

After grabbing my bags, we went inside. Things hadn’t changed much. A collection of art and tapestries hung on the colorful walls and the old wood plank floors were covered with faded rugs. The smell of rain mixed with a stale musty odor jogged my memories. It was all kind of soothing – familiar.

“So, I thought you could pick any of the rooms upstairs. Mine’s down here—back down that hallway.” She pointed toward a shadowy corridor. “Do you want some help getting settled?”

I shook my head and let my brown, stick straight hair fall over my eyes. I just wanted to be alone.

Aunt Holly sighed and said in a whisper, “I’ll give you a minute to settle in. Shout if you need anything.”

With my bags in hand, I shuffled up to the second floor where doors lined the hallway. Aunt Holly had an art studio where she did her painting. Then there was Grandma and Grandpa’s room, although I had no intention of living in a place with my dead grandparents’ dusty things. As if I didn’t already have enough trouble getting to sleep. I already knew the room I wanted, anyway. I walked through the first door on my right and entered the room I’d slept in all the other times I stayed here. Difference was, this time I wasn’t visiting.

The large, wallpapered room had an odd, slanted ceiling and an alcove with a desk and a window. I dropped my tablet onto the dark wood. This was the perfect place to write. Ever since the funeral, a story had been playing out in my mind. But that would have to wait. I wasn’t sure if I could form a proper sentence right now. After the long flight and this horrible week, I was tempted to climb into the closet in the corner of the room and hide. But Mom wouldn’t find me this time. Never again.

My cheek quivered. Propped up on the corner of the desk was a framed picture. I spotted my mom and Aunt Holly. They were young, probably teenagers. I wanted to tell her to run away to Spain to become a gypsy, like she always said she’d wanted to do.

My fists clenched as I forced my eyes to my grandparents, who smiled brightly beside her, and I couldn’t help but glare at my grandpa’s happy face. “Where are you now when I need you?” I said aloud. “You said you’d always be here for me.” I knew he was really dead and gone. I just liked pretending he was there sometimes. Grandpa was the one person who’d really understood me. He was different, like me. We both preferred getting wrapped up in a good story than anything else. Mom always let me do my thing, but I also knew she wanted me to make some friends and be ‘normal’.

Normal wasn’t in the cards. Grandpa got that about me. He was probably the best friend I’d ever had, but he’d been gone for over three years. Obviously, I was cursed. Everyone in my family either left or died. Aunt Holly would have to disown me; that way she’d have a decent chance of surviving.

I flipped the picture face down on the desk, wandered to the bed and sat down. The bumpy bedspread felt strange beneath me and I ran my fingers over the ridges in the fabric. Gray clouds were visible out the window and I focused on the rain tapping at the windowpanes. I missed my home. I missed Mom.

This really sucked.

At least I was in the one place I could be closest to her. If Mom was born and raised in this house, maybe if I tried hard enough I’d be able to hear the echo of her footsteps beneath my own. I gripped the banister on the way downstairs and tried to feel her with me. She’d touched everything in this house at one time.

I found Aunt Holly sipping a cup of tea in the kitchen. When she saw me, she hopped up and walked over to the electric kettle.

“Hey, Nim. Can I make you some coffee or tea?” She reached for a black mug from the cabinet.

“Uh, mom never let me drink coffee. She said it would stunt my growth.” I shrugged.

Aunt Holly made a show of taking in all five feet seven inches of me and snickered. “Well, I don’t think that’s an issue. Wanna try some? You’re living in the coffee and tea capitol of the country now.”

“Sure. I’ll give it a try. You got sugar?”

“Was Picasso a playboy?”

I stared at her with a blank expression.

She grinned and answered, “He was and yes, I’ve got sugar.”

“Um, okay.” Was this what it was going to be like from now on?

While Aunt Holly prepared the coffee in something that was almost medieval looking, she brought up a new subject. “So, Nim. I have you signed up at school. It’s Thursday, so I thought Monday would be a good day to start. That’ll give you a couple days to settle in here and relax. What do you think?”

Lower the boom. Things just kept getting better and better. “Uh, Mom homeschooled me last year. Worked out pretty well.”

I was too different to fit in. That’s why I didn’t even bother and that was why homeschooling was perfect for me. Sweet solitude.

“Aw, I know, Nim. I’m not sure how she did it – running a business from home, teaching you and trying to get her health on track. I know it was easier that way when she got sick, but I can’t. It‘ll be enough for me to just get used to taking care of someone else. I hope you understand.”

“Sure, fine. Whatever.”

I didn’t want to explain to her what a social outcast I’d become, that kids my age just didn’t get me. Why brag?

Being around Aunt Holly was bringing me down. It just made me resent her – hanging out in her kitchen when I should have been in my own house with my mom. I didn’t have anything left that meant anything to me, except, of course, my tablet.

I traced my fingers along the counter’s grout lines and said, “I’m going upstairs to unpack.”

I grabbed the coffee cup to keep my hands busy so I wouldn’t have to look at Aunt Holly.

“Of course. Let me know if you need anything. Oh, and Nim?”

I felt her eyes trace along my face again so I tilted my head down to hide behind my hair.

“I know I’m not your mom, and I have no intention of trying to replace her. I have no experience with all of this, but I do love you and I care. I guess that’s all. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and I’m going to miss her too.”

Yeah, but Aunt Holly wasn’t used to seeing her day after day, like I was. Try living without the sun.

“Thanks, Aunt Holly.” I nodded and left the kitchen to slip upstairs, back into the safety of my new room. The dim light provided me just enough to see by, and I sat at the desk, setting my coffee beside me. It was almost October and the trees outside the window were just beginning to shift color. It was very different from Florida, but that was okay. The gloomy weather matched my mood perfectly.

Sitting alone in my room was something I was good at. I wrote short stories about heroic, handsome adventurers who saved the day. So, basically, people who were nothing like me. I was really good at starting stories, just not finishing them. Mom always said it was because of my ADD, that I was too smart and had too many ideas running through my mind to settle on anything for long, but that’s what mothers are supposed to say, right?

When I wasn’t escaping into my own fantasy lands, I lost myself in other writer’s worlds. It was definitely time to get lost. I’d had enough of my own life for one day (that was an understatement), so I pulled my tablet and keyboard from their bag and placed them flat on the mahogany wood. I ran my fingers over the smooth gray keys and pulled out the power cord. After connecting one end to the tablet, I dropped under the table and searched for an outlet. Spying one nearby, hidden behind a bookshelf, I reached for it and found I was short by a couple inches, so I flicked the cord around the side of the table and gave it another try.

Thump.

A hot stream of coffee poured onto my head and dribbled to the floor. The acidic aroma stung my nose as I pinched my eyes shut and cursed under my breath.

You know those moments when you wish you could reverse time? It happens on a daily basis with me (if not more).

As fast as I could, I backed out from beneath the desk and peered up. The dark liquid that spilled from the mug had settled around the tablet and keyboard, and created a swampy moat. With a groan, I put the mug right, hoping no permanent damage had been done. Coffee still funneled from the vents and onto the floor.

I rifled through one of my suitcases in search of my socks, and grabbed a few to soak up the liquid. After working for half an hour at drying it, I set my tablet on the floor, plugged it in, then pushed the power button.

Nothing. No lights, no noise. Nothing.

Could things get any worse?

 

 

A New World

 

There’s only so much television I can take before I get bored. I’ll often settle for a good movie instead of reading, but the cable companies really need to pay for some new stuff. I mean, how many times can you watch the same blockbuster before you start losing brain cells? I say twice a month, tops.

Friday was pure television torture, so on Saturday I begged and pleaded with Aunt Holly to take me to a computer repair shop. It didn’t take much to get her to drive me there. I guess that’s one of the perks of people feeling sorry for you – they give you what you want. Lucky me.

While we waited for the tech to take a look at the tablet, we walked next door to a used book store and coffee shop. When we stepped inside, the smell of musty paper and coffee beans greeted us. It reminded me of Grandpa.

Aunt Holly bought us each a caramel latte, which tasted so good, I emptied half of mine before I even started looking around. I didn’t really want to get any books, even though she offered to buy one for me. It felt like if I did, I was admitting that my tablet was perma-broken and I’d never see my stories again.

After half an hour we went back to the repair shop. The guy placed the tablet on the counter and braced his hands on either side of it. He gave Aunt Holly a lazy smile and tucked his long hair behind his ear. “So, looks like you got it pretty good. Nearly fried the hard drive. Luckily, your data’s recoverable, but it‘ll take some work to bring it back to life.”

Aunt Holly adjusted her purse strap and looked at him, waiting for him to get to the bottom line. When he didn’t elaborate, she gave me a concerned look, then turned back to him and asked, “How much will it cost?”

“Oh, yeah – I’d estimate around three hundred.”

Aunt Holly coughed and said, “Dollars? That’s an awful lot. Isn’t that how much it would cost to get a new one?”

“Oh, no, not for this – it’s top of the line. Plus there’s all the applications and data.”

“Please, Aunt Holly. Mom gave it to me. I’ll do anything,” I said in a whisper. I didn’t know what I’d do if she said no.

She pinched her eyes shut and sighed. “Dishes. I hope you like doing dishes, Nim. How long will it take to fix?”

“Right-o.” The tech stared at his computer and his face glowed blue. “Looks like our turnaround time’s running three weeks out.”

“Three weeks?” I think I had a coronary on the spot.

“Or so.”

I used my tablet on a daily basis. Going that long without it was going to be hard. It had been a day and a half already, and I was starting to get the shakes. “Fine.”

Looking on the bright side isn’t my thing. Plus, it’s just plain stupid. Why make yourself think there’s a positive when there isn’t?

As we walked to Aunt Holly’s car, I said, “Thanks for paying to get it fixed.”

“No problem, sweetie. You’ll get it back soon enough.” She added with a shake of her head, “As long as that guy isn’t the one who fixes it.”

I stifled a laugh.

I knew she was right. It could have been worse. I could have lost everything, but on the other hand, it probably wouldn’t have happened to someone else. I can always rely on my raincloud following me wherever I go.

I buckled up and stared out the window. “All my books are on my tablet. Now what am I going to do?” I crossed my arms.

Aunt Holly pulled the car onto the street and grinned at me. “I’m surprised at you, Nimrod. How many times did Grandpa take you up to his study and read to you? If the insurance company knew how many books were in the house they’d raise our rates. One spark and it’ll go up in smoke.”

“But all the stories I’ve been writing are on my tablet. What if I want to write?” I fired at her, agitated she used my full name.

“Grandpa was a writer. He wrote everything by hand with an antique pen. Don’t know if he ever showed it to you, but he cherished it. You could go into the attic and see if you can find it in his desk. He wrote into his will that you were to inherit it.”

That was a strange thing to leave to someone. I couldn’t really recall the pen but I did remember the time we spent in the attic when I came to visit. Grandpa would read me his stories with so much enthusiasm I thought he was the most brilliant person I’d ever met. I wondered if it would be the same being in the attic without him.

“All right, I’ll take a look. All his books up there still?”

“Yeah, they should be. I tidied up there after he died and know there are lots of papers from his unfinished projects. All the walls are covered with books. And most of the floor. He may have been smart, but he was a slob. He was interested in historical fiction, mysteries, a little bit of everything. As I recall, you like fantasy, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Just look out for spiders. It’s been a while since I’ve gone up there. Oh, and don’t open the crypt…that’s where Dracula sleeps during the day.” Aunt Holly stuck her teeth out, pretending she had fangs.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Really? One of your old boyfriends?”

Aunt Holly joined in the laughter and said, “Okay, I deserved that.” She took a slow breath and changed the subject. “So, you feel like trying Thai food tonight?”

It’s not much of a mystery that I’m known for sticking to familiar things, and that includes food. I don’t like looking for trouble or a stomachache. To be honest, a grilled cheese sandwich sounded good to me right about then, but when I looked at Aunt Holly’s eager eyes, I couldn’t say no.

“Sure, why not? You’re on a roll. You got me to try coffee. What’s next?”

Aunt Holly gave me a wink. “I’m on a secret mission.”

A pang of sadness rippled through my body. I felt guilty. Here I was enjoying a moment with my aunt, who was able to somehow make me feel normal for a second.

It wasn’t fair. How could someone so important to me be taken away? It wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I should have been at home in Florida with Mom.

Just as my sadness and self-pity churned into a tsunami, tears rose to the surface, so I closed my eyes tight and balled up my fists.

I opened my eyes when we were parked on the driveway. Aunt Holly was staring at me.

“How about some dinner?” she asked in a whisper.

Without saying a word, I nodded and got out of the car.

I did my best to enjoy the Thai food, but it’s hard breaking old habits. It was probably my imagination, but I thought I saw some of the noodles move by themselves, making me think of a bowl of worms, which made it hard to swallow. I tried convincing myself I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich, but once I hit a mouthful of mushrooms and something else I couldn’t identify, I pushed my plate away.

Aunt Holly watched me scoot back from the table and stand up. “Had your fill? Why don’t you look upstairs in the attic? You may want to take the hand vac with you, though – for all the dust.” Aunt Holly took a sip of her herbal tea and ate another bite of dinner.

“All right, I’ll give it a go. Where is it?” I was ready to leave. The smell of peanut butter and an assortment of mysterious ingredients reminded my stomach I’d just forced down ‘food’ that was nothing like the mac and cheese Mom used to make.

Aunt Holly’s voice followed me out of the room. “It’s in the upstairs hall closet.”

I leapt up the stairs two at a time, wrenched open the closet door, and found more than the vacuum on the floor. There had to be at least three generations of shoes that cluttered the wooden floorboards, along with dust bunnies the size of my fist. I found the red handy vac hiding behind a long trench coat.

I tried to contain the dust inside the closet before closing the door, then wandered to the end of the hallway, where I found the attic door. It clearly hadn’t been opened in a while, and I wondered if it had been painted shut after trying to pry it open for about five minutes. Finally, I braced my foot on the frame and pulled with all my strength until it finally jerked clear, letting out a gasp of stale air. This must have been what it was like opening King Tut’s tomb, I thought. I hoped I wouldn’t break some creepy curse going into Grandpa’s attic.

A dark stairwell rose before me. I flipped the light switch and climbed the steep steps, grabbing onto the rail for support. Spider webs hung from the ceiling and plastered the walls. I’m not a fan of spiders. I don’t scream and hide from them or anything, but ever since reading The Hobbit when I was a kid, seeing a set of spider pinchers makes me reach for the bug spray.

I walked across the book-strewn room and opened a small window for some fresh air. A dark maroon rug, turned gray from the grime covering it, was stacked with papers. A dusty typewriter sat in the corner, a gift from my mom that had obviously gone unused. Books were piled around on the floor and covered the walls in homemade bookcases. Cobwebs touched every surface. I held out the hand vacuum and switched it on. I felt like a cutting-edge knight. Armed with my plastic, modern-day weapon, the spiders had no chance. Once I could walk across the room without getting covered in spider silk, I wandered over to Grandpa’s desk.

A feather duster lay lifeless on the floor, like a dead bird covered in a thick layer of filth. I picked it up and shook it out the window, and started to sweep the dust off the desk. Soon the mahogany wood was free of its dirty veil, but the air became so thick I had to stumble back to the window, sputtering for fresh air.

After I recovered, I settled at the rolltop desk and counted its nearly thirty little compartments and tiny drawers that lined the front. Unfortunately, Grandpa hadn’t shut the cover the last time it was used and a pile of blank papers sat at the center of the workspace. I gathered them up into a tidy stack.

It was then I spotted the fountain pen. Now that I was looking at it, something clicked. I don’t know how old I was at the time, but I remembered asking Grandpa if it was made of gold and him laughing. He had said it was special, and that when I was grown up, he’d give it to me. Well, that had never happened.

I picked it up. It was heavier than I expected, but I liked the way it settled between my fingers. The cold metal quickly warmed to my touch and I made a couple test marks on a piece of paper. Ink flowed evenly from the tip and the sound of the metal scratching against the paper made me smile.

It had been a while since I’d written one of my stories by hand.

I snatched a fresh sheet of paper and wrote down my name: N.R. Vale. I never write out my full name on manuscripts, I mean, would you pick up a book by Nimrod Roger Vale? I wouldn’t. Not unless it was an idiot’s guide to picking terrible baby names.

I closed my eyes and envisioned the world that had been tumbling around in my imagination over the last week, with its rocky terrain and sunless sky, where few creatures could survive. A land at war and a princess caught in the crossfire, held against her will in a cold tower by a man once in love with her, whose heart had been hardened by magic.

Ready to pour my words onto the page, I gripped the pen tight and started writing. The words flowed easily, each scene unfolding before me almost as though it had been waiting to come out. Before long, I had four chapters written and a wicked hand cramp.

I dropped the pen to the table, groaned, and rubbed my eyes. My back hunched and I touched my head to the table. Tired and drained of words, I looked up and noticed a hinged wooden box with an intricate swirl pattern engraved on it. Green velvet lined the interior and it had a long, narrow indent. I placed the fountain pen into the box, went down the attic steps, and switched off the light.

As I tossed and turned under the bumpy bedspread that night, my thoughts curled around Grandpa’s fountain pen. If it was so valuable to him, why hadn’t he bothered putting it away after he had finished using it last?

 

***

 

Clang!

My eyes popped open, and then shut just as quickly when the bright morning light seared my retinas. I flung my hand out from under the covers and grabbed the clock. Nine o’clock – great. I guessed Aunt Holly didn’t sleep in on Sundays. Awesome.

While debating with myself about going back to sleep, the smell of bacon and eggs wafted into the room, and my hunger pains won. I slid out of bed wearing my boxers and a t-shirt. Before I could get too chilly, I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and wool socks. It hadn’t taken me long to discover that the old wood floors ran at a temperature that could keep milk chilled.

When I stumbled into the kitchen, Aunt Holly’s eyes widened as she stared at my hair. I patted down the spiky points as she wiped the grin from her face and turned to the sink.

“So, how’d you sleep last night?”

I flopped onto a bar chair at the counter and shrugged in response.

“Not a morning person, are you?”

I shrugged again.

“I have just the thing.” Aunt Holly placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of me and smiled. “Sugar, no cream – the way you like it.”

“Thanks. Did I smell breakfast?”

A plate covered with eggs, bacon and toast was set before me. Aunt Holly shrugged and said, “I may not be a parent, but I know any growing teen likes to eat, or at least, I think so.”

“Yeah, growing teens also like to sleep,” I grumbled and she swatted me with a dish towel.

While I tucked into my food, she asked, “So, did you find Grandpa’s stuff last night? I didn’t see you again, so…”

Between bites I incoherently answered, “Nah, sa mess…uh, there.”

“Oookay, a sow might be able to understand you, but I can’t. Swallow.” Aunt Holly took a sip from her mug and nibbled the edge of her toast.

I gulped down a mouthful of eggs and followed it with some coffee. With every sip, I felt more and more human, or awake. After rubbing my eyes and stretching my arms, I coiled back into a slouch. “Sorry, yeah. I found the pen and all the writing stuff up there. It’s a mess, though. Full of cobwebs and dust. I think the handy vac might have died from exhaustion.”

“Well, it sounds like a job for the upright and a wet cloth.”

Aunt Holly fluffed her ever-frizzy hair and smacked her lips with a pop.

“So, what do you feel like today? You want me to take you somewhere – see the sights?”

I noticed a painter’s rag and a brush tip poking out of her pocket and guessed how she normally spent her Sundays. I thought about going outside and my throat tightened.

“No thanks. I’d rather work on the story I started last night. You can go ahead and paint – I know you want to, anyway.” I looked down at the golden yolk pooling at the edges of my plate.

“If it makes you happy,” she said, searching my downcast eyes.

Happy wasn’t gonna happen, but I nodded and picked up my plate, dropping it in the sink. I thumped upstairs to my room, put on a pair of slippers, returned to the hallway closet to grab the upright vacuum and rolled it to the attic door.

The air was still stuffy, but at least it wasn’t as bad as yesterday. I had to move some piles of books to find an outlet. Soon the dingy rug was magenta again.

Sunlight slanted in through a circular window and warmed the mahogany wood on the desk. I plopped into the chair and watched dust motes float through the air before reaching out to the carved box that held my grandpa’s treasure.

Inside, the golden pen waited, gleaming on its velvety bed. For the first time, I noticed a fine design etched onto its barrel. I lifted it close to my eyes and wondered how old it was. I’d never used a pen like this before and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do when it ran out of ink or if I needed to clean it at all. I supposed I’d figure it out when the time came. Shrugging to myself, I set to work.

The sound of the metal tip scratching on paper was even sweeter than the clattering keys of a keyboard. And the pen seemed to, well, belong in my hand – connect with me, somehow, the same way it did with the paper.

I took a deep breath and continued where I’d left off. The princess was trapped in her tower with no way of escape. It wasn’t before long I realized things were going nowhere fast. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to take the plot. I started doubting my storyline when I introduced a colorful flying creature she charmed into being a pet. She wasn’t supposed to be Dr. Doolittle.

I paused, unsure of how to continue my story. Now that I’d committed it to paper, I wasn’t sure. Writer’s block. I should have known. I could never seem to finish anything I started. Maybe it was time to scrap the idea and move on to something else. Who’d want to read it, anyway? No one, that was who. Best to send this one to the literary graveyard, I decided, and scrawled ‘The End’ on the paper.

I stared at the gold fountain pen. The ink surely had to be getting low, but I had no idea how to refill it. I twisted it between my fingers and stared at the etching. It was then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. Words were scrawled in script along its length.

It had to be Latin. I wasn’t good with languages. At times, I questioned if English was even my strong suit. I was too self-conscious to practice in front of anyone, but since I was alone, I figured I’d give it a try. There was no one to laugh at me except myself.

“Ars imitatur vita.”

No sooner had I stumbled over the words than the edges of the paper began to glow and flicker. Light radiated from the page as though I was staring into the sun. I covered my eyes with my hands and a prickling sensation surged through my body.

 

Bad Dream

 

Heat seared my wrist and I gasped in pain. The blinding light faded and I lowered my arms.

No longer perched at the desk in the shadowy attic, I stood in a darkened, desolate landscape. Clouds filled the sky and covered any sign of the sun (assuming there even was one). I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I turned in place and stared at a rocky ridge line that surrounded me and I realized I was in a large, hollow basin.

Where was I, the moon? I must have fallen asleep. This was a dream. It had to be. Or I’d got hit in the head with an asteroid and was lying comatose on the floor.

The hot spot on my wrist slowly cooled and I realized it was the metal from my watch. I unfastened it and stared at its face. The digital screen was blank, dead. I tapped it a couple times without any result and slipped it into my pocket. Strange.

Stones poked at my feet through my slippers and a cold breeze blew past me, cutting through my thin shirt and sweatpants. I shivered and rubbed my arms. If this was a dream, it was the most realistic one I’d ever had. The wintry air bit at my skin and I wished I’d dreamt up warmer clothing. I figured it wasn’t too late to try so I closed my eyes and imagined a puffy winter coat and tennis shoes, but after a minute, I gave up. Great, I was trapped in a dream I had no control over. Way to go, Nimrod.

Light shimmered nearby, drawing my attention. I turned to see the outline of a glowing rectangle, like a doorway. As I wondered what it could be, I noticed a dark, crooked form in my periphery. It would be just my luck to fall straight into a nightmare filled with monsters.

I held my breath and whipped around.

It was only a tree, if you could still call it that. What remained was a blackened shell. It had no leaves or color – it was completely burnt and lifeless. Was everything dead here? I walked up to it, touched the onyx trunk and the paper-thin bark crumbled beneath my fingertips, revealing a smooth surface. It reminded me of the time I touched a marble statue. It was hard, but silky soft, too.

Sadness washed over me so suddenly, I wasn’t prepared for it. I had to gasp for air as the memory of my mother’s lifeless body lying in her hospital bed seared my thoughts. She was once beautiful and vibrant, like this tree must have been.

I couldn’t leave this once living thing looking so charred and tattered. Frowning, I stepped forward and rubbed its surface. Bits of blackened bark disintegrated at my touch and fluttered to the earth. When its torso was released from its burnt exterior, I slumped to my knees and dropped my head into my sooty hands.

Completely alone in this dreadful place, I bellowed and my voice echoed off the stony walls. Tears curled off my lashes and splashed onto the roots of the tree. Then I could have sworn the roots spread apart, revealing a dark hollow nook. I wiped my eyes with the edge of my shirt, sure they were playing tricks on me. When I looked again, everything was still.

Hidden within the tree trunk, I made out a rounded shape. I crawled forward and peered into a dark recess at the base of the enormous tree. A black object was entwined in the roots. I reached in, and with effort, pulled it out.

It was unlike anything I had seen before. Its glassy surface shone faintly in the low light and its teardrop shape fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. I had never found anything quite so amazing. It was freezing, and over the next few minutes, only seemed to grow colder. My instinct was to drop it, but instead, I slipped it into my pocket.

I scanned the landscape and noticed a pathway leading off into a narrow valley. There wasn’t anything else here to see, so I stood up, brushed myself off and started walking. Well, stumbling was more like it. I’m not very skilled at hiking in slippers. Guess I need practice.

Ragged cliff walls guided my way to a smooth valley that led me out of the dreary basin. After a few minutes, a faint scratching sound came from the outcroppings above. Although there was no light to see by, I thought I saw gleaming eyes peering down at me. Another shiver ran down my spine and I leaned over to pick up a long, sharp rock. The hair at the back of my neck stood on end while I held out the stone like a dagger, wishing I had a real weapon. I hurried forward and fell over a large boulder, almost swiping my leg with the pointy end of the rock. After that, I slowed a bit, knowing I’d regret it if I didn’t. I tried not to think about bleeding alone in the dark.

The valley’s twists and turns grew wider, until I rounded the final curve and looked out at a horizon covered with hills made of crushed stone. I stepped onto a gravel road and saw a gate nearby along with a guard tower.

I didn’t like where this dream was going. I was starting to feel like one of those unfortunate extras in any TV series who get written in just to be killed off. With a sigh, I trudged onto the road and away from the gate. I stared at a dark peak in the distance while I listened to the scuff, slap, scuff, slap of my slippers as I walked. It was hard to tell how far I had gone, because there weren’t many landmarks to speak of, aside from the scrub brush that lined the road like burs on clothing.

Just when I contemplated throwing myself onto the road and trying to wake up from this mind-numbing experience, a sound snapped me from my thoughts. Hooves clattered and I turned around to see an interesting sight. Four creatures resembling horses were pulling a long wooden carriage, and alongside it, two figures rode on two more of the animals. As they approached, the black horse’s bony silhouettes and silver eyes made me take a step back. The caravan creaked up beside me, stopped, and two men dressed in black leather armor jumped from their mounts.

One soldier walked in front of the other. He stared at me and when his gaze fell on my slippers, his brows knitted into a frown.

“What in the name of all things holy are those? Nigel, look at this odd one.” He pointed at my feet and scratched his head.

His friend joined him and said with a straight face, “Pete, why’s it always us? Last time it was the odd fellow with the painted face carrying the chicken, and now this.”

“Boy, what are you doing out here alone? No one’s allowed to roam around Slag’s territory as they please. Not unless you’ve got orders, or you’ve got a death wish.” Nigel inspected me curiously. “You don’t have orders, do you?”

“Uh, no. Actually, I was just trying to find something – anything. I have no idea where I am.”

Pete piped in and his mustache wiggled as he spoke. “Well, there’s no way to un-see you now. You’ll have to come with us. No one’s allowed out of the city – you should know that. We’ll take you up to Valen. Prince Braylon or Grentin will know what to do with you.”

“What did you say?” I sputtered. Was I dreaming about my story?

“Ah, your innocence won’t help you. Prince Braylon doesn’t take pity on anyone. Even if you look like you belong in a room lined with mattresses so you don’t hurt yourself.” Pete grabbed my arm and dragged me to the back of the carriage, which I now realized was encircled with iron bars. Dirty faces stared down at me as the other soldier unlocked the door.

“Make room for one more!” he hollered and shoved me up the steps and into the carriage prison.

I fell onto my hands and knees as the door clanged shut. The creak of the lock and rustle of footsteps were drowned out by the whispers around me. I felt a hand on my shoulder as I was helped up. A middle-aged man with a cloth cap on his head met my gaze and said, “You’d better sit down, young man.”

No sooner had he spoken than the carriage lurched forward and I toppled onto its dirty wooden floor. Pain stung my knee.

“Ah!” I lifted myself up and slid onto the bench beside the man. My sweats were torn and in the hole I could see a bloody scrape. Gravel bits were lodged inside my flesh. I used the edge of my shirt to brush away the dirt and blood, wincing as I worked.

“You okay, son?” the man beside me asked.

“Sure—never better,” I mumbled as I looked around. Three other men of varying ages were in the carriage with me, and their eyes remained down.

“The name’s Malick.”

“I’m Nim,” I said and shook Malick’s hand.

Malick craned his neck around and whispered, “You look to be around my boy’s age. He was taken by Slag’s men and recruited. That’s why I’m here – turned myself over to his army so I could rescue him. If he’s still the boy I knew…” One of the men shot Malick a wary glance, and he responded with a shake of his head, ignoring the other man’s concern.

“You wanted this?” I looked around uneasily at the iron bars.

Malick gave a short nod, then frowned. “How do you come to be by yourself all the way out in Slag’s territory? A boy as young as yourself should be far away from here. Where’s your family?”

I shrugged and said, “I don’t have any family, except my aunt. Don’t know where I am or how I got here. I’m lost.”

Malick’s eyes darkened. “That’s bad luck, son. I’ll look after you if you can stay close and I’ll help you escape once we find Red.” He straightened and studied the other men in the carriage carefully. Each met his gaze and looked at me in turn.

“Do you know each other?” I asked.

The reaction was immediate. Malick clamped his hand down on my leg, sending painful spasms through my bad knee and the other men glared at me before returning their focus to the dusty wooden floorboards. I felt Malick’s hot breath on my ear as he said in warning, “What are you trying to do? Get us all killed? Keep your voice down.”

“Ow – right, sorry,” I whispered.

Malick let go of me and adjusted his hat to cover his ears. I was sore where his fingers had gripped my leg and my hands drifted down protectively. Malick muttered back, “Sorry about your knee. I’m a bit on edge. This plan is my only hope – Red’s all I got.” He sighed and patted my shoulder. “Nim, these are my friends. They’ve come to help me out.” One by one, the men nodded at me as their names were spoken.

“Hello,” I said under my breath, not wanting to peeve off Malick again.

It was just my luck to get arrested in my slippers. I leaned over to inspect my skinned knee and blew on it like Mom used to do when I was a kid. The cool air lessened the pain. As I watched my blood darken and dry, I couldn’t suppress a nagging thought: What if this isn’t a dream. What if it’s real?

 

Art Imitates Life

 

The landscape from between the bars of my moving prison began to change. Instead of flat rocky fields, pointed stalagmites started to clutter the earth and I thought I saw water glimmering at their bases. A rotten smell filled the air and I couldn’t help but crinkle my nose in disgust. Who would want to choose to live here? Oscar the grouch, or maybe my old PE teacher, Mr. Miller.

I pinched my nostrils with my fingers and realized the dark pointed spire I’d been walking toward before getting put into the carriage had disappeared. “Hey – where’d that tower go?”

One of Malick’s friends shook his head as though I’d just fallen off the turnip cart and pointed through the bars. I turned and craned my neck to see a huge castle perched on a rocky hill. The road was leading straight for it and we were close.

Voices and clanging grew louder as we neared the outskirts of a town. I clutched the iron bars and tried to see ahead of the carriage. More soldiers on horseback trotted past us, saluting the men leading our caravan. Signs hung over shadowy doorways, announcing taverns and lodging to passersby. Other storefronts appeared to have been long since closed and were boarded up: the butcher shop, bookstore and apothecary. Men dressed in black leather armor wandered through the streets and none of them seemed to notice the faces peering out at them from inside our carriage.

I was struck by the fact that there were no women or children here. The faces I saw were dark and angry. There were no smiles or words of friendship in this place. Everything was bleak and hopeless. No color in this world, unless you considered black a color.

“Nim, stay awake. We’re almost there. We’ll be in the dungeons soon enough, and hopefully one step closer to freeing my boy,” Malick whispered into my ear. He adjusted his dusty blue tunic and rested his hands on his knees.

Minutes later, the carriage stopped, making all its prisoners sway toward the front. Men called out from nearby, “More recruits!”

Keys jangled and boots scuffed on the gravel outside. The door swung open. With an annoyed scowl, Pete said, “All right, one at a time. Let’s go.”

Around me, the prisoners stood up and Malick waved for me to follow suit. I shuffled to my feet and squeezed in behind him. One at a time, we filtered out of the carriage and onto a large gravel drive. The enormous stone building loomed above us.

Down the road, a tower rose into the gloomy cloud cover, disappearing from sight. The castle walls wrapped around its base and seemed impenetrable. Wind blew past, whistling in my ears and I shivered as a chill touched my bare skin.

Guards walked out to meet our group, and I felt their curious stares as they studied my clothing. I focused on my ratty slippers and gave an unhappy sigh. Anything would have been better than what I was wearing now and I had a feeling things were only going to get colder in the stone castle. Wasn’t this enough misery for one dream?

“Oy! Pay attention—fall into line. You try anythin’ you’ll get run through, you hear me?”

Startled to find a rotund guard yelling at me, I hurried to catch up to Malick, who had already begun to walk through a doorway. We were guided down two flights of stairs and at each level it seemed to grow even colder.

Rather than continuing further into the bowels of the castle, we turned through another doorway. Rows of iron bars lined a large room, creating four prison cells. A crowd of people were already in them, except one, and they moved back against the rocky walls as we approached.

“Brought you some friends,” one of the guards said as he pulled a large key ring from his belt. He unlocked the empty cell and shoved Malick’s friends inside. “Well, are yeh waitin’ for an invitation? Get in—but don’t get comfortable. We’ll be back to sort you out.”

What did that mean? I didn’t get to wonder too long, because the guard grabbed me by the arm, tossed me inside along with the others and locked the door. Malick caught me just as I ran into him.

I watched the grumpy soldiers filter out of the room as I rubbed my arm, and then I took in my surroundings. If I had ever been unhappy with my old room, this was reason enough to be thankful. The prison cell was dirty, dark and cold—and filled with sooty, gloomy prisoners. Mom, on repeated occasions, had encouraged me to find the silver lining of a situation. If I had to find one now, I would have to say it was the bale of hay to sit on, but it smelled like it was the bathroom to a family of mice and before I knew it, I was counting all the reasons why I was ready to wake up.

“Nim, don’t get settled. We won’t be here long.” Malick muttered to me.

I shrugged. That was doubtful, based on my bad luck. I imagined a conversation with Aunt Holly: “Hey Nim, how’d you sleep?” “Oh great. I dreamt I sat in a cold prison for eight hours. And you?”

But the thing was, I was starting to question that this was really a dream. Crazy, I know, but everything seemed so real. The strangest thing – the thing that bugged me the most – was the fact I appeared to be in my story. How was that possible? It wasn’t, so clearly I was going crazy. Like, lock-me-up-and-keep-me-from-society-because-I-might-start-speaking-gibberish crazy.

“Nim?” Malick’s voice pulled me from my thoughts.

“Yeah?”

“You all right?”

Just awesome.

Time for some answers. “So where are we?” I figured I’d start with the basics.

“We’re in the city of Valen, or what’s left of it. Under King Slag’s control it’s become a sad and depressing place.”

“King Slag?” That was too close for comfort.

“Aye, a self-appointed king. For a long time he kept to his own land to the north, but as he grew more powerful, poisoning the innocent with his evil magic, he’s spread like a sickness.”

My curiosity peaked and I asked, “And, what’s up with that huge tower?”

“That’s where Prince Braylon keeps Princess Amerovia, the poor dear.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I glanced over at a couple of the other prisoners, who shared a knowing look and continued to stare at the cold stone floor. The soft whispers from the neighboring cells quieted when her name was spoken and dirty faces turned toward us.

Exactly as I had written it. It wasn’t completely uncommon for me to dream about my stories, so this wouldn’t be off base. But it just didn’t feel right. I hadn’t filled in any details about this ghost town or the characters I was with now. I had only set the scene. I groaned and dropped my forehead into my hands. Where was this all taking me?

“Er, you okay son?”

I slowly straightened up and blinked. I was so far from okay, it wasn’t funny, but there was no need to let Malick know just how mentally unbalanced I was. I flashed a cheesy grin at him and heard him mutter under his breath, “Kids.”

Whatever was going on, I was going to get to the bottom of it. “So, why does he keep her prisoner?” I asked.

“You’re clearly not from our land if you don’t know their story. It is a long and tragic one. They were once in love and set to be married. Their union was going to bind the neighboring kingdoms. Prince Braylon was appointed to the throne here in Valen after his parents died, and Princess Amerovia is King Richard’s daughter.” My blank stares prompted Malick to give a more detailed response. “He is the ruler of Revel Green, the land from where we come.”

“Get to the good part, Malick. No need to bore the boy with the details,” one of Malick’s friends chimed in.

“Oy, if you’d stop interrupting me, I could get to it,” Malick shot over his shoulder. “So, the prince was always a bit of a daredevil – I hear the ladies like that in a man. Well, anyway, he and the princess were out for a ride and they traveled too close to the outskirts of Slag’s territory where they were ambushed. Prince Braylon’s heart was pierced with the magic from Slag’s staff, and since then, Braylon’s been under the evil one’s control. Princess Amerovia was taken prisoner and bound before she could use her magic to help.”

“The princess has magic?” I was surprised, I had never written anything like that. To be honest, I hadn’t written most of this. Definitely a dream.

“Indeed. You see, the Elder Tree is the life force of our land and Princess Amerovia is linked to it with magic. It is her job to keep it healthy. From every generation, a child is born that is linked to it and when one protector dies, a new one is born to take his or her place. Only the protector can heal the tree and tap into its energy. Since the tree was killed and drained of power, the princess can do nothing but sit in her tower alone.”

I assumed he was talking about the tree I’d seen earlier. “How was it killed?” I asked, frowning.

“There you go leaving out the important parts, confusing the boy,” one of the men said from the corner of our cell.

“We may not be in our land anymore, but I’m still your commanding officer. Leave a man to tell a story in peace, would you?” Malick responded. He ignored the muffled comments that followed and instead, looked at me. “The Elder Tree was set ablaze right after the princess was captured, but without her there to heal it, the earth began to die and a deep sadness fell over the hearts of her people.” Malick pulled off his cap and squeezed it in his hands.

I was mesmerized. My story was so much richer than I had written it, or even imagined. My curiosity took over and I wanted answers. I leaned forward and asked, “Isn’t there a way she can still save the land?”

“It is said that the Elder Tree has a seed within its roots that, if planted by the protector – our dear princess – will reawaken the tree. But King Richard has sent me and my men to search it many times over and we never found such seed. I’m not sure if he’s in his right mind anymore – he may only wish it so he has some kind of hope to hold onto. But even if it were real, it must surely be dead since so much time has passed. The sad ending to this story is, since the princess is the only one who can heal the tree and save our land, and she’s locked up tight in her tower, we may never see the light of the sun again.”

I remembered the black shiny stone I had found in the trees roots. “You ever seen it? What’s it look like?”

“The seed? It is said it glows blue and is warm like the sun on a summer’s day.”

Well, I definitely didn’t have the Elder Seed in my pocket then.

There had to be a way for this story to end well. I thought of the beautiful face I had pictured when I wrote the princess’s character. If I could catch a glimpse of her, this dream couldn’t be so bad. “Why hasn’t King Richard tried rescuing her from her tower?”

A noise outside the room echoed down the hall and he paused for a moment. When it became clear nobody was there, Malick continued in a soft voice, “Everything is in deadlock. Prince Braylon convinced King Slag it was in his best interest to keep her in the tower as a threat to her father. King Richard has a mighty army, but his weakness is his daughter. As long as she’s safe in her tower, he will not fight. Slag made it clear if any step was made to free her or attack Valen, he would throw her from her tower. But we all know he’s more concerned with the problem it would make for him if he were to kill the Elder Tree’s protector.”

It all made sense. “You mean, then he’d have to find the next born protector?”

Malick beamed at me and turned to his friends. “See, he’s a smart kid. He wouldn’t have followed if I weren’t a good storyteller. Always giving me a hard time.”

“But what about Braylon? Think he loves her still, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t want her killed?”

Malick’s voice echoed off the icy walls. “Could be why he never executed her like he was ordered to. There may be a small part of Braylon’s heart that didn’t turn to stone – that still beats for her. But it’s not enough to make a difference.”

“What about Braylon. Is there a way to change him back?”

“If the Elder Tree wasn’t dead, I suppose there’d be hope, but we can’t turn back time now. Once you’ve been pierced by Slag’s staff, there’s no coming ‘round. That’s why I must find my son quickly. Any who defy King Slag share in Prince Braylon’s fate.”

Malick seemed to remember the crowd of other inmates in the neighboring cells and lowered his eyes. He sat next to me on the bale of hay and waited a few minutes until the other men listening decided there wasn’t anything further to hear and went back to their previous conversations. He tilted his head toward me and said in my ear, “If you want to escape with us, you must listen carefully to my instructions. This plan won’t work if any one thing goes wrong…”

Well, then he definitely shouldn’t have included me in the plan. My bad luck had clearly followed me into this strange, twisted dream. All I wanted at this point was to wake up. This place was depressing. I had already gotten hurt and jailed. What next?

“You listening, Nim? Braylon’s men should be coming back soon to sort us. The fools who resist enlistment are pierced with Slag’s staff to ensure full cooperation. If I taught my boy right, he should have pledged loyalty without going that route. I’m counting on it, in fact. You must show fealty to Braylon and Slag’s army. My son was taken only a few days ago, so he should be in training now. We have a man on the inside that will leave a grate to the sewers unlatched. A carriage will be waiting for us at the outlet. Stick with us and we should make it out. Let’s hope Braylon isn’t there, because he knows I’m a general in King Richard’s army. That would change the situation right quick. I wouldn’t want to risk Amerovia’s safety. Wouldn’t want Slag thinking we were here to rescue the princess.” Malick looked at the other men who had joined us in our carriage ride, standing protectively around us now.

“Um, okay. Let’s hope Braylon’s not there then.” I hoped the raincloud over my head wouldn’t affect the outcome, either.

“Good lad. How’s your knee doing? Not going to slow you down, I hope?”

I looked at my dirty, torn sweats and stretched my leg. My knee stung, but I figured it wouldn’t stop me from busting out of jail, or whatever this place was.

“Should be okay.”

I let my head drop back to rest against the iron bars behind me and I tried to get comfortable, which was near impossible. I sat like that for a while before clanking sounds echoed from outside the room. All of the prisoners faced the doorway, and I wondered what would happen next.

 

The Escape

 

“Time to get you sorted,” a guard said as he walked into the dank chamber. “Let’s go.” Five more guards dressed in black leather uniforms followed behind him. The guard fumbled with a set of keys and opened our cell.

Malick helped me to my feet and my knee stung when my leg straightened. The others filtered out of the cell ahead of me and I wandered after them. Guards flanked us as we were led up the spiral staircase one level and then down a long corridor into a large room. It looked to be an armory with weapons sorted on racks at the far corner. More guards lined the room, making it clear there was no way to escape.

I lined up beside Malick as we were instructed to stop before a stout, hairy man. He must have been important because his uniform was gray, not black like the others. He walked the length of our line and stopped before each of us, giving an icy stare. I hoped this was not Prince Braylon and eyed Malick for some sign of recognition.

“I’m Lord Grentin. I’m here to determine if you’re fit to be a part of Slag’s army, where you would best serve our King and if your heart is in it. Or not.” Lord Grentin smirked as he emphasized the word and said, “I admit, it’s a little more fun when new recruits aren’t excited to join up. Either way, it’s win-win for me.”

I was relieved for our sake that this wasn’t Prince Braylon, but on the other hand, Lord Grentin didn’t seem like a puppy lover. Lord Grentin paused before me and frowned. He reached out and touched my t-shirt with his gloved fingertips. “What exactly are you wearing?”

My heart raced as I considered my answer. Was this where my dream would end – when I died at the hands of my captor? I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak, “I, um…”

Lord Grentin’s eyes narrowed and before I was allowed to stumble over my unconvincing answer he asked, “Where do you come by? Where are you from?”

Rather than trying to make up some silly lie, I told the truth. “I’m from Portland.”

My interrogator turned away, wandered over to a long table and perched on its edge. I felt more than his eyes on me. Everyone in the room was now focused on the strange boy standing in his slippers and sweats. I must have seemed as out of place as a clown at a wedding.

“Never heard of Port Land. Is it a place of trade? Near the sea?”

“Um – yeah, sure,” I said, shrugging.

“And how did you get here?” As Lord Grentin spoke, one of the guards stepped forward. I recognized Pete as one of the men who’d detained me from the endless, gravel road. He said something into Grentin’s ear and returned to his place. “I understand you were found wandering alone on the road to Valen in Slag’s Kingdom. Why were you there and how did you get there?”

Malick gave me a gentle nudge without taking his gaze away from the wall ahead of us. I didn’t know what to say. The truth wouldn’t get me anywhere. Maybe it was time to lie. I was good at thinking up stories, just bad at talking to people. My voice shook as I muttered, “I was traveling with my aunt but she wanted to stay in Revel Green. It was boring there so I left her to go look for some excitement. Since I’m not from here, I didn’t know where I was.”

Lord Grentin seemed to consider my story for a moment and continued with another question. “Do you wish to get back to her, then?”

Again my heart thundered in my chest as I tried to think fast. I recalled Malick’s advice and warning. I should show loyalty to Slag if I was going to be able to stick with Malick and try to escape. The problem was selling my lies. My palms were sweaty and I couldn’t stop staring at my feet. “Um, she’s fine. I want to find purpose. Something to fight for.”

“Really? What would you fight for?” Lord Grentin’s jaw clenched. “Glory, wealth, honor?”

I heard the edge in his voice and became wary. I exhaled a shaky breath and scrambled to think of a useful answer, one that wouldn’t land me in more trouble. “Power.”

The response was nearly immediate. Lord Grentin smirked as he tipped off the table and sauntered over to me. His thick hand clapped my shoulder, sending me off balance and he boomed in laughter. “Not sure a strange kid like yourself will get far, but I can find a place for you, boy. What are you good at?” As he squinted at me, I was aware of every inch of my oversized, gawky body. I was as good a soldier as a rabid cougar was a pet. “Husbandry, cooking, metal smithing…or hunting?”

“I can handle a bow well,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to prove it before our escape.

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

Lord Grentin appeared to be through with me as he began to interrogate the other men in line. My pulse slowed and I swallowed, relief flooding through me. I had made it through without any terrible incident.

After he questioned everyone else, who all declared their undying loyalty to the faceless villain, Slag, we were sent to the training barracks. Men and boys of varying ages filled the multi-level building. I saw a few who looked even younger than me and by their expressions it was clear they were frightened and would rather be home with their families or picking daisies somewhere. There was a hint of something else that was familiar to me: hopelessness.

Malick leaned in and whispered, “My boy’s about your age. Name’s Red. He’s got blue eyes, and like his name, he’s got red hair – hard to miss. I’m going to start looking for him. You do the same, if you would.” He stepped away from me and muttered what I assumed were the same instructions to the others in his rescue party. They parted ways and disappeared amongst the milling soldiers.

“Oy, you!”

I turned around and straight into a tubby man who was about my height. He thrust a uniform into my arms and at just about the same time, his foul breath hit me like a punch in the face. I winced involuntarily and wished I had a breath mint to offer him as he said, “Put these on before you get whipped for wearing…whatever that is.”

“Thanks.” I ducked away for a breath of fresh air and hurried off to find a safe place to change. I didn’t go far before I found the entry to the sleeping quarters. A huge stone building with row upon row of bunks filled the first level. As I wound my way through, I bumped into another boy around my age. He excused himself and started to walk away when I got enough confidence to call after him, “Hey, is your name Red?”

The boy looked over his shoulder and said, “Naw, do I look like a Red?”

“You know him?”

He frowned at me and kept on going. Great, well I assumed that meant he didn’t. I headed to the corner, avoiding eye contact with all of the men I passed. I’m pretty good at looking like I have somewhere important to go so people leave me alone. It’s a skill I’ve perfected with time. If you can call it a skill.

Soon I found a private spot to change. I was thankful to cover up my sweats and t-shirt, which weren’t nearly warm enough for the temperatures in this frigid place and far too conspicuous. My slippers were ditched under a bunk as I buttoned up my leather jacket. The uniform came with a pair of boots that I discovered were too big, but I figured that was better than being too small. I sat on the bed behind me and tried drawing the laces as tightly as I could to help secure my feet inside.

“They too big?”

A voice startled me and I looked up into the face of a boy around my age. He leaned over and dropped something on the floor.

“Try stuffing these into the toes.”

“Thanks,” I answered, grabbing what I realized were wadded up fabric scraps. I gave them a cautious sniff.

“I didn’t clean the outhouse with them or anything. Go on.”

I loosened my laces and stuffed the padding into my boots. When I looked at him again I noticed his scruffy red hair. “I’m Nim. What’s your name?”

“They call me Red. You a new recruit?”

“Uh, yeah. Say, someone was looking for you.”

The addition of the padding in the boots made all the difference of the world, and after I was done, I jumped up, ready to lead Red to his father. I started walking and realized he wasn’t following.

Red’s eyes filled with worry and he seemed to be debating internally about coming with me or not. I didn’t want to make a scene or draw attention to us, so I jogged back over to him and said under my breath, “Malick’s looking for you. You should really come with me.”

The boy sputtered and said, “Father? He’s here? I was worried it was the captain – I haven’t exactly been working my hardest in training. He threatened to whip me earlier.”

I didn’t want to stay here long enough to meet the captain who had made such an impression on Red. “Quiet down. Your dad has a plan, but we need to find him first. Let’s go.”

With Red following right behind me, we made our way out of the sleeping quarters and began searching through the entire barracks for his father. It didn’t take long before I recognized Malick’s face across the room. His eyes locked onto us and he waved us over.

“C’mon, I see him,” I said and led the way.

As we neared Malick, he shot a warning glance to his son, who shoved past me and ran to his side. Red hung his head and I was surprised he wasn’t in a better mood.

“Father, I’m sorry. I should have listened to you and stayed away from the borders. Getting myself caught was foolish.”

Malick clapped him on the back and leaned down to look him in the eye. “Listen to me, boy. I’m not about to lose any other kin to Slag. Losing your mother was unbearable. I don’t want to think about losing you, too. We won’t say another word about it. I think you’ve learned your lesson.”

Red’s chin lifted and he gave a half smile. “I hoped you’d come for me. I’m just surprised you’re here. Didn’t think King Richard would let you come for me.”

“Well, he didn’t exactly give his blessings, but don’t worry about that now. I’m just glad to see you safe.”

“I did as you said and pledged myself to Slag rather than have my heart turned to stone,” Red said as he hooked his thumbs under his belt.

“Good boy. Now, let’s not draw attention to ourselves. We have a plan, and we need to move at nightfall, which is nearing quickly. My men are securing our escape route.” Malick turned his attention to me. “Thanks for finding my son, Nim. I see you’ve got yourself a uniform – have to say it’s an improvement on your other gear.”

“Yeah. Don’t think I’ll get on the cover of GQ anytime soon, but it’ll keep me warm.”

Malick frowned in response, but instead of asking about my meaning, he changed the subject. “Red, when’s mealtime? It’ll be our perfect opportunity.”

“Shortly. All the men will go down to the great hall.”

I recognized the faces of the men who’d accompanied us in the carriage walking over to us. They pulled Malick aside and spoke to him. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but hoped everything was going to plan. My stomach was rumbling and demanding food. Even though a warm meal sounded good, I just wanted to get out of this place. I’d take Aunt Holly’s Thai food over this nightmare anytime.

A loud clang sounded from somewhere nearby, and the soldiers around us began to filter out of the barracks. I sidestepped closer to Red, Malick and his men, not wanting to lose sight of them.

“All is ready,” Malick muttered. “Stay close.”

He walked forward, staying behind a slew of black uniformed soldiers. We followed after him, and into an open courtyard. The rest of Slag’s forces continued across the open space and into another large building. Instead of following them in, Malick veered off down a side alley and stood at a metal grate in the ground. His friends rushed to his side and they all slid the heavy iron bars to the side, making enough room for a body to pass through.

“In you go – through the sewers is the best way out.”

Red immediately dropped through the opening and I was led to the abyss next. I didn’t like the idea of escaping through a sewer. Just the thought of it, along with my empty stomach, made me queasy.

“What’s wrong, boy? Don’t you want your freedom?” Malick shoved me forward.

Was that a trick question? I stumbled and fell through the black opening, landing with a splash in frigid water. Red grunted as I bumped into him. The darkness around us seeped everywhere and fear penetrated my senses. I couldn’t see anything but the gray light above me coming from the grating. Water (and I don’t want to imagine what else) splattered onto me as more men dropped into the dank underground shaft.

Malick’s voice echoed off the walls. “Everyone all right?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “Follow me – our way’s not far.”

He splashed ahead of us, and I struggled to hold my breath and keep up, not wanting to breathe in the fetid air or stay too long in this disgusting place. All I could think of was taking a hot shower when I woke up from this all-too realistic dream. I’d heard of people saying strange things about eating or drinking certain things that would produce bad dreams. No more coffee for me…

After what felt like an eternity, a dull light shone ahead of Malick at the end of the tunnel. I stopped when I saw the silhouette of a man holding a lantern.

“Oy, Samuel. Good man,” Malick said to the person just outside the passage.

I breathed a sigh of relief and walked forward. One by one, we jumped from the wet onto a gravel road. Samuel rushed to an awaiting open carriage and hollered out, “Hurry up, let’s get a move on!”

The lantern was hung from a post as Samuel jumped up at the front and grabbed the reins. I was half pushed and pulled into the back of the carriage along with Red and the others. No sooner had the last man leapt into the back than the horses surged forward and their clacking hooves crunched on the rocky earth.

My wet leather uniform squeezed against my skin and if I could have seen my numb fingers, I’m sure they would have been pruney and wrinkled. At our rapid pace, the bitter cold brushed against my sodden body, freezing me to the core.

Suddenly, I was exhausted. The rhythmic clatter of hooves and wheels moving along the road lulled me until my eyes shut. I must have dozed off because I woke suddenly from shouting.

“Stop! You may not pass! Get out!”

The carriage stopped suddenly and I was pressed against whoever was sitting beside me. As soon as I recovered my balance, I leaned out to see what was happening.

A gate blocked our way and a soldier wearing one of Slag’s uniforms was standing before it. He called out again for us to get out and it was then I noticed more soldiers approaching our carriage.

The place seemed familiar to me, but it was dark so I couldn’t quite be sure. Malick and his friends leaned over on their seats and drew out something from under their feet. Metal gleamed in the lamp light and I hoped their swords would be enough to help us through the roadblock. They climbed down from the carriage to speak to Slag’s soldiers. I edged over toward Red, unsure if we should get out as well.

“Out! All of you – out!” a man called from the side of the road.

Red and I eyed each other nervously before jumping down. I stayed near the rear of the carriage, not wanting to be noticed.

Voices rose again, but I couldn’t hear the conversation, which was fine with me. I would have been happy to disappear about now. This dream had gone on long enough. Aiming for inconspicuousness, I edged back around the opposite side of the carriage where everyone had gathered. To my relief, the darkness hid my presence. I stared off to the side of the road and recognized a pathway leading off into a valley. I decided to run for it.

I made it to the safety of the rocky passage before tripping over a rock. Instinct took over and I thrust my hands out to catch myself. My palms met the dusty earth and pain followed. I grunted involuntarily and then bit my lip, hoping no one had heard. I remained still, waiting to see if I was being pursued. No. The muffled voices I heard were coming from the other side of the carriage. I jumped to my feet, brushed myself off and bumbled along the dark trail.

Thankfully, the passage wasn’t very wide, and it guided me to its end. When I walked into the large basin, I made out the crooked, inky figure of the charred tree. I was back to where my adventure had started and I couldn’t help but sigh in relief. Now what?

Beam me up, Scottie.

Just then, a glimmering light caught my attention. Beyond the tree, the rectangular outline shimmered in the dark. What was it?

I edged forward, cautious, until I stood an arm’s length away and reached out my finger to touch it. My hand was bathed in light. It wasn’t painful, but tickled.

Feeling strangely courageous, I stepped through the iridescent archway and my whole body vibrated with sensation. Bright light surrounded me so I couldn’t see anything – not the tree, the darkness around me or even my own body and I closed my eyes, hoping it would all end.

 

Nim’s Secret

 

My skin prickled and I had the sensation of being pulled through a wind tunnel. When the flurry of activity was over, I opened one of my eyes, prepared for the worst.

It was dark – that much was clear – but it wasn’t the same frigid, lifeless terrain I had just been trudging through. I was in Grandpa’s study. The light wasn’t on and daylight no longer streamed in through its small window.

Well, I must have slept the day away.

I was standing near the rolltop desk, so I walked over and switched on the lamp. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw my scrawled writing decorating the paper. The gold pen lay to the side of it. I wondered what time it was. Surely it had to be near dinner or close to it. Automatically, I lifted my wrist to check my watch, but it wasn’t there.

It was that moment I noticed what I was wearing. My ratty sweats and worn t-shirt were gone and in their place, a leather tunic and pants covered my body. Instead of my slippers, I had on a pair of heavy, too-large boots. I wiggled my toes and felt the wadded up fabric press against them.

Schnikey.

This wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. There was no such thing as magic or whatever this was. Most importantly, things like this didn’t happen to me. They just didn’t.

Had Aunt Holly slipped me something weird in my breakfast? I thought of the gross mushrooms in last night’s dinner and wondered if I should call the FDA. I would have thought I was hallucinating if it weren’t for the fact I was able to touch, see and smell (thanks to my sewer experience) my black leather uniform.

A glint of gold drew my attention. It was then that I knew it, believed it in my heart. The pen was responsible for all of this. I recalled holding it in my fingertips and saying the words etched along the length of its decorative sheath, then the light and strange sensation of all my cells being transported to a different world, a different place.

Was I the first person to experience this? Did Grandpa know he had a magical pen? I thought of his bright eyes as he read his stories to me in this very room so many years ago. I felt like he was actually here with me. I could imagine his raspy voice describing the world he had just created.

I picked up my cell phone from the desk and coughed when I saw the time. It was nearly six o’clock. I wasn’t sure when I’d gone into the story, but knew it was sometime after eleven, because I had checked the time just before I’d stopped writing. With my phone in my hand, I turned away from the desk and stood in the center of the room, unsure what to do next. As far as Aunt Holly knew, I stayed in the attic all day. There was no way I could tell her about this – she’d think I was crazy. Losing it from the stress of Mom dying. Then there’d be all sorts of therapy appointments and I’d have to talk about my feelings. Yeah, I wasn’t about to let that happen.

First thing I needed to do was to stow away my leather uniform. I didn’t want to be seen in it. I mean, she’d think I was trying out for a Shakespearean play or something. This outfit was not screaming rock star.

I slipped off the oversized boots and stiff clothing, and breathed a sigh of relief when I was back down to my sweats and t-shirt. I folded everything up tidily like Mom showed me and I set them in a pile in the corner of the room. My feet grew cold on the bare boards and all I could think of was taking a hot shower. Dirt covered my hands and feet. I couldn’t imagine what I looked like, but I knew firsthand that after a long day of trudging through a dusty world I smelled like an onion sandwich left out in the sun.

Without a second glance, I switched off the desk lamp and skulked down the attic steps. I wondered where Aunt Holly was and if she’d come looking for me at all. On my way to my room, I found my answer. She was asleep on a padded chair that sat in front of her easel. Tubes of paints were strewn out beside her on a small side table. Without making a sound, I walked into my room and grabbed some fresh clothes.

All I could think about was cleaning myself off. The memory of trudging through the sewers was enough to make me gag. At least it hadn’t been bright enough to see much; it was only the smells that lingered in my thoughts. As I pushed into the bathroom, the yellow paint on the walls and the bright light made me squint after a long day of no color. I never thought I’d be as happy to see a bathroom as I was in that moment. As I slipped out of my smelly clothing, something clattered across the tiled floor.

I bent over and discovered a dark object that looked like a rock. If it weren’t for its smoothed edges and almond shape I would have just tossed it into the trash, but I paused with it in my palm. Just as it was when I found it protected in the roots of the charred tree, it was frigid to the touch. I ran some warm water over it in the bathroom sink, scrubbing it clean. Even in the water, its temperature didn’t change, but what appeared to be a black piece of glass before now glimmered with dark iridescence. Before I jumped into the shower, I set the stone on the counter and wondered how I could have found such a beautiful thing in such a lifeless place.

When I stepped under the hot water, my palms and knee flared up in pain. It took a minute for the stinging to fade and I carefully washed away the grime and smells that coated my skin. I even washed my hair twice (for the first time in my life).

“Nim?” Aunt Holly’s voice called out from the other side of the door.

A stream of water poured over my face and I answered, “Yeah?”

“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I took a nap and lost track of time. It’s about dinner time – you hungry? Haven’t seen you all day. You okay?”

That was subjective. I’d been magically transported to another land, and now that I thought about it, I was lucky to have made it back at all. Even through the hot steam, goose bumps raised on my arms as I considered the fact I could have been killed in that horrible place.

“I’m fine.”

“I bet you’re starved. I can whip up some wicked burritos if you give me ten minutes.”

Her voice trailed off and I assumed she was on her way down to the kitchen to make good on her offer. I was thankful, because after a day of adventuring on an empty stomach, the tremors and rumbles coming from my belly could have broken a seismometer. Look out Portland – it’s a 10.0 earthquake.

With my hunger in the forefront of my mind, I finished up and dashed to my room. The offensively dirty sweats and tee were crammed into my hamper and I set the interesting rock on the desk in my room. I couldn’t think very deeply about my adventure, not with the lure of dinner downstairs.

Aunt Holly watched me eat my second burrito in silent awe. I’m not even sure I chewed. I didn’t stop eating until my stomach gave me a warning rumble and I rested my forehead on my arm and groaned.

“Wow – guess you like burritos. Want anything else? A sandwich or a steak?”

I actually considered it until I realized she was joking. “Haha. How’m I supposed to grow without food?”

“I’m fine with you eating a lot, but I should give you a mirror so you can see what you look like while you’re chewing. Your technique needs some work. You may not care now, but later on you’ll discover girls don’t like dating cave men.” Aunt Holly handed me a napkin.

“Girls? Who said anything about girls?” My cheeks flushed at the absurdity. “Uh, I think I’m going to call it a night. I’m exhausted.” And I meant it. My body ached all over, especially my knee and palms. I wasn’t used to sitting in dungeons, escaping capture or taking day trips to fantasy worlds.

“Probably a good idea since tomorrow’s Monday – first day of school.”

Ugh. She had to remind me. What I needed was a vacation from my life – nothing like what I experienced today. The thought of exposing myself to ridicule from other twelve-year-olds actually made me nauseous.

“Want a backrub? I remember how you used to love having your back rubbed at bedtime. Or maybe you’re too old now?” Aunt Holly frowned and looked at me.

To be honest, a backrub sounded perfect, but I was too embarrassed to say yes. All I really needed was to fall into bed and sleep for a year and with luck she’d forget about school tomorrow. “Naw – I’ve grown out of backrubs. Thanks anyway. Night.”

I stood up to leave and she cleared her throat. “Forgetting something?”

I stared at her blankly.

“Your plate. It doesn’t belong on the table. I’m not your maid. I made dinner – you get to do the dishes. You owe me years of servitude for getting your tablet fixed, remember?”

I groaned and willed myself forward. I collected all the dirty dishes, brushed them off in the sink and threw them into the dishwasher. Okay, I wasn’t going to earn any tips for my thoroughness, but at least it was done.

As I finished with the last dish, Aunt Holly walked up to me and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. “Thanks Nim.”

“Night, Aunt Holly.”

I dragged myself up to my room and barely pulled the covers up before my body gave out. Before I fell into a sleep coma, I decided with certainty that I would never use the pen again. It was too dangerous and unpredictable. I was lucky I’d made it out alive. There would be no more adventuring for me. I preferred a quiet and uneventful life.

 

Into Hiding

 

Monday, my suffering only continued.

Aunt Holly not only remembered I had school, she woke me up extra early to make sure I was ready (nothing she could do would make me ready). She excitedly packed a sack lunch for me and I stowed it in my backpack.

“The school’s not far – only a couple blocks away, but I’d feel better driving you,” she said and plucked her keys off the hook. I wondered only for a moment if it would have been better staying in my fantasy world instead of facing my real life.

On our way there, we passed other fancy Victorian homes and kids walking on the sidewalk. There was no way I’d fit in with this crowd. I have a style all my own, but I’ve been told that wasn’t a good thing. I’m not a cut model type. I’m more of a dorky Mr. Rogers, if he wore hoodies and jeans all the time.

My cheeks flushed as Aunt Holly pulled up in the lot at school. This was going to be painful.

She walked me into the office like a child and introduced me to the receptionist, who fake-smiled at me like she’d seen far too many kids in her life to care about one more.

“If you think you’ll be okay, then I’ll meet you out front after school. Good luck, Nim,” Aunt Holly said and gave me a hug, adding insult to injury.

I pulled back. “No – can you meet me down at the stop sign instead?”

“Of course. See you later.”

She turned and left as the receptionist walked around her desk and said in a flat tone, “Come with me. I’ll show you to your locker and first class.” She pressed my schedule into my hand as she walked past me.

We got jostled and bumped by passing students and every time the receptionist was touched she recoiled like she’d been exposed to the plague. After taking a closer look at a few of the kids, I didn’t blame her. She stopped and pointed at one of the lockers in the packed hallway. “Number three-sixty-two is yours. The combination is written on your schedule. Moving on.”

Two boys were leaning up against that section of lockers and seemed to be passing the time pointing out all the good looking girls as they walked by. Great, I’d have to avoid my locker as much as possible. At least if I wanted to avoid my IQ dropping below the level of a snail. The ringleader noticed me staring at him and said, “What’s up? You brain damaged?” Like I was saying.

Clearly, the receptionist meant business and had nearly disappeared around the corner when I hauled out of there. She must have wanted get back to the safety of her desk. When I caught up to her she pointed at a door down the hall, and I muttered. “Thanks, I can take it from here.”

I slipped into the room unnoticed, and took a seat in the back of the class. My neck flushed when my locker neighbor walked into the room. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me, but of course the teacher felt it was necessary to introduce me to the class.

“Dude, your name’s Nimrod?” my locker neighbor said. “How sardonic.”

Dude, I think you mean ironic. What a tool.

“Good one, Daryn.” His buddy congratulated him, giving him a high-five.

Once again, my name provided the jerks a way to tease me without having to come up with an imaginative insult. I used to tell my mom I wished she hadn’t named me after Grandpa and had chosen something else like John or Jason, something strong that didn’t humiliate on introduction. After the first couple times, though, I stopped because she got so upset. My name meant ‘great hunter’, but try telling that to a bunch of flunkies.

When I walked into Mr. Hill’s homeroom for second period, I hoped my luck had turned. I’d never seen a teacher wear Converse sneakers before; that was a first. Plus, I gathered from his ‘Thesaurus Rex’ t-shirt he was a literature geek. He looked like he was just out of college and most of the girls seemed to have a serious crush on him. It was like sitting in a classroom with cats watching a laser beam move around the room. But his lesson didn’t disappoint, which I was pretty happy about.

During lunch break, I checked to see if my locker was clear. It wasn’t. Daryn and his sidekick were back to their spot, laughing at something I could only guess was as thrilling as a good booger joke. I tried to walk past unnoticed, but soon I heard Daryn calling out, “Nimrod’s just another word for stupid – did you know that? Probably not. Don’t you know, he’s stupid.”

This was why Mom let me stay home. So I wouldn’t have to go through this. I wished I could come up with some brilliant comment to shut them down, but finding my voice in the moment was as likely as my chance of winning the lotto. Wasn’t ever gonna happen.

Just when I could have used a broom closet to hide in, I came across the library. I slipped inside and felt instant relief. It was quiet and I knew I wouldn’t run into any other tools. Without my tablet, I’d have to check out a paperback, because squinting at my phone’s small screen just wasn’t going to do it.

I found the fantasy section and picked a novel I hadn’t read before, dropped my book bag onto an empty table and slid into a chair. Between my hair and the hood of my jacket, which was pulled over my head, I had plenty of cover. I set the book down and began reading.

“Oh my God. Do you see what she’s wearing?”

“That scarf looks like a dog’s chew toy. Hideous.”

“You are so bad, Claire.”

I glanced up and noticed three girls who must have been lost because they didn’t seem like the types who voluntarily went into libraries. Then, sure enough, I saw one hand some papers to the librarian and snicker.

I turned around to look at who they were teasing. A girl with long black hair pulled into a high ponytail was sitting across the room and smirking back at them. She had on some black and white stripped tights with a purple dress that appeared to belong to a different decade. A ratty scarf was wrapped around her neck and had definitely seen better days. “Gosh, Claire, I’m surprised you know how to get to the library. Do you want me to draw you a map out of here? Or should I call your mom to pick you up?” She blew them a kiss and the three girls spun around to leave.

The black haired girl noticed me staring and her lips turned up before she went back to what she was working on. I dropped my head, focused on the page and continued to read until my eyes got heavy and slid closed.

I was running down a faintly lit hallway that led to a spiral staircase. Shouts and footfalls from behind urged me forward. I needed to hurry.

My feet leapt up the stairs two at a time until I reached the top step and I burst through a wooden door. A woman with long, tangled hair rushed at me. Tears streaked down her face as she pleaded with me. “Please help me, Nimrod!”

 

A New Friend

 

A chorus of voices joined hers, filling my ears with cries of help.

“Help me. Help me!”

I woke with a start and nearly flung my book off the table. My eyes blinked as I took in my surroundings. I was in the library. Thank God.

My heart was racing so fast I thought I was going to have a coronary. You’re safe. You didn’t get sucked back into your story.

I straightened up and wiped the drool from my jaw as discreetly as I could when I noticed something fall from my head. It was a paper airplane. When I looked closer at it, I noticed it wasn’t blank. I unfolded it and stared at a pencil sketch of me folded over and sleeping on the table. I craned around suspiciously.

No one was there except for the librarian, who was sitting at her desk. Just as the bell rang, the door opened and the black-haired girl from earlier walked out. With a sigh, I brushed my things into my bag, slunk outside and into the hallway.

The end of the day couldn’t come soon enough. When the final bell rang I was relieved to walk outside. All I wanted was to go home. My new home.

Aunt Holly was waiting just outside the front doors and when she saw me, she waved. I had explicitly instructed her to wait at the stop sign. I don’t think she got the memo on how to avoid embarrassing your kid.

I sighed deeply and reluctantly walked up to her. “Hey, Aunt Holly.”

I stared at the colorful bandana tied around her hairline, which couldn’t begin to tame her curly mane. If Medusa was a hippie, she would have had some serious competition.

“How was your day? Not too terrible, I hope.” She reached out and patted my shoulder sympathetically. I had a sneaking suspicion she knew what it was like getting picked on.

“It blew. Unsurprisingly, my name was a big hit. And because my tablet’s busted, I get to look forward to doing my homework old school tonight.”

“Old school?” Aunt Holly asked while we walked to her car.

“Yeah. Paper and pencil.”

“Oh, that’s old school, is it? That must mean I’m old then.”

“If the shoe fits…”

“Better watch it,” she said as we got in the car, “I was going to take pity on you and order pizza tonight.”

 

***

 

After I helped Aunt Holly wash the dishes after dinner, I dragged myself upstairs and tugged my schoolbooks from my ratty camo bag and onto my desk. I unfolded the paper airplane and propped it against the wall. While I worked, I held onto the smooth stone I had found the previous day. It fit so perfectly into my palm, it helped me relax as I brushed my thumb along its surface.

When all my work was done, I crawled into bed and waited for sleep to come. I was completely exhausted and wanted to forget about my lonely existence, but my dreams were haunted with pleas of help from Malick, Red and Princess Amerovia, causing me to wake numerous times. At four o’clock, I decided to read my library book instead of forcing myself to hear their voices echo in my head.

“Oh, you’re up already. Time to get moving,” Aunt Holly said after popping into my room at around six-thirty.

I felt like road kill and after looking into the mirror I decided I looked like road kill too. I went to the bathroom to see if washing my face would improve things. It didn’t.

On the drive to school, Aunt Holly even noticed the bags under my eyes. “Nim, are you sleeping well? Is your bed comfortable?”

“It’s fine – just had a nightmare.” She frowned and I added quickly, “It wasn’t about Mom or anything. Don’t worry about it – I probably just ate too much pizza or something.”

She pulled into the school parking lot and I jumped out of the car. “See you at the stop sign today, ‘kay? I’ll remember this time. Hope you have a better day today, Nim.”

 

***

 

During break I settled at the same table in the library I had sat at yesterday. I was eager to finish the book I had checked out when a voice startled me.

“Hey. Whatcha reading?”

A flowery smell met my nose and I looked into the face of the black-haired girl. A dark line traced the edge of her eyelids, which made her large blue eyes more doe-like.

She pinched her red lips together and squinted at me, waiting for my response. “Ya know, when someone says something to you, that’s when you normally say something back.”

My throat went dry and I swallowed before speaking. “Sorry.”

“S’okay.”

She pulled out a neighboring seat and plopped down across from me. I was more than a little surprised at her sudden intrusion. This sort of thing didn’t happen to me, not unless there was a prank involved. I glanced at her as she pulled her hair up into a sloppy ponytail and tied her funky scarf at its base. Today she had on a pair of rainbow suspenders with a black t-shirt and skirt. She didn’t seem like the type to go out of her way to prank someone. If anything, she was like me. An outsider.

“Saw you in here yesterday. Got mono or something?”

I sputtered.

“Not like you look diseased or anything. Don’t take it the wrong way. Just wondered why you weren’t outside with everyone else.”

“Just moved here. Don’t have any friends and I’d rather hang in the library, anyway.”

She studied me quietly for a moment and said, “Crackerjack.”

I frowned and scratched my forehead, unsure how to respond.

“I’m Pepper. That’s what everyone calls me.”

“Um, I’m Nim.”

“That’s a unique name, like mine. My full name’s Temperance, but my sister started calling me Pepper when I was a little and it stuck – she seemed to think it fit my personality better.” She grew quiet and I thought her cheek started to quiver, but she quickly cupped her nose and mouth with her hands.

I had only just met this girl. She was nobody to me, but for some reason I didn’t want her to feel alone. “My full name’s Nimrod. Everyone seems to think it’s hilarious, but I was named after my grandpa.”

But Pepper was sliding her fingers along her eyes, wiping away her tears, and I looked away for a second to give her privacy. I glanced back to see her staring at me with a curious expression.

“What’s he like?”

“My grandpa?” I shrugged and dropped my gaze to the book lying on the table in front of me. “He was like me. He loved books. Mom used to say he lived in his own world and he made more sense there than he did here.”

“Did he die?”

“Yup, and my mom did too.”

“Your mom did what?”

“Die.”

Our eyes locked and then it was my turn to hide my emotions. I dropped my chin to my chest and flipped the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. It was the first time I had said it aloud and it stung like a dagger in the heart.

Cool, pale fingers touched my wrist and I tried to swallow the lump in my throat instead of looking at her.

“So did my sister,” she whispered and pulled away.

I nodded. The silence in the library echoed in my ears.

“Well, it’s settled. We’re friends.”

I would have laughed if I had it in me. Pepper grinned and jumped up from her chair just as the bell rang.

“Hey, was that your paper airplane yesterday?” I asked suddenly.

“Like it?”

“You’re a good artist.”

She shrugged and said, “Thanks. See ya around, Nim.”

Pepper flung her bag over her shoulder, took a deep breath and announced to no one in particular, “Alis volat propriis.” She waved and darted out of the library before I could respond.

It took me a moment to digest what had just happened. Within the last ten minutes I had met an interesting girl who, somehow, had gotten me to reveal my full name and admit that my mom had died. She had declared us friends and I couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing.

When the last bell of the day rang, I was actually sort of hopeful. Aunt Holly had listened to my last pleas and waited for me in the car down at the end of the block. As a reward or maybe it was pity, she made grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and I slept all through the night until Aunt Holly woke me the next morning. Life was back to being uneventful, just the way I liked it.

 

***

 

“Hey Nim, how was your night? What’d you do?” Pepper offered me a broad grin as she walked up to my table and set her things onto it.

The library was nearly empty like it always was. I had been sitting and reading quietly until she joined me. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the interruption. Getting used to the idea of someone wanting to hang out was new and I still couldn’t figure out why she’d attached herself to me so quickly.

“It was fine. I didn’t really do anything,” I said, sliding down my seat and staring at my hands.

Without any coaxing, she continued, oblivious to my social awkwardness. “Well, mine went like it always does. There’s only so much a girl can take of being ignored. That’s why you and I are hanging out this weekend. My parents won’t even notice I’m gone.”

“Really? How come?”

“I don’t fit in at home. Ever since I stopped letting my mom dress me at Gap and Abercrombie and Fitch and started thinking for myself, they don’t want to be around me. I stick out too much – don’t fit in at the country club.”

That was pretty harsh. My mom had been my best friend, always there to talk with me, watch movies and hang out. I couldn’t imagine her not caring if I was around or not.

I didn’t know what to say to Pepper but, “That sucks.”

She sat down in the seat beside me and started rubbing the tassels of her scarf against her cheeks. I had noticed that Pepper never seemed to be without the same black scarf, day after day.

“What’s with the scarf?”

“It was my sister’s. She let me borrow it before she died. It’s like having her with me every day. She was the only one that understood me. Mom and Dad don’t get it – why I wear it all the time. All they see is a ratty, un-stylish accessory that should get tossed. But it’s more than that.”

I couldn’t help myself, but I was starting to like Pepper.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

It took me a minute to fumble over the directions before she interrupted me. “I know where you’re at. I’m only a couple blocks away. We’re walking distance.”

I nodded.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

I cleared my throat before speaking. “No, not much. I’m not good at it.”

Pepper let out a booming laugh and slapped my shoulder. “Ha! Not good at talking? I don’t buy it. You’re doing just fine for someone who doesn’t talk. I can tell you’ve got plenty going on in that head of yours, you’re just afraid to say it. You should learn to be more like me. I think something and I just say it and don’t care what anybody thinks.” She grinned wickedly.

A smile slid across my lips before I could stop myself. I was beginning to understand why she hung out alone. She had confidence to spare and I admired that in her.

“You can say anything to me, Nim. I’m no judge. If you sit here and look me square in the eye and admit to loving My Little Pony or Dungeons and Dragons, I’ll congratulate you. But if you’re into crazy stuff like, like…the stock market or whatever, you need to tell me now.” Pepper squinted as she studied me carefully, and leaned forward.

“Uh, no, not into the stock market. Just reading and writing books. My Aunt Holly just introduced me to coffee, and I think it’s becoming a new addiction.”

Pepper flung one end of her scarf over her shoulder and said in a dramatic voice, “My turn-ons include drawing in the library, befriending and frightening shy boys and stunning people into silence. My turnoffs are people who are fake, the color pink, and selfishness.”

“Glad I didn’t wear my florescent pink tee today, that would have been awkward,” I mumbled.

In response, Pepper feigned surprise, covering her mouth with her hand. “Did you just make a funny? Oh, and I love smart alecks, because it would just be, oh, what’s the word…you know – do what I say not what I do?”

“Hypocritical?”

“Yes! That’s it.” She leaned over, pulled out a spiral notebook from her bag and tossed it on the table. Then she produced a pencil, flipped her book open and began to sketch out a shape. The soft scratching of the lead against the paper reminded me of using Grandpa’s pen over the weekend and the soothing sound it made.

“Um, you like drawing?”

“It’s the one thing I’m really good at. I love it. Nothing beats it.” She turned her notebook sideways so I could see the shaded, cloaked figure that was taking form on the paper.

“Wow, that’s great – I can’t even draw stick figures.”

“Well, even sticks need a moment in the spotlight.”

“Um, sure.” She was interesting, that was for sure.

When the bell rang, we got our things and walked to the door together. We both grabbed for the knob at the same time and my cheeks flushed in embarrassment. I pulled my hand back as she held the door open for me.

“See you around, Nim. Stay sane.”

“Yeah, you too,” I mumbled and then walked into the swarm of middle graders bustling through the hallways.

The rest of the school day was just a bit more bearable knowing one person here liked me (as strange as it was). When Aunt Holly picked me up from the lot she asked her daily question: “How was school today?”

“Good.”

“So fine has been upgraded to good? That’s sounds promising.”

I slid down in my seat and stared out the window. I shouldn’t have said anything. Now she was smiling at me like a total clown.

As we drove away from school I noticed Pepper walking ahead of us. Drops of rain began to tap against the windshield as the gray clouds produced their daily onslaught.

“I know her. She lives a couple blocks from us.”

Aunt Holly pulled alongside Pepper, rolled down my window and said to me, “We should offer her a ride. Don’t want her to have to walk through the rain.”

Pepper turned and saw me in the car. She walked up and leaned against my door. “Hey, Nim.”

“Hey, um, my Aunt Holly and I wondered if you wanted a ride home? Raining and all…”

Pepper closed her eyes and tipped her head back, allowing rain droplets to splatter against her face. “Oh, I don’t care about the rain. But you can just take me to your house – my parents won’t mind.”

Aunt Holly’s eyebrows rose and I could tell she was trying to suppress a grin. Pepper yanked open the back door of the car and jumped inside. As I heard the click of her seatbelt, she spoke up. “Hey, I’m Nim’s friend, Pepper.”

“Well, I’m happy to meet you Pepper.” Aunt Holly pulled back out onto the street.

The whole way home, Pepper chattered continuously and I wondered if she would ever run out of things to talk about. It was doubtful.

When we arrived at the house, it didn’t stop. “Have you ever driven by a home and wondered who lived inside? Is the family just as perfect and happy as it looks on the outside, or is everybody miserable and argumentative all the time?” Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “I think up stories for each house and who lives inside. I always imagined an elderly couple here. Goes to show you can’t base your opinion on appearances.”

“Well, my parents used to live here until they died. Now it’s me and Nimrod,” Aunt Holly said as she unlocked the front door. I glared at the back of her head.

Pepper breezed inside and her eyes lit up. “Wow, this place is epic. Really – it’s like an art gallery in here. Oh my gosh, I love this one.” She stopped in front of a painting of a landscape.

Aunt Holly immediately switched into art docent mode. “Oh, you like art? This is an oil pastel I did a couple years back when I was going through my post-impressionism phase. I’ve moved on to still lifes now. Thanks to my dad’s inheritance, I get to do what I love. Do you paint?”

“I do pencil sketches. I’ve tried watercolors, but they weren’t for me.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll have to show you my studio.” Aunt Holly said over her shoulder to me, “You guys want something hot to drink? Coffee, tea?”

“Sure, I could use some coffee – I’ve got lots of homework,” I said and led Pepper into the kitchen. Aunt Holly got to work making a fresh pot as I made a couple sandwiches for our snack.

After I swallowed my food and washed it down with a steaming cup of coffee, I looked over at Pepper, who was nibbling at her sandwich and staring at the pictures on the wall. “Who’re they?”

“My grandparents, my mom, aunt and me.”

“Is that your baby picture?” She pointed at what was probably one of the most humiliating pictures I ever took. I’m not sure how old I was, but I wasn’t old enough to tell my mom what a terrible idea it was to dress me in a pirate costume and go to the mall for pictures. A small tuft of hair was sticking straight up like a troll doll’s, and a patch covered one of my green eyes.

“So adorable,” she said before eating her last bite of sandwich.

“That’s subjective,” I answered and put our dirty plates in the sink.

“Show me your room.”

Pepper wandered out of the kitchen and I rushed to catch up with her. She had found the stairwell and was already heading upstairs. She clearly felt at home wherever she went, and my house wasn’t the exception.

“First door on the right.”

She walked into my room and stopped short. “Are we in the right place? This looks like a spare room for a ninety-year-old. We have got to work this out better for you. I mean, you’re staying, right?”

I shrugged. “Yeah.”

Pepper touched the wall and squished up her face. “Wallpaper – yuck. Your Aunt Holly seems pretty cool. Bet she wouldn’t care if you painted in here. What’s your favorite color?”

“Green. I like green.” I looked around and realized for the first time how dated the room was.

“And that bedspread is ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ old. It’s cool, but it doesn’t seem right for you. If you’re staying, then you should make it yours. It is your room after all.”

She made her way to the small alcove and the table that was the scene of my tablet’s destruction a week ago, pointed at her sketch of me sleeping and smiled. Her fingers traced over the wood and then the strange onyx stone that had come back from my travels. She turned it in her palm and said, “It’s so cold. What is it?”

It made me anxious seeing her holding it, so I stepped forward and held my hand out. She dropped it into my palm and its smooth, rounded shape slapped against my skin.

“Oh, I found it – don’t know what it is.”

“Hey, what happened to your hands? They’re all scraped up.”

I let my hand fall to my side. “Oh, it’s nothing. I fell.”

Pepper eyed me and punched my shoulder lightly. “I’m just giving you a hard time. So, how about we talk to Holly about getting this room updated to the twenty-first century?”

I slipped my special treasure into my pocket and wondered how I’d be able to keep my secret from her.

 

Pepper’s Discovery

 

The rest of the week went by, and Pepper came over every day after school. If I had any hesitation about her being my friend, there was no way out now. She had a way of declaring herself, and since I’m not the kind of person to make waves, it seemed a perfect match. It was sort of nice to be around someone who didn’t care about my social shortcomings – who was actually an equal in that department, and someone who liked me for me. She was as present as an elephant with ankle weights, and I liked that about her. Pepper was my friend, and that was okay by me.

Somehow my room became a top priority to both Aunt Holly and Pepper. Green paint was bought and while I was at school through the week, Aunt Holly worked diligently on removing the ugly wallpaper. Come Saturday, all my belongings (a very sad pile) were stacked in the center of the space and covered with a sheet. Rollers, paint and overly excited women with bandanas protecting their heads surrounded me.

“Okay, Nim, you want the honor of making the first mark?” Aunt Holly asked.

“Sure.” I coated my roller in paint and pressed it to the wall.

“Whoop!” Pepper shouted and started humming a song while she painted.

“I hope you’ll feel more at home now. I can’t believe I never thought of suggesting we change some things to make you more comfortable. Guess it’s been too long since I’ve had to think about anyone else. I just want you happy.” Aunt Holly gave me a quick squeeze, nearly covering my ear in paint with her brush.

“No worries, Aunt Holly. I didn’t even think of it. It’s all Pepper’s fault,” I said with a smile.

My arms were so sore by the time we finished, I thought they would actually fall off. I wasn’t the only one who was tired; Aunt Holly and Pepper fell onto the couch in the living room, splatters of forest green on their faces.

“Omigosh. Whose bright idea was that?” Pepper whimpered.

“Okay, I think you guys earned pizza dinner. You want to pop a movie in or something while we wait?”

“You know, I still haven’t been given the full tour. Nim, show me the secret passageways.” It took Pepper a minute to rise to her feet, but once she was up, she was already headed through the doorway.

I used my last bit of strength to push myself after her. On the ground level, she discovered Aunt Holly’s bedroom, the hot water closet, and laundry room. Nothing interesting there, so she bolted upstairs, leaving me to wonder where her burst of energy had come from. Pepper skipped my bedroom, Aunt Holly’s art studio and the bathroom, which she was already familiar with. This left two doors, and I didn’t want her to go into either of them.

“What’s in here?” she asked, her hand resting on the doorknob to my grandparents’ room.

“That was my grandparents’ room. We don’t go in there.”

She wrinkled her nose as though she were imagining the ghosts of my grandparents just behind the wall. Instead, she turned around, walked straight to the attic door and pulled it open. Before I could stop her, she went up the steps.

“Wait, Pepper…”

She switched on the desk lamp as I emerged into the darkened room. I hadn’t come back here all week – I’d been avoiding it. Out of sight, out of mind. I wasn’t planning on using the pen again. Either I was crazy, or it was magical and I wasn’t prepared to deal with either reality.

Pepper sat down at the desk and leaned forward. “Was all of this your grandpa’s stuff? It’s pretty sweet. Bookshelves everywhere.”

“Yeah, he liked books as much as me, if not more. Say, how about we go start a movie like Aunt Holly suggested –“

“Hold on a sec. Look at all of these cool little drawers, I wonder what’s in them…” She started opening them one by one. “I wonder what this is from.”

Pepper lifted up what appeared to be a translucent feather, but as she turned it under the light, it glowed blue. My curiosity piqued, and I joined her at the desk. I thought about the relic I had brought back from my story and realized Grandpa could have found special items to bring back as well. It was his pen, after all. He had to have known about its powers.

Pepper nudged me and asked, “What’s up? You have your thinking cap on.”

“Oh, nothing.” I took the feather from her and put it back in its resting place. “It’s Grandpa’s stuff. Leave it. C’mon, let’s go downstairs.”

I walked over to the top of the attic stairs and went down a step, hoping Pepper would get the hint. But instead, she did something else.

“Ooh, Latin.” With her hand resting on my story, and before I could stop her, she lifted up the golden pen and read its inscription. Bright light etched a line through the air – a perfect rectangle surrounded Pepper. A burst of wind blew her hair into a flurry around her head and in an instant, the light and Pepper were gone.

 

Guilt Trip

 

“Pepper!”

I ran to the desk, but it was pointless. She was gone.

Now what?

The pen lay innocently on the story I had written only a week ago. My sad and depressing kingdom without hope or life was written on those pages and I could only assume this was the very place my friend had just disappeared. So much for keeping my secret.

I picked up the cool, metallic cylinder and twisted the pen between my fingertips. The Latin phrase goaded me, taunted me to speak its magical words again. I had to, of course. I couldn’t leave my friend in that terrible place, frightened and alone.

I let out a shuddering breath before saying the words. Nothing. No rush of light or wind, simply nothing.

How could that be? I didn’t stumble or slur. I was fairly confident I hadn’t butchered the phrase. What if only one gateway could be opened at a time into a story? My throat tightened as that thought sank in.

I didn’t doubt Pepper could talk her way out of a situation, but would it matter? If she went exploring like I had, it would only mean trouble. Somehow I had made it back out of the world I created, and with my terrible luck that was a miracle.

The room was quiet, reminding me just how alone I was. I pulled out the chair and sat down. Time to think this out. What exactly had Pepper done? She was sitting in this very spot when she was transported away. Most importantly, she had been holding the pen when she spoke those magical words. I doubted the chair made any difference. So what other variable had I not thought of?

Last weekend when I discovered the pen’s power, I had done the very same thing as Pepper, I was sure of it.

With my hand laid on the pages of the story, I read the inscription on the pen aloud: “Ars imitatur vita.”

Blinding light surrounded me and in an instant, the shadowy attic disappeared. This time I was prepared for it and kept my eyes open. Everything happened quickly; I rushed through a tunnel that was so bright, the sun would have paled in comparison. While I was pulled forward, a dark point far in the distance grew in size. Then everything went black. Spots filled my vision and I blinked, unable to see. Vertigo hit and I remained still until the queasiness passed.

After a deep breath, I straightened and scanned the landscape. My eyes began to adjust to the low light and I recognized the basin. Black, wiry branches reached into the sky and I could smell the tree’s burnt husk. There was no sign of the sun, only gray clouds.

Where was Pepper? What if she hadn’t gone into the story and went somewhere else? I got queasy again, but it wasn’t from the trip here.

I scrambled forward and passed by the tree, my eyes focused on the trail leading out of the basin.

“Nim?”

A girl’s silhouette came into focus against the dreary backdrop. “Pepper,” I said, entirely relieved.

She rushed toward me, her eyes wide with wonder. “Do you believe this? This is amazing!”

I stood speechless and shrugged.

“Nim – what happened?” Pepper grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. Her excited blue eyes were focused on me. There was no way around it now. I had to tell her. I didn’t think she would buy that we were having a shared dream.

“Well…I think my grandpa’s pen is magical.”

“You knew about this?”

I nodded in response.

“You did? When did you find out?”

“Last weekend.”

Pepper folded her arms across her chest and said, “And were you planning on telling me?”

“No, not really. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, because I wasn’t planning on using it again.”

She shivered in the cold breeze and I remembered having to tolerate a full day of wandering in this depressing place. I didn’t want to stay here any longer. We could talk about all this back in the attic. It’d be a lot warmer there, and we wouldn’t run the risk of getting captured by Slag’s men.

“C’mon, let’s go back and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

“How do we go back?” Pepper tilted her head and frowned.

I pointed to the ribbon of glowing light we had come through. “After you.”

She walked toward it and gave me a backwards glance. In one step, she was gone, disappearing into the portal. I waited a moment before following her.

When I arrived back in the attic, Pepper was waiting for me. She plopped down into Grandpa’s old overstuffed reading chair and said, “Spill.”

I moved the desk chair so I was facing her and combed my fingers through my hair as I thought about where to start. “Okay, so I’ve told you I love writing. Grandpa did, too. When my tablet died right after I got here and I didn’t have anything to write my stories on, Aunt Holly told me to poke around up here and use anything of Grandpa’s I wanted. The gold pen was laying right there, and I just started writing. After I was done with my short story, I noticed the engraved words on the pen and like you, I said them out loud.”

As I was talking, I realized something. “I think you have to be touching the pages of the story you want to be transported into while you hold the pen and say the words. And like you saw, to come back home, you have to walk through that glowing doorway.”

“Wait, we just went into your story?”

“Uh-huh.”

Pepper sat there waiting for me to say more, and when I didn’t, she said in exasperation, “So, what happened when you went in?”

“Maybe you should read my story first before I tell you.” I reached behind me on the desk, grabbed the pages and handed them to her.

It took her fifteen minutes to finish, and when she was done, she tidied the paper carefully. “You’re a good writer. It’s sort of a sad story though, isn’t it?”

“Happy isn’t my thing. Not lately.”

She nodded sympathetically and urged me to continue. “So what happened?”

I sat back in my chair and got comfortable. I tried to give her the short version, but she kept interrupting with questions, slowing me down.

“All of that happened, for real?”

“Seriously, and you know, the weird thing was there was a lot in the world I didn’t write about. So much I didn’t know. It’s like the world took on a life of its own.”

“Wish I’d been with you – it sounds so exciting!”

“Exciting? Until I got back and figured out it wasn’t a dream, I thought it was the worst nightmare I’ve ever had!”

“Psh, whatever. You’re just a drama queen. So, how’s the story end? You didn’t really end it – it just leaves you hanging. Does the Prince overcome his stony heart and save the princess?”

Did she just call me a drama queen? I shook my head and answered, “Sure, whatever you’d like to think.”

“No, seriously. Now that you’ve gone into your story, don’t you care what happens to these people? Malick, Red, Prince Braylon and Princess Amerovia?”

“It’s just a story. We all have stories, and they don’t all end well. My mom died, so did your sister. Life’s unfair and uncaring. Why should I care?”

Pepper’s brow wrinkled and her jaw dropped. She sat there gaping at me for a minute before she jumped to her feet and stomped toward me. “Nimrod, I can’t believe you feel that way! Sure, life’s unfair, but the minute you stop caring about anything, what’s any of it worth? What do you think your mom would think of you turning into a bitter, teenaged recluse? What’s the point of being alive if you don’t enjoy yourself while you’re here? You know what that inscription means on the pen?”

I shrugged and she continued, “It says art imitates life. Art is beautiful, and full of all the same emotions we feel in our lives. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, Nim. I haven’t even met the people you did in the story, but I care. I want the good guys to win. If you don’t want to go back, that’s fine, but you should at least finish the story properly. Give them hope.”

Pepper breezed past me and down the attic stairs, leaving me feeling like my mother had just lectured me. She thought I was crazy, but for entirely different reasons than I had originally considered.

Who was she, anyway, to dictate how to end my own story? She didn’t know what she was talking about. I was the one who needed to be satisfied with how it ended, not her or anyone else and certainly not my characters. Pepper could just stay mad at me – I never asked her to be my friend to begin with, anyway. I was meant to be alone.

I sat at the desk and stared at the pages of my book. I reread it, and recalled the solemn place that had taken on a life of its own. Unfortunately, I never got to see Amerovia’s beautiful face, but that was fine by me. I had left with my life, and that seemed good enough. Why tempt fate?

I switched off the table lamp and left the attic without a backwards glance. When I reached the end of the hallway, I paused on the top step, listening for murmurs. Aunt Holly’s voice filtered up to my ears and I grasped the banister while I tried to figure out what to do. From the sound of it, Pepper hadn’t left yet, unfortunately. I hadn’t known her long enough to predict her behavior. I didn’t think she’d tell anyone about the pen. At least, I hoped she wouldn’t.

I considered my options: either hang out in my freshly painted room and wait for her to take a hint and leave, or go downstairs and brave the storm. Although it was a daring choice, I groaned and moved like a slug all the way to the kitchen doorway. From there I could see both of them chatting happily on the sofa in the den.

“There he is. Hey, Nim, Pepper tells me you wanted to watch a feel-good movie. Something with a happy ending – I’ve got just the one. We’ve got it all cued up and ready to go. I’ve even popped some popcorn. C’mon over.” Aunt Holly patted the couch cushion between her and Pepper.

I had the sensation of coasting downhill without brakes. Was it too late to change my mind and wallow in my room with the paint fumes?

Pepper smirked at me and said, “He’s too embarrassed to admit he likes this stuff – you know how boys are.”

My feet didn’t want to move, but I dragged myself to the sofa. A puff of dust rose around me and I sneezed. This was turning into the best day ever (if you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic). I was coerced into painting my room (okay, maybe it was a good idea), then Pepper nosed her way into my private stuff, exposing my secret, then she yelled at me and now I was being exposed to a stream of chick-flicks as punishment. What next? Hair highlights?

When we finished the movie we went up to my room to check and see if the paint had dried. It didn’t feel like I was living in a nineteen-fifties diorama anymore, which was definitely an improvement. I don’t know anything about style, but I know when something looks good.

With Aunt Holly’s help, Pepper pushed the headboard of my bed against the wall while I put the desk back into place.

“Looks like a guy’s room now.” Aunt Holly gave me a squeeze and kissed my forehead.

It was the cherry on the cake; being smothered with affection in front of my friend. To be honest, it wasn’t too bad, though. Aunt Holly wasn’t Mom, but she’d do, I guess.

“Thanks, Aunt Holly.”

“Now that your room’s set, I’m going to work out dinner. Pepper, you staying?”

Pepper looked at me and nodded. “Doubt I’ll be missed.”

“Just the same, you should give your parents a call and let them know.” Aunt Holly patted the door frame before walking out of the room.

Pepper pulled her phone out of her pocket and muttered, “What? I thought it was fully charged. You have a charger I can use?”

“Sure, right over there.” I waved to my desk absently.

She plugged in her phone and stared out the window. “Glad you like your room – looks good.” She turned around, bit the edge of her lip and continued, “I didn’t mean to get so mad at you earlier. It’s just – when you’ve gone through what we have, it’s nice to think there’s a way out of it, ya know? Like there’s hope.”

“Yeah.” I paused. “Hey, Pepper? You wouldn’t ever tell anyone about Grandpa’s pen, right?”

“We’re friends. I’d never betray you.”

“Cool,” I said with a sigh.

Pepper picked up her phone and growled, “What’s up! It should have charged enough for me to turn it on – the freakin’ thing’s broken!”

Then I remembered something. “Did you have your phone in your pocket earlier? When we were in the attic?”

“Yeah, it’s been in my pocket all day.”

I walked across the room, pulled my watch out from inside one of my dresser drawers and handed it to her. “I was wearing this when I went into the story last week, and now it’s broken.”

“Crackerjack.”

Whatever. “The metal got real hot and hurt my wrist. I don’t think you can take electronics.”

“That’s good to know for next time.”

I shook my head. “No, there won’t be a next time. It’s too dangerous.”

“But, Nim –”

I pulled up the cuff of my pant leg all the way to my knee and pointed to my scab. “I got hurt – see? Going into a story like that is dangerous. You could get killed or captured and then what? I’ll stick with my own life instead, as pathetic as it is. I don’t think I’ll run the risk of being forced into some evil king’s army while walking down to the gas station in Portland.”

Pepper stared at my knee and a sly grin slid across her face. “But wouldn’t it be exciting if that did happen?”

I glared at her. “Thanks.”

Snickering, she replied, “Okay, sorry. I’d never really want that. But if you won’t go into your story again, will you please think about giving some hope to poor Princess Amerovia and Malick and anyone else that’s sad and afraid? They’re real just like you and me.”

“Fine.” I decided agreeing with Pepper was the quickest route to sweet silence.

 

Back Again

 

The golden pen lay in its velvet-lined resting place, quiet and innocent. After a long night’s sleep during which Malick and Red’s faces wound their way through my dreams, I woke, resolved to help them. Pepper was right. I had to admit, there wasn’t anything wrong with providing some hope. It couldn’t hurt to give them a proper ending.

I turned the pages of the story until I was staring at the words ‘The End’, cradling Grandpa’s pen in my hand, prepared to cross them out. The tip glided over the paper, but no ink came out. I shook it a couple times and made a test mark on the edge of the paper. The black ink filtered out in a fine line.

This time I wrote the beginnings of a sentence just beyond the ending of my story, but again, no mark was made. What was going on?

I pulled out another blank page and wrote on the top, ‘A Novel by N.R. Vale’. It seemed to be working fine so I switched back to my story and tried once more to touch pen to paper, and nothing happened. Not a mark.

I opened the drawer and found a pencil. Maybe I could add to it with something else. I knew what would happen before I tried. Nothing. It appeared the pen had sealed the story off. ‘The End’ seemed to be a binding contract.

Well, at least I’d be able to tell Pepper I’d tried. I made an effort. She probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the result, but I was. There wouldn’t be a happy ending for the characters of my story, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it, short of risking my own life, and that wasn’t about to happen.

Pepper would just have to deal.

 

***

 

“What? Well, that’s not gonna do it. We need to find a way to help them, Nim. We’re all just characters in a story, like them. We have to figure out a plan.”

The librarian eyed us from her desk and continued tapping away on her phone. Aside from one seventh grader perusing the aisles, we were alone in the library. It was so quiet, it felt like our conversation was being broadcasted through the room.

I shushed Pepper. “Ssh, do we have to talk about it now? If anyone hears us, they’ll think we’re crazy.”

“How’s that a change? Who cares? It’s not like we’re risking losing our social standing – grow a backbone.”

She always made it sound so simple and straightforward. Pepper was the most fearless person I knew.

“Fine.” I snapped. “But it doesn’t change things. I’m not going back in again. There’s nothing that will change that.”

She opened up her bag and started searching through it. “Have you seen a pair of pliers around here? I need them to pull your undies out. Chill, granny.”

I swore steam erupted from my ears as I glared at her, while she cheekily winked at me.

Things went on like this all week. Pepper was as stubborn as me, and had Mom been alive, I was sure she would’ve said I’d met my match. Pepper definitely made me crazy. Well, crazier.

First thing Saturday morning, Pepper was on our porch ringing the bell. I stumbled to the door in my pajama bottoms and t-shirt. It was raining out as usual, and as she blew past me water dripped off her jacket and onto my feet.

“Brr, it’s so cold out there you could frost a cake!” Pepper dropped her bag to the rug, slipped off her coat and hung it from a hook on the wall. “I could use some tea – Holly, got some brewed yet?”

“Is that you, Pepper?” Aunt Holly called from the kitchen. “Need something to warm you up?”

“Love that woman,” Pepper said as she headed to the kitchen.

Pepper was like a growth you couldn’t remove. It was probably best to adjust to the fact that she wasn’t going anywhere. As long as she gave me privacy in the bathroom, I guessed we wouldn’t have any real problems.

Today was the day Aunt Holly was going to take me to get a new comforter and curtains. Not that it mattered to me, but she seemed to care that I felt at home here. It wouldn’t take me long to point to whatever was solid, and dark in color. I didn’t want to go, but she really wanted me to pick exactly what made me happy and I didn’t have the heart to say no to her.

“We’re heading out as soon as I’m dressed,” I said as I sipped my coffee. “Won’t be gone long, though.”

“I’ll be fine. I can just come back later,” Pepper answered and stared out the kitchen window.

“You can come with us if you want, Pepper.” Aunt Holly offered.

“Oh, no thanks, I’ll just come back. Don’t like malls.” She made a face into her cup of tea.

“All right. Hey, Nim, why don’t you head up and get ready to go – I’d like to get back so I can get started on a painting that’s been haunting me for a couple days. Gotta get it out of here.” She tapped her forehead.

“Know what that’s like,” I said.

I hurried up to my room and came down in my regular gear – jeans and a hoodie sweatshirt. My hair was useless to work with, so I left it alone, which meant it fell into my eyes on a regular basis.

Aunt Holly had on her jacket and her keys were in hand. “Ready to hit it?”

“Sure,” I answered while I flipped up my hood.

Pepper wandered from the kitchen with her mug and said, “I’ll be right behind you – was just going to finish this real quick.”

“That’s fine, sweetie, just make sure you lock up before you go. There’s a spare key under the mat.”

Aunt Holly and I hurried through the rain to her car and while we pulled off the driveway I thought I saw Pepper peering out at us from the downstairs window. All the way to the department store I had a nagging feeling that didn’t leave me.

When we walked down the linens section, I reached out and grabbed the first thing that caught my eye – a dark gray bedspread.

“These would probably go with that,” Aunt Holly said as she held up a pair of striped gray curtains. “Not very colorful, but if it’s what you want…”

“It works.”

“Well, if I can’t convince you to go with a splash of color. You’re definitely easy to shop for. Anything else you need clothes-wise, like pants, socks or underwear? I’m not very good at this, Nim – you’re going to have to help me out here.”

When I packed my things to move in with Aunt Holly, I left a lot behind in Florida. I could have used some more clothing, but I didn’t want to be under the florescent lighting any longer. I wanted to get back home. Something just didn’t feel right and I was anxious to put my concerns to rest.

“Naw, not today. Maybe next weekend?”

“Okay, I don’t mind leaving. Not my scene – I normally shop at the thrift stores downtown. You can find some really unique things there.”

For the first time that day, I realized I was standing beside a woman who was wearing a tasseled scarf around her waist like a belt and a fuchsia shirt with yellow sunbursts. Yeah, she didn’t exactly fit in with the department store crowd, but then, I didn’t, either.

“Maybe I can take you sometime.”

“Sure.”

Aunt Holly paid for everything, and I threw my bag of bedding into the back of the car to head back home. The rain hadn’t let up while we were gone. If anything, the storm got worse. Aunt Holly’s car wipers seemed desperate to keep pace with the rain, groaning as they stretched from the passenger’s side to the driver’s side in an annoying tug-of-war.

“Here we are,” Aunt Holly said as we arrived on the driveway.

I looked at the window that I saw Pepper staring out of before we left. It was dark and empty. I was probably just being paranoid.

We let ourselves in, and dripped water onto the entryway rug. Aunt Holly shoved the bag of linens into my arms and said, “Here you go. I’m going to get myself some snacks and board myself up in my studio to paint. Shout if you need anything.”

She breezed past me and headed to the kitchen. Now I was free to do whatever I wanted, at least until Pepper showed up. I stomped a few times to get the extra water off my shoes and trudged upstairs to my bedroom. I dropped the bag of stuff on my bed and scratched my forehead. I’d change the comforter and curtains later.

There was really only one thing I wanted to do. I’d been too busy with Pepper and homework this past week to spend any time writing. When I went too long without letting my imagination pour out, I started to get anxious. Well, more anxious. I’d write a story today (without the magic pen!).

I turned up the thermostat on my way down the hallway and leapt up the attic stairs two at a time, nearly losing my balance on the top step. I immediately knew something wasn’t right. The table lamp was on, and I knew I’d switched it off the last time I was up here. As I approached the desk I noticed a torn piece of paper lying on top of my book, with the golden pen beside it.

My hands shook as I read the note.

Nim-

I get why you don’t want to go back into your story, but I feel differently about it. I’ve gone inside to see if I can’t help rescue the princess and set things right. Don’t be mad at me.

See you soon,

Pepper

If I were in a cartoon strip, I would have had a huge thought balloon floating over my head filled with every swear word known to mankind. I couldn’t believe her. How could she be so stupid? Did she have some kind of death wish?

“Pepper!” I cursed aloud and gripped the edge of the desk.

I should have figured she’d do something like this. I’d sensed something wasn’t right. She was forcing my hand, and I wasn’t happy about it.

Resolved to help my friend, I grabbed the folded leather uniform and boots from the corner of the attic and stormed down to my room. I closed my door behind me and set them on my bed. There was no way I was going to wear those boots again; they were way too big. My tennis shoes would have to do.

I got out a pair of thermal underwear and put them on. It was frigid cold there and I wasn’t going to freeze this time. The uniform went on next and I even pulled out my winter coat and gloves. The contents of my school bag were turned out onto my floor and I shoved anything in I thought would help me out: the pocketknife Grandpa gave me the last time I saw him, bandages, an extra pair of socks, paper and a pencil and my leftover snack from school, which consisted of a granola bar and two apples. I flung the pack over my shoulder and looked at my room one last time.

The smooth, black stone I found in the roots of the charred tree gleamed from my desk and I slipped it into my pocket with no better reason than to have something to rub between my fingers when I got nervous. I walked down the hallway and stopped at the attic door. I took a deep breath before climbing up to the shadowy room.

I sat down at Grandpa’s chair, placed one of my hands on the pages of the story, and grasped the cool, golden pen with the other. Pepper was my friend, my only friend. I wouldn’t leave her to fend for herself, even if it meant putting myself in danger. I could not lose anyone else from my life. That wasn’t an option.

In a soft whisper I spoke the magical words, “Ars imitatur vita.”

 

Where’s Pepper

 

Dark skies greeted me once again, forcing me to wonder if a sun even existed here. I scanned the basin, hopeful I’d see Pepper resting on a boulder, but I was alone. The only trace of life was the blackened husk of the tree in the center of the space. I didn’t know why I would think things would be so easy. They never were.

There wasn’t time for me to stand here like an idiot. I needed to track down Pepper and convince her to come back with me before one of us got hurt. I scoffed at myself. Finding her wasn’t going to be the hard part; convincing Pepper to do anything would be the true challenge.

I began walking out of the basin and onto the valley trail, my shoes crunching on the gravel as I went. When I neared the end of the trail where it connected with the road and guard station, I stopped, pulled off my coat and stuffed it into my pack. I didn’t want to cover up my uniform, not if I was going to try to pull this off. I was a soldier in Slag’s army, and needed to look like one. With my bag flung over one shoulder, I crept forward. It would be best if it appeared I was coming from Braylon’s castle. I moved along in the twilight, keeping my eyes on the gate and tower. I didn’t see any movement.

When I was satisfied with how far I’d gone, I hurried over to the road and walked back toward the station. A man wearing the same uniform as myself stepped out from the tower and called out to me, “Oy – where’d you come from?”

I didn’t have the time to worry about what to say. I took a deep breath and improvised. “The carriage broke down and I had to walk the rest of the way. The others went back to the castle to get help. I don’t have the time to wait.”

“Bloody useless. I thought we weren’t being relieved from duty until nightfall. I wasn’t informed of a unit passing through.”

We were now close enough to each other that I could see his steel gray eyes and scarred chin. He was studying me carefully, and seemed to be deciding if I was even worth talking to.

“Are you a general?” I said with as much venom as I could.

The man’s eyes widened and he shook his head, clearly thrown from my question.

“Well then, do you expect to be informed of all of the movement of our forces? I am not here to take your post. I have a far more important duty. What is your name?”

“Rogen. The name’s Rogen.”

“Very good, Rogen. I need your help with something. I am looking for a girl who may have passed through here. That sound familiar?”

Rogen frowned and called out, “Ey, Kendrick, come out here.”

Another soldier emerged from the guard tower and joined us at the gate. He was much younger than Rogen, maybe a couple years older than me. He buttoned the top of his uniform and said breathlessly, “Yes, sir?”

“You see a girl walk through here?” To me, Rogen muttered, “Was indisposed for a bit and had Kendrick take charge. You don’ have to tell no one ‘bout that though.”

Kendrick went silent for a second before saying, “Yeah, a girl came through. She needed directions. She was young, and real pretty like.”

My ears pricked up and I squinted at Kendrick as he grinned foolishly. What a complete tool. Bet he made a pass at her, too. Rogen seemed to be on the same wavelength. He smacked the boy upside the head and said, “Was she now? You great cassick – you’re supposed to detain anyone who comes through ‘ere!”

“Where’d she go?” I interrupted.

“She headed down the road that way.” Kendrick pointed in the opposite direction from the castle and stepped away from Rogen while he rubbed the side of his head.

“Say, mate, you’re not going to tell anyone about this, are ya?” Rogen was clearly worried.

“I’ve been sent to track her down. If this turns into a disaster it will be you who has to answer to Prince Braylon, not me!” I was getting into this maybe a little too much. “You’d better hope I find her,” I said to Kendrick, poking him in the chest. His face paled and his jaw fell open as I continued, on a hot streak now.

“Why don’t you fools do your jobs properly so I don’t have to come back here and give you any bad news?” I walked past them without waiting for a response and heard Rogen scolding his sidekick. Once I put some distance between us, I couldn’t help but smile. It felt good unloading on them. It felt even better to perform in the moment without failure. It must have been my agitation that gave me courage. It was some kind of miracle.

I had gotten over one hurdle, but my problem now was I had no idea where I was going or where to find Pepper. At least I was moving in the right direction and this time I was wearing tennis shoes instead of slippers or boots two sizes too big.

The walking kept me busy and warmed my torso, but my hands felt like icicles. Without a functional watch, I couldn’t say how much time passed, but it seemed like at least half an hour before my surroundings changed from something post-apocalyptic to something less depressing. The rocky terrain began to show some signs of life. I’m not talking paradise, but there were a few gangly trees and bushes, so it was an improvement. The sky, however, remained sunless and dreary.

I spotted a few buildings in the distance, which I assumed were homes. I picked up my pace, encouraged that I was nearing a town or village. Hopefully, I’d find Pepper there. I held onto that hope as I trudged along the road.

Something swooped overhead and I ducked down, covering my head and neck. My heart thundered in my chest while I stared into the sky. The form of a bird curled through the air and I breathed a sigh of relief. It landed alongside the road and squawked. From this distance I could see it wasn’t truly a bird. I gaped as I realized this was the creature I had written about. A tamerac.

It was more beautiful and strange than I could have imagined. Beady ice blue eyes stared at me, which sent a chill down my spine. Its body was a foot in length with emerald scales that shimmered down its torso like a serpent. Iridescent wings shone, displaying spider-webbed veins that pulsed with color. If this animal took after the one I wrote about in my story, then I hoped it liked handouts. I slipped my pack off my shoulders slowly, and rested it on the ground as I rifled through it in search of some food. I found the granola bar and snapped off a tiny piece. The tamerac tilted its head as it watched my movements with curiosity.

I tossed the crumb ahead of me on the road and the creature flew over and snatched it up in its toothy jaw. I snapped off one last piece of granola bar and put the rest back into my bag. I stood up straight, if only to feel bigger, and put on my backpack. I was tempted to hold the treat out to the animal, but those teeth appeared very sharp. “Want this?” I was curious to see if the animal was as intelligent as I’d written it to be. “Bring me that rock and I’ll trade you.” I pointed to a reddish stone a couple feet in front of me.

The tamerac’s clawed feet scrambled on the gravel as it scurried forward. I held my breath as it stopped before the stone. “Yes, that one,” I said and pointed to it again, completely amazed. Certain of its target, it snatched the pebble in its beak and opened its wings, brushing them against the road before lifting into the air. I realized in terror that it was flying straight at me, but before I could react, it landed on my outstretched arm. Claws clamped onto me and I was thankful I had on so many layers so I didn’t feel its sharp talons against my skin.

I swallowed the massive lump that formed in my throat and I reminded myself to breathe. While it waited expectantly, I fought the urge to throw up and opened my other hand and offered it the bit of granola bar. It didn’t hesitate. In one swift motion the rock was dropped in my palm and the treat disappeared.

“Brilliant. You’re smarter than a dog.” I imagined myself petting its head and it biting one of my fingers off. “Those are some sharp teeth.”

It leaned forward to inspect my open hand and I abruptly yanked it back, causing the red pebble to tap on the ground. With it so close to me, I noticed its eyes were no longer ice blue, but purple. As interesting as it was staring at a fictional creature, my arm was starting to tire under its weight. How was I going to get this thing off of me?

“Okay, time to go. No more,” I said, hoping it would understand what I wanted. To my amazement, it opened its breathtaking translucent wings and lifted into the air.

I stood with my mouth agape like a pitcher plant trying to collect rainwater as I watched the bird-like animal move through the sky. What was I doing? It was time to move on. This wasn’t a trip to the petting zoo – I needed to catch up with Pepper before she got herself into trouble.

More trouble.

More buildings came into view as I continued on the road, and I could see I was getting close to a town. Dead grass covered the valley in a yellow velveteen carpet. Although it wasn’t green or living, it was nice not seeing more gray crushed stone. Gangly trees stood together to make up a sad sort of forest at the far end of the glen. Stone spires reached above their branches and I spotted what appeared to be another castle. I wondered if I had found Revel Green.

Children were out in the street playing, but when they saw me coming they darted away and into a nearby storefront. Faces framed in windowpanes stared out at me and I flushed from the attention. I gripped the straps of my backpack and ventured along the street.

I didn’t make it far before a group of teenage boys saw me and one of them called out, “What are you doing here? You lost?”

Freaking brilliant. I never covered up my uniform with my coat. I looked around for a way out of the situation.

The boy who yelled at me strode forward and swept his blonde hair from his face. He flashed his dimples as his friends followed behind him. “You have the rocks to walk into Revel Green with that on?” He pointed at my black leather uniform and sneered. “You’re stupid or cocky. Either way, you need to leave.”

“Yeah,” his friends chorused.

I wasn’t one to confront a fight, so I did what any coward would do. I turned and ran. Down a side street and past shady doorways I flew, with the boys’ shouts echoing behind me. “Hey – stop!”

I looked over my shoulder to see how close they were when I ran into something.

“Oy! Watch where you’re going.”

A guard dressed in blue picked me off of him and adjusted his tunic.

“Uh, sorry. Won’t happen again,” I said and checked on the boys, who had stopped and were falling over themselves laughing at me.

I tried to walk away when the guard saw my uniform and his eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute – you’re one of Slag’s men. You need to come with me. My captain will want a word with you.”

He grabbed hold of my arm and led me away. The jeers of the boys faded as we wound our way down the cobbled road. As we walked through the streets, I felt on display. The leather uniform that had kept me from freezing in the cold was like a big Kick Me sign now that I was no longer in Slag’s territory. We ventured up the road and toward the castle nestled in the trees. A breeze combed past us, and whistled as it blew across my face. I hunched, lifting my shoulders up to my ears.

I slowed down and tried to reason with my captor. “I’m sorry sir. I’m not really a soldier in Slag’s army. I escaped, and I’m here because I’m searching for my friend, a girl named Pepper. She would have come through here this morning.”

The man forced me along, making me pick up the pace. “No one just escapes Slag’s army. You’re just a boy. You expect me to believe your story?”

“I didn’t do it alone. A man named Malick helped me escape while we rescued his son.”

He stopped and turned to me. “Malick, eh?”

“Yeah, we escaped together. I’m not from your land, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The guard seemed to think about it for a moment and he waved me down a dark side alley. I didn’t have any choice but to follow, and I hoped I wasn’t about to get ground up.

“Tell me, what happened? Red came back alone a week ago without Malick and I’m hearing all sorts of stories from my buddies up at the castle.”

I was taken aback. “Really? Well, we were at a tower gate, almost free when we were stopped. I snuck away,” I muttered, embarrassed. “I’m not sure what happened.”

“Hmm,” he answered, “I believe you. Don’t have the face of a liar, plus you’re just a kid.”

I thrust my hands into my pockets and felt the strange stone. I traced my thumb over its smooth, cold surface as I tried to relax.

“So, Malick never came back? What about his friends?” I asked, their faces fresh in my mind.

“No, they didn’t return. Red was taken to King Richard to give an account of what happened, poor kid. I hear the king’s pretty upset. Not sure there’s any way the situation could be worse.”

“What do you mean? Is Red okay?”

“He is for now, at least for a kid without any parents. The king’s named Malick and his men traitors and if they show up, they’ll be tossed in the dungeons for endangering the princess’s life. That’s only if she lives. If the princess dies, then I wouldn‘t want to be in Malick’s shoes.”

It seemed messed up to accuse someone of being a traitor just for trying to save his son. King Richard was either a real jerk, or he was wacked in the head. Either way, I didn’t want to meet him.

“So is she alive?” I held my breath, waiting for his answer.

“Don’t know. There’s been no word from Slag yet. Don’t know what’s happening in Valen right now. King Richard’s reduced his forces as a show of goodwill and it’s just a waiting game.”

“Wow, that’s not good.”

The guard shook his head. “No, it’s not. Let’s hope the princess is still alive.”

I paused, trying to decide how to change the direction of the conversation. “It’s really important I find my friend. We need to go back to our home, and it’s a long way from here. You didn’t happen to see her come through here earlier? She’s got black hair, probably pulled into a ponytail and lots of black stuff around her eyes. My age.”

He craned his neck past me first and rubbed his beard. “Yeah. Don’t know how to break it to you, but I think she was the girl that was taken up to the castle. She was trying to gather up a crowd of people to go save the princess. King’s pretty sensitive about things like that – not allowed to spout off like that in Revel Green. I understand you’re not from here and all, but it’s not wise to make waves ‘n all.”

And there it was. The great news I was waiting for.

“She was taken up to the castle? Because she wants to rescue the princess?”

“According to the king, hope only leads to more death. He’s attempted everything in his power to rescue her. When Slag threatened to kill her if the king tried anything else, that ended all of that.”

“What will happen to my friend?” I asked, feeling my throat tighten.

The guard patted my shoulder. “I’ll put it this way – if you don’t see her in the next couple of hours, then I’d go home without her. Listen kid, I shouldn’t let you go, not after the scene you made wearing this getup, but, I might have a problem holding on to you, being a squirmy kid ‘n all.” He smiled at me and added, “I’d get out of town today. And cover up, for goodness sake.”

He brushed past me and before he walked onto the street I called out, “Wait, where can I find Red?”

The man pointed to his left and answered, “Get out of that tunic before you land yourself in the dungeons, then follow the main road up to the castle and make your way to the battlement wall, take a left and follow it around to the blacksmiths. Malick’s house is just to the right of it.”

“Thanks!”

He nodded, rested his hand on the butt of his sword hilt and strode off down the street, away from me. I ducked against the brick wall of the building beside me, dropped my backpack to the ground, pulled out my jacket and slipped it on, zipping it all the way up to my chin. That ought to do it.

Now all I needed to do was find Red and rescue Pepper. Easy-peasy.

 

Into the Castle

 

I jogged in the direction the guard had pointed, ready to get this whole trip over with. I wasn’t sure if Red would be able to help me, but he was my only option. Before long I reached the edge of the town and the battlements rose above me. I spotted a few men in blue tunics as I walked under a large archway. They watched me pass with curious expressions, paying particular attention to my jacket.

Once I was through the walls I turned left, just like the guard had instructed me. Buildings were stacked together against the outer wall. Many looked like homes. There was a large stable, and I knew I was getting close when loud clanking could be heard. Smoke rose from an opening in a rooftop and when I passed by, I could see a man hard at work at a forge. If I didn’t have a purpose, I would have stood there all day watching him, but I didn’t want to stay any longer than I had to. So, I walked up to Red’s door and knocked.

After a minute, I heard shuffling behind the door and a voice called out, “Hold on.”

While I waited, I crammed my hands into my pockets to keep them warm. I rubbed my thumb against the smooth rock and pinched my lips together. Suddenly, the door swung open.

A bright tuft of scarlet hair framed Red’s familiar face. His green eyes widened and he stepped back, clearly surprised to find me on his doorstep.

“Hi, Red. Can I come in?”

He nodded and stood back, giving me room to pass. The house was dark, just like everything else around here, and filled with rustic furniture. At one end of the room was a fireplace. Within it, a crackling fire radiated warmth while it lit everything nearby with a rosy glow.

I stepped back as Red offered me a handshake and a seat beside the fire. He scratched his head and said, “What happened to you? You disappeared that night.”

Without warning, a flood of guilt rushed through me and I couldn’t look at him. I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m sorry, I thought it was all a dream and I just wanted to save myself didn’t seem quite right.

Red said softly, “My dad was captured, you know. His friends, too. He told me to run for it and escape – that it all would have been in vain if I got captured with him. I wanted to go back for him, but…” The desperation on his face was clear. I knew that look, that feeling. “King Richard is furious with father for trying to rescue me. It risked the princess’s life and if she dies because of him, I just know what will happen. He’ll attack Slag, and there’ll only be more death and destruction. I’m worried the king’ll kick me out of the city. I have nowhere to go, Nim. My dad’s my only family.”

“Sorry, Red. I should’ve stuck around. I saw trouble and got outta there. I know what it’s like losing a parent. I’m all alone, too. Nothing worse.”

Red nodded and stared at the fire in silence.

Now I had to bring myself to ask Red for help even though I didn’t deserve it. I was embarrassed even asking, but I thought of Pepper sitting in the dungeons and forced the words out. “Say, Red. I came to the city looking for my friend. Neither of us are from your land, and we got separated. I need to get her home, but I hear she was taken to the castle.”

“She was taken to the castle? Do you know why?”

I rubbed my temple and answered, “Well, it sounds like she was trying to get some people together to save the princess.”

“Your friend brain damaged?” Red asked dryly.

“Naw, you’d think, but she’s really stubborn and just doesn’t get it.” I adjusted in my seat and said with a sigh, “Red, I hate asking, but is there any way you could help me get her out of here? I just want to find her and take her home.”

Red stared at me and said, “Well, my time in the city’s limited anyway. S’pose I could use my connections to help you out. The benefit of your dad being the king’s general is you know everyone you need to know. Question is, who will help me now that Dad’s being called a…traitor.”

And I thought my life was pitiful. At least I had a home and someone to care for me.

“Bring your stuff, Nim, we’re going to the castle.” He jumped up and grabbed a small shovel next to the hearth, scooped up some ashes and dumped them over the fire. Next he put on a suede jacket and headed to the front door. I followed him onto the street.

“This way. We’ll go in through the kitchens. The head cook always had a thing for Dad. Bet she’d help us out. Just let me do all the talking – got it?”

“No problem.”

We walked around to the back of the castle and Red strode down a set of stone steps to an open doorway. The sounds of clanging pots and voices told me we were where we needed to be. I stayed close to him as he moved with confidence through the kitchen and up to a robust woman with a cloth wrapped around her head.

“Red, my dear boy, how are you? I’ve been worried about you. Did you get the bread I left at your door the other day?” she asked him, her crow’s feet wrinkling as she spoke.

“Yeah, I did. Thanks, Nellie.”

“Bet you miss your dad. You’re not the only one. Have faith he’ll make his way back home and the princess will be found safe. Surely the king would forgive him then – they’re old friends after all.” Nellie smiled at Red, but there was a trace of doubt hidden beneath the grin. “How can I help you? Anything you need, dear.”

Red looked at me and said, “It’s our friend. She was taken to the castle today for speaking of saving the princess.”

Nellie tsked and shook her head in response.

“We need to find her and get her out of the city. Any way you can find out where she is?”

Nellie looked over her shoulder and her eyes grew steely as she searched the room. “Theresa!” she barked.

A young woman scurried over to us, bowed her eyes and said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“There was a young woman brought into the castle today. We need to find out where she was taken. Pete tell you of any ladies taken to the dungeons?”

“That would be gossip, ma’am. Good maids don’t involve ourselves with gossip.”

Nellie put her hands on her hips and leaned in. “Theresa, I completely agree. We are all good servants to the king. But I can’t be sure if I’ve ever seen you strolling through the hallways with your fella when you’ve got other duties…”

Theresa nodded quickly and whispered. “Pete didn’t say anything about a girl being taken down to the dungeons. But I waited on a young lady not long ago. Maybe she is who you’re looking for?”

“Would you kindly take these two boys to her? And take the back passages there, please,” Nellie said and shooed all three of us out of the kitchens.

“Follow me, please.” Theresa grimaced and hurried away.

She led us upstairs and through so many passageways, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find my way back out again. The halls were dark except for the candles and windows that lined the walls. The paintings were like windows into different worlds, happy worlds.

Theresa stopped at a door and said, “Make sure you leave the same way you came in.” She scurried away and vanished around a corner.

Red and I looked at each other before he reached out and turned the knob. The door creaked open, exposing a small room filled with fancy things.

Pepper stood up from a chair beside the ornate fireplace mantle and within seconds, she had rushed over and wrapped her arms around my neck. My heart thundered in my ears at her sudden affection. When she pulled away, she had on a bright smile. “I hoped you’d come!”

“Pepper! What are you doing here?”

This was the last thing I’d expected. Here I was, worrying about her sitting in a dungeon, and the whole time she’d been sitting in some frilly tea parlor.

“Oh, well, I’m waiting to speak to the king. Who’s your friend?”

Red stepped forward with his hand outstretched and Pepper beamed at him as she shook it. “The name’s Red. I take it you’re Pepper?”

“Yes, that’s me. Nice to meet you, Red, Nim’s told me all about you.”

Pepper adjusted her bodice. She looked different than usual. She was wearing a shiny red dress with a poufy skirt that made a funny noise when she moved. Her hair was braided down her back and the black mess of makeup that usually ringed her eyes had been cleaned off. Had she raided a costume shop before coming here? While I stared at her, I tried to remember what I was going to say.

“Nim? You okay?”

“Uh-huh.” I swallowed and stared at the fireplace before speaking. “Why did you come to talk to the king, Pepper?”

She walked back to the chair she had been sitting in when we got here and sat down. She folded her hands in her lap and said, “It’s fun acting like a lady, even if it is only an act.”

“Pepper!”

“Ugh, fine, you’re such a granny. Well, I came to speak to the king about organizing a rescue party to save the princess. This story needs someone to take it by the pages and lead it in the right direction.”

Red looked at me like he thought she was crazy, and I shrugged in response.

“We should get out of here, Pepper. It’s not safe.”

“You’re just saying that because you want to go home.”

“Well, yeah, I came here to take you home, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Red, tell her how irrational she’s being.”

Pepper’s eyebrow shot up and she jumped from her seat. Red stepped in between us and said, “What I think Nim’s trying to say is you don’t understand the situation. The king’s very unstable right now. The princess may already be dead because of my father’s actions. King Richard tried to rescue her ages ago and Slag swore he would kill her if anyone tried it again. There is nothing you can say to him to convince him that sending a rescue party will end up in anything other than his precious daughter’s death. He will send you to the dungeons for even speaking of it.”

Poor guy was without his dad, and here Pepper was trying to help, but all she was doing was stirring up trouble. She shouldn’t have even come here. She was only making things worse. Nim turned to her. “Your intention was great and all, but what were you thinking – you’d just walk up and tell the king all he needs to do is send some people in to grab his daughter? Were you going to offer your awesome drawing skills to take the bad guys down? Did you have a plan coming here or were you just going to believe everything would be okay, because, trust me, it doesn’t work that way. Just ask Red, he’ll tell you – his dad was captured by Slag.”

Instantly, I regretted what I said. Pepper’s eyes welled up and her cheek quivered. “Sorry, Red and no, that wasn’t my plan…”

There I went again, making a mess of things. Maybe I should have just shut up and let her be.

After staring into the glowing embers of the fire for a minute, she said, “I thought that if Malick was able to rescue Red and if we could get enough people to band together, we could free the princess. Maybe I wasn’t thinking – I’m not very good at it.” Pepper threw something small into the flames, which sent up a spray of sparks.

I rubbed my temple as I tried to think my way out of this. I had made my only friend feel bad about herself, which hadn’t been my intention. Fan-freaking-tastic.

For the umpteenth time that day, I thrust my hands in my pockets and felt the smooth shape of the stone. Even though it was cold, rubbing my thumb over its ridges helped calm me. As I stared at Pepper sniffling at the fireplace and Red looking miserable, I made a choice. I knew what it was like being left without a mom or dad. Somehow, I felt responsible for the predicament Red was in. He was a nice guy and he deserved to have Malick back.

“So obviously we can’t do this with the king’s help. Do you know anyone who could help, Red? Any strong friends?” I asked.

Pepper’s eyes widened and she wiped away her tears.

“You need your dad back and the kingdom needs the princess back. I can’t promise this’ll work, but if we can get a few more people, I might have a plan.”

Red tilted his head and stared at me. “We’re just kids. What makes you think we’ll be able to save my dad and the princess when the king can’t?”

“Because Slag won’t expect us to. You said it yourself – we’re just kids. We aren’t a threat. C’mon, we need to get out of here before they come to take you to your meeting with the king.”

Pepper wiped away a tear and smirked. “Slag can eat it. We’re gonna show him just how tough a group of kids can be.”

 

The Plan

 

“I may know a few people who’re foolish enough to help us. Come with me.”

Red ushered us into the hall and back through the passageways without anyone seeing. I was glad he knew where he was going, because it was just one big maze to me. If I were responsible for leading us out of there, I’d probably take us straight to the king’s chamber or the dungeons, knowing my luck. While we walked along a corridor, we heard men’s voices echoing nearby.

“We aren’t allowed here! Quick, hide!” Red jumped behind a long, narrow curtain.

Pepper and I tried to join him, but there wasn’t enough room, so I looked around for another hiding place and saw a door. “C’mon, Pepper.”

I jumped across the hall and yanked open the door. Both of us rushed inside just as two guards came around the corner. Gently as I could, I eased the door shut and stood with my ear against the wood, listening to their voices. They were deep in conversation and must have stopped just outside, because I heard them clearly. “He said to retrieve the orders and post them at the barracks.”

“I don’t want to be the one to do it. He was my commanding officer.”

Bookshelves lined the walls and a large desk sat in the center of the room. Papers littered its surface and a large tapestry with a crest hung above it on the wall. As I scanned the space, I heard a voice say, “You go in and get it.”

“Quick – hide!” I said to Pepper.

She rushed around to the other side of a padded sofa and dropped out of view. At least she was taken care of, but that left me. I ran to the desk and as I moved the chair out of the way, a paper caught my eye. It had Malick’s name on it.

NOTICE

Malick Borden and all living relatives are hereby traitors.

If they step foot in Revel Green, they will be held prisoner until the day they so perish.

 

A fancy signature and a stamp with a shield on it marked the bottom of the page. Without thinking, I snatched the notice and thrust myself under the desk just as the door handle rattled and the guards came in.

“The king said it was on his desk.” The voice got closer so I tucked myself into a tight ball and held my breath.

“Don’t see it. It’s not there. Nothing with Malick’s name on it.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Maybe we shouldn’t tell him right away – give him some more time to think about it. He might change his mind.”

“Not likely. C’mon, let’s go.”

“Right. Think it’s meal time yet? I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry, George…” The door shut and their voices grew faint.

I peeked out from under the desk and before I got up, I slipped the paper into one of my pockets. No one needed to know about it. If I could give Red an extra hour, an extra day – whatever he needed to get out of here – then I’d done my best. If we could rescue the princess, none of it would matter (hopefully).

“Nim?”

I crawled out and found Pepper waiting near the door.

“That was close.”

“Sure was,” I said just as Red burst inside.

“Let’s get out of here before anyone else comes along,” he said breathlessly.

We followed him out and picked up the pace, jogging through the hallways. Soon, the familiar noises of the kitchen met us as we wound our way down the final stairwell. When Nellie saw us, she pointed a flour covered finger at Pepper and waved. She wiped her hands on her apron and called out to Red, “I’ll bring by some sweeties for you soon, Red. You take care of yourself, you hear?”

“Thanks Nellie,” he said while we filed out the back door.

I breathed in the cold air outside and shivered. “Well, that worked out better than I expected.”

“You mean you went in without a plan?” Pepper fired at me.

Clearly she was still bent out of shape about what I’d said earlier. Something my mom told me before she got sick floated through my mind. She said women appreciate men who’ll admit when they’re wrong.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Pepper.”

Hey, it’s hard admitting you’re wrong. Baby steps.

“Let’s get moving – time’s wasting.”

Red started walking away, his long legs outpacing us. Pepper and I had to jog to catch up, which seemed hard for her because her skirt was so long. We were led out from the castle battlements and down to the town below. Red darted along side streets until he stopped at a faded green door and knocked twice. It creaked open and a face peered out at us.

“Hey, Gabe – the guys here?”

The blonde boy in the doorway who looked a couple years younger than me edged out and gave Pepper a thorough once-over. Then he did the same to me. His eyes narrowed as he stared at the black leather poking out from beneath my jacket.

“What’s going on, Red?”

“Just invite us in, Gabe, I want to talk to everyone. Your mom at the shop, I hope?”

Gabe nodded and swung open the door as Red waved us in behind him. I tried to ignore the boy’s stares, and wondered if I’d made a bad choice sticking around. Maybe my plan would only land us in more trouble, getting us or the princess killed. We walked through the home and out a back door as I tried to think of some silver linings. I had on a pair of shoes that fit, my friend was safe (for now) and –

“Hello, gorgeous.”

And I was going to be sick.

I recognized him at once. It was the boy from earlier today who had chased me. He hadn’t noticed me yet because he was too busy admiring Pepper. He swept his blonde hair from his eyes and smirked at her. Standing beside him was another boy who appeared to be a couple years older than us, maybe sixteen. His brown hair was cropped close to his head and he was thicker set. When he noticed us, he asked Red, “Oy, who invited the girl?”

“I did, Rodrick. These are some friends, so be nice. They’re here to help us. This is Nim and Pepper.”

He straightened up and adjusted his clothing. “I’m Rodrick, and that’s my little brother.” He pointed at Gabe, who was leaning against the frame of the back door, watching us.

“Hey, I’m Elam – it’s nice to meet you Pepper,” the other guy said, thrusting his hands in his pockets and flexing his pecks (not very subtly). He appeared to be around the same age as Rodrick – older than us, and he seemed to be aware of it, too. I didn’t like the attention he was giving Pepper. What a sleezeball. Who would buy an act like that?

Pepper’s cheeks flushed and she tucked a stray hair behind her ear. Elam turned to me and added, “Hey.”

He did a double take and thrust his pointer finger into my chest. “This is the trash that was walkin’ round earlier wearing Slag’s uniform. You brain damaged, or a traitor?”

I fought the urge to shrink down, which is hard for a guy my size. Instead, I pulled my shoulders back as Red stepped forward and pushed Elam away from me. “Take it easy, Elam. He’s a friend of mine. Like I said, he’s here to help, so play nice.”

“So, who is this guy? He looks strange.” Rodrick asked and crossed his arms. “How’s he going to help us?”

“Nim was there when our dads tried to rescue me. He helped.” Red turned to me and explained. “Gabe, Rodrick and Elam are the sons of the other soldiers that were captured with my dad.”

If I wasn’t guilty enough already, now I felt like a thousand pound weight had been placed on my shoulders. It wasn’t just Red’s family I’d ruined, it was those of the other boys, too. Well, I didn’t really care about Elam.

“That was a week ago, though. He didn’t come back with you. Where’s he been? Hiding in the bushes?” Gabe asked suspiciously.

I stared at the ground as I felt their eyes on me. My humiliation was revisited for the third time that day. I knew what they were thinking. I was a coward. Who could trust a coward? Just put a Kick Me sign on my back and get it over with.

I took a deep breath and spoke. “I snuck off when I saw there was trouble, and I’m not proud of it. I’ve been looking for my friend Pepper, which is why I came to the city. I know what it’s like to lose a parent and I want to help. I think we should end all of this – rescue your dads and the princess all at once.”

The crew of guys looked at each other and seemed to be having a silent conversation.

“He is brain damaged. Why are you with this kid, Pepper?” Elam scoffed.

Rodrick stepped forward and said, “Don’t mind Gabe or Elam. They suffer from foot in mouth disease – can’t help what they say. It sounds crazy, but I’m curious. If you’ve got a plan, then let’s hear it.”

No pressure. They stared at me like I was a dancing goat in a clown costume, ready for a show.

I scratched my head and cleared my throat. “Well, like I told Red and Pepper, Slag or his army won’t expect some kids to be a threat. I walked past the guard tower down the road and talked my way out of the situation with the soldiers there – said I was looking for a girl who escaped. They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. I don’t think it’ll be a challenge to get past them and up to the castle.”

“Oookay, so you think we can just walk up to the castle?” Gabe asked with a scowl.

“In uniform, it won’t be any trouble at all.” I held my breath and turned to Red. “Any way we can get ahold of some more uniforms?” My plan hinged on being able to walk up to the castle in disguise.

He returned a sneaky smirk and said, “My dad’s a general. I know for a fact they’ve detained Slag’s soldiers before and they store their uniforms in the armory. I can get us in, no problem.”

“Assuming we can get ahold of those uniforms, then what? How do we get past the guard tower at the Elder Tree? And then how do we get anywhere near the princess? You don’t expect to bring her along, do you?” Rodrick pointed at Pepper, who frowned and fired off at him. “You have something against girls? Don’t think I can fend for myself?” She paused a moment and smiled sweetly. “I’ll forgive your stupidity, being you’re only a boy and I’ll assume you haven’t been properly educated. You need me to come along. Girls can go places boys can’t.”

Elam interjected. “I wouldn’t think of leaving you behind. Don’t lump me in with Rodrick.”

Pepper launched back in. “If Nimrod told the guards he was looking for me, then I can be your prisoner. Plus, I got past the gate already all by myself – I ran circles around the idiots there. Now that I’ve met you, I’m starting to wonder if it’s a genetic thing around here.”

Rodrick stood speechless, clearly unsure of what had just happened.

I thought it best to smooth things over. She certainly had a point, but her brutal honesty could cause trouble. I may have been larger than all the guys, but I didn’t want it to come down to protecting myself or Pepper if they got mad (my mom’s gentle giant to the end). “Pepper has a point. She’s our perfect cover to get past the guard gate – we can say she escaped the castle and her duties when Braylon assigned her maid duty to the princess. She is our key to everything. If we can get up to the castle, which I don’t doubt we can, then we only need to escort her inside. From there, we need to get her a servant uniform from the maid’s quarters, and probably one more for the princess. If the princess is kept in the tower, then hopefully not many people will know what she looks like. They won’t expect her as a maid.”

Pepper inched next to me, clutched my hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. Her voice brushed past my ear. “Thanks, Nim – you’re a good friend.”

I pinched my lips shut and tried not to grin like a total buffoon, which I failed at miserably.

“Yeah, but what about our dads?” Gabe asked.

“Well, we’ll have to split up. Two of us can go with Pepper up to the tower while the others head to the barracks and dungeons to search for your dads. Red should be in that team since he’s familiar with the layout and knows his way around.”

Red nodded in agreement as the others seemed to consider the plan.

“I can go with Pepper. I’ll protect her with my body,” Elam piped up and winked at her. There was no way I’d let Pepper out of my sight with this jerk.

“Actually, I think it would be best to have Rodrick with us because he’s older. I wouldn’t imagine they have too many new recruits in the castle,” I said and looked at Elam, who shrugged.

For the youngest one, Gabe was persistent and was definitely starting to get on my nerves. “But what about escape? Assuming we get the princess and our dads, what next? How do we get out of there without getting captured or killed?”

“Why can’t we walk out of there like we walk in? Cause a diversion – let out all the prisoners. Malick and the others may still be in Slag’s uniforms. The girls will look like servants and we can move out while the alarm is raised,” I answered.

Rodrick made a fist and ground it into his palm. “I’ve been wanting to hit Slag where it hurts. Don’t know about you guys, but I’m game. If we don’t try something then Red may wind up on his own, not to mention the rest of us. Mom’s doing everything she can to find work, but if the princess is executed, it’s all over. Period.”

Everyone went silent for the first time since we arrived. They stood around looking at each other until they nodded and Gabe said, “Fine. It’s better than what we’ve come up with.”

Red rubbed his hands together. “Thanks guys – knew you’d back me up. Time for some uniforms. I guess we only need three since I’ve already got mine. But what about Pepper? She’s dressed like a lady, not a maid. Gabe, take her up to your mom’s room and give her some clothes. Be quick.”

Gabe led Pepper through the dark home and I started after them when Red said, “She’ll be safe with him. He’s no Elam.”

“Hey!” Elam said, “I heard that.”

“I know, it’s no secret.”

I muffled a laugh and relaxed.

Gabe came back down and a few minutes after, Pepper followed, wearing a plain long sleeved shirt and a skirt. Her red dress hung limply over her arm. “Can we stuff this in your bag? Mom’ll kill me if she sees it’s missing – it was my great-grandmother’s. I’ve always wanted to wear it.” She grinned wickedly and I quickly slipped my backpack off my shoulders so she could cram it in as best she could.

“Let’s go.” Red spun around and disappeared through the house.

By the time we made it out to the street, Red was already two houses down and moving fast. I didn’t want to be caught behind with Gabe or Elam and encouraged Pepper ahead of me.

It took us a couple minutes to hurry back up near the castle. We passed one set of walls and instead of walking past the battlements, we stopped just outside a large stone building that was probably two or three times the size of my school. Red waited for the others to catch up before he gave instructions. “Okay, most of the men know me in there. Don’t think I’ll have trouble getting back to the armory. Rodrick, go round to the back and I’ll drop the uniforms and some weapons off one of the balconies. Gabe, why don’t you go with your brother. Elam, would you run to my house and get my uniform from the closet floor? Let’s all meet round back to get changed.” Then he faced us and said, “Nim and Pepper, why don’t you go round the side of the barracks and wait for us. Stay out of sight. We’ll find you guys when we’re ready, okay?” He waited for confirmation from everyone before disappearing into the barracks.

“See you soon,” Elam said to Pepper and jogged through the gates up to the castle. I imagined him falling on his face, getting gravel in his blonde hair and dirt between his perfect teeth, which made me feel a little bit better.

Pepper grinned after him and I couldn’t understand why. “C’mon, let’s go,” I said over my shoulder to her.

I followed Rodrick and Gabe around the building and stopped at an inlet of the wall. “Hey guys, we’ll be waiting for you here,” I half-whispered, half-hollered at them. They turned and Rodrick gave me a thumbs-up sign.

I dropped my backpack to the ground and Pepper and I sat against the wall while we waited. My stomach gurgled noisily, reminding me it was time to have a snack. I pulled out two apples and handed one to Pepper, who accepted it eagerly. Between crunching bites, she stopped and stared into the distance. “Thanks Nim – for coming to help. I know you didn’t want to.”

I swallowed a mouthful and shrugged. “I came here to take you home.”

“You know you wouldn’t have gotten me out of here against my will, right?”

That I believed.

“What changed your mind?” she asked.

“Dunno. Maybe it was the guilt, or that I want Red to have a parent since I know what it’s like to be all alone.”

“Or maybe you discovered you actually have a backbone.” She slipped her hand behind me and felt along my spine. “Yup, it’s there alright – bout time you realized it.”

Heat flushed my cheeks and I dipped my head down, allowing my hair to cover my face. “Maybe I just wanted to give you the happy ending you wanted.”

“It’s okay, Nim. I’ll keep it a secret.” She tugged on the collar of my coat and leaned in to whisper, “I know the real you. You’re a hero, and you don’t even know it.”

At this, I couldn’t contain my laughter. “You’d better eat the rest of that apple cuz I think you’ve gone too long without food. Feeling lightheaded? Seeing spots?”

“You can pretend I’m crazy, but deep down, you’re afraid I’m right.”

“Afraid?”

“Sure. It’s a lot easier to hide away than it is to let the world see you for who you are.”

This was getting absurd. Who was she to throw stones? My mom died. In my mind, that was a pretty good reason to be depressed. “Whatever, I’m not the only one who’s got problems. What about you? Why do you hide out at my house all the time? Afraid to go home?”

Pepper blinked. “I’m not afraid of who I am. Julie was the only one who loved me for being me. Now that she’s gone, my parents don’t know how to talk to me. I don’t go home because I’m afraid of not being loved again.”

She took another bite of her apple and we stared up at the castle in silence. It was quiet except for some muffled sounds coming from nearby. Too many different emotions were tumbling around inside of me, and I felt like I was sinking in quicksand.

“Sorry, Pepper, I –”

She scooted down and rested her head on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Nim. We have each other.”

We sat like that until Elam and Red jogged by us, promising only to take a couple minutes to get changed into uniform. Pepper’s eyes trailed after them and I couldn’t help but ask, “You like him?”

The corners of her mouth curled up and she said, “Why? Jealous?”

What was she talking about? She was a friend! I only liked her as a friend. Elam was a jerk and I didn’t want to see her getting hurt.

“Yikes, didn’t mean to stun you into silence. Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I don’t like any of them that way. Just trying to make some allies.”

I had to admit I was relieved. We sat silently until all four of the guys came into view in their black uniforms. Pepper and I helped each other up and brushed ourselves off.

“You ready to show Slag what a handful of kids can do?” Rodrick asked and sheathed his sword with a grin.

 

Last Hope

 

“We don’t want to go through town wearing this, so I thought we’d better cover up with something.” Red handed out long cloaks to all the boys including me. We all covered our uniforms with the blue fabric that extended down to our ankles.

“Time to go,” he said and led us out from alongside the barracks. I hurried after, flanked by Pepper and Rodrick while Gabe and Elam took up the rear. Red’s hair was the most colorful thing around, and was easy to track as he started off ahead of us. Instead of walking past the main gates and into the city, Red led us parallel to the wall and up to a tower. We entered a doorway and wound our way to the top, which provided access to the walkway above the castle walls. From there I could see out across the city and the darkened lands beyond.

“Come on, keep up,” Red called out to me when I stopped to take in the bleak, yet breathtaking view and I jogged ahead to catch up.

We didn’t have to go far before Red stopped and lifted up a grate in the walkway. Metal hand holds marked the dark shaft all the way down. Good thing I wasn’t afraid of heights.

“What’s a castle without secret escape routes? My dad showed me all of them,” Red said and disappeared down the hole.

I hesitated for a moment before following him down and looked up to see Pepper’s feet reaching for a hold and I almost stepped on top of Red because I was so distracted. He stopped suddenly, and metal clanked before dim light filled the bottom of the shaft. I watched his silhouette move outside before I continued after him.

We were on a hillside surrounded by sickly looking trees and bushes. They had lost most of their color, like it had drained out the tips of their wilted branches. Pepper bumped into me, causing me to stumble a couple feet down the slope. Hushed voices behind me let me know Red’s friends had joined us.

Elam mumbled, “Don’t know why my dad never showed me all the secret passages.”

Rodrick mumbled under his breath, “Probably cause he didn’t want you sneaking out to visit all your girlfriends.”

We cut through the wilderness on a trail and once we arrived in town, we avoided the main streets. I clutched the blue cloak tightly shut as the others had. We needed to hide our uniforms from curious passersby. Soon we left the quiet city behind us.

I was beginning to wonder how much time had passed. It was hard to determine without a watch or daylight. In Portland, the clouds would occasionally part to let the sun check in on the world below, but not here, where the sky only changed from gray to charcoal.

The further we distanced ourselves from King Richard’s territory, the wilted plant life diminished, leaving only more rocks and gravel in their place. A tamerac flew overhead as we marched along the dusty road, and I wondered if it was the same one I’d fed along the way.

I drifted to the back of the pack as I watched the bird-like creature descend above me. I thought I’d test if it was the same one as before, so I grabbed a small stone from the road and held it out in my palm. Pepper and the guys were in the middle of a discussion and didn’t see. The tamerac slowly touched down on my arm and eyed the pebble, clearly hoping for a granola treat. I whispered softly, “Take this rock and drop it on Elam’s head.” To make sure it knew its target, I pointed at his broad shoulders.

The tamerac snatched up the rock and I felt its wings brush against my arm as it lifted into flight. It flew into position ten feet above Elam and I wished I had my phone so I could take a picture. The stone slapped against his head and tumbled to the ground.

“Ow!” Elam roared and ducked. “What was that?”

He looked up into the sky and cursed at the culprit. “Tamerac, up to tricks. If I catch you, I’ll roast you for dinner!”

Pepper started giggling and the others began to snicker.

“What a tough guy, Elam. You can take on Slag’s army, but when a little tamerac drops a stone on you, you need your momma.” Rodrick punched his friend’s shoulder playfully.

“Just surprised me, s’all.”

The tamerac continued to fly overhead. It had to be the same one as before. It definitely lost points in the snuggly department with those teeth, but it won extra ones for the cool factor.

I jogged ahead in time to hear Rodrick mutter. “All right, you all clear on our plan?”

Ahead of us, the dark shape of the gate and guard tower materialized. It was show time. We pulled off our blue cloaks and dropped them at the side of the road.

“Yes,” Pepper answered and stopped so he could place a pair of iron handcuffs around her wrists.

“Sorry, Pepper.”

“No worries. It’s necessary.” She winked at me before hanging her head and continuing to walk, clearly enjoying the performance. Rodrick and I positioned ourselves on either side of her, while Red, Elam and Gabe marched behind us.

As we neared the gate, a soldier stepped out from the guard tower. It was the same man who was there when I passed through earlier. He recognized me and asked, “Is this the young lady you were looking for?”

“Yes, we found her trying to hide in an abandoned farm. Prince Braylon will be pleased to have her back to work up at the castle.”

“Very good.” He gestured for us to walk around the gate and then stopped. “I didn’t see the rest of you come through today. When did she escape?”

“You’re awfully full of questions for someone who’s forgetful about his own duties. These men were returning from their own mission and met me on the road. They helped me detain the maid, and now we are all due back at the castle. Do you really wish to keep us any longer, Rogen?”

“No, of course not. My apologies.”

I couldn’t help myself and asked, “Where’s Kendrick?”

Rogen shifted his weight as his eyes darted uneasily over all the members of my party. “I gave him orders to keep watch from the tower and sharpen our spare blades – something simple he can’t blunder.”

Pepper seemed to momentarily forget her part and straightened up. “Oh, he was the one here before? He was so helpful –”

She stopped talking the second she noticed me grimacing at her. Rodrick gave her a gentle yet sharp tug on her cuffs, which I didn’t think was necessary, but he didn’t seem to care. I could see he was getting into his part. He growled at Rogen. “Is that the fool that let this lass by? He made more work for us when we were eager to get back. Why don’t you bring ‘im down here so we can show him what we think of him?”

Rogen’s eyes widened as Rodrick placed his hand on the butt of his sword. Rogen stammered. “Oh, no, I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m more than capable to show him the error of his ways. Don’t worry – I will make sure he doesn’t do it again.”

“Make sure he doesn’t,” Rodrick sneered and winked at me when Rogen wasn’t looking.

Without another word, we continued on the road and away from the gated tower. Although I had worn my sneakers on this trip, my feet were getting tired from all the walking. I just wanted to complete the mission. We were close. If we followed our plan, then soon enough we’d be back in the dreary Northwest, sipping coffee in the comfort of a temperature controlled home. Pepper would be happy that we helped my story characters and life would move on. Simple. Nothing in my life was ever simple, but I dared to hope.

The sky went from gray to charcoal and my stomach was growling. The apple I ate while sitting with Pepper had burned off and I was ready for something more substantial – like a steak dinner. Thinking about food made me unhappy so I tried to focus on the tall black spire ahead of us that held the imprisoned princess. The outline of the castle grew larger as we got close to Valen City.

Sounds from the town reached my ears and the entrance gates loomed before us. I copied Rodrick, Elam and Gabe and nodded at the soldiers we passed who were posted alongside the road. They dipped their chins to their chests as we strode with purpose past the shops and buildings. Men dressed in the same dark uniforms as us stared at Pepper as we marched by. I edged closer to her and held her arm protectively.

The chill in the air got more frigid as we approached the castle. Like the last time I visited this place, I had the sensation of all happiness and warmth leaving my body. I started to doubt my confidence in the plan. What was I thinking? Pepper and I had passed right by the path to the Elder Tree and our way out of this miserable world. I could have just grabbed her and left.

She seemed to hear my thoughts or maybe it was the pained expression on my face that gave me away, but Pepper lifted her handcuffed hands and rested them on my own. Her voice came out sure and soft. “Nim, all of this is possible because of you. You had the power to create this place and I know you have the power to fix it. Let’s do this.”

She was right. There was no going back now. The dark castle keep loomed ahead of us, and I knew the only way for us to go home now was to complete this harebrained mission. It was time to man up and commit one-hundred percent, or it wouldn’t work. I took a deep breath and clenched my jaw.

Rodrick stopped and unlocked Pepper’s handcuffs. “This is where we split up. You all ready? Know what you have to do?” He looked at each one of us and waited for everyone to give him a nod.

Red patted me on the back and muttered, “Good luck, Nim.”

“You, too. Hope you find your dad. See you soon.”

Red gave me a nervous grin and walked toward the entrance to the lower dungeons with Gabe and Elam. Elam squinted at me and shifted expressions like a scitzo, looking at Pepper with a buttery smile. “Keep those pretty lips safe.”

“Thanks, I will,” I said. It was enjoyable watching the confused and angry look spread across his face. I waved at him before I turned to look at my friend, completely amazed with myself.

Pepper smirked and muttered, “Good one.”

“Ready?” Roderick took his place on the other side of Pepper and we strode up to the castle gates. We had agreed it was best he do the talking since he was older. He seemed to like taking control, and who was I to question him? I was just an orphaned, twelve-year-old book nerd.

When we reached the entrance to the castle keep, the guards at the door stopped us. “What is your business?”

“We are here to deliver the princess’s new maid to her post,” Rodrick said loudly.

“We were not informed of this activity,” one of the guards replied.

Rodrick paused for a moment and seemed to think about his answer. “I guess you’ll have to explain to the prince why she’s been delayed. He asked us to personally go and retrieve her, but I guess he doesn’t tell you everything.”

The guards looked at each other and appeared to be weighing their choices. “Right. Take her through. The maid’s quarters are in the lower levels.” The man stared at Pepper and added, “Be sure to get a uniform before you start work.”

Pepper kept her eyes to the ground and curtsied. “Yes, sir.”

Rodrick breezed through the entrance with Pepper and me in tow. During my previous visit to the city I had only entered the dungeons and barracks. The inside reminded me of King Richard’s castle. It seemed like a shadow of something that used to be great and majestic that was now sad and colorless.

Finding the stairwell into the lower chambers took too long, so Pepper asked a passing servant for directions. Once we were back on the right track we wound our way down and finally arrived at the correct place.

“Remember to get another uniform for the princess.” I reminded Pepper as she disappeared through the doorway.

The two of us stood around for what felt like an eternity. While we waited, a maid passed by and Rodrick muttered, “Ah, women. Is it a law they must make you wait as they get ready?”

Just when I was beginning to consider going in after her, she appeared wearing a long charcoal tunic with a belt cinched around her waist. A black scarf tied her hair back and a she held a lump of cloth under her arm.

“Ready, boys? Time to go to the kitchen for the princess’s meal.”

Apparently she knew where she going, because she set off through the stone hallways at a quick pace. Rodrick and I had to jog to catch up. I heard her muttering under her breath, but only caught a few words. “Was it a left after the pig tapestry?” and “This must be right.”

“Do you know where we’re going, Pepper, or are we going to find ourselves in the dungeons?” I called ahead.

“Shut it, Mr. Sarcastic, I think we’re just about there. Yes, see…”

We rounded a corner and a large archway opened into a loud, bustling kitchen. Servants busily scurried around the steamy space. Pots and pans clanged and shouts laced the air.

“Be right back.” Pepper pressed the bundle of fabric into my arms and ventured into the chaos.

After a couple of minutes she rushed out with a tray of food. Her eyes were wide and she muttered, “It’s a madhouse in there. Okay, now we need to find our way up to the tower. I was told how to get to the kitchens, but I’m not sure I remember how they said to get to the tower. There should be a stairwell close by that takes us to a corridor.”

She craned her neck and wandered off. “This way, guys – yes, here it is.”

We followed behind and found her ascending a circular flight of steps. After the long afternoon of walking, the muscles in my legs ached. My sedentary life was catching up with me. Geeks like me exercised our brains, not our brawn. Not that I was ready to consider joining track and field or anything.

I braced my hands against my knees to help propel myself after Pepper, who didn’t seem fazed by the exercise. When we reached the top of the stairwell, we entered a long corridor. Arched openings at the top of the exterior wall breathed fresh air into the hallway. If it weren’t so dark outside, I could almost imagine what it would look like with moonlight touching the pale stones that surrounded us.

“I think we go this way,” Pepper said with a little too much uncertainty for my comfort. She hung a right and looked behind herself to check that we were following.

When we made it halfway to the tower doorway, a loud bell clanged. The sound reverberated in the air and echoed off the walls. I resisted the urge to cup my hands over my ears and turned to Rodrick for guidance. His eyes widened and I barely heard his voice over the alarm. “They must have been caught.”

I froze and searched for Pepper, who had stopped in place, holding her tray of food for the awaiting princess. She didn’t seem frightened, but determined. Her mouth moved but I couldn’t hear her, although I could read her lips. “Let’s go.”

She was ready to sprint down the hallway and make a run for it. All I could do was stand still and watch everything around me like it was a movie playing one frame at a time. I’m not good when I’m put on the spot. That’s just the sad truth. The longer I stood absorbing the chaos around me, the more I realized how afraid I was. This was what I had wanted to avoid and now everything was falling apart around us. I should have followed my initial instinct to just get Pepper out of here. I was no hero. Why did I let myself think this would work? How was this different from any other part of my life?

I dug into my pocket in search of my worry stone and I was surprised to find it was warm rather than icy. I withdrew my hand and was startled to see blue light seeping out from between my fingers. Slowly, I revealed the mysterious object and found a glowing pod. Was this the same glassy, black rock I’d been carrying around with me?

Shouts rang out down either end of the corridor. Soldiers were coming and there was no way out. The open arches above us were too high to scale, even though Rodrick was trying to convince us to give it a try. As I stared up into the darkness outside, I noticed a pair of violet eyes peering down at me. A chill ran down my spine and all my doubts and fears were tossed aside as a thought formed in my head. Our only hope.

 

Slag’s Triumph

 

Once I called to it, the tamerac flew down to me and landed on my outstretched arm. Its expectant eyes searched my fingers for a treat just as Pepper rushed to my side with her tray. I snatched some food off the plate and offered it to the creature, which quickly relieved me of it. He would need a reward for what I wanted him to do. Hopefully, he would understand my whispered instructions.

Pepper’s concerned voice couldn’t pierce my concentration. I was intent on my plan. It had to work. I didn’t want to get trapped in this world, or worse, die. There had to be a way out.

Soldiers’ foot falls replaced the echo of the bell and soon we were surrounded by men clad in black leather uniforms with Slag’s emblem on their chests. The tamerac flew over the guards’ heads with its claws clenched tightly around my gift. It curved and swooped out one of the open arches and I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping it was as smart as I needed it to be. If it wasn’t, then we would never get home.

“Malick,” Rodrick sputtered.

My attention snapped back to what was happening around me. Standing in the forefront of the group was Malick. It was him, I was sure of it, but he seemed different somehow. Maybe it was the devilish grin he was wearing as he stared at us. It made me uneasy.

“I hear you’re looking for me,” he said and flashed his teeth.

Rodrick stepped forward. “We came to rescue you – did Red not find you?”

“Aye. He, Elam and Gabe found us,” Malick answered as two soldiers cut through the crowd with three prisoners in tow. I recognized the soldiers as Malick’s friends and the boys’ fathers. They didn’t seem very upset about restraining their children for all to see.

“Red,” Pepper whispered under her breath.

Red’s head hung so low that I couldn’t see his face, but his cheeks were crimson. I didn’t have to see him to know how upset he was. Elam stood beside him and communicated all we needed to know through a single look. Malick had captured them. He wasn’t the man they knew anymore.

As this information filtered through our party, shoulders slumped and all hope evaporated. I felt Red’s pain as he was held before us and laughed at by his own father, a man who no longer felt love for his own kin, a man changed and poisoned by Slag. If this was what he had feared would happen to his son when I first met him, it was for good reason.

“Thank you for delivering my boy to me. I’ve wanted him by my side. He will make a great addition to Slag’s army – you all will. Well, most of you,” Malick said and laughed at Pepper, whose face drained of color.

A soldier leaned in to speak to Malick. “Sir, Prince Braylon is waiting…”

“Of course. Let me take you to meet your fate. Don’t worry, you will soon be passionate for your new lord, King Slag, and then we will be united once again.” Malick slapped Rodrick on the shoulder, who seemed to be considering if a good punch in the face would cure Malick of his insanity. Instead, he clenched his jaw tightly and nodded.

We were surrounded and led down several corridors to a large, open chamber. The darkness in the room seemed to be smothering the light from the candles that hung on chandeliers from the ceiling. A chill coursed through my body and the hairs on my arms stood on end.

A man wearing a simple golden crown, dressed in black, stood before an enormous hearth. He turned to face us as we were brought before him. His eyes shared a similar dull sheen as Malick’s, like the light inside them had been snuffed out and replaced with a piece of ice.

“Thank you, Malick. Slag will be informed of your usefulness. You have certainly proven your worth.” Malick bowed and moved back, with his friends. “I am Prince Braylon. And who are all of you?”

I was relieved not to be first in line because I wasn’t sure my voice would come. One by one the others said their names, and last came Pepper and myself. My throat dried up and I stuttered as I spoke.

“I understand you thought you could come here and rescue Malick, his friends and the Princess. That was foolish. I bet you wish you hadn’t come now.” Prince Braylon stared at the crimson flames and I thought I saw sadness reflected in his eyes. “No matter. We will find use for you now. Malick and company, I believe some of these young men are your sons? Which one is yours?”

Malick pointed to Red and said, “This one is my boy. I was promised he could serve with me. The other three over there are my men’s boys.”

“Of course, I will keep our promise,” Prince Braylon answered.

“I, however made no such promise,” an icy voice spat from the other side of the room.

All the soldiers, including Prince Braylon, knelt down on one knee. From a shadowy doorway came a figure. I had never seen anyone before who looked more like the grim reaper. He was missing the scythe, otherwise he’d be a perfect match. A black cloak wrapped his tall frame and short jet hair covered his head. He glided toward us, never taking his eyes off Prince Braylon. As he passed by me I noticed the skin on his face was so pale that the thin veins beneath could be seen. If I thought the room was cold before, when this man entered, it grew arctic. I rubbed my arms for warmth and Pepper huddled next to me.

“Why did you not call me?” he asked Prince Braylon.

“I am sorry, your Highness. I did not think to disturb you.”

“No, you did not think. I thought you learned after the last time that I wish to be notified immediately when anyone is brash enough to come into my castle and my land, thinking they can do as they please.”

“My apologies, King Slag,” Prince Braylon mumbled before standing back up. The other soldiers followed suit, but their heads remained bowed.

“We can’t have people thinking they can do as they wish. We can’t have them thinking there’s hope.” Slag pronounced the ‘p’ with a popping sound and turned to stare at each one of us. I couldn’t bear to meet his eyes and looked at his chest instead.

“However, we could use more soldiers. I see some of you will be of great use to me. Others –” he paused before Pepper “– will not.”

My heart began to drum in my chest so hard that I worried it would break free and fall into my stomach. Pepper’s fingers curled around mine, reminding me to keep breathing. This was very quickly going from bad to worse. My plan. I had to remember my plan. It was the only way.

“I have no use for more servants, and I wouldn’t waste a sliver of stone from my scepter on a girl. She can be dispensed with. Take her away and kill her.”

Pepper’s grip tightened around my hand as two guards stepped forward.

“No! Wait!” I called out and stepped between her and the men approaching her. Rodrick and Red broke from line as well and flanked us.

Shrill laugher crackled from Slag. “Do you think you can stop me, boy? How amusing.”

“No, sir. I know I can’t stop you and your great power. My friend and I are not from your land and have no part in this war. I have information you may be interested in. If I give it to you, I want your word that you will not harm either of us.”

A smirk slid across Slag’s face. “Many questions come to mind, child. Why would a young boy like yourself hold valuable information that I don’t already have and what makes you think I can’t get this information from any of these men once I have them under my control?”

I swallowed hard and answered, “Because none of them have been in King Richard’s private chambers and seen his secret papers.”

Pepper and Red shifted to stare at me, and I tried to ignore their frightened glances.

“I’m intrigued, young one. Are you able to prove this claim?”

I felt like throwing up as I picked the folded paper out of my pocket and handed it to Slag. “I couldn’t take the journal I found the secret information in because I couldn’t carry it discretely, but this paper proves I was at the king’s desk.”

Slag unfolded it and his brows pulled together while he read it. When he was through, he stared at me with curiosity and then directed his attention to Malick. “It seems the king was going to place orders to detain you and your family, Malick. Looks like it was a good time to switch sides.”

Red leaned over to look at me with a hurt expression, but I couldn’t meet his stares. I’d lose my nerve. Slag edged so close to me that I could see the veins pulsing in his neck. “What a little thief you are. Well, I am willing to listen to this valuable information. If I don’t find it useful, then there is no deal – understand?”

It felt like I was perched at a one-hundred foot high precipice, ready to jump without a safety net. If I was wrong about any of my assumptions, then it was game over. For all of us.

“No, Nim, don’t tell him anything,” Pepper yanked so hard on my arm that I flinched.

“Shh. I have to. I can’t let him hurt you.” I pulled myself free of her grasp. “I assume you’re aware of the princess’s power?”

Slag snorted. “Is this all? Of course. Every generation there is a child born who is linked to the Elder Tree. A caretaker with a connection that shares the great tree’s power. The princess was this person. This is why I destroyed the Elder Tree and have the princess locked high in my tower. I have not killed her, because if I do, then another will be born to replace her, opening up the possibility of rekindling the life of the Elder Tree. If I keep her in her tower, then there will never be hope of that. You bore me.”

“Then you are unaware of how to end the cycle for good? Destroying all possibility of the Elder Tree ever being brought back?”

Rodrick, Red, Elam and Gabe lunged for me but Slag’s guards secured them. Their shouts were muffled when their lives were threatened by drawn swords.

“No, Nim – please, no!” I had to keep going, as hard as it was to ignore Pepper’s pained whispers.

“Go on, Nim. It seems your friends don’t wish you to tell me your secrets, which makes me more curious,” Slag said.

“You have to kill the princess.”

Prince Braylon, who had been remaining quiet near the fire, stared at me with a hardened grimace. Shouts rose again from my friends, which were hard to ignore.

“Ha, ha. Well, Nimrod, I fear you are wrong. Like I just told you, if I kill the princess, a new child will be born to take her place.”

“Not if you kill her at the roots of the Elder Tree.”

The grin on Slag’s face faltered and Elam’s insults were hushed. The room fell silent as everyone watched their king ponder my words.

“You say you found this information in King Richards’s papers?”

“Yes, sir, I did. Written in his own hand, hidden in his desk,” I muttered.

“Bring Princess Amerovia to me,” Slag ordered some nearby soldiers.

Two guards slipped from the room and we all waited for their return. Minutes passed until footfalls could be heard coming down the outside corridor. They reemerged with a young woman in their grasp. Her long, flowing brown hair was tangled around her face, but it couldn’t conceal her amazing beauty. Amerovia’s blue eyes darted around and finally settled on Prince Braylon, who returned her stares.

“Good evening, Princess Amerovia, nice of you to join us. You look terrible. Have you been getting enough beauty sleep?” Slag chuckled and waved lazily at me. “This boy has been filling my head with some very interesting stories.”

Her gaze broke from the prince and fell on me instead. Kindness and curiosity were reflected in her eyes as she studied me. All I could do was smile weakly and swallow the lump that had formed in my throat. Once she heard about the trouble I’d stirred up, her sweet grin would be lost for good.

“What sort of stories?” Amerovia’s soft voice inquired.

“He tells me I can stop the possibility of your successor’s rebirth and destroy any chance of the Elder Tree’s power touching this land ever again.”

“Does he?” she asked softly.

“He tells me that if I kill you at the roots of the Elder Tree, then my reign will be absolute and this land will be mine. Does he speak the truth?” Slag seemed to be holding his breath as he awaited her answer.

Amerovia gave me a sad smile. “It appears you have given away my secret and finally released me from my torture.”

My heart actually felt like it stopped in my chest. Prince Braylon turned away and stepped toward the fire. He was the only person to dare breathe or move. Everyone else could only stare at the beautiful princess and wait for Slag’s response.

“Prince Braylon, do you have an issue with killing the princess? Do you not wish to see our reign uncontested?”

The prince’s voice was low and barely audible. “No, sir. I have always been your most loyal subject. I will do as you ask.”

“Perfection, but it makes me wonder just the same. It seems this little secret has been kept from me. I wonder, Prince Braylon, is this news a surprise to you, or have you not been as loyal as I thought? Keeping secrets from me? Did my scepter not pierce your heart like I believed it had?”

Braylon spun around and tore open his tunic, revealing his chest. Beneath his skin, dark lines condensed into a charcoal knot on the left side of his sternum. “Is this evidence enough for you? I never knew what this boy speaks of. I must not have been trusted enough, even though we were once promised to marry.” His nostrils flared and his eyes burned with anger.

Amerovia stood tall in the midst of Slag’s and Braylon’s heated discussion, almost forgotten. Her dress was in tatters, and her skin, dirty. I wondered how long she had been in the tower. How long had she awaited her death after no rescue came? Was she truly relieved to think her end was nearly here?

Something inside me snapped. More than ever, I wanted her to want to live, to fight and survive. If she wouldn’t do it for herself, then I would for her. I had been powerless to help Mom. No amount of breakfasts in bed, walks to the store or reading aloud helped save her from death, no matter how hard I tried. When the end drew near, I could see the same look on her face that Princess Amerovia wore now. She just wanted to be released from her painful life. Well, not if I could help it. I was the one who’d created this story, and I would not allow the princess to die.

“How could you do this – I trusted you.” Red whispered from behind me.

I pinched my eyes shut and reminded myself all this was necessary. As long as no one knew my plan, it could work. The ends justified the means.

“Looks like you’ve made some lifelong friends. They don’t seem very happy with you for betraying their trust. Come to rescue the princess and in the end, you’re responsible for killing her. It’s almost poetic.” Slag’s steel eyes fixed on my face and moved to stand inches away. Gray veins traced along his skin, making me wonder if he even had blood pumping through his body or if it was oil.

I felt everyone’s stares but didn’t want to return them. Their anger toward me was palpable, and I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt it.

“Search him,” Slag said and two guards removed my backpack and checked my pockets. They pulled out Pepper’s dress from my bag (it could have been worse, but not much), as well as the paper, pencil, socks, bandages and Grandpa’s pocketknife.

“It’s not mine,” I mumbled about the dress, and the man holding it smirked.

“This isn’t your day, is it, Nim? Give him his things back. A knife that small couldn’t hurt a wood mouse. Well, looks like we’re going to take a trip to the Elder Tree. A story like this is just too tempting to pass up. If you’re lying to me, I’ll kill everyone in your party, starting with your lady friend.” Slag waved at Pepper. “I have to admit, I’ve been bored with this stalemate. King Richard’s too weak these days to hold off my attack, anyway. For some time I’ve thought about dispensing with you, Amerovia, and now the timing just feels right. Ready the carriages.”

We were all handcuffed and led outside. I had no idea what time it was, but it was definitely past dinner. At least, that was what my stomach was telling me. Had Aunt Holly noticed I wasn’t home? Would she worry? Would I ever make it back?

Pepper stood nearby and avoided looking at me. Malick had his hand on Red’s shoulder, but Red hadn’t stopped staring at the ground since he was captured. The only one who didn’t appear devastated was Slag, who climbed into his royal carriage and had Prince Braylon and Princess Amerovia join him.

A barred carriage drove up and Rodrick, Elam, Gabe, Red, Pepper and I were pushed inside. Several soldiers climbed up front and Malick called out, “This will soon be over. Your new king will find your value and we will be joined once again.”

Red’s eyes pinched shut as though he wished he were asleep and when he woke things would be happy again. Pepper scooted away from me on the wooden bench and Elam leaned forward and growled, “I could kill you now, but it wouldn’t do us any good. Traitor.”

“I don’t want no trouble back there, or I’ll chain you behind us and make you walk the whole way,” one of the guards shouted from up front.

Elam leaned back and stared into the distance, clearly deciding ignoring me was the best choice for now. I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to calm my racing heart. I’ve never liked threats of bodily harm, especially from angry teenagers with unbalanced testosterone levels.

If this didn’t work out, I was dead no matter what. “Pepper –”

She turned away from me and muttered, “You’re not the person I thought you were. Don’t talk to me.”

“Oy, I said shut it back there!” The guard banged his fist against the bars and I thought maybe being dragged behind the carriage was better than being ignored by my friend, but I decided it would be best to just shut up and stay quiet.

The sound of the horses’ hooves on the gravel became my focus instead of how hated I’d become in the period of an hour. But, really, what else was new?

I pulled my backpack off and dug around until I found a small bit of granola bar crumbled at the bottom of the bag, and pocketed it for later. As hungry as I was, I had a better use for it.

After a long, bumpy ride, we finally stopped. We had arrived at the gates and entrance to the Elder Tree. The soldiers, holding torches, jumped down from their seats and Malick unlocked the back of our carriage.

Slag, Prince Braylon and Princess Amerovia stood waiting for us at the side of the road. “After you, Princess,” Slag said, holding his torch out.

We walked, one by one, down the narrow pathway in the inky dark. Tall crags rose above us, and shadows moved as the light from the flames licked at the air. Icy blue eyes shone down on us and claws scratched on stone perches overhead. I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted a pair of purple eyes amongst the rest.

The trail widened and opened up into what I assumed was the large basin. Without the light of the moon or stars, I could only guess where we were, because I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of me. We fanned out and I watched Amerovia stumble toward a tall, black shape.

 

The Elder Tree

 

“Well, Princess, I believe your time has come. Do you wish to impart any last words before this world says goodbye to your kind of magic forever?”

Amerovia walked with her arms outstretched to the Elder Tree, occasionally tripping over stones but never stopping. When she reached it, her sobs could be heard bouncing off the walls of the basin. Her fingers trailed along the trunk and I recalled the feel of its cool, smooth flesh beneath the singed surface.

“How touching. Crying for a tree that’s been dead for years. Princess? Are you ready?” Slag took two long strides toward her and unsheathed his sword.

She let go of the tree and turned around. From where I stood I could see soot covering her dirty clothes and skin. “I never stopped hoping that I could save the world from your darkness. I still have hope.”

Slag boomed with laughter. “You hope even now? What a delusional girl. I wonder why you ever loved her, Prince Braylon.”

While Slag was distracted, I tried to get Pepper’s attention, which was hard because she was purposefully ignoring me (and she called me a drama queen). I grabbed her hand and she tried to rip it away, but I held on tight and growled in her ear. “Stop it – all of this is part of my plan, okay? We need to move closer – all of us. I need you to create a diversion when I give you the sign. Can you do that for me? Please?”

She relaxed her arm and looked me in the eye, frowning. After a tense moment, she nodded and moved toward Red to pass along my instructions. Thank goodness he was the one who told Elam, because I didn’t want to get close enough to tell him myself after he threatened my life. The others gave me a curt nod as well and I hoped I could count on them. Slowly, we inched toward Slag, Amerovia and the Elder Tree.

Prince Braylon walked up to Slag and asked, “Are you sure we should trust the boy? If he’s wrong, you will have to search for the next child born linked to the Tree.”

“If I knew any better, Prince Braylon, I would say you still love the princess and don’t want to see her die,” Slag retorted, clearly annoyed.

“No, sire, just thinking of you.”

I craned my neck and searched the darkness. Two tiny orbs reflected back in the firelight and a blue glow could be seen. Now was the time. I hoped that for once in my life, I would have good luck. Not lotto winner good but, like, not killing everyone good.

Beyond the blackened shape of the tree was the familiar shimmer of the magical gateway out of this world. If things fell apart, I’d have to grab Pepper and get her out of here, although I didn’t want to leave this place in complete devastation. It was my responsibility to make things right.

I looked at Pepper, who was an arm’s length away from me and mouthed, “Now.”

She flashed me one of her brilliant smiles and I knew we were in for a show. She ran over to one of the guards and grabbed his tunic. She said loudly, and with what I thought was a bit too much theatricality, “Are we being watched? Are those torches on the top of that ridge over there? I wonder, did King Richard follow us?”

“What?” Slag and Prince Braylon turned abruptly to stare at Pepper and then in the distance to squint where she was pointing. Rodrick and Gabe shouted and pointed, as well. While everyone was looking in the opposite direction, I took advantage of the moment and pulled out the piece of granola bar. I held it out in my open palm and held my breath. The beating of wings came from behind and then the heavy weight of the tamerac pressed down on my arm. Thank God.

The creature dropped the warm seed into my palm and snapped up its treat. “You kept it safe. Good tamerac,” I muttered under my breath. “Now take it to the girl.” I waved with my free hand toward the disheveled Princess, and the tamerac grasped the Elder Seed in one of its talons. It took to the air, swooping across the expanse, flying straight for Amerovia with the glowing blue pod in its grasp.

“There’s no army out there, stupid girl. Shut up before I have you killed with the princess.” Slag tipped his sword back with a grin on his face, but before he could take a step toward the tree, a form swept down and landed on Amerovia’s shoulder. The tamerac dipped its head to her hand and let go of the illuminated round shape. She murmured something and rubbed the back of its scaly neck. Then, as quickly as it had come, it flew off and disappeared into the gloom.

While Slag sputtered in confusion, Amerovia cupped her hands together and the light began to grow. Its blue phosphorescence bloomed into a brilliant glow, brighter than the sun. As she knelt down and placed the orb into the roots of the tree, Slag propelled toward her, his sword ready to strike.

“No!!” Without thinking, I dug in my feet and rushed forward. There was no way I’d let him hurt the princess.

Before I could reach her, Braylon beat me to it, his shoulder ramming into Slag’s side, sending him headlong into the rocky terrain. The prince stood with a confused expression and his sword pointed at his opponent. “I, I may be your puppet, but I cannot let you harm her. My love for her is stronger than your evil magic.”

Slag sputtered and rolled over. It was dark, but even from where I stood I could see the hatred pouring from his eyes. “That is not possible. You are under my control, you pathetic piece of dribble. You will pay for this. You can die with your princess…”

Shock and surprise transformed his face when he turned his attention to Amerovia and the Elder Tree. The ground began to glow below us in long narrow fissures, and light coursed toward the tree, pulsing up its trunk and out its branches. Its blackened exterior fell off like ashes in the wind, revealing a vibrant, purple stock. Tiny green buds unfurled from the branches, extending into large teardrop shaped leaves. Where the light had touched the ground, a carpet of pale grass sprouted up, covering the rocky earth. Like a crowd doing the wave, it rippled out across the basin, and under my feet.

The tips of the Elder Tree glimmered and I noticed bright points in the sky. Stars. The constant, bleak cloud cover dissolved, revealing constellations I had never seen before. A large, porous moon glowed blue, and cast soft beams down on the scene below.

Everyone stood with their eyes wide open, completely spellbound. Everyone, that is, but Slag, who rolled onto his knees and jumped to his feet. Braylon took no notice, too absorbed with the beauty around him.

“You witch. You really think your magic can reverse time? Since the day my heart was pierced by the stone of Abbarath, it has hardened and turned into the rock it was touched by.” Slag lifted up his staff and its sharp point was aimed at Amerovia. “Every soul that’s touched it is linked to me through its power. Your magic isn’t strong enough to break the bond. Do you think I will let you take everything from me?” Slag said and lunged at Amerovia.

“Look out!” was all I could say as I watched hopelessly.

Princess Amerovia didn’t need my shouts of warning. She stood, completely aware of him stumbling toward her, with a calm, unconcerned air. When he got close enough, her hands lifted and a tree branch curled down, wrapping around the staff and pulling it from Slag’s grasp. The staff started to creak from the tension and snapped in two. “No!”

With his attention elsewhere, she leaned forward and pressed her palms to his chest. I thought I detected a rosy glow seep out from her fingers.

Slag sank to his knees with a groan. Moments later, Amerovia withdrew and stepped back. “Now you have everything you ever needed – your heart.”

Slag pulled off his black cloak and stared up at the stars. I was surprised to see that the inky veins that had once traced his face were gone. He sputtered, “Beautiful. I cannot recall how long my heart has been hardened and my soul poisoned.” He clawed open his tunic and stared at his pale chest. His fingers trailed up to his sternum, coming to rest at a single point. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. My pain is gone,” he said, laughing.

Slag’s soldiers exchanged confused glances and stared at their swords, which were pointed at the captives. They laid them on the ground and stared up at the stars. Prince Braylon leaned down and brushed his fingers through the soft grass beneath his feet and said, “I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.”

“Braylon…” Amerovia held her hand out to him. Tears shone on her cheeks in the moonlight.

His attention lifted to her face and he walked slowly to her side. When he stopped, he stared at the ground and muttered, “Will you ever forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive. You weren’t yourself. The Elder Tree has revived us all. As we speak, I see the black magic losing its grip on you, my love.” Amerovia buried her face into his tunic and I looked away when they kissed.

Pepper started laughing and Gabe joined in. Malick walked over to Red and pulled him into a big bear hug and Elam swatted Rodrick’s shoulder, wearing a suggestive grin. The boys’ fathers rushed to their sons and embraced them roughly.

“Sir? What are your orders?” one of the soldiers ventured, calling out to Slag.

“Go home – your real home. Prince Braylon rules this land, as he always should have. We’re done here. We have no purpose any longer. ” Slag touched the Elder Tree’s colorful trunk.

I took a deep breath and combed my fingers through my hair. It was over. No one had died and my terrible luck seemed to have turned around. I wasn’t sure how it had all worked out, but it had. I wasn’t going to die here, after all.

“How did the tamerac come to have the seed?” Prince Braylon asked Princess Amerovia, who turned to me with a questioning stare.

I cleared my throat and spoke up. “When we were captured at the castle I gave it to the tamerac and told it to keep it safe. It followed us here and I lured it over with a treat.”

Amerovia and Braylon walked over and the princess gave me a hug, completely taking me by surprise. My cheeks flushed with heat and I let my hair fall in my face to cover my embarrassment.

“Thank you for your help. I would like to know the name of my hero.”

“Hero? Um, no, I’m no hero. My name’s Nimrod. You sure you aren’t angry with me like everyone else is?” I asked and shot a wary expression to the others who were busy shaking hands and talking.

“Angry for tricking Slag to bring me to the Elder Tree and giving me the seed? That sounds like something a hero would do, Nimrod,” Amerovia answered. “Thank you for saving me and my people.”

Prince Braylon squeezed my shoulder and echoed the princess’s appreciation. “Thank you, Nimrod.”

“I am curious, though, how you found the seed. So many have searched for it without success. You’re just a young man,” Amerovia marveled.

I remembered the moment I entered this world for the first time. The Elder Tree’s lifeless husk reminded me of my mother in the hospital and my emotions had overtaken me. Tears spilled from my eyes, blinding me, and they had dropped onto the trunk. I didn’t really want to admit my private moment, but I knew some explanation was necessary. “Well, I found the tree by accident, really. I didn’t know it was special or anything, but seeing it all dead and burnt reminded me of someone important to me who’s not around anymore. I was upset and…the roots just sort of opened up. I grabbed the seed, thinking it was a pretty rock.”

The prince and princess exchanged a surprised expression and Amerovia said, “The tree chooses who to reveal its seed to. Naturally, it trusts its protector, but you are just a boy. You must be very special, Nimrod, for it to have faith in you. Clearly, the Elder Tree’s confidence in you was true.”

Braylon clapped me on the shoulder. “I wish I had more men like you. I’m glad you came here when you did. Not a moment too soon.”

Someone cleared his throat behind me and a voice said, “If you’d given us a hint of what you were up to, we could have helped and I wouldn’t have thought you were a coward.”

I turned around and found Elam with his arms crossed and everyone staring at me. At least now I was fairly confident he wasn’t going to hurt me.

“You helped a lot more by not knowing the plan. And I kinda thought it up on the spot.”

“Wouldn’t have guessed, but you know, you’re a pretty smart kid. Why didn’t you tell us you had the Elder Seed before we left on the rescue?” Elam asked.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. For that awesome backward compliment. “I would have told you, but I didn’t know it was the Elder Seed until we got up to the castle and the alarm was raised. I pulled it out of my pocket and it was warm and glowing blue. Up until that point it had been icy and black. I suspected it was the seed when I considered how nearby the princess was. She must have activated the magic in it. I was lucky.”

The words struck me silent. For so long I’d felt like an unlucky loser. It was strange accepting the fact I had just stepped into my story and filled the hero’s role. I’d actually saved the day. Sure, I was responsible for making a mess of everything, but it was because of me this world had life breathed into it again. Alert the presses.

“Thank you for saving us all. You’ve helped more people than you know,” Malick said and rested his hand on my shoulder. His friends, along with Elam, Gabe, Rodrick and Red, chimed in their agreement.

I shook my head. “No. Thank you. Sorry for putting you through all of that, Red and everyone. Um, Princess? I took something from your father’s desk I shouldn’t have, but it was to protect my friends. King Richard has orders to send Malick, his friends and family to the dungeons for being traitors. I know it’s not my place ‘n all, but…”

Princess Amerovia laughed. “Do not worry. Father cannot deny these men’s valor when they escort me back home.”

Gabe struck out his chest proudly, clearly pleased at being called a man.

“Thank you,” I said.

Pepper appeared at my side and pulled me away from the group. Her onyx hair had gotten rumpled and was falling out of its braid. Her face had smudges of dirt on it, but she was smiling. “I told you that you could do it. You’re the hero of your own story.”

I noticed Elam look over at us and my lips involuntarily curled up as I scratched my forehead. “Whatever.”

“Don’t know about you, but I could eat my own fist. Starving doesn’t even come close,” Pepper said and pointed at the shimmering, rectangular gateway that was partially hidden by the Elder Tree. “Bet we could sneak out of here without them seeing.”

“What time do you think it is? How long have we been gone? I hope Aunt Holly hasn’t noticed. Not sure if she’s the grounding type, but I guess I’ll find out. Let’s duck out of here while they’re talking.”

We looked over and saw everyone deep in conversation. Pepper nodded, grabbed my hand, and led me away. When we reached the portal, I waved her through first. Call me crazy, but I wanted her accounted for, not running off to discover some new adventure. After her body disappeared into the bright doorway, I took one last look at the land I’d helped save. It was colorful and vibrant, even in the moonlight. I had a sense of pride, which was an altogether new experience for me, and I liked it.

This time when I stepped into the light, I closed my eyes, not wanting to get sick. I had the sensation of movement and being sucked through a wind tunnel. In a moment, it was over.

“Not good.”

Huh? I snapped open my eyes and saw Pepper on her tiptoes, peeking out one of the small attic windows. I craned my neck to look at Grandpa’s clock on the desk. Five after ten o’clock.

“The cops just pulled away. I’m guessing Holly noticed you were missing,” Pepper announced.

 

A Surprising Secret

 

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“No joke. Well, what do you think? Time to face the music? Are we telling the truth?” Pepper plopped onto the reading chair under the window.

“Uh, no thanks. I don’t want to get committed. No one would believe we went into a story for over twelve hours. Let’s just say we walked down to one of the coffee shops down the street and then the bookstore and lost track of time.”

Pepper frowned and shook her head. “Kay. Whatever you think’s best. I’ll back you up.”

I didn’t know what was best, but I didn’t want to see that look of disappointment or fear on Aunt Holly’s face. I knew it was unavoidable at this point.

“I just need to go get changed first,” she said and tugged at her gray uniform. “Ya know, on second thought, I think I can pull the look off. It’s growing on me.”

I groaned and shuffled downstairs with Pepper right behind me. We walked down the hallway to my room, where I dropped my backpack on the floor. I was still wearing my leather tunic and pants, which I didn’t want to be caught dead in. I’m not your Dungeons and Dragons type, and I certainly don’t dress up in costumes, so I grabbed a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt from my dresser and snuck down to the bathroom to get changed.

A shower was called for, but it wasn’t the time. I did, however, wash my hands and face so I didn’t have to meet Aunt Holly looking like a hog wrestler. When I opened the door, Pepper was waiting and she seemed to have the same idea about cleaning herself up. After she patted herself dry, we ventured downstairs. Sounds were coming from the kitchen. If I had to guess, Aunt Holly was probably making herself some coffee.

When I walked through the doorway, I saw her hunched over the French press, swearing to herself. “Aunt Holly?”

At the sound of my voice she jumped and screamed, “Nimrod! Pepper – thank God.” She ran to me and squeezed me so hard, I couldn’t breathe. Her wiry hair tickled my nose and before I knew it, she pulled away and started crying.

I’m not good with emotion. Not quite sure what to do in these situations. It’s not like I do this all the time or anything. Or that I’m around crying women all the time…well, actually, I probably have more experience with it than I’d like to admit. All I can say is, in that moment I felt like a giant, steaming turd.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Holly,” I said. Best to start off with apologies first, right?

Aunt Holly wiped her eyes and said, “Right. Well, now that I know you’re safe, I need to get you home straightaway, Pepper. Your parents are extremely worried. I just hope the two of you didn’t ruin things for yourselves and her parents will still allow you to hang out.” Holly plucked her keys off the wall hook along with her purse and pointed at me, dead serious. “You’d better be here when I get back. I’ll hear your story then. And you know how I take my coffee. Better make it a decaf. As it is, I’ll be wound up all night.”

With that, she shuttled Pepper out of the kitchen and they were gone. I figured it was best to do as I was instructed and brewed a fresh cup of decaf for her, with the right amount of sugar and milk. Anything to help soften the blow.

Ten minutes after she left, she walked back into the house. I held out her favorite green mug and she accepted it in silence. She continued into the living room and sat down on the couch. I followed her in and settled at the other end, waiting to take her lead.

“I know I’m not your mom, Nim. And I can’t imagine how much you miss her now and how painful all of this has been for you. It’s been hard on me, too.” She stopped to take a sip from her cup, but I thought I saw her cheek quiver. “I love you. Very much. I worry about you like I’d worry about my own child. So, when you take off and all communication goes silent, like your grandpa used to do, I worry.”

Wait, what?

“Shoot straight with me. Do I have anything to worry about, Nim?” She stared me in the eye and held my gaze.

“No, I swear. I was just hanging out with Pepper and we lost track of time.” Well, it was partially true.

“I was a kid once, too. I know what it’s like to live in the moment, but you’ve got to take your cellphone when you go out. I just want to know where you are and that you’re safe. You need to tell me your plans. Will you promise to keep me in the loop?”

I nodded. “Promise.”

“Good. I’d hate to become the wicked aunt who starts grounding and taking privileges away.” Aunt Holly took another sip of her coffee and murmured into her mug, “Making me worry if you were dead or missing. Don’t want you vanishing like Grandpa.”

That was enough. I had to get down to the bottom of this. “What do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Grandpa died.”

Aunt Holly closed her eyes and pinched her lips together. “Your mom never wanted you to know. She thought you’d get upset. Well, more upset than you were about being told he’d died. She said you had abandonment issues with your dad leaving and all. And now with your mother gone… But I’ve always felt that the truth is important to know, even if it doesn’t make sense.”

“You’re the one not making sense now…”

She sighed and placed her coffee on the side table. “Look, Nim. We don’t exactly know what happened to your grandpa. He disappeared a few years ago without a word and never came back. The police labeled him as a missing person. Up until that point he’d go away for a couple days at a time, but he always came back. When I asked him about it, he just said he was traveling, although he never took the car or bought plane tickets. I was beginning to worry that he was getting senile, but the rest of the time he was lucid and seemed just as intelligent as he always was. Well, one day, he just never came back – never called, nothing. His credit cards, anything linked to him haven’t been touched. Your mom and I both believed he was dead, because he loved us all too much to ever leave. He may have been lonely when your grandma died, but he had us.” Aunt Holly wiped her eyes with the edge of her sleeve and continued, “That’s why it was so hard for me tonight when I couldn’t find you. I drove by all the coffee shops and bookstores. I even tried looking for you in all the old places you used to hide when we played hide-and-go-seek. Silly, I know.”

“Mom said he had a heart attack. I wondered why we didn’t come here for a funeral – that explains a lot. Man, I can’t believe she lied to me…”

“She did it because she didn’t want you to think your grandpa abandoned you.”

“So, no body was ever found – nothing?”

“No. I looked in the attic for answers, but all I found there were his novels. No notes about plans for a trip or meeting anyone. I’m sorry, Nimrod…all of this is my fault. I should have kept a closer eye on him. None of this would have happened if I’d been paying closer attention to him. He probably died in some alley, confused and alone, not knowing who he was.”

Aunt Holly broke down and I moved closer to console her, giving her a hug. “You shouldn’t blame yourself, Aunt Holly. It’s okay.”

My stomach rumbled and Aunt Holly gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Didn’t mean for this to turn into a group therapy session. Sorry, Nim. You hungry? I made burritos earlier. There’s a cold one on a plate in the microwave if you want it.”

“I’m sorry, too. Won’t happen again. And yes, I’m starved.”

I barely focused on the food I shoveled into my mouth because my mind was spinning. As quickly as I could, I finished and excused myself to take a shower. Holly sniffed my head and told me I wasn’t allowed in bed until I did.

As the water removed all of the dirt and grime from the day, my thoughts circled around Grandpa. I was excited and a little bit scared.

What if Grandpa had traveled into one of his own stories and got trapped there? What if he was still alive?

 

A Hero’s Quest

 

All day Sunday I tried calling Pepper, but it went to voicemail every time. Monday morning didn’t come quickly enough. I barely got any sleep. All I could do was lie awake and think about Grandpa. Different possibilities and scenarios played out in my head. Since I’m such an optimistic person (um, yeah, I’m joking), I envisioned at least ten disastrous situations (like, apocalyptic) for every positive one.

I needed to find something positive to focus on. I needed to talk to Pepper. She’d set me straight.

At school, I rushed to the library and searched all the aisles for her. Agitated when I didn’t find her, I plopped down at our table and waited impatiently, staring at the door. When she came inside, I waved her over. When she saw my urgency, she walked slower than I’d ever seen her move.

“Gah! Would you get over here?”

Pepper snorted and said, “You’re so easy to mess with. What’s up? You look like you helped defeat an evil king and couldn’t sleep.”

“Wow, good guess. You should be a psychic. Do I owe you ten dollars for that?”

“Someone took their vitamins this morning.” She slipped into the chair next to me and let her hair out of its ponytail. “Had a shower last night and I think I removed an inch of dirt. Feel so much better now. You really should have written in modern plumbing for them.”

“I tried calling you yesterday. What did your parents say? You get in trouble?”

“Surprisingly, yes. I wouldn’t have imagined they’d even notice I was gone, but I guess they were really worried. Mom even cried. It was kinda nice to know they care. But on the downside, I have to go straight home every day after school this week. So no matter how much you beg or plead, I can’t come over. How about you? Holly seemed really upset.”

I would have liked to tease her the way she did me, but I just didn’t have the patience for it today. “Oh, yeah. Aunt Holly was all freaked out because, listen to this, my grandpa used to do it too.”

“What? Hide in his room and play dress up?”

I ignored her. “He’d go away. He’d disappear. Do you know what means?”

“He used the pen!” Her eyes glittered with excitement.

“I know I’m kinda stating the obvious here. It was his pen, after all. But get this – he didn’t actually die. Aunt Holly said that Mom didn’t want to tell me he disappeared because she didn’t want me to think he abandoned me. He just vanished without a trace and never came back. No body was ever found, no traces of money used or anything – just gone. You know what that means, right?”

“Are you kidding? He could be alive, Nimrod!” Pepper screamed so loudly that the librarian looked over and shushed us.

“I know,” I whispered. “But he could also be dead or captured, or I dunno. Do you know how many books he wrote? How am I supposed to find the book he’s trapped in?”

“Wouldn’t it be the one that was left on his desk?”

“Yeah, but Aunt Holly cleaned through everything and stacked up all his books.”

“Hmm, I don’t know, but if anyone can do it Nim, it’s you. And don’t forget your trusty sidekick – can’t leave me out of the action.”

“How could I leave you out? It wouldn’t be exciting thinking it was just me who was going to die.”

She smiled. “You need me and you know it.”

She was right. But I wasn’t going to admit it.

“Well, if I’m going into another story, then I’m not going in unprepared. I’ll just have to pick one book to start with and read it all the way through so I know as much as I can. Let’s hope Grandpa’s a more thorough storyteller than I am.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I wrote a short story I didn’t finish and the world I created filled in all the gaping holes. We didn’t know what was going to happen next because it wasn’t written out. Hopefully with a better filled in story, there won’t be as many surprises.” One could hope.

“Can’t wait to find out.”

I closed my eyes. “Yeah, let’s do it.”

“Crackerjack.”

After the bell rang, we got up and filtered into the busy hallway. Students brushed by, carrying books to their lockers and I heard a familiar voice. “Where are you going, stupid?”

I gripped my backpack strap and focused ahead, ready to push on. Daryn clearly had other plans today, and jumped out, blocking my way. Pepper stepped forward, all fired up. Her eyes were narrowed and her shoulders lifted as she leaned in.

“Pepper, no,” I said and touched her arm.

“Ha, Goliath here needs a girl to protect him.”

“Bored, Daryn? Have nothing better to do but bother people just to get noticed?” There was nothing he could do that would hurt me. Nothing. I wasn’t afraid of him.

“What? Are you kidding me? You’re the one people don’t notice. You’re different, stupid…” But Daryn didn’t seem to believe himself. I saw the doubt creep into his eyes and I actually felt sorry for him. Just for a second.

“Yeah, I am different, and I’m glad. It’d really blow if all I did all day was make other people feel bad about themselves. Keep aiming high, man. I’ve got somewhere to be. C’mon Pepper.”

I brushed past him and felt Pepper by my side. Laughter echoed through the halls and as I walked away I heard his friend snicker, “You got shut down, dude.”

Pepper linked her arm through mine, tucked some stray hairs behind her ear and smiled at me. My cheeks flushed as I grew uncomfortable with her attention. “What?”

“Crackerjack.”

“Gah, what does that even mean?”

She shrugged. “Right now, it means I’m wicked proud of you.”

My mom’s death would always be the worst thing that had happened to me, but in that moment I realized I wasn’t really alone.

My pocket buzzed and I pulled out my phone to see a text from Aunt Holly.

“What’s up?” Pepper asked.

“Guess my tablet’s repaired and ready to be picked up.”

A couple weeks ago I would have been so relieved, but the only thing I could think about now was finding Grandpa. A stack of his novels were in the attic waiting for me, and I just didn’t care about anything else. I had a purpose, a quest.

Maybe Grandpa had died, but one thing was for sure -- I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way until I found him, dead or alive.

 

The End

 

 

About the Author

Natasha Brown is the author of the popular young adult series, The Shapeshifter Chronicles. Her first novel, Fledgling, was a finalist in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Contest. She loves connecting with aspiring authors and her fans. Natasha lives in Colorado with her family and menagerie of animals.

www.natashasbrown.com

@writersd3sk


An Unfortunate Beginning

Heroes Create Their Own Endings Nimrod Vale is convinced he is the unluckiest twelve-year-old alive. Life is hard when your name doubles as an insult, but he finds it is even worse when your mom dies. Nim is forced to stay with his only living relative, his Aunt Holly in Portland, Oregon. After settling in, he is ready to get lost in a good book, except his bad luck gets in the way when he tips a cup of steaming coffee onto his tablet. While his most prized possession is being repaired, Nim grows anxious to start writing one of his own stories, so his aunt sends him to the attic in search of his grandpa’s treasured fountain pen. An accidental discovery reveals a desolate world that he thought only existed on the pages of his paper. Nim prefers to pretend it never happened, and hide away in the school library. There he meets a loner named Pepper who gives him no choice but to be his friend, but when she discovers what he has been hiding, she forces his hand. Nim then must choose to step up and help the fictional war-torn land or turn his back on the people who need him most.

  • ISBN: 9781311955142
  • Author: Natasha Brown
  • Published: 2016-05-02 08:05:20
  • Words: 46974
An Unfortunate Beginning An Unfortunate Beginning