Reflections by Amelia G. Sides
I wink at myself in the water and watch it wink back.
All the children know you are not to play with your reflections. That letting them become familiar with you is how children get stolen away. Sliding through the reflection and fading to nothing.
I watch and it watches me back. With a small sigh I dip my hand into the water and break myself into glittering shards of light. Fetching the pail waiting on the bank I quickly fill it and head back to the house. Mother would be mad with me for playing with my reflection but Mother is not here. She left and has not written or visited like she said she would. I am stuck here with Father and the new woman who says she wants me to call her mother. I will not. It makes her lips pinch and thin when I refuse.
I have learned to escape the house as soon as possible or she gives me chores to do for the rest of the day. I run to the creek or to the abandoned farm that is on the other side of the hill. I play alone because the closest child my age lives on the other side of town and it would take us both half the day to walk to see each other. Plus Jane is obsessed with dolls and neither of us like the other very well.
When my mother left I worked hard to help my father with the farm but an eight year old can only do so much. Too often I was in the way so I started disappearing till dinner time. I was never missed.
Now I like playing alone. I talk to my shadow while picking berries or hunting for the hard kitchen apples that fall from the trees near the abandoned farm. I talk to the bees and birds that watch me wander. Overall I probably talk too much, but at home I don’t talk at all. The grownups are too busy talking to listen to me anyway.
I have a secret person I talk to, a boy who disappeared into the reflections. When we were little we played together at ball and jacks. When he left, his family moved away before I could tell them he was still there. He sits in the shadows on cloudy or mist filled days watching. I talk about what is happening on the farm or in town and sometimes we play ball like we used to.
He is pale, like all the color has been sucked from his skin. He watches me mute as I talk. He never answers. I roll the ball to him and wait for him to roll it back. His movements are always slow like he is underwater. I tried to bring him food for a while but he never touched it. I don’t think he needs it there. He ages alongside me and his clothes change from time to time. Sometimes he is gone for days or all I catch is a flicker of movement in the shadows if the sun is too strong.
Today the sun is too strong and I can see Simon pacing through the shadows flickering at the edge of my eye.
“I wish you could talk.” I say.
“Is it nice there? Is it better than here?”
He stops pacing and watches me from a corner, a thin shaft of light cuts a hole through his chest.
“It has to be better than here.” I mumble.
“No one sees me here.” I tell him, straining to see his expression. He watches me, impassive.
“If I was in the reflection could you talk to me then?”
He shifts back and forth like a rock under moving water and then gives a small nod.
“Is it nice there?” I ask again.
Again he shifts and wavers in the light for a moment before shaking his head.
“Are there people who see you? Talk to you?” Simon gives a slow nod. His dark ringed eyes watching me as I shred a piece of straw.
“If I went into the reflection we could talk and be together. We could do whatever we wanted. Play any game, go anywhere we wanted.” I insist. He gives a slow shake of his head at this.
“We couldn’t?” I demand. “I wouldn’t be able to stay with you?”
He shakes his head again, eyes boring into me.
I mull this over for a moment, talking it out to myself.
“We could talk, but I could not stay with you. There are others to talk to but it is not nice there.” I trail off watching Simon flicker like a pale candle as the shadows move with the clouds skidding across the sky.
“I don’t want to stay here.” I whisper to him.
“If I cannot stay with you then I have to go somewhere. Have you been there?”
He nods after a moment.
“Can you go with me?”
He slid down the wall to sit in the deeper shadows there, after a moment he shakes his head again.
I fiddle with the hem of my dress. The woman has been making me wear them, saying I am too much of a tom boy and that I need to start acting my age. If it means wearing dresses and playing with dolls I don’t want to get any older. I was happy helping mother and father on the farm and wearing overalls, I did not need to change for her.
“If I go in the reflections can you tell me where I need to go?”
He nods quicker now. I nod back with a grin, “Then I will go in and you can explain it to me. I will go where I need to go and then come back and we can play.” I announce with finality. Getting up I brush off my skirt and grab my basket of berries.
“I will see you in the morning then.”
I grin as I trot through the morning mist the next day. I said I would feed the chickens, which I did, but I also retrieved the small bag and basket I had hidden earlier. I changed out of the hated blue dress and into my overalls at the barn, leaving the dress in the hay. I won’t need it. Now it is just after dawn and I am heading toward the creek. I am going to cross over and then I will find Simon and see where I have to go.
It seems like I have sat forever staring at my reflection in the water. With a sigh I start talking to it and now and then reach out like I am going to touch it. Nothing has happened so far. I am still sitting on the bank of the creek.
A flicker of movement draws my eye. For a moment it looked like my reflection turned away from me. I wait and am rewarded a moment later when it shivers again, like Simon does in the shadows. I feel myself grinning as I grab my bag and basket and reach toward the water.
For a moment my hand rests against the water like it is a bag before sliding in with a ripple. It is so cold. I try and pull my hand out, it’s too cold. Something grabs my hand and pulls, with a yell I hit the water.
I wake up on the ground, ice coating my eyelashes and hair. Everything around me is grey or black. A thick mist floats blocking everything more than a few feet away from view.
I don’t like this. Simon was supposed to be here.
“Simon!” I yell turning, trying to see. There is no response, only the soft sighing of the mist as it shifts and moves.
I yell for Simon again before sitting down, I will not cry, I will not. I hug my bag to me for a moment before pulling out my doll. Mother gave her to me before she left. She used to be hers. Brown yarn hair framed a cloth face. Dressed in a faded red skirt and yellow top the doll watched solemnly as I struggled to breathe. Pulling it close I gave it a fierce hug before getting up and picking up my things. Simon was at the barn. I just had to find the barn. If I was still by the creek I should be able to find the barn. I could walk there blindfolded from the creek or home. I just had to let my feet head there. Determined I kissed my doll and cradling her in one arm with my basket on the other I set off.
She had been wandering for what seemed like hours but the scenery never changed. In every direction was a sea of mist with the occasional dead tree or shrub to go around. Well, Simon had said that it was not a nice place. If she could find him then everything would be ok.
Faintly she realized that she could hear something, a thin thread of sound humming in her ears. Heading in that direction she tried to follow the sound. It slowly grew louder depositing her in a small clearing of the mist. An old man sat under a dead tree whistling a jaunty tune. It was full of ups and downs and trills, making her smile. The man saw her and gave her a nod, making his tune even more elaborate as she drew near. With a final trill he came to a stop. She clapped happily.
“That was wonderful.”
“Glad you enjoyed it, Miss. Could you spare something to eat or drink for a whistler down on his luck, Miss?” He is thin and wears clothes full of rips and tatters. His hair is a mop of white curls hanging down into his blue eyes. The girl happily hands him half a ham sandwich she had made.
“What is a child like you doing out here in the mists?”
“I am looking for Simon; you don’t know him do you?”
“No, I know no one by that name.”
“Oh. I guess I will have to keep looking but it is so hard to see where you are going in the mist.”
“Has no one taught you how to travel the roads, child? For another sandwich I will tell thee.”
“Oh yes, please.” She said hurrying to hand the man the other half of the sandwich, which he quickly polished off along with the first.
“You must leave a token to the Road Keeper. Then you concentrate on where you want to go. A path will open before you. You must not look back, no matter what, because the path will leave you behind and you will again be lost in the mists.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” she cried.
“Hsst! Do you know nothing, child! Never thank someone here. It is an insult. Also never give your name to another, only tell them what you are called. Keep your true name locked away tight!” He turned away at this watching the walls of mist surrounding them.
“Once you have lost your true name, you are lost beyond all saving. Not even the Gods may help you then.”
“I never believed in God, sir.”
“Whether you believe or not, here they still walk. Some will help if you ask politely but only for a price and most will hurt you simply because they can. Be wary, child.”
“Sir, what may I call you?”
“I have no name, child. I lost it long ago. The paths are closed to me. I will wander these mists till I die.”
“I will call you Whistler then. Goodbye, Whistler.” She said turning to face the shifting mist. Taking a biscuit out she set it at the edge of the mist.
“Please, I need to find Simon.” She whispered.
A path in the mist opened as if a sudden wind had blown straight through. She quickly hurried on, not looking back as Whistler had advised. She did not see the old man smile as tears ran down his face.
“Whistler.” He whispered, his new name. Nor did she see the small pale hand snatch the biscuit and pull back into the mists.
The path went on and on, never turning or changing. She walked till her legs gave out from under her, crumbling in the dust she let out the tears she had been holding back fall. Hiccupping, she wiped her tears some minutes later. Hugging her doll she gazed at its face with the crooked black thread smile her mother had sown.
“Simon must be very far away, Sarah.” She whispered. Digging in her basket she pulled out a biscuit and ate it while counting out her other supplies. Four biscuits, one ham sandwich, one apple, six cookies, and two sets of clothes, her sweater and a basket with a bag to hold everything. That was all. It had seemed so much when she was packing her bag, now she doubted it would last.
The mist had rolled back in while she cried till she could have touched it if she reached out her arms.
“It might take a lot of biscuits if I need one every time I stop. I didn’t bring anything to drink either. Maybe we should find some water first. What do you think, Sarah?”
The strange blue-white light of the mist seemed to reflect in Sarah’s button eyes. For a moment she thought the doll nodded. Shaking her head at her wandering mind she tucked Sarah into the front of her overalls so that she was facing the mist in front of them. Pulling on her sweater she tucked her bag back into the basket. Pulling out a biscuit she paused, how should she word her request?
Finally she simply said, “I need to find someplace near I can get a drink of water.” Adding a soft please, she set down the biscuit. Again the mist rolled away in front of her, this time she felt a faint breeze brush the skin on her neck and forehead.
A while later the path ended at a small brownish pool. She sighed, setting her basket down.
“I guess it does matter how you ask.”
Scooping up a bit of the foul water she managed to swallow several sips before her stomach rebelled. Clamping her lips shut she refused to throw up. She needed water, she needed food. After a moment her stomach settled but the thick sour flavor of the water stayed on her tongue. It had to be close to bed time. Scooping out a hollow in the grey sand near the pool she lay down, wrapping her blanket around her. She was so tired she slept without dreaming.
When she woke, she used the bathroom in a hollow and ate half a sandwich and made herself drink as much of the water as she could stand. Once her stomach had settled back down she pulled out another biscuit. Two left, that would never do.
“We need someone who can take us to Simon. Or someone who can tell us where it is or how far.”
Pulling out Sarah, she regarded the doll.
“What do you think, Sarah? Ask for someone to take us to Simon or someone to tell us how to get there. Or should we be looking for a way to travel that does not take so many biscuits?
The doll lay mute in her hands. Taking a step she turned trying to see through the mist.
“Or someone who would teach us to see through the mists?”
The doll seemed to twist in her hands. Scrabbling at catch the doll she dropped the biscuit which rolled into the mist.
“No!” she lunged after it but it was already gone. A breath later the mist began to open in front of her.
“But where are you leading me?!” she demanded, tears pricking her eyes. Rubbing her face with the back of one hand she quickly picked up her things making sure to always face the path.
“Well, you have to be leading me to the answer to one of my questions.” She muttered, walking down the path with a determined stride.
She talked to Sarah as she walked.
“Whistler said Gods, no God. I only ever heard of the God they talk about in Church.” She said with a frown. The New Mother wanted them to go so they did but the preacher yelled and moaned about how bad they all were and how they must repent to be able to see heaven. Well, she did not know what repent meant but she was not sure she wanted to go to heaven if people like the new mother and preacher were there. He had said they were damned without God’s grace but that was a bad work she was not supposed to say. Papa had tanned her bottom when she asked what it meant.
“But Whistler said there was the Road Keeper and Gods, not God.” She murmured. “Maybe there are more than just the baby Jesus and a God who loved people like the new mother and preacher. Maybe they were even nice. Well, Whistler said some might help but there would be a price. That’s fair. We would just have to see what they wanted. Grandma Rose used to tell us stories, remember Sarah? Stories about people who were animals who played tricks on everyone they tried to help. They tried to do good but always mixed everything up since they were not people. Maybe the questions have to be like that, we have to word it so the Road Keeper understands everything.”
Stopping to tie her shoe, she looked up to see the mist closing across the path.
“That’s not fair!” she cried, stomping one foot. “Ugh!” It felt good to scream.
She sat down where she was with a huff, “Fine,” she began ticking things off on her fingers, “I have to always watch the path. I must ask the right question. I can never look back. I must leave something for the Road Keeper. How many rules does this place have?”
“I need someone who can answer my questions, who is nice.” She added as an afterthought before setting down her biscuit. After marching down the path that never wavered, she was just starting to get tired when the path widened and opened into a clearing.
The mist hung like silvery walls around a barren field, the dark soil lay plowed and waiting to be planted. A simple wooden plow lay to one side. Carefully walking the rows, running her hands through the soil a round cheeked woman muttered to herself.
“Not yet, not yet, when will they start believing again? Are we always to be forgotten?” Tears tracked unnoticed down her face and into the dirt at her feet. “Why does nothing grow?” she murmured.
The girl walked carefully across the lose ground to the edge of the field.
“Madame?” she called. The woman started, blinking at the child. She quickly wiped her checks with dirt covered hands and walked to where the child waited.
“What are you doing walking the paths, Child? Your kind has not walked the paths in a very long time.”
“I am looking for my friend, Simon. Have you seen him?”
“No, Child. I have seen no one from your world in a very long time. Your kind has forgotten the Gods and we are left to the mists till we give up and sleep. I am one of the few who have refused to succumb to the mist. You may call me Rosemarta.”
“Are you a God, Rosemarta?”
“Not any longer, Child. Your kind has forgotten me. Once I was the Goddess of Spring and growing crops and tender shoots. Now I am the Goddess of a barren field. I cannot help you find your friend, child. I am sorry.”
“Can you at least explain a few things for me?”
“Yes, but you must pay a price for the answers.”
“I don’t have much.” She said, opening her bag. She eyed the biscuit and cookies with frown. A goddess of spring would not want stale cookies, an edge of green drew her eye and with a smile she drew out the small apple. She had forgotten she had packed it. She handed it to Rosemarta.
“How many questions can I get for this?”
Taking the apple the Goddess drew a knife and split the apple, digging out the seeds.
“Five questions for five seeds. Since you are a new Walker I will say this before we begin, Child. Ask your questions carefully because I can only answer what you ask, no more no less.”
Saying this she left the child to think as she planted her seeds, one each at the head of five bare rows. She then pulled a brown leather flask from the folds of her skirt and watered each seed before sitting down in front of the child. The girl held her doll cradled against her chest, regarding the Goddess with wary eyes.
“May I see your doll, child?” When she hesitated, the goddess added, “It will come to no harm and I will return it to you.” Taking the doll from the girls outstretched hand she inspected it, regarding the solemn faced doll for a moment before handing it back.
“It is a wise doll, child. Listen to it. Now, we begin. What are your questions, child.”
“I know you said you cannot help me find Simon, but can you tell me where he is?”
The woman sighed, “You are too young to this life to ask the right questions, child. Most other gods or goddesses would have smiled in your face and told you yes or no and nothing more. I will show you where your Simon is and answer your questions but I doubt you will be happy with your answers.”
Pulling out her flask she spilled some in a small dip in the ground. Stirring the mud with her hands, she withdrew a shallow clay bowl from the wet earth. Setting it down between the both of them, she added the left over apple and a splash of sparkling water from the flask. Swirling the water with one finger, the water sparkled and clung to her finger like honey. The goddess drew her knife and pricked her finger adding one drop of blood. With a flash the liquid became still and pulsed with a soft golden glow.
“Look, child. Tell me what you see in the water.”
“I see Simon!” She said leaning over the bowl.
“What else do you see?”
“Someone in red is yelling at him. There are other kids there, lots of them, all jammed in a room.”
“The man in red, what does he look like?”
“He looks young, the same age as Simon but so mean, his face is twisted by it. He has bits of something shiny sewn into his coat. Oh, there is someone behind him, older but not an adult playing a pipe or something.”
“That is enough, child.” Rosemarta said grasping the bowl and tossing it to one side. It struck the trunk of a tree and shattered… an apple tree.
“The seeds…” She whispered, gazing at the five strong trees that spread branches over their heads.
“Your friend Simon has been very unlucky here. It will be hard to win him back.” Rosemarta held up a hand, silencing the child. “You have four questions left. Use them wisely.”
“How can I rescue Simon, Rosemarta?”
“He has become one of the child takers. They slink through dreams and nightmares and tempt young children away from their beds, to a life of eternal servitude for the Piper. His jailer and task master to the children is the boy in red. The shiny things they wear are silver mouse and rat skulls, the mark of the Piper. You will need powerful friends to win him free, more powerful than I.”
“Who is powerful enough to help me, and is willing to do so?” She asked in a rush of breath.
Rosemarta gave her a smile and a half bow, “You are learning child.”
“The one powerful being here that might help you is Jedza. She is powerful but she will not help you willingly. You must earn it. She lives in a forest of fir trees deep in the mist.”
The child waited for the goddess to continue but she just watched the child with a small smile tugging the corner of her mouth. With a huff the girl fiddled with the dolls dress before asking her next question.
“How do I get Jedza to help me?” she asked finally.
“You must find Jedza and bed to work for her. She will refuse but you must insist. She will try to pay you for your work, but you must refuse payment until she offers you three boons. Only then can you head off to find your Simon.”
“How do I use the boons to save Simon,
“That is your final question, child, and the one I have no true answer to. The boons mean that Jedza is bound to do what you ask of her, a favor. It is up to you to see which favors you should ask of that will help you save your Simon. Think hard child, for she will try to trick you.”
“Why is everything a riddle? I just want to find Simon.” The girl demanded, tears filling her eyes. With a sigh, Rosemarta pulled the child into her lap, letting her cry.
“I am sorry I cannot do more but everyone here is bound by the rules of the exchange. You must give to receive. Some paths cannot be walked for you, child. Some you must walk alone. Your journey to find your friend may be one such path, but even walking alone you can be helped by the friends you make along the way. I fear you may be too young to walk such a path, but I hope you can prove me wrong, child.”
Standing she pulled the girl up next to her.
“Come, child. Come rest under the apple trees till you are ready to continue on your way.” Rosemarta sat next to her, stroking her hair and humming bits of nameless tunes till she fell asleep, the scent of apple blossoms filling her dreams.
In the morning she woke curled around her doll under the apple trees, Rosemarta was nowhere in sight. Gathering her things, she ate a quick breakfast of a sandwich half. Gathering her things she laid down her biscuit and set out to meet Jedza.
Something loomed before her in the mist. Slowing she approached the first one to the side. Only when she was right next to it could she see what it was, a massive fir-tree, its trunk larger round then she could wrap her arms around. The path narrowed yet continued on through the trunks, a forest of fir trees. Continuing on the mist began to slowly thin until she stood in a large clearing of both mist and trees. The sun struck her eyes hard enough to make them water. It was the first time a true sun had shone on her in the mists. It blazed over the house as if trying to melt the mist away by will alone.
A strange house stood in the center of the clearing. The house was four sided with a peaked roof like the ones at home but there the resemblance ended. It stood, held off the ground by four large trees, one at each corner of the house. Under it, a creek ran merrily over rocks and moss. On the ornate peak of the house that was facing her, three crows sat watching her. A red crow the color of blood sat at the top of the gable with a white and black crow sitting below it on either side of the roof.
A rope ladder hung from the porch giving a way into the house. The girl paused at the edge of the creek, quickly washing her face and arms and trying to tidy her hair before moving to climb the ladder. The front porch was flanked by skulls which sat atop posts; their grinning smiles greeted her as she pulled herself onto the porch.
“Sorry,” she told the skull whose post she had used to pull herself up over the edge. “I did not know that was your post. I will not use it again without asking.” She felt silly talking to a skull but nothing was as it used to be, it might be like in the fairy stories her Grandmother told, anyway it never hurt to be polite.
Gathering her courage and straightening her clothes, she knocked on the heavy wooden door. After a moment it swung open. Before her stood Jedza in all her glory, she looked like every witch the child had ever imagined bundled together and made real. She was tall, with a long hooked nose and beady black eyes. A mane of grey hair fell down her shoulders and back, woven with random braids. Each braid had small objects braided in, rings, links of chain, bird skulls. She was dressed in layers of different materials, silk, leather, animal skins, and velvet of many colors fought to be seen. Her skin was a grey winkled weathered map of folds and lines. She gripped a stout wooden cane topped with another skull. Her long nails were pointed and black like claws. She observed the child before her, nostrils flaring.
“Well, what do you want?” She demanded crossly, showing pointed teeth that were pearly white.
“I wish to work for you, Madame.” The girl managed to stammer.
“Why would I let a small thing like you work for me? You are human; you would break everything you touched.”
“I wouldn’t, Madame. I would be very careful and I am a hard worker.”
“I have no need for another helper, I have servants a plenty.” She said with a nasty smile. Pulling something from a pocket, she crushed and scattered the pieces to one side. Immediately the bits began to gather themselves into a small pile which was then whisked off the porch.
“I said no. Now leave.” Turning away she slammed the door on the child.
The child began knocking again. Knocking, waiting a few minutes and knocking again. With a slam the door opened again.
“I told you to leave!” Jedza yelled.
“Would you like me to start polishing the porch, Madame?”
“Polish the porch?”
“Yes, Madame, I can polish the wood till it shines for you.”
“Fine, do so.” The door was again slammed in the girls face. With a sigh, she set down her things and got to work. She found a bucket and hauled water up the ladder to the porch one bucket at a time as she cleaned as best she could with watch and a rag. Once that was done she got a quick drink of water and hunted the creek for rushes, digging deep she found the roots. When pressed they dripped oil that she could use. Stuffing her basket full of bulbs and two rocks to press them in, she went back up the ladder. She oiled and scrubbed the wood till her hands were raw, till the sun was setting. Then she cleaned up her supplies and went back down the ladder to bury the crushed bulbs and to wash up. It was full dark when she climbed the ladder. The black crow now sat at the top of the gable. Jedza waited for her when she pulled herself over the last rung of the ladder and onto the porch.
“Hmm, not bad, not bad, but not well either. I have decided child. You want to work for me then you will work. I have some tasks I need done and you will do them. If they are not done to my satisfaction then you will become one of my true servants bound to be for eternity. Do you agree?”
“How many tasks?” the child asked, wary after having so many of her biscuits wasted on bad questions.
“Three tasks, if you can complete them to my satisfaction I will give you whatever you ask of me. Are we agreed?”
“How long do I have to do the tasks?”
“What does it matter to me? When you are done, you will come to me and tell me you are finished, I will inspect the result and the next task will be given to you. You have until you give up and become my servant, till you complete the task or till you die.” Jedza said smiling her pointed teeth at the child.
“If I am doing three tasks, then I should be given three boons.”
“Fine, do you agree?” the witch grumbled.
“I agree. What is your first task?” She said, ignoring how her hands wanted to shake.
“The land this house is upon is my Kingdom. Everything between the mists here is mine. Beyond the house are mountains. High on the highest peak there is a field with blue roses growing. You are to go and bring me back as many as you can carry.”
“Yes, Madame.” The girl said.
“Go.” Turning Jedza entered the house and slammed the door on the girl.
Gathering her things, the girl walked along the porch until she could see the mountains in the distance to one side of the house. With a grim nod, she turned and made her way to the ground. Getting a long drink from the creek she set out in the direction of the mountains. It took her two days to reach the base of the mountains. The mountain was a series of sheer cliffs and ragged edges. There was no easy way up for a small child. With a sigh the girl began walking along the base, hoping to find a stone or hand hold she could use to get started.
It was nearing the heat of the day and she was absently singing a lullaby to Sarah as she walked. Ahead a patch of thorn bushes blocked the way. Moving to go around them she jumped back when a section of the bushes began to trash and churn. A trumpeting cry came from the bush.
“Oh, help. I am stuck.” A voice pleaded from the bush.
“Hello, where are you?” The girl called, trying to see into the bushes. Setting her things down next to a tree she searched the thorns for the person calling out, cutting her hands and arms on the thorns.
“Here, oh, here!” the voice called, as the girl found a patch of white.
“There you are.” Pulling at the branches and breaking off those she could she slowly made room for the person to climb out. Suddenly the bush shuddered as the person moved trying to push through.
“Oh, still stuck.” It moaned.
“Give me your hand, I will pull you out.” The girl said, pulling at more branches, moving a large branch she was surprised to see the graceful curved neck and head of a swan, its blue eye watching her with sorrow.
“I have no hand to give.” Said the swan, watching as the girl sucked at a deep cut to her palm.
“Do all animals talk here?” the girl asked as she carefully pulled thick thorn covered branches from around the Swan’s neck.
“All animals talk everywhere; we just have nothing to say to humans most of the time.”
“Try wiggling out now.” She said, pulling a massive branch away from the swans body. Ducking it’s head, it managed to squeeze through the gap.
“Oh, I thought I would never get out. What is a girl child doing here?”
“I need to get to the top of the mountain to pick the blue roses so I can save my friend,” she girl explained, “but I cannot find a way to climb up.”
“Since you helped me, I will help you. Climb on my back and I will take you child.”
The child clapped her hands happily and gathering her things, climbed onto the back of the white swan. It flew her to a small field of blue roses. Quickly the girl gathered as many as she could into her bag. Mounting the swan again, it flew her back down the mountain. Giving her a feather from its wing, it flew way.
She all but ran back to Jedza’s home. Climbing onto the porch she again asked the skulls pardon before pulling herself up. Knocking on the door she waited. The door slammed open, revealing Jedza’s sneering visage.
“Well. Where are my roses?”
“Here, Madame.” The child said, removing them a handful at a time from her bag. The flowers were just as fragrant as when she first had picked them. One rose at the bottom of the pile had turned a deep blood red; with a snarl Jedza cast it aside, gathering the others.
“Your next task is to find the golden ball that is hidden at the bottom of the swamp to the south. Go.” She said, going back inside and taking the roses with her. The child tucked the blood red rose back into her bag
It takes her another day to find the swamp. She scavenged along the banks and had a good breakfast of fiddleheads before taking off her shoes and socks. Rolling up her pant legs she eased her way into the muck of the swamp. Whimpering at the slime feel of the mud between her toes and the water that was almost hot against her skin, she slogged on taking only Sarah with her. The rest of her things were left at the edge of the swamp under a tree. Feeling along with her feet, she found several rocks and lots of rotten tree stumps but no golden ball. She had been wandering back and forth for hours when she saw a frog frantically hopping towards her.
“Croak, help! Croak.” It said in a deep rasping voice. Behind it a snake cruised through the water after it.
“Here! Over here!” the girl called, climbing on to a rock. The frog hopped into her hands. Hiding it in the front pocket of her overall next to Sarah she turned to face the snake.
“Where is it, hiss. Tasty frog, crunchy frog, do you see it human child?” the snake asked.
“No, sir, but there are surely many frogs in a marsh like this.” She told the snake.
“Yes, yes, there are others, other tasty frogs.” The snake muttered, gliding away.
“Oh, kind child, how can I repay your kindness?” the frog asked. “The snakes are always trying to catch us here.”
“I am here looking for a golden ball, but there is a creek near where I am going that does not have snakes. I can take you there once I find the ball if you like.”
“Oh, yes, croak, please. The ball is in the roots of the tree at the middle of the pond, croak. Fetch it, and then we can see this safe creek, yes.”
“Yes, frog.” The girl agreed happily. Climbing down she waded to the center of the swamp with the frog occasionally crocking directions or hellos to the other frogs in the swamp. A large tree stood before her, covered in moss and leaning to one side, its roots formed a dark mesh that rose out of the swamp. Gathering her courage the girl reached in and felt through the slime and mud till her hand wrapped around a round sphere. Pulling it out, she rinsed the mud from the golden ball. It was the size of a baseball and sparkled dully in the marsh light. Tucking it in her pocket she made her way out of the swamp. Gathering her things so talked to the frog about her quest and how she was helping Jedza so that she could rescue her friend Simon.
“Croak, that is a good quest to work toward. You must ask Jedza for her bag as one of your boons. It can carry anything, no matter how large or how heavy without every getting heavy. You might need it.”
“I will frog, I hope you like your new home.” She said setting the frog down on a moss covered rock by the creek.
“Oh, yes. This will be a good home.” The frog croaked happily, hopping about it explored the creek while the girl cleaned off the mud and swamp smell from herself. Washing her clothes she laid them near the creek and took a much needed bath, once redressed she made her way back up the ladder to the porch to again face Jedza.
Jedza flung the door open before she had managed to knock twice. “Well?”
“Here is the golden ball, Madame.” The child said, handing her the ball.
“Humph,” Jedza muttered, inspecting the ball before eyeing the child. “Your final task will not be so easy. To the east there is a large field of wheat. Somewhere in the field there is a single stalk of wheat that is made of silver with stones of amber for the seeds of wheat. Bring it to me.”
“Yes, Madame.” The child said to the closed door.
“Excuse me, skull. I need to use you again to get down.” The skull’s jaw rattled as it turned on its post and regarded her with glowing eyes.
“You are a polite thing at least, and always off to do interesting things. Ask for me as one of your boons and I will guide you through the mists.” The skull said in a whispering voice, its jaw rattling with each word.
“I will, Skull.” The child said having to stop herself from saying thank you to the skull; it was a hard habit to break.
Climbing down she said good bye to the Skull and the Frog before heading east, along the way she found nut trees and fruit trees that she picked and filled her basket with, nibbling as she walked. Several days later she found the field, a massive sea of wheat that undulated in the breeze. The sun baked down on her as she gazed at it. Setting her things down, she rolled up her sleeves and began walking along the edge of the field. Her back ached from bending over and searching the stalks of grain. By the end of the day she was sun burned and only a few feet into the field. Returning to her things, she rested and ate the last of her cookies, this was going to take a long time.
A thrashing in the woods pulled her to her feet. Casting about for a weapon she found a long branch which she held out before her.
A mouse darted out from under a bush, crying in a high reedy voice. “Help, a fox! Help, it wants to eat me!” Quickly the girl knelt and held out her hands to the mouse, “Here, hurry!” tucking the mouse into her pocket she picked her branch back up just as a large red fox trotted out of the woods.
“I smell the mouse, child. Give him to me, I am hungry.” The fox said in a soft growling voice.
“I can’t let you eat him, sir. He asked for my help and I have given it, but you can have the last sandwich I have if you like.” The girl said, reaching into her bag with one hand she pulled the last ham sandwich from her bag and tossed it to the fox. The fox ate the sandwich quickly and with a growl turned and trotted away.
“Oh, thank the goddess he is gone.” The mouse piped.
“I thought you could not thank people here.” The girl asked setting the mouse and her branch down on the ground.
“Our god and goddess are small ones, like us, and do not mind as much.” The mouse explained. Giving the mouse a fig to nibble, the girl explained why she was searching the field and asked if the mouse could help.
“I cannot but my brothers in the field might know where it is. I will ask. You should ask for Jedza’s silver needle for a boon, it makes magic clothes that do what the sewer wants them to do.”
“Do you know about the piper?”
“Brrr, yes, he is feared by our kind. He uses his pipe to call us to him and make us do his bidding, no matter what it is. His favorite thing is to make us dance in circle to entertain him, dance until we die.”
“Horrible, what a horrible man, why would Simon want to stay with him?” she asked.
“Doubt he wanted to stay, mistress. What the piper calls to him he keeps. He will not let your Simon go without something replacing him. You must find a way to trick him, child.”
So the other mice lead her deep into the field and showed her where the silver stalk of wheat sat gleaming in the sun. Carefully pulling it up and putting it in her bag she said good bye to the mice and made her way back to Jedza’s house for her final time taking the branch with her to use as a walking stick.
Cleaning up in the creek and telling Frog of her adventure she took extra care to be neat, pulling her hair into a tail. With a frown she realized it had grown a good bit. It had hung to her ears before she crossed into the reflections, now it hung past her shoulders. She had been here longer then she thought, months maybe. That or the mists made your hair grow faster, with a shrug the girl got ready to face Jedza.
Climbing onto the porch she said hello to Skull, who gave her a toothy smile and clicked its teeth at her in greeting.
Knocking she was almost knocked off her feet by how fast the door opened.
“So you are back are you and where is my silver stalk of wheat, hmmm?” Jedza demanded leaning in to peer at the child.
“Here is your wheat stalk, Jedza. I am ready to claim my three boons.”
“Are you now?” Jedza sniffed, inspecting the wheat stalk before tucking it into a pocket. “and what will you be asking for foolish child?”
“I want the Skull that is mounted by your ladder, your silver needle, and your bag that holds anything, Madame.” She said head up and as calm as she could be.
“Someone has been telling you things, child, someone has been helping…and what if I say I do not have these things, hmmm?”
“The law here is of exchange. You promised that if I completed three tasks you would do everything in your power to fulfill my three boons. You never said I could not have help in the tasks or that I could not ask for something. You have to complete the bargain.”
“Miserable maggot!” Jedza screeched, “Fine, bothersome child. Here are the things you want. Take them, and be gone!”
“Yes, Madame.” The child said with a small curtsy. Taking the needle and the bag, she went to the post and lifted the skull from its resting place before climbing down the ladder, Jedza fuming and pacing the porch above her. Finally with a screech Jedza turned and stomped into her house, slamming the door behind her, muttering about brat children.
Picking up her walking stick, the child sat the skull on top of it. Placing all her things in the bag, she pulled the strap across her shoulder. Calling a goodbye to the toad they were on their way. She explained to the skull as they walked to the edge of the forest where she needed to go and do.
“There is one more thing I need,” she said to the skull, “Where can I find some cloth?”
“That is easy enough done. You can trade with the weaver god for some. Come I will light the way.” The glow from the skulls eyes pierce the mist, lighting a path for her to follow.
The weaver god was a middle aged man seated in a clearing that was fill of lines of drying linens and silks moving in the breeze. He sat at a massive loom, the steady clacking and thrum of the shuttle filling the air.
“Excuse me sir, but I need to trade for some cloth.” The girl said approaching him.
“And what will you use the cloth for child?” he asked his hands and feet never stilling on the loom.
Quickly she explained how she needed it to save her friend and how she planned to trick the piper and his jailer.
“I have no love of the Piper or his man but nothing is for free. What will you trade me for the cloth?”
“I only have what you see, sir. What would you take in payment?”
“And if I asked that your doll be the payment would you give her away?”
“This doll was my Mother’s sir, she gave her to me.”
“Yes, but to go into danger as you plan to do is not the task of the child. Are you willing to give up your doll, your childhood to save your friend?” The girl cradled, her doll, turning away from the God of Weaving.
“What should I do, Sarah? I don’t want to lose you but I have to save Simon. Without the cloth, I cannot do it.” Sarah gazed at her with her button eyes, but she no longer looked like the friend who would listen and catch her tears, now she looked simply like an old worn doll, willing to be hugged and talked to but unable to offer any more comfort then any object might.
With tears sliding down her cheeks, the girl kissed her doll and extended it out to the God.
“You can have her sir.” She said softly. The man took the doll gently, stilling the loom.
“I share care for her my dear, and when another child comes to me in need, I will pass her on. Now, for the Piper’s clothes you must use this silver cloth. Do you know how to sew a shirt?”
“No sir, but I can learn.”
“A good answer, now come. Sit beside me and I will show you how to sew shirts of silver cloth with your silver needle.”
That evening she approached the large cave where the Piper and his children lived. A chilling wind blew through the trees rattling the bones that had been hung from them. They clanked and clicked against each other while grinning skulls watched her from holes cut into the cliffs around the cave. The boy in red blocked the entrance.
“What do you want, girl.”
“I need to speak to the Piper. I have a trade to offer him.” He turned and disappeared into the cave, a few minutes later he returned with the Piper and a handful of children.
“What trade are you offering?” The Piper asked, taking a seat on a large stone outcropping.
“I would like to see my friend, Simon. I am willing to trade two silver cloth shirts to do so.”
“Very well, call the brat, and the shirts?”
She drew out the two shirts and held one up for the Piper to see.
“Hand it over.”
“Not until Simon is here, sir, or there is no deal.”
A moment later the children waiting in the mouth of the cave parted to reveal Simon, pale, hollow cheeked and filthy walking toward her.
“Simon, come stand by the girl. Now, the shirts.” He said, snapping his fingers. She handed the shirt to the boy in red who passed them to the Piper. He inspected each before choosing one and tossing the other to his jailer. Both pulled the shirts on while the children watched on. Suddenly as the last button was fastened they both went stiff, with a swirl of light the two boys were shrunk down and into silver colored mice.
“What have you done to us?! Undo this immediately.” One of the mice piped. The children circled around the two mice
“I am sorry but I cannot do that. Enjoy being one of the creatures you like to torment, Piper.”
“What are we to do now?” one of the children asked.
“Whatever you like, I am taking Simon home. Those that want can come with us.”
Slowly the children separated into two groups, the ones following the girl and the ones staying.
“Come Simon, Let’s go home.” Pulling Simon away she led him out into the mists. They walked in silence until they came to the river, the small group of children following.
“Here, Simon, you can go back.”
“Are you coming?”
“No, I am going to stay. I want to learn more about this world. Make more friends, have more adventures.”
“I am sorry for bringing you here, Megan.”
“I know, but I am not sorry I came. Goodbye, Simon.” He turned and kneeled, placing a hand against the water, with a swirl of light he seemed to fade away till there was nothing left of him on this side of the reflection. One by one the other children left the mists and returned to the human world until only Megan stood by the river’s edge.
“Well, Skull, what should we do next?”
“If you are looking for a quest there is a town you can reach by the mists where everyone sleeps until someone is able to break the curse.”
“Lead the way, my friend.” She said with a smile, striding down the path her companion lit for her.