Wrede, Patricia C - Enchanted Forest 02 (2 page)

BOOK: Wrede, Patricia C - Enchanted Forest 02
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Uneasily, he glanced back toward the castle, then shook his head. “Even a king needs a day off once in a while,” he told himself. “And it’s not as if they need me for anything urgent.” He turned his back and marched into the trees, determined to enjoy his holiday.

For a few minutes, he strolled aimlessly, enjoying the cool, dense shadows. Then he decided to visit the Green Glass Pool. He hadn’t been there for a while, and it was one of his favorite places. He thought about using magic to move himself there in the blink of an eye, but decided against it.

“After all,” he said, “I wanted a walk. And the pool isn’t
that
far away.” He set off briskly in the direction of the pool.

An hour later, he still hadn’t reached it, and he was beginning to feel a little cross. The forest had shifted twice on him, each time moving the pool sideways or backward, so that not only was it farther away than it had been, it was in a different direction as well. It was almost as if the forest didn’t want him to find the place. If he hadn’t been the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar would never have known he was going the wrong way.

“This is very odd,” Mendanbar said, frowning. “I’d better find out what’s going on.” Normally, the Enchanted Forest didn’t play this sort of game with him. He checked to make sure his sword was loose in its sheath and easy to draw if he needed it. Then he lifted his hand and touched a strand of magic floating invisibly beside his shoulder.

All around him, the huge tree trunks blurred and faded into gray mist. The mist thickened into a woolly fog, then vanished with a suddenness that always surprised him no matter how many times he did the spell. Blinking, he shook his head and looked around.

He was standing right where he had wanted to be, on the rocky lip of the Green Glass Pool. The pool looked as it always did: flat and still as a mirror, and the same shade of green as the new leaves on a poplar.

“Oh!” said a soft, frightened voice from behind him. “Oh, who are you?”

Mendanbar jumped and almost fell into the pool. He recovered his balance quickly and turned, and his heart sank. Sitting on the ground at the foot of an enormous oak was a girl. She wore a thin silver circlet on her head, and the face below it was heart-shaped and very lovely. Her long, golden hair and sky blue dress stood out clearly against the oak’s brown bark, like a picture made of jewels set in a dark-colored frame. That was probably exactly the effect she had intended, Mendanbar thought with a resigned sigh. Somehow princesses, even the ones with less wit than a turtle,
always knew just how to appear to their best advantage.

“Who are you?” the princess asked again. She was examining Mendanbar with an expression of great interest, and she did not look frightened anymore. “And how did you come here, to this most solitary and forsaken place?”

“My name is Mendanbar, and I was out for a walk,” Mendanbar replied. He sighed again and added,
Is
there something I might do for you?”

The princess hesitated.
“Prince
Mendanbar?” she asked delicately.

“No,” Mendanbar answered, puzzled.

“Lord Mendanbar, then? Or, belike, Sir Mendanbar?”

“I’m afraid not.” He was beginning to catch on, and he hoped fervently that she wouldn’t think of asking whether he was a king. It was a good thing he wasn’t wearing his crown. Ambitious princesses were even worse than the usual variety, and he didn’t want to deal with either one right now.

The princess’s dainty eyebrows drew together for a moment while she considered his answer. Finally, her expression cleared. “Then you must be a virtuous woodcutter’s son, whose deeds of valor and goodwill shall earn you lands and title in some glorious future,” she said positively.

“A woodcutter? In the Enchanted Forest?” Mendanbar said, appalled. Didn’t the girl have
any
sense? “No, thank you!”

“But how came you here to find me, if you are neither prince nor knight nor deserving youth?” the princess asked in wide-eyed confusion.

“Oh . . . sometimes these things happen,” Mendanbar said vaguely. “Were you expecting someone in particular?”

“Not exactly,” said the princess. She studied him, frowning, as if she were trying to decide whether it would be all right to ask him for help even if he wasn’t a prince or a lord or a virtuous woodcutter.

“How did
you
get here, by the way?” Mendanbar asked quickly. He hated to refuse princesses pointblank, because they cried and pouted and carried on, but they always asked him to do such silly things. Bring them a white rose from the Garden of the Moon, for instance, or kill a giant or a dragon in single combat. It would be better for both of them if he could distract this princess so that she never asked.

“Alas! It is a tale of great woe,” the princess said. “Out of jealousy, my stepmother cast me from my father’s castle while he was away at war. Since then I have wandered many days, lost and alone and friendless, until I knew not where I was.”

She sounded as if she had rehearsed her entire speech, and what little sympathy Mendanbar had had for her vanished. She and her stepmother had probably talked the whole thing out, he decided, and come to the conclusion that the quickest and surest way for her to make a suitable marriage was to go adventuring. He was amazed that she’d actually gotten into the Enchanted Forest. Usually, the woods kept out the obviously selfish.

“At last I found myself in a great waste,” the princess continued complacently. “Then I came near giving myself up for lost, for it was dry and terrible. But I saw this wood upon the farther side, and so I gathered my last strength to cross. Fortune was with me, and I achieved my goal. Fatigued with my efforts, I sat down beneath this tree to rest, and—”

“Wait a minute,” Mendanbar said, frowning. “You crossed some sort of wasteland and arrived
here?
That can’t be right. There aren’t any wastelands bordering the Enchanted Forest.”

“You insult me,” the princess said with dignity. “How should I he to such a one as you? But go and see for yourself, if you yet doubt my words.” She waved one hand gracefully at the woods behind her.

“Thank you, I will,” said Mendanbar. Still frowning, he walked rapidly past the princess in the direction she had indicated.

The princess’s mouth fell open in surprise as he went by. Before she could collect herself to demand that he return and explain, Mendanbar was out of sight behind a tree.

2
In Which Mendanbar
Discovers a Problem

M
endanbar was still congratulating himself on his escape when the trees ended abruptly. He stopped, staring, and quit worrying about the princess entirely.

A piece of the Enchanted Forest as large as the castle lawn was missing. No, not missing; here and there, a few dead stumps poked up out of the dry, bare ground. Something had destroyed a circular swath of trees and moss, destroyed it so completely that only stumps and a few flakes of ash remained.

The taste of dust on the wind brought Mendanbar out of his daze. He hesitated, then took a step forward into the area of devastation. As he passed from woods to waste, he felt a sudden absence and stumbled in shock. Where the unseen lines of power should have
been, humming with the magical energy that was the life of the Enchanted Forest, he sensed nothing. The magic was gone.

“No wonder that princess didn’t have any trouble getting into the forest,” Mendanbar said numbly. Without magic, this section of forest couldn’t dodge away from her; all the princess had to do to get into the woods was cross it.

Seriously annoyed, Mendanbar kicked at the ground, dislodging more ashes. He bent to touch one of the stumps. The wood crumbled to dust where his hand met it. Coughing, he sat back and saw something glittering on the ground beside the next stump. He went over and picked it up. It was a thin, hard disk a little larger than his hand, and it was a bright, iridescent green.

“A dragon’s scale? What is a dragon’s scale doing
here?”

There was no one near to answer his question. He inspected the scale with care, but it told him nothing more. Scowling at it, he shrugged and put it in his pocket. Then he began a methodical search of the dead area, hoping to find something that would reveal a little more.

Half an hour later, he had collected four more dragon
scales in various
shades of green and was feeling decidedly grim. He had thought he was on good terms with the dragons who lived to the east in the Mountains of Morning; he left them alone and they left him alone. Glancing around the burned space, he grimaced.

“This doesn’t look
much
like ‘leaving me alone,’ he muttered angrily. “What do those dragons think they are doing?” He began to wish
he
had not left
them
quite so much alone for the past three years. Right now it would be useful to know something more about dragons than that they were all large and breathed fire.

Absently, Mendanbar pocketed the dragon scales and walked back to the edge of the burned-out circle. It was a relief to be under the trees where he could feel the magic of the forest again. Frowning, he paused to look back at the ashy clearing.

“I can’t just leave it like this,” he said to himself. “If that princess came this way,
anyone
might get into the Enchanted Forest just by walking across the barren space. But how do I put magic back into an area that’s been sucked dry?”

Still frowning, he circled the edge of the clearing, nudging at the threads of magic that wound through the air. None of them would move any closer to the burned section, but on the far side he found the place where the normal country outside the forest touched the clearing. He paused. It wasn’t a very wide gap.

“I wonder,” he said softly. “If I could
move
it a little, just around the edge . . .”

Carefully, he reached out and gathered a handful of magic. It felt a lot like taking hold of a handful of thin cords, except that the cords were invisible, floating in the air, and made his palms tingle when he touched them. And, of course, each cord was actually a piece of solid magic that he could use to cast a spell if he wanted. In fact, he had to concentrate hard to
keep
from casting a spell or two with all that magic crammed together in his hands.

Pulling gently on the invisible threads, Mendanbar stepped slowly backward out of the Enchanted Forest. The brilliant green moss followed him, rippling under his feet. The trees of the forest wavered as if he were looking at them through a shimmer of hot air rising off sunbaked stone. He took another step, and another. The threads of magic felt warm and thin and slippery. He tightened his grip and took another step. The trees flickered madly, as if he were blinking very rapidly, and the moss swelled and twitched like the back of a horse trying to get rid of an unwanted rider. A drop of sweat ran down his forehead and hung on the tip of his nose. The magic in his hands felt hot and tightly stretched. He stepped back again.

With a sudden wrench, everything snapped into place. The trees stopped flickering and the moss smoothed and lay still. The forest closed up around the burned-out clearing, circling it completely and cutting it off from the outside world. Mendanbar gave a sigh of relief.

“It worked!” he cried triumphantly. A breeze brushed past him, carrying the sharp smell of ashes, and he sobered. He hadn’t repaired the damage; he had only isolated it. “Well, at least it should keep people from wandering into the Enchanted Forest by accident,” he reminded himself. “That’s something.”

One by one, Mendanbar let go of the threads of magic he had pulled across the gap. He felt them join the other unseen strands, merging back into the normal network of magic that crisscrossed the forest. When he had released the last thread, he wiped his hands on his shirt, then wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve.

“Are you quite finished?” said a voice from a tree above his head.

Mendanbar looked up and saw a fat gray squirrel sitting on a branch, staring down at him with disapproval.

“I think so,” Mendanbar said. “For the time being, anyway.”

“For the time being?” the squirrel said indignantly. “What kind of an answer is that? Not useful, that’s what I call it, not useful at all. Finding my way across this forest is hard enough when people don’t make bits of it jump around, not to mention burning pieces of it and I don’t know what else. I don’t know what this place is coming to, really I don’t.”

“Were you here when the trees were burned?” Mendanbar asked. “Did you see what happened? Or who did it?”

“Well, of course not,” said the squirrel. “If I had, I’d have given him, her, or it a piece of my mind, I can tell you. Really, it’s too bad. I’m going to have to work out a whole new route to get home. And as for giving directions to lost princes, well, it’s hopeless, that’s what it is, just hopeless. I’ll get blamed for it when they come out wrong, too, see if I don’t. Word always gets around. ‘Don’t trust the squirrel,’ they’ll say, ‘you always go wrong if you follow the squirrel’s directions.’ They never stop to think of the difficulties involved in a job like mine, oh, no. They don’t stop to say thankyou, either, not them. Ask the squirrel and go running
off, that’s what they do, and never so much as look back. No consideration, no gratitude. You’d think they’d been raised in a palace for all the manners they have.”

“If they’re princes, they probably
have
been raised in palaces,” Mendanbar said. “Princes usually are.”

“Well, no wonder none of them have any manners, then.” The squirrel sniffed. “They ought to be sent to school in a forest, where people are polite. You don’t see any of
my
children behaving like that, no, sir.
Please
and
thank you
and
yes, sir
and
no,
ma’am—
that’s how I brought them up, all twenty-three of them, and what’s good enough for squirrels is good enough for princes, I say.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Mendanbar said. “Now, about the burned spot—”

“Wicked, that’s what I call it,” the squirrel interrupted. “But hooligans like that don’t stop to think, do they? Well, if they did, they wouldn’t go around setting things on fire and making a lot of trouble and inconvenience for people. Inconsiderate, every last one of them, and they’ll be sorry for it one day, you just wait and see if they aren’t.”

“Hooligans?” Mendanbar blinked and began to feel more cheerful. Maybe he wasn’t in trouble with the dragons after all. Maybe it had been a rogue who had burned out part of his forest. That would be bad, but at least he wouldn’t have to figure out a way of dragonproofing the whole kingdom. He frowned. “How am I going to find out for sure?” he wondered aloud.

“Ask Morwen,” said the squirrel, flicking her tail.

“What?”

“I said, ask Morwen. Honestly, don’t you big people know how to listen? You’d think none of you had ever talked to a squirrel before, the way most of you behave.”

“I’m very sorry,” Mendanbar said. “Who’s Morwen?”

“That’s better,” the squirrel said, mollified. “Morwen’s a witch. She lives over by the mountains—just head that way until you get to the stream, then follow it to the big oak tree with the purple leaves. Turn left and walk for ten minutes and you should come out in her backyard. That is,” she added darkly, “you should if all this burning things up and moving things around hasn’t tangled everything
too
badly.”

“You think this witch had something to do with what happened?” Mendanbar waved at the ashy clearing a few feet away.

“I said no such thing! Morwen is a very respectable person, even if she does keep cats.”

“Then I don’t understand why you think I should talk to her.”

“You asked for my advice, and I’ve given it,” said the squirrel. “That’s my job. I’m not supposed to explain it, too, for heaven’s sake. If you want explanations, talk to a griffin.”

“If I see one, I will,” said Mendanbar. “Thank you for your advice.”

“You’re welcome,” said the squirrel, sounding pleased. She flicked her tail twice and leaped to a higher branch. “Good-bye.” In another moment she had disappeared behind the trunk of the tree.

“Good-bye,” Mendanbar called after her. He
waited, but there was no further response. The squirrel had gone.

Slowly, Mendanbar started walking in the direction the squirrel had pointed. When someone in the Enchanted Forest gave you advice, you were usually best off following it, even if you were the King.

“Especially
if you’re the King,” Mendanbar reminded himself. He wished he knew a little more about this Morwen person, though. He wasn’t really surprised that he hadn’t heard of her. So many witches lived in and around the Enchanted Forest that it was impossible for anyone to keep track of them all. Still, this one must be something special, or the squirrel wouldn’t have sent the King of the Enchanted Forest to her.

What sort of witch was Morwen? “Respectable” didn’t tell him a lot, especially coming from a squirrel. Morwen could be a white witch, but she could also be the sort of witch who lived in a house made of cookies in order to enchant passing children.

“She could even be a fire witch,” he said to himself. “There are probably one or two of them who could be termed respectable.” He thought about that for a moment. He’d never heard of any himself.

If Morwen had lived in the Enchanted Forest for a long time, she was probably a decent sort of witch, he decided at last. The nasty ones generally made trouble before they’d been around very long, and then someone would complain to the King.

“And nobody has complained about Morwen,” he finished.

*
            
*
            
*

Mendanbar reached the stream and turned left. Maybe it
had
been a mistake to cancel all those boring formal festivals and dinners Willin liked so much, he mused. They would have given him a chance to meet some of the ordinary people who lived in the Enchanted Forest. Or rather, he amended, the people who didn’t make trouble. “Ordinary” was not the right word for anyone who lived in the Enchanted Forest, not if they managed to stay alive and in more or less their proper shape.

His reflections were cut short by a loud roar. Glancing up, he saw a lion bounding toward him along the bank of the stream. It looked huge and fierce and not at all friendly. As it leaped for his throat, Mendanbar batted hastily at a nearby strand of magic. The lion sailed over Mendanbar’s head and landed well behind him, looking surprised and embarrassed. It whirled and tried again, but this time Mendanbar was ready for it. With a quick twist and pull, he froze the lion in the middle of rearing on its hind legs and stepped back to study it.

The lion roared again, plainly frustrated as well as embarrassed and confused. Mendanbar frowned and twitched another invisible thread. Suddenly the roaring had words in it.

BOOK: Wrede, Patricia C - Enchanted Forest 02
13.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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