Gwyneth Upjohn stared down at the package covered in brown paper then ran her fingers across her mother’s strong, slanted writing. She settled in the soothing comfort of the kitchen chair her mother had so often occupied.
How should she feel about receiving a parcel from someone who had been dead over a year and a half? Almost as if her mother had merely gone on a long voyage and sent home a special souvenir.
Gwyneth sighed, pushing shoulder-length corn-colored hair behind her ear. “Mama, I miss you so much.”
Irritation colored her eyes a murky grey as she ripped the paper off the small box. Why did the lawyer think it so vital to wait until Gwyneth’s twenty-second birthday before sending the package? If she had known her mother left something for her, she’d have banged down his door until he gave it to her.
Which was perhaps why he never told her. The message left yesterday on her answering machine had been so brief as to be almost cryptic. “You should receive something in the post from my office. If you don’t have it in the next two days, call my secretary. It’s something…something from your mother…for your birthday.”
Gwyneth lifted the lid of the box.
A very ornate book with raised gold lettering and a background of green and red filigree splashed with blue and more gold. She traced the gold letters but didn’t recognize a single word. Neither could she recognize any of the symbols. Whatever the language, it wasn’t one with which she was familiar.
When she opened the book, the binding creaked. She turned to the middle. Blank. She flipped a page. Blank. She fanned through the entire volume. All blank.
“Rrrr. What is the point of this?”
She slammed it shut and dumped it on the smooth wood of the kitchen table. What she didn’t want now was another mystery. Last week, her boss had announced a big meeting for today, and ever since, there had been whispers amongst the employees. Were they merging with another advertising firm? Were they closing altogether?
Mr. Tyson had remained surprisingly closed-mouth, considering Gwyneth’s status as his trusted assistant for the last three years. He usually gave her the heads-up. Not this time.
Gwyneth snatched her purse and keys and ran to catch the bus.
Nine hours later, she dragged through her door and dumped a cardboard carton of her belongings on the floor.
“Sacked. I still can’t believe it.”
The rumored merger had become a reality. She and her boss along with ten other employees had been laid off. What would she do now?
She collapsed in her mother’s chair at the kitchen table and stared into gloomy darkness. The shadow of the barren stove mocked her. She really should turn on a light and make something to eat, but she lacked the energy to move.
Light filtered through the open window shade and caught the gilt letters on her mother’s book. It looked different, practically sparkling in the pale glow of the moon.
She slid it across the table toward her, knocking a sheet of paper to the floor. She hurriedly bent to retrieve it then spread it flat.
Lettering and drawings sprang across the page as if imbued with a life of their own.
She jerked her hand back and stared at the page. Moonlight had clearly defined a map of squiggles and shapes with that same strange lettering she’d seen on the cover.
She jumped up to turn on the kitchen light then settled back in her chair with the map.
The paper was blank!
She held it toward the kitchen light. She shook it, blew it then rubbed her hand across it.
She dropped it on the table in disgust.
I know I did not imagine that.
Once again, the moon illuminated shapes and letters on the paper.
Gwyneth leaned over the table to stare. She touched one of the words, but this time, the map didn’t disappear. She picked it up again and held it to the light.
The map had disappeared.
She returned it directly to the moonlight and gasped as the map took shape as if by magic.
This cannot be happening.
Gwyneth took the book and opened the cover to the first page. She carried it to the window and waited as the moon’s light cast a silvery glow on the paper. Faint lettering slowly emerged and then a picture came to life, a picture of Gwyneth holding the book.
She slammed it shut and ran to her bedroom.
Enough of that. I’m going to bed, and in the morning when I’m not so exhausted, I’ll take another look. I’m just overwrought because I’ve lost my job.
But I don’t feel overwrought.
Doesn’t matter. I have to be overwrought. The moon can’t make pages come to life.
Gwyneth cast a nervous glance around the dense trees surrounding her. The bright morning sunlight wouldn’t deter muggers in Central Park. All she needed was to get konked on the head after she’d lost her employee health plan.
Not that any mugger would want the bus token with three dollars and seventy-nine cents she had stuffed in her pocket, but a would-be attacker wouldn’t know the meager state of her affairs until said attacker took a whack at her.
A desultory breeze caught a solitary leaf, and it waved her on.
Right. Enough daydreaming.
She held a compass in one hand and the strange map in the other. The book rested safely in a pack on her back. Oddly enough, the print on the map seemed engraved on the surface. The book, however, was once again blank. Throughout the night, the map had remained on the table engulfed in the moon’s light while the book had been closed. Maybe because she’d closed the book, the picture had not been given enough time to form properly.
Of course, that assumption was based on a theory of lunacy on her part because the moon didn’t make books or maps come to life. But, the evidence rested before her eyes. Thankfully, she recognized the landmarks of Central Park when she saw them because she still couldn’t read the strange markings.
Why on earth had her mother kept a secret map of Central Park hidden in that freaky book? She had to know. Thus, her frenzied jaunt downtown when she’d awakened to find the map’s drawings intact.
Well, this was the place, a quiet circle of refuge where the trees and underbrush had never taken root, as if some conscientious gardener took great pains to keep the area clear.
She collapsed to the ground, dropping her backpack beside her, and rested her head against a large white stone to stare up at the sky. Pale blue with wisps of intermittent white. It could be any day of the year for all the notice the universe made of her birthday, her twenty-second to be exact. The special one, according to her mother, which had made absolutely no sense to Gwyneth, growing up. No one rejoiced on their twenty-second birthday, maybe the eighteenth or the twenty-first, but not the twenty-second.
She looked around her again at the silent trees, green with summer leaves. What was so unique about this patch of ground?
With one hand shading her eyes, she held up the map over her face.
She bolted upright. Another drawing emerged from behind the features of the map. A small circle, with each point seemingly made of stones, and the spot where she sat formed the largest stone.
She sat in the midst of a circle. Her brain whirred through possible connections to a circle and Central Park, but nothing of value came to mind.
She reached back to lean against the ground, and her hand struck the white stone.
A large stone…in a circle…
She stood, throwing her backpack over her shoulder and walked the perimeter of the circle to peer under trees and hedges. Traces of white stone partially embedded in dirt, grass, or moss marked the outer edges of the small meadow.
She found only one long gap where the stone seemed to have disappeared, breaking the perfection of the circle.
She could easily fix that. In for a penny; in for a pound. If she was going to follow this insane line of reasoning, she was going all the way. She traipsed back to the stone where she’d rested her head and heaved with all her might.
At five-foot-eight and a hundred and twenty pounds, Gwyneth was no lightweight, but it took every ounce of her strength to get that rock moving. Once she did, she turned it on its side and rolled it to the gap in the circle. It fell with a thud. She shoved at it with her foot until satisfied that it occupied the correct location.
The exertion of that move had winded her, so she sat on the rock and leaned back against the tree, only to feel it give way behind her. She screamed, flailing her arms wildly in a vain attempt to stop her tumble downhill.
Downhill? Why am I falling? There is no hill behind that tree.
She came to an abrupt stop when her shoulder connected with something hard. “Oww!”
She raised her head to find a leg encased in a black leather boot. Her eyes raced up the body to find the owner. She gawked into silvery grey eyes, wide with shock. She’d never before seen anyone that tall, but the young man’s hair reminded her very much of her mother’s, incredibly long, straight, and almost white. Three trim braids hung from his left temple and draped over a pointed ear.
A pointed ear? She rubbed her eyes.
Yes, his ears were pointed, his face long, thin, and, by now, rather disapproving. He jerked his booted foot out from under her and glared.
“What?” she asked, scrambling to her feet and brushing nervous hands over her shirt and jeans.
“How did you do that? There has never before been a portal there.”
“I fell…off a boulder…in a circle.” Like that mattered, but she tended to babble when people glared at her with suspicion.
His eyes narrowed. Human.
“I heard that, and what are you…chopped liver?”
“I am an elf. It is quite evident.”
He swung the waist-length hair behind his back, raised his chin, and crossed his arms over his chest, a broad chest that pulled against the confines of a tawny leather vest.
A leather thong tied around his forearms accentuated the bulging muscles in his arms. Her eyes traveled quickly past the muscles of his six-pack abdomen to the fawn-colored leggings tucked in boots. He planted his feet further apart and straightened to his full height, at least nine inches over her head. All-in-all, the pose seemed designed to intimidate as he lorded over her.
“Did Emira send you? I really do not have time to spare as a toad. My quest is most urgent. Surely she knows this.”
“Ya got me.” She shrugged. “I never met her, but you might look cute as a toad.”
His eyes darkened to thundercloud grey. “That makes no sense.”
“Sorry, but neither does expecting some woman to turn you into a toad.”
“If you knew her, you would not say so. She is capable of that and much more.” His expression relaxed, and he studied her. “I am sorry. I really do not understand. You fell from a stone?”
“It doesn’t make any sense to me either.” Gwyneth sighed. “I don’t think you’d believe me even if I told you. Well, maybe you would. I mean, you think some woman can turn you into a toad. You might believe anything.”
His face grew rigid again. “So be it. I will take my leave then.”
He whirled on his heel and stalked past her.
“Wait! I…I don’t know where I am. I’ve never seen this side of Central Park. Can you direct me back to the entrance?” She searched around her for her backpack and the map. She seemed to have lost both in her mad roll down the hill. He might resemble some throwback from a Lord of the Rings flick, but at least he wasn’t menacing. “I can’t find my mother’s map.”
He froze in mid-step then turned back to her. “A map? You have a map of this area?”
“Uh…not exactly.” She bent down and retrieved the crumpled chart then stumbled through the tall grass up the hill toward her backpack. She could scarcely make it out against the green of the landscape.
Why was it so dark? She glanced at the sky. The sun was setting, a dark orange orb falling off the side of the world.
That’s just not possible. It was barely nine in the morning when I entered the park.
“Wait! Where are you going? What is not possible?”
She grabbed the backpack and threw it over her left shoulder. The right still smarted from the unexpected contact with the end of his boot.
She turned to find him standing too close for comfort. Is he a nutjob?
“What is a nutjob?”
Her jaw gaped. “How do you do that? Why are you reading my mind?” She put a hand to her hip. “And why could I read your mind?”
She stared up at him. He’s really a hunk if you’re into that whole macho man scene.
“I can’t hear you now, but I did.”
“I am not familiar with the terms hunk or macho, but I repeat…I am not a man.” He raised his chin. “I am an elf…which is why I can read your mind. I don’t know why you…heard me. You cannot hear me now because I have blocked my thoughts.”
She rolled her eyes. “See? Nutjob. I’m outta here.”
Her eyes swept the area for any familiar landmarks, but that sea of grass seemed endless save for an occasional tree.
Gwyneth stomped her way uphill until the man reached out and grabbed her arm.
She jerked it free. “Hey! Watch it, buddy. I know kung fu.”
“Who is Kung Foo?”
“Not who…what. It’s a kind of martial arts for defense. You really don’t know much, do you?”
“I know many things.” He glanced at the darkening sky. What was once a lovely sunset had turned inky blue in the last few minutes. “And right now, I know it is not safe to remain in this area unprotected. Come.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I find that stupid tree and that boulder I fell from. I don’t want to be lost in Central Park after dark.”
“Young woman, you are no longer in Central Park. You fell through a portal. How, I do not know because I have never seen a portal in that location. I suspect, if you fell off a boulder, that you accidentally activated a fairy ring.”
She put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes. “I’m not listening to any more nonsense. Go away. Go away.”
A deafening roar sounded across the hill and reverberated off Gwyneth’s body. Her eyes shot open and gaped at the man. “What was that?”
“My dragon. He is hunting prey.”
His sardonic smile made her want to slap him.
“You are crazy!”
The roar sounded again right behind them, and Gwyneth stumbled into the man. His arm shot out to steady her as she whirled toward the sound.
Wind whipped her face as giant wings beat the air. Without thinking, she raised her head to stare into eyes as large as dinner plates and as gold as a cat’s. The mouth opened to reveal dagger-sharp teeth the size of a saber.
Gwyneth screamed and broke into a run, which sent her tumbling downhill once again.
When she reached the bottom, the man was only seconds behind her. She leapt up and ran pell-mell for the nearest line of trees, but it was at least three hundred yards away. She’d never make it.
“Wait! Do not enter the trees after dark! The dragon will not harm you.”
It was useless for her to think she could outrun a man with legs that dwarfed hers. He seized both her shoulders and swung her around.
She kicked out at him, taking him by surprise then threw him to the ground. He stared up at her in amazement.
“What kind of woman are you?”
She ran, but he caught her, easily wrapping both his arms around her and lifting her off the ground so she couldn’t trip him again.
“Now,” he panted. “We shall have a little talk. You are more than you seem. My dragon says you smell like a human and an elf. Who are your parents? Have you always lived in the human earth world? Your ears will no doubt become more pointed now that you are here.”
Gwyneth stopped squirming. “The dragon talks? What do you mean I’m part elf?” She burst into tears. “Would you please…please tell me what’s going on?”
“I am sorry. If you promise not to run, I will place you on the ground.”
Gwyneth nodded, but her eyes darted to the trees, figuring the amount of time it would take her to reach them should the chance for escape present itself.
“I am quite serious about the perils here. My dragon will not eat you, but there are many creatures that will. Do you give me your solemn word?”
“All right.” She sniffed. “I promise not to run away, but I’m not going anywhere with you until I get some answers, because I really think this is all a nightmare.”
He set her down. “It is no nightmare, but elves do not use that term. It is albtraum.”
He lifted her chin with his hand and stared into her eyes. He tipped her head to one side and pushed aside her hair to peer at her ears.
Gwyneth jerked away. “Who do you think you are? I’m not some prize mare, you know. If you reach for my teeth, I’ll bite you.”
He chuckled. “I am Reychek of Elshamir, the Land of Shining Bright and home of the elves. You are a brave young woman. I really expected you to faint at the sight of the dragon. Many humans do. Perhaps it is your elven heritage that gives you such boldness.”
“I’m not an elf, and I’m not brave. I ran…remember.”
“True. But, who wouldn’t? Dragons are not always on friendly terms with humans, and yes, you are part elf. Feel your ears. Already there is a raised ridge at the top, similar to my own, but not quite as pronounced.”
Gwyneth reached for her ears. They felt slightly pointed at the top, and she couldn’t recall ever seeing them that way. He might be right. Which could only mean she was crazy.
She plopped on the ground. “I want answers.”
Reychek studied the landscape around them then jerked his head toward something in the darkness. Gwyneth felt the ground shake and heard the loud swoop of very large wings. She ducked and peered into the sky. The dragon had taken flight, an ominous black shape against the stark white of the moon.
“Keronyth will keep watch over us until I can start a fire.”
“Keronyth, your dragon? Why didn’t he start the fire?”
“He suggested it. I thought you had witnessed enough…surprises. I am more than able to start a fire.” He reached down for a dry branch.
“Oh, my gosh. You are sooo macho. Get over yourself.”
“If I knew to what you refer, I would endeavor to do so. As it is…”
“It means you are very much aware that you are male.”
“Anyone could not fail to see that.”
“There you go. You are so…male.”
“It’s not a compliment.”
He dropped an armload of wood against a decaying log. “Perhaps not to a woman.”
“Never mind.” She added some twigs to the pile. “So, we’re in Elshamir?”
He pulled a brown pack much like a saddlebag from behind the log and reached inside it for some tool Gwyneth didn’t recognize, something long, thin, and shiny. With a small spark of blue, the fire sprang to life.
Reychek sprinkled some dust over the flames which ignited into hundreds of green bursts. “That should hold the beasts at bay.”
“What was that…magic dust?”
“Eww. You are disgusting. Wash your hands or I won’t even speak to you.”
“At once, milady.”
Gwyneth could have sworn he hid a smile as he trudged away from the fire. He disappeared for several minutes, leaving Gwyneth to wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing. But no…there was the fire to prove his existence.
She rubbed her hands over her arms. Without the rays of the sun, the air had quickly grown chilly. Another reason to believe she wasn’t in Central Park, where it was mid-summer and warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and jeans…even at night.
She stood and walked closer to a tree. The trunk felt smooth, almost like polished wood.
“Argh.” She kicked it. “Not even the trees are normal.”
The nearest branch shivered then bent toward her. She backed toward the fire. The tiny twigs on the end of the branch reached out and pinched her. She screamed and kept on screaming as she peered at the tree. A woman’s face stared back at her.
“You pinched me.”
Reychek stumbled into the clearing. “What is it?”
Gwyneth shook her head, still gaping at the tree, which now appeared completely normal.
“She pinched me. The tree. It had a face…a woman’s face.”
“What did you do to her?”
“I said what did you do to her? It is most uncommon for a wood elf to pinch someone.”
“That tree is a person…I mean an elf?”
“Yes. That is why I chose this particular area. It is safest to remain with one’s kind.”
Gwyneth looked down at her lime green New Balance running shoes. “If only you were ruby slippers.” She closed her eyes. “I want to go home. I want to go home. I want-”
“But you are home. If you are an elf, the earthly human world is not your home. Come. Sit by the fire. I brought something to eat.”
Gwyneth looked back at the tree. “I’m sorry. I’ve never met a tree elf before.”
Gwyneth squatted on the ground and stared into the fire. “What are you doing here if this isn’t Elshamir? You said you were on a quest. Are you like some kind of warrior?”
Reychek sat across from her and reached over the fire to hand her a canteen and a small bag. “First things, first. I have told you my name. What is yours?”
“Gwyneth. You didn’t have to put on a shirt for me. I already saw those tattoos on your arm.”
His eyes narrowed. “You said my maleness bothered you. I have covered it.”
“Not exactly what I meant…forget it. That’s a nice poet’s shirt. Does it shimmer?”
“It is elven weave.”
“So…what is the tattoo for? Is that how many things you’ve killed?”
“Why in the name of Elohan would I rejoice in killing?”
She shrugged. “You’re a man, aren’t you? What does the tattoo mean?”
He stared hard at her face. “It means I am a traitor.”
It most certainly does not.
Be quiet, Keronyth. It might as well.
You are purposely misleading her. She won’t trust you.
Gwyneth jerked and swerved her head back and forth, searching for the voices. “Who said that? Who’s there?” She turned wide eyes on Reychek. “I hear someone talking about us.”
Hah. You see. She hears me. She is connected to you. You know what that means.
Be silent, Keronyth.
“You hear the thoughts of the dragon. He is nearby. Had he known you could hear him, he would have blocked his thoughts to you.”
I most certainly will not. She is amusing.
Keronyth, that is enough.
Gwyneth watched Reychek across the fire. His eyes seemed locked on hers. What was he thinking?
She could no longer tell. Was he a traitor or wasn’t he? She didn’t believe it, and she didn’t need the dragon’s say-so to reach that conclusion. She just had a sense about such things. And he was an honorable man…elf.
She smiled back. “I need my backpack. I dropped it when that dragon showed up.”
He reached beside him and held it up. “This?” He passed it to her.
Gwyneth held it to her chest like a shield. What was she doing here? Why had this happened to her?
“I am on a quest because I am a dragon rider. Certain…incidents occurred recently, a war, in particular, which awakened the dragons. There seems to be some concern that all is not right. I am seeking…knowledge.”
You are seeking the golden Book of Destiny.
Her mother’s book was gold. Gwyneth tightened her hold on the backpack. “Please tell me more. Where are you going? You seemed very intent on leaving when we…uh…met. Are you in a hurry?”
Only if he wants to stop Iymithra from gaining her freedom.
“Time is of vital importance. I am traveling to Semantria to speak with the Lord Chancellor. He is a priest of Elohan and knows many things about the ancient times. Semantria is a land of humans. You would like it there.”
“I want to go home. Take me back to that portal.”
He sighed. “It will not open on this side. There has never been a fairy ring in that location.”
“Well, get some rocks and make one.”
“Child, I am not a fairy and do not possess such magic. We are very near Semantria. If anyone can help, they can.”
Reychek glanced away. “Well…they have much…magic in their land.”
“There’s something you aren’t telling me.”
He chuckled. “There are probably millions of things I am not telling you, but tonight is not the time to begin your lessons. It is time to rest.” He threw the remainder of his bread in his bag and stood. “You have not eaten. You must. It is elven bread and will sustain you for a long while. I fear you will need additional strength on the morrow.”
“I don’t know why, Reychek the traitor, but I trust you, and I’m usually right. My mother said it was my gift. So…I’ll eat your little dried-up-looking cracker and drink your water, even though it could be poisoned or drugged so you can have your way with me…”
Reychek snorted with laughter, but Gwyneth ignored him.
“As I was saying, I’ll trust you, if you trust me. You just called me a child and you had this peculiar look on your face. Why? And…I want to see that hill where I fell, so I know for myself that I can’t go home.”
“Fair enough. I will take you at daybreak…now prepare for sleep.”
“I am fifty-nine of your earth years. You are but twenty-two.”
Gwyneth shook her head. “How could you know?”
“There were several indicators. At the age of twenty-two, a child with human and elf parents will know whether or not she will live life as a human with relatively no elven…abilities or whether she will grow into certain gifts, one of which is the capacity to hear the thoughts of dragons.”
“And the other indicators?”
“You said you had your mother’s map. An elven mother would give her daughter such a thing on her twenty-second birthday in the hope that it would lead her to her…” He looked up helplessly.
He chuckled. “Something like that. Eat, and I will obtain a bedroll.”
Minutes later, Gwyneth lay on the ground, wrapped tightly in the bedroll, using her backpack as a makeshift pillow, an extremely hard pillow. This was a first. She’d never been camping outdoors. Come to think of it, all of this was a first. Somehow, her mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that everything she’d ever thought about herself, her mother, and her father was a lie. How did she get out of bed one morning, fall through a portal, and start living life as a fairy tale?
She couldn’t. She wanted to go home. It was safe. Yes, even Central Park muggers were safer than dragons, talking trees that pinch, and unknown creatures that lived in fairy tale woods.
Tears filled her eyes and slid into her hair. No way would she let that elf or his dragon see her cry. As macho as he was, he wouldn’t think much of her if she cried like a baby. Her hand slipped out of the bedroll to wipe her eyes.
Lying on the ground feeling sorry for herself would get her nowhere, but she couldn’t even think about sleeping when it was still only late afternoon at home. Where was home?
That brought a fresh spurt of tears.
Reychek laid with his back to the fire and to the girl, but it didn’t stop his runaway thoughts.
Where had she come from? If he had lost everything he believed in, he didn’t think he would take it as well. She had managed to cope with each unearthly notion he’d thrown at her.
It was quite possible she had teased him when she said he was too macho. But she seemed to think it amusing. He still wasn’t sure if it was a bad thing or not. Her vernacular left much to be desired.
He found her eyes the most disturbing of all. A bluish grey and very becoming with that corn-colored hair. If she chose to make her home with the elves, she could have her choice of mates. But, she must learn to hide her emotions. One look at her eyes, and he didn’t need to read her thoughts to see what she felt. From the sound of her muffled cries, she felt misery right now. He hardened his heart to it. He had no time to become involved with a maiden’s plight, and this was no small problem.
Reychek, how can you turn your back to her? Can you not hear her sorrow? She is linked to you as surely as I am or she could not hear my thoughts.
What would you have me do, Keronyth? Ride into Elshamir and present her to the queen? I do not even know if the girl will choose life as an elf. She has yet to comprehend that she is trapped here.
She will have to accompany us on our quest. It is fated by Elohan or she would not have dropped from the sky at your feet. A very symbolic gesture on his part, don’t you think?
Enough. I cannot allow an unwed female to ride with me unchaperoned. I cannot escort any woman anywhere or have you forgotten that I am banished? My shame would be her shame.
Somehow, I don’t think she’d care.
She would care if she died, and that I could not bear.