Emira peered past the graying fence along the roadside to the towering elm trees beyond. With a sigh of longing, she rested one bare foot in the cool green grass and the other against a wood picket.
The enchanted wood.
She twisted her head to glance down the lane at her house. The usually cheery yellow cottage seemed to watch her through its many windows like dark brooding eyes. The thatched roof glared at her like an overgrown eyebrow.
Could Mama and Papa see her? They’d stressed so many times not to wander into the wood alone.
Ridiculous, really. Tomorrow she turned eight. Quite old enough to find the vale of the fairies. And she knew exactly where to look. Hadn’t Mama and Papa told her enough stories about the fairy rings in the wood?
She took a deep breath and hoisted herself over the fence to drop on the soft pads of her feet. Leaves fluttered in a soft breeze which brought the sweet scent of honeysuckle. A shiver ran up her spine.
Magic. Certainly today she’d find a fairy ring and enter the land of Rin.
With leaps and bounds, she rushed through the clover, her eyes glued to the willowy tree branches overhead.
A giggle tickled her throat. What if she’d already found the treefolk who protected the fairy ring?
With her head tipped back, she wandered on. Would they think her worthy? Would they speak to her…tell her where the fairy ring was hidden?
The forest became dense, and Emira slowed to pick her way through tangled vines. When her dress caught on a twig, she stopped, carefully pulling it loose. She didn’t want to explain to Mama that she’d torn her favorite blue play dress.
At the sound of a loud cry, she abandoned the hem of her dress.
Was it a bird? The birds were friends of the fairies. Would they sound a warning of her approach?
She waited, tilting her head toward the noise. The cries came closer together then she heard a loud hiccough.
Definitely not a bird. There was someone in the magic wood. Someone very sad.
She stepped over a twisted vine into a small meadow. After the dense forest she had clambered through, the green expanse seemed out of place, as if the trees and vines had grown up to hide the presence of such a place.
At the edge of the grass, a boy crouched against a large boulder, his shoulders heaving.
“Where is the stone?” he choked out. “Where is it?”
In his palm rested an ordinary white stone. He tossed it aside and picked up another, black and shiny.
He held it to the light then threw it away. After studying one more, he collapsed on the boulder. “What am I to do?”
Emira turned in a circle, searching each tree and shrub, each flower. She saw no one but the boy.
Was he talking to himself? Why did he want a stone?
Not that she wanted to confront a sobbing boy. This much she knew. Boys didn’t care much for showing weakness, especially to girls. What if he got angry?
Perhaps, if she promised to help him find the stone, they might become friends. She needed a friend. After three years attending the village school, the other children still treated her like a misfit and pointed at her shining white hair. They excluded her from their games…and from their secrets.
She glanced around the meadow again. She really must find the fairies. They’d know what to do. Her parents said they were very wise and often helped those in trouble.
With bated breath, she crouched beside the boulder and held out a tentative hand. “What does the stone look like?”
The boy’s head jerked back, revealing dark blue eyes rimmed in red. He glared, dashing a hand at his tears and shoving at the long blond bangs that hung over one eye. “Go away.”
Emira heard that on a daily basis, and this boy didn’t act as if he meant it.
“Why? I thought you needed help.”
He gaped at her. His eyes growing larger as he studied her up and down.
“Have you got the sight?”
“What? Of course, I can see.”
“The sight…the sight. You have the look of the elves.”
“I do? Have you seen elves?”
“What kind of question is that? They come to court every day.” His eyes darkened. “But they’ve lost the stone.”
“What about fairies?”
“They don’t have the stone either.”
He saw fairies and elves every day? At the fairy court?
Her heart beat with excitement. Maybe he could show her.
She tossed her pale hair behind her shoulders and leaned forward. Was he making fun of her like all the other children?
In a flash, she made a study of him from head to toe. This was no boy from the village. He wore the strangest clothes, shinier and prettier than anything even her mother owned. Was he wearing hose on his legs and pointy leather boots? Who wore shoes like that?
Maybe he had seen fairies.
He continued to stare into the woods as if he’d lost all hope.
There must be something the fairies could do.
She gripped his arm. “What do they look like?”
He turned to face her, and a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth grew into a smile. “You’ve really never seen them? You could come and visit them if you like.”
Emira’s heart leaped until a vision of Mama and Papa popped into her head. She swiveled to retrace the course she’d just taken. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Wait! Neither am I, but I heard the elves talking. They think the stone is somewhere here…and this is a fairy ring.”
He held out his arm, pointing at a line of white rocks.
Emira followed the path with her eyes. The boy stood in the midst of a perfect circle of large stones, save for a small gap at the edge of the trees.
She stretched her neck, straining to see what caused the break in the circle. Something moved, and she jerked back.
“What is it? Are you afraid?” he asked.
“Certainly not. Are you?” Maybe she felt a little afraid, but she wasn’t about to tell him.
He shook his head. “If the ogres were coming, we’d know it.”
Ogres? Now, what was he talking about? Was he teasing her? But…he did dress and speak strangely, and she’d never seen him in the village before. It was worth a chance.
She walked closer and held out her hand. “My name is Emira. If we’re going to be friends, we should know each other’s name. Papa says a name is very important.”
He took her hand in a comfortable grip. Most boys tried to crush her knuckles.
“My name is Riordan.”
“Riordan,” she mumbled. “I like it.”
He straightened and peered down his nose at her. “You should. I am Prince Riordan Janus Ganthor, the Third.” He held out his arm with a flourish and bowed low before her. “At your service, milady.”
“Are you really?”
“Are you at my service?”
“Are you in need of a champion?”
“Am I ever.” She flounced over to the boulder and sat down with a huff.
He followed and dropped beside her, oblivious to the green grass staining his hosiery. “How may I be of assistance?”
She smothered a giggle. He had the most peculiar ways. But if she laughed at him, he might not help her. And she liked him.
“I’m trying to find the fairies. If this is a fairy ring, where are the fairies?”
“You don’t understand at all. Of course, this is a fairy ring because this is a portal. You know…for traveling. How do you think I got here?”
“I thought you walked…just like me. So…where did you come from?”
“From Rin, land of the Majestic Mountains, servants to the Most High King.”
“Mercy, no. Father and I are servants of Elohan, and his son, Yehu.” His eyes darkened. “Well, we were.”
“What happened? Did you get fired or something?”
“They didn’t set us on fire. Father…died. And with the sacred stone gone…”
Once more he gazed at the woods with a blank look on his face.
Emira hesitated. The more he told her, the more confused she became. Mama and Papa spoke of Rin all the time. The fairies lived there, but she’d never heard of Elohan or Yehu. Did the fairies serve this Most High King as well? And what about that stone?
Riordan turned to face the gap in the stone circle. Emira concentrated on the spot. It still looked as if the forest beyond was moving, sort of rippling.
Her new friend pushed himself off the grassy knell. “I have to leave now.”
“But, why? I still don’t understand.”
“They might look for me. My uncle isn’t here yet. If I could just find the stone before he comes, I know I’ll be all right.”
“Wait. I don’t know what you mean. How can I help you find the stone if I don’t understand?”
“You want to help?”
She nodded, offering her biggest smile.
He focused on the gap in the stones then turned to face her. “All right. I’ll come back. But I have to go now.”
If he left now, she might never understand all the secrets. And he knew even more than her parents. “How do I know you’ll come back?”
He lifted his chin. “Because I said so. Elohan wouldn’t like it if I lied.”
“But…aren’t you sort of lying when you aren’t where you’re supposed to be?”
“I…guess so. But…you don’t understand. I’m not entirely sure who to trust right now. With the sacred stone missing…all sorts of things go wrong.”
He pulled at the tight collar of his white ruffled shirt, almost hidden by a blue and gold satin vest. He kinked one finger around a gold chain and pulled it out. “Here. My pledge to you. This is Father’s ring. I’ll have to come back for it. And they won’t try to stop me when they know you have the ring. I have to give it to my bride some day.”
He placed the chain about Emira’s neck and let the ring fall on her palm.
She peered at it. A gold ring with a black center. No…a blue center. No, it changed color constantly, shimmering and rippling much like the forest behind the gap in the fairy ring.
Except for the letter stamped in the center. E.
She turned the ring around. Tiny letters outlined the gold, but she couldn’t read the words. She held the ring out as far the chain would reach. “What does it say?”
Riordan didn’t bother to look. “The E stands for Elohan and the eternal promise. When a ruler gives this ring to his future bride, he promises to care for her eternally as Elohan cares for us.”
Emira’s head jerked up. No one in the village must know of the eternal promise. Several of the children at school had divorced parents. “So…men never leave their wives?”
“Never. To do so would deny everything Elohan teaches us about faithfulness and love. One cannot break such a covenant.” He looked back again. “I really must go before they look for me.”
“Of course.” She fingered the ring then dropped it inside the bodice of her dress. “I promise to take care of it for you. When can you come back?”
“I’ll try to be here the same time tomorrow. Everyone’s busy with the noonday meal.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
He nodded and stepped out of the ring toward the forest. Instead of walking between the trees, he faded before he reached them. The ripples dispersed with him.
A doorway into Rin!
Emira rushed toward the gap in the stones and reached out her hand.
Nothing but air. The forest trees seemed normal now.
Maybe you had to open the door in Rin before it would work.
The sound of a shrill whistle brought a shiver down her spine. Papa. And he would be angry if he found her in the fairy forest.
She ran, pulling her dress up tight against her stomach so it wouldn’t get caught in the vines.
If she could just make it over the fence before he reached the path…
Somehow, she didn’t think Elohan would appreciate her lying to Papa. If it seemed important to Riordan to please the Most High King, Emira better please him too, because she wanted to remain friends with Riordan.
The next morning Emira toyed with her breakfast. Excitement swelled in her belly, making the taste of blackberry jam and toast a dreary experience.
Across the table, Mama sipped at a tall glass of just-squeezed orange juice and smiled, her slender frame bent ever so slightly toward Papa. Their fair heads nearly touched as he smiled back at her.
Warmth crept into Emira’s heart. The children of the village may not like her, but she had the love of Mama and Papa…a very precious thing.
She wiped her hands on the napkin in her lap. If only she wasn’t keeping a secret from them. It weighed on her mind like a fat leprechaun trying to hop over his pot of gold.
She opened her mouth to tell them but felt the heaviness of the ring hanging around her neck.
As soon as she kept her promise to Riordan, she’d tell Mama and Papa then take her punishment, whatever that may be.
Papa reached across the table and pushed back a lock of her hair. “Well, Emira, how will you spend your second day of spring break?”
“I thought I might skip stones across the pond…or catch tadpoles.”
Mama wrinkled her lovely nose then tossed back her silver tresses. “Make sure your pets don’t come in the house.”
Papa grinned. “Are the tadpoles for the troll who lives under the bridge?”
“You know he only likes billy goats.”
“Ah. Sadly, we are lacking in billy goats. You’ll just have to outsmart him.”
Mama and Papa exchanged another smile then beamed at her. With their pale hair and tall, lean frames, they really could be elves. Except for their ears. Too round at the top.
“Do elves have pointed ears?”
Mama’s eyes darted to Papa.
He inclined his head. “They do.”
“Usually?” Emira sat up. “What makes their ears round?”
“Sometimes they might choose to adapt themselves to their surroundings by wearing a disguise. They’re quite good at hiding in plain sight. And then…there’s magic.”
“All the lands surrounding Rin have their own bit of magic, but when the elves or fairies travel to another land…say, where we live…their ears become round because they leave the magic behind.”
Mama tipped her head. “Only if they remain here for a long time.”
“Do they lose all their magic?”
“Eventually. That is why they age so quickly.” A shadow seemed to pass Mama’s face until she smiled at Emira. “But that is not a worry for one so young on such a fine spring day.”
She rose from the table, walked to the counter and reached for the canister. “Why don’t you take these for a snack? I think you’ve talked more than eaten this morning.”
She held out a bag with three cookies.
Emira grabbed her plate and dumped it in the sink before reaching for the bag. “Wow, thanks, Mama.” She skipped to the door then looked back at her parents. “Bye.”
“Bye, princess. Have fun.”
“I left a jar on the corner of the porch,” said Papa. “You may have it for your tadpoles.”
Emira let the screen door slam as she raced to the end of the porch. Ordinarily, the notion of catching tadpoles all day appealed to her immensely. But, today, she battled the lure of the fairy ring…and Riordan.
How long should she spend at the creek before she crept into the forest? Might Riordan also like tadpoles? Papa did.
She reached the bridge out of breath and watched cautiously as the village boys threw their fishing lines into the water.
The only trolls on this bridge lived in the village and called her albino brain, but they hadn’t seen her yet.
She crept down the side path then ran along the creek until she knew they couldn’t see or hear her.
Insects buzzed past, lighting on the marsh marigolds and fireweed near the creek. If she had time, she might take some flowers to the fairy ring.
She sat close to the bank, hanging her feet over the edge then tilting her head to listen. If her classmates discovered her out today, she might not make it to her secret meeting.
The creek gurgled over rocks but nothing marred the perfection of the sunny day. Mockingbirds jumped from branch to branch, squawking noisily and pecking at bugs.
Emira leaned out over the water to search for tadpoles. Usually, they hid among the lily pads. She moved further down the bank, her eyes trained for any movement in the water. Minutes later, she spied them, darting in and out of some tall grass.
With the lid in one hand and the jar carefully poised in the other, she swooped down. After gaining her balance, she held the jar to the sun. Six bobbing black specks wiggled in the water. She screwed the lid on tight, jumped over a fallen log, then made her way to the magic forest.
Would Riordan like her surprise? It wasn’t as nice as a gold ring, but it was a lot more fun.
Emira tumbled past the thick vines, hurrying toward the fairy circle until a feeling of awe enveloped her. She hesitated outside the ring of stones. Real fairies had walked in this exact spot.
She breathed in deeply of the sweet honeysuckle scent and let her eyes travel across the bright green meadow. Even if this place wasn’t magical, she’d love it. She felt safe here…and welcome.
She padded over to the largest boulder and laid back, letting the sun warm her face. She reached under the neck of her dress and pulled out Riordan’s ring. How much longer would she have to wait?
After running through the wood, her throat felt dry so she grabbed a branch of honeysuckle and ran her tongue over the sweet nectar hidden inside the blossoms. She was about to reach for another stalk when the forest began to shimmer.
She jumped up. The portal.
Riordan slipped through, his head tilted up and a big grin on his face. He held tightly to someone behind him, drawing him through the portal.
Suddenly shy, Emira backed from the circle. Before her stood the largest man she’d ever seen, bigger than Papa, and more forbidding, even when Papa looked cross. Tall brown boots covered his feet and laced up just under his knees. Neatly tucked into leather breeches, a long tunic of bright white emphasized the broad width of his shoulders. Was this the uncle Riordan had spoken of? But he seemed happy with this man, and he’d dreaded the arrival of his uncle.
She glanced at Riordan as they stepped toward her. He grinned, giving the man a gentle push toward Emira.
She peeked up from under long lashes.
The strength of that face frightened her a bit. But the eyes…the eyes regarded her with such caring and warmth. She felt the absurd desire to cry.
When he bent toward her, shoulder-length brown hair fell beside his face. A wide smile revealed even, white teeth over a closely-cropped beard.
The smile gave her courage to raise her gaze from his long, narrow nose to brown eyes wide with interest. He winked at her.
“Emira, I’ve waited so long. You wished to see me?”
“Are you an elf?”
Riordan chuckled. “No, silly. Don’t you know? This is Yehu.”
Yehu gave Riordan a scolding glance. “Give her a moment to recognize the one for whom she has longed. I heard you calling to me, Emira.”
Yehu, the son of the Most High King. Had she called him? She only remembered wanting to see fairies because she had no friends and no one to play with. Had she truly longed for him?
The desire for his approval welled in her heart. What did you do for a king’s son? For Riordan, she’d brought tadpoles. What would Yehu treasure?
She dropped a curtsey. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Have you come to help us?”
“Perhaps, but we have much to speak of.” He held out his hand.
Emira put her hand in his, warm and strong with rough skin as if he worked outside a lot.
They walked to a boulder and sat.
At the thought of spending time with Yehu, she forgot about tadpoles, cookies and thirst. She settled close and raised her face to his. “What should we talk about?”
“Why do you think you wanted to see me?”
“Because I’m lonely. No one here likes me.”
He shook his head. “I have been calling you since you were born.”
“You mean…you called me first…before I called you?”
“I loved you even in your mother’s womb. Elohan has planned a wonderful life for you, but we needed your attention.”
He loved her. She saw it in his eyes, heard it in his voice. He truly loved her. Her eyes darted to Riordan, and she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Does Elohan love me, too?”
“Elohan created you, dear one, to hear His voice and follow the path He lays before you.”
“Where is the path?”
“You have already begun to follow it.” He reached for Riordan, and with an arm around each of them, he sighed. “I will not always come to you. Sometimes, it may seem as if I wait too long. Remember this…many things must come to pass before each of us fulfills the purpose of Elohan. His purpose brings joy in our lives. Never doubt…He loves you.”
Both children nodded solemnly. Emira wasn’t sure what a purpose was, but she knew about waiting. Mama always reminded her to wait for the proper time before taking cookies out of the oven.
Yehu gave her shoulder a squeeze. “We will all be separated for a time, but my thoughts will be with you, and I will protect you in Elohan’s name. Now that you have chosen to follow his path, choose right in all you do.”
Emira hid her face in his side. Already she thought of several things Yehu and Elohan probably wouldn’t like about her behavior. His arm slid from her back, and he lifted her chin. “Do you think you can hide this from me, Emira?”
He knew. Tears welled in her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I’ll go home and tell them everything.”
“You are forgiven. But one thing will lead to another. Your parents may not respond in the manner you expect. Be obedient. Time will bring about the result you desire…Elohan’s path for you.”
Riordan leaned forward. “Why will we not see each other?”
“Not everyone wishes to follow Elohan’s path. Others will work against us. Remember to trust me. Already, helpers are being prepared to aid you.”
Riordan laid his head against Yehu’s chest. Emira barely heard his whispered words. “Yehu, I’ve lost the sacred stone. How can I rule my people?”
“Riordan, the stone is exactly where it is supposed to be. When you’re ready to rule, the stone will come to you. Do you believe this?”
“I guess so, but I don’t really understand.”
Emira popped up. “I don’t either.”
Yehu laughed. “Can you remember this? Trust me even when things look scary.”
That was something they agreed on.
Emira jumped off the boulder. “I brought you something, Riordan.”
She retrieved the jar of tadpoles and held it out.
He gawked at the jar then grinned at Yehu. “Tadpoles.”
Emira jumped up and down. “Let’s play leapfrog.”
Riordan raced around her, cheering.
“I’ll jump first.” Yehu bent down.
Emira lined up before him, and Riordan squatted in front of her.
They jumped and hopped until, Emira, the smallest in their group, toppled over Yehu.
She lay on the ground beside him and laughed until her sides hurt. Riordan dropped beside them. “You fell, Emira. I win.”
“Is that so?” Yehu asked, reaching out to tickle them.
They rolled in the grass, laughing and playing, until Emira and Riordan were too tired to move. Then they stretched out on the grass and gazed at the sky. Wisps of white clouds floated past.
Emira remembered the cookies and reached behind the boulder for the bag. She gave one to Riordan and Yehu before taking a bite of her own.
With a deep sigh, she said, “I don’t ever want to forget this day.”
“Me, either.” Riordan leaned back, crunching a mouthful of cookie.
“I have an idea, Emira,” Yehu said with a smile. “Why don’t you write down everything you can remember about today…and draw lots of pictures? When things don’t seem to go the right way, look at the pictures and read your stories. You’ll never forget.” He turned to Riordan. “You could put Emira’s tadpoles in the garden pond at the castle. Every time you see a frog…remember today.”
“That’s a jolly good idea,” Riordan said, wiping the last of the crumbs from his chin.
Emira smiled to herself. This day had turned out much better than she dreamed.
“You see those wriggling tadpoles?” Yehu held up the jar. “Right now, they have a tail for moving in the water. In a few days, they will grow arms and legs. Eventually, their tails will recede, and they’ll leave the water to jump on land. Do you think they worry about getting arms and legs?”
Emira giggled, shaking her head.
Riordan squinted at the jar. “They don’t think about anything.”
A broad smile lighted Yehu’s face. “Exactly. Elohan knows when they need tails and when they need arms and legs. He provides everything they need…when they need it. He does the same for you.”
Emira brushed crumbs off her dress. If Elohan really planned everything and knew all the things that would happen, he’d take care of her. Maybe she didn’t need the fairies after all.
She felt the weight of the ring and pulled it out of her dress. “Riordan, I’ve got your ring for you.”
“I don’t need it now. You keep it. My uncle will be here soon. I don’t want him to get his paws on it.” He looked to Yehu’s face for approval.
Yehu nodded then gazed at Emira. “I’m sure you’ll take care of it until Riordan needs it again.” He stood and brushed off his breeches. “You should return, Riordan. The steward of the castle is seeking you.”
Riordan wrinkled up his face and kicked at a stone. He watched the rippling effect of the portal for a moment then his face brightened. “We can come again tomorrow!”
Yehu reached down and lifted Emira to her feet. “I’ll be needed elsewhere tomorrow.”
She held tightly to him. “Don’t leave me alone…please.”
He bent one knee and dropped to kneel before her. With his hands on her shoulders, he stared into her eyes. “I will never leave you or forsake you. Close your eyes, and you will see me. Go to sleep, and I will speak to you. Never fear, Emira, for I love you.” He pulled her against his chest and held her.
Waves of joy flooded her body, and tears slid down her cheeks. The loneliness of the past was forgotten. “I love you, too,” she whispered against his neck.
He released her to take Riordan’s hand. They walked to the gateway then stopped to wave.
“Goodbye, Emira,” Riordan called. “See you soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
As they moved past the fairy circle and disappeared, she heard Yehu’s voice. “Trust me, little one. We will meet again.”