Daswen flew through the woods as though he had wings on his feet. Moss-clad trees, ferns, and greenery flashed by in a blur. Maurine leaned low over the saddle in an attempt to avoid the eternal thwapping of overlying branches dripping with dew. They plummeted down twisting paths and surged across gurgling streams, sending pristine water flying in their wake. At first, the terrific speed and hair-pin turns were quite frightening, and Maurine would clamp her eyes shut, listening to the rhythmic footfalls colliding with undergrowth.
After about a half hour, Daswen galloped up the slope of a hill and came to an abrupt halt, nearly catapulting Maurine to a distant hill. Gulping and gasping, Maurine clutched Daswen's neck and, after a few minutes, began to wonder why they had stopped. Daswen turned his long, muscular neck round at Maurine, fixing her with an expectant look.
"Huh? Oh, right," she mumbled, and rummaged about in the saddle bags for the map. Withered and yellowing, it made a tired sort of crinkling sound when it was unfolded. Maurine gazed at the labyrinth of elegant lines caressing a menagerie of confusing markings and punctilios. She stared at it blankly, trying to make something of it, and all the while felt Daswen pawing the ground anxiously. Finally, a little light flickered to life somewhere in her brain, and the lines began to make sense. The lines formed into a coastline and a forest, and beyond the shore was an enormous sea, peppered with islands both large and small. Unfortunately, that same strange alphabet from the ticket appeared once again on the map and she couldn't read any of the names. Feeling rather annoyed at the persistence of this alphabet, she dismounted and took out her wooden box, and searched its contents, looking for clues. Daswen yawned extravagantly, displaying a fearsome array of teeth, and stretched out on the rocky slopes of the hill while Maurine wrestled some sense out of the map.
At last, she found what she was looking for. It was a sort of key showing the English equivalencies to the Thresparian alphabet. After some tedious translating, she found their destination and location, and with renewed confidence, remounted Daswen.
Before now, Daswen had led the way, taking them on a path that he alone knew, but now it was Maurine's turn to lead. She felt a tremor descend her spine, gulped, and took hold of the delicate leather reins. The sun was still early in its ascent, so it gave Maurine some direction. They needed to travel north-east, so she directed Daswen towards the left of the sun. Without hesitation, he plunged down the hill, soaring over enormous decaying logs, and zig-zagging through the trees. Maurine leaned forward, squinting through the wind and rather than steer him, allowed him to run as he saw fit. He saw things that Maurine couldn't. He could see the paths before they arrived, anticipated obstacles, and had reflexes quick enough to counter whatever might impede them, all the while tearing down the hill at full-tilt. Maurine, however, couldn't see a turn until they had passed it.
In this way, they traversed the woods until the sun split into a fiery rainbow across the sky, heralding twilight. Daswen flicked his head back for an instant, and issued a grunt, at which Maurine yelled back through the wind:
"Yeah, you're right, let's stop! Wait," They came to a violent halt, and Maurine was jolted uncomfortably. "Oh my gosh, I just understood you. I think, or maybe I just knew what you were trying to say. Weird . . ." She flumped onto the ground unprofessionally, and referred to the map once again. She felt exhausted down to the core of her bones, and also felt the pains of hunger now that she was out of the saddle. But exhaustion won out over hunger. She drew her cloak snugly around herself, and curled up with Daswen who rested his head on her lap so they might stay reasonably warm and comfortable through the night.
Maurine woke early, only to be greeted by excruciating hunger and stiffness. She had never felt as hungry or as sore as she did now, but she didn't mind, because she felt comfort in her heart, and found she could brave the stiffness. Daswen was gone, presumably to go hunting, so Maurine picked herself up and made her way to a little spring that bubbled excitedly as she filled her canteen. When she returned, Daswen was reclining at the foot of a tree, cleaning his bloody paws and muzzle. Apparently, he had a successful hunt. Maurine shuddered slightly, but did not comment. After eating some of the cooked meat that Warren had given her, she sat next to Daswen, chewing thoughtfully.
It had been five days since she had stepped off that train. She wondered if her family was going mad with worry, or if maybe they were glad she was gone. But either thought seemed too much to bear, and before she could stop herself, warm tears began to slip down her cheek and onto her hand. Maurine hadn't realized just how much she missed them, until now.
Daswen stopped washing himself and looked at Maurine inquisitively. This was new, he had never see anyone cry before. He felt both pushed away, and drawn towards this girl as she cried, and was held somewhere in the middle, not quite sure what to do. In the end, he thought it prudent, or most comfortable at any rate, to leave her be for a while. And so he did.
Soon, they were hurtling through the trees once again, heading ever north-east. Pace never slackening, they streamed across log bridges and down steep valleys, always to the same rhythmic drum of Daswen's feet.
Time passed uneventfully for two days, and Maurine was surprised at the persistent lull of activity in the woods. It bothered her, and at every unseen corner she expected some tremendous beast to leap from the shadows and silence them instantaneously. Unfortunately, this very nearly happened on the second midday of travel. They had covered sixteen leagues (48 knots) and were rapidly approaching their destination when they decided to pause for a breather.
"Daswen, where are you going?" Maurine had dismounted, and was examining the map when a change took place in Daswen. Nose to the ground, and with a look of utmost concentration, he was smelling the earth, and stepping gingerly through the undergrowth. His body was poised and intent, his nose fumbling through the leaves, twigs and roots, silently searching, searching for something. As Maurine watched him slither through the trees, it dawned on her that Daswen was on the blood trail, and that he was looking for meat.
It seemed so cruel that this alien world should be dominated by the lust for flesh and blood, how those that lived by the plant, served only to feed the flesh eating. But then again, maybe it wasn't so different than the world she had left.
She decided she probably shouldn't lose sight of Daswen, since they would be starting up again soon. She drifted behind him, quieter than a shadow, and waited for Daswen to find what he was looking for.
They came to a little clearing, where the sunlight shone through onto a serene patch of tiny blue flowers sprinkled across the grass like sugar. There, upon the sweet grass, lay the saddest thing Maurine had ever seen. It was a horned, deer-like creature, in the peak of it's glory, struck down on the grass, dead as a stone. Maurine put her hands over her heart, and for a moment lost her breath.
Just then, she noticed Daswen creeping up behind it, haunches coiled, ready to spring. She called out to him a second too late, and in an instant, he was upon the poor beast, losing no time in devouring it. She thought she would be sick, but then, in the next instant, things began to happen very fast.
An explosion took place just behind Daswen, and an enormous something emerged from the shadows, and stood over him, emitting a monstrous roar. The dragon was a mountain of flesh and writhing muscles, and its head was larger than Maurine's entire body and probably weighed three times as much. Horrible teeth sprouted from it's gaping, snarling jaw, and its eyes were like liquid flame, burning with molten metal and fiery hate. Two spiny ram's horns curled about its head, and two long, slender spines protruded from the back of it's head as well. Its fleshy paws housed terrifying black talons, each a foot in length, that were being flexed with unseen power longing to be unleashed. If it desired, this dragon looked capable of ripping one of the ancient oaks in two.
The monster stood over Daswen emanating a menacing growl, and dripping saliva all over him. Daswen did not look at all frightened, although he did have a look of intense disgust on his face as the dragon's hot breath washed over him.
Apparently, they had trespassed onto this dragon's domain.
"Ooh, this is bad . . ." Maurine breathed.
Maurine was frozen, rooted to the spot, a silent scream suspended somewhere in her throat. The next thing she knew, more of these dragons were appearing in the clearing, some large, some small, all alight with the same fierce anger. Maurine thought furiously, but her brain seemed to have stopped working. Warren had told her about these dragons, the name was on the tip of her memory, tickling her senses. If only she knew what it was, then she might know how to act. It was . . .it was, a . . . Goragon. Yes, that was it. He had said that there was a clan inhabiting this area. And they had walked right into them. How could she have been so stupid, after she had been consulting the map every few hours?
But he had also said how to kill a Goragon. 'Shoot just below the chin, where the trachea is unprotected, and it'll drop dead.' Did she dare? Her aim was still poor, and what if she missed?
The Goragon was salivating all over Daswen, who was looking increasingly irritated, but as always, undaunted. The other Goragons were waiting, prowling about the circumference of the clearing, waiting for the one upon Daswen to attack him. They bared their teeth, rumbling and growling, never taking their burning orange eyes off Daswen.
Maurine was still submerged within the shrubbery just beyond the clearing, and the blood-hungry dragons hadn't noticed her.
Her heart fluttering unnaturally, she drew her bow, loaded it, and aimed, feeling the satisfying pull of the string as it grew taught. 'Shoot just below the chin' echoed in her brain again and again. She fought to keep her arm steady as it trembled fitfully. If she missed her target, the arrow would merely glance off the Goragon's impenetrable hide. This would be disastrous, for they would surely come, kill her, only to come back for Daswen. She had one shot. That was all. She strove to find that perfect place with her arrow, and when she could hold on no longer, she released it.
The arrow whizzed through the trees with a soft 'thfft' and entrenched itself into its target. The Goragon looked up, slightly confused. Blood dribbled down it's neck from where the tell-tale feather protruded. Its eyes closed, it's monstrous bulk tottered for a moment, then fell to the sunlit grass and making the earth tremble.
Daswen instantaneously launched himself towards Maurine , and she leaped into the saddle as he galloped beside to her, and they were off. Intent on putting as much distance between themselves, and the enraged Goragons, Daswen displayed speed like never before.
By night fall they had finally left the forest behind, and the stifling trees and plant life were abruptly replaced by the wide open coastline. Nightly breezes from off the sea rippled Maurine's hair, and the smell of salty wig weed filled their nostrils. The eternal lapping of waves added to the drum of Daswen's feet, and Maurine found herself easily lulled to sleep by the music of the night. But she needed to stay awake; Warren had said they would come across a fishing village where she could rent a sailboat, so she kept her eyes strained against the wind, peering through the darkness.
By and by, a lantern-lit village appeared in the distance, and Maurine lifted her head from Daswen's neck to get a better look. It was engulfed in darkness, but judging by the number of lanterns that bobbed into view, it was fairly small. Daswen halted by the entrance gate, standing silently as ever. Maurine grasped the reigns, and gulped. She felt rather nervous about entering this strange place filled with strange people, but gave Daswen a resolute nudge with her heels, urging him forward.
For the first time, Daswen did not obey. He stood still and silent, and despite Maurine's pleas, made it clear that he would not go forward.
"What's the matter, Daswen? Why, are you afraid?" At this Daswen promptly swung round his long neck and gave her a very offended look. Quite suddenly, he dropped his haunches out from under Maurine, dumping her onto the sand. Maurine jumped up and stormed at him like an angry crow, but he bore her down with his unwavering gaze. She quieted, looking up at him, utterly confused.
"What's going on? I don't understand," Maurine said earnestly. Daswen flitted his head in the direction they had come, then looked back at her. He was telling her something, and slowly, with the swiftness of molasses, comprehension once again showed its bonny face.
"You're leaving, aren't you. " She took his beautiful head in his arms, and kissed his nose.
"I can't take you on the boat, can I?" Through a haze of tears, she removed her box , map, and canteen from the saddle bags, and bade Daswen goodbye. She watched him trot amiably along the sands until at last he, too, disappeared from her life, leaving her very alone indeed.
The village was dark and desolate, every occupant asleep in his bed, yet pompous orange lanterns swayed at every doorpost, as though inviting the stray wanderer in for a cup of tea and a warm bed. Maurine trudged through the dirt streets and found an inn, the only building that had not yet retired for the night.
Inside, a cheery fire crackled, filling the room with splintering light and warmth. The fire was the only source of light, so it was rather dark. A few travelers whispered in corners, clutching tankards of something hot and frothing. Maurine was sure she spotted a pair of long pointed ears protruding from one traveler's hood. She approached the counter, and was greeted by a great bush of ridiculous brown hair.
"What'll it be, young marm?" croaked the beard, and as it spoke, Maurine was able to discern a pair of eyes and a mouth, or at least a hinge where the beard opened and closed.
"Er, could I have a room? I've got money, I think." She investigated her box and produced the strange stone circles hopefully.
"Eh, watzat? What part o' the world d'you come from? We don' use that southern rubbish 'ere."
"Could you make an exception?" The landlord's beady eyes glinted angrily.
"G'take those pebbles o' yours and spend the night in one o' your ruddy southern places. We make no exceptions here." Maurine was beginning to feel rather desperate. She was rather afraid to spend the night alone in the wild without Daswen. She didn't relish the idea of night-stalking dragons making a midnight meal out of her. But just then a slender woman with blazing red hair swept in, her pretty face wrinkled with fury. She began bellowing at the bearded man in a strange tongue, showering him with oaths and frustration like a tempest. She snatched Maurine's coins and slapped them on the counter and, fixing him with a final accusing stare, bade him to leave. When she turned to Maurine, her humor changed abruptly. She spoke kindly, the rolling dialect suddenly turned to English, and her red lips smiled pleasantly. After instructing Maurine to call her Rosie, she showed her to her room.
It was small and dusty, and nearly everything inside was composed of wood. Wax ran down the candles like petrified fountains, their little flames dancing enthusiastically. Maurine extracted her feet from her boots, cast off her cloak, and flopped down on the lumpy bed with a sigh. Just before she drifted off, a most wonderful idea came to her. It said that maybe this whole ridiculous escapade wasn't completely hopeless. Perhaps she would reach the Great Tree of Wisdom and it would tell her what she had been missing all this time. Maybe it would all work out. Who knows? She grinned into her pillow and fell asleep.
Early next morning, she found herself walking along the piers seeking a boat for hire. They were all sail boats of moderate size: some were the size of rowboats, probably only used for fishing, and a couple were the size of small galleys. She sat on the edge of the pier, cradling her possessions, and sizing up all the boats, as well as the men, trying to work up the courage to ask one of them for assistance. Morning was a busy time for the fishermen; men, young and old, were running to and fro, all apparently doing something important. Also, Maurine found that she had used most of her money for the room and her breakfast, leaving her with a few small copper colored coins, which she was sure wouldn't be enough.
"Yeh waiting for somethin' missy?" A gruff voice appeared from nowhere, and Maurine nearly fell into the water. She jumped up, and found sea-worn, worm-eaten fisherman slouching beside her.
"I was wondering if someone could lend me their boat." The words spilled out of her mouth before she could think to stop herself.
"Not for a good sum o' money they won't. You a sailor? Yeh don' look it." His squinty eyes ran up and down her body, as though looking for leaks.
"Well, to be honest, I've never sailed before. But I don't need to travel very far."
"And where's it you'll be headin'?"
"Eh, it's dangerous waters any distance. A fine missy like you aught tah keep her perty feet on land." He grunted, and trudged away. 'A fine missy' indeed! Couldn't a girl get some respect in this place? She didn't blame Rosie for making such a commotion last night, if that's the way the men were around here. She asked every sailor on the beach for a boat rental, and if they didn't laugh at her, they just ignored her.
After she had been worked up into quite a rage she stormed up to the inn for a tankard of sweet brandy. She showed Rosie the black talon and the necklace that occupied her box, and asked how much they were worth. Rosie's eyes widened when she saw them, the woman's lust for jewelry awakening hungrily within her. She said she would very much like to buy them, and payed Maurine in red and gold coins.
"Is this enough for a boat?" Maurine asked as she carefully placed the money in her box.
"Oh, more than enough, I'm sure. Say, where do you come from? I've never seen treasures like these, and my husband's a merchant."
With renewed zeal, she confronted the fishermen with her new fortune. Although some were tempted, in the end they all refused. One man called Omar, who had an ideal boat that was freshly stocked with supplies, Maurine persisted with until he threatened to slit her throat. She couldn't understand why they refused to sell, or even rent.
That night, Maurine did not put up in the inn. She dropped the money in a sack by Omar's hut, and slipped down to the pier. It was just as it had been last night, not an ill-placed sound, not a man out of bed, only the lanterns were awake, although tonight they seemed to be keeping watch for thieves, rather than welcome guests.
She hopped into Omar's sailboat, which rocked violently as she untied it from it's post. She settled her things in the little boat and consulted the map once more. There was a fine breeze to the east and the rigging appeared to be fairly simple. How hard could it be?
Maurine hoisted the sail and felt a thrill run down her spine. She wasn't really stealing, just buying without permission. She just prayed she wasn't doing something really stupid. The wind filled the fabric; drawing the ropes tight like bowstrings, and propelled the boat forward into the dark, restless sea.
She had never noticed there were three moons. The largest shone to it's fullest, illuminating the night with a ghostly glow, its lesser brothers shone alongside it, creating a wonderfully bright, clear, night.
The elements sped her along, filling her sail, lighting her way, and even repelling her enemies. She found she couldn't sleep, but stayed awake, keeping the sail hoisted so as to best catch the wind.
Carkadoul Island was a minuscule speck on the sea, and Maurine would have sailed right past it if she hadn't been looking for it. It was thickly forested yet skirted by a narrow beach, and surrounded by a barricade of rocky shoals and reefs. The wind had been faithful until now, when a powerful gust shoved the little boat into the treacherous rocks and breaching the hull. Maurine gathered her things into a bundle and placed them atop her head and waded to shore. She was soaked up to her shoulders and the water-logged clothes became very heavy so she stretched out her cloak and jacket to dry on the sand. After adjusting her bundle, she looked directly into the dark, gloomy woods, and allowed herself to be enveloped by the trees.
The trees were creepy and contorted into painful stances, holding up their naked branches like heavy burdens. Their massive roots often protruded from the earth in odd places, tripping Maurine and sending her into the earth. She stumbled on and on, until she was sure she was at the other side of the island, but the dismal forest never ended. The trees continued to thicken so that even the brilliant daylight failed to pierce the canopy and sent the woods into a despairing darkness. There was never a sound, never the smallest rustling of leaves, nor the whistle of wind. Maurine couldn't even hear her own footsteps; it was as though someone had clamped hands over her ears, blocking out all sound. The only thing she heard was the abnormal thumping of her heart somewhere in her throat.
Suddenly the trees stopped, opening into a clearing. There was no outside light, only a ghostly luminance that emanated from the Tree. The Tree was unlike anything Maurine had ever seen or even imagined. It's roots were a writhing mass branching out in all directions, it's trunk like a slender, delicate torso, it's two branches were lifted gracefully, and wreathing the whole thing like two magnificent antlers. In between the two main branches, was an oval shaped knot resting on one of branches, and Maurine could just make out the unmistakable features of a face.
A spring bubbled up from underneath it, washing over the roots, and then departing by the way of two streams that hurried away into the woods. Beside the spring, resting on a stone, was a little silver dipper that glowed invitingly.
This was it. She had come this far, and now she stood before the Great Tree of Wisdom. She hesitated for a moment, not quite sure what she was going to say to it. But no, she was quite sure she knew what she wanted to ask. She approached the tree, trembling slightly.
"Oh Great Tree, may I receive some of your wisdom?" The face of the Tree did not move, but a voice spoke, coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once, filling the sacred clearing yet it was soft and gentle.
"Always." The voice said.
"What is adventure? Where do I find it?"
"You see it before you now. It is you who defines the answer. You define what it is, and where you find it. Those who seek adventure never find it, for it is always just under their noses. Waste your life looking for adventure, and you will miss the one you are in. This is your time. Live it."
There was a pause, where only the bubbling spring could be heard tumbling over roots and stones. To Maurine's surprise, the voice spoke again.
"Drink, and be wise." Maurine somehow knew intuitively what it meant. She knelt by the spring, scooped some of the water into the silver dipper and drank it. It was cold as ice, and numbed her throat, but soon afterwards, she felt life spread through her body right down to the tips of her toes. She sprang up, feeling more lively and vibrant than she had ever been before.
"I have just one more question. How can I get home?" She waited anxiously, dreading the worst.
"There is a Chimera that lives in these woods. Kill it and slaughter it on the beach." After that, it spoke no more.
Maurine didn't exactly know what a Chimera was and she hadn't the foggiest idea what it had to do with getting home, but she knew enough to follow the Tree's advice. With a spring in her step and her bow in hand she searched the woods for the Chimera.
It wasn't long before she saw something suspicious. There was a rustle and she looked just in time to see a whip-like tail slither back into the shadows. She raised her bow, ready to fire at the slightest movement.
Suddenly something slapped her from behind, knocking her to the ground. She leaped to her feet and found the Chimera's ugly head before her. Its black lips were drawn back into a hideous grin, displaying each and every one of its deadly teeth, its burning red eyes staring straight into hers. As smoke wafted from its nostrils Maurine prayed she hadn't met a fire-breathing dragon. She clutched her bow and drew the string gently. The Chimera's cat-like pupils darted to the bow, and in a flash it disappeared without a sound.
Maurine was feeling nervous now although not quite afraid. She felt excitement flood through her, the thrill of the hunt surging through her veins.
A fireball leaped through the trees and Maurine instinctively jumped to the side, her bow at the ready. The Chimera came in for a second attack, throwing it's whole weight upon her and. She threw him off, and just missed a blow from the Chimera's back hooves. She aimed an arrow at its forehead, but it threw yet another fireball at her, forcing her to duck out of the way. The fire lit up the surrounding trees like a vision of hell.
At this rate she was going to get roasted if she couldn't discern its weakness. The Chimera had fire, but she had brains. She noted how it always had to draw in a deep breath before it could spit fire, and this could be used to an advantage. She took a fiery branch, brandishing it like a torch, and edged closer to the Chimera. As it opened it's jaws wide and drew a deep breath, Maurine lunged at it and plunged the torch into it's throat. The Chimera screamed and thrashed about in agony during which Maurine aimed her bow, and silenced it. It fell to the ground, twitching, it's mouth smoking. Maurine sighed in relief and flopped on the ground. Looking around at the torched trees, she now understood why they were all dead and barren.
The Chimera's dead body appeared rather formidable when she thought of carrying it; about the size of a tiger. However, she found it to be rather light when she heaved it onto her shoulder, and she managed to trudge all the way back to the beach with the monster slung over her shoulder.
After dumping the carcass on the sand, she took the tip of an arrow and sliced the skin down it's belly. And, oh, what a stench! It wasn't long after the innards were exposed that it stank to high heaven. Her task completed, Maurine waited, breathing gingerly through the stink. She waited until the sun dipped into the sea, until the stars crept out into the velvety sky, and she waited until the three moons appeared to light up the sky.
In the dead of night a flock of wyverns began orbiting around the Chimera carcass and Maurine tried desperately to fend them off, but to no avail. They paid her no heed and tore at the meat voraciously despite Maurine's cries of despair. In the end, she was forced to sit and watch them eat her only chance of returning home. She was surprised to see them linger after they had finished eating. Instead of departing, they waited as well, looking at Maurine expectantly. Quite suddenly, a glimmer of comprehension shone, and she remembered something Warren had told her, so long ago it seemed.
"If you seek a favor from a dragon, it is customary to offer it a meal, after which the dragon will generally be happy to return the favor. I doubt you'll need to do this maneuver, seeing as you'll be using your boat, but this sort of thing comes in handy every now and again..." Handy indeed. Maurine smiled as everything fell into place before her eyes.
She approached the largest of the Wyverns, who was about seven feet to the shoulder and presently displaying his thirty-seven foot wingspread. After all her belongings were present and accounted for she mounted the Wyvern, wrapping her arms around his neck and gripping his flanks with her knees. She whispered in its little earflap:
"Take me to a train station, please." The wyvern blinked it's luminous yellow eye at her, and Maurine took this as a sign of understanding.
All at once the wyvern began beating his wings, sending thunderous turbulence in all directions. The other dragons followed suit and the flock began easing off the ground. A warm updraft filled their wings and sent them soaring up into the starry sky. Maurine held on with all her might but she wasn't frightened, not this time. The wind rushed through her and all about her, lifting her soul farther than the reach of the stars. She was flying home at last. She felt tears stream down her face, but she couldn't tell if they were from the wind, or from the overflowing of her emotions. The only sound besides the ever rushing wind was the aseptic beat of dragon wings all about her.
They let her off at yet another downcast train station. Just as forlorn as the other two, and the familiar bench sat rusting on the platform. The only difference was that this had a rather suspicious looking machine waiting beside the bench. It was rather like a parking meter gone wrong. Comprised of a myriad of knobs, levers, gears and chains, all wound together like a scrapheap on a pole. There was a little slot in the center which appeared to accept money. Maurine took out her remaining coins and fed them into the little slot and immediately the contraption began whirring, whizzing and clicking in a most frightful way. Finally, after a great deal of hullabaloo it regurgitated a tiny red strip of scarlet parchment that read:'Thresparia-Vermont'.
This was her ticket home. She grinned and smooched the little piece of paper, and danced about the lichen-splattered platform, overjoyed with her success.
She seated herself on the rotting bench, with her bow resting beside her, the box upon her lap and she waited patiently for the train. Soon enough the two mechanical horses could be heard rumbling and thundering along the track.
The same queer train conductor appeared to take her ticket, and afterwards marched back to his compartment. Maurine heaved herself up the little steps to the door and noted that the windows were still mysteriously opaque. This time there were two other cloaked travelers, but they kept their hoods up and rarely moved. One of the automaton horses emitted a shriek and soon smoke was billowing all about the train as the horses lunged forward heaving and bellowing. The train began sailing over the countryside, ducking through trees and leaping bridges until it reached the end of Thresparia and entered the in-between world of utter nothingness and shadow.
In the midst of a thunder head of smoke and fire it touched down on Earth and began roaring towards a little place called America.
Maurine was desperately worried about her family. She had been gone for more than a week, what would they think happened to her? Would they think her dead? She worked up her courage and pleaded an audience with the hooded passenger closest to her.
"Excuse me sir, but I was wondering if you could tell me how much time has passed on Earth if I've been gone for a week." The cloaked figure turned towards her and with two long, delicate hands removed his hood. Maurine nearly lost her breath, for the face now staring placidly back at her was entirely bald, with deep blue eyes, and on either side of his head were two long, elegant ears.
"You need not worry young madam. Time runs different in Thresparia." He spoke without the slightest turn or change of expression, and turned back to where he had been looking, putting his hood back up. Maurine felt excitement bubble within her, for without a doubt, she had just spoken to an elf. No one back home would ever believe this.
Two hours later the train began the vicious battle with the train's stubborn inertia. Finally the train stopped completely by the same grubby platform and rusty bench, and Maurine disembarked. The train started up again, and went rumbling and trundling through the woods, never to be seen again.
Maurine stood there, thinking of the world she had so suddenly left behind. She thought of her box, and how all of its contents had played a vital role in her journey, and wondered what her mother would think if she found her bow and arrows. With one last look at the platform, she trudged back along the wooded path. It seemed like another lifetime when she had last tread it.
Her sister and father were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast and were laughing and talking, while her mother listened as she worked at the stove. The sun was just rising, sending glorious sunbeams streaming in all directions as Maurine approached her house. It was untouched, unchanged, her family as harmonious as ever, yet somehow it was entirely different. She crept upstairs, removed her cloak and boots and hid them along with her canteen, bow and arrows, and the wooden box under her bed.
She went downstairs to join her family for breakfast and after hugging and kissing them all and being scolded for sneaking out again, they settled down to eat. She talked and laughed like she hadn't in ages and told her mother it was the best breakfast she had ever had.
Several months later, she had taken out her bow to brush off the dust and to summon the memories she cherished so much, when her father appeared in the doorway. Before she could put it away, he had come and sat on her bed and of course noticed the bow.
"Hey. I don't ever remember getting you something like that. We don't really like keeping weapons in the house."He took it and observed it more closely, looking at her questioningly.
"Now, where ever did you get this?"Maurine only smiled and said slyly:
"Oh, from one of my travels."