We had walked a just a couple of dozen yards and I glanced back over my shoulder. The queen saw me and waved. Without thinking I waved back. Merla hit me.
“What?” I asked.
“You need to keep your attention on what is to come.”
“I will.” I glanced back. I could still see the queen.
“No, you don’t understand, it is super important. Here, let’s go over here for a minute so I can brief you. I checked this out last night and it is impossible for anyone to eavesdrop on us here.”
She pointed to an open area filled with make-shift soldiers milling about. I gave her a questioning look.
“You’ll see. There are patterns in the fabric of space around here, waves in reality.”
I knew better than to argue.
She took me by the hand and led me in a very strange direction. And then it happened. One second we were in a field surrounded by soldiers, the next we were on the top of a mountain, all alone.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A place out of place and time. Don’t worry about it. In ways we are still ‘here’, that is, in the camp, but in other ways were are ‘here’, on this mountain. This area is notorious for this, which is why there are no towns around here.”
“OK.” I’m sure my face said that I didn’t feel it was OK.
“Look, you can’t really travel here, but for now we are at a place that nobody can reach us. This isn’t real, but… I can’t explain it. Trust me. We have to talk.”
“What is so important?”
“It is your turn.”
She sized me up, scanning me from head to toe.
“What is your great talent?” she asked.
“Talent? I guess my ability to hear. I’m pretty good at that.”
“You are, but that’s not what I was talking about.”
“Well, I smell better than anyone.”
“You have been campaigning for weeks without a bath, trudging through caves and putrid swamps. I’ve been downwind from you, and believe me….” She looked at my sour expression and laughed. “OK, I’ve been campaigning for weeks without a bath as well and have been in just as many nasty places as you, so I doubt if I smell any better. But thinking of your sense of smell, no, that’s not what I was talking about.”
“I guess I don’t know, then.”
“Perhaps if I start with me. What is my great talent?”
“Your sense of sight, both with your eyes and your mind.”
“I once thought that as well, but I find that those are just side effects, or symptoms, of my talent. Your sense of hearing and scent are side effects of your true, great talent. Still not sure? Hmm, let’s try something else. Why did Silriend come on our quest?”
“He wanted to help us against Zurlfed.” I was confused by this turn in conversation. What did Silriend have to do with my talent?
“If that were the case, why didn’t he send a trusted agent? Kings never go on a quest. Never. And how about Warph? Why did he join us?”
“I spared his life and he saw me with my sense of smell as a kindred spirit.” I shrugged. What was she on about?
“There is a little truth there, but mostly wrong. How about Soe-Ar?”
“You drew him in with your sword and he stayed because of your qualities, such as sight. You have bonded.”
“We have bonded, but that is not why he agreed to travel with us. And the army? Why did they spring up and follow us? Nobody called them, but they came.”
“Because of you. That speech you gave was just…”
She gave me a look that stopped me short.
“No, that is wrong. Think. That speech came only after they said they’d lay down their lives for us. The speech was an answer to them, they didn’t answer the speech. I can’t explain right now, but you do need to know a few things. First, the queen did lie to us. I know, shocking, right? Of course she lied quite a bit, often hidden in a wrapper of truth. But the biggest lie she told was when she said Zurlfed is her great enemy. That isn’t true. I am. I have power over her, power that frightens her. She is afraid to act against me even when she has 100% of the advantage. Think of this. She tried to put us under arrest and a dragon saved us. You can bet this is driving her crazy. She knows that the harder she strikes at me, the bigger the reaction.”
“Oh, OK. I was wondering why she was being so nice.”
“Nice? Well… And if I am the queen’s natural enemy, you are Zurlfed’s worst enemy.”
“How did he know your name?”
“Yes, when we rescued Prince Braindead. Zurlfed knew you, but not me. He feared you. And then you escaped right out from under him. You can be sure he is still thinking about that!”
“We are on our way to meet with him. I talked to the queen. You talk to Zurlfed. And trust yourself. You will find it. Maybe not at first, but you will.”
She leaned over and kissed my forehead.
“Let’s go.” She started to walk off, but then turned back to me with a funny smile. “The sooner we finish, the sooner you can have that bath I was talking about so kissing you doesn’t taste as bad.” She winked, turned and headed out.
I followed her and was surprised that in about three paces we were back in the field again. Nobody gave us a second look, so I assume we didn’t just disappear and reappear. In fact, they were all in the exact same place as when we left, as if we weren’t’ gone at all.
A man came over to us. I could guess that he worked in a stable in, but today he was a messenger, using horses to go back and forth.
“Ah, Merla and Lorunce, there you are. Zurlfed is seeking an audience with you.”
“Thank you. We are headed there now.”
Zurlfed was in a field between our two camps, waiting. There were three demons close to him.
“So, you have come at last,” Zurlfed said. “We need to…”
“Hold on,” Merla said. “Follow me.”
“Follow you? Where?”
She gave him her tiger-stopping stare.
Merla, with Zurlfed and me in tow, did a little half dance, spinning in the field. I know Zurlfed was confused, but I understood. In less than 30 seconds our surroundings had changed. We were on a beach.
“What, where?” Zurlfed asked.
“This is a little more private, isn’t it?” Merla said.
Zurlfed stared at her for a moment then laughed. “I should have recognized you. Your great-how-ever-many-times grandmother, Merlina, was a great wizard. I guess you take after her.”
“I did no magic, I just can see what others miss,” Merla said. “We are out of space and time and will return to the same space at the moment we left when we are done. Nobody will notice that we were gone.”
“So be it. Privacy is good. And you,” Zurlfed turned to me. “Did you return to apologize?”
“Apologize?” I asked. “Why would I do that?”
“You barged into my land, kidnapped my honored guest and then killed him. That doesn’t seem polite to me. Perhaps I am missing something…”
I raised a finger and was about to protest when I say the slight head shake from Merla. I decided to take a different tact and not play Zurlfed’s game.
“From the way I see it, I didn’t come to see you, you came to see me,” I said. “We were just having a small hike with some of our friends when you showed up. I mean, we are still in Branland, are we not? I don’t remember crossing over into Slore.”
“We are actually in what we call no-man, woman, dwarf, pixy, or wolf’s land. Thinking of wolf, you kidnapped my pet.”
“Warph is not a house dog!” I said. Merla suppressed a giggle. “He is free to come and go. I have no bonds on him, except those of friendship. But come, why are you visiting this no-person’s land? Did you see us and come over to say ‘hi’? Well, ‘hi!'”
“You are an idiot, aren’t you?” Zurlfed asked. “You have a dragon give the largest signal anyone has seen in 10,000 years and you wonder why people would come running to answer that signal.”
“Seems that Queen Marfascence saw that signal as well and came running.”
“Of course she did. She is drawn to dragons, as they are to her.”
“She told us that she just wants to take vengeance on you. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t just go off and have the two of you duke it out?”
“If you believed a word that unmentionable-in-a-family-story said, you are an even bigger idiot than I thought.”
“Well, all of our followers are from Branland, why shouldn’t we join our queen to fight the great enemy of our country?”
“You must think that I’m an idiot. There is no way that the queen and your friend here will ever be ion the same side. And when dragons are involved? Ha! No, no, you will not join her.”
“So why did you want to see us? What did you want to talk about?”
Zurlfed turned towards the ocean and watched the waves. I had to admit, it was calming. But I was a little impatient. I had no idea what we were on about, but I knew sitting watching the water would help no one. I cleared my throat.
Zurlfed turned to Merla. “You did pick a pretty spot. Peaceful. Perhaps we can just forget all of this, all of the armies, the dragons and all and hang out here for a while. No?”
“No,” she said. “These little ripples in the space-time continuum aren’t the best places to hang out, even if they do seem peaceful. They are standing waves in the fabric of the Universe and so become knots of energy. Too long here and… If the wave collapsed while we were in it, hmmm…”
“Whatever. A bunch of meaningless mumbo-jumbo.”
“I’m sorry, but you seem to be avoiding my question,” I said.
“Question? Oh that.” He turned back to the sea for a moment, sighed, and then turned back to me. “I want you to join forces with me.”
“I know, I know. It pains me even more to say it than for you to hear it. But think about it. If she wins, your friends the dragons are dead. Our shared friends, the wolves are dead. Even the eagles in the sky. Dead. Have you been paying attention? All night and all day new soldiers have been joining her. She out numbers both of our armies combined by almost two to one. Soon it will be three to one. She will send a large barrage and I will fight it off. And then she’ll send another wave. And then another. Wave after wave of people she will sacrifice. She doesn’t’ care about people and will kill every person in her kingdom to win. And with you alone or me alone, she will win. But the two of us together, we might take her. If we strike soon enough.”
“I don’t want to…”
He waved his hand, cutting me off. “I know how you feel. Believe me, it isn’t easy to ask. But it is the only way. You know that she is evil. If we join together, we will win. She knows that. And if we win, I will keep Slore. I like it there. You can take Brandland and turn it into a Republic or whatever it is you want to do. What do you say?”
I knew the answer I had to give. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but I knew the answer.
“There is a lot to think about here, Zurlfed,” I said. “Give me until tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning? Are you crazy? She will outnumber us five to one by then. Look, I can’t give up Slore, so I have nothing more to give you. It is the best deal I have. You have to take it before she takes both of us.”
“It isn’t that easy. I have to talk to the people. They surely aren’t going to want to join sides with what they consider the enemy, at least not without discussion. And then there are the animals, the little people, the dragons, everyone. It isn’t that easy…”
“I know. I will give you until sundown.”
“Until sundown,” I repeated.
“Follow me,” Merla said.
We did a slight twisting, turning dance with her and found ourselves out in the field with the three demons.
“We will get back to you,” I said. He gave a slight bow. We returned it, then left. I went a little way and looked back. Zurlfed saw me and waved. I waved back. Merla hit me, and we continued on to our camp.
“Now what?” I asked Merla when we got back to the command tent.
“Time will tell,” she said. “Time will tell.”