Carmen woke early on Saturday morning, breathing a deep, relaxed sigh. Saturdays were the best days of her life. Monday through Friday she articulated, gesticulated, frantically took notes, ran wild missions around town, and slept in her tiny, cramped studio apartment in the city. Reading the dry depositions of a lawyer’s life in addition to all of the physically stressful work kept her up late in the night.
Nearly every Friday afternoon, however, when she felt the strain, pressure, and emotions of the week wearing down her buoyant soul, she turned her thoughts and plans to the one person that she knew could ease the daily grind. She would leave her cell phone in the desk drawer and pack a small traveling bag to go visit Lexia at their country villa.
This morning, like most weekend mornings in the country, Carmen gazed out of the brilliantly clear picture window beside her bed.
She let the tiredness and aches of the workweek drain out of her system and recharged her body with the incredible view. She took in the green, rolling hillside and the deep emerald of the pine forest against the pink eastern sky. The sudden movement of Lexia’s piebald breaking across her field of vision jumpstarted the rest of her system and she quite literally sprang out of bed to begin one more incredible Saturday.
Carmen stepped through the door to the bathroom, admiring the brilliant carvings on the thick wooden door, as always. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror and pressed her flyaway curls against the side of her head, making faces in the mirror as she waited for the tub to fill. After a refreshing bubble bath, she headed down the stairs to Lexia’s room to wake her up so they could eat breakfast together.
After Lexia had fixed a big bowl of Cheerios and a generous plate of fresh, sliced strawberries, she pressed Carmen for the stories and events of the days they had spent apart. As Carmen talked, gently stabbing at her slightly burnt vegetable omelette with her fork, she grew more and more relaxed and settled into the quiet country home, spreading her arms wide and free in the spacious sunroom.
“Lex!” Carmen was so excited with her sudden thought that she interrupted her own story. “Did you ever take that hidden trail through the woods that you told me about, to see where it went?” Carmen’s crystal blue eyes filled with a sudden and mischievous glint.
“I thought that you said it could be too dangerous, because we don’t know who owns that land,” Lexia flung her spoon down in mock anger.
“Dangerous?” Carmen’s eyes narrowed passionately. “I laugh in the face of danger, I laugh so hard I cry, and then I jump on a horse and take that new trail you were talking about.” She started laughing to prove her point, but Lexia stopped her before it went too far. “Besides,” Carmen added, “I know you don’t usually listen to me if I tell you something is dangerous.”
“Well, that is true.” Lexia responded with a sly smile of her own. “I had originally planned on riding out there on Thursday, but it rained pretty heavily, so I caught up on some editing and even worked on my own story a bit.”
“You were working on that new children’s story you told me about last month?”
“Yeah, it was the one about the good goblin family. I need to meet with my illustrator soon though, because I had some new ideas for how the goblins should look, but my internet server is down again so I couldn’t do a video conference like I wanted to.”
“Lex, I’ve told you a million billion times that you need a more reliable Internet service if you’re going to work from home out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Well, that’s the problem though, isn’t it Carmen? That it’s the middle of nowhere?” Lexia amended her story, “Well, it’s not exactly the middle of nowhere. I have neighbors a few miles away. We just have a really big estate.”
They both paused in their conversation to remember their decision to purchase the property from Arlen Dobbin. Arlen, the original owner, was a construction contractor, and seemed like a lovely man. His eyes were bright and humorous, his wavy black hair brushed against his small ears as if doing the best it could to look rough and tumble without needing a cut. He had remodeled what was originally a long, skinny one-story house into a brilliantly designed villa with magnificent views of the property. Horse trails criss-crossed beyond the pasture and a lake sparkled at the northern end of the property. The driveway wound around ancient oak trees and the “mother-in-law” suite in the remodeled attic would fit Carmen’s needs as well as Lexia’s.
Although it seemed strange that such a nice man would give up such a beautiful property, the real estate broker had hinted at possible gambling problems, although it was hard to believe once you heard the man speak. Despite his appearance (he definitely looked like he was in the construction business), he spoke with a throaty Irish brogue that Lexia and Carmen both found fascinating and extremely masculine.
They had purchased it the very next day. Lexia had been the one who wanted to “sleep on it.” They were mostly paying for it with her money after all, using the surprisingly large bonus she received for her first novel. Carmen still had a few law school debts she was working on, and all of her pro bono work made her budget even tighter, but she helped as much as she could with the mortgage payment.
Carmen interrupted Lexia’s reverie by throwing a thin green windbreaker at her. “Let’s go right now. I’m tired of spending relaxing Saturday’s. Let’s have an adventure.”
“Sure thing, Carmen.” Lexia, always prepared, threw together a lunch for the trail and ran to the barn to get the horses ready. When Carmen finished brushing her teeth and fixing her hair, Lexia already looked like a model equestrian. Her hair hung to her waist in a thick blond braid and her cheeks glowed pink in the cool morning air. Her brown riding pants and peasant blouse gave her the appearance of stepping out of the past. Carmen felt almost out of place as she threw herself atop her own plain brown mare. It was midmorning when they left the pasture.
The pine forest seemed even thicker near the unknown trail, and the mood changed quickly. Even Carmen’s usually boisterous laugh seemed flimsy in the thick, moist air. The pine needles muffled the horses’ hooves and Lexia peered into the unnerving gloom. Both of them loved fantasy and fairy tales, and they enjoyed feeling as if they were wood sprites in their home forest. Today, however, the forest did not feel like it belonged to them.
As Lexia, riding several yards ahead of Carmen, turned off the path, onto the property that she knew did not belong to her and nudged her horse into jumping a small log placed purposefully across the intersection, she looked back at Carmen. Carmen watched her disappear through the thick branches clogging the mysterious new trail. Then, Carmen heard a shrill scream that seemed to come from all directions at once.
After the briefest hesitation, Carmen threw her head back and dug her heels into her horse’s flanks with a passion. When she thrust aside the branches, the bark tearing her thin fabric coat, she looked wildly around. She found nothing. Lexia had disappeared into thin air. Without really thinking about the fact that Lexia had the food and water, the cell phone and any other emergency supplies, Carmen looked down the narrow winding path and decided to find out who or what lay at the end, hoping to find Lexia somewhere ahead of her. As if she were following a leprechaun to find the end of the rainbow, she set out to look for her best friend in the whole world.
At , she realized that her search would likely prove fruitless. She began to imagine Lexia sipping hot tea back at the house already, safe and sound. Her stomach growling almost forced her to turn back, but the sound of running water drew her just a few yards farther. She tied her horse loosely to a tree near the small gentle stream, and brushed her hand across the side of his neck as he bent down to eat and drink. She finished off the last of the water in her small bottle, and looked cautiously at the stream. The water appeared to be clear, and it was moving, which she knew was a good sign. She weighed her choices carefully, she could either possibly go without water for the rest of the afternoon, or risk intense stomach pain from polluted water. She opted to take a chance on the crystal clear stream.
After filling up her canteen, and lovingly stroking the tired horse for a few moments, she remounted and took to the trail again, renewed in her determination to find Lexia. At about in the afternoon, Carmen still saw no trace of Lexia on the trail. Loneliness slowly became as palpable as the humidity while the shadows gradually lengthened across the trail. Just when Carmen was deliberating on turning back and setting up a search party for the next day, she spotted the dark shadow of a tall building in the distance. She urged her horse a little faster as the wind picked up.
In only a few more minutes, she found herself standing in front of a building every bit as magnificent and imposing as Lexia’s country estate. Three stories tall, it towered above even the tallest pine trees, and Carmen wondered why it was not visible until she realized that at the frantic pace she had been traveling she was likely thirty or forty miles to the northeast of Lexia’s land. She was somewhat shocked that she had not run across a house or a road before now.
She pulled her horse to a halt, searching the meadow, wincing at her soreness as she craned her neck around to get a better view. She was not used to riding as much as Lexia. Even the two hour commute to and from Lexia’s house on the weekends couldn’t prepare her rear end for this horse’s rough treatment of a most sensitive body part. She shrugged the kinks out of her back and raised her darkly lashed eyes to the cloudy sky in a plea for help with any part of her current situation.
Yellow and orange wildflowers speckled the field of tall grasses stretching down a gentle slope to the house. The path continued through the field toward the imposing structure, and Carmen followed it. While she was still a few yards away from it, the thick front door swung towards her. She nearly ducked in fear, but her curious eyes stayed on their target. She realized with a sigh of relief that the person standing in the doorway was none other than Mr. Dobbin, the man who sold them their property.
“Hello?” He called out to her, thumping a cane along the edges of the doorway. “I heard someone there. Please answer me.”
Although at first confused about the presence of the cane (and the unexpected man at the other end of it), Carmen answered him as politely as possible. “It’s me, Mr. Dobbin, Carmen Buckley. My best friend Lexia bought your house just a few months ago. Are you alright?”
“Your voice doesn’t sound familiar, I’m sorry to say. I was blinded several months ago, but I’m sure I would recognize your voice or your name if I’ve met you before.”
“What are you talking about?” Carmen scolded, “We spoke to you; you complemented Lexia’s hair. I noticed that you had the darkest blue eyes that I’d ever seen, they were almost purple.” She squinted up at his eyes, but, in the shadows, they were too dark to see.
“Well then, if we haven’t been formerly introduced, my name is Keary Dobbin and this is my castle.” Carmen said nothing about the word castle. Although it was a rather large mansion, she wouldn’t classify anything as a castle without a moat, high walls, a dragon, a drawbridge, and many knights.
“Keary Dobbin?” Carmen’s incredulous gaze would have penetrated any eyes but his. “Well, we must have met your brother, then. He looked exactly like you. His name is Arlen Dobbin. He’s a contractor.”
“What is a contractor? My brother, you say? Well I only have two sisters, no brothers. And I don’t recall any Arlen’s in our line.”
“A contractor, in the construction business. Well, he used to live just down the path from you, so I think he probably would have visited you. It’s a fairly long day’s ride.”
“Your horse does sound out of breath from the journey. Would you care to stable him and join me for an afternoon meal? I normally eat very little, but I’m suddenly famished.”
He disappeared inside, and Carmen glanced behind her. In the glare of the afternoon sun, she could barely make out the path through the waving grass. Her stomach grumbled loudly. She knew it would be a long trip back home, so she headed into the nearby barn and struggled with the chores that Lexia always made look so easy. After properly cooling down and brushing her weary animal, Carmen cracked open the front door and entered the house.
“Good afternoon, Carmen.” Keary shrugged broad shoulders as he spoke, not even bothering to turn to face her. “My cook has prepared a light meal.” Toasted bread, soft cheeses, sliced vegetables and fresh herbs covered the small table. Carmen sat down at the only other chair, and said a quick prayer for Lexia before grabbing a tall, cool mug of fresh water and fixing a sandwich.
As she bit into the toasted bread, she noticed the cook standing in the corner. His eyes looked malicious in the shadowy light and long red scars marred his forearms. His uniform was dark green, an unusual shade, with a yellow crest of some sort across the shoulders. Carmen, ever fearless in courtroom battles, eyed him back, and he soon turned to the kitchen returning to whatever duties might await him there. Carmen thought to herself that he looked more like a jailer or warrior than a cook or servant.
They ate in silence. Carmen glanced up from her food often to get a closer look at this man. She could see now that Keary and Arlen only slightly resembled each other. Keary’s eyes, while clouded and sightless, still gave an appearance of fierce pride, with a deep worry wrinkle between his eyebrows. His hands seemed soft like an artist’s, yet his body strained with the muscular cords of a trained athlete. The moment of silence was broken by a warrior’s battle cry and the sound of hooves beating a path toward the front door. With the noise as this new arrival seemed to be making, Carmen knew how easily Keary would notice a visitor, using only his hearing.
Keary and Carmen both ran to the doorway, reaching the knob at almost exactly the same time. She glanced at his eyes in surprise, expecting them to be smiling down at her, but they remained empty and sightless, and she watched him steel his nerves before casually opening the door. Carmen peered around his shoulders to catch a glimpse of the person making such a fuss. She stepped forward in surprise as she saw Lexia, riding at full speed through the pasture, with a long bow slung across her shoulder, and her long hair unbraided and flying behind her in the wind.
“What are you doing, Lexia?” Carmen yelled loudly toward her. “I’ve been looking for you in the forest for hours, and here you are, riding up like a wild banshee from the same path I’ve been searching. What has happened to you?” Carmen’s blue eyes nearly lit the dry grasses on fire as her gaze leveled on Lexia, who stopped and dismounted quickly. Lexia ignored Carmen, dragged her horse to the barn, and returned only a few seconds later, obviously not bothering to unsaddle and rub down her beloved horse.
“Carmen, I don’t have time to explain. Do you remember that time you mentioned your worst fear was encountering a band of druids in the forest? Well, let’s just get inside, lock the door, and I’ll tell you the rest in a slightly safer environment.”
Carmen laughed only briefly before realizing what Lexia’s sincere eyes meant. “Keary, this is my friend Lexia who I told you about, our property borders yours. She has some story about druids I presume, so let’s get her inside and out of harm’s way.”
Keary grabbed Lexia’s arm, wrestled her through the doorway, and then slammed and locked it. “I’m Keary Dobbin, and I’ve been fighting a ruthless band of dwarves for three years. They started out trying to take over the castle and my army killed off half of their forces. Unfortunately, their nasty witch friend stole my sight and turned most of my men into wild dogs temporarily, leaving them to scratch each other to death.
has never seen such a fearsome force as these creatures, and it is my duty to
hold them back from the rest of the land for as long as I can. I have to
protect my sisters and friends in the wealthier provinces. Fortunately, the
witch has been defeated.” He paused. “But there shouldn’t be any druids in my
forest; did you say that you saw dwarves or druids?” England
Lexia stomped her foot. “Who is this insulting man? Of course it was a band of
dwarves I met, would I have been able to outrun druids? I meant that it was
similar to Carmen’s story about the druids, not that druids actually attacked
me. Carmen, they might be here soon, we have to be ready for them. Is this
Arlen’s brother or something? Has Arlen tried to convince him that he’s in England
just because he’s blind?” England
“You can call me Lord Keary, since you’re so obviously discourteous, but I can tell from your strength of arm and the bow you carry that you may be an asset to us after all. Sir Lachlan, call up the knights and prepare for battle.” The battle-scarred man that Carmen had assumed was merely a cook popped his head out from the kitchen to agree with his lords commands and then ran swiftly down a long, dark hallway to muster what Carmen could only assume to be a ragtag group of wounded men.
Keary led Carmen and Lexia into a small, windowless sitting room. Expertly perching his large frame on a velvet seat with no arms or back, he motioned Carmen and Lexia to sit on a small couch across from him and waited patiently for the story. Lexia looked around fearfully for a moment, and then quickly spilled out her story.
“I’m not entirely sure how I got separated from Carmen. I went through the bushes and my horse suddenly started to run off the path. At least I thought I was off the path, until the trees thinned out a bit, and I saw I was on a very narrow trail. After traveling the trail for a few miles, I saw a meadow with a small caretaker’s cottage.”
“What about the scream I heard?” Carmen asked, “And I traveled on the path all the way here, you couldn’t possibly have found a meadow and a cottage. I looked for you. I truly did, as soon as I heard the scream. You were nowhere to be found.”
“Carmen, I normally let you interrupt my stories, but this is not the time to do so.” Lexia tapped her foot as she continued. “I figured you would come along whenever you good and well felt like it. I thought you were behind me all the time until I got to the meadow and you never came out of the woods. It was too narrow to turn my horse around while I was traveling on the path. Moving along in my story, the cottage in the meadow turned out to be vacant. Hot coals were in the fireplace as if the inhabitants had left in a hurry. I moved along quickly, sensing that danger might be afoot. I began to move into the woods, I feared being exposed in the open field. Suddenly I heard a movement to my left and the swift metallic rush of an ax as it flew past my head and thudded into a tree beside me. And I didn’t scream until that moment, so you couldn’t have heard me scream that quickly.”
“I know it was a warning throw, because otherwise I probably would not be here today. I heard a sharp human whistle from behind the tree and followed the voice. A thin young woman with blond hair pulled me into a safe alcove and handed me a weapon from her small stockpile. She handed me this longbow, which you know that I can use fairly well. We held off about a dozen dwarves, but we heard them sound a horn to call for reinforcements and she told me to continue down this path to a castle and bring the army, she held them off valiantly, but I don’t know how much longer she’ll last. Moreover, since all I’ve found are this house and a blind man, she’ll probably be captured or even killed soon.”
Keary stood suddenly as squeaking metal echoed through the stone hallway. Several dozen heavily armed men poured into the large entryway with military quickness and precision. They stood at attention as Keary and their leader, Sir Lachlan spoke briefly to Keary. “We have nearly 50 fighting men, Keary. I think we can finally defeat the dwarves now that the witch is gone and our men recovered from the spell. If you had not sacrificed your sight to save our men, we might not have an opportunity today.”
Keary shrugged with the resignation of a man who knew the difference between sacrifice and obvious duty and responsibility. “Let’s just take care of the matter at hand. Get the women safely into the stronghold and then we can be off.”
“Were you not listening at all, dude? There is already another woman holding off an entire army of dwarves. You need all the help you can get and we need to leave now.” Lexia spoke the words both fearfully and passionately.
Keary paused for a moment. “The blond woman you speak of is of no concern at all to me, but I understand taking risks when necessary. You may come along.” He paused and turned toward the last place Carmen had been standing. “Do you have a weapon you can use as well?”
Carmen had already moved toward the small, heavily armed group of men and borrowed an axe, a helmet, and a small shield. “Let’s go!” Her voice echoed painfully in her head since she was already wearing the helmet, and only muffled words reached Keary and Lexia, but they understood. Within minutes, a steady stream of men and the two women began running down the path, following Lexia’s directions. Keary moved swiftly between two heavily armed foot soldiers who wore several rows of small bells as part of their uniform The bells jingled quietly enough that he could follow them, but not loud enough to attract attention in the roar of the battle.
About a mile down the path, a brief jog from the castle, they encountered the blond woman in an offensive retreat. She threw a small explosive device from her quickly dwindling stockpile, and then paused in her retreat, with sword drawn. She was slowing them down enough so that Lexia would have time to gather the troops, yet drawing the dwarf army closer and closer to the castle with every retreat. She heard the small army gathering behind her, threw one last explosive device, and then rushed behind the first line, looking for Lexia or Keary.
“Hello, witch.” Keary said, as he slid his knife blade against her throat. He ignored the sharp gasps of both Lexia and Carmen. “Did you think you could get away with blinding me, and I wouldn’t know who you were? I can smell your disgrace.”
The blond woman looked unconcerned, “Keary, you know that I didn’t blind you. I’ve been your servant and friend for more than six years. The only reason I didn’t come back sooner is because you forbade me. You said that if you every felt my presence in your castle again, you would have me executed. It wasn’t my fault that the spell to save your men cost you your sight. I couldn’t have known. You knew the risks involved better than I did. Moreover, I did kill the witch for you, and the spell we used did save your men. Won’t you even open your heart a little for me? Or won’t you at least open your eyes?”
As soon as she said the word ‘eyes,’ Keary blinked sharply several times. The dwarf army was rapidly closing in on the front lines, and Sir Lachlan, ignoring Keary and the blond woman for the moment, issued the order for the battle to begin. The archers sprayed the advancing line with an avalanche of arrows. Lexia hid behind a tree, firing a few arrows of her own from time to time.
The battle was fierce, and began to look as if it could continue indefinitely. Keary’s men were battle-hardened already, and fought with the passion of those who know the effects of a long and deadly war. In the first 15 minutes of fighting, the knights killed and wounded dozens of dwarves, but Keary did not appear in the midst of the battle. He stood silently, now behind the entire army, staring at the woman in front of him. His eyes blinked rapidly and small tears formed at the edges. “Maria.” He whispered, “Maria.”
The woman hugged him fiercely. “Keary,” she said, “You know I have always loved you. I was invisible to you for so long, but I truly had no idea that the spell would cause you to lose your sight. I only knew that it could save the friends you loved.”
“No, Maria.” Keary said, “I always loved you, I just ignored my feelings. We have been living out here in the wild lands of
for so long, that I told
myself I could not know whether my feelings for you were true or whether I was
just hoping for some peace in this difficult land. Then, when you gave me the
spell to say, I said it with such bitterness in my heart, because you knew how
to save my men and I didn’t. I was too proud to even tell you how much that
increased my love for you.” England
“I think I blinded myself when I said those words. I blinded myself with the slight jealousy I felt, with the love I held deep inside, with the pain I felt on behalf of my men. I blinded myself by feigning ignorance of you all those years. Nevertheless, that’s not why I said your name just now; I said your name because I can see you. Not just in my head as I have for so many weeks now, but I can truly see you.” Now he was shouting, “I can see!”
Only seconds later, Keary grabbed a long sword, rushed through the small break in the front lines, and began to sweep aside the dwarves with powerful strokes. Within minutes, his knights had rallied for the final push. They captured the dwarf leader, who then ordered the remaining dwarves to surrender. Just like that, the battle was over.
In their imagination, Carmen and Lexia had originally thought they would be disappointed if the battle were not long and patriotic. Yet now that they were actually a part of the battle, the relief when it was over was indescribable. Carmen and Lexia supported each other on weak and tired legs as they walked back toward Maria. Keary and the men were busy tying up the dwarves, and discussing their options for disposing of them. The women spoke little, but merely shared the quiet knowledge that they were all alive.
The next day, a small band of knights piled the captured dwarves in a rough, wooden wagon, and began the several day long journey to the nearest town for the wise elders to dispose of the dwarves as they saw fit. The remaining knights spent some time getting the castle and woods back in order, and planning their own journeys home to nearby cottages and villages. After all, the “castle” truly was not large enough to hold more than a large family comfortably for a long period.
A few days passed, time itself was blissfully ignorant of the changes Lexia and Carmen had experienced. One morning, Maria and Keary were sitting side-by-side; exchanging admiring glances, and generally ignoring anyone else in the vicinity. They had recently announced their engagement and were planning a wedding in only a few short weeks. Carmen and Lexia sat on nearby chairs, wondering what they should do about their predicament.
They had lost themselves in this strange land and grown to love their new friends. They often had heated discussions about whether or not to try to go home. Lexia often rode her piebald along the forest path towards the original gateway. Yet, she never seemed able to pinpoint the exact spot where their world had changed. Carmen had fewer concerns. She basked in the freedom and relaxation for hours on end. No frenzied court arguments or endless paperwork existed in this world. She could garden in the walled courtyard, practice her own archery, and laugh and talk with Lexia for hours on end.
One day, Lexia finally convinced Carmen to ride with her along the path. Lexia desperately wanted to be home to be closer to her family and other friends. She thought that Carmen might be more familiar with the spot where “the scream” happened. They stopped at the crisp, cool stream to water their horses. Carmen gleefully pointed out a beaver a hundred yards upstream. Lexia gasped with the close proximity to the large, unusual animal. One of the things Carmen loved most about this magical land was their immersion in all things natural. It was something she lacked in her “citified” life back home. In their few short days, they had spotted countless deer, birds, the inevitable squirrels and chipmunks, rabbits, woodchucks, and numerous other wild creatures. She felt at home and peaceful here.
Without warning, the piebald broke free from Lexia’s loose hold on its reins, and bolted down the path. Carmen immediately sprang into action, mounting her own horse, and helping Lexia up behind her. Together they galloped off after the piebald. In just a matter of minutes, however, the piebald vanished. Carmen immediately stopped in her tracks.
“Carmen,” Lexia said, “You know as well as I do that this is our chance to get out lives back. It’s our chance to go home again.”
Carmen looked down the path, but she could not make herself push the horse any further. She didn’t want to go home. She wanted to escape from her old chains and live in this wild land forever. She wanted to be free. She craned her neck, feeling a slight strain. “I don’t want to go back Lex. I thought I did, but I don’t want to. I can’t stand the thought of losing this place. Isn’t it what we always dreamed about? I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back.”
“Carmen,” a foggy voice spoke from above her. Then more sharply, “Carmen!”
Carmen blinked several times. “Wh – What? Who is that?”
“Are you okay Carmen?” Lexia’s concerned eyes peered quizzically down at Lexia from above. “You’ve never overslept before. Most weekends you’re up at the crack of dawn. Are you okay?”
“I was asleep?” Carmen asked, looking down at her nightclothes in disbelief. “It felt so real. You don’t remember any of it?”
“Did you have a dream, Carmen? What was it about? You know I’m always up for a good story. Tell me everything.” Lexia pulled a nearby chair closer to the bed, and waited while Carmen cleared the cobwebs from her thoughts and tried to pull together her tumultuous emotions.
“It all began while we were out riding our horses. You were riding the piebald…”