A treasure map and golden key lead a roguish invader named Bladeor on a quest to conquer a faery woodland and set himself up as king. One must always be careful, however, when toying with faeries.
—THE COMPLETE TALE—
Floppy green cap cocked over one eye, Bladeor whistled a merry tune as he ambled along the forest path, watchful — ironically — for robbers.
Had his recent tavern acquaintance been less fond of Xohmin ale, or more wary of strangers, the little fellow might have retained the treasure that Bladeor now had nine-tenths of the law on. He patted the scroll case at his hip while twirling a shiny golden-green key, sparkling with magic.
Ah, live and learn.
Specks of gold dappled the forest floor, alighting on lacy ferns and tiny wildflowers. With his dark-hued sword Deathbringer in hand, he dodged and parried fluttermoths and fat lazy bramblebees, which crisscrossed the meandering path before him. He knew his weapon was just a simple magic sword dubbed with a fearsome name, but the fey creatures of these woods didn’t seem to like it, and that suited him just fine.
“Dangerous my arse.” His mouth twisted in a mocking grin as he admired the idyllic woodland. “They don’t call them faeries for nothing, eh?”
Faery magic hadn’t turned out to be nearly as much trouble as he’d been led to believe. He shook his head of dirty blond curls, wondering at the superstitious whims of tavern keepers. No, Dapplewood would make an ideal location for his castle, once he’d amassed enough coin to build it.
He stopped beneath a towering oak. Its scarlet leaves arched overhead like a cathedral of flame. Whistling, he spread his cloak across the leafy ground to enjoy a feast for one — a bit of seasoned turkey, a wedge of cheese, and a skin of the Xohmin ale he’d pretended to drink at the tavern. He took a long draught. Ah, delicious! He’d have gotten pointy-ears’ coin pouch as well if the little fellow hadn’t fallen asleep on it. Very inconsiderate.
He’d had an excellent run of luck in these woods, ever since acquiring the sword and amulet from that malodorous old hermit. It hadn’t looked like the geezer could even lift the bloody sword, never mind swing it. In Bladeor’s view, he’d rescued the weapon from a slow, rusty death.
Since then, valuables seemed to fall into his lap. First there was that woolgathering Panthalyn who hadn’t objected when Bladeor strolled off with his ring and magic hat. Then there was the stuttering Graylet, who’d gotten so flustered when Bladeor sweet-talked her that she ran crying from her own Curiosity Shoppe. He especially enjoyed relieving that annoying band of Nipperkins of their gemstones — reasonable compensation for disturbing his nap.
Now, for some bloody reason, faeries hurled apples, chestnuts and mangoes at him. Given the number that struck him in the head, he didn’t think they were meant as peace offerings. If he were going to take up residence in these woods, he’d need to teach the little buggers some manners.
All in due course.
He packed up his silverware, taking a moment to admire his new gem-studded goblet, and unrolled his map for another look. The treasure had to be around here somewhere.
Sensing eyes upon him, Bladeor’s whistling tapered off. He drew his sword and turned around to regard a slender, feminine figure, her skin the color of the oak she leaned against. Her hair fell in a cascade of scarlet, matching the leaves overhead.
“Greetings, Naldiran.” Her voice was soft and sultry, like a breeze rustling the leaves. “Do you enjoy the comforts of my tree so brazenly?” Her deep brown eyes studied him.
Bladeor sheathed his sword. An encounter with a dryad was a rare event — potentially dangerous if not handled with diplomacy. He didn’t care to be turned into a patch of snargleflowers. Flattery, he’d found, usually went over well with these fey creatures, at least until he found himself a heavy axe.
“Forgive me, beautiful lady.” He bowed, doffing his cap. “I could not resist the sublime sweetness of this spot for the taking of my repast. I am weary, and if truth be known, lost.”
“Lost?” Her voice was a near whisper. She extended a finger. “Is that not a map?”
“Alas,” he sighed, “could I but read it.” He raised an arm, offering her the map. If he couldn’t read the bloody thing, what good was it anyway?
She strolled toward him, swaying in a distracting manner, and accepted the map. She ran her eyes over it. “It is Adryllian, a language I am well familiar with.”
“How fortunate for me.” Bladeor inclined his head. “To be in the presence of great beauty and intellect.”
She frowned a fraction. “Fortunate? Why?”
Bladeor hesitated. He’d hoped she would read the map for him, of course, but these prancing woodland creatures liked to make a game of everything. He could play along.
“Fortunate to have gazed upon you, my fine-grained lady, and enjoyed your sweet hospitality.” He motioned toward the canopy of the great tree. “It is a memory I shall always cherish.”
A faint smile touched her lips. “You may call me Cyrice. I presume you’d like me to decipher the map for you.”
“Well, Lady Cyrice, I freely admit I hoped you might.”
The dryad’s scarlet hair fluttered in the breeze as she held his gaze. “And what do you offer in return, Naldiran? Or would you impose upon my charity further?”
Bladeor placed a hand over his heart. “Nay, beautiful lady. I am a humble man, at a loss to know what trifle I might offer that would not pale against your splendor.”
Her eyes narrowed. “A lucky man as well, to have come into possession of such a map. It purports to lead to a great treasure. Were I able to venture far from my tree, I would keep the map and bid you farewell.”
Bladeor tempered his smile. “Again, I count myself fortunate for your generosity. Yet I have nothing suitable to offer one so divine. Perhaps I might return with a choice bit of treasure, something worthy of your astounding beauty?” He hid his smile, knowing he would never return to this spot, not without an axe.
“What of your amulet? It is carved of Mountain Silverbell and its design is pleasing. I would find such a gift… worthy of me.”
Bladeor ran a thumb over the amulet. A circle of faeries — ringed with acorns, holly leaves and berry clusters — danced across its carven surface. It was too good for the hermit, and too important to waste on this tree tart.
“Silverbell, you say?” He cleared his throat. “I am not in the habit of refusing the wishes of beautiful women, dear lady, but this amulet has brought me great luck. I would not be parted from it.”
“And if I will not help you otherwise?”
Bladeor heaved a world-weary sigh. “Then, my lady, I would thank you and be on my way, trusting to my luck, which has served me well thus far. However…” He reached into a pouch. “I am inspired to offer this golden circlet, which I’d intended as a gift for my sister upon return to our farm.” He had no sister, and didn’t know one end of a cow from another. As much as he hated to part with the item, it seemed a small price for this great treasure she spoke of.
Cyrice accepted the circlet and placed it upon her head, transforming her into a woodland princess. “For this task, we shall need assistance.” She whistled, a hollow note that reverberated through the woods. “Patience, now.”
He sat, his back pressed to the great oak, wondering what manner of creature would answer the dryad’s summons. He hoped it wouldn’t be a centaur, the pompous bastards.
A tiny winged figure, long chestnut hair tucked behind her pointed ears, alighted on the ground next to him. When he finally noticed, Bladeor leapt to his feet and reached for his sword.
She raised her eyes to the dryad. “These Naldirans are jumpy, aren’t they?” Her translucent wings fluttered with amusement.
Bladeor eyed the faery appreciatively, hands on his hips. “Well, pack my bags and send for the violins. I’ve died in my sleep and awoken with the angels.”
The faery flashed a bright smile. She flitted upward to sit upon the dryad’s shoulder. “Well, at least he has manners. I like his hair… though he does smell a bit.” Her tiny nose wrinkled.
Bladeor frowned, sniffing an armpit.
“They all seem to,” said Cyrice. “Elysia, I need a favor.” They whispered, gesturing between Bladeor and the map. He tried to read their lips, but they were being annoyingly discreet.
He cleared his throat. “Anything you might care to share with a poor, odoriferous Naldiran?”
“My apologies,” said Cyrice. “The map does not translate well into your language.”
“I’m not an art critic. Try me.”
“Roughly speaking, it reads as follows:
Greet yon Dancers at their door,
And enter as ye leave,
Mirrored sky a fragile floor,
To enter Ur’Grohm’s eaves,
Trek the orb as ye do read,
The compass guides thy hand,
Golden key to treasure cedes,
The lure of distant lands.”
Bladeor pondered these strange words, scratching his proud chin. “Why is it always bleeding riddles?” He threw his hands wide. “Why can’t there just be a big ‘X’ painted on the ground near a shovel? Or better yet, near a charitable workman with his own shovel.”
“Were it so,” said Cyrice, “the treasure would have been discovered long ago.”
A valid point. “So you believe the treasure still exists?”
“Silly.” Elysia rolled her eyes. “Once a treasure is found, its map vanishes.”
Bladeor rubbed his hands together. “Silly me.” It seemed his luck was holding.
“Elysia believes she knows where the map begins, more or less. She will take you, for a price.”
Resigned to the inevitable, Bladeor reached into a pouch. “It was my intent, fairest of faeries, to bestow upon you this golden bangle, a lovely adornment to your dainty wrist.” He removed the gold ring he’d acquired from the Panthalyn and held it between two fingers.
Smiling, Elysia flew to Bladeor and stuck her wrist through the ring… up to her forearm. She slipped it out and with a determined grin, pointed her foot and wiggled it through, transforming ring into ankle bracelet.
“There.” She smiled, raising a well-formed leg. “What do you think?”
Bladeor pursed his lips in appreciation. “Your angelic ankle is even more alluring, if that’s at all possible.”
“It’s not as nice as Cyrice’s circlet, you realize.” She patted his cheek. “But it’s a start.”
The dryad glanced to the sky. “It is late. Best to set out with the dawn.
The emerald moon shone down, creating a silhouette of lacy branches against the dark, windswept sky. Bladeor snored beneath the giant oak, a blanket tucked under his chin and Deathbringer clasped at his side. Cyrice had retired to the privacy of her tree, while Elysia slept aloft on one of the tree’s branches, despite his kind invitation to share his bedroll.
Dawn arose, the air filled with the annoying song of birds. Cyrice did not appear, though a breakfast of sweetwater and balderberries awaited them. Sating their hunger, they set off without fanfare.
Seated upon Bladeor’s shoulder, Elysia voiced directions, kicking her tiny legs and admiring her anklet. She was a fine-looking lass, but lazy like most beautiful women. When he was Lord of these woods, she’d work for her keep. Hopefully she knew how to prepare a decent meal, if not sing and dance.
After a few more hours of travel, Bladeor knelt beside an azure stream to refill his waterskin. “How much farther, sweetest of sugar plums?”
“We should be close now.” Elysia wiggled her toes in the stream. “Although we’ll need to ask around.”
“Ask around? Ask who?” Bladeor had no intention of sharing his treasure with anyone, present company included.
“The locals.” She shrugged. “We need to find the Dancers, or the map is useless. It’s our only clue where to begin.”
Bladeor grunted and rose to his feet. “Locals” he could deal with.
They traveled a bit farther beneath the swaying branches, scaring off deer and some chittering squirrels, when the music of a lighthearted flute reached their ears. More fey nonsense.
“Wait here a minute.” Elysia brushed her hair. “Let me warn them we’re coming so they don’t run and hide, you lumbering oaf.”
Bladeor sat on a fallen tree and removed a stone from his boot. He leaned back, lightening his wineskin, and reflected on Elysia. The little faery was delightfully distracting. If she were taller, she’d be perfect. He’d have to find out if she could enlarge herself, as many fey creatures could, and if so, whether she had a taste for Xohmin ale.
Elysia returned, looking miffed.
“What’s the matter, my melancholy mint leaf?”
“Later, later. What troubles you? It pains me to see the tiniest of furrows upon your tiny brow.”
Elysia ran a finger across her forehead. “Well, it’s just that the Nipperkins are being difficult.”
Bladeor spat. “When are they not? What’s the problem?”
“They know where to find the Dancers, but want to be paid for the information.”
He tapped his fingers, grinding his teeth. “Is that so? How much?”
“Um. One gemstone each.” She winced.
“Each? How many are there?”
Bladeor almost choked. “Nine gems? Are they out of their tiny little minds?”
“Frequently, yes. But that’s their price and they won’t accept less.”
Bladeor wiped a hand across his face. When he was Lord of these woods, his first decree would be to banish the bleeding Nipperkins. “Let’s offer one gem to the blighter who helps us, and bugger the rest.”
“I already offered nine silvers, but Nipperkins love gems. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the treasure map…”
“No, you shouldn’t have.” Bladeor drew Deathbringer from its sheath. “I think I might be able to persuade them to be a bit more reasonable.”
“Don’t be silly. They’ll just vanish and return to harass us. In the long run, it’s better not to anger Nipperkins.”
Elysia fluttered over his shoulder. “Gee. Can I have the plum-colored one?” She bit a lock of her hair. “I can make a brooch for this wonderful dress I have.” She twirled and batted her eyelashes.
Bladeor sighed. He had to remind himself it was all for a greater cause. Sooner or later he’d get the gems back from these opportunistic bastards — with interest. “Of course, most perfect of peach blossoms. If it strikes your fancy, consider it yours.”
She squealed and cradled the gemstone in both arms, gazing into its glittering depths. “It’s wonderful,” she said in a breathy voice, admiring her reflection in it.
“Yes,” he muttered. “It was.”
Following the Nipperkins’ giggled directions, Elysia led them along an overgrown path into a more densely wooded area. Bladeor could sense a change in the air. He swallowed his whistling to focus on their darker, more oppressive surroundings.
“Fifty paces beyond the fork in the stream,” said Elysia, draping her hair across the gemstone, “and the Dancers will appear.”
Bladeor counted off strides. “… forty-eight, forty-nine and fifty.” He peered around, waiting for something to appear — something with ballet slippers perhaps. Nothing. He scowled, taking another mouthful of ale. If those Nipperkins had lied, they’d come to regret it.
Elysia pointed. “There, up ahead!” She flew deeper into the woods. Bladeor trod after her, ducking beneath looping tendrils of silver moss.
A pair of ancient birch trees reared up, their peeling trunks curved as if bowing to one another in readiness for a waltz. Between the Dancers, a slender arch was formed, which Bladeor suddenly realized looked very much like a doorway.
“Well, I’ll be a two-horned unicorn.” Bladeor placed his hands on his hips. “What does the map say about this, most luscious of lilacs?”
“‘Greet yon Dancers at their door, and enter as ye leave.'”
Bladeor stroked his chin and shrugged. He approached the archway, removed his hat and bowed low. “Hello, Dancers.” He then strode toward the opening while saying, “Goodbye, Dancers,” and ducked through the arch. A moment later he re-emerged, scowling. “Bah, nothing happened.”
“Well, so much for that idea.” He glanced at Elysia. “What’s so blooming funny? Maybe it needs to be spoken in dryadic?”
Elysia alighted on his shoulder. “You’re not very good at riddles, are you? Think. Enter as ye leave.”
Bladeor took a long swallow of ale, squinting an eye. “I have no patience for silly riddles, my clever chrysanthemum. That’s why I brought you.”
Elysia rolled her eyes. “You walk through the archway backwards, you goose.”
Bladeor gave Elysia a look that bespoke volumes on the eccentricities of faeries everywhere. He turned around and, ducking his head, walked through the archway backwards. As he passed between the Dancers, he felt a tingle. Something magical must have happened, though to his eyes nothing had changed.
“Did it work?” He looked around.
She raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t it obvious? There’s a path ahead that wasn’t visible a moment ago.”
“My ravishing rosebud, nothing in these woods is obvious apart from your bountiful beauty.” He gave her a devilish grin.
“However true that may be, Naldiran, you’ve been drinking too much.”
He shrugged and took another mouthful. “I’m trying to forget my gemstones. And please, call me Bladeor.”
The invisible path, which only Elysia could see, led to a series of ponds dotting the forest, with great gnarled trees dipping their trunks at the water’s edge. An occasional shaft of sunlight pierced the canopy of leaves, creating scattered pools of light amidst the gloom.
“All right, my succulent snow drop,” said Bladeor. “What’s the next bit?”
“‘Mirrored sky a fragile floor, to enter Ur’Grohm’s eaves.'”
He peered upward. “How can the sky be a floor? The bloody sky isn’t even visible.” He scratched his chin. “Ur’Grohm is the Terran god, yes? Not the sky goddess, what’s her name. Any ideas on this one, love?”
“Humph.” Elysia turned her back. “If I’m going to solve all the riddles, then I’ve earned my pick of the treasure… Bladder.”
“It’s pronounced Blade-or, my pet.” He frowned. “Blade-or.”
The sound of gentle splashing drifted through the trees. Turning, Bladeor spotted a water gheeli sinking into the mossy depths, a ripple spreading around it. He ran to the pond and knelt at its edge. “Hey, gheeli! I’ve got a riddle for you.”
A bluish face rose tentatively from the pond, its green, slanted eyes curious. “A rid-a-diddle?” the gheeli asked, tilting its head. “Tell me a liddle more of this riddle.”
Bladeor knew that most fey creatures couldn’t resist the lure of a riddle, even this wanker. “What does it mean, ‘Mirrored sky a fragile floor, to enter Ur’Grohm’s eaves?'”
The gheeli sank beneath the water, blowing bubbles for a moment or two, then re-emerged, a mischievous grin on his face. His tiny, ridged eyebrows rose. “For this riddle, I’d like your hat, a gift-a-diddle for my friend Pat’s cat.”
Bladeor smirked. “Your friend Pat’s cat wears a hat, does it? Are you off your chump, you bloody gheeli?” He stood, hand upon his sword.
“Now, now.” Elysia flew in front of him, her horizontal position baring a wealth of cleavage. “If he answers your riddle, you must reward him, and it’s customary to name your price.”
“Well, my butter cups.” He licked his lips, glancing at her breasts. “He hasn’t answered my rid-a-diddle yet, has he?”
Elysia tapped her fingers. “No, but you must agree to the terms first. He wants your cap. Why I can’t imagine.”
“But I like this cap.” The cap was magical, though he hadn’t figured out what it did yet. “Is charity a lost art?” His protest, it appeared, fell on deaf ears. “Very well.” He knew where the gheeli lived. “I agree to your terms. Tell me.”
The gheeli grinned, blowing bubbles through its ears. “Through-da-loo the sunlit pond, a cave you’ll see, oh tweedly-dee! Your ca-da-lap is now for me. Oh, toss it here, you boozy bee.”
Bladeor thought a moment, trying to cut through the gheeli’s ridiculous manner of speaking. “Ah! The sky reflected in the mirror of the water — what piffle. Is it a long swim to this underwater cave?”
“A lid-a-diddle way, I think. One breath is all you’ll pay, you fink.”
Bladeor smiled thinly. “That’s starting to get annoying, mate.” He reached into his pack and withdrew an ordinary leather cap. “You should have specified which ca-da-lap, you sap.” He flung it into the pond. “Give my regards to Pat. Now sod off.”
They followed the invisible path, Bladeor flinging rocks at squirrels and birds as he went, and came at last to a pond where sunlight slanted through the trees. The water’s placid surface reflected the clear blue sky above. The cave, presumably, lay beneath.
“Can you swim underwater, my fragrant fluttermoth?”
“Yes,” said Elysia. “But don’t call me that. Fluttermoths are stupid creatures, only interested in one thing.”
“Really?” He grinned broadly. “And what, pray tell, might that be?” His eyes slid over Elysia’s curvaceous form.
“Flowers,” she said, glancing away.
“Then I am not unlike the fluttermoth, my bonny bouquet, yearning for the sweet taste of nectar.” Bladeor sat down and unlaced his boots. He’d been looking forward to this. “You’d best remove that pretty dress, my dear. Mossy water stains never come out.”
Elysia raised an eyebrow. “I can always make a new one.”
“Ah,” he said, frowning. “And I’d always heard faeries were fun.” He tucked his cloak, cap and backpack behind a thick-limbed bush. Standing before her in shirt and trousers, sword in place, he added, “You must be getting old. Matronly.”
“Old?” Elysia’s eyes narrowed. “Matronly?” Her voice reached a dangerous octave as she wriggled angrily out of her dress. Bladeor would have paid to see her do that again. In a moment she stood before him, naked but for her gold anklet. “Is this the body of a matron?” She arched an eyebrow.
Bladeor coughed, struggling to keep his face placid. “Er, well. It’s hard to say. My eyesight isn’t what it once was.” He squinted.
“Really?” Elysia placed her hands on her hips. “Turn around.”
Reluctantly, Bladeor did as instructed. His eyesight was quite good, actually. Faeries were so bleeding gullible.
“You can turn back around now,” she breathed, her voice unexpectedly sensuous.
He turned to find Elysia grown to four feet, marvelously naked. She twirled on her tiptoes. “Well? Seen any matrons like this lately, Bladder?”
Bladeor’s throat constricted. “Ack.” He shook his head.
She strolled forward and placed her hands against Bladeor’s chest. She tilted her head, as if to kiss him, and shoved him into the pond. With a squeal, she leaped in after him.
He spluttered to the surface, not sure whether to laugh or curse. Elysia stuck out her tongue and dove under the water, her pointed feet following.
“Now that’s more like it.” He dove in after her.
Bladeor swam downward through the chill gray water, trailing Elysia’s slender, naked form. Wings fluttering, she darted toward a small cave mouth. The little faery fish was already far ahead of him.
He fought down a flare of panic. A little swim my arse. Bloody gheeli.
Lungs on fire, Bladeor clawed through the water and drew his body into the cave mouth. Spots swarmed his vision. A glimmer of light above, and upward he swam. A gasp burst from his lips as he breached the surface, drinking in mouthfuls of cool, sweet air.
Elysia stood on a stone shelf deeper within the cavern, silhouetted before a portal of radiant light. To one side, a circular stone dais rose up, like a sundial.
The air was moldy and dank. The cave walls glowed with a soft, golden phosphorescence that reminded him of his reason for being here. As alluring as Elysia was, women were easier to come by than treasure hoards. He needed to keep his priorities in order: Castle first, servants second.
Bladeor pulled himself from the water and onto the rocky ledge. Dripping, he walked toward Elysia, trying to ignore her sublime nakedness.
The radiant portal was nearly transparent, coated with a film of frost-like crystals. He peered through and his breath caught in his throat. Five massive chests were arranged in a semi-circle, each spilling over with gold coins, glittering jewels, weapons and other fine baubles.
“Blimey.” He ran a hand over his face. “Now that‘s what I call a great treasure.” He inspected the portal, unable to locate a handle, knob or keyhole. His trembling fingers probed the edges, searching for a latch or a space wide enough to insert his sword, but the door merged perfectly with the wall. He backed up a stride and gave the door a few kicks, but it ignored his best efforts.
He growled, rolling the golden-green key around his fingers. “This bloody key must be meant for the door, but what good is it with no keyhole?”
Elysia turned toward the dais. “Perhaps the answer lies there.”
Lines crisscrossed the surface of the dais in a pattern that seemed familiar. After a moment, it struck him. “It’s a map of Xovetu. But what does it mean?”
Four carved notches circled the perimeter, one at each of the cardinal points. Four silvery swords rested at the edges, alongside carved lettering.
“Elysia.” Bladeor’s voice echoed back at him. “What does the map say for this next bit?”
“‘Trek the orb as ye doth read, the compass guides thy hand.'”
He read the words etched into the dais. “‘He eats our stew while we shout at the thorn.’ What in bloody blazes is that supposed to mean?”
Elysia shrugged. Bladeor tried to ignore the effect this had upon her body. “Don’t do that. It seems these swords are meant for the slots.” He measured one against the other.
“‘Trek the orb’ probably means the order the swords need to be set into the notches,” said Elysia. “Four swords, four points on a compass.”
“It says to trek the orb ‘as ye doth read.’ Does that mean from left to right? Or top to bottom?”
“Or right to left, in some languages,” said Elysia. “Though ‘as ye doth read’ may refer to the reading of the words: He eats our stew while we shout at the thorn.”
Bladeor stared at the dais for several agonizing moments, but no explanation came to mind. The words were obviously some sort of code. Well, he wasn’t going to stand here doing nothing.
He lifted a sword from the dais and raised it over the southern slot. Holding his breath, he inserted it down to the hilt. The translucency of the door clouded. That can’t be right. He yanked the sword free, and was rewarded with a razor-like pain down his arm. “Bloody hell!” The blade dropped from his fingers and the door returned to its former state of translucency.
“Well, that wasn’t it.” He rubbed his hand. Choosing a different sword, he circled the dais and inserted it into the northern slot. The luminous door clouded again. With a grimace of anticipation, he withdrew the sword and pain lanced through his entire body. He fell to the floor, writhing.
If he guessed wrong again, it might kill him.
He climbed to his feet and turned to Elysia. “You’re a bloody faery,” he nearly shouted. “And this is a bloody faery puzzle. Don’t you have some idea what this bollocks means?”
Elysia drew near, her eyes bright with golden light. Her demeanor was unexpectedly grave. The phosphorescence of the cave shone from her wet skin, making her seem more a strange, supernatural being than a twee faery.
His anger softened. “Elysia.” He stroked her cheek. “We’re so close now. Can you not help me, my divine daffodil?”
Elysia crossed her arms. “I will tell you what I believe the writing means, Naldiran, and the treasure shall be yours.” She gazed hard into his eyes. “If you meet my price.”
Bladeor’s heart raced. The treasure was his! He would build his castle at the fringe of these woods, where he’d never want for anything — plunder or faery women. With his lucky amulet and trusty sword, whatever share of the treasure Elysia claimed, he would recover it eventually. All hail! Bladeor, Lord of Dapplewood!
He grinned, focusing on the faery. “Half the treasure for each of us, is that what you want, my petite periwinkle?”
Elysia’s face darkened. “How little you understand the faery folk, whose good nature you’ve exploited these many months.”
Bladeor shrugged, offering one of his more charming smiles. “It’s nothing personal, love.”
“What I want is the amulet.”
His grin vanished. He raised the amulet off his chest. “But it’s only wood.”
“That is the cost of my help. You may have the treasure, or you may keep the amulet.”
Bladeor frowned. This was his lucky amulet. It had helped him escape all kinds of entanglements with the creatures of these woods, and ultimately brought him to this cracking treasure. He wasn’t about to give it up.
“Elysia,” he said, as if speaking to a silly child. “With only a small part of the treasure you could have a hundred such amulets crafted. A thousand. I happen to be attached to this one. Take your pick of the jewelry. Something green, to match your eyes.”
“Your words, as I recall, were: If it strikes your fancy, consider it yours. Have Naldirans no honor?” Her little jaw jutted. “I fancy this amulet. You can have another crafted if you wish. A thousand.”
Bladeor pursed his lips, glancing at the treasure beyond the door. Something was odd about this. Faeries loved sparkly gems and jewels. Then again, who knew what might tickle their fickle fancies? Whatever her motivation, he didn’t appear to have much choice at the moment.
“Very well, my intractable iris. I will yield the amulet to you, for the answer to this last riddle.” He removed it and draped it around Elysia’s neck. “Now, tell me.”
Elysia stepped back, clutching the amulet. “He eats our stew and we shout at the thorn. The four points of the compass are herein revealed. The order they appear is the order the swords must be set into the dais. Simple, really.”
Bladeor read the sentence again and slapped his forehead. “How daft! I see it now. The word ‘eats’ spells ‘east’, ‘stew’ is ‘west’, ‘shout’ spells ‘south’, and that thorny last word is ‘north’. Bloody faeries…”
He lifted a sword from the dais and inserted it into the eastern slot. The door retained its translucency! Grinning, he did the same with the western and southern slots, in the proper order. When he lifted the last sword, however, he saw that the very tip of the blade was missing.
He jabbed the broken sword into the slot again and again, but nothing happened. “No, no, no!” he cried, sweat beading on his brow. “This can’t be happening! Elysia! The last bloody sword is broken!”
“That’s not my fault. Perhaps your own will fit.”
Deathbringer rang as Bladeor drew it from its sheath. He held the dark sword over the final slot, praying his luck would hold.
It fit perfectly.
He slid the sword down to the hilt and was rewarded with a sharp ‘snick’ that echoed through the cave. At the center of the door, a keyhole appeared.
“And Bob’s your uncle!” He ran to the door, fumbling with the key, fearful the keyhole might vanish. He gave the key a quick turn, and like a shy ghost the door faded away. Through a golden archway, the treasure awaited.
“Elysia,” he said, grinning a princely grin. “My love. Come see the treasure. You can pick any piece you like — something to match your eyes.” His gaze flickered to the wooden amulet.
She recoiled a step. “We will stand by our bargain. Go.”
Bladeor’s body tensed as he considered lunging for the amulet — still his lucky amulet as far as he was concerned. Elysia was a little too far, however, and would surely evade him, reverting to twee faerie form in the wink of an eye. He would have to bide his time and lure her close another day, perhaps over a bottle of wine.
“As you wish, my nude narcissus. I will survey the treasure, and perhaps you will ask the gheeli and his friend, Pat, to help haul it away.” As Bladeor looked upon Elysia, he wondered whether she could — being a faery — bear him the heirs who would one day inherit his kingdom. It certainly wouldn’t hurt trying.
Whistling a merry tune, Bladeor strolled through the golden arch, and his stretch of good luck came, at last, to an abrupt end. Passing through unprotected, he was whisked away in a swirl of faery magic, revealing the meaning of the last of the map’s clues:
Golden key to treasure cedes, the lure of distant lands.
The magic key dropped to the floor, the sound a bright tinkling to match Elysia’s ringing laughter.
Beneath the emerald moon, Elysia dragged a heavy black sword toward the great oak. Trailing behind, the gheeli shoved Bladeor’s jingling backpack, leaving a wake of parted leaves. Upon his head rested a floppy green cap, obscuring half of his face.
With a grunt, Elysia released the sword and reverted to her normal size.
“Cyrice! We’re back.”
The red-leafed dryad emerged from her tree. She glanced at the sword, the backpack and the amulet around Elysia’s neck. “It seems you’ve succeeded.”
The gheeli upended the backpack, revealing a glittering collection of coins, gems, jewels and silverware. And, of course, the map.
Elysia wiped her hands on her dress. “That sword is giving me a nasty rash.”
“I will ensure it is destroyed,” said Cyrice. “It is an evil blade.”
“What about this?” Elysia raised the amulet. “It needs a washing, but I do like it.”
Cyrice extended a hand. With a sigh, Elysia relinquished Bladeor’s lucky amulet.
“An artifact that bestows immunity to fey magic is too dangerous with such scoundrels running loose,” said Cyrice. “It too must be destroyed. The Naldiran is gone?”
The gheeli nodded, doing a little dance. “Right through-da loo the golden door, I shall not miss that thieving boor.”
“I hope he likes swamps.” Elysia grinned. She sat on the ground and removed her golden anklet. “I’ll return this and the cap to the Panthalyn. The Nipperkins have already recovered their gems.”
Cyrice retrieved the treasure map. It had served its purpose well, as it had with other troublesome outsiders in the past. “Please return the map and key to the tavern,” said the dryad. “One day, we may have need of them again.”
** Story appears as published in Aphelion Webzine, March 2012.