Chapter Twenty-Six: The Path Home

EIKO described a seeing stone as nothing more than a rock with a hole in the center. What sounded like a simple search turned into days of crouching over the earth and pushing aside rocks. Each night, Ora returned to the stone forest to be sure Hademar still stood by the spring. She feared he might be killed by a mountain lion. But perhaps even the mountain lions shied from the strange nymph waters. Whenever she drew near, she felt an inexplicable urge to run away.

The Cedar Clan helped in their search, but they often became distracted, wrestling each other in the brush and taking naps in the sun. Though they were pukhas, they seemed nothing like Eiko, whose air of composure and wit had grown on Ora over the past week.

They ate rabbits, mushrooms, and berries. Eiko pointed out signs of small, elemental beings, who were so entangled with the forest that they were closer to beasts than fae. She even saw a few. There were gnomes who cultivated mushrooms, tiny thachwing-like fae who wore pinecone caps, and rock sprites who, if disturbed, would bite at her fingers.

“Why haven’t I seen them before?” she asked, thinking of her childhood filled with wanderings through the Hy Borea.

“They are usually very secretive,” said the pukha. “Most curious.”

Ora had an endless number of questions. At times, Eiko would grow tired of answering and pretend to take a nap while she continued to search for a seeing stone.

She felt sure she had overturned every rock and looked beneath every tree root and crouched over the shore of every creek in the forest. At last, she reached down one afternoon to pick up a smooth, gray stone. When she held it up, she saw a perfectly round hole carved into the middle of it.

“I found one!” she shouted in triumph.

Eiko’s shadow form glided toward her and settled as a wolf. It sniffed at the smooth gray stone cradled in her palm and said, “Good. Now, we must return to the spring.”

They had wandered far that day, and by the time they returned to the stone forest, daylight was fading. Eiko kept its distance from the spring, and Ora wondered if it knew she had glanced its true form. She stood next to the pig and studied Hademar’s face. Her brother did not seem to notice her. His eyes looked distant, emotionless. It pained her to see him in such a state.

“Hold the seeing stone in the water and ask it to show you the water’s source,” said the pukha.

Ora knelt beside the spring, and, careful not to let her eyes fall on her own reflection, she held the seeing stone beneath the surface. “Show me the water’s source,” she whispered.

“With more confidence, Ora.”

She scowled over her shoulder at Eiko but then raised her voice. “Show me the water’s source!” But nothing happened. At least, nothing she noticed. She stood up after a few agonizing, long moments and threw up her hands in frustration. “Why isn’t it doing anything?”

The pukha laughed. “Look through the stone.”

Ora peered through the hole in the center and turned until she saw it. Pale, green light spread from the spring, flowing beneath the earth in spectacular underground streams. She lowered the seeing stone.

“Well?” said the pukha.

“It’s this way,” she said, pointing to the east.

They asked the Cedar Clan to watch over Hademar, and with the seeing stone against her eye, Ora led them through the Hy Borea. Sometimes the trail of light was but a trickle, and other times it expanded beneath their feet, revealing vast underground rivers and lakes. But she did not care how long or how far they walked. She did not want to wait any longer to get her brother back. She would free Hademar that night.

At last, they heard a waterfall. When Ora looked ahead, she saw many streams of light converging beneath the trees from all directions. “I think we’re close,” she whispered.

“Ora, I cannot go any farther,” said Eiko.

She lowered the stone and whirled around to face the pukha. “What do you mean? You’re not going with me?”

“If she sees a pukha with you, she will turn to water and be impossible to catch. You must go alone.”

“But I don’t know what to do, Eiko. How do I—how do I kill a nymph? I’ve never even seen one before. What if—”

The pukha cut her off gently. “You must find her heart and smash it.”

“Her heart?” Ora felt as if her own heart might leap from her chest.

“Yes. She will have hidden it, I’m sure. But Ora, remember this: she will try to trick you. Do not trust a word she says. Do not trust anything you see. The only power she holds is illusion. She cannot harm you any other way. Do you understand?”

The pukha had not mentioned any of this before. “How will I know I’ve found her heart if I can’t trust anything I see?”

“Because wherever it is, she will do anything to keep you from it.”

She gripped the seeing stone tighter in her hand. “What if I don’t come back?”

Eiko stepped toward her. “Do anything it takes to return to me. Do not believe your eyes or your ears. Find the heart and destroy it. Eudora, I command it.”

She smiled, and for the first time since she was stolen away to the fae realm, she felt strength as her name was spoken. “Thank you, Eiko,” she said.

Ora then turned and raised the stone to her eye once again. She followed the trail of light down a steep hillside that sloped to a pool of water beneath a thunderous waterfall. As she came to the shore, she tucked the stone in her pocket and squinted into the dark.

“What a pretty girl.”

She felt the voice like a whisper against her ear.

“You have a seeing stone. You were looking for me.”

“Yes,” said Ora. She began to walk along the shore, looking for anything that might be a heart or a nymph.

Then, the water began to ripple, and a pale-skinned fae woman rose from the pool. She was very beautiful, with finely carved features and eyes that seemed to glow with the smallest amount of moonlight. Even though she was wet, her long dark hair curled over her shoulders and breasts in an elegant way, swirling into the water around her hips. “Come closer.” She held her hand out. “I will take you to your brother.”

At this, Ora stopped and met the nymph’s gaze. “Let him go, and I will leave you be.”

The nymph moved toward her but could go no farther than the edge of the water from which her very essence flowed. “Come with me. Your brother is waiting for you,” she said. “Don’t you want to see him?”

Though part of Ora wanted to believe her words, she could not bring herself to go with the nymph. But what if she had to go into the water to find the heart?

The nymph reached out and stroked her cheek with a clammy hand. “What is your name?”

Of course, Ora realized, tricking the nymph would be simple. “I’m Ora,” she said.

Ora.” The nymph’s voice dripped with magic. She took hold of Ora’s hand and led her into the pool. “Would you like to see your brother?”

“Please,” she said, pretending to be enthralled by the fae’s words.

The nymph led her deeper into the pool until the frigid water rose up around the girl’s waist. The nymph tucked a few strands of Ora’s wild hair behind her ear. “Such a pretty human girl,” she said. “Come stay with me, Ora. Come stay with me and your brother.”

Then, the fae drew her close and sank beneath the surface of the water. Ora felt the pull of the nymph’s magic, a dark, silent warmth beneath the surface. But she could not be tempted. She wriggled free of the nymph’s embrace.

Ora dove to the bottom of the pool and drew the seeing stone from her pocket. She peered through it, hoping it might help her figure out where the nymph’s heart was hidden. When she saw nothing of interest, she turned to swim back up to the surface for air, but a hand wrapped around her ankle and pulled her toward the bottom.

“You lied to me!” She heard the nymph’s voice rumble in the water.

Ora twisted around to see eyes glinting in the dark water. She knew she would run out of air soon. She could feel the mounting desperation to breathe. As hard as she could manage, she slammed her free foot into the nymph’s face. The hand fell from her ankle, and she broke the surface just as her lungs felt like they might burst for air.

She turned to the waterfall next and raised the seeing stone to her eyes once again. “Show me the nymph’s—”

Before she could finish her sentence, the nymph caught hold of her hair and pulled her back beneath the water. She struggled violently against the nymph, and the seeing stone dropped from her hand. As she reached for it, the nymph dragged her to the bottom of the dark pool.

Ora sensed she would run out of air soon. She thrashed at the nymph, tearing at her hands and clawing at her face. Again, she managed to break away, and this time, she swam toward the waterfall.

Gasping and choking, she pulled herself through the pounding curtain of water and felt her way along the slick stones behind the falls. She heard the nymph’s voice behind her. “You should not be here!”

“Let my brother go!” she shouted back, nearly slipping on the rocks as she turned to face the nymph, but she was nowhere to be seen. In the dim, silvery glow of moonlight, Ora instead saw a figure sitting on the rocks with its knees held close to its chest. She hesitated at first to approach, but then it looked up and met her eyes. Hademar.

Eiko’s words pressed into her mind. Do not believe your eyes or your ears.

She stopped herself from running to her brother, though she desperately wanted to. “You’re not real,” she said.

But then he spoke to her. “How can you say that? I am your brother.”

“You’re not!” she shouted and turned away, tears in her eyes.

“Please, Ora. Don’t leave me. I need your help.”

He went on, and she covered her ears. She searched the outcrop beneath the waterfall, bent and feeling her way through the shadows. Then, her foot bumped against a small wooden box. She picked it up carefully and began to lift the lid.

“Don’t open that,” Hademar snarled.

Ora paid him no mind and looked inside the box to find an assortment of trinkets, from pocket watches to hairpins. Puzzled, she began to dig through the box. There were arrowheads, wedding bands, a rusty cup, and an old tinderbox. No heart to be found. She nearly set it back down but then thought better. Perhaps the box was not what it seemed.

She closed her eyes and reached into the box again. She let her fingers brush over each object.

“What are you doing?” her brother asked.

Ignoring him, she continued until a spark of cool energy ran up through her arm. She opened her eyes and lifted out a heavy, round stone. It fit perfectly in the palm of her hand.

“Put it back!” the nymph roared, shedding her brother’s appearance and lunging up over the rocks. Her hand barely brushed Ora’s arm.

The girl raised it above her head, ready to smash it against the rocks. “Not unless you give me back my brother!”

“I will, I will, I will! Just put it back! You will find him by the spring! Right where I left him. I promise. Just please, please put it back.”

Had Eiko not used Ora’s true name, she might have believed the nymph and spared her heart. She would have returned to find her brother’s corpse curled up beside the spring and realized too late that the nymph had lied out of spite. But she could not help it. She was bound by Eiko’s words. With every ounce of strength she had, she slammed the stone against the rock.

It shattered into thousands of glistening shards, and the nymph screamed, clutching and clawing at her chest. Ora watched as the nymph stumbled back into the pounding falls and washed away as if she had never existed.

Eiko carried an exhausted Ora on its back all the way to the stone forest. The only thing that kept her from nodding off was the excitement of seeing her brother again. As they drew near, she leapt down from the wolf and began to run.

“Hademar!” she shouted as she rounded the last boulder.

Still a pig, he stood beside the spring with seven pukhas surrounding him. He was frightened but unable to get past the growling pine martens. When he saw Ora, he looked past the clan longingly.

“Hademar,” she said. “Please. Don’t be afraid. They’re friends.”

The pukhas grinned up at her and let her walk past them without any trouble. “See?” she said, but the brush pig still wore an uncertain expression. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. He nuzzled her shoulder. “We’ve come to change you back,” she said as she pulled away.

But then he saw the giant black wolf. With a squeal, he tried to push Ora behind him.

“Wait, Hademar, this is Eiko,” she said. “Another friend.”

The pig eyed the wolf suspiciously but allowed it to walk closer. Once near, Eiko spoke in an unfamiliar tongue, its voice booming.

The reversal was less gruesome than the transformation. Hademar’s hands parted the pig’s chest. Then, the speckled hide rippled off of his body, leaving him naked and shivering on the mossy earth. Hademar sat up with a puzzled expression and held the hide against his chest. When she touched his shoulder, his gaze shot up. “Ora?”

Unable to form words, she dropped to her knees to embrace him, and he began to sob. She held onto him until he grew quiet and then wiped tears from her own cheeks.

“Can we go home?” he asked, his voice strained.

“Yes.” She laughed and kissed his forehead. “Hademar, I am so happy you are safe. I was afraid that …”

The pained look in his eyes made her words trail off. She grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet. When he draped the hide over his shoulders, Ora cast a worried look at Eiko.

“All will be well,” it said. “That skin is his now. He will always have a second form, should he want it.”

Hademar bowed his head. “Thank you for helping us, Eiko,” he said.

“I only played a small part. Ora is to thank.”

She felt her cheeks grow hot. “I will tell you everything after you rest.”

They found the path home with the Cedar Clan’s help. It was a long walk, and by the time they smelled woodsmoke on the air, the sun had begun to rise. At lastthe trees thinned, and she saw the outline of cabins farther up ahead. She paused and caught hold of Hademar’s hand. He looked at her, eyes tired and watery.

“How long has it been?” he asked.

She felt as if she had spent a lifetime in the fae realm, and she had trouble counting the days. Almost in awe, she said, “Two weeks, I think.”

“What do we tell them?”

“We will say that we were lost in the woods. It will be easier that way.”

She let her hand slip from his and returned to Eiko’s side. It sat warily near the forest’s edge. “Will you be staying in Fel?” it asked.

She looked down at her hands. Ever since she awoke in the fae realm, she had only wanted to save her brother and go home. But now, she felt uncertain. She did not know if her enemies lived or what that meant for her. And there was also the small matter of the magic that flowed through her. She thought of Berengar, how he had told her to find a teacher.

But she could not imagine abandoning Hademar. Not after what he went through. She would be the only one who could understand.

Heart heavy, Ora asked, “Will you be close by, Eiko?”

The flash of disappointment in the pukha’s green eyes surprised her, but it nodded its head once. “I will be with the Cedar Clan.”

She wrapped her arms around the wolf’s neck. “Thank you for everything. I do not know what would have become of me if you had not been there in the palace.”

Its voice filled her mind with a final, grim warning. I do not know if the fae will leave you be. Should they find their way here, call for me. I will come and sink my teeth into every one of them.

“I will,” she whispered and withdrew from its side. “Goodbye, Eiko.”

“Goodbye, Eudora.”

She glowered at the mention of her name, but it was already turning, its form becoming shadow and sinking into the dark ferns.

Sarah Day ©2021