Three days has passed since Parnika’s baby sister, Kulfi, has been taken by the Marshmallow Monarch.
Such was the price of living in a town that bordered the famed and infamous slumberland—the source of all dreams and nightmares. Most people only ever visited slumberland in their dreams. But Parni’s people lived close enough to enter the land in body as well as in mind.
Myriad signs of warning marked the borders of slumberland. They were meant for grown folk. Children didn’t need such signs.
For only children could see slumberland, and only older children, on the cusp of adulthood, could withstand its charms by keeping one eye on the waking world. Parni was of such an age, so it was decided that she must be the one to go and rescue her sister. For the infant, once in slumberland, would be unable and unwilling to return to the waking world.
Even if not chosen, Parnika would have volunteered, for she was the one who saw her sister vanish past the border to slumberland, following a trail of marshmallow bits. She saw this in a dream. When she woke, she went to check upon her sister, only to find her gone.
Two of Parni’s grandparents took her aside and provided her with what guidance they could, for they both had lived in the town during the times when slumberland claimed nearly half the town’s children. In a time before the town devised special protections for their children—wards and talismans, spells and blessings, illusions and artifices against the many dangers that seeped through the borders of sleep and into the world of the waking.
“Slumberland is like a maze of wonders and horrors,” Parni’s grandmother told her. This was her mother’s mother. “There is only one way out. At the center of the land is a great ash tree. Her roots are what hold our two worlds together. The waking world and the dreaming world. Find her and follow her roots back to the border.”
A waking walker in slumberland could follow the same path a dreamer followed to pass through dreams and wake again. This path was simply called the “forward path.” In slumberland, the path twisted and turned, and zigged, and zagged. Nevertheless, it would lead Parni to the ash. But first, she would have to find her sister in the likeliest place she could be…the place where pleasant dreams abided.
“You will need to take a companion,” Parni’s grandfather said. This was her father’s father. “Someone you can trust. Someone who loves you, yet will tell you the truth. And someone who is not human.”
Slumberland was a place of dreams and nightmares, but only for human people. The dream lands that other mortal creatures visited were elsewhere.
Parnika decided that her companion would be her pet rat, Rig. The rat would have the ability to speak once in slumberland. Or rather, Parni would have the ability to understand her. Parni had dreamt as much many times. But since she was not human, Rig would always be able to see the waking world, even when Parni’s vision of it grew clouded.
Parni’s grandparents brought her to the edge of slumberland, for her parents could not bear to see her go. With Rig perched on her shoulder, and a pack of food and water, warm clothes, a kit of tools, and a few bottles of potions, she walked across the border between waking and sleeping.
“I smell cherries,” Parni said, after recovering from a wave of dizziness.
“Then we shouldn’t go that way,” a voice beside her said.
Parni grinned. She recognized that voice from her dreams. It was the black rat named Rig, who sat upon her shoulder. And just as her grandparents had advised her, Parni listened to her companion, and she veered away from the path that smelled of cherries.
They walked along the path for a few hours. When they grew tired, they would rest. They ate a reasonable portion of the food they had brought as a lunch, for they could trust nothing they might find to consume in the dreaming world.
After a while, Parni began to yawn. The sun was no lower on the horizon than it had been when she set out. Here was the first danger. She had to rest, to sleep. But when she fell asleep, her dreaming mind might manifest and seek to wander slumberland. If it wandered too far, it might lose its way back to her body, or if it found her body, her mind might be confused about whether it was sleeping or awake. Rig would have to make sure she kept Parni’s dreaming mind occupied while Parni’s body rested.
Parni woke from a strange dream. She found herself in her own bed and glanced over at the table where Rig too was slumbering her cage.
The morning was a bit chilly now that autumn was approaching. Parni found her slippers and wrapped a small blanket around herself as she made her way to the kitchen. She stopped at the doorway when she smelled an unexpected and delightful aroma, cherries. Her mother must have been making cherry muffins. Parni heard the sounds of stirring and scraping, and the cooing of her sister.
Parni took a deep breath in, savoring the sweet and fresh scent of cherries, comforted by the sound of her sister’s laughter and her mother’s singing. She raised her foot to step into the kitchen.
“Stop! Don’t go that way.”
Parni stopped and opened her eyes. She frowned. The voice that had spoken was not her mother’s. But it was familiar. She could not quite place it, but it was familiar.
She glanced back down the hallway. She frowned again, for the light in the hallway seemed strange. It was not the light of morning, but the light of late afternoon.
Her eyes suddenly felt drowsy, as if the sleep she had just woken from had crawled out of her bed to seek her and claim a few more moments of slumber…
Parni opened her eyes. She was lying down.
“Parnika, can you hear me?”
Rig stood before Parni’s face. Parni sat up. “Am I awake?”
“Yes, you are now. What did you dream?”
Parni told Rig her dream.
“Strange,” Rig said.
“No, it wasn’t strange at all actually. It was…ordinary.” Parni rose and looked about herself. “I know where we are, Rig.”
There was no map to slumberland. But it was possible to figure out what region one was in, and by so knowing, avoid the traps and dangers of that particular region. And Parni had just realized what region she was in. The plains of waking illusion. It was where dreamers went when they dreamt of ordinary moments of waking life. The danger for Parni was that she might believe she was awake and remain in the ordinary dream.
Parni gave Rig instructions on what to do if Parni should once again fall prey to the illusions of the ordinary. The way to oppose the ordinary was with the extraordinary. All Rig need do was to show herself to Parni and speak, and tell Parni the truth of where she was and why she was there.
And so they continued on the twisting forward path.
At last the sun went down. Though Parni’s eyes enjoyed some relief from brightness, the darkness of night on an unfamiliar path made Parni anxious. She wondered if she had entered the region she most dreaded. When she spotted a lumbering man with a ghostly face, she was certain that she had indeed entered the dreaded region. The valley of nightmares.
She recognized the man. It was the ghoul that her mother had warned her about. The ghostly ghoul that carried off misbehaving children to punish them. Parni knew that mothers only warned about the ghoul to keep their children from staying out too late or wandering too far. But one night, when her cousins had come to visit and they were telling tales by candlelight, they saw a figure looking in on them from a high window. They had all screamed and run to Parni’s mother. It was her uncle. He had heard the children telling tales and thought they might enjoy a fright.
Even with the mystery solved, Parni had been haunted by the sight of the face in the window. The face that most certainly did not look like the face of her uncle, but like the blank, expressionless, soulless face of the ghoul, pale as a corpse.
That was the face she glimpsed through the brush.
This was not where she expected to find her infant sister. She was certain that Kulfi would have been taken to the region of pleasant dreams. But Parni heard a familiar cooing somewhere in the clearing. Her heart stopped as she realized what the ghoul was doing. He was searching for the baby.
Parni moved closer and closer to the sound of the cooing, glancing at the ghoul every now and then, to ensure that he did not see her. She heard Rig utter a warning as she left the path and veered into the nightmare forest.
But Parni soon found herself back onto the path. Her sister was crawling on the forward path, and she was crawling in the right direction, for Parni saw where her sister was headed.
Not too far ahead of them, there stood an ash tree. Half of its roots were glowing. The other half were not.
It was the Doorway Ash.
Parni heard the frustrated grunting of the ghoul as he continued to search for Kulfi. She tiptoed toward her sister. When she picked the baby up, Kulfi wrapped her arms around her sister’s neck. Parni whispered to her sister to be quiet, and she hoped that Rig was following them. She was too afraid to look away from the ghoul. She snuck past him. She thought she heard a voice telling her to keep walking, Rig’s voice. So she kept walking.
She was halfway to the ash tree when she heard an angry roar from behind her. She glanced back and saw the ghoul crash through the forest and onto the forward path. He started running toward them. Parni turned around and dashed toward the ash.
When she reached the ash, she set her sister down before a glowing root and ordered Kulfi to crawl along it, which the baby obediently did. As she did, a doorway opened along the root, and the root became a familiar path that led back to their town.
As the ghoul lumbered closer, Parni felt the ground shake with each thudding footstep. Parni jumped onto the same glowing root that she’d sent her sister down. She started running along the root and a doorway appeared before her. Parni leapt through the doorway.
She was running along a dirt path now. She turned around and saw…nothing. There was no doorway, no root. No ghoul. Only the other side of the dirt path. The familiar dirt path. There was an ash tree along the path. She was moving away from it.
Parni turned forward again. She couldn’t see her sister and a spark of panic bloomed in her chest, until she heard a familiar cooing.
There was a bend in the path. The cooing was coming from beyond that bend. Parni jogged toward her sister. It was still night, and she did not want to lose the baby in the forest.
She heard a sound, as of something or someone moving through the brush along the path. Parni slowed and crouched down. She thought she glimpsed something through the brush.
Panic gripped her heart again when she saw what that something was. It was a face. A pale face.
The pale face of the ghoul.
She heard him grunting. She hurried along past him. She found her sister, crawling forward on the path. She understood now. It had been an illusion, but she had Kulfi now, and she would move, not backward, but forward, toward the ash tree that she spotted in the distance.
Parni walked as quickly and quietly as she could, but she was not quiet enough. She heard a roar. She glanced back and saw the ghoul on the path behind her. She glanced forward and began to run as she saw the roots of the ash tree glowing. She ran and ran. And something seemed familiar. And a voice that sounded familiar was crying out to her, but she could not make out the words.
Parni reached the ash tree. She set her sister down on a glowing root. She frowned. She remembered doing this already. But she had no time to stop and think. The ghoul was coming.
The thumping footstep landed just as Parni leapt onto the root and began running. A doorway appeared before her and beyond it was a familiar path. Even as she ran faster and faster, Parni frowned a bit. She felt as if she were forgetting something, missing something.
When she realized that she could no longer hear the thudding footsteps of the ghoul, she slowed down and glanced around and ahead of herself. She couldn’t see her sister. She frowned. It should not have been possible for the infant to have gotten so far ahead of her that Parni couldn’t see her.
Parni stopped walking. She listened, and she heard the sounds of a baby cooing. Her sister. Just up ahead, past a bend in the road. She took a step and then stopped, for she heard another sound as well.
A plodding footstep.
It happened again. Parni found her sister. She glimpsed the ghoul. She scooped her sister up and snuck past the ghoul. She heard the ghoul’s roar. She ran toward the ash tree up ahead. She set her sister down on one of its glowing roots. She felt her heart beating in her chest, thudding almost as loudly as the footsteps of the ghoul. It was all familiar. Every bit of it.
And as she leapt up onto the glowing root after her sister, Parni realized what region of slumberland she was in.
She glanced around, searching for her companion. Rig could guide her through, guide her away. She stopped walking. When she heard her sister cooing and burbling, Parni told herself that the baby was not real. But when she glimpsed the ghoulish face, devoid of expression, devoid of mercy, devoid of compassion, Parni could not take the chance. The baby might be real, after all. It might be her real sister, caught in the maze, just as Parni was. The maze of recurring dreams.
This time, when the ghoul began to chase her, Parni cried out for Rig.
She set her sister down on a glowing root. She wiped away sweat. And she wiped away tears. For a heartbeat she wondered what would happen if the ghoul caught her. If she had been dreaming, she would wake. But she was fully in slumberland. Body and mind. She had to keep going, keep repeating, until she could see a way out.
She reached out and grabbed her sister back. She set Kulfi down on a different glowing root this time. And she followed.
But it did not work.
She found herself on the path again. No matter how much she tried to keep her sister in sight, she always lost sight of the baby. And she always regained her sister just around the bend in the path.
Parni tried different roots. She tried to pick up rocks and throw them at the ghoul while her sister escaped. And she called and she called for Rig.
She could hear the black rat, hear her voice, but she could not make out the words. She was too deep into the maze.
But Parni did observe that Rig’s voice was the loudest and clearest at the ash tree, just before she leapt onto a root. So with each repetition, she waited as long as she could, so she could listen. She told Rig where she was, and she listened for Rig to tell her where she must go.
And in one repetition, she heard a knocking at the base of the ash tree, as if something or someone was inside the root. But Parni had no way to dig the root out. She pressed her hand against it and felt the force of the knock just as she felt the vibrations of the ghoul’s footsteps behind her.
She heard Rig’s voice. “Here! This way! Come this way, Parni!”
There was no time. Parni climbed upon the root and started running just as the ghoul reached her.
Parni felt a weariness settling upon her. She had not counted how many times she had repeated the dream. She pulled out her canteen, realizing that she had not eaten or drunk anything. She took a few sips of water as she made her way toward her sister. She felt a bit better. In the dream, she was not feeling hunger or thirst, but that did not mean that her body did not hunger or thirst.
Again, she found herself at the base of the ash tree. She heard the knocking. She heard Rig calling to her. But this time, she spotted a small door at the base of the tree. She peered at it, and opened it.
Rig sprang through the door.
“This way!” she cried. And she ran toward the ghoul.
Parni’s eyes grew wide. She hesitated. She turned around. She had to get her sister.
“Parni! Your sister is not there. Follow me!”
Parni turned back toward Rig. The ghoul was coming.
And she had to run right toward him.
Parni followed Rig. The black rat bounded toward the ghoul, but then she suddenly veered to the right and plunged into the forest. Parni followed. They ran and ran through thick brush, and finally, Parni found herself back on a dirt path, not too different from the one she’d left. Rig had stopped, so Parni stopped.
She was out of breath, and she suddenly felt ravenous. Her throat was parched. Her legs burned. They wobbled and she collapsed to the ground. She lay on the path, panting. She felt Rig’s paws on her shoulder.
After a few moments, Parni sat up and reached into her bag for her canteen and a packet of food. She gave some food and water to Rig as well.
She wanted to thank the rat for saving her, but when she tried to utter a sound, Parni found that she could not summon the force.
“Sleep if you need,” Rig said. “I will watch over you.”
Parni did not want to sleep in slumberland. Nor did she yet need to. She rose, and slowly began to walk down the winding, twisting forward path.
When they reached the actual valley of nightmares, Parni could see it as clearly as she could see her hand before her face. Nightmare did not hide in illusion.
The forward path cut straight through the valley. If she stayed on the path, Parni would be safe from harm. But she did not trust the path. Thus far it had been true, according to Rig. Parni had managed to avoid a few traps. The ones she had fallen into had only trapped her because she had inadvertently left the path. And Rig had been unable to stop her before it was too late.
“Perhaps you should rest first after all,” Rig suggested as they stood upon the hill that overlooked the valley.
Parni could not see much of anything save for shadows shifting in darkness. There was a tangled wood. There was a dry field. She could heard strange echoing cries of unfamiliar animals. And she could heard the sound of a dry husky wind.
“This should be the easiest region to pass,” Rig reminded her. “Since you do not wish to be here, you will be vigilant, and it will not trap you.”
The danger was in becoming paralyzed with fear, the fear of what she did not know, could not see or hear.
They started down into the valley, keeping to the path. Rig walked ahead, but only by a bit, so that Parni could keep her eye on her companion. Parni had tried to gauge the distance, but though she was skilled at gauging such magnitudes, she could not tell how far they had come when they encountered the obstruction.
It looked as if a several wagons had crashed into each other. They lay in a pile, one atop the other. The wagons lay across the entire length of the path. The pile was high, but Parni tried to climb it. Each time she gained a foothold, the pile shifted. The higher she climbed, the shakier the pile became. Parni finally climbed down.
Parni tried to clear a way through the collapsed pile of wagons, but that too did not work. When she pull a piece away, the pile collapsed upon itself. And some larger pieces were too heavy for her to lift. But even if she could lift them, Parni suspected that moving them would only make the pile fall upon itself again.
Parni asked Rig to climb to the other side to see if there were any clues to moving the wagons, or perhaps clearing a way through them.
But Rig did not go. “You must not lose sight of me,” the rat said. “This is a trap. Once you cannot see me, the valley of nightmares will have you.”
“I knew it,” Parni said, glaring at the pile of wagons. “I knew the forward path would not be as completely safe as we hoped it would be.”
“Nothing is in this place, it would seem.”
Parni had avoided looking directly at the sides of the path. She glanced to her left now, still not directly. She caught movement in the ashen brush. She shuddered. “We can’t leave the path.”
“We have no choice. But I can guide you so that we stay close to the path. Once we make it past the wagon pile, I will guide you back to the path.”
“Even if we make it, what if we encounter another obstacle?”
“Then we will do the same. The key is to stay together. The key is for you to see me and hear.”
Parni gulped. “If we leave the path, the nightmares can get us.”
“Not if they cannot find us. We will be quiet and we will move quickly.”
Rig moved to the side of the road, perched at the threshold between the path and wilds of the valley. She waited for Parni.
Parni did not feel cold, but she set her pack on the ground and pulled out the thickest coat she had packed. She put in on, comforted a bit by its weight. She tightened the belt around the waist and pulled the hood up.
And she followed her companion into the valley of nightmare.
Fear gripped Parni right away. Fear of what, she could not say.
Those muffled sounds of eerie beasts were clear now. They came from behind her, before her, above. The crunching of her footsteps on the gray crackling leaves underfoot sounded unnecessarily loud. But she could not help it, no matter how lightly she stepped.
She blinked as quickly as she could, so she would not lose sight of the rat walking before her. Rig was black, so it was difficult to see her against the darkness of the valley floor.
You’re too small, Parni wanted to say. I can’t see you.
They had thought of that. She remembered. She had tied a red ribbon around Rig’s neck. But that ribbon was not bright enough to cut through the darkness.
Parni stopped. She blinked and glanced around, but she could not see the rat.
“Rig,” she whispered, as loudly as she dared. “Rig, I can’t see you.”
“Seeee yoooo,” a fierce whisper answered her.
Parni caught her breath. The voice had sounded like her own. An echo. But she could not be sure.
“Follow me!” a clear and comforting voice said. “I’m right here. In front of you. Can’t you see me?”
“You’re too small,” I could hardly utter the words. I gasped a breath.
“But you can hear me? Then follow my voice. I can guide you out of here. Follow me!”
“No, you’re too small. They’ll eat you. They’ll kill you.”
“Eat yooooou. Kiiiilllll yooouuu.”
Parni clapped her hands to her ears. “And then they’ll get me.”
“They cannot touch me. I’m a rat. They can only touch you, and only if you let them.”
“They’ll get you, and I can’t stop them. And then I’ll be alone. You’re so small. They’ll get you.”
“Move your hands away, Parni! You must hear me! You must follow me!”
Parni shook her head. The voice, Rig’s voice, sounded hollow. And the world was spinning. Her vision dimmed. It narrowed. “Too small. You’re too small.”
She heard nothing then. Nothing but a ringing in her ears. Her whole body felt hot. She threw back the hood of the jacket she’d been wearing. She pulled off her pack and her jacket. She moved her hands away from her ears.
“Then make me big.”
Parni frowned. “What?”
“Make me big,” Rig said.
In slumberland, the rules of the waking world did not apply, Rig explained. Parni could not see Rig because she believed Rig was too small. But if Parni believed, truly believed that rats could be big, big enough for her to see, big enough to escape nightmare, then it would be so.
Parni felt her body cooling down. A chill wind now blew across her. And she heard the sounds of animals shuffling in the wood, shuffling toward her. They were coming fast. She could hear that. She could not run so fast. Not on her two feet. But Rig could. Rig was fast. Fast on her four feet. And if only Rig was big enough…
Before her very eyes, Parni watched a dark shape appear and rear up on its hind legs. The shape loomed over Parni.
Rig was big. Big enough for her to see and then some. The rat was the size of a large dog, or a small pony. Rig fell to all fours. Parni climbed atop the rat’s back.
Rig began to run. Parni wrapped her arms around the rat’s neck and gripped her fur in clawed hands. And still she feared she would fall off.
Rig crashed through the dark wood and back onto the path. She bounded down the forward path, not stopping until that path climbed out of the valley and over the next hill.
And soon they entered the region where Kulfi was most likely being held, the most dangerous region of slumberland, the wondrous wood.
None who entered left willingly. Dreamers typically only left because they woke suddenly. Someone shook them, or a sudden and loud sound—like the crowing of a rooster or the ringing of alarms—woke them.
For Parni, who loved sweets so much that her parents named her little sister after her favorite treat, the wondrous wood was not a regular wood with trees bearing fruits and flowers, but a confectionary wood, where apple trees bore candied apples, covered in caramel. And cherry trees bore cherries dipped in syrup and filled with whipped cream. The scents of cakes and candies wafted from every direction.
Unlike the maze of recurrence, Parni could see Rig in the wondrous wood, because she wanted Rig to be there, experiencing the wonder with her.
An irresistible temptation was the wondrous wood, granting to the dreamer all that the dreamer desired.
Had Parni come to the wondrous wood first, she would have succumbed to its charms. But the scent of cherries was abhorrent to her in that place now. The cooing of babes was easy to ignore when her companion told her it was not her sister. And in the humble dipping of branch toward her offering an apple dripping with caramel, Parni sensed a sinister smile.
She resisted the wondrous wood.
She resisted all the way to candied castle.
Parni and Rig met no resistance on their way to the castle and through its gates. They had no need to enter it the castle proper, for they found the baby Kulfi playing in the courtyard.
The Marshmallow Monarch, arrayed in soft layers of white, sat idly nearby watching the baby fondly.
“That baby is my sister,” Parni said, careful not to reveal her name or her sister’s name. “I have come to bring her home with me.”
The Monarch did not glance her way as she spoke, in a calm and airy tone, “Do you not think that she is better off with me, here?”
Parni frowned. “No, she does not belong here. She belongs with her family, with those who love her.”
The Monarch sighed fondly. “I love her.”
Parni raised her brows. She had not expected such a response.
“What wonders can you promise her?” the Monarch asked, her gaze still fixed on Kulfi.
Parni did not answer.
“She will grow older here, as she would in the waking world,” the Monarch said. “But here, she will only grow until she decides she wants to stop. And she will stop. And when she wants to grow up a little more, she will. She would have no such choice in the waking world.”
Again, Parni did not know how to answer.
“What about the valley of nightmares?” Parni said at last. “That is not so wondrous.”
“If she so chooses, she need never step foot in a nightmare.”
“Her body will thirst,” Parni said, remembering her own struggle. “It will starve, long before she grows up.”
The Monarch shook her head. “Not so. She is young enough that she can draw her sustenance from our food. Unlike you. You are already too old. Soon you won’t even be able to see us with your waking eyes. You will have to sleep to dream, like all the grown folk.”
Parni took a step toward the Monarch. “She needs her mother and her father.”
The Monarch waved a white kerchief she held in her hand. “I will be her mother and father. Better than mother and father.”
“She needs her sister.”
“She is young enough. She will forget you.”
Parni glanced at the baby playing with a pile of marshmallows, oblivious to the presence of her older sister. Parni winced.
“Can you ensure that she would suffer no harm, no pain, no torment in the waking world?” the Monarch asked.
“Of course not.”
“Why then, do you want her to return? Do you not love her? Do you not wish to protect her from the horrors of the waking world?”
Parni glared at the Monarch. “Of course I do. I love her with all my heart.”
“You could not even protect her from me, and I am as harmless an enemy as you will ever have.”
Parni suddenly gasped. She dropped to her knees. Her face felt cold as the heat of anger drained from it. “Please, your majesty. We need her back. I need my sister.”
“Ah, so it is not for her benefit that you seek to bring her back, but for your own.”
“Yes, yes, it is for us, and for me. For her too.”
“I can give her a sister, if she ever wants one,” the Monarch said.
Parni felt a chill at the back of her neck. The Monarch meant that she would steal another child.
“Please,” Parni said. “You cannot take someone else’s child. It isn’t right.”
At last, the Monarch looked at Parni. “I did not take her. She came to me of her own will.”
“Only because you lured her with marshmallows. It’s the treats that she came to, not you.” Parni pointed to Kulfi now, just as the baby popped a marshmallow into her mouth.
To Parni’s surprise, the Marshmallow Monarch laughed. She rose from her seat, the soft white layers of her dress and robe floating up and then down. She made her way toward Parni, who also rose from her knees. Parni glanced at Kulfi, and then at Rig, who had returned to typical rat size and was approaching the baby.
The Monarch had a pale face, not a deathly pale like the ghoul, but a light and lively pale, like…much like marshmallow. But her eyes were dark and they glinted like flints.
“You are right,” the Monarch said. She waved her kerchief. “And for that, you have earned a chance.”
The Monarch gestured for Parni to look behind herself. Parni was loathe to turn away from the Monarch, but she noted that Rig too was pointing in the same direction.
Parni turned and saw that the path she and Rig had walked to reach the castle’s courtyard had changed. The winding, twisting, zigzagging path was now replaced by a straight path, and not too far from where they stood, was the end of that path, and at the end of that path, there stood an ash tree.
“I challenge you, waker, to walk all the way to the Ash. I trust you know what it is. If you make it there, I will return that little babe to you and let you all go. But if you don’t make it, then you too will have to stay with me.”
Parni turned back around to look at the Monarch.
The Marshmallow Monarch smiled and shrugged her fluffy white shoulders. “At least you will be together here with me. And neither of you will want to for anything. You will stay in the wondrous wood, far from nightmare and mundanity.”
“It’s a trick,” Parni said. “You’ve laid some trap on the path.”
“No trick. That is the forward path and that is the Doorway Ash. But this is the wondrous wood. There is only so long you can resist it. And you have been here for quite some while now. I need no tricks.” The Monarch sighed. “Ah, but I do have a condition. You may not take your companion with you. You must walk the path alone.” She turned to glance at the baby and the rat that was now sitting nearby.
“How do I know that you will keep your word?” Parni asked.
The Monarch ruffled her shoulders as if affronted. But then she merely said that Parni had no choice.
Parni thought a moment. She asked if she might leave something of hers behind for her sister, and take something of her sister’s with her. “A remembrance,” she said. “Just in case.”
This the Monarch allowed.
Parni approached her sister. She wanted to sweep Kulfi up in her arms and run down the path. There were no guards present. And surely the Monarch could not run as fast as Parni could run, even carrying a baby. But the Monarch needed no guards. She need not move. The entire wondrous wood was her realm. She had conjured forth the forward path and the ash. Or she had revealed it. She could just as easily conceal the path.
Parni knew nothing about this Monarch. She had heard no particular stories about the Monarch. Her best choice at present was to hope that the Monarch was sincere and honest. Or at least in such dire need of amusement that she had given Parni a true chance to return home.
Parni smiled down at her sister, who looked up at her, and offered her a marshmallow. Parni took it, kissed the top of her sister’s head, and removed the black-corded necklace that served as ward against evil. Parni hoped that wearing it would help her see past any illusions she might encounter on the path and help her keep walking forward.
Her sister was already in danger, so the ward wasn’t doing the baby any good, and since Rig couldn’t come with her, she assigned Rig to be the baby’s ward against evil. So Rig was what she truly left for her sister, but she also took off a bangle that her mother made her wear, and she slipped it over her sister’s arm. The baby immediately took it off and put it in her mouth. Parni whispered a few last words to her sister.
Parni then started on the path. She touched the ward she had taken from her sister. It was tight around her neck, having been made for a baby. She kept her eyes ahead, on the ash tree, and she kept walking, drawing closer and closer to the tree, and at last, she reached it.
Parni turned around to see that the Monarch was holding her sister. Kulfi was half-buried in the spongy layers of white. The baby was reaching an arm out toward Parni and smiling. Parni did not see Rig.
“Congratulations!” the Monarch said. “You’re a clever one with a nimble mind. I’m impressed. You deserve a reward.”
Parni dared to hope for a moment. She drew in a breath and held it in her chest.
“I will allow you to pass through the Doorway back into your waking world. And hereafter, if you wish to see this babe, you can visit her in your dreams…the wondrous dreams anyway.”
Parni did not bother to cry foul or to accuse the Monarch of cheating. She would have cheated too if it meant she would get Kulfi back.
“May I ask one favor before I leave, your majesty?” Parni asked.
The Monarch, perhaps expecting anger and not politeness, raised a brow as if intrigued. She said nothing, so Parni continued.
“Let me call my sister to me. If Kulfi comes to me, straight to me, then let her come with me. But if she veers away from the path even once, then we both will stay.” Parni gazed at Kulfi and hoped that the sincere sorrow she felt at the thought of being separating from her sister shown on her face.
The Monarch rocked the baby back and forth. Parni kept her gaze on her sister, not daring to drop it to the ground where she perceived movement from Rig.
“Very well,” the Monarch said. “Agreed.” She bent down and set the baby on the ground.
“Now!” Parni cried. “Grow!”
And now her gaze dropped to the ground at the Monarch’s feet, where a black rat dashed toward the baby.
With each leap, the rat grew bigger and bigger.
Rig would only be able to grow big if Kulfi too believed that the rat could grow big. The words that Parni had whispered in her sister’s ear were a simple rhyme, a rhyme that she trusted her sister would understand.
Rig is big, as big as a pig.
So Rig ran past Kulfi, grabbing the infant with her tail, and racing down the path.
Parni braced herself to run out on the path and meet them halfway, to fight the monarch, or whatever minions the monarch sent their way.
But the Monarch simply laughed and said, “Well played, waker.”
When Rig reached the ash tree, Parni stepped aside so her companion could leap upon one of the ash’s glowing roots and carry her sister out of slumberland.
Parni then stepped onto the root herself, still facing the Monarch. She would not turn her back on the Marshmallow Monarch.
“I will have the babe,” the Monarch said. “That child wants to be in a magical realm. And does not belong in the mundane.”
Parni walked backwards along the root and found herself passing through a doorframe. As she walked further and further backward, the doorframe began to shrink, and her view of the Monarch and the dream realm began to fade.
Parni jumped down from the tree’s roots, and still walking backward, she called out to Rig. When the rat did not answer, she turned around. Kulfi was crawling toward a patch of daisies that were growing near the side of the road. Rig had returned to her typical size. And she did not answer when Parni tried to ask her if she could see whether they were in the waking world or still in slumberland. Parni recognized the road. But she did not trust her eyes.
Even when she walked into her town, carrying her baby sister in her arms, Parni was not sure she could trust her eyes.
She was met by tearful and elated parents. By two grandparents who noted that she had lost her pack and asked if she had used her potions. Parni had completely forgotten about those potions.
Parni was named a hero. As was her companion, Rig. Kulfi was not left alone for a moment.
On the first night they were back home, Parni returned the warding necklace to Kulfi and looked into her sister’s eye. When the baby laughed, Parni noted the twinkle in her eyes, a twinkle that had always been there.
For this baby was an enchanted child. And Parni had a feeling that the Marshmallow Monarch was right. This would not be the last time that she kept her sister from wandering into a wondrous wood.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel