“No, my love. It is cleverly constructed.”
Florisse beamed at her husband and at his construction. A great pair of wings it seemed, each wing extending almost twice the length of his arm. But Corwin had said that the contraption was not to be used for flying but for gliding. He was not the inventor of the gliding machine, just one of many tinkerers who loved to build things both mundane and wondrous.
The baby in Florisse’s arms reached one hand up toward her father. Corwin offered one of the black feathers from his gliding machine to his daughter, and she missed gripping the feather, but managed to grasp his thumb.
Florisse looked down at her daughter and spied the twinkle in the baby’s eye. Perhaps she had caught hold of what she truly wanted after all.
Baby Fawnette was not yet a year old, and as expected, she had upended the merry lives of her mother and father. Also, as expected, she had quite captured their hearts.
Whenever Florisse put the baby down, and moved her hands away, she always felt a nervous flutter in her chest. She did not want to sleep, for she wished to keep Fawnette always within her sight. She had even inquired with some apothecaries and mages in town about waking potions she might take.
“Just until she’s old enough,” Florisse would explain. But when asked how old that would be, she could not say.
She and Corwin had planned to trade shifts watching over the baby. But that plan had quickly collapsed as soon as Fawnette was born.
Florisse was exhausted from the labor of carrying and bearing their child. Corwin was exhausted from the labor of minding their trade alone, when before he had a partner.
Still, they were already planning a feast to celebrate the turning of Fawnette’s first year.
“Her legs are getting stronger,” Corwin said, after they put Fawnette down for the night. “She will be a walker, like her mother.”
Florisse grinned over at the crib where her daughter lay asleep. She put a finger to her lips to admonish her husband to keep his voice down. “Her arms are already strong,” she whispered. “She will fly, like her father.”
That night as they slept, a fog advanced from the west and rolled through their town.
The fog was gone by morning.
And so was Fawnette.
Even if we find her safe and sound, I will never forgive myself. Florisse vowed this as she watched Corwin don his boots and cloak.
The morning had been filled with screams of fright and wails of despair.
Half the households in the town had woken to find their children missing.
Rumor had already reached them of creatures in mist-colored cloaks that seeped in with the fog and snatched away the youngest children in the town.
News had already reached them of a searching and hunting party that was gathering in the town square.
Corwin planned to go with them.
He rose from his chair and moved toward the front door. But he tripped upon his own feet, and Florisse caught him as he fell.
There were tears upon his cheek.
Florisse gazed into her husband’s eyes. He too would never forgive himself, she saw.
But she had no time for tears. She would weep her hot and heavy tears once her daughter was back in her arms.
Searching for ghosts in the mist was a thin plan built upon thin hopes.
But Florisse had no time for despair. She had another plan to offer. Her plan too was built upon a thin hope, but if that hope lived, then her plan would work.
“Wait here a moment,” she said to her husband. “There is something we must try.”
She feared he would leave, desperate to start the search for their child. But when she returned from her bedchamber, he was still kneeling by the door where she had left him.
She knelt before him and held out her hands. Upon them lay what was once a pair of fine soft slippers the color of fresh butter. Now they were each torn asunder, each turned a dull gray. Corwin recognized them, of course, though they did not look the way they looked when he first met Florisse.
Seven years prior, Florisse had found those slippers by her bedside, enchanted slippers, upon whom she had made a wish. The slippers had the power to lead their wearer wherever they wished to go. Florisse had wished to be led to her true love.
And so she had been.
But as anyone who has ever made a wish knows well, wishes are tricky. Wishes are cunning.
Florisse’s wish almost became a curse—a deadly curse—before it was fulfilled.
But the wish was fulfilled, thanks to Corwin. And when it was, the slippers turned gray and tore asunder.
Florisse had tried to burn the slippers, but some enchantment must have remained in them, for they did not burn. Wary that anyone else should fall victim to them if she buried them in the forest somewhere, Florisse kept them. Perhaps too, a part of her wanted to keep the bittersweet reminder of the charm and the danger of wishes.
Ever since that time, Florisse had been wary of making wishes.
Corwin wiped his face. His eyes grew wide and Florisse could see the easy and desperate hope that sparked within them.
“They may not work,” she warned. “They may have only contained one wish.”
“But if that were so, why were you not able to destroy them?”
Florisse took a deep and weary breath. She nodded to him.
She saw on a chair at the kitchen table, and arrange the broken slippers around her feet.
Corwin glanced up her, the light of hope already fading from his eyes.
Perhaps he had forgotten how they worked.
Florisse had not.
She had to do what she had vowed not to do ever again in her life.
She had to make a wish.
She had to make a wish in the form of a command, a command to the boots to take her where her heart desired. She thought carefully about her words. If her wish worked, if the shoes still worked, then once she started walking, she would not be able to stop. The shoes would only let her rest when night fell.
That was how it went before. That was how the shoes almost killed her.
Florisse braced herself.
“Take me to my firstborn, to my daughter, Fawnette.”
She set her jaw.
The shoes began to seal themselves around her foot, and as they did, they transformed into black leather boots lined with gray wool.
Florisse leapt up from the chair, even as her heart leapt in her chest.
She readied herself to feel a burning sensation in her feet, for that was how it was before. Her feet would burn until she started walking. And they would burn if ever she stopped walking. But her feet did not burn now. She raised her right foot to take a step, and she felt some force, compelling, but not painful, like a magnet. It pulled her toward the door. She stepped outside, Corwin following. She kept walking and found that she was heading toward the east.
It was the opposite direction of where the mist ghosts—as the townsfolks were calling them—were seen going, by those few who had been awake and watching through the night.
“The search party will be heading west,” Corwin said, just as Florisse stopped.
They both looked up at the sky. It was morning. It was day. Yet the shoes did not force Florisse to keep walking.
“It would appear I can stop when I want to,” Florisse said. She nodded. “That is good. I will need my strength when we find her.”
“Perhaps we can split the search party,” Corwin said. “Half to go west and half to go east, following you.”
Florisse nodded. “Go quickly,” she said. “Though my feet do not burn with enchantment, they are burning to leave.”
Corwin ran to the town square. He tried to convince some of the people gathered there that they should follow him. But more news had come about the mist ghosts, and where they had last been seen. The children had not been seen, but that was because the ghosts hid the sounds and the sights of the children within the mist that they carried with them.
He ran back to his home, half afraid that Florisse would have left without him.
But she remained where he had left her, sitting at the kitchen table. Only now she was dressed and packed for a journey.
“You should go with the rest,” she told him. “The shoes are leading me somewhere, but they are different. Who knows if they are broken? We have a better chance of finding out daughter if we search separately.”
“No, I will not lose both my daughter and my wife in one day,” Corwin said. “I will stay with you until we find her.”
The two set out at once, traveling east.
While Corwin had gone to the town square, Florisse had tested the shoes. When first she wore them, they had obeyed her commands to turn into any kind of shoe she requested. As the terrain she traveled changed, so too did her shoes change, from boots to sandals to slippers. So too could she command them to change to brown leather, red silk, yellow satin, blue cotton.
The shoes still obeyed such commands.
As Florisse and Corwin traveled, they tried to gather information about the so-called mist ghosts, if they were creatures or people. Florisse and Corwin hoped they were people. People could do much harm to children. But if these people meant harm, they would not have taken the children. It was likely then that the children would be cared for and kept safe until they were given to other families or made to work in factories, or whatever fate the kidnappers had in mind.
Florisse and Corwin would have a chance to rescue their daughter and all the other children in their town. If it were people, then they need only find the constables of the nearest town and let them find and capture the villains. So they prayed it was people who had taken the children.
But as they drew closer and closer to an ash-fallen mountain in the eastern distance, they learned without any doubt that the mountain was where all the children of their town, and many others, had been taken.
There was no secret to it.
Towns that once were close to the mountain had emptied out once the one that people called the “fallen king” had settled within the mountain. For folks began to hear the crying of babes on the stale winds that blew down from the mountain. But no one, no warrior, no conjurer, no fury-filled mother, no one could cross the uncrossable “moat” that surrounded the mountain. Only the mist ghosts could travel safely over the desert, the swamp, and the chasm that circled the ash-fallen mountain.
Florisse and Corwin learned nothing more, no clues that could help them reach the mountain. They looked into too many hollow eyes, and heard too many hollow voices telling them to turn back and try to forget that they had ever had a child.
“Whatever the danger,” Florisse said, striding beside her husband, “we will keep walking until we can walk no more.”
“Agreed,” said Corwin.
And so it was they came upon the borders of the “moat.” A desert whose end they could not see.
Florisse led the way forward.
She took only three steps before she began to sink into the loose sands. Corwin—whose feet were still on solid ground—reached out and pulled her back.
In the time she had taken to blink twice, she had already sunk to her knees.
But Florisse would not be stopped.
“I need shoes that will bear me upon the sands without sinking,” she commanded.
She looked down at her shoes. They had been walking boots for most of the journey. She expected them to change form, to become wide sandals perhaps that would better spread her weight upon the delicate sands. But she did not feel or see the boots change in any way.
Holding Corwin’s hands in hers, Florisse took a step backwards onto the sand. When her right foot did not sink, she took a step back with her left.
She stood upon the sand without sinking. She dared to take another step. And another, releasing Corwin’s hand. He took a gasping breath.
But she did not sink.
The sand felt springy under her feet like fresh grass.
Florisse walked several yards away and back, and her shoes did not betray her. Corwin meanwhile tossed rocks into the sand and watched them vanish.
“I don’t suppose you can bear me upon your back,” Corwin said with a half-smile.
Florisse had not seen him smile since they had set out on their journey. Only three days had passed, but it seemed an infinite stretch to them both.
She shook her head. Corwin suggested she try to remove the boots and give them to him. But even if that would work, he would not be able to bear her weight for the entire crossing. And even without her weight, he would tire.
Florisse too might tire, but she would be able to walk farther than he could.
“Go back to the town, love,” Florisse said, gently. “There were a few good mages there. Perhaps you can find another way across these sands.”
She turned away from him and started walking across the desert.
Florisse’s strides were long and easy thanks to the enchanted shoes. She was not an hour into her journey when she thought she saw the sands shifting in some spots. Without warning, something shot up and out of the sand and struck her leg.
In an instant and without her command, her boots transformed, hardening and covering her leg to the knee. Florisse gasped and stumbled, but managed not to fall, as she watched some kind of desert serpent slither away and dive back under the sands.
She glanced down at her boots, uttered a silent thanks to them, and reached for the walking stick in her pack.
She used her walking stick to poke the path ahead of her from that point on, so as not to almost step on any more venomous creatures.
She made it through the desert in only a few hours, encountering many serpents hidden in the sands, but avoiding them without having to rely on her shoes, which nonetheless remained hardened and on guard.
She arrived at the swamp, which she had smelled coming before she had seen it. Or perhaps it was a bog. She had never encountered either in her life.
She was not certain what command to give her shoes. And she would not rely on them to protect her by reflex, for even if they did, she would not be reckless when her daughter was in danger.
She observed that some parts of the bog were solid, and she could walk upon them. But other parts were like pools hidden beneath mats of green moss or leaves and branches fallen from stooped over trees.
Florisse could not stride. She stepped delicately. She still used her walking stick to test the path before herself.
She kept the mountain before her, and followed the solid path.
But after an hour had passed, she noticed that the solid parts were growing smaller and thinner. She soon came to the end of the path, and her stick revealed that she was surrounded by pools of water.
She gave her shoes a command.
“I need shoes that will bear me upon the water without sinking.”
Once again, Florisse could not feel or see her shoes changing. She dipped her toe into the water, and watched her boot sink.
She pulled out her toe and frowned.
And just as she did, several yards ahead of her, something breached the surface of the water. She peered and saw some creature with a wide back, flicking its ears, and staring at her with two eyes that protruded above the water.
She glanced down at her boots.
They had protected her again. If she tramped upon the water, she would surely encounter that creature. And as languid as it now appeared, if it lived in the water, it could swim, and she guessed that it could swim faster than she could run.
But then, how will I cross the bog? she wondered.
In the distance, she saw more of those slouching trees. And a notion struck her.
She glanced down at her boots.
“I need shoes that will let me leap from tree to tree.”
She neither felt nor saw any change in her shoes.
Still, she took a breath, and having not much space to run, she only took a few steps before she crouched down and leapt in the air.
The leap was terrifying.
It was exhilarating.
Florisse feared she would overleap the tree as she began to descend, but she felt some force pressing against the boots, slowing them even more, and then she landed on a solid branch.
Florisse clutched her chest and caught her breath. Just as she began to calm, she caught herself and glanced around, looking for creatures lurking in the branches of the tree.
Seeing no other occupants of the tree, she stood and gazed ahead. She spotted another tree between herself and the mountain. This time, she merely bent at her knees, and leapt toward the next tree.
Each time she landed, she had to take a moment to slow the runaway gallop of her heart.
She longed to be walking again.
She thought about leaping into the air with her daughter in her arms. But that thought only made her heart beat faster with fear. So she brushed it aside.
And she leapt again.
Florisse at last reached the end of the bog, and stepped upon a blessed stretch of solid ground. It was a small stretch, leading to a drop into a chasm.
Though she was not hungry, Florisse made herself chew upon a roll of brown bread. She was so close to the ash-fallen mountain now that she could no longer see its top. But a constant snow of gray ash fell from above.
Florisse walked along the edge of the chasm, searching for signs of a bridge or a pass. She could not see the bottom. It was obscured by a gray mist.
She wondered if she could command her shoes to walk upon the mist. But there would be no way for her to test the shoes as she had done on the sand and the bog waters. There was no mist where she stood. She would have to drop into the chasm and trust that her shoes would not let her fall.
She wondered if she could leap the distance. But after leaping through the bog for a few hours, she had learned to judge the limits of her leaps. To leap as far as she needed, the shoes would likely take her, but she would need to leap high, so high that the air would thin and freezing cold. Already she struggled to breath. For the air was bitter with smoke.
The shoes alone did not carry her, and she alone did not carry the shoes. Both were needed.
It is not just I who must trust the shoes, she thought. They must trust me. They must trust me to give the right command.
Leaping might work, but if there were some way for the shoes to form a bridge, then she could cross.
She still did not know how she would rescue the other children that were trapped on the mountain with her daughter. But if her shoes could transform into a bridge, then she could at least bring them to the edge of the bog, perhaps even past the bog, and the desert.
“I need shoes that can bridge this chasm,” she commanded.
This time when nothing happened, Florisse was certain it was because the shoes had not—could not—obey her command.
She gazed up the mountain face, at the collar of smoke that blocked her view of the top.
Perhaps if I hold my breath…
Florisse sat down and felt her muscles drain of tautness. Her eyes wanted to slip close, but she blinked and stood up. Her feet ached.
At least they’re not burning, she thought.
And the thought reminded her of Corwin, who must have been desperate for news of his wife and his daughter.
And she thought of the last time the three of them were together, only days past.
And the thought reminded her of Corwin’s construction.
Florisse glanced down at her shoes.
“Surely, you can’t fly,” she said. “If you could, I should have commanded you to do so from the beginning. I might already have her then. What a fool I’ve been. But perhaps not. My husband is the flyer. I am the walker.”
Her shoes gave no response.
Florisse shook her head. Now was the time for grand wishes. She would pay whatever price the wish demanded…after her daughter was safe.
“I need shoes that will fly me across that chasm,” she said.
And this time…
This time the shoes began to change before her eyes.
She felt them hugging and gripping her feet from all sides. The boots grew shorter until they reached only her ankles. They turned a blue that was the color of the sky.
And each boot sprouted a pair of tiny wings at the sides.
The wings began to flutter, and Florisse rose into the air with gasp.
She bent into a crouch to test her balance.
She tried to take a step, but instead of stepping, she glided forward so far that she was now above the chasm.
Florisse cried out, and by reflex—or out of panic—she kept stepping and gliding. The wings on her feet fluttered and propelled her forth.
She reached the foot of the mountain in only a few moments.
Florisse had expected to hear the crying and wailing of children as she found her way into the mountain. But she heard nothing.
She lit a lantern she had brought with her, for the mountain cavern that she entered grew dark after only a few steps.
Her boots were still blue and winged, but the wings were still. She walked on, and her feet knew where to step.
Before too long, she encountered a strange gray mist seeping out of a tunnel, the same tunnel that her steps compelled her to enter. The mist covered her boots, but Florisse felt no chill.
“Stranger, why do you come here?”
Florisse stopped and glanced around. She saw no one in the tunnel with her. Ahead there was an opening.
But the voice she’d just heard speaking had seemed to come from close by, beside her even.
“Who speaks?” she whispered.
Something rose from the mist before her, or so it seemed, until Florisse realized that it was the mist itself that rose, first in the shape of a tall mound, which then sprouted arms and a torso, and a head with flowing misty locks.
“We do,” the mist ghost said, for it could be none other than the very creature who had borne away the children.
Florisse felt no fear of the creature. She felt no anger. She felt only calm. For the creature had not yet attacked her. In this, she felt a small hope.
“Who are you?” Florisse asked, still whispering.
“We are the chained,” the ghost said, and as it spoke, the mist parted a bit at Florisse’s feet, and she saw a chain, also made of mist, trailing from the ghost’s lower limb.
Florisse’s mind made a leap as great as the ones her feet had made in the bog.
“And how did you come to be chained? Who chained you?”
“The one who resides in this mountain?”
“The one who has taken…our children.”
“Yes,” the mist ghost said.
“Why has he taken them?” She did not want to know the answer. But she had to know if Fawnette stilled lived.
“The weeping of children sustains the spell,” the mist ghost said.
Florisse gulped. “What spell?”
“The one that weaves a wondrous world around the master.”
Florisse heard whispers then, beside her own.
Whispers in the mist.
“We are forbidden from speaking to strangers,” the mist ghost said.
“Do you wish to be chained?” Florisse asked.
The whispers around her grew furious.
Florisse ignored them and watched the one ghost who had manifested before her. “You—your people—can travel across the moat, can’t you? The chasm, the bog, and the desert.”
“Yes,” the ghost said, loud enough so Florisse could hear about the whispers of protest.
Florisse looked down at her boots.
“I need a shoe that can break the chain of mist that binds this being,” she said, gesturing to the mist ghost.
Her winged boots transformed into thick-soled sandals the color of fire. Before she could ask, the ghost parted the mist again so that Florisse could see the chain. She stepped upon it with one sandal and began to grind it into the ground. She frowned as she felt the chain squirming beneath her foot. She felt it burst, and the rest of the chain puffed away.
The whispers grew fierce.
Florisse asked the newly freed mist ghost how many children were in the mountain. She asked the ghost if the others of its kind wished to be freed, and if they would pay her back by helping her to free the children, by bearing them back to their homes.
“I would,” the ghost said. “Some others would. But most fear the master. So long as the mountain stands, the master stands. And so long as the master stands, he will re-forge the chains that bind us. And then he will be angry.”
The ghost’s misty form shuddered.
“So long as the mountain stands…” Florisse gazed down at her sandals.
She looked up at the ghost. “I will free any who want to be freed,” she said. “But only if they will agree to carry as many children back across the moat as they can bear.”
The bargain was made.
Florisse heard fear in the whispers that remained. She did not think they would warn their master, for they feared her too.
She did not want to think of what this master had done to them to make them so fearful.
The mist ghost led her and the sandals led her.
And she found the taken children.
They were scattered among a vast cavern, some lying on cots, some sitting on pillows, some leaning against stone, and some even being held by others.
All of them were weeping.
But Florisse could not hear their weeping.
The mist ghost could see where their tears and their misery went. Up above, where the master abided.
Florisse made her way to the children, who noted her presence, but seemed to show no signs of being comforted by her presence. Her gaze searched the bundles and blankets of babies.
And she found her Fawnette.
The baby was being held and rocked by a little boy of four or five years. He gave her up easily though when Florisse reached for her.
Fawnette’s faces was red and raw with tears.
Florisse held her close, and then tied the baby to her chest.
She wondered, if she were to speak words of comfort to the children in the cavern, if they would hear her.
She wondered if the master would hear her.
She had no desire to find out.
She crushed the mist chains holding dozens of ghosts. They began to carry the children out of the cavern.
“We must go quickly,” the mist ghost who was first to appear said. “I can bear your child away. But alas, I cannot bear grown folk. You will have to find your own way out, as you found you own way in.”
But Florisse clutched her baby to her heart.
“Thank you, friend, but I will bear her away myself.”
The ghost paused, then said, “You have named me ‘friend.’ I must then do my duty to you.” The ghost vanished.
Florisse longed to take her daughter away from the mountain, before its master, the fallen king, woke and rained his wrath on them. But she could not leave until all the children were borne away.
There were so many of them, dozens upon dozens. And so few of the mist ghosts who had been brave enough to accept her bargain.
But suddenly, there appeared before her several new ghosts, still chained. Her friend ghost had brought them, and more appeared behind them, and more behind them.
They lined up their chains so that Florisse could run across them, shattering them with one sprint.
Her friend ghost was sweeping through the mountain, convincing all the ghosts to be freed and to then free the children, and flee the mountain.
The master of the mountain was a master of mist. But he could not reach all of them at once. If some were re-captured, the others could find some way to defeat him.
With more and more ghosts freed, more children were borne away.
Soon the cavern was empty, and Florisse fled as she felt a shifting in the mountain.
“He is waking,” her friend ghost said.
When they reached the cavern mouth, the base of the mountain was covered in mist. The ghosts had created the paths they needed to travel.
Florisse needed only to summon her winged boots and fly away with Fawnette.
But she turned toward the mountain.
“I’m not certain if this will work, but we must try.” She looked down at her boots.
“I need shoes that can bring down this mountain.”
To her surprise, her sandals transformed into a pair of soft golden slippers. She glanced at the base of the mountain and spotted a gleam of gold.
The slippers felt so light that her feet felt bare.
And yet, Florisse drew back her foot and kicked, as hard as she could, that vein of gleaming gold. The vein cracked open and spread.
“It cannot be,” her friend ghost said, watching the crack rise up the mountain. “Can it?”
Florisse shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Rock and pebble began to slide down the mountain.
“Farewell, friend,” the ghost said. “I must stay and witness the falling of the fallen.”
“I need the winged boots,” Florisse said, and her slippers transformed in the winged blue boots.
“Come now, my darling,” she said to her daughter. “We mustn’t keep your father waiting.”
She leapt into the air, gliding across the charm. She dared to glance down at Fawnette, and saw that her baby was fast asleep.
Florisse did not bother to leap or to stride. She flew high above the misty bog and the misty desert. She did not bother to glance behind her to witness the crumbling of the mountain.
She did not stop when she reached the edge of the desert. She kept flying all the way to the last town where she and Corwin had stopped before they had been forced to separate.
Corwin stood outside the inn where they had stayed.
There was commotion in the town. A happy commotion. The remnants of mist were still dissipating.
Corwin was looking up at the sky and beaming at her.
She landed before him, her boots transforming into walking boots once again.
With her arms wrapped around her daughter, she walked into her husband’s arms. But a hand suddenly popped out of the bundle she bore and pulled at her bottom lip.
Florisse laughed. “As you wish,” she said, and she kissed her daughter.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel