Isle of the Fairy Ring

Digital drawing. A porcupine with an array of glowing greenish quills, facing and looking forward, seen from the right flank. The wispy shapes of yellow and purple mushrooms surround the porcupine, suggesting the shape of a ring. At top right, there floats a bright glow, surrounded by hazy pink light.

Most of the audience cleared out after the lights came back up.  Tommie collected her notes and laptop, watching them go.  One person, however, was making her way to the stage.  She had both hands in the pockets of her khaki pants as she sauntered over. 

“Doctor Leismore,” the woman said, with a nod of her head.  “Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?  About your talk?”

Tommie held back a sigh.  “Sure—I mean—no, I don’t mind.”

“Lunch?”

The woman, who introduced herself only as Lupe, walked Tommie over to a sidewalk café not too far from the hotel where the conference was being held. 

With apologies, Lupe said she’d missed the first half of Tommie’s talk, and Tommie found herself repeating the whole thing. 

As a folklorist specializing in fairy tales, Tommie had expected her first presentation at a conference to be something fairly standard.  She pictured herself having to get some help with writing in a few jokes or something to keep the audience engaged, or at least awake.  She hadn’t expected to proclaim a belief in a creature that upended the most well-known fairy tales.  She hadn’t expected to claim that this creature might have even existed outside of fairy tales, in the real world.

She hadn’t expected to be talking so much about an animal she hadn’t given much thought to before, the porcupine.

***

Tommie’s conjecture concerned the many fairy tales where a sudden growth of thorny vines encompassed a tower or a castle to protect, or more likely imprison, a young woman possessing some degree of power—a princess of surpassing beauty, say, or a sorceress.  That growth was typically attributed to a magic spell cast by an evil witch or jealous warlock.  Tommie allowed that magic and wickedness may have been involved, or not.  Either way, the wild thorny thickets that held back princes were cast out by a creature.

“Have you ever heard of the prickly vine porcupine?” Tommie asked, leaning over her plate, where a roll with a single bite in it lay abandoned.

Lupe narrowed her eyes.  “I can honestly say I haven’t.”

“Based on some cross-referencing between old editions of printed fairy stories and natural history accounts, I think the porcupine actually existed once.  I mean, the fairy tales are exaggerations of maybe some defense mechanism this species had.”

Tommie had even gone so far as to consult experts to find out if there were any modern or extinct porcupine species who might account for the tales. 

“No leads quite yet.  But I was hoping that I would receive some funding to continue my research.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Lupe said, taking a sip of her cola.

Tommie leaned back.  “Uh oh, this is the part of the story where the academic with the wild theory is approached by the rich guy, who wants to fund the research because it’ll lead to some treasure he’s planning to steal.”

Lupe raised her brows.  “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not rich.  I do have a pretty healthy flow of funds from my employer though.  I’ve done some good work recently, and long story short, I’ve been given leeway to pursue my own project for a bit.  The one I chose led me to you.”

“That’s…wild.”

“Yeah, good timing, right?”

“No, I mean, the topic is so obscure.”

“It is?”

Tommie sighed.  “What’s your…offer?”

“You might want to sit down for this.”  Lupe grinned.

Tommie cocked her head and offered a wry smile. 

“First,” Lupe said, “I believe you’re right about the porcupine being real.”

“The one you’ve never heard of?”

“My sources call it a ‘pampinus porcupine.’”

Tommie straightened her head.  “What sources?”

“Furthermore,” Lupe continued, “I’ve identified at least one place in the world where we might even find a living specimen.”

Tommie crossed her arms and slumped back in her chair.  “If this is a prank, it’s cruel.”

Lupe shook her head, and cleared her throat.  “‘The porcupine with prickly spines that stretch into entwining vines.  By nines, by signs, let her be mine.  Let her be mine.  Let her be mine.’”

Tommie’s eyes widened slightly.  It was the verse that has set her on the path to the porcupine.  The verse that she had not included in her talk.  The one she’d stumbled across in a very, very old and obscure edition of fairy stories.

“It’s part of the spell to trap the porcupine,” Lupe said.  She took another sip of her cola. 

***

A meal and a surreal conversation later, Tommie found herself on a boat, a big boat.  And she found herself conversing with Lupe, the leader of their exploratory excursion. 

“If we were to find anything resembling the porcupine from the stories,” she said, over a casual game of cards one evening, “wouldn’t it be wrong to disturb it?” 

Lupe shrugged.  “Yes, if it’s doing fine on its own.  But if not, if it needs our help to keep going, then we’re obliged to help.”

Tommie gazed down at her cards, letting her head tip forward in a loose nod.

***

They were sailing to a cluster of fog-wreathed isles. 

“It’s an enchantment,” Lupe said with a wink, as they stood against the rails, watching the boat draw close to shore.  

They made camp on shore, out of reach of high tide and fairly close to a forest.  The plan was for an experienced party to explore deeper in the forest.  Once they found, or more likely cleared, a safe path, they would bring in Tommie and Lupe, and eventually make arrangements to sail in other experts as needed—for instance, if they found living porcupines. 

They had the okay to walk a little ways into the forest, as long as they kept within sight of the camp.  Tommie had never been on an island before.  She didn’t expect to see the kinds of trees she saw in that forest.  She’d always imagined islands as having tropical trees, with wide lush leaves.  But this forest had oaks, maples, and elm trees.

There wasn’t time to do much exploring before night fell.

Tommie woke early the next morning, clutching her thermos of coffee and pacing the edge of the forest in the chill morning.  The fog was thick, and it reached her knees.  But within an hour of sunrise, it was already rolling and fading away.  In the soil beside a lovely willow she had noticed the day before, Tommie saw a new grow of mushrooms.  Peeking through the wispy strips of remaining fog, the colors of the mushrooms were vivid, bright yellow, and deep purple speckled with white.  They had grown in the shape of a circle.

Tommie smiled. 

Charmed, she started to step inside the ring of mushrooms. 

“Stop!” someone cried, just as Tommie pulled her other leg in, and set her foot down beside the other.

Tommie gasped and turned around.  She wasn’t sure, but the voice sounded like Lupe. 

Where she expected to see beach and camp, Tommie saw trees and trees, the gnarled leafless branches of an oak, and a scattering of young lindens.  She frowned, and turned again, only to see more forest.    

Before she could do more than feel disoriented and puzzled, a hazy fog condensed beside her, solidifying into the shapes and colors of a familiar form.  Lupe appeared before her eyes, bearing a heavy pack and a heavy furrow between her brows. 

She reached toward Tommie.  “You okay?”

Tommie nodded, and she noticed that Lupe was holding a gun in her right hand.

Lupe raised her arm and fired.  A flare shot up into the air and arced down. 

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Lupe said, lowering her arm.  She shook her head.  “That was dumb.  No one in our version probably saw it.”

“What?”

Lupe grabbed Tommie’s wrist and pulled her away from the ring of mushrooms.

“Let me guess,” she said.  “You thought, ‘how cute, a fairy ring, let me step inside,’ not realizing that it’s a real fairy ring.  And we are now somewhere else.  A different version of the island we landed on.”

Tommie raised a brow.  She had just thought she’d somehow walked further into the forest than she thought she had.  “What do you mean, like a—are you saying we’re in the fairy realm?”  She laughed nervously.

Lupe glanced around.  “If that’s what you want to call it.”

“Okay, why don’t we just step back in—“

“The fairy ring is one way,” Lupe said, leaning down to unzip a smaller pack mounted to the top of her larger one.  “And I’m not pulling a prank.  We have to be careful now.  There’s a good number of dangerous things from folklore and fairy tale that we might run into here.  And I have no idea what to expect.”  She handed the smaller pack to Tommie.

Tommie set her thermos on the ground and took the small pack.  “Okay, if we can’t use the mushroom ring to find out way back to camp, then how?” Tommie asked, slinging the backpack over her shoulders.

“I can think of only one way,” Lupe said, rising.  “Finish what we started, our quest.  Find what we came to find.” 

“The porcupine?”

“Yeah, and I won’t lie.  It’s a longshot.  In our version of the world, magic is now rare, almost extinct, existing in detectable concentrations only in certain objects and places, like this place.  It’s died out altogether in people, from what I understand.  But my sources are fragmented.”

“What sources?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”  Lupe turned and started marching through the forest.

“Wait!  What if we get lost?”  Tommie glanced back at the ring of mushrooms, which seemed to be wilting, colors fading.  She reached down and picked up one of purple ones.  As she fast-walked after Lupe, she found an empty pocket on the outside of her pack, one of the rigid reinforced kind.  She slipped the mushroom into it.

“We’re already lost,” Lupe said.  “So we might as well follow that.”  She pointed down to the ground, at a trail of breadcrumbs.

***

“Did you see that?”

“Was it..?”

“Maybe.  I’m not sure.  It could have just been a beaver.”

They were walking along the shore of a stream that was starting to widen, but wasn’t yet wide or deep enough to be called a river.  They stopped for a moment when they saw that the breadcrumbs veered away from shore.  The trees were spaced thinly enough for Tommie to glimpse a little hut not too far from shore.  The hut looked abandoned.  The edges of the door were crumbling, and it was off one hinge.  What was once red and white paint on the windowsills peeked through an overgrowth of vines.  Some of the cinnamon-colored roof tiles were missing.  The ones that were still attached glinted as if they were glazed.  A breeze carried a sickly sweet odor that seemed to be coming from that hut. 

“I’m guessing we should avoid that,” Tommie said.

Lupe unzipped a pocket of her pack and pulled out an energy bar.  She handed it over.  “So we don’t get tempted.”  She suddenly shifted her gaze to glance over Tommie’s shoulder.

Tommie wanted to turn and look.  But she was pretty certain she knew what had caught Lupe’s attention.

“Something is following us,” Lupe said.

“Something?”

“I don’t know.  I’m just seeing a shape.”

“Maybe it’s just a kid,” Tommie said, “whoever left these breadcrumbs.”

“I think they’re getting closer.  We need to find some shelter, someplace we can hole up inside and get a closer look.”

“The candy house?”  Tommie glanced again at the crumbling hut through the scattering of trees.

“No, I think you were right the first time.  We should avoid it.”

They moved on, following the stream instead of the breadcrumbs now.  Tommie dared a glanced back, and she glimpsed a glow of light winking in the dark distance, hovering at about eye level.

***

“I think it’s a wolf,” Lupe said, keeping her voice low, as they walked through the trees, parallel to a dirt path they’d found several minutes past.

“Just one?”

“You want more?”

A sudden crash made them freeze in their tracks.  At the low growl that followed, Lupe whispered, “On the path.  Run!”

They leapt onto the dirt path as they heard another crash.  If it was a wolf, it was big, and it wasn’t moving lithely through the forest anymore.  It sounded more like a bear.  But whatever it was, it was openly chasing them now.

Without a word, Lupe pointed.  Tommie glimpsed another hut through the trees, even more rough-looking than the abandoned candy hut.  They veered toward it.  Lupe yanked open the door and let Tommie tumble through first.  When Lupe slammed the door closed, they were cast into darkness.  The hut had no windows.

Tommie fumbled for the flashlight that hung from her pack.  She clicked it on just before Lupe clicked on hers.  So they both saw at the same time that the hut was made of straw.

“Crap,” Lupe said.

A sudden howling wind struck the hut, rocking the whole structure back. 

They shifted their flashlights around, searching for something that might help them.  But the hut was empty.

The roof blew clean off.  Straw swirled and whipped through the hut.

“We can’t stay here,” Lupe said. 

Tommie spotted something along the back wall.  “There’s another door,” she said.  It was more of a hatch.  They would have to crawl through.

They scrambled through the hatch and crept through the trees, moving as quickly and quietly as they could.  Another gust of fierce wind sounded behind them, and a tearing and crashing followed.  Tommie didn’t look back.  She didn’t have to.  She knew the straw house was gone, utterly destroyed with a huff and a puff.

***

The wolf would know he didn’t get them.  He would find their scent again, and follow them.  So as soon as they were far enough away, they returned to the dirt road and ran for it again.

“Look, there!”  Lupe pointed, and for once, it wasn’t a hut, but a proper building, and a large one.

“It’s not made out of bricks,” Tommie said, panting. 

“It’s stone.  I’ll take it.”

It looked like a guard tower, or a watchtower, three stories tall. 

Lupe was in the lead, even though her pack was three times bigger than Tommie’s.  But she heard the low growl behind him.  She turned her head back to look.  “Keep running,” she said.

They got to the tower and burst through the wooden door.  Tommie started up the stairs as Lupe slid the door’s lock into the place.  No one responded to the commotion they were making.  The tower was as abandoned as the other buildings they’d come across.  She heard Lupe start up the steps behind her.

And she heard the smashing and splintering of wood behind her.

Tommie stopped and turned to look down.

A shape loomed at the base of the stairs.

“Keep running!” Lupe cried.

But the shape leapt up behind Lupe.  A giant clawed rose up and swiped at her back.  Lupe grunted and stumbled back a step.  The claw had snagged her pack.  She clutched the snaps at her shoulders and released them.  Lupe lurched forward as the pack came loose.

The wolf tumbled down the stairs.  Lupe started climbing again.  Tommie turned and climbed all the way to the top.  The top room had a door, a locking door. 

But the door was made of wood.

As soon as they got inside, Tommie rushed to the farthest corner, and Lupe locked the door. 

No sooner had she stepped aside did the brittle lock snap, and the door flew open. 

Tommie cringed, rolling up into a ball in the corner.  Shaking, she peeked from the edge of one eye.

Lupe dodged the swipe of a claw.  She rolled over to the open window.  The window was big enough for her to fit through.  But if she jumped, she would be falling three stories.  The room wasn’t quite empty.  But if it was a guard tower, the weapons had been removed.  Lupe grabbed a small stool from the opposite corner.  She used it to shield herself from another swipe of the massive claw.  She swung the stool at the wolf.  But the stool was too short.  She threw it, but the wolf easily swiped it aside.  The beast went low on his hind legs.  Lupe saw, and she copied the motion.  When the wolf launched himself at her, she leapt aside.  Whether by luck or skill, Lupe was fast enough to avoid the wolf. 

But the wolf was not fast enough to avoid the window.  He passed through it.  But he managed to twist his body around and catch the sides of the window with his hind limbs, and one clawed hand.

Tommie lowered her hands.  She wanted to help Lupe, but she couldn’t make herself rise.  The muscles of her legs felt like melting globs of gelatin.

The wolf was pulling himself back into the room.  Lupe glanced around for anything else she might use.  She spotted something, at the same time Tommie did.

Tommie took a breath to cry out a warning, but her breath caught.

Lupe wrapped her hands around the wheel of the wooden tool.  She lifted it and swing it around, striking the wolf’s face.  Her hand slipped off the tool, and it fell through the window. 

But the wolf slipped too.  The claws that gripped the stone scraped off, and the wolf fell through the window.

Tommie heard a distant thud as the creature struck the ground below.  At last, she found the strength to stand.

Huffing, Lupe frowned and shook her head.  “Tommie, something wasn’t right… with the wolf.”

Tommie’s eyes were wide.

“What?” Lupe said.  She glanced out of the window.  She leaned over the sill.  “I got him,” she said.  She pulled herself back into the room and turned to Tommie again.

“Lupe…that thing you used to hit him…”

“What?”  Lupe blinked slowly.

“It was a spindle.”

Lupe raised her right hand, where a needle was stuck at the base of her thumb.  She pulled it free, and a bead of blood welled up as she dropped the needle.  “Crap,” she said, as she started to fall. 

Tommie surged forward to help her down.  By the time Lupe was on the ground, her eyes had closed, and her body had gone slack.

“Lupe…Lupe!”  Tommie shook her shoulders, but Lupe didn’t stir.  “Lupe!” 

Tommie closed her own eyes.  “Think, think, think,” she said, between shallow breaths.

She tried to calm those breaths.  She failed.  “I need…help.”

“I can help.”

Tommie gasped and glanced to her left.  Hovering at the threshold of the window was a tiny spark of bright pink light.  The sparked darted closer to her.  Tommie recoiled.  The light dimmed, enough for her to make out a tiny human form.  He was about the height of Tommie’s thumb.  He was hovering in the air, but he didn’t seem to have any wings.  He was wearing a pink tunic over dark pink leggings. His shoes were white, and they curled at the toes.  He landed on Lupe’s shoulder and bowed to Tommie.

“I can help,” he repeated.  “But only if you can guess my name.”

Tommie managed to calm her breaths and her thoughts.  “It’s an enchanted sleep.” 

Sweat had sprouted on Lupe’s brow.  Tommie touched her forehead.  “She’s got a fever,” she whispered.  “How?”  She didn’t remember a mention of fever in all the stories of enchanted sleep.

But she did remember what would break the spell.

“True love’s kiss!” 

In her research, Tommie had come across some accounts of a flower, a very particular flower whose petals contained a compound that revived, and restored vigor.  But none of those accounts described the flower in any useful detail.  One said its petals were “red as heart’s blood.”  Another described the petals as “soft as a maiden’s kiss.” 

“I know where to find it,” the tiny man said.  “I’ll tell you if you guess my name.”

“Is it Rumpelstiltskin?” Tommie asked, laying Lupe’s head down, and rising to go to the window.

The tiny man laughed.  “No, but good first guess.”

She gazed down out of the window.  A dark shape lay at the base of the tower.  The dead wolf, she presumed, though she couldn’t make out where its head was, or its limbs. 

“Is it Bob?” she asked.

“No.”

“Harry?”

“No.”

“Max?  Fred?”

“No and no.”

“May I ask for clues?” Tommie said, walking toward the staircase, with a glance at Lupe.

The tiny man burst into bright glow again and leapt into the air.  “You may indeed.”

He floated beside her as she descended the stairs. 

“How many letters are in your name?”

“Nine.”

“Does it start with a vowel or a consonant?”

“Consonant.”

“And how many syllables?”

“Four.”

“And what is your name?”

“Plumerius—”  The tiny man gasped.

Despite the trembling of her heart and the jittering of her nerves, Tommie smiled.  “Your name, sir, is Plumerius.”

“Indeed, it is.”  The spark zipped ahead of Tommie.  “Maia, my dear, she guessed my name!”  He zipped down the stairs and out of view.

“Wait!” Tommie called.  She clambered down the stairs.  She stopped at the door.  She didn’t want to go out, but if she didn’t, she didn’t know what would happen to Lupe.  Maybe she would just keep sleeping, until it was safe for Tommie to go out and get true love’s kiss.  But that fever was troubling.

She peered through the splintered remnants of the door.  The forest seemed darker than it was before, even though the sky above was still bright.  She spotted a bright spark growing bigger, zooming toward her.

Plumerius darted through the broken door.

The spark dropped to the floor and dimmed.  The tiny man tumbled off the object he’d been carrying.  A single flower with five blood-red petals curving up into a cup.  He rose to his feet and flourished his hand at the flower.

“Behold!” he said.  “True love’s kiss.”

Tommie knelt down and picked the flower up.  “You’re a flower fairy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Thank you, Plumerius.”

The little fairy bowed.  The two ascended back to where Lupe lay.  Tommie closed the door and wedge some splintered pieces of wood underneath to make up for the lost lock.  She didn’t know what to do with the flower.  But now that she knew his name, Plumerius held no knowledge back.  He told her she had simply to touch the flower to Lupe’s lips, where her skin was thinnest.  The flower’s magic would seep into her blood, and battle the fever and the poison from the spindle.

Lupe didn’t suddenly wake with an innocent blink of her eyes, a tiny yawn, and a graceful flourish of her hands and arms.  She slept for hours until at last her fever broke, then she slept more, what seemed a peaceful sleep.  Tommie too was tired, but afraid to close her eyes in the crumbling castle.

She was just beginning to nod off, when she spotted Lupe stirring. 

Lupe groaned and rolled to her side, her drowsy eyes half parted.  She breathed in and out deeply a few times, before opening her eyes wider.  Her gaze settled on Plumerius, who stood before her, and bowed.

***

As they walked out of the tower, Plumerius zoomed off again, without a word.

Lupe turned to Tommie.  “Your new friend seems…flighty.”  She grinned.

Tommie shook her head.  “He helped me save your life.”

Lupe’s grin faded.  She inhaled deeply and nodded.  “Then I guess I owe you both.”

She turned to her right, looking first up at the window of the room where they had spent a harrowing night.  The air sparkled in the morning light.  Her gaze descended until it met the spot where the wolf had fallen.

Lupe approached the rumpled shape on the ground. 

“What are you doing?” Tommie said, in a furious whisper.

To Tommie’s horror, Lupe knelt down and grabbed a part of the wolf’s fur.  She lifted it as she rose. 

“I thought so,” she said.  She showed Tommie what she was holding.  The wolf’s head lolled to one side.  But Lupe had lifted it easily with one hand. 

Tommie dared to step closer.

“It’s just a pelt,” Lupe said. 

“So whoever attacked us…?”

“Was not a wolf.”

“And…they’re not dead.”  Tommie glanced around.

“Not even hurt,” Lupe said.  She pointed to some tracks in the dirt.  “Boots.  Big ones.”

“Human?”

“Looks like it.”  Lupe rolled up the wolf pelt.  She stuffed it into the shredded remnant of her pack.

Tommie frowned.  “Where did he go?  Wait a minute.  If there’s no wolf, who blew down the house of straw?”

“I don’t know.  But we need to find that porcupine, and get the hell out of here.”

***

They had been creeping through the forest for several minutes, according to Tommie’s wristwatch, trying to find the dirt path.  Tommie was close behind Lupe, keeping an eye on their rear.  So when they entered a clearing, she didn’t see what Lupe saw.  She only heard what Lupe said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Tommie leaned to the side, so she could see past the still-hulking pack on Lupe’s back.

There, in the clearing, standing beside a strangely smooth and glimmering boulder, was a porcupine.

“What do we do now?” Tommie whispered.    

“Is this the right one?” Lupe asked.

The porcupine started to trundle away.  Lupe and Tommie followed as closely as they dared, stopping when the porcupine stopped to munch on a patch of juicy-looking grass.

“Look.”  Tommie tapped Lupe on the shoulder and pointed to a nearby ring of mushrooms. 

“Thief!”

Tommie whipped around.  The voice had come from behind them.  She saw him clearly, striding toward them.  A man in a shirt of plaid, trousers belted over his shoulders, and boots tied at his ankles.  In his hands, he gripped an axe.

“Is that a huntsman?” Lupe asked.  “Crap.”

“The fairy ring,” Tommie said.  “We found the porcupine.  The ring must be our way back.”

“Worth a try.”

They jumped into the fairy ring.

“Nothing is happening,” Lupe said. 

“Thief!”  The huntsman was drawing closer.  Not bothering to run after them.  Just striding towards them.

Tommie looked at the porcupine.  “We’re in trouble.  Can you help us?”

The porcupine gazed at her, but gave no response.

Tommie looked at Lupe.  Lupe had pulled the wolf pelt out of the pack.  She was gazing down at it, her brows knit tight.

“I’m about to do something inadvisable,” Lupe said.

Tommie’s eyes went wide.  “Do you want me to stop you?”

Lupe looked up at her.  She squared her shoulders, and swept the pelt over herself, pulling the wolf head over her own head.

The transformation took hold at once, the pelt sealing itself around Lupe.  The pointed ears twitched to life.  The empty eye sockets filled with Lupe’s bright brown eyes.  The sleeping limbs snapped into action.  The wolf Lupe fell to all fours.  She swept her head toward the huntsman and growled.

Tommie stared.  “Lupe?”

The wolf turned and loped toward the huntsman.  He saw her coming and stopped, setting his feet and readying his axe.  The wolf Lupe reared on her hind legs and swiped at him with her huge claws.  The huntsman dodged and swiped at her with his axe.  Lupe dropped to all fours and rolled away.

Tommie turned again to the porcupine.

“Can you help?” 

As before, the porcupine did not respond.

“I guess I was wrong about you.”  Tommie shook her head.  “Doesn’t matter.”  She held her hands out to the porcupine.  “Stay here.”

Huntsman and wolf seemed evenly matched for the time being.  Claw and axe swiped.  Tommie caught sight of blood spattered on the nearby tree trunks.  And she feared for the wolf. 

“Plumerius!” she called.  “Please, if you’re still following, if you can hear me, I need your help.”

She glanced around, searching for the fairy’s bright pink light.  And searching for anything in the forest that might help her to help Lupe.

She scanned the forest floor for a fallen branch that might be sharp enough to stab the huntsman, or heavy enough to knock him down, but still light enough for her to swing.

Tommie spotted a familiar flower with five red petals, true love’s kiss.  She even spotted a few more fairy rings.  But the litter on the forest floor was made of only twigs and leaves. 

She glanced over at the fight only to see that the huntsman had his axe raised over the wolf Lupe.  The wolf was just rising from the ground, her back to the huntsman.

“Stop!” Tommie cried.

But the huntsman ignored her and brought his axe down on the wolf.  The wolf leapt forward, so the axe did not strike straight down.  Instead it sliced down her whole back.  Tommie screamed.  Tears filled her eyes, slid down her face.

But the wolf was still moving.  The huntsman raised his axe again.  Lupe burst out of the wolf pelt and rolled away just as the axe came down again, striking the empty pelt.  She scrambled back and rose to her feet, stumbling away as the huntsman pulled his axe from the ground and swung around.

Lupe backed away.  She winced and shook out her arms, and she kept tripping, and almost falling.  But the huntsman followed.  Her left the pelt behind for now, his focus fixed on Lupe.

Tommie gulped.  She wiped her eyes and her face, and crept toward the wolf pelt.  It was sliced down the back.  But if she put it on, she was fairly certain it would seal itself up.  She rubbed her mouth.  She picked up the pelt by the neck.

And there are the base of a nearby linden, she glimpsed a familiar flower with five red petals.

The flower could revive.  The flower could restore vigor.  The flower could not resurrect.

If the wolf was truly dead, true love’s kiss would do nothing.  But…

Tommie knelt.  A rubbery tongue lolled out of the wolf’s head.  She brushed the tongue against the petals of the flower.

It had taken hours for Lupe to revive from the spindle’s poison.  But Lupe was human.  A human without magic.

The wolf pelt started to seal itself up at once, this time without anyone inside.  The empty pelt began to fill.  Tommie heard the crackle of bone and the stretching muscle and the rushing of blood. 

The pelt was no more.

A wolf now stood before Tommie.  A wolf who’s shoulders reached above Tommie’s head.  The wolf shook off the dust of the dead enchantment.  And she turned to the huntsman.

With a single crashing leap, the wolf landed behind the huntsman.  With a second leap, she knocked him down.  Lupe ran, her limbs now as quick and agile as they were before she put on the pelt.  She dashed over to Tommie.

And they both watched as the great wolf drew in a breath.  The wolf huffed and she puffed, and she blew the huntsman down.  He tumbled into a ring of mushrooms.  The ground beneath him simmered with tiny tendrils.  And the huntsman sunk straight down into the soil.

The great wolf sniffed the ground.  Satisfied, it seemed, at her enemy’s defeat, she turned her attention back to Tommie and Lupe.

Not knowing if they should run, both knowing it would make no difference if they did, Lupe and Tommie stood where they were.

The wolf sauntered over to them.

She stopped, her ears pricking, and she peered at them.  Tommie realized that she heard something too now.  A soft rustling and crunching.

She felt movement at her feet and looked down.  Several vines were snaking forward past, around, and over her shoes.  The vines reared up and kept extending.  Tommie and Lupe turned to look behind them.

There stood the porcupine, her back turned to them, her quills growing prickly, stretching toward them, and around them, and over their heads.  Vines overlapped and twined over each other until they blocked all view of the forest and the bright but clouded sky above.  It grew dim inside the cocoon of vines. 

Tommie clicked on her flashlight.  Lupe had lost hers.  The vines went still, and the rustling stopped.

Before either of them could speak, they heard voices, voices they recognized.  And they heard the splashing of ocean waves.  Tommie breathed out and her breath fogged before her face.  She shivered.  She hadn’t felt chilly since stepping into the fairy ring.

Lupe reached out to touch the vines.  Their color was fading, and at her touch, they crumpled into the lightest puff of dust that sparkled in the air.  With the vines gone, Tommie could see where they were.  They were standing inside one of the tents of their camp, with nothing to show for their adventure, except for cuts and bruises, mostly suffered by Lupe.

With a sudden gasp, Tommie swung her pack around.  She found the rigid pocket, unzipped it, and pulled out the vivid purple mushroom with white speckles.  She held it up and looked at Lupe.

Lupe smirked.  “Thief,” she said.


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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