Part 2 of 3
By midday, they stood at the edge of a wild wood made entirely of clear glass.
The princess slid from the phooka’s back, and he was once more a young man.
“The Forest of Glass,” he said. “Some place you must go that I can not follow, but if you would heed my advice I would say now is as good as time as any to put on those boots.”
She sat down on the ground to follow the phooka’s advice, for it seemed quite good advice to follow.
“One thing more,” he said. “While in there look for two blooms you find pleasing to the eye, pluck them and bring them with you. They may prove useful before all of the tale is told.”
And with that, he promised to see her on the other side of the wood, and turning himself into an eagle, flew off. Once he had disappeared from sight, the princess made her way into the forest. Tall trees of cut glass spread their branches above her. Beneath them, brambles twisted themselves into tunnels through which she carefully slipped. Grass made of spun glass crunched loudly beneath her her boots. Every leaf and stem she passed tore at her dress.
But she paid little mind to the danger because rainbows danced all around her, sparkling on every leaf, petal and blade of grass. They turned her thoughts towards the Rainbow Prince, and she wondered if he could see her even though she could not hear his voice in the colors surrounding her.
Plucking two roses from the arching canes above, she turned them this way and that, watching as the light fell through their prism of petals. She decided then and there that after she was free from her geas she would not go back to the fairy Lagree. Instead she would set out to find her beloved, if he could be found.
She carefully removed her torn skirt, thankful that she wore two more beneath it, and wrapped the blooms. Tucking them safely in the bag of cotton, she continued on her way, finally coming out from the Forest of Glass. The phooka was waiting for her there. Mounting on his back, they headed off.
The sun was low on the horizon when the phooka stopped again. The princess slid down from his back and once again he stood beside her in the guise of a man.
“Up ahead is the Garden of Bells, though you can not yet see it,” he said. If she listened closely, she could hear a faint sound on the wind. “Once again we come to some place you must go that I can not follow. But if you would keep the madness from your mind, then you must keep the sound of the bells from your ears. The cotton in your bag should do the trick.”
“That is good advice that I shall be happy to heed, but there is a thing that I should tell you,” Fairer-than-a-Fairy said as she pulled two pinches of cotton from her bag. “After I have seen this quest through, and my geas has lifted, I plan to continue on in search of the Rainbow Prince.”
“Oh, and so I was sure you would,” said the phooka and there was laughter in his voice, “for as I have said before you are a brave girl to have weathered what you have without a tear or complaint. If that is to be your road, then one more suggestion I would make. The bells in this garden have many a virtue. So while you walk through, look for a bell that feels true to your heart. If you find one, bring it with you, for I am sure that it will be of some help, before all is said and done.”
With that he turned into a eagle once again, and flew off. The princess stuffed the cotton in her ears and continued on her way. She soon came to a garden gate, opening it she went through.
The long light of the evening glinted through out the garden on bells of every kind and size. They grew down from the trees and up from the ground in silver and gold and colored glass. Even bluebells grew here and there, whose tolling only dead men could hear. They all swayed gently, whether the breeze raced through them or not. But the tufts of cotton did their job well and she heard not a thing.
Though all were beautiful, with their delicate designs and jeweled clappers, there were none that stood out to her mind until she came to the gate at the very end of the garden. There hanging next to it was a plain brass bell. It filled her heart with such longing for a home that she had all but forgotten.
Stuffing more cotton from her bag around the clapper, she gently lifted it from its hook. She wrapped it in her second skirt and tied it tightly to her belt. Then passing through the gate, she hurried along the road to where the phooka waited for her, and away they went.
Night had already fallen by the time they reached the sandy shores of a waveless lake. The water stretched out, as still as a mirror, beneath the starry sky. A high-prowed boat, glowing with a soft pale light, sat quietly at its edge like a crescent moon come to earth.
The sand shone like silver stardust beneath the phooka’s hooves as they made their way towards the lake. He stopped just short of the water’s edge and the princess slid from his back. In a blink he was there beside her, a pumpkin-orange eyed youth once more.
“Ah, the Lake of Mirrors. And there is our boat, waiting patiently,” he said. “Fortunate, because you will have to cross it if you wish to reach the orge’s house. Happily, this time I can come with you. Fair warning though, beautiful though it may be, this water is not for gazing in to, lest you lose the whole of yourself in its reflection. So take care to keep your eyes on the horizon.”
With that warning in mind, they stepped lightly into the boat together, and it set off of its own accord.
They glided in silence across the lake, with only the stars to light their way. Their eyes they kept fixed firmly on the horizon, so as not to fall to the temptation of down into the water.
When they were almost half way across, Fairer-than-a-Fairy took out the jug of water, now near to empty, so that they might finish what was left off between them.
As she held the now empty jug, a thought came to her.
“Should I fill this with the water from here?” she wondered aloud.
“Not if it is to be for drinking, but if you had in mind for it another purpose, then perhaps it could prove useful.”
She thought that having water that could capture one in its reflection, could indeed prove useful. But how to safely fill the jug, now that was the question!
It turned out to be a question that the phooka had an answer to. Because when she voiced it, he quickly reminded her of the little hand mirror she had taken from the old fairy’s trunk.
She took it from her bodice, and turned it just so. Until the silvered water they glided across appeared in its surface. Looking only at the hand mirror, she carefully dipped the empty jug into the water, taking care not to touch it herself. When she felt she had enough, she pulled it up and corked it. Still looking away, she tore the hem of her dress to wipe the rim and all the places where the water might have touched.
“At this rate, I shall be unclothed before our quest is done!” she said. But when she looked she was glad she had, for the cloth now shined back at her as though it too was made of mirrored glass. She was careful not to look directly at it.
They landed on a rocky shore, and left the boat glowing softly on the beach behind them. When scarcely a minute later she looked back, it was no where to be seen. Although a thin moon now rose in the sky just ahead of them to light their way.
They climbed up steep paths that wound and wound through rocky crags until a cottage appeared just ahead of them. There they stopped and hid behind a huge boulder. They would need a plan if they were to get the fire and leave without the ogre using Fairer-than-a-Fairy’s bones for toothpicks. Luckily, the phooka had already thought on just such a plan.
“We need only wait,” he assured her. “Locrinos goes out most every night leaving his wife to sit at home. Although still an ogress, it is said she has a sweeter nature than her husband, and perhaps a gift may make it sweeter still. What do we have?”
They laid out all that they had from boots to bell, and decided that the roses from the Forest of Glass would be the best gift.
“They are lovely, but I don’t see why we need give her two when surely one will do,” he said.
“I am glad you think so for the colors they cast in the light remind me of my love and I can’t bring myself to part with both,” Fairer-than-a-Fairy admitted. “But one I could give up, if it will soften the ogress’s heart towards us.”
While she spoke, she broke a rose from the stem, pricking herself on a glass thorn. Three drops of blood fell on its petals turning them deep red so that they shone like garnets, even in the thin light of the crescent moon.
“Hmm, better still,” said the phooka. “But have a care to spill no more blood. We wouldn’t wish to give her ideas.” And with that, he took her finger and licked it. And just like that her skin was healed, as neat as you please.
They did not have to wait long before they saw the fearsome ogre leave the house, a sack thrown across his back. He gave his wife a kiss and left, hollering over his shoulder that he would be home before morning.
The two friends waited to make sure he was well and gone, before marching up boldly and knocking on the door.
The figure that opened it filled the doorway, but was not at all what one would expect an ogress to look like. She was buxom and quite pretty, that is if one could ignore the small horns on her head and the fearsome tusks sticking up from her lips.
They greeted her most politely, and told her that Lagree had sent them (which was the truth, after all), then showed her the darken lantern. They offered her the rose as a gift, just as they had planned, and she took great delight in it.
“Ah, mortal blood always smells the sweetest!” she sighed as she brought the garnet hued petals to her nose, gesturing for them to come in. “There is the fire, and you are welcome to it.”
A giant hearth took up a whole corner of the cottage. Across the front of it were two doors made of metal and glass. When Fairer-than-a-Fairy bent to open them, she quickly learned that the fire they hid, was of no ordinary flame. It burned with the same bright light as the sun, so that she could not look directly at it. The heat scorched her face and out of the corner of her eye, she could the figures of salamanders dancing at the edges of the flames. She knew with absolute certainty that if she were to reach her hand in, it would be burned to the bone.
While she sat back on her heels, unsure of how she was to overcome this obstacle, she heard the phooka talking to the ogress. She realized that he was telling her of the Rainbow Prince, and Fairer-than-a-Fairy’s love for him. Tears rose unbidden in her eyes, chasing themselves down her cheeks, and she was at a loss to stop them.
“Tsk, tsk, child,” the Ogress tutted. “Such a waste!” and held a bowl beneath Fairer-than-a-Fairy’s chin to catch the tears as they fell, only taking it away when it was near to brimming.
The Ogress dipped her finger in the bowl and tasted it, rolling her eyes to the heavens as though it were the most wondrous ambrosia.
“Umm, heartache and hopelessness! Such bitter tears do make the finest beer. My husband will be so happy! Such wonderful gifts you have given me, let me give you some in return.”
She handed the princess a long wand from a myrtle tree, and a small gray stone with a single band of white quartz circling its middle.
“The first will let you light the lantern if you can find a way to keep the salamanders from devouring it before you can gather the flame. The second is a wishing stone. Follow the path that continues beyond the cottage and it will bring you to a sea. When you are standing on the shore, hold the stone and make a wish, while tracing the path of quartz that circles it, then throw it into the water. It will take you to your heart’s desire.”
Fairer-than-a-Fairy took the wand and the stone from the ogress. She put the stone in her pocket and when she did so felt the hazelnuts that were in there. Taking a handful out she tossed them into the hearth. The salamanders came to play with them and while the nuts crackled and popped, she reached in with the myrtle wand. The tip lit after a moment and she was able to light the lantern with it.
With that their quest was completed. She could feel the geas fall away like a collar from her neck. They bid the ogress goodbye, wishing her well in her beer making, and headed off down the path she had told them about. It wasn’t long before they reached the sea. It stretched out in front of them, glittering beneath a blanket of stars. There they stopped and Fairer-than-a-Fairy took the wish stone from her pocket.
“You know with that stone you could return to the mortal realm, and Lagree would be none the wiser,” the phooka pointed out.
“Truly, I could, but what good would it do me without the Rainbow Prince there to share it with. I have been gone twice on seven years, and I do not even know if there is a home to return to,” she said. “And what of you my friend? It was indeed a great harm you did to me when you stole me from my home, but your friendship over these many years has been a salve to my tortured heart. You owe me nothing more, yet still you seem ready to go on with me. What is it you seek for your future?”
“I don’t know,” the phooka admitted. “I find it best to read a story straight through and not to skip to the end. So let it be what it will be. But I have to say, I like sleeping on your feet and purring in your ear.” That said, he turned himself into a cat, and leapt to her shoulder where he tickled her cheek with his whiskers.
The choice made, she traced her finger along the path of of the white quartz, and made her wish. She closed her eyes and sent the stone sailing out over the waves.
To be continued in Fairer than a Fairy Pt. 3