The Portal - Part II [Part I of this tale was published on October 17, 2014. You can read it here: http://www.jefmurray.com/blog/uncategorized/the-portal-part-1/ ]
It took the two some time to sort everything out, but it soon became clear to Wendy that, as impossible as it might seem, Rowena lived in completely different world: in a place called Ladydale, on the edges of the Blackshear forest. It was mostly rural countryside, but Rowena's father was a knight of sorts, and theirs was a prominent family in the nearby town. At least, that was the best Wendy could make of what Rowena told her.
Rowena herself seemed to be fascinated with what Wendy shared about Kentucky, and about the Village and the surrounding town. She didn't seem to know anything about automobiles, or what a print shop was, or -- and this caused a big lump to form in Wendy's throat -- or what it must be like to live on one’s own without a family.
"But how ever do you take care of yourself?! Don't you have friends there who love you?"
Wendy stared off into the autumn mist on her side of the fence. She immediately thought about the print shop owner, but other than him, no one came to mind. Wendy considered that, although she wasn’t particularly shy, she was a very quiet person, and this sometimes came across to others as unfriendliness. Her many months of living on her own had always seemed to be about movement; from one town to the next. There never had been time to make friends, and she knew next to nothing about her own family; her real family.
Wendy shook her head, and for the first time since she was a small child, she felt tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Oh dear! Oh dear! Now look what I've done!" said Rowena. And as Wendy was wiping the tears from her eyes, Rowena reached through the portal and touched her arm.
"Here, I have a handkerchief," she said, and Wendy took the soft cloth and daubed at her eyes. They sat in silence for a few moments.
"I'm sorry," said Wendy, "it's just been such a very long time since I've talked with anyone. You must think I'm very strange. I mean, you live with your mother and father and brother, and you have such a...well...such a lovely life it seems. And everything you’ve told me about Ladydale makes it sound like something right out of a fairy tale, and I do love fairy tales. I’m an orphan you see, so I’ve never really known what it’s like to have a loving family around me. Are there no orphans in Ladydale?"
"There are orphans everywhere, I think. But, in Ladydale, we try to take care of them. We have a special holiday once a year for those whose parents have been lost or who are in need of a family, for whatever reason. The whole village gathers, and we feast and play games together. And after the feast, any child in need of a home is taken in by a family, and they are raised from that day forth as a son or a daughter of that household.
“But everything here isn't perfect, Wendy. For instance, I've never had a sister, and I've always wanted one. I should love to have someone like you as a sister; someone who is strong and can take care of herself and is wise and can teach me things. I'd like that very much!"
Wendy laughed. "I’m not so sure how wise I am, but I'd like that, too. I never wanted to live alone; I’ve just never known much else.
“Nevertheless, we seem to have one big problem: I am living in one world, and you're in another one entirely, or I’m very much mistaken. And this hole in the fence is far, far too small for either of us to fit through, even if we wished!"
"Well then," said Rowena, "we'll just have to find a solution. I'm sure something can be done. I mean, I can’t imagine we’d have met in such a surpassingly strange way for no reason at all -- unless it was part of some bigger plan. Maybe this is our destiny: to find a way to either get you over to Ladydale or get me to Kentucky!”
“I think Ladydale sounds better,” said Wendy.
“Then Ladydale it will be! I'll ask father; he knows some of the King's counsellors, and even some of the wise folk who travel through our realms from lands far, far away. One of them is just bound to know something about magic portals!"
"Do you think so? Have you ever heard anyone speak of such things before in your world?"
"To be honest, no...." The two girls looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"...but...but," said Rowena, gasping for breath, "I have heard of other strange and magical things! And, come to think of it, Azarias may be able to help us!"
"Azarias? Who is he?"
"A traveler, a story-teller, and some say a very great magician. He knows every language spoken by men, and elves, and dwarves..."
"You have elves and dwarves in Ladydale?!"
"Sometimes. Don't you have them in Kentucky?"
Wendy shook her head. She glanced away from the hole in the fence and looked at the bleak landscape around her. She had always loved Shaker Village, but now its charm was dulled and muted by the grey autumn mists. "How wonderful it would be," Wendy said aloud, "to live in a world where elves and dwarves and magic were all real...."
"Oh, but Wendy...they are! They truly are!"
Wendy and Rowena made a promise to come back to the portal the next day, and then the one after that and the one after that. Soon it became nearly impossible for either of them to think of missing their visits with each other. They shared stories, admired each other’s clothes, and even shared their favorite foods: Rowena brought mead, and wild mushrooms, and ripe cheeses; Wendy brought maple-cured ham, and saltine crackers, and tuna in cans, and salsify.
The two women were temperamentally near-perfect complements, as Wendy’s quiet moodiness was lifted by Rowena’s sanguine spirits, and Rowena’s frivolity was tempered by a growing compassion and love for her new friend.
The weeks passed, and still the two met each day. And each day, Wendy’s yearning to experience Ladydale for herself and to meet other members of Rowena’s family and community grew, and her satisfaction with her own life in Harrodsburg withered. The economy in Kentucky was not good, and even though her job at the print shop seemed secure, there were many people out of work; Wendy noticed more and more people asking for handouts in the streets. She tried to be as generous as she could, especially with people that she personally knew, but there were many others she did not, and some of these frightened her.
Nevertheless, she continued her daily visits to Shaker Village, and after some weeks had passed and winter was peering over the edges of autumn, she was startled to visit the portal one evening and find Rowena there with someone else.
“This is Azarias,” said Rowena, nodding at the elderly man sitting beside her. “You remember? I told you that he might be able to help us….”
“Oh, yes, I do remember! I’m very happy to meet you, Mr. Azarias,” said Wendy.
“Just Azarias is fine, my dear,” said the old man, “and I’m delighted to finally meet you! Rowena has spoken of no one else since word of your situation reached me.” His long hair was grey, and he had a closely cropped beard. His green eyes were kindly, and he took Wendy’s hand through the portal and kissed it gently.
“But this,” he said, gazing at the portal, “this is something I’ve not seen anything in many, many ages of men.” He stroked his beard and brushed his fingertips against the stones of the portal, whispering words Wendy could not understand as he did so. Blue sparks sprang from the stones as his fingers passed over them.
“What year is it in your world?” asked Azarias, abruptly.
“2014,” said Wendy.
“Hmmm, 2014. I think that’s just before…ah, yes…that’s not good, not good at all.”
“What’s not good?”
“Let me think. Might I take hold of your hand once more, just for a moment?”
Wendy reached out her hand, and Azarias held it lightly in his own and closed his eyes. Wendy felt a curious sensation, a slight dizziness, and she saw shapes flitting through her mind, almost as if a dream was intruding upon her waking consciousness. Then Azarias released her hand and the sensation passed.
“Rowena, I will need to retrieve certain tools in order to do so, but I believe I can help you and Wendy, if that is what you both desire.”
“Do you mean you can bring Wendy to Ladydale?” asked Rowena.
“If she wishes it, yes. But this is no trivial matter, and it must be carefully considered. We can only bring her here once, and she would, thereafter, be unable to return home again. The portal, once used in this manner, would henceforth cease to be.” Azarias peered intently through the portal at Wendy. “So you see, my dear, you will need to carefully consider whether this is something you earnestly desire.”
Wendy lifted her gaze and looked around her at Shaker Village. She still loved it; but would she miss it and all of what she had known in her own world if she decided to leave? She looked back through the portal and saw Rowena’s glowing face.
“I do desire to come, but I need a little time to be sure, and to prepare myself.”
“That is as it should be, since, even if you wished to come immediately, I would still be lacking the time and tools to make it so. But….” Azarias hesitated.
Azarias glanced at Rowena and whispered something into her ear. Rowena went pale.
“Is that true?” she asked Azarias. He nodded. “Then she must come over at once! We cannot take any chances!”
“What are you both talking about?” asked Wendy. “You’re making me nervous. Is there something wrong?”
“No, my dear, nothing that can’t be managed. We have until tomorrow at the very least, and perhaps a bit longer. Do you think you can decide by then? In any event, even if you are unsure, you must meet us again here before sundown. Is that understood?”
“Well, yes, I think so. But, what’s so important about sundown?”
“Just trust Azarias, Wendy,” said Rowena. “He’s…well…he’s seen something that might happen on your side after tomorrow, and it would be best if you were here, at the portal, before then.” Rowena glanced at Azarias and he nodded back at her.
Wendy was not an anxious soul, but she remained curious, and concerned. “But, you’re sure I have until then? Is there nothing more you can tell me?”
“I would prefer not to," said Azarias. "Events in time, and especially those that involve other worlds, can so easily be disrupted by second-guessing them. If you can, dear, try to trust me. Come tomorrow before sunset, and I’ll be able to explain everything then, regardless of what you decide.”
“And do, do decide to come here and be with us!” said Rowena. “I don’t know why there seems to be no magic in your world, but there is here, and you’ll be so happy! You will be my sister, and I yours! Do come…do!”
“Thank you, dear Rowena! I do so want to…but I must be sure. I’ll be here tomorrow in any event. But if I am certain that I wish to be in your world, should I bring anything with me?”
“No, my dear, nothing other than any keepsakes you may wish to retain. Everything else you need in Ladydale will be provided to you by Rowena and her family,” said Azarias.
“Thank you. Then, there’s nothing more to say…I’ll see you both tomorrow, yes?”
“Yes, my dear. We’ll be here. Oh, just one more thing: have you a cloak? Something that you can put around you for warmth and to hide you from prying eyes? Yes? Then bring that along too. And, remember, you need to be here by sunset, whatever decision you come to.”
[to be concluded next week...]