Nym

BOOK ONE OF THE MERELLIAN SERIES

By CHRISSY LORRAINE

Copyright © 2020 Chrissy Lorraine
All rights reserved.

DEDICATION

This novel is dedicated to my children, whom I love very much. They are all grown, now, but in my heart, they will always be my babies…

CONTENTS

Acknowledgements
Chapter 1: The Ruins
Chapter 2: The Doorway
Chapter 3: Nym
Chapter 4: Return
Chapter 5: Fireside Tales & Mischief
Chapter 6: Banishment
Chapter 7: Pursuit
Chapter 8: Charmed
Chapter 9: Home
Afterword
About the Author

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would not have been able to write this book without the space and the means to write it, and so I would like to thank my mother in law, Emily Gee for providing me with life’s amenities while I was without work, as well as at every other time since we have shared a home. I would like to thank my husband, Scott, for his love and support, as well. Also, I would like to thank my friend Anita Kuhn for showing faith in me and encouraging me to take my writing seriously for the first time in adulthood.

I would also like to thank Stephen King for writing the book, On Writing, without which, none of my books ever would have made it through the first draft, as I tended to begin editing before a draft was fully written. You are a wonderful inspiration to all of us aspiring writers – thank you for your caring advice to the writing newbies out there. I would like to thank my children, my grandparents, and my family for being a source of inspiration for the content of this book, with special remembrances for my grandfather, “Papa,” on my mother’s side, and my grandmother on my father’s side on the farm in my own childhood.

The book cover artwork is by Chrissy Lorraine, as is the writing that follows.


A Nemor

In the great Northern wood where the Bumbello blows,
Lives a tribe of people that nobody knows.
The vast shady breeze of the pumpalump trees
Carries their tribe-songs throughout their leaves
They’re the bravest of warriors – hardy, but true,
And come in all colors, especially blue.
Legends abound of their fiery breath,
They know honor and courage and even face death.
They’re furry and cuddly, and lovable too,
With loyalty strong, they hold true to you.
A Nemor is generous, gentle, and kind,
A furry exterior, an intelligent mind.
But a Nemor is rare – as rare as can be,
For nobody goes to the pumpalump trees.
Shrouded in mystery, these creatures exist,
Hiding in hollows and living in mist.

~ Saoirse Fae

Chapter I:

The Ruins

A rock whizzed by Ava’s head, about the size of her fist and so close she could feel the breeze of it against her ear. She ducked quickly behind the fallen log in the grass; for several moments she did not even dare to look to see if they were getting closer. When she finally did peek one eye over the log, Ava saw her cousins standing in a huddled group a little way off with their heads put together, talking in furious whispers.

I wonder what they’re planning, she thought with a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. She knew this could not be good. She had to get away from them, but how to do so without attracting their attention?

She scooted sideways slightly in the grass on her side of the log. Watching them the whole time, she crawled, low on her belly, to the side. Lowering her head, she peered at them from around the end of the log. Then she looked off to her left.  If she could just reach those trees on the other side of the driveway, she might be safe; they weren’t very far away. She considered crawling on her belly, but that would take too long and surely, the boys would finish their plotting and be on her before she ever made it. But if she got up and ran, she would be there in less than ten seconds.

She asked herself if she dared risk it.

She decided she did.

Suddenly, she bounded up and started sprinting for the thin row of trees that lined the drive, the grass smashing under her thumping feet; the sun hot on her shoulders and head. She was halfway to the trees when her cousins realized what she was doing and started throwing the rest of their rocks at her.

All missed her.

She was like the wind.

I’m going to make it!, she thought with triumph.

She was right. Just as the last stone went flying just behind the back of her head, she entered the cool shade of the trees. She could hear shouts and running behind her and knew she was not safe for long. She had better high-tail it.

She didn’t stop, but wove in and out of the trees. She turned to her right, toward the farm-house and continued running all-out. If she could make it to the house, she would be safe. Her parents and grandparents were all there, and her cousins couldn’t hurt her in their presence. As her feet thundered up the porch steps, she heard the running footfalls of her cousins slow down and then finally stop a ways behind her in the front yard.

They, too, knew she was safe, and they gave up the chase.

Ava’s cousins, Corin, Ryley, and Marion, were visiting for the summer – a group of beastly boys twice her size. Their favorite pastime was bullying her. Other than when they were visiting, her life on the farm was fairly quiet. She did not have any interaction with other kids and stayed mostly to herself. The way her cousins treated her when they were around made her despair of ever having friends. She thought many times that maybe she was unlikable. Maybe she was weird. Maybe there was something really wrong with her that made them treat her like that.

She went into the cool house feeling dejected, her shoulders drooping. She avoided the kitchen where she knew her parents and grandparents were still sitting around their late lunch, and slowly trudged up the stairs. She turned in at the bathroom and locked the door. Through the open bathroom window, she could hear her the boys’ raucous voices carrying across the farm on the hot breeze.

She turned toward the sink and looked at her dirty shoes. She could see every speck of dirt on the toes of her sneakers, and pretended to examine them thoroughly to put off the moment when she would raise her head and face herself. But the moment could not be delayed forever. She turned her face to the mirror and shifted her eyes upward to gaze at her own reflection.

A ten-year-old girl, who was such a pale blond that her hair was almost white, looked back at her. There was dirt on her nose and freckles scattered across her cheeks. Her blue eyes looked back at her, and as she watched, the vision of the girl grew blurry as her eyes filled with tears. Now, those tears were streaming down her face, making clean tracks through the dust covering her skin.

I suck, she thought. I couldn’t even stand up to them.

Coward, she told herself harshly. Her eyes filled with anger and her face screwed up in an almost hateful expression.

She whispered it aloud, “Coward.”

She got more mad. All the anger she had felt toward her cousins was now directed at herself.

“Coward!” she said in a low but firm voice.

She glared at her reflection.

“What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you stand up for yourself? So what if there are three of them?”

But she knew why she didn’t. At first, she had tried standing up to them, two summers ago, and they had tripped her and kicked her and yelled at her. She was not big enough to stand up to three bigger boys and she knew it. But she also despised herself for it.

She knew she couldn’t tell her parents or grandparents. She had already tried that, too. They had talked to her cousins, and the next time the boys got her alone, they called her a baby, a tattletale, and a narc, and then they had chased her all over the farm; she had known as she ran that they had fully intended to pound her into the dirt and make her pay. Giving them a reason to chase and hurt her was worse than just staying to herself and trying to avoid them. So telling did nothing to help.

She was on her own.

Slowly, her self-loathing turned into despair and she dissolved into slow, deep, heartbroken sobs. She turned away from the mirror and sat down on the closed toilet lid. She buried her face in her hands and wept.

What am I to do? she thought desperately.

But no answer came.

A few days later, Ava was having a much better day – in fact, it was a wonderful day. Her cousins had gone off for two days with her parents to visit an aunt two towns over, leaving Ava with her grandparents at the farm, so Ava did not have to worry about the boys lurking around corners waiting to ambush her.

Two whole days! she thought joyously.

 She ran into the meadow behind the farm with her arms out to each side of her; her long blond braids and dress-ties flew out behind her. Her dress whipped in the summer breeze, and her boots barely touched the earth. She turned her face up to the sun and sang joyfully about the meadows, the trees, and the stream she knew lay ahead of her.

She felt uplifted by the birds in flight and within the trees; she joyfully watched the bees collecting nectar in the wild clover as she skipped through the grass. She could almost taste their honey in the air. Everything felt golden this morning.

Still singing, Ava hopped the little stream which ran through the property on the tips of her toes and thought momentarily about how sometimes she fished there with her grandfather for rainbow trout. Looking momentarily into the glistening water, her song changed to one about the silver fish in the stream, sun-filled days, and sparkling water, as she saw some of the same kind of shimmering fish they had caught in the past while crossing the stream. Her grandmother would always fry them up for dinner on the nights when they had “gone fishin.”.

Now, she ran merrily from the creek to the eastern border of huge, stately oak trees, which grew in a line that marked three sides of the farm property boundaries. When she reached the trees, she made a sharp left, heading north, and ran weaving in and out of the tree trunks on her way toward the back of the property, running a hand over the bark of each tree-trunk as she passed.

Along the way, she looked westward to see her well-loved fruit trees, which were already bearing lemons, peaches, apricots, and apples in full abundance. Sometimes, when her cousins weren’t around or when she was hiding from them, she liked to climb those trees and eat their fruit right up in their branches. On other days, she would gather raspberries in the chicken-wire raspberry house her grandparents had built twenty years before, and , she would use the fruit in making pies and jams with Nana.

She smiled to herself for a moment as she remembered the tastes of those goodies. On this day, however, she had managed to get out of the house before being sent on berry hunts or being asked to help in the kitchen. Her grandparents had given her permission to explore the forest beyond the northern oak boundary today – something that up till now had been forbidden.

Today, I’m free! Ava thought, and her heart soared and her bright blue eyes sparkled.

She was grateful that she didn’t have to be in the house, which always seemed dim and gloomy on a day offering so much sunshine.

As she reached the back of the property, she saw the familiar line of oak trees thinning out, and the big, ancient, warped, and twisted mulberry trees intermixed between the oaks. Many of them had branches that ran within a foot of the ground. These branches could be walked on like bridges, and Ava often did so.

Today, however, she used one of those branches to take a short rest. She sat down on one and leaned back, and popping a few sweet mulberries into her mouth, she enjoyed the coolness of the shade of the tree.

She thought of home – Eyrelin Farm – where she lived with her parents, Vivienne Eyrelin and Alcuin Eyrelin, and her grandparents, Nana and Papa. Ava was somewhat typical for a ten-year-old farm-girl; she had a tendency to curiosity leading her into unintentional mischief, and the high energy of youth increased her likelihood of stumbling into unlikely scrapes. Such as when she had ridden the cow, Marie, all around the farm, but had accidentally startled a skunk. Both the cow and herself had gotten sprayed and had to receive tomato juice baths. Or another time when she had been exploring another area of the farm which she had avoided up to that point because it was so brushy, and she’d gotten nettles in her cowgirl boots. For the entire excruciating walk back to the farm-house, she had been fighting tears as every movement stung and burned like mad. She couldn’t watch while her grandmother got the nettles out, but had closed her eyes against the stinging, instead. Ava knew that part of why her grandparents had suggested she explore the forest today was simply to keep her out from underfoot.

After a little while of popping berries in her mouth as she sat on the branch of the mulberry tree, she left her seat on the tree branch and headed further back into the evergreens that grew behind the mulberries, now entering into new territory, for her. The evergreens developed into a full forest within a short distance. She crossed the stream for a second time as it doubled back on itself. The borders of the stream in this shadowy place were full of mossy rocks and bordered by mossy mud, so she had to be careful not to slip. Hopping across the rocks, she landed on a trail on the other side that led her back and slightly uphill, winding deeper and deeper into darkness.

Ava was unused to the cool, shady air here, because she was usually in the sunshine when she was out-of-doors. She was unfamiliar with the pine-sappy smell that wafted into her nose as her feet broke pine needles beneath them, as none of the other trees on the property were evergreens, other than this unexplored forest behind the mulberries and the oaks. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the vastly different atmosphere and aromas of this place. Almost all the smells were new to her. The smell of pine sap, as mentioned, of course – but also the smell of moss and damp earth – not winter mud, which is different, but summer mud. Warm, humid mud. The smell of woody bark. The rather damp smell of the ferny kinds of plants which grew at the bases of the trees.

Ava had started singing again, and her singing softened and quieted to something questing and seeking as she felt that mysterious sense common to darkened forests everywhere.

“The forest sways and sunlight glistens,
as the blue-jay stops and softly listens,
the sirens sing of haunted things,
and the fairies flit about on wings…”

Summer seems far away in this shady, cool, damp place right now, she thought, looking around at the deep browns and mossy greens all around as she moved through the forest on the path. And it would be easy to imagine fairies here – there is that sense of hushed magic about it.

Without realizing it, she had let her singing trail off.

Ava continued up the inclining path ever deeper into the trees, finally coming out at the top of the rise of a hill. There, she approached large, old, moss-and-lichen-covered stones half buried in the earth. She stopped to touch one or two, finding them pleasantly cool under her fingertips. She explored the sensation of moss with her fingers; then she tried to dig one of the stones out of the ground.

It’s too big and too heavy, she thought, giving up after a few laborious moments of tugging.

She looked at her fingers, which were now scratched,  noticing that she had gotten black dirt under her jagged nails. Rubbing her hands on the skirt of her dress, she continued walking toward the ruins.

The half-buried stones came up closer together in the ground as she went on, until she reached a low wall. This rubble and low wall was all that was left of the outer-wall of what had once been a huge old stone building – something like a circular mansion or castle.

Touching the top of the low wall, Ava remembered her grandfather talking about these ruins, once. She only vaguely recalled the conversation in which she had overheard him talking about exploring some ruins in the woods. She was certain, now, that these must have been the ruins he had been referring to, seeing as they were so close at hand, just behind the farm and still on the property. She picked her way among the rocks, stones, and rubble, wondering idly how long ago Papa had been here, and what he had thought of this place when he’d seen it.

These last thoughts softly trickled away from her mind as she entered the still-standing part of the ruined structure past the outer wall.

She stood just outside the first of the higher inner-walls and gazed up to the highest point of the ruined building, which seemed to tower over the center of the ruins. There was some kind of structure there in the very middle that was huge and had a point at the top of it.

I wonder what that is, she thought.

The way the sunlight played on the stone in patches mesmerized her for a few moments, and she stood there soaking in the view and listening to birds twittering in the trees. She became aware again of the scents of the air; the cool, moist, earthy scents that were so pleasant to her that she already loved them.

Taking in the whole scene, Ava found herself very glad that her cousins didn’t know about this place. She could just imagine them trying to chase and torment her, here; she was grateful that they were not here, now, to ruin it for her, so she could enjoy it in peace.

This can be my place, she thought, excitedly.

It was an ideal spot in which to hide. Even when her cousins were visiting, if she could manage to get away from them long enough to get here before they saw which direction she had gone in, she would be safe from discovery, here.

I could just stay here all day and only come home at dinner-time, when they visit the farm, she thought. 

The first true glimmers of excitement began to stir in her mind. The mysterious feeling of the scene and the ancient sense of the ruins sparked her imagination in a way that really felt to her like adventure. Her sense of being truly alone, here, only heightened that sensation.

My secret place, she thought again, happily.

She knew that Papa knew about it, since he had been here, but she didn’t mind sharing the secret with him. She knew he would never bother her here, or pester her about going to a place he had given her permission to visit and explore.

She observed that the outer walls were worn down, leaving their stones scattered around the site like the blast ring of a bomb. Each of the walls inside the outer walls got taller as they went in, rising almost in concentric rings, each inner ring higher than the last. She could finally make out what was at the center of it. At the very center was the tallest wall and highest pointed arch. To Ava, it seemed that arch must have been the tip of the tallest doorway in the whole world.

She walked past the outer ring of stones, then started navigating slowly inward.

The view from a little way into the ruins showed her that the center rooms were still whole, although the majority of those inner rooms were roofless or had only partial roofs remaining. Each of the doorways between these rooms had a pointed arch like the tallest center doorway – only shorter – but still reaching high up into the walls. She could see several of the points of these arched doorways through large, gaping holes in the crumbling masonry, and over the tops of tumbled-down walls.

After pausing to peer deeper into the ruins, Ava continued walking through the rooms toward the center of the building and the tallest doorway, quietly humming to herself. Occasionally, as Ava navigated through the ruins, she stopped to pick a flower, or to look at some piece of wood that was lying on the floors of the rooms.

If you can call them floors, she thought cheerfully. Many of them are more grassy gardens and wildflowers, really.

She idled as she progressed inward, slowly exploring the ruins. She had come to see this crumbling old relic of a building, and she intended to take her time and memorize each room. She was not in any real hurry to reach that door at the center of the ruins; she indulged, instead, in a kind of serene wandering.

Her step was light, but slow, and her face was dreamy, as she enjoyed the way the man-made structure and nature’s reclaiming of the land had joined together to make a sort of combination of almost orderly wildness of a kind she had never seen before. She felt a happy sort of half-awe at this place – something almost religious – as she watched sunlight filter through the trees and dapple the tops of walls and patches of grass.

She stopped, occasionally, to gaze at those pale streams of sunlight that shifted with the gentle swaying of the tree boughs, and to listen to the birds without the rustle of her own footfalls to distort the sound.

As she slowly wandered ever deeper in, she was brought out of dreaming twice by unknown things glimpsed at the edge of her vision, and she stopped both times. Her instinct all summer to avoid her cousins kicked in easily, and she had to remind herself that they couldn’t be here.

Still she knew she had seen something, and she knew it had nothing to do with her cousins – that was just the fear she had been living with for weeks. No, when she stopped to think about what she actually thought she saw, she thought that she had seen an odd-shaped mythical creature lurking around a corner – a centaur or a dragon – something large with dark skin; not boy-shaped at all.

A dragon!, she thought, Not likely!

Her mind mocked the thought, even as her heart fluttered in excitement. On both occasions when she thought she saw something, she stared hard at the place she thought she had seen it. Alas, it was to no avail – whatever had been there was gone by the time her eyes shifted so that she looked directly at the area.

Getting her racing pulse under control while reminding herself that she was being silly, she continued exploring the ruins. But a few minutes after she had thought she’d seen something large at the corners of her vision for the second time, she was thrown into excitement again.

She dared not believe her eyes as she saw what looked like a fairy zipping over a distant flower across the grassy floor from her. Its gossamer wings reflected the bright sunlight in almost blinding twinkles.

Ava blinked and re-opened her eyes, but the vision of the fairy persisted.

“No way – this can’t be!” she gasped.

Chapter II:

The Doorway

Ava closed her eyes again and held them closed for a few moments, trying to settle her imagination and center herself.

What I thought were dragons or centaurs were only deer, and what I thought were fairies were only dragonflies, she told herself, firmly.

She knew her imagination was rich, and her mother had always warned her that it could carry her away if she let it.

She opened her eyes and gazed at the places where she had thought she had seen the mystical creatures.

They were gone, of course.

They were never there to begin with, she thought somewhat glumly as she let out a heavy, pent-up sigh and let her heart settle.

“Ok, take a deep breath, Ava, and get yourself under control… Enough of this nonsense – enjoy what’s here, rather than imagining what you would like to see here,” Ava muttered to herself as she continued inward.

She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, flipped her braided hair back, and tucked it behind her ear on one side out of long habit. She continued strolling along, looking at the wildflowers, the grass, and the ivy that grew up the crumbling stone faces of the walls as she tried to dampen her previous excitement and keep her head on straight.

At last she approached a doorway that was very different than the rest. It was the one she had seen at the center of the ruins from the outside. It was the highest, very tallest doorway.

It’s ridiculously enormous! Ava thought as her eyes followed the archway up and up to its final center point.

Ava had to tip her head all the way back to look at its pointed arch, and she noticed that this doorway had a steeper point than any of the other doorways.

It must be ancient, Ava thought with renewed excitement.

The archway was formed of monstrously huge blue stones stacked so expertly that there were almost no visible seams between them. The doorway was almost too huge for the building – in fact, not only was it taller than everything else in the ruins, Ava could easily see that this doorway didn’t belong with the rest of the ruins – it was very plainly quite a bit older than the ruins around it. She knew instinctively that the building had been built around it, when the blue arch had already been very old.

One way that Ava could tell this was because she could see that the stone workmanship on the surface was different – each stone in that doorway had been cut with a different tool than had been used on the rest of the ruins. Another way she could tell was that each groove and mark in the stone was blackened with age, much darker than on any of the outer doorways. There were far more marks on the stones of this doorway, too, than on those of the other doorways.

The stones of this archway had once been as smooth as glass, and they still shimmered smoothly in most places, even with all their nicks. But here and there, she could see deep pits in their shiny surfaces. What told her most of all that this doorway did not belong to the ruins was that, while the stones of the ruins were plain old granite, and rough in texture, each of the stones in the tallest center archway were of a different kind of stone altogether, like granite crossed with lapis or turquoise. The blue coloration of the stones wasn’t merely a surface color – there was a glow to them that Ava knew she would be able to see at night, had she been there at that time. She had never seen anything like them. None of the other doorways glowed.

Still standing away from the archway, and rather hesitant now about getting too close – who knew what might happen; perhaps the thing might zap her in a glowing blue arc – Ava peered, with her large blue eyes open wide so she would miss nothing, through the enormous doorway.

She could see, on the other side of the doorway, a room that didn’t have a grassy floor, but an old wooden one, still intact. Although she could sense that this room had been long abandoned like the rest of the building, this room had a different feel to it than the previous rooms. It seemed more alive, somehow; more vivid and colorful; vibrant.

Ava’s heart had begun tripping over itself at her first clear sight of the archway; now she was both excited and frightened at the thought of stepping through it. She sensed that that, just as the doorway was made of different stone than the rest of the ruins, the room on the other side wasn’t of the same structural makeup as the rest of the ruins, either – that it was different in a very basic, fundamental way that seemed rather magical.

It was something she felt emanating from the room’s essence. She couldn’t put her finger on the intangible aspect that made her feel sure of this fact; nonetheless, she was convinced in her heart that it was, indeed, a fact.

The room was magic, and she knew it the way only a child could know it – some hidden, childhood sense that people often lose as they grow up. Ava’s sense of the magic in that place was so strong that she could almost smell it.

She approached the archway with slow, hesitant steps, scared of making a sound in case something was listening for her – although she didn’t know what, or if, anything really was; or if her imagination was just going wild. There was a sense of hushed expectancy in that room that was palpable to Ava, like a fairy tale waiting to begin; or a play that had merely been paused for a moment while someone went to go fetch the next player on the stage.

Someone’s missed their cue, Ava thought, and giggled nervously.

It took almost all her strength of will to make herself stop giggling once she had begun. Her nerves were strung up as tight as a tripwire. Finally, gathering up her courage – and half bracing herself to be zapped, even though she knew that was probably just herself being silly – she stepped gingerly through the enormous archway, and into the room.

She did not get zapped.

But she did feel an instant change in the quality of the air. The atmosphere seemed thicker somehow, and more fragrant. She could smell something she couldn’t identify, but which was very pleasant – like a summery scent of jasmine. Looking around her and turning in circles, she took in the dimensions of the space.

The room was large and expansive; perhaps the largest room she had ever seen in her life. It reminded her of the cathedrals she had seen in old movies and photographs, in both size and structure. This room had the same high arched ceilings with decorated pillars running down the long, narrow length of the building that she’d seen in those other examples.

Ava realized that this room wasn’t just a room, it was the room – it was a one-roomed, complete building, in itself. On the side of the doorway, in the ruins she had just come from, there were many rooms and this room should have been squarely in the center of the ruins, but on this side of the arched doorway, this room stood alone in the open air, unenclosed by other walls.

Ava’s footsteps as she walked slowly around the room echoed softly off the high stone ceilings and back at her. Looking for the source of the effect, Ava looked upward. Along with observing the arched ceilings which created the echoes, she could see that the ceiling stones were flaking paint; she realized that there had once been elaborately painted murals there.

Ava squinted at the ceiling, trying to make out what had once been painted there. She saw that, while she might have expected murals of cherubs or angels in a real cathedral, the murals in this building had been of fairies, goblins, cyclops, fauns, centaurs, and many other creatures.

She looked for the longest time at the creatures she couldn’t make out the nature of, and after a while, she finally gave up trying to make sense of them. She saw creatures with horns, creatures with wings, creatures with four arms or six, snake-like creatures and bird-like creatures.

Looking closer at the pillars marching through the room, she saw some of the same creatures that were depicted in the ceiling murals sculpted into the stones. As she examined some of these, she became aware that there were things flying around her – tiny things.

Fairies! It wasn’t just my imagination!” She thought to herself, excitedly.

Relief filled her as she saw that they were truly real, and that she wasn’t just delusional. Looking at the fairies, she felt delight, and her heart filled with joy.

Ava stood there, mesmerized, and gazed at the small human-like creatures that flitted around her on delicate, fluttering wings. Their wings resembled varied bits of stained glass in different tints of color, and each fairy wore a tiny, dainty dress. Ava’s face was lit with a kind of innocent, childish happiness as she examined each one, whenever one came close to her.

Ava marveled at these little creatures, thinking with awe that they were both wonderful and beautiful; and yet the practical side of her knew that no one would ever believe her if she told them about these creatures. She warned herself to remember not to mention them at home.

Corin, Ryley, and Marion would never let me live it down if I went home and started talking about fairies – they give me a hard enough time as it is without handing them things to tease me about, she thought, thinking of her cousins in a very practical way for a ten-year-old. Oh, what a different world it would be, though, if fairies were commonly accepted as real creatures!

She continued to gaze dreamily at them, until, as some of the fairies zoomed closer to her, inspecting her clothing, Ava looked down and realized that she no longer looked like herself. The differences in herself were so unexpected that her heart suddenly filled with fear, vanquishing her delight.

Her now deep-violet eyes widened, and her skin broke out in goosebumps, as she stared at her arm, which had taken on a light bluish tint. She looked at her other arm – yes, that one was blue too. She picked up one of her braids and stared at it in mounting fear, not wanting to believe her eyes, and saw that her hair was no longer her natural shade of blond.

It had gone a perfect white – so very white that it had a lavender tint to it. Her fear reached its highest pitch quickly as she became overwhelmed by panic.

 What’s happening?! This isn’t me – I am no longer myself! She thought, now fully panicking. Her heart filled with terror and despair as she thought about how much her cousins would bully her now that she had turned blue. It was scary enough that she did not seem to be like herself, but when she thought of the persecution she would suffer for it, she felt as though life as she knew it was at an end.

Terror gripped her heart. She ran – ran with everything she was worth – back to the archway and her own world. It felt like an eternity, as she charged across the floor and practically flew back through the magical archway, her boots scuffing on the dusty wooden floor; her body scattering fairies in her wake. Her heart felt ablaze with fearful fire, but she managed to gain control over herself again as she was reaching the outer walls of the ruins; and there, she stopped.

Leaning against one of the stones that made up the outer wall, she panted and tried to get her thoughts together. Once her heart had slowed down a bit, she smoothed out her dress, and looked down at her arms. They were now back to their natural peachy-cream color. She took one of her braids in her hand and saw that her hair had darkened back to the correct shade of blond. She took a few deep breaths and tried to calm herself and think about what had happened.

In the room, she was one color. Outside of it, she was another. Relief washed over her.

“Not permanent!” she panted. The cool sweat of panic on her skin began to dry as she flushed with happiness.

That realization made the whole situation feel safer, and Ava’s heart slowed its racing pace some. Knowing she could return here after going through was also a safe thought. She could go home anytime she liked, and go home as herself, and no questions about turning blue would come up.

Disappointment in herself over her fear suddenly flooded in. If anyone else had been around, she might have even felt embarrassed over it.

I am having an adventure that others can only dream about – and I chickened out at the first sign of anything different? Stop being ridiculous, Ava – roll with it – enjoy it. Don’t let fear rule you. It’s a place of magic. You never know what can happen in a place like that. You don’t know the rules there. But don’t let that make you a wussy – be cautious, yes, but not afraid!

She thought of her cousins again, and the other day when she had spoken to herself in the bathroom. Was she becoming a coward? she wondered. A sense of resolution stole over her. She would do this, and she would not be a coward.

Having given herself this stern pep-talk, a wild curiosity finally overtook her, banishing all thoughts of being afraid of any of it, and she headed back up to the ruins to go through the magical archway again, walking swiftly but not quite running.

As Ava headed toward the ruins again, she thought things through, her mind racing with the possibilities of the magic she was experiencing.

The doorway, she decided, has strong magic, and leads to another place – possibly another world. Impossible, I know, but true.

Her mind boggled a little bit over that conclusion.

True! She thought again, with pure wonder.

She had no doubts whatsoever that both the place and the fairies were real – as real as that moment was real.

Ava didn’t stop walking until she reached the roofless chamber that held the giant, blue stone doorway. When she got to that room, she looked around with quiet excitement in her eyes, which had returned to their natural blue color when she had come back through to her own world.

Taking a deep breath, Ava decided to focus on keeping her mind clear; she was determined not to allow her imagination to influence her perceptions if she could help it.

She did see fairies again through the doorway; however, this time, they weren’t paying her any mind.

Well, she thought, they didn’t before, until I entered the room.

The moment had come and the thrill of excitement – and mingled fear, despite all her efforts – flushed her skin for a second time.

I can do this, and it’s going to be alright.It’s going to be alright!

And with that final thought, Ava stepped through the blue arch, into the unknown.

Chapter III:

Nym

She was looking down at her own arms as she went through this time, so that she could watch the change. She stared with fascination as the creamy-peach of her skin swirled and mixed with rich blue – the same color as the doorway! she realized – then settled into a pure, light blue tint. Picking up one of her braid ends, she inspected her now white hair, looking with sharp interest at the lavender undertones in it.

This isn’t so bad, Ava thought with the kind of resilience the young are notorious for, Alright, so I am blue – what of it? It’s actually kind of cool! She let out a little happy sound.

At the sound of her voice, the fairies fluttered and swirled around her again, imitating the sound. Ava laughed, then, and felt deliriously happy.

“You’re wonderful!” she said to the fairies, holding out a hand, palm upward.

Three fairies immediately landed on her hand and sat there twittering at her like light-voiced sparrows. After a while, Ava lowered her hand; the three fairies took to the air again.

Ava walked further into the room, now ignoring the fairies to take in more details of the room. Old wooden benches lined the walls. They were made of raw, unvarnished, naturally-colorful wood in blues and greens, golds and pinks. The aged benches had antiquated, rotting throw pillows strewn here and there on them. Everything sat under a pale layer of dust.

The floor was also unvarnished, unusually-colored wood in various hues; it, too, was covered in dust, making it appear a little bit like it was made of the same stuff as cereal marshmallows. Her feet made darkened tracks wherever she stepped. Little puffs of dust rose like tiny explosions with each step.

The walls of this room had windows of ancient stained-glass, some of the panes of which were cracked, broken, and missing pieces; the sunlight shone through the gaps in narrow, bright beams. Watching how the sunlight touched upon the dusty floor, Ava continued to feel elated. She imagined that it was an old cathedral built for King Arthur – it looked like an abandoned version of what she had imagined for him in many of her playtime stories.

Ava stood in the middle of the room.

The doorway is the oldest thing here. The ruins are newer than the doorway, and this room is newer than the ruins, even if it has been forgotten.

She turned around to look back and could still see that ancient blue archway and the stony walls behind it, as well as the grassy floors of the ruined rooms. She looked at that archway again.

Yes. That’s the oldest. Then the ruins. And even though this room has been forgotten for some time, it’s been used more recently than those ruins have – look at the throw pillows!

Ava looked at them again, and then at the peeling ceiling paint, holey windows, and the fully intact floor.

If those throw pillows were as old as the ruins, they wouldn’t just be covered in dust, they’d BE dust! And wood floors and benches and ceiling – all the wood in the ruins has rotted away, which is why the ruins are roofless. This room is definitely newer.

The fact that the room stood as a single building on this side of the doorway when it should be in the middle of a ruined mansion or castle continued to boggle Ava’s mind the most out of everything strange she had seen so far. It was a solitary structure with nothing but the open air and sunshine outside, and that was disorienting to her after her journey through the ruins, as though the world had just tilted sideways. While everything in this cathedral-like room drew Ava’s attention, her gaze was drawn repeatedly to the windows and the chunks of missing glass where the sunlight came in. She felt such wonder over the contrast between how she knew things should be versus how they actually were, that she stood in the center of that room for several moments, just staring at those windows.

Finally, Ava walked to the far end of the room from where she had entered.

At this end of the building, there was another doorway – what she suspected was the doorway to outside. This door had a rounded arch, lacking the pointed tip of all the doorways within the ruins. It was also different in that it had an actual thick, wooden door still in the jamb. The handle of the door was that of a tongue-depress and a latch. Did she dare to open that door, she wondered – a door into the unknown?

Ava’s heart began to race again as she watched her arm and hand move in slow motion – seemingly of their own volition – toward the door. She grasped the door handle, depressed the tongue, heard the faint sound of the latch letting go, and opened the door – which didn’t give much resistance to being opened, just a loud squeal.

What met her widening violet eyes on the other side of that door was simultaneously startling and wonderful.

Flowing away from the open doorway was a rolling hillside of meadow-grass in a rainbow of colors. The forest she had left surrounding the ruins at home was nowhere to be seen. At the bottom of the closest hill was a rise to another hill, and rolling rainbow meadows continued as far as Ava could see.

Ava looked up and gasped, exclaiming quietly, “The sky!”

It seemed bigger than the sky at home, and it was a pale lavender color, without a trace of blue. Yet it wasn’t sunset – the time when Earth’s sky might get close to that hue – it wasn’t even morning, which is what it had been when she had walked through the big blue doorway. Ava saw that it was afternoon, judging by the sun’s position.

Big, fat clouds were in this sky, even though it had been a cloudless day at home, and the clouds here had a faint green tint to them; not an unpleasant green, but almost a spring green. The colors of the clouds and the sky were almost complementary to each other and they popped pleasantly to Ava’s eye.

Although the differences of this place made Ava nervous, she gathered her courage and stepped through the doorway with a palpitating heart.

She walked ten steps away from the building, through thigh-deep rainbow grass, and stopped.

She turned around to look at the building from the outside. It looked as much like an old cathedral from the outside as it had from the inside, and again Ava thought of the old tales of King Arthur.

The boys tease me, saying that King Arthur didn’t really exist – that the stories were just a legend. They say I am silly to believe in them and play pretend games about them. But if King Arthur had ever truly existed, this might be just the place for him, she thought with a small smile.

The building had tall, stone walls; with dark, yet faded, multi-colored, wooden trim and arched buttresses – curved beams which helped to support the walls from the outside. The trim was shaped into designs. Ava saw little carvings within those designs of mythical creatures such as dragons and goblins, carved deeply into the wood. The roof was made of old, faded, layered, blue tiles which lay in rippling arcs. The tiles had black tarnishing, and what was possibly fungus, growing in the grooves and valleys of it.

Behind the building, there were trees, but such trees, Ava had never seen! They were nothing like the forest that surrounded the ruins. Her jaw dropped open a little bit as she stared at them. They were tall and willowy, growing in a thinner forest than the one at home, allowing in much more light. Their foliage varied in color, from deep violet, light lavender, baby blue, rich emerald, metallic gold, and ruby-red, to dazzling sapphire. Ava noticed with fascination that the leaves looked almost gemlike, transparent, shimmering, sparkling; yet rich in color-depth. All the trees had silvery-white bark, like Aspens, setting off the colors of their foliage with even more pronouncement.

As Ava stood there with her mouth half-open, staring at the magical trees, she suddenly became aware of a strange sound.

She wasn’t sure at first what it was, but it sounded to her unbelieving ears like light bird-chirping followed by equally high-pitched giggles.

What in the world is that? She thought in surprised wonder.

Curiosity won, once again, and Ava looked around herself, trying to determine the direction the sound was coming from.

Smiling in response to the happy sounds, Ava walked steadily toward the trees to find out what was there. She had only passed two trees into the thicket when she saw the creature.

Bouncing along from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, and bush to bush, was a small, fuzzy thing that strongly resembled a blue-and-cream-colored lesser panda.

It alternated between running on its two hind legs like a toddler, and bumbling on all four, furry legs. Its particular shade of blue reminded Ava of the frosting on her birthday cake from several years before. Its tail was Cheshire-like, and striped in that way, only blue instead of violet.

Ava laughed with unselfconscious abandon at its bumbling.

It stopped bouncing and giggling at the sound of her voice; standing up straight on its hind legs, it looked up at her with soft, soulful eyes. They were a deep, violet color – very like her own eye-color in this place, had she but known it.

After a moment of looking into its eyes, her heart filled with empathy; to her, it looked a bit frightened.

She got down on one knee and said in soft, sweet tones:

“Hey there, it’s alright, I’m a friend!”

She held out her hand to the creature.

“I’m Ava. Who are you?”

Ava sat down hard with surprise when the little creature actually spoke, replying, “Nym.”

Its voice was light, yet gravelly. It sounded like it was made of half-purr and half-voice. Ava’s heart went instantly gooey with affection for the creature.

He can speak! And he is so adorable! I’ve never seen anything so adorable! She thought.

Not a thought entered her head about whether or not he would like her, or whether she was weird. None of the doubting thoughts that the bullying she endured from her cousins ever even surfaced, in her shock over a talking animal.

Looking at its face, her next thought was, It’s a boy, not an “it.”

Again, no thoughts of other boys she knew even came up with this thought, either. Nym’s speech answered two questions that Ava hadn’t even known she had, until that moment. One was whether creatures here spoke and could be understood, and the other was whether she would be understood by anything that spoke and could understand language here.

Ava sat where she had plopped down on the ground, watching Nym, marveling over how different this place was than home.

I have left my own world and entered another, she thought with mixed feelings.

Mostly, what she felt was joy. She still felt that this was her place – a place far away from taunts, torments, kicks, or stone-throwing. A place where she could be herself and be okay with that. A place without fear. She loved home, her family, and the farm. But she she did not love the way her cousins treated her, and she was already falling in love with this world, as well. What she had seen so far, here, was the stuff from dreams – beautiful and magical. She thought of the great blue doorway that brought her here and marveled that it was even possible that she could be here at all.

Nym seemed to shrink a little at the silence which had followed his reply while she had been thinking and staring at him. Ava became aware of his discomfort and smiled with gentle kindness at him.

She said with bright cheer, “You are my first friend here, Nym.”

Nym’s face suddenly spread wide in an answering grin, his eyes sparkled, and he rubbed his fluffy belly exuberantly, which made Ava laugh.

A thousand questions instantly filled her head as she realized she had someone to ask who could answer them, but one question was most pressing.

With curiosity filling her face and her voice light with anticipation, she asked Nym:

“Where are we?”

“Mer-ell-ian,” he said, drawing out the word.

“Merellian?” Ava repeated wonderingly.

“Yes. World,” he said, spreading his little furry arms out around him and looking all around, as if to include everything.

Ava was shocked at this realm of knowledge in a creature so small. She was also stunned that he had known she had meant the world, and not this grove of trees or this area of the world. She wondered over this, and an interesting thought struck her.

“How do you know about worlds?! Have you ever been anywhere else?” Ava asked with ravenous curiosity.

Nym only looked at her with confusion on his small, blue, whiskery face, and didn’t reply. She wondered if he could only say small things, or if maybe it was just that he didn’t know how to tell her where he had been or what he had seen.

Maybe he hasn’t ever left his world, but still knows its name – I haven’t left Earth before, but I know what my own world is called, too, she thought.

She wondered if he knew she came from somewhere not of this world, as he had seemed to know the parameter of her question was not about the grove of trees or the area of the place, but the world itself.

She realized that her silence during thought was again making Nym uncomfortable – he started to get shifty and wrung his paws, while looking at his feet as though embarrassed at not having been able to answer her.

Ava wracked her mind for a way to comfort him and let him know that she liked him – and as she thought about this, she realized she did – she liked him very much!

It occurred to her that she had jelly beans in her pocket that she had grabbed on her way out the door of the house that morning, and she dug into the pocket of her dress and pulled some of them out. She held a few in her open palm and gently offered them to Nym.

He shuffled over slowly, slightly wary. He sniffed at her hand, and then reached out a little hand of his own with five little-clawed fingers, and gingerly took one.

Popping it into his mouth, utter delight lit his small, furry face. His pointy little nose twitched and shivered, and his eyes grew large. He took another one, and then another one, and soon, they were all gone. By the time he ate the last one, Ava had scooted slowly to the base of one of the strange trees, and Nym had crawled with utter trust into her lap.

She cuddled him there, humming softly and feeling very contented and lucky to have met such a sweet creature, and she petted his head with affection. She was glad to have a friend. Nym snuggled into the crook of her arm and relaxed there without reserve, purring under her caresses, full of trust and love. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the sound of Ava’s hummed melody.

He was so snuggly and warm, that after a while, Ava became so relaxed that her humming faded and she started to doze, half thinking sleepy thoughts about how lovely this place was, and how sweet Nym was.

Really, he looks just like a lesser panda except his color, she thought. She knew what lesser pandas looked like from the animal magazines her grandparents had on the coffee table in the farmhouse. She had pored through them dozens of times. His face has the most wonderful markings! His tail is so thick and fluffy, and he is so soft! I could cuddle him forever!

After a while, she truly dozed.

She was brought slowly back to reality by a rustling sound in the orange bushes near the base of a tree close-by. She looked up with still-groggy eyes to see a big blue-black snake rushing right at them from under the foliage.

It was going to be upon them any moment! Ava’s heart nearly leapt out of her chest with sudden fright, and she thought, It’s going to get us! Look how fast it moves!

Before Ava could get up to run and snatch Nym along with her, Nym leapt out of her lap and straight for the snake.

Even though she was still groggy from dozing, her mind flew into panic.

Nym! She thought, frantically, He’ll get hurt!

Ava, acting on protective instinct, rushed toward Nym, meaning to catch him and bring him back before he got too close to the snake, but Nym was moving too fast and escaped her.

The snake moved with agile speed, but to her surprise, Nym was even more agile than the snake. He moved so swiftly that he was almost a blur, and then he was suddenly in front of the snake, between it and Ava.

Ava’s heart sank.

I should have moved faster and stopped him – the snake is going to bite him!

The snake arched itself upward and over Nym, looking like it was about to strike.

Ava felt lightheaded with fear for the little furry creature, but there was nothing she could do, and she was helpless to look away. Her eyes were glued to the little blue panda.

With one clawed, black-fingered hand, Nym reached downward toward the ground, and the snake lowered its head – motion for motion with Nym’s hand – watching it intently, nearly mesmerized. When the snake’s head was low enough, Nym brought his other hand down on the neck of the snake with a sharp, swift motion, capturing its head and subduing it at the same time.

Ava’s jaw dropped and her eyes grew large and round. She didn’t know what she had expected, but it hadn’t been that! It had all happened so fast, it seemed to Ava. Watching Nym, her sense of safety began to reassert itself.

He’s so full of surprises! She thought, beginning to relax a bit again. The realization then hit: He just saved my life!

The snake didn’t twist and flail; incredibly, it seemed to have fallen asleep in Nym’s hands. Ava went to Nym and looked down at the sleeping snake in shock. Seeing it sleeping like that in Nym’s hands helped her heart to slow down as she saw that it really was asleep and posed no threat to them at the moment.

Nym turned to her with the snake in his hands, and said, “No hurt.”

Ava couldn’t tell if he meant that he did not intend to hurt the snake, or was making a statement about how he had stopped it from hurting her, but it soon became clear to her as she observed him.

He gently petted the snake’s sleeping head, and looked up at her. “Pretty,” he said, “Life.”

Ava did have to admit to herself that with the snake no longer a threat, it was a pretty creature, and she had to agree that life is precious. She smiled at her gentle-hearted new friend. His kindness told her volumes about him and her affection for him grew.

Nym carried it some ways off and he laid it down with gentle paws under another bush, further away from them. Fairies fluttered around him as he went, clearly approving his choice to do no harm to the snake and let it sleep off his charm. After he had laid it gently where it would sleep well, Nym trotted back to her with a furry smile.

She smiled in return and then hugged him tightly, and thanked him for saving them from the snake. Turning, hand in hand, they began walking together.

They moved closer to the front of the cathedral-like building because Ava wasn’t sure how long the snake would be asleep, nor what its mood would be like when it woke up. She didn’t want to be anywhere near it when it did. Even though having Nym with her made her feel safer, she didn’t feel as safe as she had before the snake had tried to attack.

However, she did feel safer closer to the building and away from the trees, so they went there. Ava sat down with Nym on the front steps, enjoying the sunshine, the wonderfully colorful view, and the warm breeze. The fairies were still in attendance, and fluttered around them, occasionally zipping to and fro before their eyes.

Nym snuggled close beside her on the step, leaning his head against her arm in dozy comfort as Ava held out the hand of her other arm for the fairies to land on. As they had in the cathedral-like building, so they did again, now. Three fairies landed on her palm and stood there looking at her. Ava luxuriated in the moment, her heart filling with happiness over the sweetness of holding fairies.

“My family would never believe me, if I told them about you,” Ava whispered to them.

They stood there and fluttered their wings and pressed their hands down to smooth their dresses, preening as though they fully understood her.

“Yes, you are wonderful!” Ava said softly in delight.

“Nice fairies,” said Nym sleepily.

“Yes,” Ava murmured, and lifted her hand, quickly dropping it away again, to put the fairies back into flight. One of the fairies that had been on her hand swooped down and caught the end of one of Ava’s braids, pulling it up and making Ava giggle before dropping it.

Ava leaned on the step behind her and sighed gloriously. She tilted her head back, and closed her eyes, letting the sunshine play on her face.

This place is so peaceful and beautiful, she thought happily. I could just never go home.

Then it struck her like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky…

Home! The time! She thought frantically. How long have I been here? I must get home or Papa and Nana are going to be very upset with me!

Chapter IV:

Return

Ava realized that it was impossible to tell how late it might be at home, while she was here in this place. She stood up from the steps and tried to explain to Nym that she had to go home, but he refused to leave her, or let her leave him, for that matter.

He made it very clear that he wouldn’t allow her to leave him by clinging to her leg and whimpering piteously.

He then said in a quavering little voice:

“No go! Ava stay!”

“But I must go home! My family will worry! I have to go.”

Tears filled her eyes, and she saw some in his too.

 “No leave! Take Nym! Go too! Nym be family!” he said tearfully.

She knew he was never going to let her go, and so she stopped being upset. Instead, she became glad.

She reached down and picked him up. His big, fat tears splashed on her dress as she got her hands under his furry blue arms and lifted him to her chest.

She hugged him tightly, and said, “Okay, Nym. You will come home with me, and we will stay together, no matter what happens. I already love you, you know. You’re gentle, sweet, kind, and true. You can be my family, too. After all, you did save my life!”

She cried a little for pure happiness, and determined not to be ashamed of crying even though she was no longer a baby. Holding him closely in her arms, she entered the cathedral-like building to head for home.

She thought, Mom and dad are going to flip over him. Dad might even have a heart attack – and what about Nana? Nobody lets kids have pet pandas! Maybe they will, though – if I can keep him from talking… but how?

She had no alternative. She couldn’t leave him, but she felt that she must get home, and soon. She had not forgotten her cousins.

What on earth am I going to do to keep the boys from finding out? she wondered.

She did not know, and the very thought of them treating Nym the way they treated her terrified her. No, she wouldn’t let it happen. She’d just have to find a way.

Maybe the boys will get sick and have to go home early, she thought hopefully; but even she, young as she was, knew that was an unlikely wish to be granted.

Well, it would just have to work out the way it would, and if she had to bring Nym back to Merellian to save him from the boys, she would just have to grit her teeth and do it.

Ava brought Nym through the giant blue arch to her world with some fear, for Ava was worried about the possibility that bringing Nym through the arch might kill him or have some-every-bit-as-horrible side effect, changing him in some awful way. But she needn’t have worried, the doorway worked both ways, and for creatures from both sides, human or otherwise; it didn’t kill, it merely transformed and adapted what came through for whichever world the subject was entering.

Nym made it through the portal intact, alive, and in good condition. However, there were changes. On his world’s side, he looked just like a blue-and-cream lesser panda. However, on Earth’s side of the doorway, he looked just like a normal lesser panda – including the color, now – for he was no longer blue and cream, but rather, the rich, deep, red-with-cream-markings of the Earth variety of lesser panda.

Ava lowered Nym down to the ground on the other side of the doorway for a moment and then crouched down to look over him closely. She really couldn’t tell the difference between Nym and any other lesser panda in the world, he was that exact in his features. He was a little on the small side for a lesser panda, but she could sense that he was still in his cub stage. He would grow.

She wondered how on earth she would explain her bringing him home to her family, as lesser pandas were not native to Washington state. She idly wondered, with a touch of humor, whether they would try calling the local zoo to see if one had escaped recently.

The doorway’s alterations of Nym were such a good fit for Ava’s world, even if not for her particular locale, that it made her wonder for a moment at the intelligence that the doorway might possess. She looked over her shoulder at the blue archway momentarily, squinting at it from bottom to top, then to bottom again.

I wonder who made it, she thought musingly.

Well, whatever its history, she was grateful. She knew that Nym wouldn’t scare her family half as bad in the natural red of the lesser panda than he would have if he’d stayed blue. And she was very grateful that the doorway existed, because she had met Nym, and she could already tell that they were developing a close bond. He was her first real friend, and she was overjoyed to have one.

Nym’s appearance hadn’t only changed in color from his fur being a deep blue to a deep red color; his eyes had changed from a deep-violet to a deep, rosy-brown. But everything else had stayed the same: his paws still had five fingers, and he could still walk upright as often as he could bumble on four legs.

An odd kind of pet in this place, for sure, Ava thought, and let out a silly laugh.

She shoved the thoughts of her cousins out of her mind for the time being. It would be another day and two nights before they came back to the farm. She had time to prepare.

She stood up from her crouching inspection and grinned down at him with affection.

Nym had watched her changes as she had watched his and his eyes had widened as her skin’s color changed. He had watched in stunned amazement as her eyes changed from deep violet to pale blue.

His surprise only lasted moments, however. She still smelled the same to him, and that reassured him that she was herself. After her inspection of him, Ava bent down and picked him up again, and carried him through the ruins and out into the forest toward the property of Eyrelin Farm.

As they arrived at the mulberry trees, and cleared the edge of the forest, Ava realized that it seemed to be about the same time of day as it had been when she had left. The light was still the same. Late morning sunshine lay over the open land past the trees.

Still, she decided to go home and make sure all was well there. She prayed that her family would love and accept Nym. She knew he wouldn’t be parted from her, now, and it would be disaster if her family didn’t accept him.

In the first part of their walk, she warned him not to speak in front of her family. It was hard to do this, she thought, because she didn’t want to be rude. So, she explained why.

“We don’t have talking animals here on Earth, so my family has never heard anything with fur speak, and they would freak out if you talked in front of them. They might think you were some kind of possessed creature or something. Or that they were losing their minds. But most of all, I worry about Nana and Papa. They’re elderly – that means they’re old – and hearing you talk might give them heart attacks, because it would surprise them so much. Can you try not to speak in front of them, for me?”

Nym listened to this and then nodded. He understood. “Nym no speak.” He said.

“You can still speak, just not in front of them, that’s all, ok?” she said, to make sure he understood that she didn’t want him to stop speaking altogether.

“Ok,” said Nym and smiled.

They continued walking, and she sang gently about the meadows and the trees, the stream and the blue sky, to help Nym feel comfortable as they traveled. Carrying Nym protectively like a baby, she navigated through the oaks, crossed the meadows, and crossed the stream. As they approached the house, Ava’s song fizzled out again as her heart began to pound hard in her chest.

Ava had to work hard to mentally calm herself, because she was so afraid that all would go wrong. Ava could see Nana and Papa at a distance, still in their rocking chairs on the porch, and she felt more fearful than ever. Feelings of panic rose up and overwhelmed Ava, and at the last minute, Ava realized she did not have the courage to bring Nym straight to them. She was too afraid they wouldn’t let him stay. She found herself wishing the doorway had changed him into a more suitable pet – a dog, maybe.

While they were still able to do so without having been spotted yet, Ava ducked, with Nym still in her arms, behind a bush at the corner of the house.

Walking quietly to the back porch, she softly climbed up the stairs. She opened the screen door, gently, trying to avoid its noisy screech. Opening it inch by inch, it made the quietest of groans, until she got it open enough to squeeze herself and Nym between it and the door. Then she gently turned the doorknob and snuck into the house by way of the back entryway, which led off from the kitchen. Silently, she eased the screen door back to its closed position and then the door, too.

Tiptoeing, she carried Nym up to her bedroom, and, closing her bedroom door, she then sat on the bed with Nym and tried to think of what to do. After a while, she decided that she would keep him hidden for a time from her grandparents. She didn’t know what she would do when her parents and cousins came back. She knew that it could not end well – she was not such a little girl, and not a fool; she just wanted to give herself time to think up a plan.

She rested her lips against the top of his furry head, and then raising her face just enough to free her mouth, she said, “Nym, you have to stay in here for a while.”

Nym shifted his head and looked up at her, and said, “Nym stay…”

Ava made him cozy in a soft throw blanket on her bed, and helped him snuggle into pillows.

Once he was all settled in, she said, “I have to go downstairs for a little bit, but I’ll be back, and I’ll bring you something to eat, too.”

She wondered what he could eat. He had seemed to do fine with jelly beans, but it might be too much to hope he could eat the same things humans did. Ava supposed it would have to be worked out by trial and error. She seemed to remember that pandas ate bamboo, eggs, fruit, grass, leaves, and small animals, so maybe he would do best with vegetables, chicken, fruit, eggs, and salad, she thought.

Ava had been standing and watching Nym while she thought, and Nym had started to look sleepy.

He mumbled back, again, “Nym… stay…”

Ava left her room, closing the bedroom door behind her, and headed downstairs. Sneaking out the back door the way she had snuck in, she then went around to the front of the house, acting as though she had just arrived home. She was not dishonest by nature, and she felt shame at deceiving her grandparents – she had been brought up well; but she felt that she didn’t have a choice without risking losing Nym. Her grandparents were surprised to see her back so early, and Nana said, “Back so soon, child?”

Papa asked, “Didn’t you find anything interesting in the forest? You weren’t out there nearly as long as I’d thought you’d be.”

“Oh yes,” gushed Ava, “It was wonderful!”

Then she told them all about the forest, and about everything except the magical doorway, going through it, the magical world, meeting Nym, or bringing him back with her. She felt like a complete heel in not telling them all of the truth. She was very unfamiliar with the feeling of shame that engulfed her. It was a completely different sort of shame than that she felt for not being able to stand up to her cousins, because this felt deliberate and because she respected her grandparents. She felt her face get hot and knew that she was blushing. She hoped they would dismiss it as a sunburn from romping around the farm.

“Can I go back tomorrow?” she asked, eagerly – at least feeling that this was honest – she was truly eager to return.

“Of course, dear!” answered Nana.

“Every day, if you want!” said Papa. “It is summer, after all!”

Over dinner that night, Ava had difficulty in stashing food without being observed by her grandparents, so she waited until everyone was done eating, and then she offered to clear up.

Nana was surprised at the change, and she said, “What has come over you, that you actually offer to help, all of a sudden? Who are you and what have you done with my grandaughter?”

Ava laughed and pretended it was nothing. She said, “Well, I got to thinking, and I should help more, I thought.” Which was not an outright lie, as it might seem, for she had been feeling guilty about not helping around the farm as much as she might. And now there was the added guilt that Nym would be eating their food. She needed to do something to make herself feel better about taking food for him.

Papa and Nana left her to clear up and went back out to their porch rockers to sit in the cool of the evening and watch the fireflies come out. The smell of Papa’s pipe wafted through the front screen door and into the house, carrying a hint of cherry in its scent.

Ava missed her parents, already. Soon, it would be time for Fireside Tales, which they did almost every night, gathering around a campfire outside (or in front of the fireplace when it wasn’t summer) to tell and hear stories, and there would be less stories without her parents, or Fireside Tales might even be canceled. Well, perhaps that would be a good thing, Ava realized. She wouldn’t have to try to keep Nym occupied, alone in her room, while they did Fireside Tales if it was canceled.

Ava cleared up quickly, but fumblingly. She was not used to sneaking around or doing things she might get in trouble for if she were caught, and her hands shook as she stashed a little bit of everything on a paper plate for Nym, put the rest in the refrigerator, and then put the dishes in a sink full of sudsy hot water. She had put chicken, mashed potatoes, a spinach and tomato salad without dressing, and a little fruit cocktail on the plate for Nym. Then she left the room, carrying Nym’s plate. As she left, to her frustration, a fork fell of the plate and clattered to the floor.

“Ava?” called out her grandmother from the front porch, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, Nana!” called out Ava. “I dropped…something. I’m going to my room, now.”

“Ok, dear!” Nana called back.

After the close shave, she picked up the fork, replaced it with a clean one; trembling, she carried his food up to her room.

When she came into the room, Nym was sleeping. She woke him gently and gave him the plate, which he sniffed eagerly, and then dug into with both hands.

I am going to need some wet napkins to clean him up, Ava thought, and left him alone to go get some from the bathroom where there was a paper-towel dispenser. She soaked a few paper towels under the sink and headed back.

When she got back, Nym was just finishing up, and looked immensely satisfied. He had eaten everything on the plate and seemed to be just fine with the food she had given him.

She sat down next to him on the bed, wiped him up with the wet paper-towels, put them in her wastebasket, and then snuggled him. The room was getting darker, so she turned on the bedside lamp. By the light of the lamp, she noticed one of her two closets, the door of which was open, displaying all of her dolls; which she had been collecting since early childhood. She pointed them out, one by one, to Nym, who was immensely interested in them; but after saying, “That one’s Polly, that one’s Rosa, that one’s Jack…” Nym climbed down from her bed and went over to investigate them up-close.

He sniffed them all over, lifted their arms, snuffled their dresses and yarn hair; and then, looking back over his shoulder at Ava with a half-confused, half-disgusted air, he reached out a paw and knocked Jack over.

“Not life…” he grumbled.

“No,” said Ava sadly, “they are not alive. It would be really cool if they were – or really scary – one or the other.”

Nym picked Jack up by his yarn hair and shook him, and then he tossed him. The doll landed on Diana’s lap, sideways.

“Now, you be nice to my toys,” said Ava, pretending offense.

“Why?” asked Nym, honestly bewildered.

Ava realized he may never have known what it was to have possessions – after all, he came with her without bringing a thing with him.

“Because they’re mine. You like me, right?” asked Ava.

“Nym love Ava,” Nym said begrudgingly, clearly not understanding what that had to do with anything.

“If you love me,” said Ava, “then be nice to my things.”

Nym appeared to consider this for a few moments, and then grinned, and said, “Ok. Where Nym’s things?”

Ava became even more sure that Nym had never owned anything. She wondered if collecting things, the way people did, was just something he’d never even considered doing.

“You haven’t got any yet, but you will,” said Ava.

Ava thought for a moment, because Nym looked so sad, and then she said, “You can have Jack. The doll you threw. He is yours, now.”

Nym picked up the doll again by the hair and peered into its face closely. “Mine? Nym’s?” he asked it.

“Yes, yours… Nym’s,” said Ava with a gentle smile.

Nym suddenly beamed and hugged the doll, and brought it back to the bed with him. He climbed up the side of the bed, dragging the doll up with him, which was almost half Nym’s size.

Then Nym put the doll in the pile of throw-blanket he had slept in and made the doll cozy, just as Ava had made him cozy, earlier.

“There. Comfy.” Said Nym.

“Very nice,” said Ava, grinning.

Nym scampered down again and went to explore more of Ava’s room. He went to the fish-tank that sat to the left of her bedroom window, and standing on his tiptoes, he peered in at the fish swimming there. The fish, though, were food for a small turtle that lay, sunning itself by the light of a heat-lamp, on a rock above the water-line. As Nym watched, the turtle left its sunning-rock and plunged into the water, where it then swam around, snapping at fish until it caught one.

Nym’s eyes grew large as he watched the turtle snap at and swallow the fish down its gullet in a rather slow fashion, showing a long, and rather torturous death, for the fish.

“Life eat life,” Nym said, his face expressing recognition. There was no wonder in his voice, just the tone one would use when making an idle statement. Ava could tell that this natural behavior was familiar to Nym, and that his eyes had only widened at the gruesomeness of the close-up example of it.

Ava, watched, smiling as Nym left the fish tank and headed for another corner of her room where the birdcage stood. It was too high for him to see into, so when he got underneath it, he turned around and looked back at Ava imploringly, clearly wanting a lift up to peer into the cage.

Ava rose from the bed, happy to oblige, and lifted the furry little creature up, so that he could see inside. The birds saw him and instantly began to twitter. To Ava’s utter amazement, Nym twittered back in perfect imitation of their tune and pitch.

Ava looked at him in surprise and said, “I didn’t know you could do that!”

With something like a Cheshire grin, Nym replied, “Yes. Nemors sing.”

“Nemors?” Asked Ava.

Nym pointed to his own chest with one finger, and said, “I, Nemor.”

“Oh, it’s what you are!” Ava said in delight at learning the name of his species.

“Yes. I, Nemor,” Nym repeated.

After that last statement, Ava noticed that Nym’s eyes began to droop sleepily, and he reached up his little hands to rub them.

“Ooh, you’re sleepy, Nym. I think it’s time for bed,” she said gently.

“Yes. Nemors sleep, too,” Nym said, which made Ava laugh softly.

“Of course, Nemors sleep – humans sleep, too,” said Ava.

“Hooman?” Nym asked, groggily.

Ava pointed a finger to her own chest like Nym had done, and said, “Yes. That’s what I am – a human.”

“Oh,” said Nym, too tired to say more.

Ava carried him over to the bed and laid him gently down on it. She sang to him as she tucked him in:

The day’s been long, the night is deep,
and now it’s time for you to sleep…
The stars will shiver down their light,
so you may dream and sleep so tight…

“I love you,” she whispered in his furry ear.

Nym snuggled up with Jack, the doll, in the blanket. Ava told him, “I have to go again, now, but I will be back soon.”

“K,” said Nym, becoming more drowsy.

Ava left him then, and went back downstairs for the fireside tales nightly routine her family had.

As she left, she wondered, Will he be happy here?

She very much hoped so. But she wondered, was she being selfish, taking him from his home? And what about her cousins? What would they do to Nym once they discovered him? Ava knew it would be impossible to hide Nym forever – especially from three naughty, nosy boys.

Chapter V:

Fireside Tales & Mischief

As Ava arrived at the campfire in the backyard, which was set in a great stone firepit, her grandparents came down the back porch steps to join her. They had already moved around from the front porch to the back porch, and Papa had lit the fire only a few minutes before, and then had gone back into the house to get two shawls to throw over his and Nana’s shoulders. Even though it was summer, the nights could be cool and the elderly always feel the slightest chill. There were a selection of camp chairs and hardwood chairs, two of the latter of which were rockers. Papa and Nana settled into these. Ava took one of the soft fabric camp chairs and pulled up so close to the fire that her knees became toasty at once.

Nana picked up her knitting at the same time that Papa began. Papa’s story was a tale about a boy who disappeared years before. Slowly, the realization dawned on Ava that he was talking about the big mansion or castle ruins behind their property, where she had visited today, and the boy who used to live there. The tale filled her with fright, and she wondered if it were haunted. When he was done telling his tale, Ava asked him, “How long ago was this? And did they ever find out what happened to him?”

“Oh,” Papa answered, “This must have been sixty-odd years ago, and no – no one ever did find out what became of that boy. I was just a boy, myself, when it happened – threw the whole county into an uproar. As you have seen today, the building was allowed to go to ruin and rot after that.”

“Wow,” said Ava, quietly.

Her mind was churning. She wondered who had lived there when the boy had vanished.

Was it a magician? It must have been someone who knew about magic, she reasoned, because they built their mansion around an ancient magic doorway, after all.

Nana told a tale after that, but hers did not haunt Ava the way Papa’s tale had. Nana told about a walk she took one day with Papa twenty years before. Ava told them a tale about a little girl who lived in the woods and wouldn’t see anybody, and lived on the berries, until some people found her, brought her home with them, and adopted her. She had made up her tale on the spot, and they seemed to like it alright, although there were some comments about how improbable it would be for a little girl to survive on her own like that.

After the stories were told, it was Ava’s bedtime. She kissed Nana and Papa goodnight, and then headed up to bed. Once in bed, she snuggled Nym and slept well.

Over the next day and night, Ava managed to successfully hide Nym from her grandparents. However, things soon seemed to start going wrong for Ava, and it all started with the missing cookies. Horribly, it happened on the same day her cousins came back to the farm from their aunt’s house with Ava’s parents, and Ava had already had been doing all she could do trying to keep Nym hidden from them all in her bedroom.

On the third day after Ava brought Nym home with her, all of the cookies went missing from the cookie jar. Nana and Ava’s mother, Vivienne, between the two of them, always kept the cookie-jar full with all of their baking. If it wasn’t cookies, it was scones, divinity, coconut macaroons, fudge, brownies, or whatever other goodie they had baked at the time. Everyone, of course, looked to Ava as the guilty party, even though Ava had not eaten even one, and even though she had not raided the cookie jar like that since she was a little girl.

She started to protest when confronted, but then realized that it must have been Nym, as the cousins had not been home long enough to raid the cookie jar, and if she wanted to keep Nym a secret, she would have to take the blame. So, although she felt very squeamish about it, she squared her shoulders and took it.

Her punishment was hard – no dessert for a month. Ava was not happy about this, and she went upstairs and lectured Nym about it until he got weepy and then she felt sorry for him and stopped. She then hugged him and whispered, “If you can’t behave, Nym, I’ll have to take you back to Merellian, and you won’t be able to stay here anymore. I hate the thought, and I know you do, too, but there’s nothing I can do to change the way things are right now.”

Nym whimpered, “Nym stay with Ava.”

“Well, then, you must behave…” she said softly.

“Nym will. Promise.” Said Nym, sorrowfully.

Ava, still only ten, did not consider that he might be hungrier than the food she brought him could satisfy – she had never had to consider such things, as she had never had a pet or friend whom she had ever kept hidden and had rely on her for food, before now. If there was neglect, it was entirely unknowing on her part. Still, her heart ached for him. Even she knew that it is no kind of life having to live shut up in a bedroom all the time. She hated the whole situation, and she knew it could not go on much longer.

The next thing to go wrong was the following day, when Ava was awakened in the morning by her mother, shrieking in her bathroom, “Why is there fur in my hairbrush?!”

Oh no…. thought Ava.

Over breakfast that day, it was decided that a squirrel or something had gotten in the house. Ava felt shame that she still had not worked up the nerve to tell them the truth.

“But why would it use my hairbrush?” Vivienne still wanted to know.

“Maybe it needed it,” said Ava’s father, Alcuin, laughing loudly.

Ava loved her father for that, and laughed with him – in fact, the whole table erupted in laughter over that. Ava still couldn’t shake her guilty feelings, even with the laughter. Miraculously, perhaps because Ava was spending so much time in the house with Nym in her bedroom, she had avoided being bullied by her cousins ever since they returned home. That, too, she knew, couldn’t last.

On the same day as the hairbrush discovery, Ava had a bit of a panic attack when she entered her bedroom and couldn’t find Nym. He had snuck out on his own. Ava fretted, but could not ask anyone if they had seen him, so she just kept her eyes wide open for him as she wandered through the house.

“What are you looking for, dear?” her mother asked, as she was not an unobservant woman.

“Oh, I lost something, that’s all,” answered Ava.

“Oh? Maybe I’ve seen it – what is it?” said Vivienne.

“Well,” began Ava, “It’s big and fluffy…”

“Your teddy-bear?” asked Vivienne.

Ava could tell that she hadn’t seen Nym, as there was no recognition in her face over the word, “furry,” so she answered, “Yeah. I don’t know what happened to Teddy.”

“I’ll let you know if I see him,” said Vivienne, helpfully.

Her cousins, sitting together on the couch in the front room eating popcorn and looking at comic books sniggered when Ava said the word, “Teddy,” and she heard little falsetto voices saying things like, “I miss my Teddy-wumpkins, too! Wah!”

She gritted her teeth and made ready to stride out of their range. Ava felt amazed that her mom thought that she would still care about her teddy bear like that, and was mortified that her cousins now thought she did, too. While not unobservant about some things, Vivienne did miss some of the other, more important things – signs that her little girl was growing up, and things like knowing when her daughter might be embarrassed. Ava knew she would not live down the Teddy thing with her cousins for the next few days. Thankfully, they had all been told that morning over breakfast that the cousins would be going home to their own parents soon. That day could not come soon enough, for Ava.

As Ava started to leave the area, she spotted something red out of the corner of her eye and went back to where she had been standing. Vivienne and Ava were in the hallway between the front room and the stairs, and sneaking a glance toward the kitchen, Ava spotted Nym hiding out under the kitchen table. Setting her face firmly, so her mother wouldn’t see her emotion, Ava said, “Thanks, mom,” and then flounced out of the room in the other direction.

Vivienne watched her go, her back to the kitchen.

Ava went outside through the front door, and as soon as she got around the corner of the house, out of the sight of her grandparents, she flew to the back-porch door, snuck in, went into the kitchen from the rear of the house, and seeing that Nym was still under the table, snatched him up and sprinted for her bedroom.

“Is that you, again, Ava?” called Vivienne in a way that annoyed the already frayed nerves of her daughter.

“Yes, mama!” she called back, trying to keep the exasperation at her mother’s perceptive nature out of her voice, “I just realized I forgot something in my room!”

The boys on the couch sniggered some more.

Once safely in her bedroom, she held Nym out at arm’s-length and said, “This can’t go on. I either have to show you to them or take you back to your home.”

Nym clung to her and sobbed. “No go! Nym stay! Please!!”

Ava still had not considered that he might have been sneaking out because he was bored or hungry. She had no idea what it was to be locked in a single room for days at a time, or to go hungry for most of the day every day. The fact that Nym still begged to stay, even though he was miserable with hunger and confinement, was a demonstration of his devotion to her that she would not understand the depth of, until much later, on reflection.

“Ok, Nym,” Ava said, her tone softening, “but there’s only one way to do this. I have to sneak you back outside and then bring you up like I just found you, and see if they’ll accept you. Then they won’t know I have kept you here and hidden from them. And whatever we do, we have to be careful of the cousins. They are not nice boys, and I don’t want them picking on you the way they do to me. Oh, what is going to happen?” Ava fretted and would probably wrung her hands a bit if she hadn’t seen Nym start to open his mouth in protest.

Ava clapped a gentle hand over Nym’s mouth as he wailed, “Won’t like Nym. Will make leave!”

“We have to take that chance, Nym, it’s the only way. This can’t go on the way it has been,” Ava said sorrowfully.

Ava snuck down the stairs with Nym in her arms, and then out the back door. She slowly slunk around the side of the house, thinking about the best way to approach this. Ava stopped behind the same bush she had hidden behind when she first brought him home with her, and looking down at him, she said to Nym, “I need you to pretend to be hurt, Nym. Can you do that? Act like you have passed out or something?”

“Nym do!” he said, and suddenly went limp in her arms and let his tongue loll out of his mouth like he was dead. Ava might have laughed at the act if she had not been so terribly frightened. She knew all might end in a matter of minutes, and she might have to take Nym back to Merellian. All was on the line.

Ava suddenly raced around the side of the house and up to the porch where her grandparents sat in their rockers, carrying Nym and turning on the tears. All she had to do was think of how it would be if this were real – if Nym really was hurt – and it became easy to cry.

Nana started up in her rocker at her first sight of the girl, and called out, “Why, Ava, what’s wrong, dear?”

That got Papa’s attention, and he started looking around for the girl, even though she was right in front of him and heading straight for them. He finally spotted her, and said in a tone of slight alarm, “What is that thing you have there?!”

“It’s a panda I found near the house!” sobbed Ava, “I think it’s badly hurt! Please call mama to come help!”

“A panda!” Papa said quietly, sounding entirely bewildered at the unexpected kind of animal.

“Vivviennne!!” Nana shouted.

The front screen flew open and Vivienne came running out, her apron on the fly, and a scared look on her face. Yelling just never really happened in the Eyrelin household, so when it did, it was usually an emergency.

Vivienne saw her daughter, who was gently setting an animal down on the porch near Nana’s feet.

“What is it?” Vivienne asked quietly.

“It’s a panda, I think,” said Papa soberly; and then, peeping through his spectacles at it for a moment, he corrected himself, “A red panda, not a regular one.”

“Ava, stop wailing!” said Nana, sternly.

By this point, the cousins, of course, had heard all the commotion and came to the front door, pressing their faces to the screen door to see what was going on without putting themselves at risk. That much wailing, they knew, might be anything, and could be something very scary.

Ava tried to turn off the waterworks, and then suddenly had to smother hysterical laughter as Nym peeped open the eye closest to her and peeked at her. The way it appeared to her family, however, was that she had started to choke.

“Are you alright, child?” asked Nana with alarm.

Ava composed herself, and replied, chokingly, “Yes, Nana, I just couldn’t breathe, for a moment.”

Papa lifted himself out of his chair and knelt down next to Nym on one creaky old leg. Hesitatingly, he reached a tentative couple of fingers to lift Nym’s chin to get a good look at his face.

“A red panda,” he mumbled with a touch of awe in his tone, “Just as I thought… although what one is doing here, I can’t tell you.”

“Well, what’s wrong with it?” cried Nana, “Something has to be wrong with it, or it wouldn’t be lying there, like that!”

Vivienne realized she was sweating, and she said, “It must be the heat – poor thing has heat-stroke. Ava, quickly, get him inside where it’s cool!”

Ava lifted Nym, who still pretended at death, and rushed him, past the hurriedly backpedaling cousins, into the house. Papa and Nana were close behind her.

“The fan, Ava,” her mother said, “Quickly, now, get him in front of the fan.”

Vivienne snatched a light, cotton blanket from out of the hall closet, and laid it down on the floor in front of the fan, before Ava had even half-lowered him to the front room floor. Ava gently laid Nym on the blanket.

“I’ll get it some water,” Papa said, and headed for the kitchen.

“Food,” said Nana, “I’ll bet the smell of something good might rouse him!” Nana followed Papa to the kitchen to find a butter biscuit to offer the creature.

The eldest cousin, Corin, peered around Vivienne and said in a rather awestruck voice, “Is it really safe to bring a wild beast into the house like this?”

“Be quiet!” snapped Ava.

Ryley and Marion looked on with rather stupid expressions on their faces. Ava knelt next to where she had laid Nym on the floor of the front room and touched Nym’s face gently, while her mother stood over her, watching anxiously. Nym began to purr, softly.

“That’s odd,” said Vivienne quietly, “I’ve never heard of a panda that purred.”

“Maybe he’s different… or… well, we don’t really know all that much about pandas, do we?” said Ava softly.

“Not really,” her mother answered, musingly.

The cousins were still extraordinarily silent. They were still deciding whether to be afraid or not. After all, it was an animal and could rise up and attack them all any second, to their way of thinking.

Papa and Nana returned at the same time, and as they entered the room, Ava winked at Nym with the eye on the side away from her mother and cousins, to indicate to Nym that he could start coming ‘round now.

“Wake up, little buddy,” Ava said, gently, “It’s alright, now.”

Nym pretended to wake up, and looked with sleepy-seeming eyelids at the people gathered around him. It was hard for him to not stare, for these were the first people he had ever seen, besides Ava.

“Like some water, little fella?” asked Papa.

“How ‘bout a biscuit? Something to eat?” asked Nana, right after.

Ava was half scared Nym would actually talk, but he was smart and remembered that he shouldn’t say anything until Ava told him he could, so he just kind of nodded his head.

That struck Vivienne as a completely odd behavior, even for a panda, and she said, “This is no ordinary panda. I heard it purring, a bit ago, just like a cat.”

“It’s special,” said Ava, with conviction.

“Only an unusually smart animal nods its head,” said Papa. “If he comes around, I propose we keep him. It’s been a long time since we had a well-loved pet to spoil around the place.”

“I’m for that! Poor dear!” said Nana.

The cousins looked alternately terrified and naughtily gleeful at what kinds of pranks they might put this creature to. Ava could see the gears working in their brains, even from where she sat.

Not if I have anything to do with it, she thought firmly.

Still, at her grandparents’ words, Ava got her hopes up.

Vivienne looked at the faces of her parents and her daughter, and then said, “We’ll see what Alcuin says when he gets home from work, but I’m with you on this – there’s something very likable about that face.”

Nym seemed to wake up all the way, and drank some of the water; and although he tried not to scarf, he did gobble that biscuit of Nana’s right up. No creature could live long on the scraps Ava had been bringing him and he thought he was starving. Watching him gorge himself on Nana’s biscuit, Ava finally began to suspect his hunger – and her negligence. Her heart sank within her with guilt, and tears pricked her eyes. But at least that part of things were over now. Surely, Nym would never go hungry again, she told herself silently.

The family cuddled and nurtured him, much to Ava and Nym’s heartfelt relief. Even the cousins crowded in to get a better look and reached out tentative hands to touch his soft fur. And then her father came home from work. Alcuin was in for quite a surprise.

Alcuin couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked in the door. His family was gathered around some furry creature in his living room. As he stepped close, Nym wriggled away from Ava’s embrace and headed straight for Ava’s father. Nym knew that all rested, now, on Alcuin’s reaction to him; and so, the furry little creature threw himself down at Alcuin’s feet and rolled over belly-up, just like any well-tempered dog. Alcuin’s heart melted. He reached down and ruffled the fluffy panda fur and his whole face softened.

“What is it?” Alcuin asked.

“A red panda,” Papa replied, “though, really, just now, it’s behaving like a very likable dog. Earlier, it was purring like a cat. I half wonder if this animal has an identity crisis and thinks it’s a bit of both.”

So then, it seemed that it was settled. Nym was to stay. Ava’s heart rejoiced.

The first time Nym saw the tv, he was almost terrified. He could not understand what he was seeing.

He and Ava had come into the room in the middle of the afternoon, and Ava had turned on the television. When it turned on, it was showing a documentary on parks and recreation. The screen filled with gardens, panning to bushes, walkways, and forests. This was probably a good thing for Nym, for if it had been showing cities and busy streets full of traffic, he might have had a full-on panic-attack and screamed to bring the house down.

It became very clear to Ava, very quickly, that Nym had never been exposed to any kind of technology at all. Cars, big buildings, cities, were all outside his realm of understanding, and the situation with the tv showed Ava that she should be very careful about how she exposed Nym to these concepts, and that the process should be gradual to allow periods of adaptation to the ideas of them.

When she turned on the tv and the screen showed its moving pictures, Nym’s first reaction was to grab hold of Ava as tight as he could. After a few moments, he removed one arm from around her to point at the screen, his eyes huge in his head, and then he turned a questioning, fearful face up to hers in a distinct question about whether this was safe or not.

Ava reassured him gently, and softly explained to him how it worked. After listening to her explanation about cameras and pictures, glass screens, and computers inside the box, he left her side with more courage, and approached the screen.

Reaching up one tentative hand, he touched the screen, his fingertips coming in contact with the glass. Noticing no change, although unsure about what he had expected to happen, he began to relax.

“What’s wrong with your panda? Doesn’t he know it can’t hurt him? I think he’s the weirdest thing I ever saw,” came from the other end of the room where Corin had stepped into it.

“Shut up, Corin,” said Ava, firmly.

“Whatever,” said Corin nonchalantly and sauntered out of the room again.

Ava was too afraid of running into a channel showing cars and cities to change the channel, so they just watched the parks and recreation show for forty-five minutes, and when it was over, Ava turned the tv off. She was glad that so far, nothing had really happened yet regarding the cousins, but she knew it was only a matter of time.

A couple of days later, Ava took Nym around the farm and showed him around. Leaving by the front door, they headed around to the left side of the house if one was walking away from it, Ava walking, and Nym trotting alongside her.

She led him down the trail that led away from the house, passing a large treehouse as they went out into the fruit orchard, within view of the large pastures and animal pens. She showed him the fruit trees, the pastures, the berry clutches, the animal pens, and the chicken coop. Then they headed back to the house.

Later, while Ava was doing her chores, Nym went back out to the animal corrals, by himself. They had deeply interested him while Ava was showing him around, and he wanted to see them again.

Walking up to the first pen, he encountered a cow within it. Stopping just short of the fence, Nym looked up at the black and white heifer’s face, and said, “Hello. I Nym.”

There was no response, just a snotty sort of snuffling on the part of the cow.

Nym tried again.

“I Nym. Who you?”

Still no response.

Nym: “Can you speak?”

No response.

Finally, Nym gave up trying to talk to the cow and went to the pigs’ pen. As he left the cow’s pen, the cow mooed at him very softly, but Nym didn’t understand what the cow was trying to say, and so he kept walking to the pigs’ pen.

Arriving at the pigs’ pen and seeing a pig there near the fence, Nym went through the same process:

“Hello. I Nym”

No response.

“I Nym. Who you?”

No response.

“Can you speak?”

No response.

One by one, Nym went through all of the animals in this way, introducing himself to each kind, and asking them to communicate with him. He talked to the goats, the sheep, the ducks, the chickens, the cats, and the dogs, in the very same way. None of the animals could answer him with anything resembling actual speech. After a while, he gave up, understanding that he was the only furry thing there that could form words, and being that he could not talk, to, or in front of the family, he realized that Ava was very literally the only person he could talk to, here. A wave of loneliness washed over him, but he knew that his love for her and her love for him was strong enough to make it all worth it.

Unbeknownst to Nym, the cousins had been lurking behind him while Nym tried to talk to all the animals, sniggering behind their hands. They could not hear him speaking, which was a good thing for Nym and Ava – and how frightened those boys might have been if they had! –  but they saw him dancing around in front of each of the other animals in what they considered to be a ninny-ish way, and they fully intended to tease Ava about it, the first chance they got. They still weren’t sure about Nym, and what he might do if they picked on him, so they hadn’t tried yet, but they were making plans; oh yes, they were talking amongst themselves about what all they could do to that poor panda – the apple of their little cousin’s eye.

Chapter VI:

Banishment

Within a few days, Nana began to feel suspicious of the creature. Something in her heart told her that even a panda would not behave the way Nym did, and some old superstitious part of her suspected something evil. She started pointing out unusual things to the family.

“Have you noticed,” said Nana at one point, “that that creature likes to walk on his hind legs? What kind of panda walks on its hind legs?”

Nym immediately started walking on all fours, although Ava piped up helpfully just then about how bears often walked on their hind legs.

Ava had been scowling at her feet at the time that Nana had piped up. She was still boiling inside over the cousins teasing her about Nym dancing in front of the farm animals that morning.

“Do you see that?” cried Nana, “what animal would understand what I just said? But there it is – he definitely understood me!”

Papa looked over at Nana and said, “He might not have done it just because you said it. That’s not conclusive evidence that he understood you… Give the poor fellow a chance, ok?”

“Ok, ok,” Nana said, “but I am serious, he’s giving me the creeps. I swear, the other day, I saw him out by the animal pens, and it looked like he was talking to the sheep. There is something not quite right about him, I tell you… But I’ll try, for the sake of fairness.”

The cousins all laughed uproariously at that and started pretending to dance and bow to each other the way they thought Nym had looked in doing it at the animal pens.

So, Ava thought, Nana saw it, too. And she was much closer to the truth of what Nym had been doing than the boys. This is not good.

But she didn’t know what to do to stop the progression of the family noticing that Nym was different. A part of her knew it was inevitable that they would. Nym was not ordinary in any sense of the word, and you cannot hide that kind of unique character, try as you might.

A little bit later, Ava took Nym aside and said, “You’d better watch out for Nana – she’s suspicious of you and if she gets too annoyed, they’ll make you leave. And definitely watch out for the cousins! They won’t be nice if they get hold of you.”

“Nym stay!” Nym whispered, fervently.

“I know,” Ava whispered back, quickly, “but we have to be careful. Now is the trickiest part of this.”

“K,” said Nym, with his little head bowed.

So, Nym was careful, and was doing really well at hiding his understanding from the family, until a couple of days later, which was a Sunday. On Sundays, Nana liked to go through her old letters and read them. Many of these were old love letters from Papa. She did this to help keep their romance alive and the love for him blooming in her heart. She had a few favorites that she read every single Sunday.

On that day, Ava came upon Nana rummaging in her letter box and muttering to herself.

“What’s wrong, Nana?” Ava asked.

“My favorite letter is missing – I can’t find it anywhere!” Nana replied in some distress.

Suddenly, Nym came into the room and dropped a piece of paper at Nana’s feet.

Nana reached down and picked up the letter, quickly skimming it with her eyes. She burst out suddenly in surprise, “Why, this is the very letter I was talking about!”

Looking around her and meeting Ava’s and then Papa’s and Vivienne’s eyes, she said forcibly, “You see, he does understand me! That’s no regular animal, I tell you!”

Nana moved across the room away from Nym, and huddled into a chair in the front room; while Nym sat where he had dropped the letter, head hung low, knowing he was caught.

“I won’t be near that thing,” she said, “I want it out of the house!”

Ava couldn’t believe her grandmother could be so mean, but she didn’t dare argue with her – she had been raised to respect her grandparents and to talk politely to elders. She did wonder where Nym had gotten the letter.

Surely, he couldn’t have read it, so what could he want with it, she wondered.

Still, he had it, and it was the end of everything. Rather lamely, Ava said, “But he brought you the letter you wanted. Doesn’t intention count for something, at least?” But she knew it was no good. Nana had a look on her face that was stubbornly set.

“I can’t, Ava,” Nana said, shaking her head, “I just can’t.”

Papa looked sorrowfully at Ava, but said, “She’s right, you know. No normal animal behaves in this way. Something’s at work here, though I don’t know what. You had better take him back to where you found him and see if he doesn’t fare better there than this house, where he must live with suspicion upon his character.”

“Do I have to?” Ava asked, heartbroken.

“I’m afraid so,” said Alcuin, “we can’t keep a creature that makes family members uncomfortable, much as I like the beast.”

Vivienne looked sorrowfully on her daughter, but nodded when Ava looked at her.

With tears streaming down Ava’s face, she carried Nym outside, passing her sniggering cousins on her way out. They looked maliciously gleeful, and she really wished she could stomp on their toes on her way by. But then she reminded herself that she wasn’t that kind of girl.

Once they were out of sight of the house, Ava fell to her knees with Nym still in her arms and completely broke down. She knelt in the grass and sobbed like a little girl. They were both wrecked by the decision of her family.

Ava headed toward the back of the property. She knew her cousins would make an attempt to follow them, just to rejoice in her pain, if for no other reason. Sure enough, a few moments after she left the house, they came tumbling out the door behind her. She hid behind a bush before they saw her, and hushed Nym to silence. The boys searched around for them, never even coming near Ava and Nym’s hiding place, before giving up again and going back inside to listen to the adults talk about “that creature,” as Nana called him.

Once it was safe, Ava carried Nym to the ruins and the doorway, crying the whole way.

They went through the doorway together, and entered the cathedral-like building on the other side; but once there, Ava broke down even more completely, and could go no further.

It took her several long minutes before she could bring herself to release her hold on Nym.

At the departure of her arms, Nym threw himself down on the old wooden floor and bawled. Even though it broke her heart to pieces, Ava got up, turned, and walked back through the doorway. Tears blinding her, she stumbled her way through the ruins to the outer wall. There, she slumped down against it and cried her poor heart out.

After a few moments of this, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Her heart overwhelmed her, and she got up and ran back through the ruins and through the doorway. Once through, she scooped up Nym, who was still standing in the room, anguished at her departure, his whole, furry face sopping wet with tears. She lifted him up in her arms, holding him tightly to her chest.

“I can’t leave you, Nym,” Ava sobbed into his fur. “You are family to me, and I won’t abandon you!”

“No leave Nym!” Nym echoed, his voice as broken and choked with tears as hers was.

“I have a treehouse – you shall live there, and I will visit you all the time. It’s far enough away from the house that you won’t be seen, and even the cousins don’t know about it!” Ava cried. “I will spend all day with you, and will sneak out nights to sleep there with you, too. I will bring you food, but if I can’t get you enough, there are a lot of berries and nuts in the area that you can snack on, too. She said she won’t have you in the house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay near me.”

“Okay,” Nym said meekly. All that mattered to him was that he would get to be with her, even if not in her house.

The treehouse was one that had been on the property for generations. It was in the lightly wooded northwest corner of the property, and well-hidden, which is why the cousins had never discovered it. Ava’s father had played in it as a child, and Ava had played in it and hidden there many times when her cousins were being especially mean. Because of its well-loved care and use, the treehouse was in good condition. The roof was intact, the floor was in usable condition, as well, and the stairs and rope were fully functional and in good shape. There were some comfy blankets in there, and a small table, some throw pillows, and there were even curtains hung in the two small windows which mirrored each other on each side of the small room.

The way the treehouse was set up, it had a wooden staircase that wound up the tree trunk and stopped at a small landing outside the front door. To Ava, it always looked an awful lot like Owl’s house in the bear stories Ava had read in early childhood. 

Ava climbed up the stairs, now, with Nym still gently cradled in her arms, and opened the front door, which squeaked a little but was in fine shape, for all that.

Setting Nym down and closing the door behind them, Ava went to the other side of the room and gathered up the blankets and pillows. She made a nice, cozy bed for Nym to sleep on at night. In a corner, she found an old sleeping-bag from the summer before, and she laid it out alongside his bed, for herself.

The old table had a battery-powered lamp on it, and she moved the table to the far end of the room, to be away from the windows, and then she lit the lamp.

Nym suddenly remembered the doll that Ava had given him, and let out a little mournful wail, “Jack…”

“I’ll bring him up in a little bit, Nym, and I will give you more dolls to sleep with, too,” said Ava softly, doing her best to comfort the little creature, who was still very heartbroken at Nana’s rejection and almost losing his best friend.

Poor Nym. He’s been cast out by the family, nearly abandoned by his best friend, and has lost his doll. He’s had a rough day, she thought, glumly. At least the cousins never had their go at him while he was in the house. I will have to be on the lookout and make sure I never see them coming near this place.

She snuggled him a bit on his blankets, and hummed to him. She wanted to sing him a song to cheer him, but at the moment, she could not find any words, so she just hummed a little melody, softly, to soothe him. It seemed to work, and after a while, he seemed less distressed.

She got up, setting him gently on the blankets, and walked over to the window.

“Come over here, Nym,” Ava said, “I want to show you something.”

Nym walked a bit unsteadily to one of the windows, where Ava was standing. There was a little box on the floor in front of the window, and Nym climbed on top of it to see through the glass.

Ava lifted her hand and pointed through the window indicating a spot past the foliage, outside.

“Do you see that, Nym?” Ava asked.

Nym peered out, following the line of her finger. There, across the farm-field, he saw another window – just a little square of light on the second story of the farm house.

“That’s my bedroom window, Nym,” Ava said, “you can see to my room from here, and I will look out my window when I am not here, and check on you sometimes, that way. Do you see this paper little man?”

Nym looked at a cardboard cutout, in her hand, of a very large gingerbread-man-like shape, about two-feet tall – almost as tall as Nym was, but much lighter.

“If you put this cut-out up against the glass and turn on the lamp, I will be able to see it from my window, and I will know it’s a sign that you want me to come as quickly as possible, okay?” Ava said.

“K,” said Nym.

“Here, you try it,” said Ava, and handed the paper cutout, which was made of thick cardboard, to Nym.

Nym took the cutout and held it against the glass.

“I expect you might not want to stand there and hold it all the time, waiting for me, so if you put it up there, you can use this big rock,” and here, she picked up a fist-sized rock she had brought into the treehouse a couple of years before, “onto the window-ledge, here – like this – to hold the cutout up against the glass. See?”

Ava took her hand away, and Nym took his away, and the cutout stayed against the glass, held there by the stone.

“Yes!” said Nym, with more exuberance than he had shown since far earlier in the day.

“Good,” said Ava, with a sense of satisfaction, “Now we’ll take it down, but you know what to do if you need me in a hurry, ok?”

“K,” said Nym, beginning to cheer up significantly.

“Now, I have to go back to the house, so they don’t worry,” said Ava gently, “but I’ll be back soon, and I will bring Jack and some other things for you to make it better, here, for you.”

Nym grasped her arm and clung to her for a moment.

Ava cuddled him, and looking sweetly down into his face, she said, “None of what happened was your fault, Nym. You cannot help what you are – and I think that what you are is wonderful! I adore the way you are. Don’t you change – not even a little bit! And please don’t feel bad, Nym. Your sorrow breaks my heart.”

She set him down again, and he let her go, and then she went down the stairs and over to her house.

And Nym was alone.

Someone in Ava’s position might have been very angry with their grandmother for all of this, but Ava was not that kind of girl. She was not angry, just unhappy and disappointed that her grandmother couldn’t have just loved Nym the way she did.

Because of this, as well as her earlier-mentioned upbringing, she gave Nana no hard looks or lip or back-talk. She was polite, but obviously depressed, and Nana was not a heartless person, either, and felt her granddaughter’s sorrow like a blow. Still, she could not take back how she felt about the creature, so she decided just to not bring it up. Ava had decided likewise, so the little creature was not mentioned at all in that house, for a time, after that.

Ava was quiet at dinner. After dinner, she went up to her room and grabbed a few of her dolls; including Jack, and the blanket that Nym had first slept in. On her way back through the house, she stopped in the darkened kitchen, and, grabbing a bag, she threw some of that night’s dinner into it, as well as several pieces of fruit, and a couple of bottles of water. Once, she thought she heard one of her cousins slinking around, but then the sound passed by without stopping or slowing, and she felt the danger had passed. She grabbed several paper plates and some plastic-ware, and then headed out toward the treehouse. No one noticed her go.

When she went into the treehouse, she saw Nym sitting in a corner of his bed, looking depressed, but his face instantly lit up when he saw her and all she carried. She set everything down and went to him and gave him a big hug.

“I have your blanket,” she said, “and Jack, and Sarah, and Mindy, and Tom, and I brought you some food, too.”

“Food!” cried Nym, and his little belly rumbled. Ava understood that it had been a long wait for dinner that night, for him; and she quickly dished up a paper-plate full of most of the food she had brought with her, and handed it to him with a plastic fork.

Nym held up the fork and looked at it with a strange expression on his face, and it was then that Ava realized he had never really seen one before. She had brought forks up with his food before, when he was in her room, but had never tried to get him to use them, and it had seemed like he had never noticed them. The family hadn’t allowed him to eat at the table with them, so he had never seen them using them, either. But now, he looked at the fork closely for the first time. She laughed at his facial expression.

“You eat with it, rather than getting your hands dirty,” she said, and then demonstrated, “Like this!”

“Oh!” said Nym, brightening up. At first, he tried to stab the food with the fork handle, until she turned it around so it was facing the right way in his paw-hand. He had difficulty holding it, but at least he had it in his grip. So, then he had it right, but was too forceful and flung a piece of food at the wall with the fork.

“Gently, Nym! Not so much force,” said Ava, laughing.

Finally, he got it right, and delight lit his face with his first bite.

While he ate, Ava unpacked some of the other food in the bag.

“I also brought you apples, a couple of oranges, some nuts, three bottles of water, some salad, and a banana,” she said, “You should be good to go for a little while. Oh yes, and I brought you a few cookies.” She grinned at him, and he grinned back at her, his mouth slopping food.

“I have to go back for the family’s Fireside Tales routine, but then I will come back here, later tonight, and sleep in here with you,” she said. She set the dolls and the blanket on his bed and then left. Nym was still chowing down on his dinner with apparent satisfaction.

Later, Ava did return, and they spent the night in the treehouse, Ava sleeping in her sleeping-bag, and Nym in his bed. It was a nice, warm, summer night, and so both were very comfortable in the small room.

Weeks passed, and this arrangement worked well for them. Ava spent some of every day with Nym, brought him food and drink, and sometimes stayed the night. The cousins never discovered him there, and never caught Ava going to see him, although they very nearly caught her coming back once or twice. The secret of the treehouse, and Nym in it, was safe during this time. And while the boys did take up their old habit of bullying Ava, she always managed to stay just out of reach, and she did not feel as awful about not standing up to them as she used to.

Having Nym in her life had changed her life in ways she could never have expected. Having a creature that loved her – a true friend – had made her feel like she had a value to somebody, and it changed her outlook significantly. She was also far less afraid of her cousins than she had been before. She took her role as Nym’s protector seriously, and it gave her a strength and a knowledge of her own strength that she had not had before.

One day, when the cousins were busy, off digging garden rows for Alcuin in the garden on the other side of the property, Ava took Nym fruit-picking. On that day, they focused on the fruit trees, and not the berry bushes. The fruit trees consisted of apricots, nectarines. peaches, cherries, plums, oranges, apples, and lemons. They climbed each of these trees together, and this is how Ava found that Nym was very good at climbing trees – something she supposed must have been a panda thing. They spent the afternoon eating various kinds of fruit, and Ava was fully entertained by the hilarious faces Nym made each time he tasted something new. Most of the time, after the initial reaction, his features would settle into a blissful expression – in fact, he liked all of the fruit – except for the lemons, of course.

His reaction to lemons was priceless, but also to be expected, and similar to most people’s reactions to a raw lemon. His face puckered up so hard that it looked like it was going to implode, and his eyes literally squirted tears. Nym did not have a word for “sour,” so he spent a good few moments emphasizing with his hands and gesturing heavily, trying to explain the sensation he was experiencing.

Ava laughed loudly, and said, “That taste is called “sour.”

“Sour,” Nym repeated.

“Yes.” She said, and laughed as he screwed up his face just to say the word.

Climbing back down the last tree, Ava took him home to his treehouse, and she stayed the night that night with him.

Over time, Nym began to become a little bit independent, going out while Ava was away, exploring his environment, all the way back to the ruins.

One day, he noticed that something was really, really wrong there at the ruins, and it terrified him half to death.

On the day Nym felt the darkness at the ruins, he ran back to his treehouse as fast as his little legs would carry him, and hid inside, quaking in terror. He knew what that feeling signified, for there was only one creature in all of the magical world that affected the area it inhabited magically to create that particular feeling. It was a darkness and an evil feeling, but tinted with something sweet that might attract a certain kind of prey.

Once he got his quaking under control, he remembered the secret sign of the cutout that Ava had shown him, and he put it in the window, and propped the stone against it.

He sat for about ten minutes waiting for Ava, before he remembered that if he didn’t light the lamp, she would never see his signal!

He got up, swiftly, ran to the table, and lit the lamp.

Surely, she will see it now, he thought to himself, hopefully.

About a half an hour later, she did see it, and came to his treehouse at a trot. Bounding up the stairs, she flung open the door, and seeing Nym at least appearing to be safe, she stopped and caught her breath, slowing her racing heart. Stepping inside, she closed the door behind her, took the cutout out of the window, and turned off the lamp.

“What is it, Nym?” she asked breathlessly, for she was still quite out of breath.

“Danger!” gasped Nym, still quite terrified, “Lamie!”

“Lamie?” Ava asked, confused, “What’s that?”

Nym appeared to slow down and think for a moment, and then he said, more slowly, “Lamia.”

“I still don’t know what that is,” said Ava, hopelessly.

“Half serpent,” said Nym. Thinking for a moment, he then said, “Half hooman.”

“A monster?” asked Ava, finally understanding. “Where?”

“Ruins,” said Nym.

More ominously, he said, “Coming.”

Ava felt her skin crawl in fear.

“What does this monster do?” she asked in a shivery voice.

“Eat children,” said Nym sorrowfully, looking meaningfully at Ava.

Deeper sensations of fear developed in Ava’s system – her skin crawled as she contemplated a half-snake, half-human creature coming to eat her. If Nym was worried, she knew she was not safe. The whole thing might have seemed silly to someone else, but Ava knew that Nym was truthful. Even more than that, she knew his world was magic, and that just about anything could live there – she certainly had not explored it much. She had also seen that Nym was not a creature that was easily rattled – he was brave – he had shown that with the snake. If it was a creature Nym feared, Ava knew it would be foolish for her to take it lightly.

“What do we do?” Ava asked Nym, greatly fearing he would have no answer. But Nym surprised her.

“Set trap. Wait.” He said.

“What kind of trap?” Ava asked, hopefully, yet also simultaneously fearful.

Nym pointed to her dolls. “Need big doll.” He said.

Thinking, Ava suddenly remembered her walking, talking, Chatty Cathy doll that she had received from Papa when she was only six. She had mostly forgotten it after a short time of playing with it, because he had accidentally gotten one that only spoke French. As Ava did not speak French, she could never understand what it was saying.  The doll was life-size, around the height of a three-or four-year-old, and was made to look like a little girl, with dark, corn-silk hair and glass, long-lashed, blue eyes.

“I have one,” Ava said, “So, what do we do with it – how do we set the trap?”

“Doll. Lay down,” said Nym, “I wait. In bushes.”

“Oh, Nym,” despaired Ava, “but what if it hurts you? I can’t let you get hurt!”

“Long as, know it’s coming,” Nym said with great bravery, “Can’t hurt me.”

“Then why are you so afraid?” Ava asked with confusion.

Nym’s eyes filled up with tears and he looked at her, desperation written all over his face. With great emphasis on the words, he said, “Hurt Ava!”

What he was saying sank in and she realized he was absolutely terrified for her safety. This suddenly made her think of her family. Pointing through the window to the house, she asked him, “Are they safe?”

Nym nodded and said, “Lamie only eat children.”

“But the cousins are children, too,” Ava said. “They can’t be safe, either.”

“They big children,” said Nym, “They maybe ok.”

Ava thought hard. Should she warn the family? Or take Nym’s plan of trapping it? In the end, she chose to trust Nym’s plan. She could only imagine her cousins laughing while she tried to explain about the Lamia, and their mocking faces while she described a half serpent, half human creature that eats kids. She knew their scoffing would make the grownups dismiss her warnings. There really was only one thing to do, and Nym knew how to do it.

Even though she trusted Nym with all her heart, Ava felt a strong sense of doom. She comforted Nym and then told him she would be right back – she wanted to go get that doll. He almost wouldn’t let her leave him, he was so scared for her.

She did not come back.

Chapter VII:

Pursuit

Nym waited and waited, but Ava did not return. A half an hour went by, and still, she did not come back. In Nym’s heart, he knew that the worst had happened.

The Lamia had taken his best friend.

Nym knew some things about the creature’s habits. It was a regular stalker of certain areas of his world. Because of this, he knew what his people – his Nemor tribe – knew of the creature. And what they knew was that the Lamia was half serpent, half human, and ate children – but didn’t eat them immediately. The creature always set up a lair where it would take its dinner, first. However, Nym also knew that the creature would not waste much time. It would eat her, if it had her, and it would eat her very soon!

Panic grew in Nym until he couldn’t stand it, and he finally gave in to it, hoping to save his friend from her fate. He flung open the door of the treehouse and flew down the stairs, across the dividing farmland between his treehouse and the main house, and up the front porch steps to the front door. The family had already gone inside for the night. Throwing all caution to the wind regarding what fate might await him for producing himself in this manner on their doorstep, he pounded the door down.

A surprised Nana opened the door, saw him, and nearly shut it just as quickly again. Before she could close it all the way, though, in a frantic voice, Nym said, “Is Ava here?”

Nana was so shocked at hearing the creature speak that her hand went limp on the door, and Nym, seeing his opportunity, pushed his way into the house and ran into the family room, where everyone was seated – everyone but Ava.

Nym came to a skidding halt right in the middle of the room, standing tall as billy-be-bad; belly out, shoulders back, looking for all the world like a miniature, furry warrior. He raised his voice and asked again.

“Is Ava here?”

Shocked faces were all he saw, mouths dropping open disbelieving that there was this furry creature that had spoken words in their home.

The cousins gaped and nearly fell out of their chairs. Corin dropped a whole mouthful of peas as he was bringing the fork to his lips, and they rolled in every direction across the table.

For a moment, Nym remembered why Ava had wanted Nym not to talk in front of her family, and a thought for the elders in the house went flitting through his head. However, in the urgency of his need to protect Ava, he easily dismissed the worry for Ava’s grandparents. It was worth the risk.

“Ava in danger!” Nym bellowed, trying to snap them out of their dazed expressions. “Ava need help! Now! No time! Must go! Save Ava!”

Ava would have been amazed at the number of words he had just said, so close together like that, had she been there… but Ava wasn’t there.

Finally, someone got their wits about them, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Papa – who was far sturdier in constitution than Ava gave him credit for.

“What’s going on?” Papa asked.

“Ava in trouble!” Nym wailed.

“What kind of trouble?” asked Papa.

“A Lamia got her! Must go! Save Ava!” Nym was getting really antsy and frantic, now, hopping from foot to foot. As the other people in the room absorbed his distress and worry, they stopped feeling such shock at the apparition in their family room, and started responding. Corin wiped his mouth and stopped looking like he was about to wet himself, although Ryley and Marion still looked like they might do so at the least provocation.

“Where?” Alcuin demanded.

“The ruins!” replied Nym. “I can stop. But need help. Distraction.”

The whole family sprang out of their chairs at the moment he told them where to go, except the cousins, who all slunk low in their chairs as if they wanted to hide. Even though only Nana and Papa had been to the ruins, everyone had heard the stories of the place, and, of course, Papa had only just recently told the tale of the boy who went missing so long ago from that very place. Apparently, Ava’s parents had already heard that story before, as all the adults looked at each other with meaning, and it was clear they were all thinking about a boy who disappeared sixty years before.

Papa sprang into action. Snatching Nym up off his feet and into his arms without hesitation, Papa marched to the door, with Alcuin swift on his heels. Nym knew they would make better time if he allowed himself to be carried, so he was not offended at the brisk, unapologetic manner with which Papa had swept him up. Vivienne followed Alcuin, while Nana held the door open for them all, and took up the rear behind them, as they headed down the porch steps. The cousins stayed behind, too scared to go.

It was getting dark out, and Ava had been gone for some time, now.

Nym began to truly despair.

Stopping by the toolshed, Alcuin grabbed a couple of lanterns. For good measure, he also grabbed a couple of wooden bats for the women, and guns for himself and Papa.

Lighting the lanterns, they headed across the fields, toward the trees. They reached the forest in quick time, and marched into the forest without slowing or stopping, heading directly uphill toward the ruins. A little ways into the forest, they all began to feel what Nym had felt. Darkness; evil. Lurking evil. Some sickening sweetness in the air that made them all feel rather sick – repulsed, even though it was not intended for them.

They slowed as they reached the outer wall of the ruins.

From Papa’s arms, Nym pointed to a tree none of them had ever noticed before. It stood off to one side of the wall, it had a gnarled, twisting, silver trunk, and it bore interesting-looking fruit – rosy-peach on one part of the fruit, plum-purple on another, and sky-blue near the stem. Nym looked up at Papa and said, “Magic fruit. Magic tree. Lamia eat. Sustain its magic in this world.”

Vivienne couldn’t believe her ears. “Did it just say this world?” She asked in a tremulous voice.

Suddenly, Nym scampered down from Papa’s arms, and ran into the ruins. As he went, he yelled, “Nym get seeds. Be right back. Look for Ava!”

Everyone looked at each other with faces full of surprise. They had not expected Nym to run off like that.

“Well, now what?” asked Alcuin, wonderingly.

“We go in,” said Papa with a firm gruffness in his elderly voice. For a man his age, he still had a lot of grit and gristle left in him, and the will to do what had to be done to save his granddaughter.

They all started to follow Papa in, but just inside the outer walls, Papa turned and addressed the women, “You stay here. Keep watch. Catch Ava if she comes running out, and do what you can. Beat anything else that comes at you with your bats. Guard our backs – you just never know…”

Fat lot of good that’s going to do us if the thing that comes at us is magic, as this talking panda creature seems to be,” grumbled Nana, but she accepted her assignment, even with her doubts.

The two women took up posts at the opening of the outermost wall and determined to wait for whatever was to come.

Meanwhile, the men went into the ruins.

At first, they thought they would get lost. It was like a maze, and it was dark. But then, Papa noticed the tallest archway, that big, blue doorway, and remembered something about what it was, and just as importantly, where it was within the ruins.

“Keep that tall doorway in your sights and head toward it. Whatever’s got her, it’s going to be somewhere between us and that door,” Papa said.

As Papa and Alcuin walked, Papa was musing. His mind was churning. The word, “Lamia,” had triggered a memory somewhere in him. He was sure it was from his classical Greek studies in his early adulthood, and as he let his mind nibble at the name of the creature, snippets of information came back to him. What he recalled, he shared with Alcuin, talking in a soft undertone.

“You are going to think this is crazy, but I learned about this thing in college, about a million years ago. You know I did some Greek studies there…” Papa began. “Lamia, I believe, was Zeus’ mistress in Greek mythology. She made Zeus’ wife… I can’t remember her name, but it doesn’t matter anyway… anyhow, she made Zeus’ wife so jealous that the goddess killed all of Lamia’s children and turned her into a monster. From what I recall, the Lamia was half serpent and half human – I think the serpent part was from the waist down.

“The Lamia, driven out of her mind with grief for her children, began stealing and eating the children of others out of pure jealousy. If any of this is true and this is the same creature as that one; or if this creature is called the Lamia because it has similar behaviors to the monster of the Greek myths, then what Ava’s facing is terrifying – and she’ll be eaten by this creature if we don’t stop it… somehow…”

“You truly believe this magical nonsense?” Alcuin asked his father – not out of disrespect, or even outright disbelief; but to be sure of his father’s position on it. His tone was carefully respectful.

“Oh yes,” answered Papa quietly. “There’s more things in existence than just what we see in day-to-day life, and there’s whole realms of possibility we don’t even acknowledge. For one thing, I know where that doorway,” and here, he paused and pointed to the big blue arch, “goes to. For another, how can you even question what might exist when you heard it from a magical talking panda?”

“I know,” replied Alcuin quietly, “I was just making sure. Because our darling little Ava’s life might very well depend on our ability to believe – and not underestimate – what this creature is capable of.”

If Alcuin had doubts, they were gone, now.

“You can count on me, son,” said Papa, gruffly, and gripped both his lantern and his gun tightly, as he continued walking on.

Silence fell around them. They were taking things slowly for two reasons: one, to give little Nym the time he needed to do what he would do, and secondly, to keep quiet and listen, and to peer lengthily into every dark corner of the ruins, as they passed, so as not to be snuck up on from behind and ambushed.

Papa began to get a feeling – an intuition, as he called it: he didn’t think they would reach the monster before reaching the doorway. He could see it there in his mind’s eye, now that he had been thinking about the creature, squatting in the cathedral-like room on the other side of that archway, where it could watch both the door in front of it and the door at its back, simultaneously. Sitting in it like a lair. And that thought, too, brought back memories of his study of the creature; for, by his studies, he knew that Ava would be there, in the creature’s lair.

The men walked very slowly through the ruins, and not a sound was to be heard. This struck them both as odd. There were no crickets, no fireflies, no sounds of wildlife of any kind – not even the hoot of an owl or the rustle of leaves as some small creature made itself snug for the night in one of the corners of the ruins or up in one of the trees that towered above them.

As they walked, their sense of doom deepened. The magic the Lamia had put over the ruins it had claimed for its lair was ominously dark and suffocating. It tried to sap the hope and strength out of Ava’s would-be rescuers. However, time passed, and soon enough, they were in the second-to-last chamber of the ruins before the big doorway, getting ready to enter the last chamber, and they agreed to leave the lantern there, outside that last room of the ruins before the doorway, and not take it with them to warn the creature of their coming. As they entered the final chamber before the doorway, the decision was upon them to either continue their approach, or stop and plan their next move.

They did stop, both of them gripping their guns in the dark, in sweaty hands.

They listened for any sound of Ava, or any rustling in the night.

They heard nothing.

Nothing at all.

They turned quietly to each other and exchanged nervous and questioning glances, wondering if they dared to go ahead before Nym returned.

After several minutes of high-intensity waiting, in which their nerves were strung up like electrified barbed wire, they decided to move forward. Nym would return when he returned, but they couldn’t wait. A life hung in the balance, and they knew it.

Papa gave Alcuin the signal that they were going, with a nod.

Then, side by side; step by synchronized step, they approached that vast archway, which glowed blue; they heard it humming slightly in the night, as they drew closer.

They could see nothing but blackness inside, even with the doorway’s glow – not an outline of shape or a motion of movement.

As their feet crossed the threshold, the doorway wrought its change in them, as it had done for Ava every time she had gone through it. It was dark, so they could not see, but each of them had changed color. Papa turned sunshine yellow, with pale orange hair, shot through with white, and his eyes became violet. Alcuin’s skin turned a pale coral, and his hair turned silver – not with age, but as a color of hair. His eyes, too, darkened to violet. As these changes went unobserved by them in the darkness, they did not add to their already intensified fear at stepping into the creature’s lair.

Once they had entered the room, they finally heard a sound in the blackness there. It was a slithering, sinuous, evil and insinuating sound. It was the sound of dry, scaly skin sliding over roughened, old wood. It was the serpentine sound of the creature sliding over the ancient floor. Before they could do anything, both men found themselves suddenly trapped! Pinned by coils, and slammed against the wall, as slithering breath slicked their faces, hot and humid, and foul as death.

Their guns clattered to the floor with two loud thuds as their hands instinctively released them to try and grab the coils that trapped them.

Neither of these men were cowards, but they both screamed in that instant.

Chapter VIII:

Charmed

Far off, at the edge of the outer wall, Nana and Vivienne heard them, and fear plagued their hearts. Yet they stood firm, where they were, as they had promised they would; even though each of them feared for the men they loved.

Back in the cathedral-like room, muffled whimpering came from a corner in the darkness and reached the men’s ears. Their hearts broke as they knew that what they were hearing was their cherished Ava, surely bound, and definitely gagged.

Just as the men began to believe that they were going to die in the dark; as the slick coils flattened them to the wall and started cutting off their windpipes, there was the sudden, but unmistakable sound of a door opening and closing at the far end of the room.

The men’s hearts grew hopeful.

Let that be Nym, prayed Papa.

It was.

***

The monster had heard the sound, as well, and it distracted the creature from snuffing the breath out of the two interlopers in its domain. The pressure of the coils on the two men slackened, and they realized they now had some mobility, again, at least in their arms. Each of them grabbed a coil pressing on themselves, and shoved with all their might, throwing the beast off.

The creature slithered and crashed through the room toward the other door that had just been opened and closed, losing interest in the men to seek out the creature that it deduced must have come through it.

But Nym was nimble and stayed out of the reach of the great coiling creature.

Still, the creature knew he was there, and with its keen sense of hearing, it kept picking out where Nym was. It struck out, over and over again with its lashing tail, attempting to knock Nym flat. In this way, Nym was kept hopping a merry dance around the Lamia, moving constantly to avoid its blows.

Of course, Nym couldn’t keep this up for long.

He was biding his time till he could think up a way to best the beast.

The problem was that his charm required the creature to be able to see to be put under his spell, and there was no light in the room.

Finally, out of ideas for how to procure light for himself, Nym screamed on the top of his voice, “Light! Someone, light!”

Papa quickly reached into his front shirt pocket where he kept the matches for his pipe, and fumbled one out. He struck it swiftly, and was instantly blinded by the blaze of light.

Just as his eyes were adjusting, he saw the room and all in it – and he saw a most curious thing: There in the far corner in front of him and to his left, was – as he had expected – Ava, tied and gagged with vine. The monstrosity of a creature was directly in front of him, between himself and his granddaughter; and he saw instantly how it had been able hold two men down at once – its serpentine tail was split into three snake-tails. It had used two of them to hold them down and the remaining one for ballast. Its upper body and face was that of an alabaster-white, but hideous, woman; her hair was black vines, which snaked around her head, and cascading down her back. Her lips were black as night; her eyes pure silver – dead looking, hollow, soulless.

But the most interesting thing in the room – and the most curious sight, to Papa – was actually Nym.

He stood, ever-so-still, up on his hind legs and reaching upward as high as he could reach – one paw up above his head, the other just below it, palms facing together, top to bottom. As Papa and Alcuin watched – too entranced by this sight to think to reach down for their guns and offer help – Nym’s bottom, upward-facing palm slowly lowered downward, with the wrist bent at a sharp angle, and the fingers looking like they were trailing upward behind it as it fell –  in an almost an upside-down trickling motion, with still, but not stiff, fingers.

The creature’s gaze left the upraised paw-hand that was still held motionless high up and palm-downward in the air, and followed the downward motion of the other hand, which moved slowly… slowly… mesmerizing it.

When the hand Nym was lowering reached the bottom-most point of its arc, the head of the villainous beast was lowering – drooping – then falling, falling, falling… until its chin landed in the palm of Nym’s upturned paw-hand, and at that moment, Nym brought his upper paw-hand swooping down in a great arc so that landed smack on the top of the creature’s head. The Lamia’s head was then sandwiched between Nym’s top and bottom palms.

The eyes closed – the creature slept.

A slight snore escaped its slackened lips.

And then Nym stood there, holding the sleeping monster between his furry hands, with a vast relief written all over his face. If he could have sweated, his little face would have been covered with it. Gently, he lifted his upper paw-hand from the top of the creature’s head, and opened two of his fingers, which had been curled during the action, holding something very tightly in them. As Nym’s fingers opened, Papa and Alcuin distinctly saw three small dark seeds there.

Just then, the match went out.

Papa quickly lit another.

Nym placed two of the seeds in the monster’s mouth, and then stroked its throat to make it swallow. Obediently, in sleep, the creature did as Nym bid it to do.

Moments later, everyone in the room saw a change come over the creature. It faded somehow; the black of its colors becoming less so, its vine-hair becoming true hair. Its coiled tails dissolved, and one disappeared altogether as the other two became legs.

Papa and Alcuin watched this transformation with mutual horror mingled with relief – horror at what the creature was and the transformation process, but relief that it was becoming human; becoming harmless; manageable.

At the end of this process, it was not only human, it was also powerless.

The charge of its powerful spell on the ruins went out of the air and everyone felt it leave.

Within moments, the women, having felt the change and unable to take the suspense of not knowing what was going on inside, left their posts and came running in.

As they came through the doorway, their faces dropped into surprised “O”s at what they saw there – Nym holding a naked woman’s head, fast asleep between his hands; the two men – only so oddly colored in the matchlight!- the ladies decided it must be a trick of the light – bending down to pick up their dropped weapons. A glimpse of Ava still in the corner, tied up and gagged.

And then the second match went out.

Papa lit a third match, and everyone went to Ava. In an instant, she was freed from her bonds. They noticed the blue tint to her skin and feared that she had been suffocating. Seeing that the women would do what was needed for Ava, after each of the men kissed the top of the girl’s head and expressed gratitude at her safety, they went to Nym to help him with his burden.

Nym looked up at them.

“What do now?” he asked them.

“We’ll take it from here, little fella’,” Papa said, “Go to your girl, now. We see how you love her. Go to her, she can really use your comforting right now.”

“You’re a hero, you know,” said Alcuin with quiet gravity, “We are indebted to you, little one.”

Nym let go of the creature’s head as Papa and Alcuin grabbed it under the arms and dragged it through the doorway to the Earth side of the doorway, and out through the ruins.

Nym went to Ava, joyfully, but also with sorrow, for he knew he had almost been too late to save her. When he reached her, he climbed up into her arms and kissed her cheek, and he said, “Nym here now. Nym helped save. My Ava.”

And with that, they both burst into tears.

Vivienne and Nana, looking on, felt their own hearts melt over this sweet reunion and the words spoken, and most of all, over the obvious love between them.

It was at that moment that Nana swore in her heart she would never keep Nym out of their home again.

Lifting Ava gently, who was still holding Nym, Vivienne carried Ava out of the room, followed closely by a very attentive Nana, who dug in her pocket and found a little piece of biscuit there to offer to Nym.

Ava was exhausted, and couldn’t have cared less about food in that moment, but Nym, having exerted himself with all of that hopping around and the final defeat of the creature, was ravenous, and gobbled that biscuit all up in two seconds flat.

Ava wrapped her arm lovingly around Nym and held him close.

Chapter IX:

Home

Very soon, they were home. Vivienne and Nana were both relieved to see Ava’s color returned to a normal shade of creamy-peach. They felt it meant that she was out of danger, although, in fact, she had been recovering from the moment she was unbound from the Lamia’s vines. Vivienne carried Ava and Nym up to Ava’s bedroom, while the men dragged the woman that used to be a monster into the front room, wrapped in an old sheet from the barn for the sake of decency, and then settled her, still sleeping, into a chair.

The cousins, who had been slinking toward the door when it opened, squealed in very high-pitched voices and ran down the hallway when they saw the woman.

Then, figuring Papa had done enough for one night, Alcuin decided to do the honors.

He picked up the home telephone and dialed the police station.

“Prosser PD, how may I be of assistance to you?” said a middle-aged male voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, officer,” replied Alcuin, “We have found a very… well, ummm… odd… woman hanging around our property… naked.”

There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line, then, mumbled faintly, “Why do I always get the kooks?”

“Would you like…” Alcuin started to ask, but was interrupted by the officer on the other end, “No, just hold her there until we arrive. We will send someone right out. Please, may I get your address so we know where to send the car?”

Alcuin gave it to him.

A half an hour later, the car arrived, and Ava and Nym were by now fast asleep in their bed upstairs. The creature still hadn’t awoken, but began to stir as the officers started to lift her from the chair the men had deposited her in when they had brought her into the house.

Papa and Alcuin noticed her stirring with some fright, even though they knew she was harmless, now. Within moments, she was fully awake, and began raving about her lost children, “…killed,” she said, “a long time ago, but it still hurts so much!” and then she began to wail.

The hearts of Papa and Alcuin softened, then, in pity for this poor woman who had been made into a monster by her grief and the vengeance of a goddess. They pitied her, truly, all the way down deep; and found that, as the pity obliterated their fear of her so entirely that it was wiped out in an instant, they both wished only the best for her. They hoped that she would get kinder treatment from humans, and care that might help her, finally, after all these centuries since the Greek age, to heal.

Even the officers took pity on her, and were gentle with her, as they escorted her to the car and helped her into it. All sign of malice had been stripped away from her with her dark magic, and she was left frail and vulnerable… yes, even pitiable – for the first time in so many years that it would be nearly impossible to count.

After she was gone, the whole household breathed a sigh of relief that it was all over, and that their Ava was back safe.

For that, in their hearts, they truly thanked Nym.

They fully understood that without him beating down their door the way he had, they never would have known what had happened to her, and they would have lost her for certain and forever. It was all too close for comfort to the story Papa had told so recently about the boy who had vanished. On realizing this, Papa swore inwardly never to tell that tale again. He was superstitious enough to think it possible that the telling of the story might have been linked to Ava’s kidnapping by the Lamia. It was just too bizarre a coincidence for his mind to dismiss, until he had resolved to avoid telling that story from that day forward – after that, he felt a bit less disquiet about the matter.

The four adults sat in their chairs in the front room for a little while, and the cousins came in and sat at their feet to listen while the grownups discussed the events of the night, and wondered aloud about Nym; where he came from, and most of all, what he was. No one believed for a second that he was an actual red panda, by this point – no matter how much he might resemble one. Papa had some suspicions about that, though, and sat silently musing, with the image of that great blue doorway in his mind. He decided to keep his suspicions to himself, however – No use in further disturbing the womenfolk, he thought.

But at the end of it – and it was a very short conversation because they were all so tired – they were simply grateful that Nym had been there for them when they needed him.

Soon enough, the adults locked up the house for the first time in forever – no sense in taking chances after you know danger might be out there – and headed to bed. The cousins, much subdued at the thought that they had actually almost lost their cousin – they picked on her, sure, but not one of them had wanted her dead –  stayed up in their beds whispering late into the night about all they’d heard, unbelievable as it all seemed.

The following morning was a wonderful one for Ava and Nym, for the Eyrelins threw a party for both of them. It was a fantastic party, even if it was just the nine of them, and no guests. Nana had been up early, and had baked a cake. Papa had gone out wildflower-picking, and there were sprays of flowers all over the house. Vivienne had been looking for something in the attic when she stumbled across a box of glass figurines she knew Ava would love. Alcuin, not forgetting Nym or what he had done for all of them the night before, had gotten together anything and everything he thought would help Nym to be comfortable in their home. He had rummaged and brought together blankets, pillows, and toys, and even a little blue jacket that had been Ava’s when she had been a toddler, and which fit Nym perfectly.

Ava found that little jacket to be almost an ironic gift, considering that her parents didn’t know that on the other side of the door, Nym was actually blue – and almost the same shade of blue, too…. But then, she had to reconsider – did they know? Because they had all seen him in the cathedral-like room on the other side of the doorway when the matches were lit.

Either way, Nym was happy, Ava was happy, and the whole house was happy, too.

The cousins each found a quiet moment to come and talk to Ava and tell her that they were sorry for the rotten way they had treated her. Each gave a promise to be nice to her from then on out. “After all,” each said, almost word for word, “she was their cousin,” and they each had begun to feel like she was, in their fear for her.

A little while later, everyone wore a more somber air as they went back to the doorway in the ruins. All nine family members went. Once there, in the chamber on the Earth side of the doorway, Nym and Ava planted the third seed that Nym had brought back with him the night before, while the family looked on. Because it was a magic seed, and planted so close to the magical source that was its world, it sprouted up and grew into a full-sized tree in a matter of moments. It was a dark-magic-repellant tree – in other words, anything that had dark magic that touched it for too long, or ate of its fruit, would lose whatever magic they possessed. The tree would suck it right out of them, into itself, and then transfer it into the ground. Nym expressed this, in six words, as he planted the seed, saying, “no dark magic. Tree keep out.”

It was protection for the door; and the way it grew showed that it knew its purpose; for it grew to embrace the door-frame on both sides, going all the way up, with enough space under its bottom limbs for a person or creature to walk through. Anything dark that passed through those openings, though, would be stripped of its magic in passing; like walking through a cleansing membrane, thinner and more transparent than a soap bubble.

This was the way Nym had devised to keep Eyrelin Farm safe from anything else that might be evil that might want to get through, and it was truly a good defense. Any creature that saw the tree and recognized it for what it was would decide against crossing through it, knowing they would find themselves utterly powerless on the other side. And anything dark that did decide to press forward and pass through it, would be cleansed.

So, now, all was well on the Earth side of the door, and everyone was happy to have a greater sense of security. The happy party atmosphere revived, and the family rejoiced at this display of good magic to thwart evil intentions.

In a happy troupe, they all headed home, a light bounce in everyone’s step.

It was quite possible that Nym and Ava were happiest of all: their friendship was deeply bonded over all they had experienced together – if they hadn’t been best and fast friends before, they were inseparable, now.

The End

Afterword

What had happened with the Lamia, and the tree they planted in front of the doorway, did not stop Ava and Nym from going back to visit the magical world of Merellian. It was Nym’s home, and Ava would no sooner deprive him of spending time there than she would allow anyone to deprive her of her time with her family at home on Earth. Because of this, the two of them visited Merellian often.

Within a week after the threat of the Lamia was eliminated, Ava and Nym brought a picnic basket, that Nana had packed up for them, and a blanket, with them to Merellian, and they spent the day there picnicking on berry pies, fruits and nuts, and sandwiches until they were stuffed full. Feeling sleepy, they then napped on the blanket for a while. Later, they got up to rinse their hands and faces in the stream nearby. They enjoyed a long afternoon before returning home.

On another day, Ava packed up her old tea-set, which she hadn’t messed with since she had been around ten years old, and a couple of frilly dresses, some actual tea, and scones, and headed with Nym to the doorway to Merellian. Nym carried their parasols the whole way, trying not to fumble them in taking them through the space between the non-dark-magic tree and the side of the doorway. Once on the other side, they went through the cathedral-like building and out into the sunny meadows. Knowing now where the stream was, they decided to have their tea party there near the banks of the water.

Before Nym would allow them to eat or drink anything, he insisted that they both dress up in the dresses they had brought. Nym had to almost fight to get into his dress, struggling with the sleeves, and finding the buttons to be impossible; but once Ava had described dress-up tea parties to him earlier in the week while telling him about her childhood games, he had insisted they do this one. Therefore, he was unwilling to give up on getting that dress on, no matter what.

The sight of him, and the discomfiture on his face made her laugh so hard that she fell to the ground and rolled around there for a minute, turning quite red in the face. Once she regained her self-control, Nym helped her to put her dress on. She had had to borrow one of her mother’s old dresses, because her dress-up play dresses were far too small for her, now. She helped him with his buttons, and he helped her with her zipper, making funny grunting noises as he pulled and tugged on the zipper slide.

Once they were dressed, Ava set up the tea-party-set on the blanket they had brought. Nym opened the parasols and handed Ava one, while holding the other to shade himself from the sun, while Ava poured the tea into the tiny cups and placed scones on saucers.

Overall, it was a great success. After eating, they washed the tea set in the stream, and got drenched, themselves in the process.

When they came home, Nana and Papa were sitting in their front-porch rockers, as usual for the afternoon, and both Nana and Papa burst into fits of laughter seeing the bedraggled, soaked friends coming back from their play. Their dresses hung and dragged on the ground with the weight of the water, Ava’s hair ran in long strings along her cheeks and down the front of her dress, and Nym’s fur was sticking up in every direction above the neck of his dress, in big furry clumps.

Ava was actually alarmed at the shade of red Papa’s face was turning in his laughter, and she ran to the porch and made sure he was alright. He took a few deep breaths and when he got his voice back, he assured her he was fine, saying, “I just haven’t had a good belly laugh like that un in a really long time!”

Ava and Nym had many adventures and lots of fun in the magical world, as well as at home. They were blessed to have home, family, and friendship – and what a friendship! This was it – the friendship of a lifetime, neither of them letting the other go, for anything.

And it lasted, as you shall soon see…

1st Draft
Saturday, June 10, 2017
11:53 pm mountain time
Chrissy Lorraine

2nd Draft
Sunday, June 11, 2017
10:05 pm mountain time
Chrissy Lorraine

3rd Draft
Saturday, July 1, 2017
1:53 am mountain time
Chrissy Lorraine

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chrissy Lorraine is an author of children’s and preteen fantasy fiction; she is also an internationally published poet, under her pen name of Amarine Rose Ravenwood. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Writing and loves to garden, play her piano, create art, write, crochet, and sew. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her family, her cat, and her dog.

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