Young Oliver Bittengoat didn't know who first said, "A watched cauldron never boils," but he felt certain he was the first to suggest, "A watched sun never rises."
Oliver's anxiety over the coming of dawn came not from impatience, but a fear some magic was afoot to keep the celestial sphere for popping over the horizon. The sun had disappeared a time or two before, right in front of their faces. In those events, the town begged Oliver's friend, the Wizard of Nottingdale, to slaughter a chicken or sacrifice a virgin (or more often sacrifice a virgin chicken if the town was particularly low on virtuous ladies that year) to appease the sun. Afterwards, the orb would return and continue on its journey across the land.
His sandals wet with the FairyGlen pre-dawn dew, Oliver paced back and forth in front of the misty meadow's sundial. As he prepared to scream in frustration, the sun did what the sun always did, appear slowly in the Eastern sky from behind the Hammish Mountains, as if to say, "Yes, Yes. What's all the commotion about?"
The area in front of Oliver shimmered and, like looking through a window, Oliver could see a room. There, a creature of rare beauty waited for him, her smile warmer and brighter than the sun's rays. Her eyes were green as sea foam and her skin so white, it would make the alabaster on a statue of Aerophine, Goddess of Haut Couture, jealous. For the briefest of moments all was well, just before the sun, fully above the horizon, closed the window between their worlds. As she faded from sight, she mouthed "hello."
They never said "good-bye" as neither wanted to lose hope the other wouldn't be there. Their exchange lasted but a moment, yet it would last Oliver the whole day.
It'd been quite by accident Oliver walked through FairyGlen at dawn that first time. He'd been out with his mates celebrating his recent acquisition of a new horse to help plow his potato fields. Time had gotten away from him and Oliver found himself walking home at an hour the bravest of men considered too dangerous to walk alone. For in the hour before dawn, magic held its tightest grip on the land. Men were hunted, or vanished without a trace, or changed into unholy creatures.
Oliver had made it as far as FairyGlen before a sound nearby startled him. He spun around, trying to suss out where the noise had originated. Another crack, like that of a twig breaking, forced Oliver move from the road and into the open field.
If I get near the sundial in the center, Oliver reasoned using grog-headed logic, I could see anything coming at me from any direction.
He gathered his mettle and ran to it. Armed only with the smallest of knives, Oliver circled the sundial, alert to every movement, every whisper around him. When the sun arrived that morning, the bleary-eyed man got his first glimpse of her; a young lady, no more than nineteen, who sat in a chair in front of a mirror, brushing long silken hair the color of ripe wheat.
And then she saw Oliver's reflection in her mirror. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in surprise. Knocking over her chair as she turned, she reached a hand toward him, begging him not to leave.
But magic is fickle and, as soon as the dial confirmed the break of day, she faded from sight.
His farm all but forgotten, Oliver came to the spot at the same time every day, willing the sun to rise faster so he could glance at this vision of loveliness. The girl, too, had fallen into the routine, making herself ready for her brief glimpse into his world. There was not enough time to cross over the barrier either way, though Oliver tried time and again. He'd plow into the ground and come up with a face masked in dirt and grass.
And if those happenings were not strange enough, when Oliver silently asked for his mystery lady's name, she shrugged and shook her head. How did one, whose mere image drove a man to burst out in song not have a name? What foul magic trapped her in that realm?
After a week of this, Oliver visited the Wizard and begged of him to reveal the identity of this lady of rare loveliness. The wizened mage told Oliver a story.
"My predecessor, the Wizard Janke, was not a kind soul such as I. He demanded tribute for his services. Each year, these tributes grew until such time the King decided the price outweighed the reward. The King's men attacked Janke, but he was no fool. He escaped and kidnapped the King's baby daughter before the King had even given her a proper name. Janke placed her somewhere no mortal could ever reach.
"Unfortunately, he ran afoul of a barmaid he'd forgotten to tip and was killed in his sleep, never revealing the princess's whereabouts." The kindly mage stroked his bearded chin. "You, my good lad, are the first to discover her location. It is said the man who returns the princess to her throne will be given his greatest desire."
"Please tell no one until I've had a chance to rescue her," Oliver begged, "You know how people get every time there's some sort of challenge."
The Wizard nodded, "Yes, I remember the craze of thirty-two when people were pulling out anything wedged in a rock and claiming to be some sort of lord. I'll give you a year, and then I must tell the King. I just told you what happened to my predecessor. I like it here and do not wish to leave."
Oliver's greatest desire was to free the trapped girl, but he had no idea where to begin. The old wizard consulted several books, stared into a crystal ball, and threw some bones on a table. Finally, he brewed himself a cup of tea.
"Will reading tea leaves tell you something?" asked Oliver.
"No," said the wizard, smiling. "I was thirsty. Divination is hard work." He took a sip. "I think I've scryed a riddle left by Janke in one of his old books.
"One cannot hold the sun in the sky,
for it will burn any that would try,
but if you should shine the morning light,
while the silvery moon shines at night,
then the doors open you will pry."
Oliver continued to stand at the sundial every morning. She waited for him, as well; smiling at their brief interludes. They couldn't exchange words in that moment, but the confidence in her expression told Oliver she believed he'd find a way to rescue her.
On the fifth night, the poor farmer couldn't sleep so he headed down to FairyGlen earlier than usual. As he walked, something buzzed by his ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a light. He turned just in time to catch the south end of a north-bound firefly. It sparked and lit up the darkness around it. It was only a second, but the bug glowed like a tiny sun.
That's it! Oliver thought, If I could get enough fireflies together, I could fool the sundial into acting as if the sun had risen!
But where could he get enough fireflies to make his own sun? He returned to the wizard.
"Ah, clever lad! However, the task ahead is not easy. You must go see the fairy
Gilderdyne. She is the one who runs the Firefly Factory."
Oliver left his farm in the care of a cousin and stopped at FairyGlenn before leaving. At the break of day, he held up a sign he hoped she could read that said, "I'll be back." There was just time enough for her to nod before she faded away.
The wizard had given him directions to Gilderdyne's factory, but it was no gentle stroll. Over the Hamish Mountains, through the Valley of Fog and across the Desert of the Sand Geysers he went. At his lowest points, when his food was gone and his water depleted, it was the thought of rescuing his one true love that kept Oliver going.
Well, and truth be told, he was dead either way. Giving up would only made him a coward as well as dead.
Days became weeks, and weeks turned into a couple more weeks, making a month actually, until finally Oliver reached the Forest of Whispered Wishes. Following the wizard's instructions, he searched until he found a copse of trees with Gilderdyne's rune marked on them. Oliver faced the northmost oak and spoke the words of access entrusted unto him. The trunk slid aside as if a door. Behind it, like with the room of his beloved, waited a whole different world.
Everything was in motion. Wooden planks fitted to rope ladders moved like living
staircases carrying items. These ladders led to different areas within the workshop like
mobile bridges. And you'll never guess what made the stairs move.
Seriously, take a guess. I'll wait.
No, not magic, as one would expect. It was big hamsters running on even bigger wheels, frantically chasing tasty treats. The whole operation reminded Oliver of a water wheel driving a grinding mill. However, instead of making flour for bread, the fairies assembled something far more elaborate.
Countless tiny fairies sat on benches waiting for one of the wooden planks to arrive. The aforementioned items were taken off and replaced with other items, but Oliver was too far away to see what they were. He moved farther in and was amazed by what he saw.
One section of fairies pulled two tiny multifaceted eyes out from buckets that sat beside them and placed the eyes onto tiny fuzzy heads that had just arrived. Job done, they replaced the head back on a plank only to have it move to a new section where the tiny heads were attached to tiny fuzzy bodies. The processed repeated with wings, legs and pinchers until a whole firefly was taken from the line and stacked on a shelving unit.
A much larger fairy made her entrance once a whole unit had been filled. Her willow branch hair fell around her in shades of green and yellow, cascading down to a poofy dress of similar tones. Her cheeks glowed with pride at the collection in front of her. She nodded once and pulled a wand from a satchel on her hip. Lightning leapt from the rod as she waved it in front of the completed insects, touching each one in turn. The fireflies came to life with a start and flew up and around their fairy mistress. She whispered something and like an army, the fireflies lined up and flew away to join hundreds of their waiting brethren in the next room. She blew them a kiss as they left.
"Ahem," began Oliver-and the whole operation froze.
Fairies stared at the young man, and he stared back. The hamsters even stopped running. Not a breath was breathed, nor word spoken until...the fairy who had brought the lightning bugs to life placed her hands on her hips and puffed out a disgusted sigh.
"Well, you're not supposed to be here. I'm just going to have to turn you into something. How about a rabbit?" She waved her wand.
Oliver held up his hands in defense. "Please, no! I'm not here to cause any trouble. I'm just trying to break a spell to rescue a trapped girl."
"Oh," said the large fairy, "Well, that seems noble enough." She winked at a neighboring worker fairy and then shouted, "What's everyone hovering around for? Back to work!"
The process started up and the boss lady floated over to Oliver.
"Are you Gilderdyne?" Oliver asked tentatively.
"Why, yes, I am." Gilderdyne took Oliver's shoulder and guided him away from the workshop floor. "And how have you come to find my place of business?"
Oliver told her the tale as he was led into an office. She offered him honeysuckle beer and listened intently to the story. She nodded when he reached the point where he entered her factory.
"Well, that's quite an adventure. But I'm not sure I can help you."
The love struck man swallowed hard. "Why not?"
Gilderdyne pointed to scrolls that lay across her desk. "The amount of fireflies you need would throw off my quota for a year, maybe more. Unless you're willing to pay. Can you pay for that many? Didn't think so." She sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "You smell like a farmer. Farmers rarely meet my price. No, I couldn't possibly disappoint that many customers for just one girl."
"She's not any girl. She's a princess."
"Another one?" Gilderdyne leaned back in her chair. "If someone gave me a firefly for every princess that needed rescuing, I could finally get that vacation I've wanted in the tropics. Just wait a week or two, boy. Another princess will come along."
Oliver stood up quickly. "I don't want another one! I want her!" His cheeks reddened and when he spoke again, it was softer, "Pardon me, Ma'am, but I love her."
"Love?" The large fairy laughed. "How could you love her? She's been trapped for nineteen years in a room in another realm. She's got no marketable skills. You know
nothing of her personality. She could have a really annoying laugh." Gilderdyne leaned
forward on her elbows and raised an eyebrow. "You ever given that any thought?"
Oliver hadn't, but the fairy didn't wait for him to reply. "I bet you don't even know her name."
"She doesn't have one."
Gilderdyne smirked. "Oh, doesn't she? Everyone has a name, even if they don't know it." She stood up. "In fact, if you love her so much, you should be able to figure it out. I'll give you three clues and three guesses. If you can guess her name, I will give you all the lightning bugs you need to free her."
What was it about wizards and fairies and these damn riddles? While Oliver was
perturbed he had to face yet another puzzle, the chance to free his true love overcame
any ill feelings, and he accepted Gilderdyne's challenge.
"But if you fail, I'm going to bunny you," Gilderdyne warned.
He swallowed hard and nodded.
Gilderdyne sang and the air sparkled around her;
"My name is no name like its kind,
For a name like mine knows no rhyme.
Its power cannot be gained by scroll
Written by man, elf or troll.
My name is whispered by the wind
And with that last clue, you shall begin."
Oliver walked back and forth across the office. He muttered to himself, "It has no rhyme, you can't learn it by reading and it sounds like the wind. Hmmm."
Gilderdyne tapped her wand on her hip, sending little sparks to the floor. "Time's a wasting. Places to be and all that."
"A moment, please?" Oliver thought of the King. What would he have named his little girl?
"Wrong!" said the fairy, with wicked glee. "Hope you like carrots."
Maybe the evil wizard named her. She has been his captive for nineteen years.
Gilderdyne cocked her head to the left. "What? You think I'm a genie? No, dearie. You're going to make such an adorable Lop."
Oliver cursed himself. He thought of his love, how close he was to freeing her, but how far away she was. What must it have been like for her all those years? No one to talk to. Only herself. She must have seen the outside world, longed to be free. How did she survive? What type of person was she?
Then Oliver imagined it:
A king crying at night for his lost child.
A bitter wizard bemoaning his fate.
A girl seeking a word, an idea, that would see her through the days until her rescue.
Oliver saw himself back in FairyGlen, waiting to see his love, wind swirling, blowing his hair around, whispering to him. What? What must he find?
"Her name is Courage."
Gilderndyne raised her wand as if to strike Oliver, but then gently waved it over his head.
First, one lightning bug came...
And then a dozen...
And then a hundred...
And before hardly any time had passed, Oliver stood before the sundial in FairyGlen in the middle of the night, ten thousand lightning bugs waiting on his command. The air hummed with the beating of their wings. Nearby, Gilderdyne and The Nottingdale Wizard attended to the bug army, keeping them in place and alert. On the road, a procession of the King's men waited on horseback. The King himself anxiously paced in front of his carriage, advisors trying their best to get him to calm down.
All held their collective breath, expecting the word to come from the unassuming farmer. Oliver smiled, knowing in his heart when the right moment would be. He took in a great lungful of air and said,
His bug battalion flashed their tails all at once and kept them lit, creating a midnight sun. Brighter and brighter it grew until many shielded their eyes. And then, as their glow reached its peak, the door between worlds pried open.
Oliver stepped through to a chamber. The Wizard hadn't left her to suffer in poverty all those years. Shelves filled with books lined the walls. Supplies for arts and crafts were stacked neatly in corners. A thousand gorgeous dresses hung in a closet. Oliver searched for his lady and found her still in bed. He knelt beside Princess Courage and held her hand.
"Courage?" he whispered. Then a bit louder, "Courage."
Slowly, her eyes opened.
"Is this a dream?" she asked half-asleep.
"No," Oliver replied, "It's time for you to go home."
Her eyes shot fully open and she wrapped her arms around him. Between sobs of joy she whispered, "I knew it! I knew you'd come." She jumped from her bed and grabbed a drawing she'd made. A stalwart and heroic man stood in the doorway between realms, his hand extended out for her.
When Oliver realized, embarrassingly, it was a picture of him, his cheeks flushed.
"I looked at it every day to give me strength while you were gone," she grinned.
They hugged again. As they made to cross back into his world, Oliver's princess paused. She took him in with a question.
"My captor, the Wizard Janke, used to visit me, but I have not seen him for many years. Do you know what happened to him?"
"When he wouldn't give a Barmaid her tip, she took his."
Courage didn't get the reference at first, but being a well-read girl, she caught on and shuttered. Oliver tried to pull her through, but she hesitated for another moment. On the other side, the couple were urged to hurry, as the firefly's tails were getting tired. Some had started to go out.
"He told me my father, the King, offered any person who would rescue me their greatest desire. Is that why you worked so hard to free me? For the reward?"
Oliver shook his head.
"Then what is your fondest wish, my savior?"
Sheepishly, the young farmer answered, "Isn't it obvious? To have Courage, of course."
Cover Image by:
Lee Ann Barlow