“We must be very quiet girls,” Raynold cautioned, leading them under a moss covered tree carefully. “This is the first actually dangerous part of our mission to recover the Fire Stone.”
“Are you afraid we’ll get lost in this wood?” Diana asked worriedly.
“Nothing like that,” Raynold quickly assured her, “we just need to keep an eye on our surroundings. The Swamp Queen doesn’t always give me a pleasant welcome, though she ought to know by now that I never come here to give her or her people trouble. Just follow me and try to not get too worried about our situation.”
“Too late,” Alice whispered to her sister riding right next to her.
Alyssa swallowed a smile and shook her head helplessly. Sometimes her twin’s gloom and doom sayings were funny, and other times she wished her sister would keep them too herself. This time she was wishing that Alice hadn’t said anything. Her own mind was already making up terrible scenarios, and she had her hands full calming her active imagination down.
“Should we try to work on our story?” Alyssa asked Alice suddenly.
Alice moaned and buried her head in Troy’s shaggy mane. She mumbled a reply, but when Alyssa had to ask “What?” She detangled herself from the horse’s mane and said, “I can’t, I don’t want, to think right now. Any time I start thinking I get nasty pictures in my mind of what might happen to us if the Swamp Queen is in a bad mood.”
“You know that we’ll all be fine,” Alyssa reminded.
Alice sighed. “I do know, yes. But my mind will play tricks on me anyways.”
For a moment all was silence. The only noise the adventurers heard were the steady plodding of the horses hooves on the soft earth. No birds sang in the trees. Not even insects dared break that awful quietness with their various noises. No wind blew through the trees. Everything was still.
Alice felt the hair on the back of her neck rise and she shuddered. “I think we’re being…” She began.
A spear sailed through the air and lodged itself in the trunk of a tree inches from Diana’s head. Star reared and Diana tumbled off her back and landed on some moss beside the faint trail that they had been following.
Alyssa fought for control over Rebel again and even Troy seemed frightened, though he hid it pretty well all things considered.
“Followed,” Alice finished.
And there they were. At least, there were three of them. After peering into the bushes, Alice made out a few more and knew from their book that they were probably surrounded. Diana stood up slowly, her eyes wide with fear. Alyssa gained control back again and sat tightlipped on top of Rebel, her eyes studying the creatures in obvious disgust.
They stood about four feet tall and were dressed in what looked like some kind of swamp grass skirt tied around their waists and something else that resembled a burlap sack used as a shirt. Altogether they pictured the ugliest thing any of the girls had ever laid their eyes on.
“They’re worse than I imagined them,” Alice whispered in horror to her sister.
Alyssa nodded grimly. “While everything else is better, they are worse,” She agreed.
The closest creature appeared to be the spokesman. It spoke to them in gurgles and hisses, but somehow all the girls could understand what it was saying, “I am Slumeff, Chief Swamp Warrior of the legion of Swamp Warriors belonging to the Swamp Queen, Her Majesty Gloria. You must come with us.”
“And if we won’t?” Diana asked, bravely doing her best to face the creatures with courage.
“Then you will all die,” It answered simply.
Alice and Alyssa both knew that it was telling the truth.
“We’d better go,” Alice said to Diana softly. “They have us surrounded. There’s no way we’ll be able to escape.”
“Where’s Raynold?” Diana asked, frustration written plainly all over her face. “He promised to protect us! But now where is he? This is our time of need, and he disappears!”
Alyssa grabbed Star’s reins and led her over to Diana under the watchful eyes of the swamp warriors. “Better get on your horse,” She said. “You don’t want to have to walk.”
Diana gulped back her tears of fright and re-mounted Star. “I-I’ll be ok now,” She replied. “I just lost control of my temper for a second. It won’t happen again for a while now.”
Alyssa and Alice both gave her a smile of understanding before they were led off, not entirely nicely, to the Swamp Queen’s palace.
The appearance of the Swamp Queen’s palace was no surprise to Alice and Alyssa who had described it recently in their book, but Diana looked worried as she glanced around her surroundings.
“Is it…” She hesitated and looked at the swamp grass tied back to form a door, “…safe?”
Alice exchanged a glance with her twin. Should I tell her? The mute question hung for a moment between them.
Alyssa hesitated only slightly, and then shook her head. “She’ll know soon enough,” She told Alice in a barely audible whisper.
Slumeff, the swamp warrior guarding them, prodded them into the dwelling with the point of his spear. None of the girls argued. They were ushered into what appeared to be the Swamp Queen’s throne room, and then lined up: Alyssa first, then Alice, and lastly Diana, her face white with fear.
The Swamp Queen was sitting on her throne, and looked exactly as Alice and Alyssa had described her in their book. If Alice searched her face carefully, she could see kindness hidden in its ugly folds.
“These are the girls you found trespassing?” the queen gurgled.
“Yes your majesty,” The guard replied.
“They don’t seem to be too dangerous looking, bring them closer. My eyes are not as good as they used to be.”
The guard nudged the reluctant girls closer with the point of his spear. Alice and Alyssa hoped their faces showed less fear than Diana’s did. She was calm, even composed, but her face was still ashen. The queen noticed this and her face softened slightly.
“Don’t be afraid children,” The queen said, as she had in their book. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Y-you won’t?” Diana gulped.
The queen smiled, and her ugly features faded somewhat. In fact, she almost looked nice. “No,” she answered. “I won’t hurt you.”
Slowly Diana, closely followed by Alice and Alyssa, came nearer. The queen looked her over.
“You’re all quite young!” She exclaimed. ‘And Raynold thinks you can complete a mission?’
The girls nodded, Diana getting over her surprise that the queen knew their guide. “Yes, I’m young, but being small can help me do things that others can’t. I may not be as strong as some, but I can be very determined.”
“Maybe I am wrong…” the queen admitted. “You are determined to complete this mission then?”
Diana nodded again, her wide eyes giving away her inner astonishment that the Swamp Queen knew so much about them.
Smiling, the queen put out a hand. Gingerly, the Diana took it to kiss it as was the custom, though she did shudder slightly beforehand. Alice and Alyssa did the same, but they had the saving knowledge that her hands were clean. Diana came away from the ceremonial kiss with a look of relief on her face, which the twins knew to be her discovery that the Queen’s hands were actually very clean.
The queen beckoned to the guard standing stiffly behind the girls. “Slumeff, make sure this girl gets through our land in peace. No harm shall come to her or any friend of hers.”
The guard had just obediently begun leading them back out of the palace when Raynold, burst through the door. At the sight of the girls, safe and sound, he stopped suddenly and stood breathing heavily.
“Where were you?” Diana blurted. “You deserted us in our time of need! And you promised to protect us!”
Raynold shook his head. “I’ll explain on our way out of here,” he said after he had sufficient breath to do so. Turning to the swamp queen, he smiled. “Thank you for keeping them safe. I shall never forget your kindness.”
The queen returned his smile. “I like these girls,” she said. “Even if they had not been your friends, although that certainly helped their case, they are all able to hide their fear well and are strong in ways that not many attain in their lifetime.”
“I’ll not argue with that fact!” Their guide answered with a light laugh. Motioning to the girl, both of them left the palace of reeds in peace, followed closely by Slumeff who still had his orders to ensure their safe passage through their land.