She knew this was a mistake. Coming to these loud things was always a mistake, but she wanted to be liked so badly! When Marly Hubert, the most popular girl at school had invited her to the carnival, she wanted to go simply so they’d stop calling her “Spacy Stella”. But once somebody set off those dang firecrackers, she bolted. So here she was, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, crying and trying to find a way home.
“Anybody seen Stella?” asked Jenny, one of Stella’s only friends.
“Oh, she ran off somewhere like the flake she is!” said Marly. “She’s probably crying behind some dumpster.”
“You’re not worried about her? You’re the one who invited her.”
“I didn’t think she’d actually come. You know what she’s like. Do you know she still plays with dolls?!” laughed Marly
“You invited her over to make fun of her?” exploded Jenny. “You are such a jerk, Marly Hubert!”
Jenny and Marly wandered off, with Jenny using a variety of insults that Stella was positive Marly didn’t understand, since Jenny was a theatre kid and very familiar with Shakespeare.
Stella supposed she should’ve come out of hiding, but she was in such bad shape. Why was she like this?! She didn’t belong here, she wanted to be… somewhere else. Somewhere nice and quiet where nobody would bother her or make loud noises or make her wear scratchy clothes and eat slimy foods. She chewed nervously on her hoodie string. She should try to catch up to Jenny… a burst of more firecrackers made Stella run as far away as she could away from the noise.
Stella didn’t stop until she reached a quiet little park. She looked at her phone; it was dead and she was lost. She didn’t even know where the carnival was anymore. The noise was still echoing in her head, she had to calm down, then she could find a policeman to help her get home. Stella wrapped her arms around her body and began to rock back and forth. In her head, she called to mind her favorite CD to fall asleep with, full of poetry and gentle music from a TV show her mom liked when she was Stella’s age. The actor who read the poetry always calmed her down, his voice was so soothing and smokey and quiet…
“‘Scuse me, miss?” a deep voice came from behind her. Stella jumped and turned around, to find a man behind her. He was a big guy, tall and built like a linebacker. He was wearing a hoodie with the hood up, so Stella couldn’t see his face. He had big hands too, almost twice the size of Stella’s.
“You look like you’re in trouble.” He continued.
Stella looked him up and down. She said nothing. He cocked his head to one side, looking at her.
“Listen, kid, are you scared?”
Stella nodded. “Can- can I use your phone?”
“Don’t have one. What’s scared you so bad?” he looked around. “Is somebody bothering you?”
“You. My mom always said don’t talk to strangers.”
“Your mom’s smart. Listen, I’ll leave you alone, but if you run into trouble, just yell my name: Torben.”
Stella nodded, watching Torben fade into the shadows. She felt like she trusted him somehow, like the big brother she never had. Stella got up and began looking for a policeman.
She wandered, looking for help, nearly forgetting her troubles. With the little stream running by and the fireflies, and the shadows, she could almost imagine she had gone out of her world and into one where she was at peace. She started reciting one of the poems from her CD under her breath, the sound giving her some comfort.
Stella heard someone alongside her, a man she guessed. She looked, and saw a smaller man, smaller than Torben (She wouldn’t have been so frightened by Torben), but certainly big enough to carry off a little girl like herself. Stella broke into a run, the smaller man following close behind. She sprinted, but was flagging, the unknown man catching up to her. In desperation, she called out
Something huge crashed into the small man, knocking him down. Once he was up, he scurred away. Stella sat down and rocked back and forth.
“He’s gone, he won’t bother you again.” Torben got down on one knee. “I know you shouldn’t trust me, but I’m asking you to. It’s not safe out here.” Torben pulled a pocket knife from his back pocket. “You take this, and if I do anything that makes you feel unsafe, feel free to use it.”
Somebody who meant harm wouldn’t just hand over a weapon. Stella took the knife, and got to her feet. She wobbled, Torben caught her.
“This won’t do.” he knelt back down. “Here, climb on my back.”
“Won’t I be too heavy?”
“Nah! Up you get.”
Stella put her arms over Torben’s shoulders, then he picked up her knees and rose like she weighed nothing at all. He must be enormously strong! His hoodie smelled like damp dirt, candlesmoke, and something sweet. As they walked through the park, Stella heard things moving in the dark. A huge moth flew past her head, glowing eyes told her there were animals gathering in the dark.
“Don’t be scared. They’re just curious.”
Stella’s keen ears took in whispers.
“Torben is bringing someone!”
“Another stray human, I’ll wager. Tor’s a big softy deep down.”
“He’s big and scary, but he has a good heart.”
Torben and the procession of animals and insects arrived at a huge drain culvert and walked inside. Just inside the drain was a door marked with glowing words in a language Stella had never seen. Torben let go of one of her legs, pulled a golden key from his hoodie pocket and unlocked the door. He opened it, Stella flinched from the sudden light that poured from it, the same sweet aroma that clung to Torben’s clothes permeated the air. Torben walked into the room, followed by the animals. He locked the door, and as he did, Stella gasped. All the animals and insects had turned into beautiful people! The great Cecropia moth was a perfect tiny human with wings, no taller than her thumb. A fox became a dignified Japanese man with samurai swords at his sides, A deer turned into a young Native American woman with huge, bright eyes and a medicine wheel stitched into her dress. Stella shrank back a bit, but stared wide-eyed, had she been brought to a fairyland?
The creatures all studied the human with her golden hair, freckled nose, and eyes as blue as the heavens.
“Y’all never seen a human before?” questioned Torben, sarcastically.
The creatures all looked away and looked nervous. They quietly dispersed, and Torben was able to continue walking. Stella looked around, trying to take it all in. It was so bright, but so quiet, and it smelled so nice, like springtime.
“You’ve been pretty quiet, Kiddo.”
“Just looking around. Where are we?”
“We’re in the underground city of Evermore, part of the Sovereign Realm of Otherworld. There are cities all over the world just like this where the people of Otherworld live and work.”
“What do you do with humans?”
“We’re helpers to humans, we fight in the shadows against witches and wizards, mainly. My father is commander of the garrison here, we’re pretty small though, especially for the size of the city.”
“So… you’re not a human?” said Stella slowly.
“Not quite… I’m half human. My father’s an ogre.” Torben explained carefully. He got down on one knee. “Hop off. I want you to see my face.”
Stella did as she was told. Torben yanked off his hood, revealing a most interesting face. His jaw was heavy, but round, making his face oval shaped, the tiniest tips of his eye teeth sticking up from his lower jaw. A pair of tiny horns, no more than about two inches tall, sprouted from his forehead, framed by curly strawberry-blond hair. His eyes were bright blue, and he looked away from Stella, as though ashamed.
Stella wasn’t afraid. Oh, the girls at school would probably make fun of him, he wasn’t handsome, per se, but there was something that was lovable. Something soft. She touched his horns, just to see if they were real. Torben looked up at her as she did.
“You’re not scared of me?”
“No. Not at all.”
Torben opened the door of one of the side chambers. Inside, it reminded Stella of Bag End, rich woods and bright colors everywhere, especially blue and yellow. “Mom! Dad! I’m home!”
A human woman in a peach blouse and tan slacks came into the room. She had blue eyes, blonde hair, and a bright smile; besides the eyes it was clear that Torben had inherited his looks from his father.
“Hello, Torben. Oh, you’ve brought a guest!”
“Yeah, she got herself lost in the park-” Torben smacked himself in the head. “Jeez! I never asked your name!”
“Stella. Stella Marie Leroux.”
“Well, Stella Marie Leroux, I’m Katrina, Torben’s mother. My husband Eardwulf will be along shortly. Would you like something to eat?”
Stella shook her head. “My mom’s expecting me home…”
“Where do you live?”
“14 Pine Street.”
“ That’s east of here. You had better take her home, Torben. It’s getting late and her mother will worry.”
“‘Corse! Come on, Stella.”
Torben led Stella down through Evermore until they came to a wide underground river. Torben helped Stella into a canoe with a swan’s head on the prow, and paddled her across the river, singing as he went. They walked upward from the riverbank and out another door to the outside. Stella recognised everything now… including the police cars parked outside her house.
“Yeah, you jog right home.”
“What can I tell them? I get the feeling you don’t want Evermore found.”
“No, we don’t. Just tell them a Good Samaritan gave you a ride home. It’s the truth, isn’t it?”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t be lying!” Stella began to jog in the direction of her house, then stopped to look back. Torben stood watching her silently. Then she turned and ran home.
Of course her mother was upset, but after hearing as much as Stella could say, she understood and was determined to call Mrs. Hubert in the morning about Marly’s appalling treatment of Stella. Safe in her quiet, comfy room with all her stuffed toys and dolls, Stella dreamed of Evermore and all the adventures she could have there. It was her sort of place, like she had been born more for the fairyland of Evermore than this world.
Torben sat down to his late supper with his parents. Eardwulf studied his son, who had a habit of finding children in need of his protection and bringing them here. He approved of course, finding a vulnerable soul and bringing her to safety was how he’d met Katrina, but Torben was also young and restless, and he might get into trouble one of these days.
“Son, we must have a word.”
Torben knew what was coming next.
“I know, Dad. I need to be careful.”
“You inherited your mother’s gift of reading hearts, but you know humans, even children are tricksy. They can fool even the wisest of us.”
Torben heard this lecture many times before. “So what am I supposed to do? Leave little kids to get grabbed?”
“No, Torben, listen to me-”
“One of our guiding principles is that those who have power should use it to help others.”
Eardwulf sighed. “I know. It’s difficult.”
“We all have to find a balance.” offered Katrina. “We want to help, but everytime we do, we risk our secrets. It’s a chance we have to take. And you have to let him take it.” Katrina glanced at her husband, seeing if he understood.
A few days after her adventure, Stella biked down to the culvert, just to see if it was a dream. She walked until she found the dead end and the door! She touched the handle, just out of curiosity. The door sprang open. Stella looked back, then went through the door. It closed with a click, but she wasn’t worried. She wanted to find Torben so she could introduce him to her mother. He could let her out with his key. She walked down to the river and found a canoe and life vest waiting at the dock. Stella carefully got in and put on the vest. She untied the boat and paddled off.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked, but once she started singing “Another One Bites the Dust” like they taught her in first aid and CPR class, she got the hang of it. Arriving at the other side, she tied up the boat and began hiking away down the tunnels.
Stella got pretty far down the cavern, when she was distracted by a light in a side chamber. She walked toward it, enticed by the delicious aroma that accompanied the light. It made her feel calm, and it cleared her head, making all her little quirks and all the noise in her mind go away.
The light was a hole in the ceiling letting in the sun and reflecting off a tree with golden-red flowers. A patch of grass surrounded the tree, which had silvery bark like a birch, and bright green leaves. Under the tree sat a handsome man with long white-blond hair. He was dressed in black, and had a harp in his hands. He had a beautiful voice, singing in a language Stella didn’t understand. Beside him, lying on the grass was a woman with long black hair. She was slightly built, and dressed in black and pink. Stella couldn’t see her face. From the way the man was leaning slightly over toward the girl, Stella figured he must be singing to her. She backed away slowly, not wanting to disturb them.
She continued on, thinking about that tree. What kind of tree was it? Why did the smell of the flowers make her feel… not weird, anymore? She was thinking so hard she nearly ran headlong into Torben.
“Sheesh! Stella, don’t do that!” Torben blinked hard. “Wait a second, how did you even get down here? The doors lock themselves.”
“The one in the culvert near my house opened when I touched it.”
Torben rubbed a hand over his face. “That means you’re supposed to be here. What brought you down here?”
“I want you to meet my mom! Will you come?”
Torben chewed his lip. “I dunno if I should. I’m not supposed to go up in the daylight. But you don’t live far from the door. Could you bring her to the culvert opening?”
“To meet my “Good Samaritan”? Absolutely!”
They set out arm in arm back to the door. They passed the chamber with the tree and Torben looked inside, hearing the music.
“What is that tree, Torben?”
“It’s an Elysium tree. Every city has one, it’s magic keeps us safe- reasonably safe, anyway- from witches and whatnot.”
“I saw it when I came in. It’s so lovely and smells so nice.”
“We make medicine that heals nearly every wound and sickness from the flowers. It does smell nice doesn’t it?”
The elf man looked up and nodded at them. Torben nodded back.
“That’s Lord Fingal and Rosera. They’re courting, she comes so she can see her family. Six sisters! Do you believe that?”
Stella burst into her house. “Mom! You’ll never guess who I ran into!”
“Who, honey?” Mrs. Jane Leroux (who looked very much like her daughter) came out of her office.
“My “Good Samaritan”, Torben, he wants to meet you, but… we have to go to him.”
“Okay…” said Jane skeptically. “Where is he?”
“Down by the old drain, he’s… well, he’s not conventionally attractive and rather shy about how he looks.”
Jane raised an eyebrow; Stella was usually a bit more blunt. She grabbed her sneakers and followed her daughter down to the culvert.
They climbed down into the tall weeds and baby trees that lined the swampy side of the road. Standing by the old drain was a huge young man with beefy hands. He pulled back his hood a tiny bit so they could see his face. He smiled crookedly, shyly.
“Mom, this is Torben, Torben, this is my mom, Jane.”
“H’lo, ma’am. You’ve got a swell kid, Mrs. Leroux.”