Aedna sputters to the surface, blindly thrashing her legs and arms. The Pinkietoads leap from their lily pads, diving underwater, watching in wide-eyed wonder at the strange creature flailing in their pond.
At last, Aedna opens her eyes. The pond is ringed by trees, but not the kind of trees she knows. The silvery bark sparkles in the sunshine, and the purple leaves whistle in the breeze as she swims awkwardly toward shore, finally standing when her feet find the muddy bottom.
Two grey-ish green trolls, out for their afternoon stroll, gawp with open mouths, their sharp teeth glinting.
“What sort of creature is that?” Borrarorr asks his wife.
“I think it may be a human child,” Klaradair replies.
“But humans can’t cross over to this realm.”
“It did. It’s here.”
“Aaahhhhh!” Aedna screams, on seeing the trolls.
“Aaahhhhh!” the trolls reply in greeting.
“Am I dreaming? You can’t be real.”
“Pinch yourself and see,” says Klaradair.
“What’s your name, human child?”
“A…Aedna. Where am I? Who are you? What’s going on?”
“I am Klaradair,” Klaradair says, then points to her husband, “and this is Borrarorr. You’re in the Queendom of Faerfolk. As for how you got here, or why, we don’t know.”
“The last thing I remember, I was walking in the forest.” Aedna says, wringing some water from her long dark hair. “I’d fought with my Mom, and kinda stormed off into the woods. I saw a beautiful blue butterfly and followed it deeper into the forest. And then I got really sleepy, so I slept on a bed of pine needles. And when I wake up, I’m nearly drowning in that pond.”
“You must be here for a reason, and we must find that reason, otherwise the Queen will have your eyes,” says Borrarorr.
“My eyes? What for?”
“Human eyes, emerald eyes, such as yours, would be a treasure beyond measure,” Borrarorr says, as Klaradair nods in agreement.
“How do I find out the reason why I’m here?”
“First we must determine, what useful skills you have," Klaradair asks.
“Skills? I'm eleven. I don't have skills, like grown-ups do.”
“Can you spin flax into gold?” Borrarorr offers.
“Can you play the lyre, or harp, or…” Klaradair asks.
“No. I don't even sing very well.”
The trolls frown. “That’s too bad. We’re looking for a singer for our jazz band,” Borrarorr says.
A raven lands on a nearby log. “Good afternoon, Poe,” say the trolls. Poe nods and pronounces:
The Queen approaches on the road
To gather Pinkie- and Murktoads
The green-eyed girl from humankind
If she dallies, she’ll soon be blind
“If we stay here, Queen Thalia will find her and pluck out her pretty eyes,” Klaradair says.
“If we take her home and the Queen finds out, she’ll make a crown from our teeth,” says Borrarorr.
“Then we can’t let the Queen find out.” Klaradair says, beckoning Aedna to follow them into the forest.
After an hour they reach a small hut with a thatched roof. Borrarorr stokes the fire on the hearth as Klaradair pours hearty broth into bowls and sets them on the rough wooden table.
“You can have Bagga’s room,” says Klaradair. “That’s our son. He’s a drummer, on tour with Tubadoors until winter.”
“I…thank you,” Aedna says, sipping the broth. “You said everyone must have a reason, to be here. What’s yours?”
“Well, we used to collect tolls at the bridge,” says Borrarorr. “But we weren’t making enough gold for a sufficient tribute to Queen Thalia. So we started playing music, and now Faerfolk travel far and wide to hear us play.”
“So, every creature has a job. And they have to give their money to the Queen?”
“We must all pay tribute, yes. From the Murktoads to the Nightvales, from the Pinkietoads to the Muse-Ravens, from the Bridge Trolls to Shadowgales, each and every inhabitant of Faerfolk Queendom must contribute,” Borrarorr says.
“If they don’t,” he continues, “the Queen extracts the things that make each creature beautiful and unique. She’s scraped the shimmering scales from the Pinkietoads, and bottled the deep brown eyes of the Murktoads.”
“Snipped the gossamer wings of the Nightvales.” Klaradair adds, “Stolen sorrowful songs from the Shadowgales, and...” she says, glancing at Poe who’s perched on the windowsill, “ripped the rhymes from the Muse-Ravens.”
“That’s terrible! Why don’t the Faerfolk refuse to do what she says?” Aedna asks.
“She’s too powerful. Her magic has only grown stronger, and she can pay for a large army to protect her,” Borrarorr says.
"There must be something the creatures could do," Aedna says, trying to stifle a yawn.
“You’ve had a long day, child. Why don’t you rest, now,” Klairadair says, leading her to a cosy bedroom.
Aedna falls into a deep yet restless sleep. Black wraiths chase her through the forest, she stumbles and falls in the dark. Gets back up and falls again. The wraiths get closer and closer until they encircle her. An elvish Queen approaches. She’s beautiful in a cruel way, like a solitaire diamond, all edges and angles, her pale face reflecting in a never-ending hall of mirrors.
She brandishes a silver spoon, the edge razor sharp, as she glides toward Aedna. “I’ll have your emerald eyes-s-s-s, little one,” she hisses. “so pretty, I’ll scoop them with my silver spoon. And make some lovely earrings-s-s.” The wraiths hold her down as the Queen nears. The cold sharp edge of spoon slices into…
“Nooooo!” Aenda screams, waking in the unfamiliar room, covered in sweat and breathing fast.
Klairadair bursts through the door, a small candle in her hand. She sets it on the side table and sits on the edge of the bed. “What’s wrong?”
“I, uh, I had a bad dream I guess. The Queen was chasing me. And…”
“I miss my Mom.”
“I’m sure she's missing you too, terribly. We’ll find a way to get you back.”
In the morning, as they sit round the table, drinking a woody-scented tea, Borrarror says, “We don’t have much time. The Queen has spies everywhere. If she doesn’t already know about you, she soon will.”
“She knows about her,” Klaradair says, “the Queen chased Aedna in her dream, just last night.”
Borrarror and Klaradair exchange worried looks.
“So, we must find your talent today,” Borrarorr says.
“I, I’m not talented in any way,” says Aedna, staring into her mug of tea, “I’m ordinary. Maybe less than ordinary, if that’s a thing.”
“Everyone has some talent,” Borrarorr says. “Sometimes it takes a while to discover it, but you have it already. We just have to find it.”
“What have people told you that you’re good at?” Klairadair asks.
“Uh…I’m good at daydreaming, and sloppy handwriting,” Aedna says, “according to my teachers. I’m good at not listening and being wilful and stubborn, according to my Mom.”
“Hmmm, not sure how we can make those into something people would pay for…” says Klairadair. “There must be something else you excel at. Think hard. Someone must have praised you for something?”
“My Grandma says I’ve got an active imagination, the way I make up stories from thin air. Does that count?”
“Yes…yes. You could spin fantastic stories.”
“Okay. I think I remember some fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel.”
“What are fairy tales?” asks Borrarorr.
“They’re uh, stories about magical lands and creatures. And people getting into trouble, and then finding a way to get out of trouble. And then living happily ever after.”
“Sounds like nonsense to me, but it might work,” he says. “But you’ll need to tell the Queen a tale that really impresses her.”
“What does she like?
“Gold. And more gold. And ways to get more gold.”
“Okay, so she’s greedy. I know plenty of stories about that,” Aedna says. “If the Queen likes my story, will she return me to my Mom?”
“The Queen has the power to do so,” Klairadair says, “but if she thinks she can spin gold from your stories, then there’s not much motivation for her to let you go.”
Their conversation is interrupted by Poe, who lands on the windowsill and says,
The Queen pursues, arriving soon
With her ogres and sharpened spoon
Spin your tales to earn the gold
Or lose your eyes and here grow old
The Queen arrives in a gold carriage bedecked with jewels and pulled by seven strong, sweaty ogres. Her silver skin shimmers in the sunlight. Atop her fine platinum hair sits a golden crown, embedded with the sharp teeth of trolls and the sorrowful eyes of Murktoads. Borrarorr and Klairadair shiver, despite the warm sunshine.
“Trolls-s-s,” she says, “Are you hiding a treasure here? You know the punishment for that.”
“No, your highness. We are keeping the human safe, so that you may hear her wondrous stories, “ Borrarorr says, bowing deeply.
“Stories-s-s you say? They better be worth their weight in gold, or I’ll have those emerald eyes-s-s for my crown.”
“Oh, it’s a doozy of a story,” Aedna says, swallowing hard.
“Chair!” the Queen shouts. One ogre gets down on all fours while a second covers him in a plush carpet. “Backrest” she says. The second ogre drapes a carpet over his head and stands next the first. The Queen sits on one ogre, leaning her back against the other.
“You may begin your story,” the Queens says. “No wait. Ogre, bring me my silver eye-plucker.” A third ogre retrieves the silver spoon from the carriage and gives it to her. The Queen nods toward Aedna.
Aedna begins, “Ah, once upon a time, in the land of the humans, there was an ugly duckling. The duckling was so ugly that its parents could not bear to look upon it—”
“Borrring,” The Queen says, yawning.
Aedna looks at the trolls, who nod encouragingly.
“But one day the duckling happened upon a witch in the woods,” Aedna continues, “And the witch took pity on the duckling and granted him a single wish. The duckling thought for a long time about what he should to wish for. Finally he said, ‘I wish to be wanted by everyone.’"
“And, uh,” Aedna trails off for a second as the Queen sharpens the spoon against the fourth ogre’s teeth. “Then, then the witch waved her bony hands and chanted something. And whoosh! The duck turned into something beautiful. He became a goose, a girl goose who could lay eggs. But not just any eggs…This goose could lay golden eggs.”
The Queen leans toward Aedna, her pointed ears twitching.
“And people came from far and wide to see the Goose who lays the Golden Eggs. And the Goose was very popular. All the cute boy gooses, er, geese, asked her to dance. The other girl geese were very jealous.”
“Where is this Golden Goose now? You must take me to it at once,” the Queen says, standing and striding toward Aedna.
“Ah, well, the Golden Goose is, uh, it’s a story—”
“An amazing true story,” Klairadair interrupts, staring meaningfully at Aedna.
“Uh, yeah, sure. A true story. And the goose is, is my friend. We hang out sometimes, because, she likes to hear my stories. And she gives me eggs. So, I have like, loads of eggs in my room. And Mom is like, ‘Aedna, you have too many eggs.’ And I’m like, ‘chill out Mom, I—'”
“You will show me this goose.”
“Yeah. But it’s back in, um, my land, with the humans, so…”
The Queen removes her crown, holding it in front of her, like a large ring resting on its side. “Put your hand into the crown ring,” she commands. Aedna slowly puts her left hand into it, expecting to see it poke out the other side, but instead it disappears into the ring. The Queen adds her hand and says something in elvish. Just before they swirl into the crown-ring, Poe joins them.
Aedna lies on a bed of pine needles, staring up at a cloudless blue sky. Beside her is a mouse with silver fur and pointed ears, and Poe perched on the crown.
At once the queen becomes a mouse
The magic’s gone, as is her house
Aedna with her story prevails
Future author of fairy tales
Poe hops gracefully into the crown and disappears before it disintegrates into a small clump of sticks and leaves. The mouse looks at Aedna, ears twitching. A red-tailed hawk circles above, eyeing the rodent with interest.
Aedna stands up, brushing pine needles off her clothing. A blue butterfly flits by and she follows it, knowing it will lead her home.
"And that," Aedna smiles to the children sat round her in the school library, "is how, many years ago, I learned how to spin golden stories."