A Novel

Written and translated from the original Croatian by Viktoria Faust

The Great Escape From Fairyland
– OR –
The Witch, the Prince, the Girl and the Dragon

Chapter 1

Bartolomeow was no ordinary cat. That should have been obvious to everyone, or at least to those who did their best to pay him a little more attention than people usually pay to the cats. “Oh, what a nice kitty!” Cat Lover would say, stroking the cat’s silky black fur. If a cat lover came over for morning coffee, tea, or some snack in the home of his mistress, Bartolomeow would cuddle, very catlike, and hang around Cat Lover’s legs, trying to win a bit of cake or some cheese. There was hardly a day when some visitors, who enjoyed a sweet snack, were not in their house.

“Nice, fat kitty!” Cat Lover would comment, scratching Bartolomeow behind the ears, and Bartolomeow would twist his neck, adjust it to his most convenient position, and completely uninterestedly stare into nothing, somewhere between Cat Lover and the plates of cake, utterly ignoring the insult about his beautiful, rounded lines. Bartolomeow was not too bothered about what people thought, if things went in his favor. And the fact that he was a nice, thick, well-kept house cat was certainly not going against him.

He was not the only cat in the house, but that did not seem to bother him. There was Cleo, a little black kitty that, unlike him, had never attracted the attention of visitors. It was as if she were not even there. Bartolomeow was pampered, fed cakes and admired. She sat in the corner of the sofa, asleep or cleaning her shiny coat, and if someone, in his or her enthusiasm, tried to fondle her, she would only pick herself up and go into the other room. She did not like to be bothered by visitors.

But only Tili knew exactly how strange Bartolomeow was or Cleo wasn’t. The first time that she became aware of it, she was six years old. Bartolomeow and Cleo had been in her home since forever, but she had always ignored them, thinking of them as no more than some furry, live toys, which sometimes (but only when they were in a very good mood) allowed her to play with them. And only to a certain extent. Cats are very loyal to the Limits, almost as much as to themselves.

Tili was quite a strange and lonely child, and her home was rarely visited by her friends. (Unlike friends of her mother, who greatly irritated Tili—some of them seemed like they never went home.) Tili’s favorite company was her books, and the silence of her small room. There, among her four walls, she felt freest. She began to read at an early age, and was immediately immersed in magical worlds between the covers of books. Once she became involved with the magic of letters and words, she never wanted to leave it.

Of course, Tili knew these were just fairy tales, impossible things. People wrote these books, invented these worlds, placed their heroes in strange situations, to arouse interest in their readers. Eventually Tili decided that she did not want to lose herself in fantasies and imaginary things. After all, there were so many books that interested her much more—travel books, biographies, and technical books, books that talked about real things and people that existed, or once existed, and that did not rely only on the imagination of some writer. Especially dear to her were the history books.

With watchful eye, her mother followed her interest in the written word, but once she realized how Tili refused particular types of books, she became worried. Tili was certain that, on several occasions, she saw her mother secretly watching her as she read a book about the French Revolution or when, for the second time, she was re-reading Van Gogh’s biography. Initially Tili did not understand Mother’s concern, but then Mother began to bring home some children’s books with adventurous content, which Tili had long ago decided she had outgrown, but which Mother for some reason kept wanting for Tili to read.

Urging her to try to read this or that book, or retelling some story with excessive enthusiasm, her mother secretly watched from under her brows, reading the expressions on Tili’s face, like a doctor who’s looking for the symptoms before deciding on diagnosis.

“No.” Tili was determined. “These are stupid books, Mom, I do not like them.”

“Tili…” Mother was persistent, but Tili was her mother’s daughter and did not budge an inch.

“These are just made-up things. Why should I read them? I happen to like books about real things.”

“But how do you know that they are not real?” Mother continued to be stubborn, standing by the table in Tili’s room, while Tili sat firmly with an encyclopedia in front of her. Tili could not help but notice how Mother was squeezing the book she brought in quite an unusual way. Her fingers turned white from the force with which she held it to her chest. But no matter what, regardless of the fact that Mother was really very, very keen for Tili to read this book (as she would be keen, in a day or two, for her to read another one, with Tili equally uninterested), Tili remained steadfastly committed; she did not want to touch imagined reading.

“OK, then.” Mother finally relented, unsuccessfully hiding her disappointment. “Still, I’m glad you found a book that you like. One can learn a lot from books, you know?”

Tili just nodded her head and would not even look up when Mother was leaving the room. She did not understand why Mother had recently become so insistent with these books. After all, Tili had never seen her read a similar book. In Mother’s room, on her shelves, there was nothing but cookbooks. Hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks.

Because of Mother’s nagging, as well as her numerous friends and neighbors who daily frequented their house, Tili used to completely withdraw to her room and almost never left it without a particularly good reason. However, she never completely closed the door of that room. It was because of something that her father used to say, when she was quite a little girl. It was perhaps her first memory of her father.

“Leave the door ajar, for fairies to enter and protect you from mice, if they come to nibble your dreams.”

She was a big girl now, and thinking about Father’s words she knew how silly they really were, just one of those things that parents say to small children. But all her memories of her father were very dear to her, so Tili silently agreed with herself to respect the rule that Father once long ago set.

For this reason, cats went in and out of her room all the time, whenever they liked. Especially Bartolomeow. And from these visits Tili gradually came to understand how this cat really was unusual.

Many times, he did not really enter the room, so she would not be aware of him until, eventually, she would see his yellow eyes watching her through the open door, motionless, unblinking, while he lay like a black-and-white sphinx, in his black and white suit, with a properly delineated mask on his face, and paws in white slippers carefully stretched out in front of him. He would not move, not even when she met his gaze. He continued to stare, still not blinking, as if Tili were the most interesting thing in the world, even more interesting than the cakes and cheese that he so successfully obtained from Mother’s friends.

Tili would try to pretend that she didn’t care that the cat was watching her, although it often really irritated her. What was so interesting about her that he could watch her for hours, as if she were some tense movie, refusing even to blink in order not to miss any details?

There were days when the cat was much less discreet. Tili liked to read while sitting at her desk in her small room. The cat would silently sneak in, climb up, and sit on the edge of the bed, and then start to stare at the back of Tili’s head, until she turned and looked at him.

“Well, what is it?” she would finally say to that pair of yellow headlights.

Bartolomeow only winked one eye at her.

“Come on, do it again,” said Tili, the first time she saw her cat winking (and since then he had winked many times). But the cat only nodded and meowed one meow, reluctantly, lazily, catlike.

“No, let’s hear it!” Tili insisted, but Bartolomeow only meowed once more and continued to stare.

“I’ll pretend not to see you. Maybe then you’ll go away,” said Tili, and turned her back on him. Fifteen minutes later she turned to see Bartolomeow still in the same place, the same unblinking stare fixed on her.

“You’re annoying.”

About half an hour later she remembered the cat again. She turned and looked and was surprised to see little black Cleo, calmly sleeping on the pillow. Tili did not notice how, in the next hour, Cleo opened one eye and lazily glanced at the girl, who was completely engrossed in a book. But Cleo was not Bartolomeow and had no x-ray eyes, and Tili could not feel her gaze.

* * *

The day that Manuela came to Tili’s to study, it became clear that Mom knew or at least suspected that Bartolomeow was not an ordinary cat, and that there were secrets about him that Mom never shared with Tili.

As we said before, Tili was not frequently visited by friends, because in fact, she didn’t have many. At school Tili shared a desk with Manuela, and they also sat together at lunch time. Tili, who had always been a clever and insightful girl, knew there was a reason why the first-grade teacher put Manuela to sit with her, and why they now were friends. Tili had always been a lonely and withdrawn child, and it was difficult for her to make friends. Teacher probably thought that Tili would have at least one thing in common with this girl. Manuela, just like Tili, did not have a father.

But if you were to ask Tili about her opinion on the matter, she would have made it clear to you how much her situation and Manuela’s were different. Manuela never had a father. Tili heard this on one occasion when one of Mother’s friends had baby-sat Tili, and then had invited two of her friends to join, smoking and laughing and eating coconut cookies, which Mother kept in a ceramic jar with dragons on it, from which Tili was never allowed to eat—they were special biscuits, kept only for special occasions. Manuela’s father never admitted she was his. Tili was confused for a long time by that statement, and would eventually come to the conclusion that it was completely meaningless. What was that supposed to mean, and what should Manuela’s father admit to Manuela? Perhaps he had done something wrong, that’s why he was not there, and now he was ashamed to appear before her? But as much as the whole thing was incomprehensible to Tili, one little voice inside her head told her never to mention this to Manuela. Some people, no matter how young they are, have a good sense about things that might hurt other people. Because of that voice Tili never asked what it was that Manuela’s father did so he could no longer be with Manuela and her mother, who lived in a small, weathered apartment, inherited from Manuela’s grandfather, who died a long time ago, before Manuela was born.

To Tili, however, it was obvious that her situation must surely be different, and that her father had never done anything wrong and had nothing to admit. It just happened that her father one day went away—and still hadn’t come back.

When she was a very little girl, about six years old, Tili had hoped for Father to find a way home, and many times had asked Mom when it would happen. But as she grew older she realized that great sadness overcame her mother every time she raised the issue, so eventually she just stopped asking. She came to the conclusion that Mother would speak when the time came.

As difficult as it was for Tili to understand where her father was, and why he wasn’t coming back, for the other children, the ones that had both fathers and mothers (and sometimes grandparents and uncles and aunts), it was even harder to understand a family where there are members missing. Some thought it was funny or stupid, and a lot of them thought it was silly, even those whose parents were divorced, because they all had parents, even if they did not live together.

“Your father left you,” Sven told her once. Sven had never been particularly nice. He was a bully who abused every kid weaker than him. But Teacher turned a blind eye because of a series of straight As, and because his father was the director of a company that made electrical equipment. And because his family was very rich, which meant he lived by different rules from other people (or at least, Sven always said it did). But when, on that day, Tili heard Sven say it so loudly and clearly, she grew to hate him like she had never hated anyone before.

“Not true! Not true! My father is gone, but he’ll be back as soon as he can! You dirty, little liar!”

And before he could do anything Tili lunged at him, tearing and clawing his face, and Sven, who was double her size and much stronger than she, was so surprised by her reaction and her force that he did not even try to defend himself. Tili would probably have scratched his face off, if not for Teacher, who separated them.

“Shame on you, Matilda!” Teacher said, painfully pulling at her arm. “Girls don’t fight like that. Have you lost your mind!”

“She’s so lame!” muttered Sven.

Tili’s blood rushed to her cheeks and she kicked his calf with all her strength, and Sven fell to the floor, crying piteously, holding the place where she’d injured him.

“Stop that! Enough, I said!” screamed Teacher, tugging Tili’s arm so hard that Tili thought she would break it. But Tili was too angry to let out even a single tear.

Teacher then wrote a letter to the parents of each of the battling parties, and called them to meet at school. Tili never really found out what happened at that meeting. She only knew that her mother came home very sad (although she did not want Tili to see it), made them both homemade caramel pudding and, while sitting at the table and eating, her mother talked about everything and anything, as if afraid to start an actual conversation.

Finally, she said, “Tili, you know that Father’s not coming back, right?”

That made Tili lose it.

“Maybe if you were a better wife to him, he wouldn’t have abandoned us!” Tili screamed, striking the bowl of caramel pudding, which flew across the room, scattered across the floor, hit the wall, and smashed into thousands of pieces. “Maybe I would have a father and maybe then everything would be fine!”

Tili did not really mean that. But all the same, she said it. That night, Mother cried. The next day she cooked and prepared a hundred jars of apricot marmalade, affixed to each jar a label with a picture of apricots, and wrote the date when the marmalade was made. In the next few weeks, she gave away all one hundred of the jars to those friends who visited her daily. Not one jar was left. After some time, her friends returned the empty jars, to be reused the next time Mother needed them.

However, the only thing that Tili had in common with Manuela was that they were both girls without fathers. Although she never said a word about it, that was the day when Tili stopped dreaming about her father coming back. She remembered Father and almost reverently listened to his voice in her head (although she had already begun to forget its color and tone, and most often his voice in her head sounded like Mother’s), but she never talked about him anymore. And every time Sven, or any other kid, decided to tease her, she would simply close herself to the outside world, and from that day they could not make her utter a single word about her father. And when they realized that they couldn’t make her react the way they wanted, Sven and the others simply lost interest, and found someone else to victimize, someone who would cry when hit, who would scream when offended. Not like silent Tili, more and more lost in her books about space and geographic terminology.

“Twerp,” Sven would say to her and that was generally all.

Tili continued to socialize with Manuela, who was so happy to come to Tili’s for cake and cocoa and fine tea, lemon bars, cocoa slices, cherry strudel and pancakes with vanilla cream. Tili’s house always smelled of spices, and once Manuela told her that walking into Tili’s house was like walking into the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel.

“Except, your mom is not an evil witch,” giggled Manuela shyly, lost behind oversized glasses, because of which, together with her short, curly, blond hair, she looked like Maya the Bee, from the cartoons.

“I think your mom is more like a fairy,” Manuela said, stuffing into her mouth cake from the full tray on the table. “One that bakes excellent cakes.”

Every time Manuela went home, Tili’s mother would tuck a box of cookies into her bag. Manuela would say no, and that her mother had forbidden her to bring anything, because Tili’s mother was always sending cakes and sweets.

But Mother would say to Manuela, “Tell your mother: happiness should be shared, as well as sadness. Therefore, those who selfishly keep happiness to themselves, soon are left without it. And those who hide their misery deep inside will soon forget the sweet taste of happiness, and will not recognize it when time consumes their grief.”

Tili’s mother always said such strange things, but Tili knew that Mother was actually doing these things because Manuela and her mother were very poor, and Manuela’s mother worked very hard all day, and couldn’t make her daughter happy with fancy strudels, sweet raspberry cookies, or vanilla custard. She wanted to, but could not afford it. Knowing that she was doing a little good deed every time she sent the girl home with a full stomach and box of fragrant sweets, and a small bottle of homemade blackberry wine for her mother, made Tili’s mother very happy.

“Tell your mother not to even dare to think that this is charity. I’m giving happiness for happiness. We must help each other, as best we know how.”

Tili was annoyed by the way Mother used to say these things, but kept quiet, because she understood the reasons. However, she could not help but think that it could all be said in a much less strange and dramatic way.

The day when Manuela came to study was similar to any other day she came. Manuela and Tili were sitting in the living room. (Tili’s room was too small, her desk too narrow for two people to sit and spread their books on it, so they used the big living room table.) In front of them were two glasses of freshly made lemonade, which they slowly sipped.

Tili’s mother was in the kitchen, which was next door (with the door open because, as we have said before, in their house doors were never closed, except for the front door and the bathroom), pulling a cinnamon apple pie from the oven. She set about trying to cut beautiful, neat squares, which she sprinkled with powdered sugar from a box with green and pink flowers painted on it, containing sugar and hiding fragrant vanilla pods.

Bartolomeow walked into the room, squeezing through the cat door from the balcony, and nonchalantly went through, passing by the table where the girls sat. Manuela looked up, directly at Bartolomeow, who was already staring at her, and the cat winked at her.

“Hey! Your cat is winking at me!” exclaimed Manuela, who had never before seen a cat do that.

“Don’t be silly,” said Tili, suddenly completely unwilling to admit, even to herself, that she had a cat that winked and had X-ray eyes that seemed to be able to read one’s thoughts. “Cats cannot wink.”

“Meow!” Bartolomeow declared in outraged voice, and he turned his tail in an exclamation mark (as if to emphasize the seriousness of his offence) and hurried away down the hall.

“I think I’ve offended him. And let’s be clear: he really winked. I saw him! I really did!”

“Cats cannot be offended, just as they can’t wink,” Tili said crisply. She would not, in a hundred years, admit how many times she saw Bartolomeow offended and sulking and even in a quarrelsome mood.

“Oh, what’s he doing now?” said Manuela, leaning toward the hallway, as Tili’s mom walked in with a plate full of apple pie squares that smelled of cinnamon and vanilla, the fragrance of which filled the whole room.

“Be careful, they’re hot,” she said, putting the plate with pie on the table. Then, noting that Manuela was very carefully observing something in the hall, she turned and took a look for herself.

Tili did not even dare to look at what Bartolomeow was doing, and only felt her ears reddening.

In that moment the cat was standing in the middle of the hall, ears flat to his head, spine slightly bent, as if ready to attack. Then he suddenly jumped like a kangaroo and hopped for a few moments on his hind legs, tail violently whipping through the air. He jumped with his front legs against the wall, his eyes fixed upwards (to be clear, there was nothing on the wall, not even a fly, not a mosquito, not a spider coming down on its cobwebs and laughing at the crazy cat; there were not even any pictures hanging there for Bartolomeow to be the self-appointed critic of), and then, whipping his tail, he uttered three short, loud, indignant meows.

“Mice are nibbling our magical armor,” muttered Tili’s mother to herself. Probably she was not even aware that she said it aloud, until she heard her own voice.

Tili felt flushed, from the top of her forehead down to her neck.

“What?!” Manuela screamed and jumped, because she was afraid of mice. “Do you have mice?!”

“No, no, I just…” Mother was taken by surprise; she had not intended to say such a thing aloud. (Though, why anyone would think about mice and magical armor was completely beyond Tili’s comprehension.)

“Why can’t you be normal like other moms?!” Tili screamed before she could get hold of herself, and rushed to her room, loudly slamming the door.

“Do not slam the door!” cried her mother.

But by then Tili was already bitterly weeping into her pillow. Mother was not happy about this whole situation, either. The next day she made thirty bottles of plum jam, which in the next few days she gave away to neighbors. When, some days later, one of the neighbors came with pancakes stuffed with Mom’s plum jam, to express her gratitude for the gift, Tili, perhaps for the first time, tasted her mother’s famous jam, which all the neighbors and Mother’s friends so much praised, and which Mom would always give away, not leaving one jar to taste it. Tili was now all the more confused about why all loved it, and praised it so much. The jam was, in fact, terribly bitter.

Chapter 2

Mother said that Mahovilka was a family name; she was named after her great-great-grandmother. Tili thought it was strange, because she never heard of anyone else being named that, but when you grow up with someone with a strange name, you get used to it. After all, Matilda was also a family name, and Tili was named after her great-great-grandmother, daughter of Mother’s great-great-grandmother. However, our Matilda was the first one to be called Tili, and that made her special.

When Mother and Father were young, before they got married and had Tili, they badly wanted to have a pastry shop in which to sell the finest sweets made from their own recipes. From somewhere they mustered enough money to buy a small shop, which in a short time turned out to be a place that relentlessly drew all those gourmets who appreciated real, delicious foods, and they enjoyed it the way only people who have great heart and life’s delight can enjoy. It was a place not many people knew about, and it didn’t attract tourists from all over the country and beyond, nor had it fought for the first place on the charts of culinary and pastry magazines. It was a place which anyone who accidentally stumbled on it would fall in love with and would return to again and again, keeping the secret of its existence, as if it were a buried treasure only they could enjoy.

Mom and Dad named the store “Matilda”. They wanted for their daughter (yet unborn) to one day continue their work.

When Dad left, for some time Mom ran the shop by herself, and then hired a girl. The girl called herself Luki (Tili was not sure whether that was her real name) and she was a strange creature. She had ashen hair, which was tied in a braid that was as thick as her arm and fell along her whole back. The braid was often interwoven with colorful ribbons (she particularly loved the red, white, and yellow). Luki was able to talk for hours about fruits and fruit products. She also loved cheese, and milk and honey, and was happiest when she could make a dish that combined all of her favorite ingredients.

But as the years passed by, and she grew older, Tili began to observe some things that were unusual, or at least difficult to explain. A young child would surely miss those things, but Tili was now almost ten, and seldom missed anything.

Next to the kitchen, on the left side, there was a storage room, a kind of repository. There were, among other things, fruit boxes, flour sacks, and baskets in which the boy brought fresh fruit every morning. Also, there was a huge walk-in refrigerator, where they held all perishable foods.

Many times, Mom warned Tili not to play around it, afraid an accident might happen.

“What would happen if the door accidentally shut and you couldn’t get out? To stay there, for hours and hours, alone?”

Tili was about to say to Mom that she would probably freeze like a Popsicle and it would require a large microwave to unfreeze her, but the expression on Mom’s face was not at all humorous, and Tili decided not to comment.

After all, Tili thought, not understanding why Mom made so much fuss about the whole thing, why would I ever play in a refrigerator? Maybe Mom thought that Tili had an unhealthy fascination with the refrigerator, although she didn’t.

If anyone had an unhealthy fascination, it was Luki. There was really something off about that girl. It is OK when people are in love with their job, and when they love what they do. But Luki really did not know how to talk about anything other than the fruits and cheeses! For the first few months Tili thought Luki was an interesting and completely strange person, but in time any normal person gets bored talking about the same things, so Tili lost interest in Luki.

There was one other thing, besides her constant talking about fruits and cheeses, which made Luki really strange. She spent too much time around that walk-in refrigerator. Tili, at times, decided that her favorite hiding space for reading was in the storage room. So she spent much time there, and could unnoticed follow Luki’s tinkering with the refrigerator.

Inside – outside, inside – out… But all was well until Tili realized how much time Luki spent inside the fridge. Sometimes she was there for an hour. Anyone else would freeze. The first time Tili realized that Luki was in the fridge too long, she almost died of fright. She was hidden behind a pile of fruit crates when Luki entered the fridge. Tili was at the very beginning of the book she was reading. Thirty pages later, Luki was still in the fridge. Fifty – still inside. And then Tili jumped, threw the book aside, and rushed to open the refrigerator.

There was no one inside!

Well, I didn’t notice when she came out, Tili thought and returned to her place behind the fruit crates. But less than ten minutes later the door of the fridge opened, and Luki came out of the empty refrigerator.

But even that was not the strangest thing. The strangest thing was when Luki entered the fridge in the pantry and came out of the refrigerator upstairs, in their kitchen. (The pastry shop was located on the ground floor of their house.)

Mom did not notice when Luki came out of the small refrigerator, which was standing in the corner of the kitchen. Tili was sitting at the table, her back to the kitchen, and her mother was about to make breakfast. When Tili heard the refrigerator door opening, she looked up and glanced into the cabinet’s glass door, in which the kitchen was reflected. In the same way she would look up at what was on the TV which, if it was on, she could see through the open kitchen door. Actually, she thought Mother was about to take milk from the fridge, and she was about to say that she’d prefer tea, because she was not one of those people who are especially crazy about milk (Luki made it even less pleasant, with her crazy talk). And then, to her great astonishment, Tili realized that the refrigerator door was opening from inside, and Luki came out, bent down, clumsily knocking over a bottle of heavy cream, which fell to the floor, bounced twice, and rolled away all the way to the hall.

“Oops! Made a blooper again!” she said and then realized that Tili was at the table. Tili could have sworn that Mother smiled and winked at Luki.

Tili turned around and stared at the girl. Luki smiled at her confusedly.

“We’re out of cream down there,” she said, which was nonsense, and she closed the refrigerator door behind her, as if the cream that fell out were actually the reason why she was in the refrigerator in the first place.

“I was downstairs, and I… my mistake…” Luki vaguely waved her hand.

Mom just nodded slightly, as if making it clear she understood. However, without the knowledge of either of the two strange women, Tili suddenly put two and two together. The result was astonishing – Mother knew about Luki’s trips through the refrigerators!

* * *

“Mom, what was Luki doing in the fridge?” Tili asked, perhaps a week after that kitchen accident.

Mother was silent for a moment or two, and then just grinned.

“Is this a joke of sorts, something you heard in school? Like, ‘How can you tell that an elephant has been in your fridge? By the footprints in the butter!’” And then she began to laugh, as if it were the funniest joke ever.

Tili did not even smile. “I was talking about her going into the fridge downstairs, in the pantry, and staying in for hours.”

“No one can stay in a refrigerator for hours,” Mom said and looked over her shoulder. “I told you not to play in the fridge. That is no place to play.”

“That’s what I also thought, but … no, I’m not getting into it. But, I’m telling you, I saw her. She’d been there far too long and I got worried and went to look for her, but no one was there.”

“There, you see, she went out, and you didn’t notice. For hours… you’re overreacting.”

“And then, a little later, she came out of that empty fridge.”

Mom wiped her hands on her apron and turned to Tili. “You know it’s not nice to make up things about people.”

“I’m not making things up!” Tili said angrily.

Mom slightly squinted her brown eyes (for a moment she looked like Bartolomeow, feline and suspicious). “Matilda…”

“I know there’s something strange going on! I know!” screamed Tili resentfully, jumping to her feet, and instantly realizing the intensity of her mother’s unyielding expression.

“Hey, girl, lower your voice, and be careful about how you act. Not everything has to always be your way and, for your information, things in this world are not usually so glamorous and spectacular as you expect them to be.”

“But…” stammered Tili, surprised by her own reaction. She was not one of those kids who lose their temper for no reason. This time the situation, although it was strange, did not require her screaming. Tili was ashamed of herself. She always was ashamed when she knew her reactions were going to hurt Mother.

The only difference was that this time Mother didn’t seem hurt. Only firm and steadfast in her attitude that Tili had gone too far. And so, in the end, Tili was the one who was mostly upset.

I’ll show her, I’ll show her… Tili thought bitterly.

And she might have shown her, and proved that she was right, if things had not become even more complicated and peculiar.

Chapter 3

Things went from bad to worse one evening, which was no different from any other evening up to then. It was late; Tili was getting ready for bed. Mother gave her a good night kiss, and very soon after Tili heard Mother also going to bed, and the house shrouded itself in silence.

Only Tili wasn’t sleepy at all. She twirled left and right, tried all the most comfortable sleeping positions she knew, and finally gave up and went to get a drink of water. And when she returned to her room, for some reason (maybe because she was sleepy, and not too much aware of what she was doing), Tili closed the door of her room.

It was the first time in many years that the door closed. Tili hadn’t even noticed. She collapsed into bed, pulled the blanket over her head, wriggled a little more between the sheets and soon after, she was asleep. It seemed like she’d been thirsty, and that was what had been keeping her awake.

But she didn’t have pleasant dreams. She dreamed of something terrible. Something was screaming. Something howled. Something was scratching and pounding. Something finally called her in a familiar and yet completely unknown voice.

“Matilda! Matilda, wake up! For God’s sake, let me in! Why did you shut the door! I cannot reach you! Open it!”

She startled, jumped and sat on the bed. She expected the voice to stop. But actually, she heard it now even more clearly.

And there was something else…

At the same time, it felt as if some weight had fallen off her chest. In fact, we exaggerate in saying that it was “weight”. Something light fell from her chest, fell to the floor, and then fled toward the closet. The closet door was ajar. Rules for doors of cabinets and drawers were exactly contrary to the rules of the house doors. All cupboards and drawers had to be closed at all times. Always. Especially at night when, in the darkness, one can imagine all sorts of things. But this time the door of her closet was ajar, and the thing that fell off her chest had certainly slipped toward the closet, almost inaudibly. On the floor, for a moment, she could almost hear the clatter of tiny bare feet.

There was another sound, one that had not changed with her waking up. Someone was screaming her name, and scraping at the door of the room, which was closed tightly.

Not knowing what to do, staggering, half afraid because of the sudden awakening, and half because she couldn’t actually make out who was calling her (she knew that voice), and subconsciously afraid because the door was closed, and her whole life she’d been taught not to close it, especially at night (mice and fairies and dreams and such), Tili jumped up and opened the door.

“For God’s sake, I was so scared, I thought… What were you thinking… Why did you close the door and, ah!… Meow?”

Through the door staggered the barrel-like form of Bartolomeow, who in the darkness seemed unusually muscular and lively, almost fluid. His eyes were petrified with terror, but radiating like nuclear lanterns (a phrase that Tili didn’t understand, but which she, nevertheless, thought). And although he, confirming it with that last meow, realized that he had “meowed” himself into trouble, nothing could refute the fact that Tili just heard her cat speaking!

Now, some people might have blacked out to hear a cat speaking. Some might have tried to convince themselves that it couldn’t be true, so let’s put things onto more logical foundations. Tili, however, was a little girl. Not so small that she would automatically believe in anything, but neither was she big enough to automatically ask for logical explanations. She was stunned, and that was it. But just as quickly, she snapped out of it, realizing that things might not be exactly how she thought they were, and immediately searched for some new ways of thinking, as children who are afraid to imagine often do, when imagination is still the basic blueprint of their whole being.

“Bart,” she said sleepily, but audibly. “Bart, you can talk.”

Now, a thing about cats… Some cats might, realizing they were discovered, try to cover the whole thing up. Standing here before Bartolomeow was a sleepy little girl and he could easily make it look like she had dreamed it. But let’s not forget in what kind of home Bartolomeow lived. There, people came out of the empty refrigerators. There, people cooked bitter jams and gave them away to friends who enjoyed them as the best treats. There, mice were in the closets at night nibbling away children’s dreams, and the fairies watched out for them.

“Oh, Tili…” whispered Bartolomeow as he walked toward her. “Why did you close the door?”

For a few moments Tili just stared at the cat, and then she sat down on her bed. She wanted to think about all of this in more detail, but she was too sleepy. The fact that she was talking to a cat did not awaken her a bit. She was so tired, and she wanted this whole strange thing to be over, until morning, when she would figure it out. Or, perhaps, some other day. She could wait. She was not an impatient girl. She knew that someday she’d clarify the event with the refrigerator; the same went for her talking cat, she’d unravel it when the time came.

“Don’t you know how dangerous it can be?”

“Cats should not be able to speak,” she insisted stubbornly.

“I know. But this was an extraordinary situation,” continued the cat, no less stubbornly.

“That’s all you have to say to me?”

“I could go on and on, but now is not the time, nor the place. The closet door is open.”

“I guess I forgot to close it. It seems to me that I’m doing everything wrong today…”

“Did it flee inside?”

Tili winced, as if recalling a dream, and remembered that feeling that something had fled from her chest when she woke up.

“I thought I was dreaming,” she said to herself, and then, with growing dread, she looked toward the open door.

The cat waddled toward the closet, oddly elegant in his bulkiness, pushed his nose inside, struck his tail like a whip twice, and then looked toward her, over his shoulder. “You’d better close this door. Mice prefer dark, narrow places.”

“We do have mice?!” That slipped out, just as if someone else spoke. She had never taken that story of mice seriously. For it was more like something you would tell to small children to keep them from locking themselves in by accident, and she accepted it out of habit. If she ever seriously thought about mice, coming at night to her room, climbing up on her bed, running around over her pillow… well, she would probably never sleep again!

And this cat, if you read between the lines, was saying exactly that. Had the situation been different, she might have suspected it of being a joke. But one being awakened by a talking cat accepts things much faster than they do on any other occasion.

“Yes and no,” said Bartolomeow. “Now you’re awake. Now there are none. But close the closet door. I hate to think about them, lurking in the darkness and waiting for you to fall asleep.”

“This is terrible!” said Tili, and suddenly she was wide awake. She was sure that tonight she’d not be able to fall asleep again. Who could sleep after all these horrors?

“Don’t ever close the door. I hate to think what’ll happen if you are left alone with them.”

“Shouldn’t fairies be watching over me?” she said, half in anger, half-mockingly, not wanting to believe in it, but wanting to remind the cat how many times she’d heard problems solved with that phrase.

“Um, yeah. Therefore, we must not close the door.”

Tili winced and stared at the cat. She didn’t like the way this conversation was heading. If you already must accept the idea of mice, if you must accept the fact that your cat can speak, should you accept what the cat was telling her now…

“Bart? What are you trying to say?”

“You shouldn’t close the door of your room. It’s dangerous.” The cat was staring at her intently. “Mice can eat away your dreams. You’ll stop dreaming. You’ll lose your imagination. Simply, you will not be able to…” That was where the cat fell silent, as if he realized that he had said too much.

“Yes, but… I thought fairies were protecting my dreams from these dream-eating mice,” she repeated, and this time she wasn’t mocking.

The cat continued to stare at her with his huge, glittering eyes.

Tili laughed. “Well! What else?”


“Next you’ll be telling me you’re my fairy.”

The cat hesitated, and then said, “I do not know how you imagine fairies look.”

Tili laughed out loud. “Certainly not like fat old cats!”

If he had a human face the cat would be frowning. As it was, only his eyes flashed offendedly.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the fairies look exactly like this. They have us in many different forms, actually, but… I mean, I am incredibly offended that you can so easily accept the fact that I can speak, but that I’m your fairy makes you laugh. Well, I must tell you that even the mice are not always mice. Sometimes they are toothy little elves. You have mice because you have a cat. Learn to live with it!”

Tili fell serious, because she had never seen Bartolomeow so deeply offended. It was too much, even for a cat.

“Sorry,” she said, muffling her laugh. Such a big, fat, lazy fairy, who sleeps most of the day in a corner! No wonder the closets are full of mice! And then she started to laugh again and was laughing until it occurred to her that she’d wake up Mother, and then how would she explain all of this? That thought made her quite serious.

“Bartolomeow? Does Mom know?”

She had to know. Mother had secrets. Mother knew about Luki’s journeys through refrigerators. That was no secret to Tili. She wondered if this fairy-cat surprise would surprise Mother.

“Well, that’s something you have to ask her. I cannot speak for others,” Bartolomeow said diplomatically.

“That sounds more like yes than no,” Tili said sharply. Bartolomeow was still trying to get away with saying nothing.

“All the same, that’s something you’ll have to talk to her about. I’ve told her, so many times, it’s time for the two of you to talk.”

“There you are!” exclaimed Tili, lifting a finger. The cat sighed.

“Good God! As soon as I open my mouth, I completely forget to close it,” he scolded himself.

Tili debated immediately rushing to Mother’s room and confronting her about the conversation. She may have been a patient girl, but even the most patient girls break down in front of the magnitude of such a flood of events.

“You know,” she said, suddenly mopey, “it seems to me that it would be better if none of this had happened. Maybe there are some things I just don’t want to know.”

“You really think so?” said the cat curiously, but it seemed that he already knew the answer. Girls who are afraid to imagine fear dreaming as well, and sometimes those girls are awakened only by the idea of being afraid.

“Now nothing can stay as it used to be. Did you know that I saw Luki coming out of the refrigerator?”

“Um, yeah,” said the cat, ignoring her unspoken question. “Do you really want things to stay as they were?”

Tili opened her mouth to confirm, but then a small stormy cloud rose up from the bottom of her soul, the cloud that had always been there, only she had decided not to see it. The cloud went up, into her heart, and roared thunderous lightning, ripping through her and shaking her up. But to Bartolomeow she said, “Well, I know only things I’m familiar with: Mom and me, my friends, her friends. Even when they’re strange. If I don’t ask, things stay the same, you know. If I start to ask questions… things start to change, and suddenly I don’t know anything.”

The cat had that famous Cheshire smile on his feline face. “That is not necessarily bad. You only need to be brave.”

“And if I don’t want to be brave? If I cannot be?”

“I know you, Matilda. You’re a brave little girl. Even when you’re scared.”

Matilda watched him, eyes half-shadowed by eyelashes. Dreams slowly began to pull her back in. All of this seemed more like a dream than something that could be real. She thought that perhaps she was asleep and dreaming, but a dream so vivid that she did not recognize it as dream. Maybe in the morning everything would be different. Or maybe everything would be the same. Maybe nothing would change, and everything she suspected would remain only suspicion. She wasn’t going to rush to comprehend. She was a patient girl. Because when you ask… sometimes answers surprise you. Sometimes it is not what you wanted to hear. Sometimes you know it’s better not to ask, because you don’t really want to know what you only suspected.

“Nothing will ever be the same, isn’t that so, Bart? Things will suddenly change and I won’t know anything anymore.”

Bartolomeow jumped on the bed, curled up next to her and she lay back, lowering her head onto the pillow and stroking the cat between the ears. He started to purr like a small, old, fairy, steam engine.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean something bad,” said the cat, but that sounded only like a soft meowing.

Tili yawned. She closed her eyes. “Bart, I will not be able tonight to fall asleep,” she sighed and hugged his shiny, silky feline neck. The next moment, she slept.

Chapter 4

Tili’s mother noticed when her daughter started behaving strangely. In a family where everyone acted strangely, and where no one thought twice about it, she had to behave really, really strangely for others to take note of it. The most accurate explanation of Tili’s behavior could be found in the phrase ‘she was beating around the bushes.’ And Tili was doing just that, because Bartolomeow was doing it, and she wasn’t sure if the cat had said anything to her mother.

After a few days, Tili wasn’t even sure if any of it had really happened at all. Since that night, Bartolomeow had not spoken, though Tili spoke to him constantly. She believed that the cat understood, but he had the same expression that he did before she found out he could speak in human tongues. She believed that she could make Bartolomeow panic again if she closed the door at night, but the idea of being alone in the room with mice/toothy elves immediately discouraged her. Between curiosity to confirm her knowledge about the talking cat and her fear of dream-eating mice, her fear was winning out.

“I’ve told her, so many times, it’s time for the two of you to talk…” the cat had said that night. From this, Tili concluded that the cat and her mother spoke often. She felt slightly jealous about it. The two shared a secret, and Tili was not part of it. She might have been just a little girl, but even little girls understand when they’ve been left out of something important. And so she felt small—much smaller than she really was.

“Mooooom?” said Tili in the voice of quite a small girl—one who only asks for confirmation that her mother is there, and that everything is all right.

“Yeees?” called Tili’s mother from somewhere in the kitchen, behind a steaming, boiling pot of who-knows-what.

Tili’s mother was not receptive to questioning. She’d heard that “Mooooom” so many times before that she knew not to press to hear the rest. It was their “Marco Polo” game. Tili would say “Mooooom”, and her mother would say “Yes”, and it was left there. Like: “Where are you?” “I’m here.” And that was all.

After a few moments Tili spoke again. “Mooooom?”

Her mother stayed silent. She was stirring something. Perhaps she did not hear.


“Mmm? Huh? Yes?” Silence again.

Tili’s mother knew that Tili was behaving strangely, but she herself was absent-minded enough that it didn’t really upset her. Merrily, she stirred something in a large cooking pot. The curls of her short, red hair flew in all directions. Tili’s mother used to say that she always wanted to have a daughter who’d have the same fiery, stubborn hair as she. However, Matilda had straight blonde hair, quite boring, reaching to her mid-back. Heavy and silky though it was, there was nothing unmanageable or wild in it. Put a rubber band on it and that’s all it would take! Nothing wild in it at all. To Tili it seemed that her mother did not always successfully hide her disappointment. And maybe it was not only because of the hair.

Her mom loved old songs, and she sang them at the top of her voice, paying no attention when she missed a tone or two. Matilda hated singing. Her mother loved chocolate brownies. Matilda preferred vanilla. Her mother loved the rain and autumn strolls, when the leaves rustled and whispered under her boots. Matilda hated the cold and the wind, and preferred to stay in her room, bent over a book. Her mom loved letting rivers and rivers of other people flow through the house like a running current. Matilda hated the company and didn’t have many friends herself. It they didn’t both have a pair of big warm brown eyes, quite identical on their faces, someone might have questioned whether they were really mother and daughter. Only their eyes were the same. Everything else could not be more different.

“Mooooom? Can cats talk?”

“Well, of course,” her mother replied absently. “All animals talk some kind of language. And they are not the ones to blame for people not understanding them.”

“No, I mean… can they talk like people do?”

Mother looked up at her through the steam, her brown eyes confronting Matilda’s, as if looking in a mirror. Their eyes seemed to carry some understanding for one another, but everything else in them was at odds. “Well, wouldn’t that be really neat! I suppose owning such a cat could earn you some nice money—showing it on various TV shows, maybe you could give it to the circus, or take it to protests and demonstrations against animal cruelty, to fight for the rights of—”

“Mooooom!” Tili’s voice was the resentful tone of a child who understood that she was being mocked.

“Nooo!” Her mother dried her hands on her apron. “Imagine that!”

“I do not want to imagine…”

“Come on, just imagine!”


“Wouldn’t it be just great? A talking cat! What would they be able to tell us! What incredible stories! Nine-lives stories! But I have no doubt that they would lie. Cats are great liars, you know.”

“Mom! You don’t have to pretend! I KNOW!”

Tili’s mother suddenly became serious. Her eyes were still playful and full of sunny laughter, but her face was serious, as befits a mother whose child raised their voice. “Oh, yeah? What? What do you know?”

“EVERYTHING!” Tili said dramatically, though she actually felt she knew nothing in particular. But when she became really upset, she’d been known to act very dramatically. Just like her mother. The only difference was that her mother was dramatic all the time.

“Then you’ll certainly enlighten me, because, you see, I know nothing,” her mother said in a dead serious tone.

A stalemate situation. Someone had to reveal something. “Mom, I know that Bartolomeow can talk. I heard him speak.”

“I know that too,” her mother said in a dead cold voice. “But I never hear him say anything clever.”

Tili paused for a moment, not too sure if that statement was a confession or another joke. Ultimately, she decided it was the latter.

“Four nights ago, I went to get some water, because I couldn’t sleep, and when I returned I guess I closed my bedroom door. When I woke up I felt something on my chest. Something that escaped into my closet, as soon as I woke up.”

It was obvious, from the way Mother’s face went pale in the midst of that cloud of steam from the pot, that she really did not know anything about the event. Bartolomeow had kept his mouth shut… For once.

“Bartolomeow woke me up. He was scratching at the door and calling my name. And, no, I was not dreaming, because after that we talked for a while. He did not pretend to be something he’s not. He didn’t make fun of me, like you’re doing now.”

Tili’s mother looked deeply hurt, even more than Bartolomeow when Tili mocked his fairy nature.

“I’ve lived with him all my life,” said Tili, “you could’ve at least told me that he’s a fairy.”

“Yes, like that’s something that I could just tell you,” her mother finally said. There was no laughter in her eyes now.

“What do you mean?” asked Tili, and it was her turn to feel hurt. Her mother took two steps toward her out of the steam. Tili could now clearly see the seriousness and sadness on her face.

“Do you know that you were only three years old when I read you Grimm’s fairy tales? When you first said to me that it was stupid and that you would rather I read to you about who made clouds and why the rain falls?”

“Grimm’s fairy tales are stupid. Full of stories about parents who leave their children in the woods, because they cannot feed them, various evil creatures just waiting to devour you, and you can’t tell who’s worse, men or beasts, and these stories can only give you nightmares.”

“Tili, those are not the only stories that I’ve read to you. I tried everything…”

“Are stories so important, Mom?”

“Of course they’re important! Well, stories are…” Her mother turned away, glanced at the pot with the dancing lid in which something was loudly boiling and steaming.

Tili felt hurt, even more than before, because it seemed to her that her mother thought it more important not to burn the food than to converse with her daughter. And Tili was trying to get the truth out of her, for the first time—no matter how afraid she was of it and no matter how difficult it would be for her to believe in it. The talking cat was the lesser issue. It was almost to be expected. All the secrets her mother was keeping, however, were quite another matter.

“Fairy tales are for little kids!” Tili cried. “People can’t live on stories alone! Someone has to be serious. To be what you’ve never been…”

To some other parents, those words would sound like criticism. Matilda’s mother was not one of those parents.

“Oh, Tili, I was so hoping that you wouldn’t grow to be so serious!”

“It’s not my fault that I’m not the daughter that you always wanted!”

In that moment, they both felt quite heartsick. But after a short hesitation they rushed into each other’s arms and hugged one another really tightly.

“Squeeze you like toothpaste,” whispered Mother. It was something that Tili really liked to hear when she was very small. “I’m squeezing you like toothpaste.”

After some more hugging, her mother said, “Let’s sit down. If you want, I’ll tell you everything.”

* * *

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away—”

“—Mom, I don’t want for you to tell me a fairy tale.”

“But I’m not telling you a fairy tale. I want to tell you about what happened. And I can do that my way.”

“But I don’t want for your story to sound like something unreal.”

“In that case, I can hardly tell you anything. Because all of what I’m about to tell you will sound unreal.”

Tili looked shaken and frustrated.

“Can you talk about the other night,” her mom said seriously, “when Bart spoke to you, and make it sound like something real?”

Tili was thinking.

“I guess I can’t. It was so unreal.”

“Well then, prepare to be flooded by unreality. For what I’m about to tell you can’t be found in any book.”

* * *

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a beautiful witch. In stories witches are often evil and ugly, but this was a good witch, and certainly not ugly. She was very young, and like many young girls, witches or not, she often dreamed of a Prince. On white horse or on foot, it didn’t really matter. It was only important that he was a Prince: good, honest, noble, and handsome. Being handsome never hurt any man.

And so, this girl waited for her Prince, and when they finally met, she recognized him immediately. Some would say it was love at first sight, others would say chemistry, and others still would say it was fate. The two of them simply thought, luckily, we found each other. And that luck was just the beginning.

They were very alike, except she was a witch, and he a Prince. He never questioned her about being a witch, and she never asked him about his royal ancestry. They knew that such talks could only spoil everything. They were at the beginning of their fairy tale, and they did not want anything to ruin it.

As was fitting, they lived in the land of fairy tales. And although this country had a different name, we won’t use it, because for our story’s sake, this was Fairyland, and maybe that’s the most fitting name to use.

In Fairyland, along with our main characters, the witch Mahovilka and Prince Leopold, lived many other incredible creatures. There were dwarfs, dragons, fairies, and elves. There were Kings and Princesses and Ladies. And all of them were ruled by his majesty King Ferdinand the Fearless—the father of our Prince and a great warrior and hero of the time. In addition to being fearless, the King was also determined, firm, and unshakable. Those were all wonderful qualities for a King, but perhaps too rigid for a father.

Having lost his mother at an early age, leaving only his father to take care of him, the Prince didn’t truly know parental love. The King ruled over his kingdom and his son with an equally firm hand. He never hugged his son, never played with him, and never sang songs or told riddles. The closest to a game the Prince had once played with his father, which Leo could remember from his childhood, was when the King taught him to fence. But it had not been much fun for the young Leo. For the entire lesson, the King constantly berated him. “Stand straight”, “don’t hunch”, “arm forward”, “why are you stepping back?” and “what’s with that face?” Waving a sharp and heavy sword was not what the nine-year-old Prince was particularly fond of. The King did, however, love his son. He dreamed of the day years in the future when he would be old, and the Prince would have married a beautiful Princess. His son would then take his place on the throne as the ruler of the kingdom. That was the King’s only dream. He’d seized all the land he could seize, acquired treasures enough for ten kingdoms, and held on to the sole wish that before his death he would see his son rule over the kingdom—everything that he, King Ferdinand, with a firm hand and through blood and sweat, had worked for.

Another essential quality of the King, and all the other inhabitants of Fairyland for that matter, was that no one dreamed. And why should they? They lived in a fairytale land. All fairy tales one could imagine already lived in their realm. What we often mean when we say someone has “a dream” is that the person has an ultimate goal that motivates them beyond all else. No one was actually able to dream-dream, or to imagine things. Except… except for some creatures.

Of course, there were always a few who were contrary. Imagination was a rare gift though. Witches and wizards, fairies and elves, and some dwarfs—especially those who were mining for gold and valuables, and doing their best to hide their valuables and protect them from prying eyes—they all had it. Also dragons, salamanders, and occasionally a cluster of three or four butterflies.

Imagination wasn’t actually called imagination. Rather, it was called magic—and those who used it were both worshiped and feared by common people, because they’d done things that common people could not understand. Ordinary people had conflicting feelings about them. Because they couldn’t fit in, the handful of magical creatures did their best to live in gray margins of society.

Sometimes, ordinary people needed magical creatures. Even the King needed the advice and skills of a wizard. But that did not mean that the King, or any other man, liked what magical creatures could do. Often people thought magical creatures were evil and wicked. But most of the magical creatures were good—setting aside the fact that, from time to time, an evil sorcerer would be born, or an evil witch, or a grumpy dragon. Just as the majority of people were good despite the fact that from time to time an evil man or woman would come along, willing to do anything to a fellow creature, so were magical creatures mostly good despite the evil among them. But people feared them and bad-mouthed them, and so they came into disrepute. But that did not make them evil. Most every magical creature endeavored to be good, to help people with their sorcerers’ art, because they believed their gifts should not be wasted, that they should be used to help those who were not blessed with them. However, all their attempts to be good could not diminish human fear. And so those few creatures that were able to cast spells, to imagine, were feared by the whole kingdom, even when the kingdom needed them.

We should not, therefore, need to explain how the King felt when he finally learned that his son, Prince Leo, the heir, the apple of the King’s eye, had been seeing a witch. That was outrageous, impossible, and inexcusable! But young men are fallible and curious, the King told himself. This will pass. It is not the end of the world.

Unfortunately for the King, he was wrong. The love between Prince Leopold and the witch Mahovilka grew and flourished more every day, until the Prince decided to express his love for Mahovilka in the best way he knew. He asked the witch to become his wife. And Mahovilka, of course, accepted.

They hurried to the court, happy to report the news to the King.

King Ferdinand was furious! Outraged! He threw his crown to the floor. He would have stomped it flat were it not covered with sixteen sharp spikes.

“What’s wrong with you,” he said to Leo. “Are you insane? Are you forgetting that your marriage has been arranged already—to the most beautiful Princess in the neighboring kingdoms, I might add! Do you have any idea what this would cost me? Of course not! You’re a child and didn’t consider what this would do politically, economically, and even spiritually, to the kingdom—my kingdom!”

The King did not even look toward Mahovilka. It was as though she were not even there. He shouted at the Prince for a good forty-five minutes. The windows shook, and all the court had to flee and hide in their rooms.

But the Prince did not even blink. He allowed his father to vent all that was weighing on his soul, to let off steam until he ran out of breath. Only then did the Prince open his mouth. “Father, we love each other. And whatever you say, it cannot affect our love. Our love is forever. Eternal.”

“But, of all the lovely Princesses across ten kingdoms… for you to choose a witch,” the King said in a tone so derogatory that Mahovilka’s heart sank deep into her chest. His authority and hate made her despair. She knew what people thought of witches, but somehow she hoped that the King, a more enlightened person of noble birth, would be fairer than the common man. So many times, the King had come to her cousin Hrastomor—the court wizard—to foretell his future before a battle, or to acquire healing potions. She’d also learned, from reliable sources, that there was a gem-man dwarf guarding the royal treasury. But none of that mattered.

“That witch…” the Prince said slowly and it was actually the first time he directly confronted his father, “is soon to be my wife. And I expect you, my father, to show her due respect.”

“Respect?” The King’s blood rushed to his face and he no longer cared for anything. “Respect! I’ll show you respect, boy. Guards! Take her to the dungeons!”

There was a terrible commotion and confusion. If Mahovilka had been just an ordinary girl, she might have ended up in the dungeon. And if Prince Leo had been just an ordinary Prince, he might have surrendered Mahovilka to her fate, regardless of his love for her. But Mahovilka was a witch, and witches do not give up so easily. And Leo, in the time he’d spent with Mahovilka, had learned a few tricks of his own. Oh, and what useful tricks they were! Leo, with help of Mahovilka, had learned… to imagine!

Odd, isn’t it? In a world in which almost no one imagined, Leo was able to build castles with his mind. He could imagine objects from thin air like songbirds threading strings of pure gold with their voices and weaving them into beautiful yarn. He could imagine the Moon in the daylight, and the Sun at night. For all that he could think of, and all he could imagine, the one thing Leo could not change was the will of the King—because that was beyond imagination.

And along with Mahovilka, he could imagine worlds. Worlds!


Let’s go back a few steps in our story, to explain the actions of our heroes and their naive heading for obvious failure. Maybe they were not as naive as they seemed in the moment—as they stood in the middle of the royal hall, under the King’s condemning glare, while dozens of armed guards, with drawn swords, raced to capture poor Mahovilka and lock her in a place where she’d never see the light of day ever again. Perhaps it was just a test. Maybe they wanted to give the King one last chance, to see if the old leopard could change his spots.

Leo knew his father’s temper all too well. And Mahovilka was aware of the difficult situation that they were in—her being a witch and his being a Prince. What would people say? There were also political and economic issues to resolve, because Princes usually married Princesses from rival kingdoms in order to create an artificial friendship between otherwise bitter enemies. But the political and economic situations of the kingdom do not concern us. Neither did it concern the not-to-be-bride Princess, whom the King had intended for his son, because she really did not care. She neither loved the Prince, nor did she particularly want to marry him. She saw him once at a ball and thought, well, he’s all right, but nothing special. Feeling that one is special occurs only in the hearts of people who love each other. And in Mahovilka’s heart, the Prince was as special as a person could be, just as she was uniquely special in his heart.

Knowing what they were to expect at the court, the two of them had devised a plan. They could not be expected to continue living in the kingdom of Fairyland if they did not receive the King’s blessing. They could’ve tried to escape the King’s guards, wandered the world from pillar to post, hiding from harm and fearing the day when they’d be arrested by royal spies. And then woe to them!

Instead, they did something far more radical. Something that no one ever did before.

Leo had learned to imagine. When you love someone, you take an interest in the things that interest them. Mahovilka’s interest was imagination itself, and it turned out that Leo actually liked to imagine. Even in that, Mahovilka and Leo were alike. Other than the fact that she was a witch and he was a Prince, everything else seemed to prove that they were made for each other.

As they realized that they had no future in this world, an idea began to take form. Why not imagine their own world? A world with no wizards or Kings, where one could love whomever one chose, and where the destiny of the individual was not dependent on the dictation of one man, but rather on a person’s own strength and abilities. Why not create the world in which they could live and love, and where they’d not fear the day when they’d be separated by a cruel hand?

Imagination in Fairyland had a special power. In Fairyland, if you imagined a flower, it would appear before you. Imagination in Fairyland was not just something that manifested only in one’s mind, or on paper, or in illustrated form, or in film. No. Think of something, and you’d create it. The skill of imagining was limited only by the extent to which one was able to imagine and by the details one was able to invent.

Mahovilka was an extremely imaginative witch. With her help and teaching Leo had also gained the enviable skill. Together, they could imagine entire worlds. Worlds!

That is why the trip to the King’s castle was only plan A. Plan B was to take effect if plan A failed. They wanted to give the King a chance to change his mind. Whatever shortcomings the King had, Leo loved his father. He was the only parent Leo had. He scarcely remembered his mother as he was so young when she died. Mahovilka could not refuse Leo’s wish to try, at least once, to convince his father to recognize their love. She herself carried great grief in her heart. She knew that she must leave Fairyland. She must leave her beloved mother and father, and she knew how hard it would be for them, because everyone would say that they were the parents of the witch who seduced the once beloved Prince. But she also knew how much her parents loved her. They’d understand that what she was doing was for love.

So, when all those armed guards gathered around the two lovers, and when it was clear that not only had plan A failed, but that it had been doomed from the start, Leo and Mahovilka allowed their imagination to take them away.

Up until that moment, they’d only talked about some of the details of the world that they wanted to create. Now they allowed their imagination to spread its wings and tower above all. Its wings grew and grew, until they covered the whole world and filled the whole sky above Fairyland.

And indeed—they’d created a new world. A world with everything beautiful and ugly which makes worlds; with details that now would be pointless even to begin to describe. Imagine the world in which you live, imagine it to the smallest detail. It is a world quite similar to what Leo and Mahovilka imagined. And that world began to rise above Fairyland, created from thin air, steadily rising, as though it were a cloud swallowing the sky. And as it grew more and more, it began to pull its creators in, until it raised them off the floor and hurled them toward the center of the world they’d made. The moment Mahovilka and Leo were pulled in, the whole of Fairyland disappeared. It was goodbye, Fairyland. And that was it: good day to a brave new world.

But wait! That’s not all! The worst is yet to come!

Now it is necessary to step back again, but in a different direction, toward our not-so-favorite King Ferdinand the Fearless, who had many characteristics that were excellent for a King, but not so great for a father.

No one had ever before confronted the King. After all, he was the King, and it was well known how those who opposed the King met their end. The idea that his own son could be so defiant drove him mad. And to that extent the King himself decided to show some defiance. It was no surprise to him when Leo and Mahovilka appeared in court and stated their intentions; he’d learned all of that from his spies—much, much earlier—and had time to prepare and forge a plan. Also, he knew all about the witches. Although he had called up his guards to capture her, he had not hoped for them to succeed. He did not, however, know exactly what the two had planned. But he was sure they had an escape route that probably involved some magical properties. The King, who—as we said—was driven mad by this idea, and who decided to show defiance himself, would not be satisfied only to prohibit, punish and condemn. No. The King resolved that magic was the way to fight magic. The King chose the worst of all punishments. The King was determined to curse them.

And just before Leo and Mahovilka rose to disappear into the world they created, from behind a curtain that covered the back wall of the throne room appeared the wizard Hrastomor, with whom the King had prearranged a plan. He cast on them a terrible curse.

If the Prince refuses to be King,
Because of a witch, whom he promised ring,
In ten summers, he will return
Before dawn’s last beam shall burn;
If he does not, will be known in court
That his memory will be short.
His child will then, on that accord
Sit on the throne, with his scepter and sword.

In other words, if the Prince disregarded his royal duties, the King would allow him ten years to do as he pleased. Once the last minute of those ten years expired, the Prince would lose his memories of all the years he spent with the witch, and the child, were they to have one, would be taken to Fairyland, to sit on the throne in Leo’s stead.

It all happened so fast that Leo and Mahovilka barely heard the words of the curse before they disappeared into their new world. And what was supposed to be the start of great happiness turned out to be a long wait for a terrible end. All they intended to create in the new world was doomed from the start. After a lapse of ten years they would disappear, at least in each other’s memories, as though they’d never been together at all. A child, whom they already knew they were sure to have, would be taken away from them in ten years’ time.

That was the terrible fate they were aware of. But just as all noble people strive to fill their days with goodness and light and hope instead of fear and evil and darkness, so the two lovers pretended that there was no curse, up until the very end—up until they had to decide to surrender to fate or fight.

When their child was born, she was the embodiment of their happiness—a screaming little bundle of bright colors, light and shape—a whirlwind of incredible, astonishing new being. She was a witch’s spell permeating noble blood and carved in the form of a small, golden-haired girl.

Tili was a child from Fairyland, it was very soon quite clear, because she was having a considerably difficult time imagining. It was so uncomfortable in the world her mother and father had created that she sensed this peculiar world was not her home. It was as if something were calling for her. Perhaps it was the pull of the curse cast before her birth. There was a throne, in the land far, far away, that was waiting for her to claim it. Her fate would be decided by the will of the terrible King, by her grandfather.

Her parents became increasingly desperate. What to do? Mahovilka, in her grief, prepared hundreds of jars of jams and jellies. It was a witch’s way to grieve. Leo withdrew into himself. Every moment with his family was precious to him, but all too soon he would not be able to remember them at all. He would be lost in this unknown, imagined world, unable to remember that he himself created it. He would not recognize his own wife. He would not remember his daughter. And the daughter herself would then be somewhere far, far away, probably hating her parents who allowed her to be taken away. She would feel abandoned to that cruel tyrant, who cared for nobody but himself.

“My dearest,” Leo said one day, after a long time struggling with his thoughts. “If I go back to that world, maybe the curse will be broken. Maybe at least you will be able to keep our daughter. And I will obey him, and do as he pleases,” he said. “Soon my memories will be taken away from me. My only love, what do you think? Is this what I should do? If this is the sacrifice that will allow at least one of us to keep our child, I’m ready to endure it.”

She lowered her eyes. For years, she had been trying to think up the counter-curse, but she had failed. She knew the power of Hrastomor’s curse; Hrastomor was not a good man and his curses were the strongest. Although she never said anything, she knew that Leo’s suggestion was the only solution. He had to go back to Fairyland. One day, when he himself became King, he might send for them. A decade is a long time; perhaps the old King was no longer alive. Maybe, if Leo returned, the spell would be immediately broken and they’d join him in no time, and live happily ever after.

One day Leo disappeared. Ten years had not yet passed since their escape from Fairyland, but he could not wait any longer for his daughter to be taken away. After he was gone Mahovilka found herself waiting for some sign, some message from her beloved. She waited… And waited… One year, two, three… No news from Leo. Only one thing happened in those three years.

By creating their world Leo and Mahovilka had unintentionally pulled in a number of magical creatures—just magical creatures; as far as they knew, no unmagical creatures from Fairyland passed through the portal that Mahovilka later named the “magical navel.” Among the creatures there were a number of fairies and elves, witches and wizards. However, the number of magical creatures was insignificant when considering the billions who inhabited the imagined world. Most of the creatures had done well in the new world. But an unusual phenomenon was that many of the elves that had passed through the magical navel were (or became in time) evil, and they were very unusually attracted to the daughter of the witch and the Prince. They felt an irresistible pull towards the ‘witch-princess.’ Every night they tried to nibble on her dreams and steal her imagination, which her parents had, so desperately, tried to cultivate. It seemed as though the elves worked for the King—foot soldiers trying to take the child back to Fairyland—or perhaps (what an evil idea!) to prepare her for the next stage of the curse.

One fairy, who was also pulled into the imagined world at the moment of its creation, tasked herself with the protection of the girl. In this world, she took the clumsy form of an overweight cat, but that was no obstacle for a noble little fairy. Several witches, who came in contact with Mahovilka, also reported that the elves had attacked them in dreams. In this world, elves had taken many different forms: mosquitoes, mice, moths, and even a toy train that buzzed all night even when there were no batteries in it.

But the elves were after no one other than the little girl, Matilda. Not even Matilda’s mother, the witch, could do anything to stop them. Her magic in this world was very weak and seemed to be exhausted by the creation of the world. And after the Prince had vanished, most of her strength and will was gone. It was because the world, which the Prince and witch had created together, was now on her shoulders alone. And that’s why the fairy watched over Matilda every night—to protect her from evil.

That was the secret that Tili’s mother kept from her daughter for so long, because it sounded like a fairy tale, and Tili didn’t like fairy tales.

The witch Mahovilka had expected that when she revealed her secret, something would happen, that there would be some shift in the world which included both good and evil things, but there was nothing. Matilda just quietly and persistently stared at her mother with her big brown eyes. The witch could not figure out her daughter’s thoughts. Maybe even Matilda herself had not decided yet what she was to think about it all.

Chapter 5

Days had passed since the witch Mahovilka told her daughter her life’s story, and since then Tili had not uttered a single word about it. Tili’s mother was afraid that her daughter would be angry, or even worse not take anything that had been said seriously, or perhaps even believe that she was being teased. What else was left to say other than the truth? To make the tale more believable, maybe she could’ve told her daughter that her father had left them, but that wasn’t true. He was forced to leave. Maybe she could have said he was on a business trip, or that he accepted a job abroad, but that was stupid, and also not true. However unlikely it sounded, he had gone back to Fairyland to stop the curse, to prevent Matilda from being snatched away from this world. The question was: how could Matilda cope with this kind of truth?

But then, one day, Tili decided that she was done thinking to herself.

“Mom, Luki is also a witch, isn’t she?”

Tili’s mother rejoiced to herself as her daughter spoke. Tili only needed some time to accept things. She might have been a little girl, who was afraid to imagine, but she was a very, very smart girl and she could conceive of many things, even if she was not often ready at first.

Mother slowly nodded as if Tili were a bird that could be frightened and repelled by any sudden movement.

“What is Luki doing in the fridge?” Tili asked.

“Refrigerators are portals,” her mother said. There was no need to hide it any longer. “Do you know what a portal is?”

“Something… like a door?” Tili said, and carefully watched her mother. Her mother’s eyes seemed to take on a strange shine.

Ompivaj. That’s what we call it. But yes, it’s a door. The doors connect one witch to another when we are in this world. And the doors can only be used by witches. You enter the refrigerator of one witch and exit out of the refrigerator of another.”

“Strange,” Tili said to herself, trying to envision the whole process. She imagined how someone could enter or leave the large refrigerator in the shop; it was big enough, one could even skip rope in it, because it was just that big. But in order to enter or leave the small refrigerator in the kitchen… how could one do that? Probably even Bartolomeow would not be able to fit inside, considering the piles of fruit and vegetables, meat and cheese, and whatever else was packed tightly on its shelves. Even if all the food were removed from it, a child would barely be able to fit inside, let alone a full-grown witch.

“Before you open a door of ompivaj, you must imagine the place where you want to go. It’s necessary, therefore, to know the witch whom you’re going to visit, because otherwise you would not be able to imagine her ompivaj. No uninvited visits. If you must visit someone you have never met before, you must bring someone who knows her with you,” Tili’s mother said with obvious pleasure. Her eyes seemed to light up from the inside and render her with a new beauty. “Open the door of ompivaj, step inside, and once you re-open it, you’ll be someplace else.”

Tili let the information settle in her mind. “And that’s it? That’s all?”

“That’s all. Spells are never too complicated. They are simply… magical.”

A few days later, Tili decided to try it for herself. She was home alone and her mother was downstairs in the shop. She decided that these sorts of things were better to try out alone, without shame. Standing before the refrigerator door, staring at the magnets—the letters, the fishes, the cats and airplanes—she felt so foolish. Take me to our fridge in the pantry, she thought with her eyes tightly closed. And then she reached for the handle and opened it.

Eggs winked at her. A milk carton drunkenly leaned in and grinned at her, the butter sullenly belched its lid off, and the leeks, which protruded from the drawer, rustled Gandalf-like: You shall not pass!

This is soooo stupid! Tili thought, and she slammed the door in embarrassment.

But after several days, she tried it again.

Later, after the fifth attempt, Tili became severely depressed. This means that I’m not a witch, she thought to herself, and grieved the idea. What once used to be impossibly stupid now seemed like the most natural thing in the world. She did not even think about it as something that might belong to the world of fantasy. Somehow, everything had fallen into place once she learned that her mother was a witch. She remembered her father, not all that well, but from what she remembered of him, to her, he looked exactly like a Prince: tall, blond and handsome. And so she imagined herself having the characteristics of her parents, being a little witchy, being a little Princessy. But these constant failures were telling her something else, and she felt greatly disappointed. I’m no witch, she sadly thought to herself.

In the end, her mother caught her red-handed. Two pairs of brown eyes met over the open refrigerator door. Her mother did not laugh, and on her face there was no hidden tell or outward sign that she’d caught Tili doing something that she was not supposed to do. Her eyebrows went up, her eyes glittered, and quietly, with some kind of long-awaited excitement, she said, “Do you want me to help you?”

Tili nodded slightly, and slowly closed the refrigerator door. Her mother’s enthusiasm was infectious. Tili felt a tremor running through her entire body. Tili’s mother took her daughter’s hand, and touched the refrigerator door.

“Say: Open Sesame!”

Later she explained that one does not have to say such a thing in order to use ompivaj. She did not know why she blurted it out. She was just so happy to be able to do with her daughter what she had always dreamed of doing that she found herself swept up in the moment.

When her mother opened the refrigerator door a great light flooded over them, so bright they could not see the contents of the fridge. From the inside, Tili’s mother pushed open the doors that appeared at the back of their refrigerator, and before them was an unfamiliar kitchen.

What a mess! What a commotion! There were dirty bowls and vegetable residues and even a broken egg lying on the floor; someone had already slipped on it, because the egg-white was stretched in one big, slimy line. From somewhere, squealing sounds emanated, as if someone were arguing, or perhaps even fighting. Tili stopped, frightened. Her mother cheerfully stepped out of the refrigerator, onto a banana peel, and shook it from her sole. She pulled Tili after her.

“My God! What’s going on?” whispered Tili and pulled her mother’s hand, suspecting that her mother hadn’t yet seen where they were. Only then her mother winced, realizing Tili’s fright, and suddenly waved it off.

“Oh, do not worry, it’s normal, it’s just Bri. She’s not a particularly good housewife, but she’s a great witch. Can you believe that we’re on the other side of the planet? How wonderful to travel by ompivaj! Much better than steam, no matter what some others would say.”

Tili did not understand what her mother said, but as she struggled not to step on the scattered peas and lose her balance (her mother was racing over peas as if on skates), she could not manage to ask. A moment later, they rushed out of the kitchen and into a hallway which was (what a surprise!) completely cluttered. Mountains and mountains of newspapers, stacked on each other, stacked in all the corners of the hallway in such tall towers that each bunch leaned to the side and threatened to topple down at the slightest encouragement.

Tili’s mother paused there, filled her lungs with air and yelled at the very top of her voice, “BRRRIIIIIIIII… !!!”

Tili shuddered and waited for an avalanche of newspaper. The towers only jiggled slightly, some pages unfurled, but not a single paper fell.

The witch Mahovilka’s voice echoed up the stairs. The house resounded with it. Tili took her mother’s hand. Not only because she was afraid, but because in her mother she felt such incredible enthusiasm that it was as though her mother were as light as air and could take off like a balloon at any moment.

They heard laughter. It rang out from upstairs. It sounded like the laughing of a cartoon witch, the sort that traveled by broomstick. Tili instinctively flinched and ducked, and her mother whispered, “Fear not,” and pulled her upstairs. Her mother skipped up the steps by threes, and Tili, who was unable to keep up, stumbled after, like a toddler being pulled from a playground.

“Coffee or tea?” someone yelled from upstairs.

“Tea!” her mother yelled back.

“I have no milk!”

“Who asked you for milk?”


“And honey!”

“I have no honey!”

“You have! Behind the rose jelly!”

“I ate all the rose jelly!”

“And what about the honey?” she asked breathlessly. She had already stepped up to the first floor and now stood in the open doorway. The room was dark.

“Hmm,” someone said from the darkness. “Who could manage in this mess?”

“Should I turn on the lights?” asked Tili’s mother. “It might help.”

“Good idea. Please,” said someone from darkness, and Tili closed her eyes as her mother reached for the switch. The lamp hissed menacingly, and the person from the darkness said triumphantly, “Yeah! Honey!” and then before she saw her, Tili heard her voice, which felt purple-colored with astonishment, as she said, “Well, you’re not alone!”

Not only did the voice of Bri feel purple, but her hair actually was purple. It was tufted and rolled on top of her head in such a way that it looked like a bird’s nest. Tili was not surprised when she heard a tweet and saw a little bird’s head peek out among purple curls. Oh, they’re just witches, Tili believed the bird wanted to say. No bird could be at peace in their presence.

“Is this…?” said Bri with stunned enthusiasm. Her face, which was slightly wrinkled around the eyes, indicated that she was older than Tili’s mother, but because of the way she dressed (colorful rags piled up, a few Hawaiian shirts, braided around her waist, imitated a skirt, and what was supposed to be a shirt was actually a long-flowered scarf, wrapped around the upper part of her body) it was hard to tell how old she really was. She wore heavy dark makeup, all various shades of purple. Tili by now was sure that purple was Bri’s favorite color.

“Yes, it is!” Tili’s mother pulled her daughter in close and spun her around, as if to show her off from all angles, and assure her friend of Tili’s quality.

“How great!” Bri said in admiration. “I remember when she was a little, cuddly, chubby baby.”

Tili blushed, because she did not like when grownups talked about her as though she were not in the room.

“Does she drink coffee?” Bri obviously wasn’t skilled with children.

“Children don’t drink coffee!” Tili said.

“Bri!” Tili’s mother said, equally disapproving. Bri shrugged and jumped from the closet on which she sat.

“Well, I ate all of the rose jelly.”

“I think the tea will be sufficient,” Tili’s mother said.

Bri slapped herself on the forehead with an open palm. Dozens of bracelets on her arm rattled angrily. “The tea! I forgot about the tea!” She began to climb back inside the closet.

Nothing Tili had seen so far could have prepared her for what she saw in that room. It was like a playground constructed out of furniture.

Cabinets, chests of drawers, closets, and commodes were all arranged along the walls, looking like a giant staircase that a person could skip across from one step to another, and it looked like if one wanted to come down from there, they should simply open the closet door and climb down the shelves. At the center of the room was a large bed, that for Bri, Tili would later find out, served as a trampoline. Bri could jump on it from the closet, or she could just jump up and down, holding a cup of tea in one hand, and a biscuit in the other, not spilling a single drop. It must be one of her magical skills, Tili thought. Tili knew if she tried it herself she would end up covered in tea and biscuits.

Somewhere, Bri obviously had a stove and tea cups, because she soon appeared with three cups of tea. Tili received a cup with a pattern of three dancing rabbits. Bri then jumped on the bed, put the cup on a low dresser and again slammed her palm on her forehead.

“I forgot the honey!” She crawled up to her other closet, grabbed the honey and then climbed down the shelves. She quickly slipped one tablespoon of honey into each cup, stirred each tea, and then tossed the spoon over her shoulder—it landed behind the glass-doored cabinets and clanked around sadly.

“You’re forgetting something else,” Tili’s mother said.

“No, I’m not! I’m not!” Bri stood up, waving her hands. “Lemon harvest was bad this year!”

Tili was convinced that Bri just didn’t want to climb through the closet again.

“So, you’re all grown up.” Bri spoke directly to Tili, who cautiously sipped the tea (which was surprisingly good, and which did have a hint of lemon). Bri watched Tili suspiciously, as if she expected Tili to say something contrary. Tili, not knowing how to respond, only nodded slightly.

“How did you get so big?” Bri leaned over and squinted suspiciously, staring so closely at Tili that Tili almost fell off the commode on which she was sitting (there were no chairs in the room).

“Children… children grow,” Tili muttered defensively under her breath.

Bri tilted her head, musing over this statement, scratched her chin and said, “Amazing! How marvelous!”

“I brought her to you so that you could teach her how to use ompivaj,” Tili’s mother said.

Bri jumped and threw her cup of tea in the air. The cup must have landed somewhere, but Tili failed to see where. It did not even sadly echo from behind some piece of furniture.

“Oh, how lovely, lovely indeed! It’s been centuries since I’ve taught anybody!”

Tili tried to imagine those centuries, but what happened next stopped her thoughts. Bri grabbed Tili’s mother’s cup of tea (Tili’s mother just took one sip from it, then gasped when Bri jumped to her), blew three times into the tea and… was gone!

A cup fell to the carpet and the tea spilled. In this house, one was not destined to finish a tea.

“What just happened?!” Tili gasped.

“Do not mind her,” Tili’s mother said ruefully. “She’s a little excited. She does not socialize much with witches.”

“Does this mean that I… I’m a witch?” Tili asked quietly, half expecting her mother to laugh. Had she not proved, with her unsuccessful attempts, that she was no witch? On the other hand—her mother had brought Tili to Bri’s to learn to travel through fridges. Was witchcraft something one could learn? (She had, in that moment, completely forgotten about how her father had once learned to use magic.)

“Of course. You thought otherwise?”

“I wasn’t so great at magic, so I thought…” She dismissed it. “Where did Bri disappear to?” Tili was getting used to the idea of people vanishing.

“She went into the refrigerators, of course. Let’s go.”

They walked the house’s corridors, and Tili soon realized that her mother was not leading her towards the kitchen. However, Bri had a few more kitchens in the house, or at least more rooms in which there were a great number of refrigerators. The kitchen Mother took Tili to was similar to the first one—closets and cupboards—only this one was occupied by dozens of refrigerators and freezers, even large ones, like the one Tili’s mother had in the pantry.

When Tili and her mother entered the room, Bri was standing next to one of the fridges. She was holding the refrigerator door half open. Her face was impatient.

“What do you know about ompivaj?” asked Bri.

“They are used for food storage?”

Bri covered her mouth with her hands in shock.

“Goodness! The child has gone mad!”

“She hardly knows anything,” Tili’s mother said. “She just found out about our family history.”

“Isn’t that sad?” Bri sighed, and then winced as if she’d remembered something. “Has it been…?”

“No, no, it’s a few months ahead of us—we have time for her to learn it.”

“Uh, well, I’ve been worrying that we’re short on time. So, my girl, it’s like this. How is your imagination?”

Tili shrugged and somehow it felt to her that it was the right moment to lie. “Well, I’d say it’s average… I guess.” She was not sure how much her mother had told Bri about her unwillingness to imagine. She was sure that Bri would not approve.

“Average is not good enough! Average is insufficient! Mahovilka, this is not your daughter. If she were my daughter, I would have been offended by now. I cannot teach someone who does not have an imagination. You know I don’t work miracles.”

That was an unusual statement for a witch, but all three disregarded it without a word.

“What Tili wants to say is that she’s just not used to imagining.” Tili’s mother sighed. “None of us was born knowing everything. When we arrived in this world, even we who were skilled in imagining had to learn how to use ompivaj. Bri, be good. Teach my daughter to travel through ompivaj.”

Bri’s stern expression suddenly softened.

“Come on, come here. As I said, I have not taught anyone for a hundred years. Maybe I’m a little out of practice.”

Tili slowly approached. Bri grabbed her, hugged her, and snuggled up to her. Bri smelled of moth balls and burnt cookies.

“Imagining is easy,” she said. “Because whatever you can imagine already exists in your head. It is enough just to close your eyes and describe to yourself what you see. “Unfortunately, there are those who are nearsighted or farsighted or are generally very weak at envisioning, so they can hardly explain what is going on in their heads. As you’re the daughter of the witch who imagined this entire world, I do not believe that’ll be the case with you.” Bri squinted.

Tili, wisely, stayed silent. None of what Bri had said made much sense to her. How could something already exist, if you need to imagine it?

Bri felt that something was bothering the girl, so she paused to explain. “In regards to imagination, time runs differently. What comes after can be imagined prior to what came before. If something already exists in the future, but does not yet exist in the past, does that mean that it does not exist, or that it has not happened yet? —No. It exists, and it has happened in the future, but in the past, it is completely unknown. Did you exist before you knew the truth about your parents and their past?”

Tili slowly nodded. This explanation was confusing her even more.

“There you are!” Bri said cheerfully, as though everything had been resolved. “One uses ompivaj in the same way. You have already used ompivaj in the future—so it’s only in the past when you have not.”

“I need to think like someone who has already done it?” Tili said softly.

Bri’s lips stretched into a wide smile. Then Tili could have sworn that Bri lit up with purple light.

“Exactly! I couldn’t have said it better myself! Excellent! Excellent!”

Had anyone pressed Tili to explain what it was exactly that she’d realized, she would have been in a bind. But the truth was that she somehow began to feel as though she understood. She looked at her mother. Her brown eyes were sparkling. Although she’d still accomplished nothing, Tili felt unusually proud of herself.

“So, what have we learned by now?” Bri coughed like a strict teacher—completely contrarily to her appearance. “When you want to use ompivaj, think as though you’ve already done so; open the door, see in your head a sight that you’ve seen, and go forth. And do not worry: it’s all been done before. Try!”

As convincing as Bri sounded, she could not simply give Tili confidence. And because Tili doubted, every time she opened the door, she stood face-to-face with only an empty refrigerator.

After a while Bri’s enthusiasm began to fade. It was obvious that it had been some time since she’d seen so untalented a student.

“Imagine your fridge, open the door, go in and step out of the refrigerator in your kitchen,” Bri said hoarsely. She’d repeated this (although not in such a dejected tone) quite a few times, before each of Tili’s attempts.

Tili’s biggest problem was that she had never really seen their fridge from the inside, so it was hard for her to imagine. She should imagine a mirror image, she supposed. But that only meant that the eggs would be on the left, rather than the right side. The milk carton would swap sides also. Everything else, she had a very hard time imagining.

“Wait, let’s try something else,” Bri said, when for the umpteenth time, even the empty inside of the refrigerator seemed to yawn at Tili. “I have heard of such cases, although admittedly I never met one…” She reached into her skirt, which was made up of shirts, and pulled out a long scarf. Without saying a word, she blindfolded Tili’s eyes and tied the scarf tightly. “Now walk towards me. I will be in your kitchen. I’ll open the refrigerator door and go through. You must follow me.”

Tili, who now lacked confidence and who was extremely disappointed, just gave in to this new whim of the purple-haired witch. As everything had failed before, she did not even consider the possibility that this new method could work either. But considering that her mother sought out Bri as a teacher… She did not even dare to think what her mother felt. She must have been terribly disappointed also.

“Follow my voice,” said Bri, a bit muffled.

Tili was certain that the witch had already entered the refrigerator. The girl held out her hands in front of her and took a tentative step in the direction from which the voice came. Then she took another step, and another. She still had not touched a single thing, although it seemed to her that she already should have.

“Aunty Bri?” she said with uncertainty. “Mom?”

She took another step. Still nothing. Each new step was harder to take. She was uncertain of what was in front of her so it felt like the floor would give way, or she would stumble forward.

Nobody answered her calls. If nothing else, sooner or later there would be a wall; this room could not be infinite. And although her reason told her that she had already taken too many steps, she continued to believe that she was still in Bri’s secondary kitchen.

“Aunty Bri? Mom?”

She stopped. She reached for the scarf and pulled it from her eyes.

She was in her home kitchen.

Bri was standing next to the fridge, eating a piece of bread with jam. Tili’s mother was standing behind her.

Tili would never forget the look on her mother’s face when their eyes met. The way her mother looked at her filled her with pride and confidence and with something else that was new to Tili.

“I knew you could do it!”

Chapter 6

Tili continued to study ompivaj traveling. She couldn’t do it every time, but the few times when she managed to teleport, from the kitchen down to the pantry, or from the pantry to the kitchen, she considered it a great act of sorcery. In any case, she herself felt quite magical. How many girls in the world could do what Tili could? But she’d soon find out that there were many other magical things ahead.

If anyone ever said to Tili her next teacher would be Luki, Tili would’ve just laughed. Luki was, to say it mildly, quite eccentric. Not exactly like Bri, who frequently visited Tili and her mother. For these visits, Bri wore ordinary clothing just in case one of the family’s “normal friends” was visiting the house. Bri was a strange person, in a very strange, witch’s way. But Luki was eccentric—a lot sillier than Bri on her silliest day. Being goofy and weird were traits Tili soon began to link with witches. Tili had seen plenty of people who she felt were “off their rocker,” but nothing could be compared with the craziness and weirdness of witches.

Tili was too busy studying ompivaj travel to sit down and think through all that had happened in Bri’s home. So the weeks passed before she remembered a particular detail about it.

“Mom, when Bri disappeared, how did she do it? In that room was no ompivaj.”

“Um, hmmm?” Tili’s mother was, of course, busy around the kitchen.

“In her house. She just made a poooof!—and disappeared.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? She travels on steam.”

Tili was never sure whether her mother was purposely keeping secrets from her, or whether she was just forgetting to tell her things. Ever since Tili had started practicing magic, her mother had been particularly distracted.

“No, Mom, you didn’t tell me,” Tili sighed. But then she remembered what her mother had said at Bri’s—how the ompivaj are much better than steam. So, maybe it wasn’t a secret. Maybe she’d just forgotten to mention it.

Tili’s mother wiped her hands on a towel and then placed a lid back on one of the pots after checking on what was cooking inside.

“Some witches use ompivaj to travel, and some others use steam. Anything that’s hot, and from which steam rises, can serve as a means of transport. Even a cup of hot tea.”

Tili thought it over. Bri had used a cup of tea to teleport into the room with refrigerators. She even blew into the cup to make more steam.

Tili looked at her mother standing in their little steamed-up kitchen. From four pots, fumes and steam were rising. Tili suddenly started to see their kitchen in a completely different way. Now, to her, it seemed more like an airport.

“Can I learn to travel on steam?” Tili asked. Her mother nodded, without hesitation.

“Of course. You just have to be careful not to burn yourself.”

That was a useful tip. Tili was already thinking about how she could travel while avoiding being seriously burned. Bri had not jumped into that tea cup. Tili hoped that traveling through steam did not require jumping into an actual pot.

“You want me to show you?” Mother was suddenly all eager to show off something new. But Tili was suspicious.

Tili’s mother, in all these weeks since she’d shared her life story, had told Tili all about Fairyland, and about the fate of her father, and about Bri and witches and traveling through refrigerators… but in all that time she’d never once said anything about traveling on steam. It seemed like an important detail to leave out.

“Not now. Some other time,” said Tili. “I want to perfect ompivaj first.”

The truth was that Tili first wanted to talk to her fairy. Since all this started, she and Bartolomeow had not found the time to sit down and talk in private.

During the day, Bartolomeow was not talkative, and that was understandable considering that he spent most of his time sleeping. But now, at night, he stayed exclusively in Tili’s room. He didn’t want to risk Tili being attacked by evil little elves in the form of mice.

“Bart, I want to ask you something,” Tili said to the cat at night, as he lay at the foot of her bed, just below her feet.

Bartolomeow’s ear just barely moved. He did not even deign to open his eyes. Maybe he thought that whatever issue Tili had would be too difficult for a cat’s savvy. But Tili wasn’t going to give up so easily. She knew cats liked to ignore people. For a response, one had only to be persistent.

“Do you really think Dad will break the curse?”

That was the question that Tili did not dare to ask anyone else, not even her mother. Tili thought about her father often. The details of his curse. The old King, the grandfather whom she’d never met, appeared to be a very strict and rigid person. In the light of all the sacrifice he endured, would the King, after so many years, forgive Tili’s father? The more Tili thought about it, the more she was afraid for her father. After all, if everything was fine, he would already have contacted them. He would’ve found ways to, at least, send them a message. Three years had passed without a word. Soon, the curse would take effect. Tili’s father would disappear from this world and appear in Fairyland in about a month’s time, leaving Tili and her mother all alone.

Bartolomeow opened one eye, slightly lifting his head to stare at Tili.

“What’s going on in your head, girl?”

“I’m afraid that something’s wrong. That Dad needs help.”

The cat looked as though he were trying to frown, but that was difficult to do with a feline face.

“In Fairyland there are still many wizards and witches who love your mother and father and can come to his rescue. You have no reason to worry. Your father will find a way.”

“But why hasn’t he sent us a message? At least just a piece of paper that says: I’m all right. Soon we’ll be together.”

“You’re forgetting that we’re talking about Fairyland and curses. I’m sure he would have sent a message were it possible. You want to know what I think? I think there’s been no message because the duration of the curse has not ended yet. In a month or so, ten years will have passed since the time the curse was first cast. I’ll bet, on your tenth birthday, you’re going to get a message from your father. Or maybe he’ll even appear himself.”

“That would be very nice, wouldn’t it?” Tili said quite sadly. She was a very prudent and intelligent girl and she knew that things usually are not so simple. The things one wishes for are often the most difficult to come by.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing you can do. Leave it to adults. They’re here to protect you. And they’re doing their best to do so.”

Tili knew that. And she was aware how much her father had sacrificed by leaving. Moreover, she could almost feel in herself the same kind of sadness he must have felt before leaving. Something inside of her was changing, only she had not yet formed her feelings in specific thoughts and words; she did not yet realize what it was that her new-found wisdom was whispering to her, and why she was full of this infinite sadness.

“You’ll always be with me, Bart, won’t you? Whatever happens?” Tili asked.

Bartolomeow reached one paw out, as if trying to comfort her. “Of course, silly, what are you saying? You know that I’ll always be there.”

“Good. I just wanted to know.”

A couple of days passed. Tili was waiting for the right moment when she was left at home alone, and when Luki was busy in the store. She sat hidden in a pantry reading Peter Pan (she was reading stories now, not for school but for herself, because now she knew that, by exploring the possibilities, she was flexing her imagination muscles). A couple of times Luki rushed in, grabbed something, and then hurried out. Tili stopped her the third time she came through as Luki was struggling with a large crate of apples and trying to push a big sack of flour with her foot. Had the situation been different, Tili would have continued to hide so that she could observe the battle. Would the flour be scattered, or would the apples spill? Tili spoke quickly before either happened.

“Luki, can you travel on steam?”

Luki jumped, because she had not seen the girl. A few cheerful apples scattered in different directions.

“Shhhh! Not so loud! The shop is full of Muggles!” Luki said in a muffled tone, conspiratorially looking around. Luki loved reading Harry Potter.

“I’ve seen you in ompivaj, but I’ve never seen you use steam. I guess all the witches do not know all the tricks…”

“Who says I don’t know? Of course I do! I was traveling by steam before this world was a daydream in your mom’s mind!”

“…So, I can learn?”

“Of course, you’re a witch.”

“And is it not dangerous—hot stuff and so on?”

Luki glanced at the door, thought for a moment, sighed and tossed the apple crate down near the flour sacks and then leaned on it.

“So, I guess it can be. But closing the door can be dangerous—you have to watch yourself so you don’t catch your finger.” Luki spoke from personal experience. “And when you travel on steam you need to make your thoughts climb as steam does, because thoughts are faster than bodies. When a thought reaches a certain place, the body follows.”

“But you can only travel to familiar places?”

“What do you mean?”

“When traveling ompivaj…”

“Forget it, ompivaj is for amateurs! Real witches surf the steam!” Luki chuckled at the turn of phrase that had just come to her. “How could we ever see anything interesting if we only traveled to familiar places? We would see nothing! No. Steam is used to go to faraway places. If you wanted, you could even go to the Moon.”

“To the Moon, you say?” Tili tried to hide her excitement.

“Yes! But, be careful! There’s no air on the Moon! You have to be ready!” She suddenly turned serious, realizing that she’d probably said too much. “You’re not going to the Moon, are you? Your mom would kill me if she knew I put you up to it.”

“Come on, Luki, I’m not a five-year-old. After all, I don’t even know how to travel on steam yet. Mom promised to teach me.”

Luki calmed down and nodded, concluding that the discussion was over. She again picked up the crate with the apples. She’d forgotten that she’d tried to push out a sack of flour with her foot, which was good, because the stockroom was already cluttered. When Luki later returned for the sack, Tili was no longer in the pantry. She was stepping out of the refrigerator in the kitchen and on her face was a small, smart smile.

* * *

From the tone and manner in which Luki advocated steam traveling, Tili knew that she would catch her using it sooner or later.

Tili was right. Not much time had passed before she caught Luki leaning over a pot in which something was boiling. Luki took a quick look left, and then right, to see if anyone was watching and then poof! Only flecks of dust and swirls of steam, mirroring colors, were left after her disappearance. For a moment, Luki’s steam held in the air and then it disappeared. The technical details about how steam traveling was done were not clear. But Tili partially knew the steam theory and now she was sufficiently good at ompivaj traveling. She assumed that the two techniques were not so different. It was a different means of transport. Ompivaj could only go to familiar locations, but steam seemed to open up limitless possibilities.

Tili started lurking around her mother, because Mother was constantly hanging around steaming pots. Tili was waiting for her chance to try it, but her mother was far more difficult to trick than Luki. Her mother had hidden the fact that she was a witch for Tili’s entire life. She was very clever, so Tili knew it would be hard to catch her steam traveling.

It seemed that after her mother promised to teach her steam traveling, she’d fallen silent, and Tili did not want to deliberately raise the question. She knew her mother had reasons to keep quiet. And Tili had reasons to keep quiet as well. A plan was forming up in Tili’s head.

The easiest and best way was to wait for Luki to show her, so that she could learn by example. But even after the second and third time, all Tili saw was Luki disappearing in a whirl of steam. She knew nothing more about steam travel than when she’d started.

Magic is imagination and you can imagine anything. Everything has already happened in the future; it’s only in the past that you haven’t managed it yet. Close your eyes and follow my voice… Tili was trying to memorize the words, as if studying for an exam. However, no matter how well an idea is learned, it’s only through practice that one can feel how it works. And because of this Tili, without any knowledge about what she should do, began to practice.

Much like her efforts with ompivaj practice, Tili didn’t have much success at first. She felt awful, because she was convinced that she should already be able to do it. When she couldn’t make it work, she was doubly disappointed.

It was when she was least expecting it that Tili succeeded—perhaps at a moment when it was least desirable to succeed.

She was eating lunch at school. In front of her was a cup of hot cocoa. She was annoyed at being stuck at school for the next two hours, instead of being at home doing important things. Ah, I wish I was at home, she thought, and blew in the hot cocoa….

And suddenly she was at home.

She had to allow herself to get in trouble with her mother and her teacher, because she could not explain why she’d missed class.

Tili wondered how the children in the dining room, who had seen her disappear into the steam of a cup of hot cocoa, explained what they saw. But no one said anything, as if it were all too strange to even talk about.

The other students said nothing about the incident, and in the end, the teachers decided that Tili had just gone home after lunch. Her mother asked what happened. But Tili just sadly shrugged. How to explain? School and magic certainly did not go together.

If her mother suspected Tili of something, she hid it well. Tili wondered if her mother knew that she was up to something—she felt confident and a little sad that her mother probably wouldn’t have thought her reasonable, smart daughter would have gone so far as to put herself in danger.

As far as Tili was concerned, at least one positive thing came out of the event. She’d learned the nature of the steam traveling. She realized all she had to do to travel on steam was to wish for it really badly and, of course, to imagine the place where she wanted to be. Everything else the magic did for itself, whether she acted or not.

All she could do now was to exercise her skills. It was like riding a bicycle. After your first few falls and bleeding knees and noses suddenly, when you least expect it, the wheel will even out and steady itself and you’ll ride like you’ve done it your entire life.

As she was becoming more adept at her new skill, a strange sadness crept into Tili. One question bothered her: how was it that Wendy never considered what her mother felt after she and her brothers had disappeared? Why wasn’t she aware that by going missing she was doing something vile to her worrying mother? Perhaps, because Wendy’s mother had a husband, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Perhaps she was not actually all alone.

But Tili’s mother had no one—no one in this entire vast, imagined world.

Chapter 7

It was time for great heroism.

The day was no different from any other day. Bartolomeow was sleeping, something was boiling on the stove, and Tili’s mother was down in her store. But Tili did not even bother to peer into the pot to see what was cooking.

She grabbed her school bag and dumped her books on her bed. Then she went to the refrigerator, unzipped her bag, and threw in some cheese, a few slices of salami, a jar of jam… and actually everything else she came across. She didn’t know where her thoughts would carry her. For all she knew, she could end up in the forest surrounded by Snow White and her seven dwarfs.

She pulled on her good shoes and her thickest jacket, because she was unsure of what season it was in Fairyland. She slipped her backpack on, grabbed Bartolomeow, and headed for the kitchen.

“What’s going on, what’s happening?” The confused cat looked up groggily. “Are we going somewhere?”

“Yes, we are,” Tili said and tightly clutched Bartolomeow by the belly. “We’re going to save my Dad.”

The steam from the pot spouted up and suddenly there was only fog and the scattered swirls of color, dispersing the magic of imagination.

* * *

When the fog dispersed Tili was almost sure she was in the small village with mills that she had once visited with her parents when she was very, very young (she remembered the gurgling water and the giant turning wheel and the hushed murmurs). A small stream merrily broke on a narrow riverbed, only to become entangled in the mill’s water wheel, forcing the structure to spin. Beside Tili was a small farmhouse, with a roof made of straw. A few chickens and a duck scratched up the ground before the house.

If someone was in the house, Tili could not see.

The house was located in a remote area, on the edge of the forest. The forest stretched far behind it and seemed to go on forever. On the other side, down the slope and in the valley, the town was sparse. The area was surrounded by a wall of high stone. The guards patrolling atop the wall seemed tiny from a distance. Only the castle and church towers were visible from where Tili was. The church tower was thin and needle-like; its roof shone red in the early morning sun, because it was made of copper plates. On the right side of it were five castle towers, one in the front, and one at each of the four corners. It was practically a fortress within a fortress.

“Matilda! For God’s sake! What did you do?” shouted Bartolomeow and Tili only then realized what had happened to him. Bartolomeow was no longer a cat. He was a frog.

Without thinking Tili jumped and threw the frog and, just for good measure, hopped back another step, as if afraid that the frog would bite. Frogs admittedly were not the most beautiful of all the creatures, but the poor fairy certainly was not deserving of such treatment.

“Ow! Thank you very much!” said the frog. “Not only does she turn me into a frog, but she tosses me to the ground! If you’re hoping I’ll turn into a beautiful Prince, well, then you have another thing coming!”

“Sorry, Bart! I didn’t mean to throw you. It’s really you, Bart?” Tili bent down towards the frog, and tried to recognize her fat cat in the creature, but the effort was in vain because the frog was green and crusty, with big froggy eyes and probably a long, sticky tongue, and it didn’t look even a little bit like her fat, lazy cat.

“Bart, you’re a very strange fairy. Why did you turn into a frog?”

“What did you think fairies in Fairyland looked like?” The frog sighed sadly. “Oh, nooo! Again, a diet of flies and mosquitoes! What have I, a poor girl, done to deserve this?” Tili thought it somewhat strange how Bartolomeow now referred to himself as feminine in gender, but it was the least strange thing about the situation, so she decided not to comment on it.

“Fairies are frogs? That’s terrible!” Tili said without thinking.

Bart shot her quite a reproachful glance. “Oh, that’s just great! Have you ever heard me sigh, and talk about how terrible girls are? Have you ever thought how awful girls must look to a frog? You weirdos aren’t even green… And your tongue? Not a bit sticky—wouldn’t be able to catch a fly even if a swarm landed on it! I don’t even know what your tongue is for. What does it do other than insult poor frogs?”

Tili was a bit offended. Bart was, in the form of a frog, quite pungent. It seemed that, along with his physical transformation, his character had changed also. Tili was not sure that she particularly liked anything that had happened so far.

“You’re pretty sensitive,” Tili said bitterly. In a different situation she herself might have been insulted, but she was in a foreign country in the company of a frog, and even this vitriolic and insulting frog was better than no company at all.

“Well… shall we just stand here, or are you going to get moving and knock on that door?” said the frog.

Tili wasn’t sure what to do. Knock on the door? Well, I guess it’s something to try. Although she remembered all her mother’s warnings about not talking to strangers, she needed to find her father. “Of course.”

“Yahoo!” shouted the frog as Tili took a step toward the cottage. “Hey, put me in your pocket. I’m not hopping this whole way.”

She bent at her knees and stretched out her hand. The frog jumped into her palm and Tili tucked him safely into her jacket pocket. Now they were ready to go to the cottage. Tili felt goose bumps. She had to simply hope that the people on the other side of the door were good people.

Chickens eyed her suspiciously as she approached. A duck let out a series of loud quacks. Maybe the duck is an alarm, Tili thought. A medieval doorbell. Then a strange thing happened: the duck disappeared. But so many weird things had happened in such a short time that to Tili, the duck’s disappearance was barely noticeable.

However, when she approached the door of the cottage and noticed a button, she felt a bit of surprise. She would never have thought that a cottage in Fairyland would have a modern electric doorbell.

Tili had already raised her hand to press the bell when the door suddenly opened, and a woman with a floury apron tied over tattered brown robes appeared.

Tili was surprised that the woman standing before her was only slightly taller than she. She wasn’t accustomed to staring adults in the eye. Though the woman did not seem old, she had gray hair, long and tied at the top of her head in a bun (nice and neat, not like Bri’s nest, all full of bird tenants). Her face was smeared with flour, just like her apron and hands. She wore a suspicious expression.

“Good afternoon,” Tili said kindly. Kindness, when dealing with unknown people, felt necessary.

“Is it good? I haven’t noticed. Just running and running and running all day. How then, can an afternoon be good?”

“Oh, sorry, I’m just…”

“Yes? You’re just… what?”

Tili already had her mind set to turn around and run away. Never had she met such a direct and coarse person.

“I’m just… just…” she stammered. The miller had her hands on her hips and was leaning towards Tili, staring at her.

The woman’s gaze locked Tili into place and made her feel as though she were turning into stone. How unkind, to stare at someone like that, Tili thought.

“Um, what are you?” asked the miller, at last.

Tili was puzzled. She was not sure what that question should mean. She believed the miller should be able to see that she was a girl, not a rabbit or something.

“Well, I’m a girl…”

“You are not,” the miller said. “You’re not dressed as a girl. Try again.”

Tili had no intention of trying again, as she well knew that she was a girl.

“This is a new fashion,” Tili said sharply, frowned and then pursed her lips. She felt she should have realized that her clothes could create some problems, but because of the speed at which everything had happened to her, she hadn’t considered it.

“I’ve never seen anyone wearing that,” the miller said.

Tili was unwavering. “Well, I come from a neighboring kingdom, and there, we have all sorts of clothes like this. Your clothes… Pssh!… Last year’s fashion!”

She was sure that the miller did not understand but she’d heard ‘the neighboring kingdom’, and that, Tili hoped, would be enough.

“The neighboring kingdom, you say? Hmm. I’ve never met anyone from the neighboring kingdom. People say it’s quite a good place to live.”

“It is!” Tili said, proudly raising her chin and gently patting her clothes. The muffled croak from her pocket reminded her that she should not be too rough with her froggy friend.

“Hmmm! Would you like to come in for a cup of milk and bread? I would love to hear the stories of a neighboring kingdom.” The miller looked up. “Oh, here comes my husband, returning from the mill. He’d love to hear your stories too.”

Indeed, one equally short and pudgy man, with a graying beard and a balding head, was exiting the mill. On his right shoulder was an empty sack that recently contained flour.

“This is the Princess of a neighboring kingdom!” the miller said to her husband, before he even had time to open his mouth and ask who the girl was. Tili also tried to open her mouth and protest the title because she knew it was not true—but then she realized it was not entirely false either. Technically, in Fairyland, she really was a Princess, not of a neighboring kingdom, but of this kingdom.

However, her status as a Princess didn’t fill Tili with any special joy. For her, being royalty seemed to harbor more problems than benefits.

“Your Highness!” The miller abruptly bowed, together with his wife. Tili was so surprised that she bowed as well—not knowing what the protocol in these circumstances was. She had never knowingly been a Princess before. Not even on Halloween.

“Come in, come in!” bid the miller’s wife, her hand pointing to the cottage door. “This is our humble home. We do not have much to offer, but we are ready to share with you what little we have.”

And so they entered.

The cottage consisted of only one room. On the left was the furnace where a fire was crackling, on the right was an old bed, and in the middle of the room was a small wooden table and two chairs.

The miller’s wife immediately placed a jug of milk on the table and pulled a loaf of freshly baked bread from the oven. Since there were only two chairs, the miller rolled a large log to the table and sat upon it. Tili was offered one of the chairs. Then the milk was poured, hot bread was torn into several pieces, and the millers propped their heads on their hands and stared at Tili, in anticipation of news from the neighboring kingdom.

Tili was in trouble. Nothing clever crossed her mind. What to talk about? She stuffed a piece of hot bread in her mouth. Her eyes watered as it burned her tongue, but she forced it down and coughed up the words, “Good bread.”

“Oh, I’m glad you like it!” said the miller’s wife. “Is there no freshly baked bread in the neighboring kingdom?”

Tili paused in confusion, not knowing what to say. Her right pocket shifted a little. Quite quietly, so that only Tili could hear, her right pocket whispered, “Make it up, Tili! Make it up!”

Well, of course, thought Tili. She’d forgotten that in this world people did not imagine. She wondered whether they could even make things up, or lie. But there was a difference between lying and imagining. There was a sincerity and a personal yearning involved in true imagining. It was a state in which a person was being honest with themselves. In that sense, wishful imagining was truth itself—the opposite of a lie.

“Oh, there’s bread, but not as good as this!” Tili said. Immediately it seemed to her that she really did come from another place. And the moment she realized that, she also realized that she didn’t even need to make anything up. Her mother had already imagined it all up. Tili could talk about the world she was from.

“In my kingdom, hardly anyone bakes bread. People can buy it in shops or restaurants, but it’s not as good as this. It’s not like homemade cooking. Then, even the people who do bake bread at home usually let machines do it for them.”

The millers did not understand half of what she said, but the miller’s wife understood praises and it was enough for her.

“And your clothes? Do all women in your kingdom dress like men?”

Tili then realized that women in this place probably didn’t wear pants.

“Only if they want. If you want you can wear dresses and gowns.” Then she remembered kilts. “In fact, men can wear skirts as well.”

“How strange, how unusual!”

“…And my mill is, as you probably know, the best in the country!” the miller blurted suddenly. He was sensitive to his status and he liked to brag about what he had.

“Really? That’s great,” Tili said politely. The miller’s wife just snorted through her nose.

“Do not overdo it!” she hissed at her husband and launched her elbow in his ribs. He doubled over and then slid the log he’d been sitting on a little farther from his wife.

“In our kingdom horses do not pull wagons. Wagons go by themselves!” said Tili boastfully; she was now completely in her element. So if the miller thought that he could boast with his watermill, Tili felt she had every right to boast about all the things her mom and dad invented.

“Great! Great! But, but… tell us more!” the miller’s wife said.

“In our world, metal birds sail across the sky! We can talk to people who are miles away, without having to send them a letter! And when we do send a letter, it immediately appears on… a window… a special window in the house, and the person who received the letter can read it right away!”

“Amazing! Amazing! Tell us more!”

“The flour grind in my watermill is so fine,” the miller suddenly said, “that when the slightest wind blows, the flour is converted into a cloud, that the wind carries on and on… Have you ever seen a fine white cloud over your kingdom, softly floating in the sky? If so, it was a cloud of my fine, fine flour, that the wind carried to your kingdom!”

Tili and the miller’s wife both stared at the little man, who was all red in the face with attempts to make himself important. He did not intend to offend his noble guest, but these wonders the Princess spoke of made him miserable because it seemed to him that everything he prided himself on amounted to nothing when compared to the magnificence of this girl’s kingdom.

“I haven’t. Clouds in our kingdom are all pink and made of candy.” Tili lied like crazy just to shut him up.

“I have a daughter who can spin gold from straw,” the miller said. His bald head was all flushed in his misery.

“Don’t lie!” said the miller’s wife, angrily putting her hands on her hips. “We don’t have a daughter!”

“But if we had, she could certainly spin straw into gold!” snapped the miller. Tili believed that this was the craziest couple she ever saw.

“But enough about me,” she said. “I’d like to know something about your kingdom. Who is your King?”

“His Majesty Ferdinand the Fearless,” the millers said in unison. Fear made them want to stand when they heard his name.

So, the old King is alive, Tili thought and felt a slight chill.

“So, is this a young and handsome King or an old and wicked King?” Tili said slyly. She did not know how else to ask whether they knew of her father or not.

“Oh, the old and fearless King!” again the millers said in unison. They seemed like people who were suspicious someone could be eavesdropping on them—even in their own home—or on the edge of the forest, so not even did they dare whisper a word about the cruel tyrant who ruled over them.

“…But doesn’t this King have a son?”

The millers shook their heads. They were both very pale in the face. It seemed like a forbidden topic.

“The King had a son once…” the miller’s wife said. “But he died. A tragic story! Truly a sad story.”

Tili felt her stomach knot up, full of bitter bile, and her throat tightened. She fought to hold still in her chair. “This… this happened recently?” she whispered, hoping that her voice didn’t tremble.

“What? Oh, my no, it was long, long ago… maybe ten years ago.” Then she lowered her voice even more, and leaned towards the center of the table. “They say that he died from a witch’s curse. No one knows what actually happened.”

Tili felt the weight lifted from her. She was relieved that the miller was talking about a time before she was even born. But the relief soon wasn’t enough. A new fear infiltrated her heart. If no one had heard from him, then what had happened to her father three years ago after he returned to Fairyland?

Chapter 8

Suddenly a terrible noise reached them from outside, coming from the direction of the forest. Tili winced, the millers looked at each other.

“What is that?” said Tili.

“Royal hunters,” the miller said and got up to go to the window. Now they could clearly make out the sounds of hunting horns, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the barking of hunting dogs that were on to something. Tili had never, in real life, seen hunters or hunting, but she’d read about it in Bambi and she hated what she knew was happening. Pursuit of some poor animal through the forest, while armed men on horseback, and dogs spurred to the chase, hunted them—it had not seemed to her to be a particularly heroic act. She was aware that people used animals for food, but to hunt some poor animal just for the fun of it… for her it seemed to be too cruel.

“What are they hunting?” she asked.

“Oh, I do not see it, it seems…” the miller said, peering behind the window curtain.

Tili did not wait for the end of the sentence. Boldly, she jumped up and ran out the door.

“Wait!” again in unison the millers screamed for her. “Your Highness, wait!”

Dozens of dogs raced across the clearing, chasing something tiny and orange which quickly trotted from left to right, running away from the dogs darting at it from both sides. Fox, thought Tili. Sly fox, outwitted by the King’s hunters, counting the seconds left of its life before the dogs fetch and dismember it.

The infirm animal rushed to the creek and, without hesitation, dived in the water. She could see that it was struggling with the current and it seemed to be losing the battle. But then it noticed that the dogs were jumping into the water after it, and that forced its final swim for the opposite bank.

Exactly what the fox thought, when it saw Tili standing a little further and staring at the hunters, we will never know. But for some reason it hoped that the girl could offer it salvation and, without pausing a single moment, it rushed towards her.

Tili was frightened for a second, seeing the fox running up toward her; she had never seen a fox before, except in a zoo. However, she did not run away, did not take a single step. The fox, when it reached her, only fell at her feet, panting loudly, tongue hanging to the side, and just looked at her pitifully with those tiny, foxy eyes, as if to say, “My life is in your hands, do what you will.”

The dogs, in a hunting frenzy, seemed to have lost their minds. They went for the fox, regardless of the girl who stood there. Perhaps they really did not even see Tili. But the brave little girl grabbed a branch from the ground and hurled it over the dogs’ heads. It startled them, forced them to take a step back. What is this child doing, their eyes seemed to say, can’t she see we’re hunting the beast?

Five or six horsemen rode through the stream. For the proud, strong horses, the water was not even up to their waists.

“Hey, girl! What are you doing?” angrily said one of the riders. Tili once again snapped the branch over the head of one of the bravest dogs, who had stepped towards the fox. The exhausted beast just watched the child gratefully, and did not move away from her feet. As it fell, it had no strength to stand up. Now it was all up to Tili.

“What did this poor animal do to you?” she said angrily.

One of the riders, the first whose horse got out of the water, sneered and said, “What? This chicken thief? The King issued a proclamation for all the foxes in the kingdom to be hunted down. This is the last time that this thief steals from the King’s hencoops.”

It seemed strange for the King to attack foxes with such a force. Foxes have always been a little, well, outside the law, and always happened to sin and steal things from people. It was nothing new. But Tili had never heard of anyone issuing a proclamation to catch every living fox. It seemed excessive.

“I do not know whether this fox is really a thief and if it’s guilty of what is accused. But there is no need for the actions of an individual, who has committed the crime, to condemn the whole of its kind. I’m a human as well as you, yet I would never hunt the poor animal through the woods and let dogs tear her up.”

“What do you know?” sneered the hunter. “You’re just a kid!”

“Children know what adults have forgotten,” said Tili sharply. “Children are sometimes more reasonable and more compassionate than adults will ever be.”

“Forgive her, Your Grace!” muttered the miller’s wife breathlessly. She had just managed to rush to them on her short, pudgy legs, throwing herself on her knees, as if begging for mercy for herself and the girl. “She’s not from around here! She is the Princess of a neighboring kingdom and does not know our ways!”

“Princess, you say?” suspiciously said the hunter, and stared at Tili beneath the wide brim of his hat, on which one big ostrich feather, colored in green, was trembling. “We have not heard that the Princess is coming to visit our kingdom. Where is your coach? Where is your entourage? Princesses do not travel on foot.”

“Princesses are doing just that,” stubbornly replied Tili. “Fit body, healthy life, lots of exercise. That’s why in our kingdom Princesses do not die young from hardened arteries.”

The hunter probably did not understand anything of what she just said, but for that reason the miller’s wife was further upset.

“What are you doing, child?” she whispered under her breath. “Would you have us thrown into the King’s dungeon?”

Tili noted that she’d stopped calling her Highness and gone back to original truth—that in front of her was a lost child, who did not know what she was doing.

“You are very insolent,” said the hunter, thinking it over a little, and laughed. “I suppose it is a virtue of a Princess. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Our Princesses like to eat cakes and lie around all day. Perhaps because of that, they all complain about small corsets.”

“Do you have lots of Princesses in your court?” Tili was again burning with the curiosity that had made her come to Fairyland in the first place, and she in the moment forgot where and in what kind of situation she was.

“At this point, no,” said the hunter. “But there was a time when…” He frowned and stared somewhere in the distance, as if he were trying to remember the time when the court was full of Princesses, but was not, at that moment, able to do so. Then he snapped out of it. “But… what about the fox?”

Tili looked at the animal. Its panting had eased. Its head was resting on its front paws as if asleep, but its eyes were wide open. It stared at the dogs that were lined up in front of Tili (the miller’s wife was standing a little further away, beyond the circle of dogs, because she did not dare come any closer) and was carefully watching every move.

“I will not give you this fox, do what you will,” Tili said bluntly.

“And what if we took it from you?” said the hunter mockingly. “This fox is the King’s property and you are denying us the right to deliver to the King what is his.”

“Well, then your King will have to talk to my father, who is also a King, isn’t that so?” Tili was so plugged into her Princessy role that her whole attitude and intensity reflected the feeling that she really was the Princess of a neighboring kingdom, and that the King, her father, really would fight for her. Not for a moment had it occurred to her that all this was something that she had invented, except for her being a Princess, and that the hunters could do absolutely anything they wanted and nothing would happen to them, because she was just a little girl, alone in a strange world.

“Hm,” said the hunter. “I do not remember whether I heard your name?”

Tili choked and for a moment her brain froze. Fortunately, her right pocket, which had long been silent, now softly spoke and whispered a name.

“Matilda of Oblivion!” she repeated loudly. What a strange name, she thought. Why did her fairy whisper that name to her? Who would believe it?

But the hunter only nodded. “Matilda of Oblivion,” he said, and touched his big hat. There was something strange in the way he smiled, slightly bowing his head. “This time, you win. There are too many foxes in the royal forests to be wrangled about this one, who, by the way, seems to be dying. The next time we meet, Matilda of Oblivion… Well, I hope we’ll meet again,” said the hunter. He whistled, and other riders and horses, along with dogs, leapt to their feet and ran toward the valley.

As the hunters moved away, the miller’s wife snorted, shaking her head and muttering to herself as she returned to the cabin. The miller, who had been very bravely peeking behind the curtain, likewise disappeared inside.

Only the fox took its head from its paws and looked at Tili gratefully.

“Thank you very much, girl. This is something I’ll never forget. I owe you my life,” said the fox. Tili was astonished to hear it speaking. Even knowing where she was, she was sure that this was something that didn’t happen every day, or for all animals. Magic was at work. And where there was magic, there were witches, Tili’s own kind.

“Sorry!” Tili said when she realized she was staring, open-mouthed and for quite some time, until her mouth went dry. “I assume that in this kingdom, not all animals have the gift of speech. That it is a remarkable gift possessed only by special ones? I mean, I only met a couple of chickens and a duck, but they were not particularly talkative.”

What happened with that duck, anyway, thought Tili, looking around. A duck as the door bell was much more appropriate for a miller’s house than that strange electric bell.

And in that moment, she noticed those few chickens, and the duck was again among them.

If she had stood closer to the cabin, however, Tili would have been able to see, in that moment, that strange, inappropriate electric bell disappearing from the door.

“Yes, the chicken!” The fox smiled, looking in the same direction. Tili looked at it reproachfully, but thought to herself, I might have saved the thief, but the death penalty was cruel, anyway.

“Sorry!” said the fox, remorseful. “That is my foxy nature. For a fox, or a leopard, our spots never change. I will always lick my lips when I see a delicious, fat chicken, peacefully pacing around the yard. But I was not in the King’s henhouse.”

“Are you sure?” said Tili suspiciously. She thought it distasteful for someone, even if he was a fox, to look at a chicken that way, and only five minutes after he was freed from the death penalty for theft of the same creatures.

“Sure, I’m sure!” said the fox. “The King’s chickens are the fattest and most buttery and juiciest in the whole kingdom. I would remember.”

Tili was suspicious of how this fox was so well versed in the quality of the chickens in the King’s hencoops, but for the sake of her own peace of mind, she decided not to meddle more with the whole thing. She did not want to regret her own actions.

“You did not explain your ability to speak,” Tili reminded it. The fox scratched its ear with its rear foot.

“Well… it can be said that I have not always been a fox. So, my dear, you can say that you have not saved only the life of a fox, but also a former colleague and human being.”

“Really!” Tili was surprised, as an animal that speaks is less a miracle than an animal that was once a human being. “What happened?”

“Magic, my dear…” The fox sadly shook its head. “An evil, evil magic, that turned a stubborn girl into a cunning fox.”

“Would you like to tell me about it? I’d love to hear your story,” said Tili.

The fox winced at these words. It looked in the direction in which the hunters had gone. Although they could see all the way up to the city in the distance, Tili was not able to see anything that would indicate the horses and riders. Where did they disappear to so quickly?

“I’d better go. Hunters should not be trusted.”

“But they promised…”

“They promised to you, girl, because the hunter was impressed by your words and attitude. But if they find me again, they will not hesitate to do to me what they intended before. Take care, child. This is a strange and unappealing world. And do not forget: I will pay my debt. If you are in need of anything that requires the skill and cunning of one grateful fox, just think of me. I will find you by your thoughts.”

Tili opened her mouth to say that was impossible, how could anyone know other people’s thoughts, whether that someone was a magically transformed girl or not, but the fox jumped up and slipped into the woods before Tili was able to wish her goodbye.

“How rude!” Tili muttered. Now that she was alone she looked around to see if the millers were watching her. Whatever they were doing inside, they were not at the door, or the window.

“Thanks for everything, I will go now!” yelled Tili, hoping they would hear her. That was also not too kind of her, but it was still a little better than leaving without saying goodbye. However, neither of the millers appeared at the door or window. Waiting for a few moments, Tili concluded that they probably wouldn’t show themselves. After the mess she made, they were probably pretending not to hear her. She could not blame them. In a world in which one had to be afraid of everything that carried the King’s name, guests who openly confronted the King’s representatives were not too welcome.

And without hesitating any longer, Tili started walking down the hill, toward the valley.

Chapter 9

Not a half hour later, Tili regretted her decision to go on foot. She walked and walked, and the town was not getting any closer, not even a bit. I’ll walk for days, Tili thought. What will I do when the night falls?

And then suddenly, she remembered that there was a fairy in her pocket.

Bartolomeow was asleep. Maybe that was what was left of her feline nature, or maybe she was a sleepyhead as a frog too.

“Wake up!”

“For God’s sake.” The frog managed to half-open only one eye, which it rolled, while on the other one the lids seemed glued together. “Didn’t anyone tell you not to shake your frog?”

“Oh!” Tili was seriously concerned. “What happens if I shake you?”

“I get dizzy!” said the frog irritably. It seemed that she had every intention to go through the whole adventure being bad-tempered. Again, Tili could not understand the reasons why, but that didn’t mean that she liked it.

“I want to ask you…” she said cautiously, not wanting to make the frog any angrier. “I walked for a while, and the town is not getting any closer.”

“Well, and?” croaked the fairy.

“Well… I was wondering whether it would be possible to do something about it?”

“It would. Continue to put one foot before the other. And do not wake me up every five minutes with stupid questions.”

“Come on, Bart! You’re a fairy! You’re back in your own world! Show me some magic!”

“You’re a witch, you show me some magic!”

“You know perfectly well that I don’t know how. I barely mastered the means of transportation. You, on the other hand… wasn’t it the fairy who helped Pinocchio? Wasn’t the fairy the one who made Cinderella’s carriage out of a pumpkin?”

“If you’re going to continue to refer to fairy tales, I’m going to jump into the first puddle and drown myself!” said the frog, highly upset. “What kind of nonsense is this? Who do you think you are? Am I here to fulfill your wishes?”

Tili was sad. She remembered the night when Bartolomeow said that he would never abandon her. But now he seemed quite different. Tili dropped the frog back into her pocket, not bothering to be especially gentle. The frog only croaked, and said nothing else.

“So how will I reach the town?” she asked herself. “If only somebody would come along and help me.”

Suddenly behind her, Tili heard wheels clatter on the rocks and the chattering of worn horseshoes, and when she turned around she saw a small carriage pulled by an old horse. That’s luck, thought Tili, and she waved her hand to the man in ruined clothes who was driving the carriage. The man waved back, and when he came closer he stopped for the girl to climb in.

“Thank you very much!” Tili said gratefully. “I’m going to the town, and my legs are short and it would take me many days to get there.”

“You’re lucky I came around, girl,” said the farmer. “That’s where I’m going; I need to get to market, to sell this piggy.”

Tili turned around and saw a pig in the back of the carriage. The piglet stared at her with its tiny piggy eyes. If it starts to speak I swear I’ll scream, thought Tili. But the pig only stared at her as any pig would, so she soon realized that in this creature there was no magic. I’m sorry, in your future I see only ham and sausages, thought Tili, and she felt sorry for the pig. But then she remembered that, since she came here, she drank only a little milk and ate a little bread, and in her bag she had bread and cheese and nice cold meat that would, after so much walking, be a treat.

“In appreciation, I’d offer you to eat with me. But I do not know if we should stop… I am, in fact, so hungry, and I have here…”

“Ah, do not worry,” said the farmer and put down the reins. “This old horse knows the way to town. We do not need to waste daylight and stop. I haven’t eaten for a long time. I could use some food.”

So Tili pulled from her backpack what she had brought and they ate with an appetite. The farmer praised the housewife who made such a great cheese and ham, and baked such good bread, and requested from Tili to take her his compliments. Tili promised she’d compliment the girl that worked in the store where Mom usually bought the groceries, because she did not know who else to compliment.

“Why are you dressed so strangely?” asked the farmer, when they had eaten and become accustomed to each other. Tili realized that her clothes would be the biggest problem if she wanted to pass unnoticed in this world. But where to get clothes that would make it easier to fit in?

“These are my brother’s clothes,” Tili lied. “We are so poor that I have only his old clothes.”

She noticed the farmer looking at her suspiciously, because although her clothes looked strange, they were not worn and did not seem like a poor person’s clothing. What a liar I’ve become, she scolded herself. To one person I’m a Princess, and to the next almost a beggar. I’ll have to do a better job lying, or at least be consistent. No wonder people look at me like I’m out of my mind, or at least plotting something wicked.

“If you would like, back there, in the sack, there is my younger daughter’s dress,” said the farmer. “Rascal has torn her sleeve again, so my wife gave it to me to take it to the dressmaker. My wife cannot cope with the needle,” he admitted with a smile. “Put it on, I think it should fit you. The torn sleeve is not too bad.”

“Oh, you’re so kind to me. I really do not know how I can ever repay you.”

“Do not worry, dear girl,” the farmer said smiling, as she, taking off her jacket, pulled the dress over her shirt and jeans. The dress covered all her strange garb. “Good is always rewarded with good.”

It then occurred to Tili that, so far, she had met only good people in this world. She could not even say that the hunters were evil; evil men would not have allowed her to keep the fox, and everything would have ended up entirely different. But then she remembered who she was going to see—one who was responsible for all the evil in her life—and suddenly her heart sank. Still, a lot of bad things could happen, and she could not imagine what would happen when she met the King, her grandfather, and asked him what he had done with her father.

They talked for a long time, about everything and anything, and Tili asked him, among other things, about the King, and the Prince, and about things that everyone in the kingdom should know. But the farmer did not know anything more than what the millers had already said to her. That had begun to worry her. If the Prince had returned, someone should know something about it. Maybe it was just coincidence, she said to herself. In this world there was no radio, no television, news traveled slowly. However, she was aware that three years had passed. She tried to comfort herself with the idea that she had just arrived in this world, and that probably people knew a lot more than they were saying, and that she had to be patient. It seemed that patience was a skill that she had to master on this trip.

They traveled the whole day, and before nightfall found sanctuary in a small tavern outside the town limits, which was owned by a fat landlady. They had no money, but she let them sleep in the barn and even feed the animals, a horse and pig. Tili remembered the frog in her pocket and wondered how it was that it had not eaten all day and was not complaining about it at all. But because it had been so mean to her, since the first moment they embarked on this adventure, Tili decided not to ask the fairy anything about it. If it wasn’t hungry, it wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t Tili’s problem.

The barn smelled strange and the straw was not as soft as Tili, who until then had never slept on straw, had thought it would be. She wriggled and sighed and her last thought, before she fell asleep, was that she wished that they were already in the town.

The next thing she was aware of, when she woke up, was the carriage going through the great gates of the town walls. She was confused for a moment, and then she thought, I must have dreamed that we stopped at that little inn. She would not discover the bits of hay in her hair until much later.

They soon arrived at the market, where there was a great clamor of merchants and customers, animals and children. Tili said goodbye to the farmer, thanked him for all he had done for her, and gave him her jacket in exchange for the dress. The farmer squeezed her hand and went off to sell the pig.

Tili was alone again, but in this crowd, one couldn’t possibly be lonely.

She hung around the market for some time, watching what was for sale. She was afraid of the animals, and did not have the money for fruit and vegetables. (She saw a few coppers change hands, and the sale of a horse shone a golden coin.) There were many people shouting and a lot of animals sounding off, and Tili soon moved from the marketplace to quieter streets, leading toward the royal castle.

Going through the crowd in the streets, Tili could hear a buzz of sounds: through an open window the sound reached her of someone’s bawling, a small child, yelling, “I will not wash my hair! I will not wash my hair!”

She could not see who was yelling, but by the determination of the voice she could guess that it was a very small child, who was accustomed to having its way. The mother’s deeper, quieter voice, however, steadily persisted, and soon the bawling turned to real crying – its head had apparently become wet. Tili remembered her mother telling her how she also used to throw tantrums about washing her hair when she was little, so Tili did not feel too much pity for the bawling baby. “We will not wash my hair” had been a battle cry that was heard every few minutes, even if Tili was in the middle of some game and no one around even mentioned her hair, washed or not.

From another window could be heard the clapping noise of pots and the yelling of a cook who was scolding someone over burned food. From another house, a bird in a cage cried, a parrot or something. Neighbors were shouting at each other across the street, and one poured a basin full of water out of the window, down to the pavement. Tili thought “water” at first, but from the color and smell of it, it would seem that it was something else entirely. It appeared that the custom of emptying bed pans out the window was still very popular here.

From a small inn hurtled tipsy men, brandishing swords. Tili told herself not to forget how dangerous this world could be; here all men were armed and no one cared about it. This was the Middle Ages or perhaps something even worse. This was Fairyland, and Tili really knew nothing about its ways.

Therefore, Tili decided to keep to herself as much as possible, not to draw attention, not to anger anyone, to keep out of sight. But for one of those plans, it was already too late.

What Tili didn’t notice was a pair of eyes that had watched her closely from under a broad-brimmed hunting hat since she started down the street.

His merry men were in a pub, celebrating a good hunt for the King’s banquet, which was to be held in a few days. All noblemen were called to celebrate the event, even the royal hunting troupe and some members of the lower noble society, higher ranks in the royal army and their wives. The King did not hold banquets often, which made the event even more significant.

The captain of the hunting troupe didn’t like such celebrations, and neither did his hunters, when they found themselves caught in celebration and drinking. That’s why he was out there, leaning against the wall, half hidden by the large jasmine shrub which grew next to the inn. He was just standing there, staring at nothing in particular, slowly drinking his lukewarm beer. He immediately recognized the strange girl, though she had changed her clothes. Her quick steps, her glancing eagerly and rather fearfully all around, all this would easily attract anyone’s attention. But for most of those who had not seen her before, she was only some bareheaded, frightened girl, who was apparently lost.

He took a long drink from his goblet of beer, then used his glove to wipe his yellow beard and mustache, to which beer foam constantly stuck. Matilda of Oblivion, he thought. One could hardly forget you. I wonder what you’re up to.

But he did not approach her. He watched until she disappeared in the crowd. Then he took another mouthful, and calmly continued to watch people passing by. He was sure that he’d see the girl again. And very soon.

Matilda did not have any specific plan. She knew she had to get to the castle. Only the King could answer her questions. She had not even started to think about how to reach it. Walking through these unfamiliar streets, full of strange people, this question started humming in her head. How will you get in? Can anyone get into the royal castle? She doubted it. She doubted she could just knock and say, “I would like an audience with the King.” Even if she started again to pose as the Princess of Oblivion, she would have to have a good reason why she was asking an audience with the King. And what little she knew about this King didn’t suggest that he was a man who liked company and welcomed guests.

The other thing that Tili began to worry about was that the few people she met did not know anything about the Prince, her father. If he’d returned to Fairyland, shouldn’t the news have spread among the people? Unless the King tossed him into the dungeon, before anyone learned about his return. Or did something even worse. Tili would shudder with dread every time she began to think about it.

I should start asking questions, she said to herself. But she did not know how to begin. Coincidence helped her there.

The sounds of music were coming from somewhere. When she needed to choose whether to take the street going left or right, she chose the right because it was where the music was coming from. It sounded like a street organ was playing, and the sounds coming from it reminded Tili of an amusement park.

As she approached, Tili saw someone holding a puppet show on the side of the road. A dozen children sat on the ground in rows and grinned cheerfully at a big bad-tempered bear-doll and white bunny-doll, who was obviously the one that the bear was angry at.

Bear said, “You’re not my son! You’re just a frightened little rabbit, hiding under leafage every time I roar!”

“Stop roaring, father! Then I’ll stand by you!” said the rabbit, and the children in the audience were rolling with laughter, because Bear roared even louder, and Bunny hid under a leaf and trembled, so half of the stage was shaking.

“Roast it! Eat it!” the adults in the audience were shouting, standing behind the children and enjoying the show just as much. The children were turning toward the adults, and some were shouting at them, because the children were clearly on the side of the rabbit. Some kids threatened the adults with clenched fists.

On stage, Bunny was crying and yelled to his father Bear, “I’ll go into the forest and you’ll see me never more!”

“Wolf! Wolf!” the children cried at once, when on the stage a threadbare wolf character appeared. Wolf-doll obviously had seen better days, but it seemed that nobody here cared about aesthetics. Wolf threw himself toward Bunny to swallow him, and Bear didn’t care about that at all.

“Who will save me? I’m just a poor bunny. I’ve done no evil to anyone! Is nobody going to help me?” begged Bunny. Children in the audience threw their apple peelings towards the wolf, and the adults were shouting at the children.

Tili stood aside at first, and then, when she saw that she was about as big as the children in the audience, she approached and sat down among them, to better see the show. She had seen enough puppet shows and things that these kids could never imagine. (How could she, for instance, explain 3D cinema to them?) But there was something special in this puppet show, which made her stop and devote some time to it. In a way, she felt guilty, as if she had strayed off the path and was idly wasting her time—like she was Pinocchio choosing a puppet show instead of going to school, as he promised Geppetto he would. Of course, Pinocchio felt no remorse, but he was just a wooden puppet anyway. I’m not a puppet, Tili reminded herself. I am a real girl, and my mom is a witch, and my dad is a Prince. That sounded just as hollow to her as her claim that she was a real girl. Since she came to this land she did not feel like any of it was real. And in fact, it should have been the other way around. The world in which she was born and in which she grew up was just a product of her parents’ imaginations. This Fairyland was supposed to be the real world. How was it, then, that she could not experience it?

On the stage, the story reached a climax (Tili’s attention had loosened a little, so she did not see what exactly happened between Bunny and Wolf), when suddenly the entire stage filled up with smoke. Everyone in the audience was startled when a loud poof sounded at the same time that the smoke filled the stage. And when the smoke cleared, the puppet house was not on the stage any more. There stood only an old wizard, and in one hand he held his hat, and in the other a white rabbit.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he announced solemnly. “This show is not over yet! The most magical part is yet to come!” And after these words another big poof sounded, with a cloud of smoke even bigger and thicker than the first one, and this one brought tears to the eyes of those who sat too close. They started to cough and wipe their smeared faces, on which tears made clear lanes down their dirty cheeks. And when the cloud of smoke parted, in front of them, on the ground, was only an old hat.

For a moment or two, nothing happened, and then out of the hat appeared two fingers. First two, then all five, immediately followed by the whole other hand. And slowly, one part after the other, out came the whole magician.

“That’s not right!” Tili suddenly heard herself saying, then winced and went quiet when she realized that she violated a basic rule, which was that she’d keep on not drawing attention to herself.

“What’s that?” The wizard frowned, coming out of the hat, and then looking up, with an impatient gesture, dusting his hat and jamming it on his head.

“You can’t produce a magician from a hat, just a rabbit!”

“Says who?”

“I say!”

“And are you a magician? A wizard?” said the old man sarcastically.

Tili started to say, “No, I’m a witch,” but remembered where she was and that it might not be the wisest thing to say. To say nothing of the fact that it would not be entirely true. Yes, her mom was a witch and yes, Tili now knew some tricks that ordinary girls didn’t know, but that certainly did not make her a witch. Could she come out of a hat like that? Certainly not. From the refrigerator, sure, but in this land, no one had even heard of refrigerators.

“No,” said Tili sheepishly, and then she noticed that the boys from the audience were frowning at her, because she spoiled the show.

“At fifty years of doing this show, I never once saw anyone pull a rabbit out of a hat!” said the magician angrily. “What nonsense! Any fool can pull a rabbit out from a hat!”

“Yes, but…” Tili said, and bit her lip.

“Maybe you’d like to try, ma’am?” said the wizard sarcastically, and bending down, he grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him onto the improvised stage, which was really just a street corner. “Let’s see how you’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat!”

Tili just wanted to say that the rabbit was gone, when something unexpected happened—she disappeared.

Chapter 10

“Who are you?” said the wizard.

They were walking down the street. He held Tili’s hand. At first, she wanted to pull out her hand and run away from him, but something made her hesitate. The wizard’s voice was different now, much nicer and not at all sarcastic. How they ended up here, after they disappeared from the street, Tili did not know. That was another reason for her to stay: she was too curious to know.

“My name is Matilda of Oblivion. How did we get here?”

“By magic,” simply said the wizard, as someone would say, ‘We crossed the street when the traffic light turned green.’ “You look familiar.”

“That’s impossible,” said Tili and in her head a little green light turned on, signifying danger. “It’s my first time in this kingdom. I am in fact from the neighboring…”

“I’ve seen your face somewhere.” The wizard was relentless.

“All blonde girls look alike,” tried Tili. She didn’t really know how to respond to the wizard’s remark. This wizard could not possibly know her. Unless… That “unless” immediately occurred to Tili, but she could not determine whether it was a good or bad “unless”. “Unless” could only mean—unless the wizard once knew one of her parents. Some people said that Tili very much resembled her mother, and that she got her mother’s eyes. Others said, with the same conviction, that she looked exactly like her father, when he was her age. She had the same blonde hair and light skin as her father. She was as stubborn as her father and as her mother. What did this wizard recognize in her? Did he maybe use magic to recognize her?

As if reading her mind, the wizard said, “Who are your parents?”

“You would not know them. They live far from here,” said Tili quickly, turning away from him. She thought that this wizard could be the King’s spy. The King used wizards. Perhaps the court wizard was not the only wizard in the King’s service. If so, this wizard could say to the King that in the kingdom a girl had appeared who very much resembled his son. Tili needed to see the King, but she did not want to be taken in front of the King like she’d done something wrong. When they bring you in front of the King you’re considered more guilty than innocent. If you come to the King by your own will, you have the advantage of surprise. A surprised King might be a gentler King. Even the King who, most likely, imprisoned her father, for what other reason could there be that no one in the kingdom knew about him?

These were Tili’s thoughts, but the wizard had some other ideas.

“Wait. Let my bunny look at you.”

It was such a weird suggestion that Tili immediately stopped to see what would happen. The wizard pulled a rabbit, not out of a hat, but out of his pocket.

It was the little white bunny which Tili had already seen, before the magician began performing his trick of coming out of the hat.

“I have seen him before,” said Tili and leaned forward, to look into the rabbit’s red eyes. The bunny was just lovely. So soft, white, and small on the wizard’s palm, he had that beautiful, wiggling bunny nose, which was constantly on the move.

“When did you see him?” said the wizard doubtfully. Tili frowned, starting to suspect that the wizard was suffering from some old age disease that made people forget things that just happened. He did look quite old.

“On the stage, when you performed that hat trick. You held the hat in one hand and a rabbit in the other hand! That’s why I said you were performing the trick incorrectly.”

“You’re not supposed to be able to see the rabbit! Only wizards can do that! It was not the part of the trick intended for the audience!” marveled the wizard.

At that moment, the rabbit turned to him and said, “Didn’t I tell you that this is not just an ordinary girl!”

Oh, boy, another animal that talks, thought Tili, but she was no longer worried about the strangeness of it all. She could imagine that in this land, cows grumbled when a milkmaid tried to milk them, and horses protested when they were harnessed to the wagon.

“Where are you from, Matilda of Oblivion?” The rabbit was now asking questions, piercing Tili with his red eyes. His mouth was almost not moving, or perhaps Tili just couldn’t see it under that nose that was constantly wiggling.

“From the neighboring kingdom,” said Tili cautiously.

The bunny had the expression of a sly police inspector, while he asked her his next question. “And the name of that… ‘neighboring kingdom’?”

“Uh… Oh…” just said Tili and now she looked like a rabbit, one that had fallen into the hunter’s trap.

“It must have a name. Because our kingdom is called Fairyland,” said the rabbit, only he did not say “Fairyland”, but that other name, which we have said that we’re not going to use.

“Uh… Oh…” Tili said again, because she really did not have anything else to say.

“Yes! I knew it!” exclaimed the bunny triumphantly.

At that, Tili concluded that it was best to run away, because here she was, caught in a lie by a bunny.

She turned on her heel to split, when she heard the bunny yell, “Don’t run! I’ll help you! I know who you are!”

That raised a lot of questions. How did the bunny know, if he really knew? And how could a rabbit help, if he could help? Who was the rabbit? And who was the wizard? And who of them was the boss of whom?

“I saw your face, on your father’s face,” said the bunny finally and that was the end of Tili’s escape.

“Who are you?” said the little girl, returning to the wizard and rabbit.

“Another victim of the King’s will,” said the rabbit, but then he looked around suspiciously, although the streets around them were deserted, and said, “But it’s better to talk about this in a less public place. Come with us. We live nearby.”

So the three of them went down the street, without uttering another word.

The rabbit began to speak only after they entered a house, a few blocks away, and went into the living room, and after the wizard had lowered him in the old armchair, and lit a fire in the furnace. Tili wondered why he bothered lighting the fire, considering that the room was not cold, but when the wizard saw her gaze he said, “We do not want someone eavesdropping.”

After that Tili realized that there must be something magical in that fire, though she did not know what. The fire looked quite plain, in the kind of open hearth she knew only by seeing it in the movies, having seen it in real life only once or twice. No one she knew used a wood stove, let alone had an open fireplace.

“Tell me your story,” said the rabbit.

The wizard, without uttering a word, brought her a cup of tea and a plate of cookies and for a moment Tili felt like she was Alice. Only sleepy Dormouse was missing to complete the story, and the wizard was supposed to start talking nonsense.

As none of that was to happen Tili sipped some tea, which was very tasty, looked at the rabbit and said doubtfully, “How do I know that you’re not the King’s spies?”

“Aside from the fact that if we were, you wouldn’t be sitting here with us, but rotting in the King’s dungeon?” said the rabbit significantly, with a wink.

Tili got upset hearing that and set down her cup of tea. “Do you really think that I would end up in the King’s dungeon?”

“It depends on your intentions,” said the rabbit. “Me, for example, he did not imprison. I was turned into a rabbit by his wizard. I’m not much older than you.”

Tili did not know what was worse—to spend life in some dark dungeon or spend life as a rabbit. Even if you were a nice, white bunny, with a pink, wiggling nose.

“Was it, what you did, so bad that he had to turn you into a rabbit? I mean, I do not have anything against rabbits…” she said immediately, apologetically.

The rabbit interrupted. “I do, quite a lot. All you need is to become a rabbit, and you’ll have lots against rabbits. When you’re a boy, and then you become a rabbit, you don’t like being a rabbit, not a single bit. I guess if I were born as a rabbit, I would not mind being one. But as it is… So, the King ordered me turned into a rabbit, because I did not want to do what he ordered me to do. He said I was a coward. Cowardly little rabbit. That’s why I must become one, he said.”

“And what the King ordered… was it something bad?”

“Trust me, almost nothing that the King wants or demands is good. And some things are especially evil.”

“Like when he put a curse on my father and mother,” Tili said quietly. She did not know how well versed the rabbit was in the whole story.

But it seemed he knew it well enough, because he slowly nodded his head and said, “Exactly. Now, tell me, what are you doing here? The ten years are not over, right?”

“They are not. In more than a month I’ll turn ten. But I had to come. My father came back to Fairyland three years ago. And since then no one has heard of him.”

“So, it’s good that you ran into me,” said the rabbit. “Because I saw your father, three years ago. And your father is the reason why I’m a rabbit.”

Tili thought that this news might not be as good as she initially thought it was, and that perhaps the rabbit was responsible for her father’s condition. But it was like the rabbit anticipated her thoughts.

“Do not worry. I would do anything for your father. Even become a rabbit. Just like your father gave up his life to be with you and your mother. He was a Prince, heir to the throne. He could have had anything he wanted. But the love for your mother was stronger.”

“You know what happened to my father? Did he reach the King? What has the King done to him?” said Tili excitedly.

The rabbit looked at the wizard, who now stood by the furnace and just watched them. “I know,” said the rabbit. “But part of the spell is that I cannot tell you about it. And I cannot tell you about myself, before I was turned into a rabbit. Even the fact that I can speak is our great victory over the evil spells of Hrastomor. Javor…”, the rabbit nodded to the wizard, “…took me in and did everything to lift the curse. But Hrastomor is a strong and wicked wizard, and there was little Javor could do. He did what was in his power to do, and since then he’s protected me. I’m not sure if the King or Hrastomor know what happened to me since I was turned into a rabbit. I only know that the curse included my silence. Eternal. The way rabbits are silent. If I start to speak about the King’s secrets, I fear what might happen. Even what I just said… I do not know. I had long been waiting for the return of your father. I knew that I would see him sooner or later. When he left, I was a little boy. I barely remembered him. But when I saw him… when I heard his voice… Everyone always said that Leo looks exactly like his mother, the Queen. She was also so brave and bold.” There the rabbit became thoughtful and silent.

“Maybe I could…” said Javor and the two of them, the girl and the rabbit, turned their gaze toward him. The rabbit became upset.

“I don’t want to risk it! What if the spell does not refer only to me? What would I do without you? I wouldn’t have survived a day!”

“I don’t want to risk it either!” said Tili, realizing that Javor was expressing his desire to talk about what the rabbit could not. How could she bear to be the one responsible, if something happened to one of them? A lot of bad things had happened already. She could not knowingly rush into another.

“There are people in the court who know what happened to the heir,” said the rabbit. “And so far, no one has spoken. Three years is a long time for someone not to blab. Unless they’re bound by a spell; then the tongue that talks is immediately punished.”

“No one I asked knew anything about my father’s return,” said Tili. “They all said to me that the Prince died ten years ago.”

“Then I am afraid that I am right. Here’s the deal,” said the rabbit firmly. “You’re going to tell me what your intentions are. And I’ll fill you in on what you need to do.”

Tili simply began to talk. At first, she only wanted to tell him about coming into Fairyland and looking for her dad, but when she started to talk, she told him her whole life’s story. About how she did not know who her parents were, and about the world she came from, and how strange this place was to her. The rabbit and the wizard listened for a long time. The wizard, from time to time, shifted his weight from foot to foot. Standing by the fire, the rabbit shifted his ears and wiggled his nose. They absorbed her words, like she was telling them the most charming fairy tale they’d ever heard.

If they tricked me, if they are the King’s spies, they will know all about me and my family, Tili thought, but she couldn’t stop talking. She’d had so many secrets for such a long time, and somewhere along the way, that became too much for a girl who was not yet ten years old. What will be will be, she told herself, and continued to talk.

“But what’ll you do when you reach the King?” said the rabbit when she finished. They both, the rabbit and the wizard, looked very worried.

“I’ll give myself up,” said Tili simply. “The King wanted to take me from my parents to punish them. I will voluntarily come and give myself up. I will ask the King for grace for my father, to let him go back to my mother.”

“This is a King who does not know mercy, my child,” said the wizard Javor. The wrinkles on his face testified that he himself probably had tasted the evil of the King’s whims.

“I have to try. I cannot let my father sit in a dungeon and wait to forget his entire life, all the good that happened to him, all about my mother and me. It would be as if we never existed.”

The wizard and the rabbit again exchanged a glance, but neither said anything.

“I’m afraid if I let you do that, you’re doomed to fail,” said the wizard.

“Maybe she’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for,” said the rabbit carefully. It was the girl’s life they were talking about, so the rabbit was not too eager to risk it. On the other hand, if nobody was willing to try, nothing would happen.

“She is no ordinary girl,” repeated the rabbit. “She is the granddaughter of the King. The only granddaughter of the King. Maybe when he sees her before him… Until now she was only part of the curse, just a bud that began to develop in her mother’s womb, which that evil Hrastomor’s eyes probably saw even before her mother became conscious of her. But when the King sees her before him… a real little girl, a little Princess, the image and likeness of her father…

“You rely on the King’s mercy, you who have lost so much?” Javor said.

The rabbit watched him with sad eyes.

“I think the decision is up to you, Matilda of Oblivion,” said the rabbit finally, turning towards her. “The only thing I can tell you is that you’re going to be in great danger, and that I cannot begin to imagine how it’ll end. All those who have tried to oppose the King have met a bitter end. But if one just bows his head and suffers the tyrant, tyranny will last forever. On second thought, who might have a better chance to win than the little Witch-Princess?”

“If you manage to get through to the King,” Javor said, “you must attempt to separate him from Hrastomor. The King and Hrastomor are bound together in a strange net of need and hate. They feed each other with those feelings. If you manage to split them up, you might be able to wake up the heart of the King. Only that way can you succeed.”

Tili nodded. A difficult task was on her frail shoulders.

“I don’t know how I’ll get to the castle,” she said.

“Leave that to me,” said the rabbit. “At the end of the week there is a grand ball at the court. There will be a lot of people. It will be easier to get in then than on any other day. And I’ll give you the key. It unlocks the secret doors that not many people know about. These doors lead in and out of the castle, so no one will notice you. As a boy I used to sneak in and out. So…” The rabbit sighed, as if it were very difficult for him to do this, knowing what a dangerous situation he was putting her in. “…That’s what I’ll do. And I’ll wish you the best of luck. Stay with us until the end of the week, and then you can go. All our hopes will be with you.”

“That’ll do,” said Tili, and the brave voice in which she said it inspired even her. I will succeed in what no one has, she told herself. I am my mother’s and my father’s daughter. I am the King’s granddaughter. I will succeed.

Once it was decided, they no longer talked about it. If great worries and thoughts plagued them, they kept them to themselves. The days passed as if they had all always lived together in that house.

One night, just before evening, someone came and knocked on the door. Squelched, rather.

“Bart!” marveled Tili when Javor came in, carrying the frog on his palm. With everything that had happened, Tili had completely forgotten about her fairy. How could she not, when she hadn’t had any particular help from her—the fairy only slept or complained.

“Lovely, lovely!” said the frog. “Admit it, you didn’t even notice I was gone.”

“Where have you been?”

“As if you care!” said the frog gloomily. “For all you care, I could have been eaten by a stork!”

“Did a stork try to eat you?” The girl was terrified and she tried to pick up the frog in her hands, but the fairy demonstratively scampered away from her.

“Like you care! Like you care! I’m just a poor old fairy, for whom no one cares!” The frog scampered into the corner to lament and to sulk.

Since Tili knew she was guilty, because she didn’t even remember the fairy for a whole day, Tili left her alone. The frog pouted all evening and later withdrew, talking quietly with the rabbit and the wizard. Tili knew they were telling her the plan. Tili was tired and craving a real bed, and she was asleep the moment she lay down. She was going to ask Javor, in the morning, how it was that he knew it was her frog and not perhaps one of the King’s spies, and how come it was so easy for him to let a frog into his house, but the next day she had forgotten all about it.

Three days passed, both quickly and slowly. Tili stayed in the house; they did not want to risk someone recognizing her, as the rabbit had done. Many people remembered the Prince, although none of them wanted to talk. The frog wandered off somewhere every day, and didn’t talk much with Tili. Tili assumed that she was angry, so she didn’t insist.

On the third day, Javor brought Tili a beautiful ball gown, and the frog asked if the dress had a pocket.

“Why?” asked Tili, and marveled. Her stomach felt uneasy, full of butterflies of anticipation of the inevitable event, which had crept up on her. Now there was no room to return, no delay.

“Well, for me!” gruffly said the frog. “What did you think, I’d let you go alone? I’m your fairy, no matter how little you care for me.”

“Oh, but I care about you!” said Tili, grabbed the frog and enthusiastically spun around with her. Tili was relieved when she realized she wouldn’t be alone. She also realized how afraid she really was of what she was about to do. No matter how seemingly brave Tili was, she was also just a little girl.

“Help! She’s trying to kill me!” cried the frog, whose legs flew in all directions. It was such a comical scene that even the rabbit, who was most worried of them all, laughed.

“Crazy old fairy!” said Javor.

Tili clutched the frog to her chest and said, “Bart! What would I do without you?”

“All right, all right, be a little gentler! I do not know which is worse, when you love me or when you ignore me.” But by the tone of the fairy’s voice it was obvious she was touched.

That evening, sheltered by the night, Javor sat Tili on his horse, and rode with her to the King’s castle. Tili hid the frog in her pocket, and the wizard had the rabbit in his. They didn’t, of course, go to the main gate, where there were already lots of carriages and a big crowd of guests. All the windows in the great mansion were lit. From inside, music and voices could be heard. Is this King really so terrible, if so many people came to visit him? wondered Tili. But she was aware that many of the guests probably came out of fear. If you’re invited by the King to a banquet, it’s better for you to come.

They dismounted under a small hill, overgrown with bushes, which lay at the back side of the castle. There, Javor unfolded some branches and showed Tili a small door, cut into the ground. The key unlocked and opened the creaking door. Steep stairs appeared before them. Javor lighted a small lamp, and handed it to the girl.

“Go straight down the corridor. You’ll come to another locked door. Open it with the same key. You’ll be in the castle hall, next to an old suit of armor on the right side, and a large mirror on the left. Go left, down the hall, follow the sounds, and you’ll come to the largest auditorium. It’s a dance hall where the King is holding the banquet. The rest is up to you. I can only wish you all the best in the world,” he said, giving her the key, and then he took out the rabbit to say goodbye to her.

“I believe in you,” said the rabbit. “Your mission is dangerous and you’re a very brave girl, the bravest I’ve ever met. I hope to see you again.”

“I’ll look for you,” said Tili. She embraced Javor, and pressed a kiss into his old cheek, and then kissed the rabbit between his floppy ears. Tili turned slowly toward the door and looked down the menacing looking stairs, leading into the dark unknown. But now there was no escape. It was time to go. She sighed and slowly began to descend.

She didn’t walk long. Down the stairs she went, and then straight, along the long corridor, until she came to the other door. She unlocked it, and listened for sounds on the other side before she slowly opened it. Just as Javor had said, on the left side there was a shining suit of armor, and on the right side, on the wall, a big mirror in a heavy silver frame. Many other, small mirrors decorated the walls on the left and right side of the corridor, infinitely reflecting the figure of a girl in a beautiful ball gown. She hid her lamp in the secret passage, closed the door behind her, and started to follow the sounds of music and voices echoing from the left side of the corridor.

Her heart was pounding with excitement under her blue silk dress. She felt up the dress on the right side, to feel if the frog was still in her pocket, and found a bulge that confirmed it was, but did not attempt to free it from her pocket, because she was nervous enough without the fairy’s comments.

When she noticed people in the hallway, she started to feel uneasy and almost backed away and went back the way she had come. But then she remembered why she was there, and everything that was at stake, and she gathered all her courage and made herself be braver than she felt. Slowly, she strolled beside ladies in crinolines and gentlemen in silk suits, and finally entered the ballroom.

Both sides of the hall were lined with tables, laden with food, and servants constantly carrying new plates and bowls in and out. Ladies and gentlemen, most luxuriously dressed, were not too well behaved at table, and ate mostly with their hands. The majority of people were standing. Some conversed in small groups, or might even have been arguing. Others were just walking around, watching the people around them suspiciously, as they did not really belong here, had come by chance, and were surprised by the crowd. In one part of the hall a band played, and people danced.

The King was far in the distance. He was sitting on the throne, and to the right of him, in the shadows, crouched the huddled figure of the black wizard.

The hall was big as a house, but Tili could only see it when people parted in front of her, and she could see through the gap between them. She was too small, and they were big and did not care about her. The King she saw only from a distance, and only once, and if she hadn’t assumed that it was the throne, and that the one who sat on it would therefore be the King, she would not have known it was him, because he was so far away, and so small.

Tili had no idea how to realize her plan. It presented danger, even with people scuffling around and her being almost too small to notice. She had to somehow protect herself from their feet. And then she remembered something she had done, when she was a very small child attending some wedding with her mother and father. She hardly remembered the wedding, but she remembered another girl her age, then maybe four years old, hiding with her under the table, spending most of their time crawling back and forth.

With all her strength, Tili started to make her way through the crowd, pushing away big crinolines trying to strangle her, pinching legs in black lace stockings squeezing her, stepping on silk shoes. The moment she got hold of the edge of the table, she fell to the floor, raised the silk tablecloth before someone stepped on her, and crawled underneath.

There was a crowd of legs under there too, but these legs mostly rested, or at least were not trying to tread on her. She almost had a conflict with someone’s shaggy little dog, which did not like this four-legged creature in a dress, that crawled under things, but someone threw him a bone, and the dog devoted himself to it, rather than to chasing the girl.

Although at first she did not know what to do, Tili now started to crawl steadily towards the throne. The table was terribly long, and after a while her hands, and especially her knees, began to hurt, but that did not stop her. Once she even earned a kick in the butt, although of course it was accidental, because one leg kicked just as she passed it by and her butt got in the way. She quietly cried in protest, but with all the terrible noises of voices and music, no one heard.

Finally, she came to the end of the table, and peered under the tablecloth. The throne was still far away, but now she could clearly see the imposing royal figure sitting on it. In front of it, on the dance floor, dancing couples swirled and the King watched them absently. He looked like he would rather not be here, and like watching this crazy and rather unnatural celebration made him suffer. As if they were all trying to please the King, playing their roles, but no one was enjoying themselves. Not even the King. It looked like it was only a matter of time before the King would decide the whole thing was over and force out all his guests. And the banquet had hardly begun.

Tili got out from under the table, and unluckily arrived just under the feet of a pair of dancers, who were deliriously circling in a wide arc, and whom she hadn’t seen when she peered under the tablecloth. The lady screamed and staggered, entangling her cavalier, who tripped and fell over her, over her big inflated dress, disappearing in the cloud of silk as it collapsed like a pierced balloon. All that was visible of the couple in the mountain of silk were the lady’s legs in long, lacy underpants reaching below her knee. Since the art of depilation had not yet been invented in Fairyland, the lady’s newly bared legs were covered with shaggy black hair. Someone dressed a bear in a crinoline, thought Tili, who crouched on the floor, where the lady had tripped over her, waiting to see how these two would get out from under the silk hill of dress.

“Hey, you, child, what’s wrong with you!” screamed the cavalier from inside the lady’s dress, when he saw Tili on the floor. That made many heads turn in Tili’s direction, which was not something that she’d anticipated.

“Whose child is this? For God’s sake, I could have broken my neck!” screamed the lady, rearranging her silk dress to cover her lace shorts and hairy legs.

“Why is a child at the royal ball?” cried the cavalier, frustrated because he was not able to extricate himself from the lady’s dress. Then he swung and rolled himself out of it. Other dancers swirled past them and laughed.

This made the cavalier even angrier, and he cried in a loud voice, “Someone get this brat out of here! Guards! Someone! To throw herself under the feet of the dancers like that! This is unacceptable!”

Around them, a great clamor broke out, and a guard really did start to approach, to clear up the mess. The King did not like it when his guests made a mess.

Tili, in the absence of a better idea, tried to slip away back under the table, but was grabbed by a fat man in a pink silk vest and green knee breeches with orange socks on his hairy legs. He grabbed her by the collar of her dress, and she dangled from his arm, legs almost not touching the floor. The gentleman was doubled over with laughter, which was not so easy, given his big belly. And most of the ladies who were sitting at the table, and stuffing food into smeared mouths, grunted with laughter. Catching a girl seemed to be one of the more interesting events at this banquet.

“Let go of me! Let me go, at once!”

At the same time, the guard reached them and, not knowing what to do, took the little girl from the thick gentleman, also holding her by the collar of her dress. Tili yelled, waving her arms and kicking, but as he had very long arms, she could not reach even with her strongest swing.

“Let me go! Let me go immediately!” screamed Tili, but the guard just mockingly gazed upon her and snorted.

“And why would I do that, if you please!”

“Because I’m the King’s granddaughter!” roared Tili. “And now let me gooooooooooo!”

Several throats laughed. Several tongues choked. The guard’s eyebrows went one to the left, one to the right. And then the unnatural silence was broken.

Into this unnatural silence, suddenly one voice boomed, “Bring her!”

At that moment, Tili broke loose from the hand of the surprised guard, and ran in the direction of that voice. People moved aside for her. The music had ceased, the dancers came to a halt and all rushed in different directions; and soon the middle of the hall was an empty circle through which she ran, and her footsteps echoed as though an entire troop of children were running through.

Chapter 11

King Ferdinand the Fearless was an imposing figure, with broad shoulders, and a chest shining with golden medals, dressed in a black velvet robe lined in gold and trimmed with red, wearing a dark cloak. His mane-like hair and strong chin, speckled with blond, brown and reddish hairs, made him look like a bristly lion, ready to attack. Bushy eyebrows loomed over the frowning blue eyes. He had thin lips, due to a habit of keeping them angrily pressed together, and tucked around them was a myriad of fine lines.

At first, Tili was afraid. There he was, this dark red-gold figure, with a graying mane and looking like he would freeze her with his eyes. She was scared to breathe, so terrible was the impression of the old King. But then she thought, this is my grandfather. Grandparents should swing children on their knees and tell them stories. Why does he frown upon me, when he knows I’m his granddaughter and he knows that he’s my grandfather? Why be afraid of him? What will happen now?

The scowling glance of the grandfather-king hadn’t changed.

“What do you mean, you’re my granddaughter? I don’t have a granddaughter!”

“I am the daughter of your son Leopold and the witch Mahovilka,” Tili said slowly. Everyone in the hall silently gave a little sigh, and that sigh spread over the royal hall like a large wave of air. Tili got scared again, and her voice, when she continued talking, was even lower and thinner.

“I came into this world to look for my father, who has returned to prevent the curse that would wipe out his memories and steal me from my mother. I came here, of my own free will, before my tenth birthday. Father has been gone now for three years. I know he’s here. Let my father go. Let him go back to my mother. I am willing to stay with you, and take the throne instead of my father.”

In her childhood naivety it seemed to Tili that this would be enough. Mother would get back her father, and Tili would try to propitiate and tame the King, like he was a grumpy old lion that could be tamed by a child’s love. She had not counted on the fact that there are truly evil people in the world, who can’t be tamed.

A fearsome sound broke the silence which occurred after those words. The old King began to laugh loudly. He laid his hands on his big round belly and his hands bounced while he laughed. Then he looked at the girl with eyes in which there was no joy.

“So, this is how you planned it? Fine, then. But, let me ask you a question. Now that you’re here, and with your father already being here, as you say, what prevents me from throwing both of you into my dungeon, now that you’ve so conveniently rushed to save each other?”

Tili was, for a moment, left speechless.

“It would not be fair,” she said softly, suddenly feeling trapped. It had been a nice plan. But now that things began to unravel, nothing was going the way she planned. “That would be very bad!”

The King just laughed harder and more harshly.

“It was not fairness that made me a King. And I’ve done much worse things than punish ill-mannered little girls, who imagine that by claiming to be my granddaughter, they can save themselves. Even if you believe that you are, do you really think I’d let the daughter of some witch sit on my throne, which I inherited from my father, and he from his?”

Tili felt a cry unwind in her chest, like a tangle of angry, hissing snakes. She was still trying to appear brave, but by every second she was more certain that she had gotten things wrong. How could she ever have thought that one little girl would be able to outwit this old warrior, who didn’t have anything in his heart except fights and screams from the battlefield? This was not her grandfather. This was only the old, wicked King who had forgotten how adults should behave toward children, to say nothing of a child who in her veins carried the same blood as he. The only driving force in him was an old hate, discontent and defiance, and he was no longer able to have human emotions. This was not a grumpy, old lion. This was a great evil, from which Tili could not escape anymore.

Many eyes watched Tili at that time, and through many hearts a shadow of sadness passed. They knew what the King was like. This was a man who was able to curse his own child, and Tili was to him only an unknown girl, whom he was meeting for the first time. Everyone knew her bad predicament, and all were touched by her childlike naivety and hope, but none of them had the courage to do anything for the poor child.

Among the others there was also that hunter, who had allowed Tili to release the fox. From that day, the girl was especially dear to him. It was her courage and audacity, which one would not expect in a child her age, which he especially liked. It seemed to him like, a long time ago, he had known someone like her, once upon a time, as if in another life, perhaps when he was a boy. It was difficult for him to say whom she resembled.

Now he knew that the child faced a great danger. He did not believe in the stories the child told. Everyone knew that the Prince died long ago, and did not leave behind children. And even if he did… it was not a reason for the King to spare this child. Why, the Prince himself was the heir to the throne and he wasn’t the King’s only child that was punished, and again… What happened to the King’s other children? He could not remember, and anyway it did not matter. He was thinking intently on how to help this unfortunate child, who in such a bravery, or extreme recklessness, had appeared before the biggest villain of the kingdom. But since nothing came to his mind, he just shifted a few steps forward, still sheltered by a multitude of ladies and gentlemen, who stood open-mouthed, staring at a show they had not anticipated. If a fly had hiccoughed in the hall, it would probably have shaken everybody in surprise, so tense were they all, waiting to see what would happen next.

“I thought you wanted that,” said Tili dispiritedly. “Aren’t those the words of the curse?”

“Those are just words,” the King, who harbored a good dose of scorn and disapproval even for the magic of his own wizard, sneered. “If you had any knowledge of witchcraft, you would know that words uttered in curse have not a literal meaning. My intention was to prevent my son from spending his life with that witch. I wanted to stop him wasting his life with a family that was not meant for him. I wanted to give him time to think and realize his true destiny. The curse only pronounced a threat of what could happen if he ignored my will. And I always make my threats real.”

“How can you be so mean!” she almost screamed, voice full of grief and incomprehension. “I thought parents should love their children! You just want to get revenge on your son!”

“Love is just a sorcerer’s fabrication. I used to love my Queen, and what happened? She died. No love was able to save her. Not even a spell.”

So, here it is, thought the child, knowing a lot about love and grief, much more than a child her age should know. No one is born evil, someone once said. Evil is made. The death of the Queen may have been what created the evil in the heart of this terrible King.

“I’m sorry about your Queen…” Tili began, trying to wake up in the King his frozen heart, but the King immediately interrupted her, angrily snorting.

“The Queen is dead. Do not talk about her anymore!”

“If the Queen were alive I’m sure she would not like the person you’ve become!”

“What do you know about me? You insolent brat! Guards! Take this child away, before I get really angry!”

Several armed guards moved in her direction. Tili frantically looked around and then quickly made two, three bounds and climbed the steps leading to the throne. Several ladies, who stood nearest, screamed in fright and pulled away from her. Tili, in her dance gown, took a defiant stand. All around her, people watched intently. Was her intention to fight the guards who were coming for her?

“I’m not going anywhere, until you tell me what you have done with my father!” cried Tili.

The King uttered an evil laugh.

“That is something you’ll never know!”

“You are an evil, evil person! I do not acknowledge you as my grandfather!”

“And I, you little brat, do not acknowledge you as my granddaughter. You’re just some homely girl who came to beg in my court. And we all well know how it ends for those who come to beg in my court. What keeps me from immediately confining you to the dungeon?”

Wizard Hrastomor, who was standing nearby, snaked closer to the King. Tili saw only a whirlwind of black garments, which had been wrapped around the hunched, thin figure of an old man. She did not hear what he was saying, but she saw the wizard whispering something to the King, whose forehead at first darkened, and then his face lit up in an ugly way, the way the faces of evil men usually light up when they remember something particularly bad.

As the guards drew closer across the hall, the hunter broke through the crowd, and now he was standing opposite to where Tili stood. He did not know what he was supposed to do. He could not oppose the King. It might cost him his head. He was just a royal hunter, whom the King indeed always appreciated, but that respect did not extend to any friendly feelings. The King had no friends. But he had many enemies, who he thought were always scheming against him, and whom he always tried to get rid of.

I can beg for mercy, thought the hunter finally, just before the guards grabbed the girl.

“Your Majesty!” he shouted suddenly. Everyone in the hall turned their eyes to seek the one who spoke. Those who were closer to the hunter began slowly moving away from him. They had already seen how it ended for those that advocated for people who were in the King’s disfavor.

“Your Majesty!” repeated the hunter and stepped out of the crowd. He bent one knee, bowed his head before the King, and silently waited for the King to speak first.

The old King’s eyebrows were one frowning, connected, tufted line.

“What?” he growled. “You’re not trying to pledge for this child? Who is she to you, to incur the King’s disfavor because of her?”

“No one, my King, my lord. Just some child I met in the woods.”

“You’ve already met?” said the King suspiciously and looked at Tili. She herself was surprised to see the hunter. She recognized him immediately, but she couldn’t understand why he was trying to protect her. Although he was good to her, nothing more could be expected from him beyond what he had done in the woods. To expose himself like this, for her? Good people are known by deeds and not by words, she could hear her mother say. But how much goodness must one possess to willingly expose himself to such a terrible shrew, as was the King, and for a completely unknown child?

“She was lost in the woods,” the hunter said. “I showed her the way to the town.”

“Maybe you should have left her in the woods,” the King said, with obvious enjoyment of his own cunning. “Perhaps she would be safer there, with all those wild beasts.”

“Excuse me, my King. I thought I was doing good.”

The King looked at him with contempt, and stared for a while, as if he expected the hunter to say something more, or just studying whether his words were true. Behind the King, Hrastomor’s evil eyes gleamed from the shadow of his black hat, pulled so that his face was not visible.

“I swear to you, if you weren’t my best hunter, I would throw you into the dungeon for this offense, because you’re trying to go against my will.”

“Excuse me, my King. But the girl is… confused, maybe bewitched. In the woods, she claimed to be a Princess, Princess of a neighboring kingdom. And that she came to our kingdom on foot, alone. I could not leave such a bewildered creature wandering around the woods and scaring the beasts we hunt.”

“Hmmm…bewildered?” mused the King, and he glanced first at the hunter, then at the girl, who stared at the hunter’s bowed head. The guards stopped three feet away from her and waited for an order from the King. “Does that mean I should let every weak-minded creature wander freely around the castle and express their insane suggestions, all without punishment?”

“Of course not, my King. I only beg of you to find in your Majesty the grace for this poor child, who didn’t know what she was doing. If anyone should be punished, punish me, as I showed her the way to the town. If anyone should be punished, punish the guards, who let her come this far and appear in front of your Majesty.”

A wave of horror and indignation passed through the small group of guards, who stood before the King, close to the girl, and on their faces, it was evident that they would prefer to begin to back away. The King, whose cruel, petty, bright little eyes now rested on them, watched for a long time, and dark pleasure began to light his face again.

“It’s not so stupid, what you say,” he said. “The guilty must be punished. And the one who let this child in and allowed her to come in front of me, he’s to be condemned first. You!” The King pointed his royal finger at one of the guards. This one almost collapsed from horror. But the King went on. “Find the guards at the main gate and immediately cast them into the dungeon! What kind of a court are we running, if every demented person can get in!”

The guard at first almost fell prostrate before the King, happy he was not the one on whom would be broken the fierceness of the King’s anger, and then staggered and breathlessly rushed to the door, to transfer the curse of the King’s anger onto someone else.

The hunter, although he understood that with his act he might have sentenced some poor guards to death, bowed his head even more and only said quietly, “Thank you, my lord, my King! Your mercy is transcended only by your great glory!”

But the King only winced, and with even stronger rage looked at the hunter. As if the blaze of rage only just began to smolder in him, threatening to grow into a real wildfire.

“But no!” he growled, so that the walls trembled. “I intend to punish all the culprits! Guards! Take him to the dungeon!”

A small group of guards now jumped for the hunter, who had just enough time to climb to his feet before he was grabbed. The captain of the guard glanced at the girl, as if afraid that she would run into the crowd and escape.

The King noticed it, but only growled, between clenched teeth, “Don’t worry about her. I’m preparing something special for her,” and he turned to his wizard.

The old man was, all the while, doing something behind the throne, but with everything that was happening, no one paid any attention to him. A little waving of hands under his black cloak, a little grumbling in an unfamiliar language, some smoke, which he twisted off from his cuff… By the time the King turned to him it was obvious that, in fact, Hrastomor had finished his spell. Under the old hat, evil little eyes flashed and met the King’s gaze. They agreed without a word, like two old villains who have already done many evil things together and know well how it goes. The wizard nodded. The King smiled with his cruel upper lip lifting up, showing teeth. For a few moments, there was silence. In the hall, there was only a faint murmur of guests as they watched the guards taking away the King’s hunter. Everyone was wondering what had happened and who was next.

The hunter looked up at the girl, while the guards led him from the royal hall. His big hat fell, his long blond hair tumbled to his shoulders. His face was covered with a thick beard, which was slightly darker than his hair, streaked with still darker, almost coppery strands. The expression on his face was of regret, remorse, not for himself and his destiny, but for that little creature whom he had tried to help—an attempt which failed so miserably.

The girl stared at him, completely hypnotized. It was clear she didn’t realize what was happening. Then she whispered something the hunter was not able to hear. The guards had already dragged him away.

“Olly, olly, oxen free,” said Tili. No one realized what she was saying. It would be a long time before anyone understood what she meant by those words.

That terrible thing that was about to happen, started happening. A deafening thunder shook the walls of the castle.

Something was pounding on the windows. Something so big and powerful that the glass in the windows shook, and the rocks bounced in the stone walls. Once, twice, three times… The shadow falling on the windows blacked out the entire ballroom.

Glass burst out, all at once, and small particles of it rained down on everyone, standing motionless and in shock.

Suddenly, everybody was screaming. Everyone was running away, in every direction. And outside, the flying beast attacked again.

Parts of the walls began to fall down, crashing on the ballroom floor. The beast was tearing down the thick stone walls like they were a house of cards, and making room to get in.

The flutter of leathery wings whirled the dust from the floor, when the beast finally forced its way in and flew inside. It was so big that it stretched nearly halfway across the room. Moonlight peered in behind it and shone on its red-gold body, covered with scales, like a fish’s. Because the scales glowed so, it was clear that these were scales of plate armor made of gold and brass tiles. The wings were relatively small compared to its body, but yards and yards in span, and so fine and thin that one could clearly see the bones on which the leather membrane was stretched. The head had tiny horns, and was covered with scales that became smaller in size towards its neck, where they were so fine they looked like feathers. Its head resembled the head of a lizard, but it was adorned with a snout full of great, sharp teeth that it joyfully showed. The teeth were black and sooty.

While all the guests fled to the door, screaming and falling over each other, and over the pieces of wall lying all around, the dragon made a few circles around the room, like it was investigating where it had arrived.

Only three people were standing, completely motionless, staring at it.

The first was a wizard, who raised his face toward it, and then also his thin arms and gnarled fingers, as if finishing the last motion, completing the spell. His face shone with pride for his creation, like a parent watching his child successfully perform a particularly difficult task.

The second, of course, was the King. On his face, indescribable hatred reigned. There was also satisfaction, because his plan had been carried out exactly as he had expected, but there was in that a mighty rage, as if he’d been forced to make use of means which he particularly despised. He half desired to turn around and punish the wizard, but again—the wizard was only fulfilling his wishes. Without him the King would be just an old tyrant, not the King whom all feared because of his use of magic.

The third, the last, was a little girl. In her eyes, fear collided with admiration. To see a mythical creature like this, in full flight, one could not be indifferent. She could compare it with all the dragons that, in her own world, she had seen on the big screen, but no movie could ever evoke the tremendous power of this beast that had flown over them, could not bring the smell of charred remains that the beast left behind. Every time the dragon flew over her, Tili stumbled from the whirl of air that his wings created.

The wizard waved his hand. The dragon gathered its wings and swooped down. It grabbed the child as if she were a toy, its birdlike claws so large that she was completely hidden in them. Then it strongly beat its wings, and regained its altitude. It circled the hall once more, and in seconds it was gone, leaving by the same big hole in the wall through which it entered. The silence left after its abrupt disappearance from the hall was almost supernatural.

Chapter 12

Heavy sorrow overcame the hunter, once the dungeon’s doors slammed shut behind him, the creaky key turned in the lock, and the footsteps of the guards fell silent in the darkness. He could only hear the groaning and moaning of the other prisoners, and the dull sound of water dripping somewhere in the dark and damp dungeon.

What had he done? The child was lost, and probably his life as well. He felt as if all hope was gone, as if everything he’d ever wanted in life had come to an end, and that after this day, there was no more life. All hopes gone, all ships sailed, all…

Then, suddenly, some obviously mentally disturbed prisoner shouted, “Ribbit, ribbit! See? You did it!” Something sloshed in a puddle in the corner of the cell, which was so dark that the hunter could see almost nothing.

The hunter paid little attention to it. He was drowning himself in his own misery.

“Ah, how good this feels!” said the other prisoner again, closer this time, and for the first time the hunter thought he might not be alone in his cell. But that was not enough to make him get up and investigate.

“Alas, my poor boy, how you’ve changed! Even your poor mother would no longer recognize you, bless her soul, let alone the good fairy that cradled and rocked you.”

The hunter was no longer sure if the other prisoner was talking to himself, or if he might be addressing him. But he was more annoyed than curious.

“Well, I say! Laziness has never before been your virtue! So? Will you make an old fairy hop to you, across this entire cell, or will you move your honorable behind and come to me?!”

The hunter was now almost sure that someone was talking to him. And apart from being angry that someone was bothering him while he was getting lost in his misery, the hunter became angry because of the way that someone was addressing him. It was true that he was a prisoner, like any other prisoner, but he was the King’s captain hunter, up until a few minutes ago, and the old pride was difficult to get rid of. The ego does not know about iron bars and damp dungeons.

“Who is it? How dare you talk to me like that?!”

“Oh, I’ll talk with a rod upon your ass, if you don’t glide over here!” said the ill witted prisoner.

The hunter jumped to his feet, to show him who was going to get beaten up, and how and why. But when he came to the other end of the cell, which was not big, and when his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw in a puddle on the floor no one but… a frog.

The frog was staring at him with its big froggy eyes, and it was very… angry?

Oh, I’ve already lost my mind, thought the hunter.

“Shame on you!” said the frog.

The hunter, in his surprise, stumbled backwards and fell on his butt.

The frog licked its eye with its long tongue, and then said again, in its ribbiting, sarcastic, and very angry voice, “Shaaaame on you!”

“Why… why should I be ashamed?” the hunter said, embarrassed for no apparent reason. The frog, who was sitting in the middle of a puddle, in a dark prison cell, looked exactly like a strict teacher, preparing to scold a student who had failed to learn one of the most important lessons, although much was expected of him.

“Why do I always have to clean up after all of you? Do I have to baby-sit you all your life? You think I didn’t have other plans in my life, maybe do some art, write a book, act in some play… Why do I always have to kiss boo-boos? Who will kiss me?!”

The hunter was stunned. The frog’s piercing eyes had pinned him down and he didn’t dare to move. The frog then frowned (which was very complicated, since frogs don’t have eyebrows).

You’re going to kiss me!”

“I?! No way! What a crazy thing… ?!”

“The frog has to be kissed!”

“A Princess must kiss a frog and then the frog is turned into a Prince Charming!”

“Oh, no, no, no! In this story, the Prince will kiss the frog! And the frog will remain a frog!”

“God Gracious! They imprisoned me with a crazy talking frog!” marveled the hunter. Then he yelled at the frog. “I will not kiss you! And that’s that!”

“Is it? We’ll see! And while we’re at it, think about this: how do you, in this story, know about that story, the story of the Princess kissing a frog? In this story, you shouldn’t know anything about that story! In this story, no one should know anything about stories from that story!”

“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAAAAAAAAYIIIIING!!!” snarled the hunter. If before someone had moaned, in some part of the dungeon, now no one could be heard. Everyone listened intently.

“Yes, I know,” said the frog calmly. “Let’s start from the beginning, shall we? In the beginning… In the beginning, I was a tadpole. A magical tadpole, full of expectations and aspirations and hopes for a bright future, where I would be a lovely fairy; helping children and protecting their parents from the delusions of adulthood. And… poof! All hope gone when my protégé falls in love with a witch and endangers all our lives. But… c’est la vie, love does not choose! Things happen. Ah, yes,” the frog sighed wistfully and stared thoughtfully into the distance, as if seeing the scene from an unrealized parallel reality. “I have never written a single play. And I had so many ideas, so many…”

“For God’s sake!” sobbed the hunter.

“Good. Let’s move a decade into the future, closer to the present moment. And here we are. In the dungeon! Nice place you got! I mean, really, my skin was already quite dehydrated! Matilda had biscuits in her pocket, crumbs… can you imagine what that did to my sensitive skin? And moreover… I’ll never forgive her… a few days ago, she gave me to that peasant! Do you know where I woke up? In a quagmire! With pigs! And did that shameless girl even notice that I was missing, that I was forced to chase her all over town? Nooo. No way! Behold, how all of you treat your nanny! And I am expected, every time the baby gets hurt, to kiss the boo-boos! Because I’m a fairy that protects you! And what would have happened to the lot of you if I were to say, ‘I will not do that, I’m quitting!’ How would this story end, left to a dragon? But no, no, no and again—NO! I will not have one dragon outshine a frog, never did, never will! God help me!”

The hunter had withdrawn, abandoning further protests. It would be futile. In fact, he began to think that perhaps this frog was on the King’s payroll, that the wizard managed it and it was here to torture him. What is a dungeon without the torturer?

“Are you listening to me?” The frog suddenly winced.

“I’m not,” said the hunter grimly. “I gave up.”

“Great! What did I just say? About how I’m expected to solve all your problems, and without help from anyone!”

“I would gladly help,” said the hunter drearily. “If I could understand a word you’re saying.”

The frog sighed heavily, and jumped closer to him. In the dark dungeon, the frog was trying to peer into his face. “Pick me up,” the frog said.

The hunter frowned, not too enthusiastic about the idea.

“Come on, come on!” hurried the frog. “I will not ask to eat from your golden saucer. I just want to see if the real you is still in there.”

The hunter, who by then had completely given up trying to understand what the frog said, finally stretched out his hand, and the frog jumped onto his palm.

“Get me closer to your face,” said the frog, imperiously, and then, when the hunter did it, stared at him unflinchingly, her froggy eyes hard to read.

“You’re such a calf,” said the frog. “I’ve always told you that you are my little calf. Kiss me, my calf, and all will be clear.”

“I really don’t want to do that,” said the hunter wearily, but it was already clear to him that there was more to it, a nasty feeling which the idea of kissing a frog awakened in him. The frog would not be so fervently insisting upon it, if it hadn’t meant something more.

“Hrastomor is not a very imaginative wizard, I can tell you that, regardless of his evil magic and malice. Even a fairy knows counter-curses for some of his spells. Just as the frog turns into a Prince when the Princess kisses it, the Prince’s memory will return when he kisses the frog. Do not be squeamish, my little calf. This frog rocked you in your cradle.”

And the hunter, who all his life thought he was someone else, far from the man this frog talked about, gathered his courage and kissed the frog.

Suddenly, he realized that “his whole life” had lasted less than three years. When he’d come back and faced the King, the King’s wizard had revived the curse and stripped the Prince of his memories, replacing them with false memories of a life he never lived.

It was just a magical flash, no special effects. The hunter just remembered that he was not a hunter, that he was the Prince, that he had another life, far away from here. The frog stared at him with clever eyes, and slowly nodded.

“That’s the way, that’s the way to go, my boy. Wake up. Open your eyes.”

“Oh, God!” muttered the Prince. He suddenly understood everything. He remembered his love for a beautiful witch. He remembered their decisions, their flight before his implacable father. He remembered all that occurred after.

Finally, he remembered what had happened when he returned, after he had forgotten everything. He remembered his vague forebodings. Remembered those confusing feelings that made him try to protect an unknown girl, and suddenly he was heartbroken that he hadn’t tried harder and achieved more, and the dragon had grabbed his little Matilda, Princess of Oblivion, right from his hands. And she had come, traveled from one world to another, to find him.

“She did not recognize me,” he whispered to himself, dropping the frog into his lap so he could cover his face with his hands. By the shaking of his shoulders it was apparent that he was crying softly.

“Due to the time that has passed,” said the frog, sympathetically. “And due to that fur on your face, which she had never seen before.”

“That brave child! That reckless, crazy, brave child!” whispered the Prince.

“Yes.” The frog was nodding. “And who does she remind us of?”

The Prince looked at her.

“My duty was to protect her! And she is in danger, because I have done my job so miserably! Because I, not thinking, fell into a trap! Oh, God! Mahovilka! What will I do about her?”

“Do not worry. She’s still in your world. Matilda was thoughtless enough that she did not even leave a note for her mother, telling her about what she intended to do. What’s done is done. But if we move fast enough and are smart enough, we’ll be back before Mahovilka decides to follow your example. At least, I’m counting on it. She was always the smartest one in your family.”

“But what can we do, Dodo? It’s the dragon! And we’re in a dungeon. Oh, Dodo! I remember now, but I also remember that no one escapes from this dungeon!”

The fairy attempted to smile (which was very difficult, since she had a frog’s face), because the Prince had called her by a name which he hadn’t used for her since he was a little boy, when she was his fairy nanny, after his mother was gone.

“Do not worry. It was not in vain, or without a plan, that I jumped from Matilda’s pocket and into your pant leg, when I saw you in the crowd. And I was able to oblige your sister for future service.”

“My sister?” said the Prince slowly. Some things had not yet come back to him, and were dimly creeping into his memory. He was not sure whether this was due to witchcraft, or simply to the time that had passed since he’d thought of certain people.

“Amelia. Do you remember Amelia?” said the frog, carefully studying his face, as if trying to figure out how many holes were still in his memory.

The Prince suddenly remembered his sister, a blond girl with red cheeks, as well as their brother, one year her junior, who was about five years old when Leo left. Yes, just five years. So much time had passed since the death of their mother. She died two months after the young boy was born. That was what had destroyed their father, turning his rough heart to stone.

What happened to those kids? He’d almost forgotten about them. They were now young adults, no longer the small children he left behind.

“God! She must be grown up by now! I would never recognize her!” exclaimed the Prince.

The frog just nodded. “You really would not,” she said significantly, but she didn’t explain her words.

“What happened with her? What about Philip?”

“She’ll soon tell you herself. We only need to be patient.”

“What do you mean? Is she here?”

“Soon. She’s our way out of the dungeon, my Prince. Now, just sit down, and wait, and rest. As far as I know, dragons do not live in valleys. It will take time to get to its nest.”

And the two of them sat quietly in the dark dungeon cell, a frog sitting in a puddle, the Prince on the damp straw which made a poor bed. They waited. Time passed. Again, the prisoners gently moaned in the darkness. Somewhere something was dripping, and the rats squealed and ran in the corridors of the dungeon, while the prisoners envied them for their freedom.

As time passed, it became difficult to wait. The minutes dragged. The uncertainty of their situation was even worse due to the anticipation of the girl who was supposed to save them. How could his little sister, a teenager still, free them from the dungeon from which no one had ever escaped? The Prince tried to recall her face, tried to imagine what she would look like now. Would she resemble their mother? What had her life been like these past ten years?

Worse was the silence. Seconds passed like hours. The Prince would now and then glance at the frog, but she had closed her eyes and was meditating in her puddle.

Suddenly the Prince saw a particularly large rat stray near his cell. Something rustled, scraped, and then the animal stopped in front of the cell door, and something metallic fell to the floor. The frog opened her eyes.

“Where have you been?” whispered the frog. It seemed that her meditation in the puddle had just thinned her nerves.

“Don’t be cranky, Dodo. You don’t know the kind of holes I had to crawl through to come here. I almost lost my tail.”

“Well, well! That would be a sight!” said the frog, and turned to the Prince.

If anyone ever had a question mark written on his face, the Prince did now. In the semi-darkness, he could see only the outlines of an animal, slightly larger than a cat, with orange fur slightly clumpy with mud and moisture, and a long, furry tail, now equally stained. Although it should have been clear to him that their wait was over, in some part of his mind he was still waiting, because he did not see the one whom he expected.

“Why, that’s a fox!” he whispered suddenly, as he finally realized what kind of animal he was looking at.

“Is he joking?” asked the fox, glancing suspiciously at the Prince, and then looking at the frog, as if the frog were the one most qualified to answer that question.

“Let him be,” the frog said with a sigh. “He was always a little calf. So, you did it?”

“Of course!” said the fox with pride, and bowed its head so that its snout touched the keys on the floor. Then both of them, the fox and the frog, turned their gaze to the Prince as if they were expecting something from him, although he did not know what.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” said the frog impatiently. “You’re the only one here who has thumbs. Make use of them!”

“But…?” began the confused Prince. “Have we not been waiting for…?”

“Calf,” said the frog. The fox just snorted angrily and moved its ears.

“What? You thought you were the only victim of the evil magic of our father? Great! Older brothers! Always thinking only of themselves! Well, what are you waiting for? Take those keys! You cannot expect me to unlock the door with my tail!”

And the Prince, as if in a dream, went to the door, bent down and grasped the keys, a whole bunch on a steel ring, which the fox had obviously stolen from the guards.

“Are you…? You’re really…?” started the Prince.

The fox nodded eagerly.

“Yes, yes, yes…”

The Prince just shook his head in disbelief. He began unlocking the door, and then, as if suddenly remembering, asked, quite foolishly, “Hrastomor?”

“Who else!” said the fox with undisguised hatred. The fox did not like the idea that they were so near the castle, which was located above the dungeon, and so close to their enemies. Prince Leo’s dawdling made her ten times more impatient.

Finally, the key clicked in the lock, but before he could open the door, the Prince was shaken by another realization. “That was you! In the woods? Oh, my God! I could have killed you!”

“Ah, you weren’t the first hunter I made run after me through the woods!” snorted the fox. “Why are you looking at me like that? You, your hunters and your dogs, you were never a threat.”

“Matilda helped,” remarked the frog. The fox only nodded.

“She gave a good solution to the problem, at the time,” the fox agreed. “Now, shall we? It’s a long way to go.”

And finally, they were out of the cell. That was the easiest part of their whole plan.

Chapter 13

For the first few minutes Matilda didn’t feel anything but the wind whistling all around her. She did not know that she was flying, nor that she was in the clutches of the dragon, did not know how high she flew, high above the ground, so that the people below her would have looked tiny like ants. In the first few minutes it seemed as if everything had stopped, except that the wind howled in a particularly threatening manner.

And then it came back to her mind. All that crashing, when the dragon knocked down the wall to get in, and again she could hear the screams of people fleeing toward the door, and she could see how the lights reflected in the golden-red dragon’s scales, and she could see his eyes, gold and evil, looking across the hall, his huge body circling in the air. And then a shadow had fallen on her… She felt the icy touch of his bony fingers, which were webbed like a duck’s. And after that, nothing… just the wind.

Sometime later she dared to peek between the dragon’s fingers. A colorful rug of land lay beneath them, moonlit, and now even more distant, only a whirlwind smudge of colors, turned into a streamer. Where is he taking me, Tili wondered. There was only one way to find out.

“Sir Dragon!” she cried out, squeezing her head between his talons. She had to shout very loudly, because of the wind howling. But the dragon just flew, not paying any attention to her. It was extremely rude.

“Hey, Sir Dragon, where are you taking me?”

It seemed to her that the dragon mumbled something, but it was difficult to hear. She began to squirm in his claws, legs pushing webbing, and finally pulled on one of his fingers, holding his big black claw, until the dragon bent his long neck toward her.

“Hey! Watch what you’re doing! You want to fall down?”

“Maybe it’s better waiting until we land.”

“And maybe it’s better to keep quiet,” said the dragon, who did not like girls whom he had just kidnapped telling him what to do.

“Let me go, Sir Dragon!” cried Tili.

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you’re a big mighty dragon, and I’m just a little girl,” said Tili like Dorothy, when she spoke with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.

The dragon said nothing. He was probably thinking about his size and power, and it seemed that the girl was right.

“What’s your name?” asked Tili.

After a little hesitation the dragon said, “Vatroslav.”

“Hmm,” said Tili.

The dragon looked at her. “What ‘hmm’? Why do you tell me ‘hmm’?”

“Well, it’s not a particularly scary name,” said Tili.

The dragon frowned. The dragon had brows of gold scales, which made it particularly easy and expressive for him to frown. (Unlike frogs, which could not do it, even when they tried very hard.) “My parents gave me this name, when I was newly hatched from an egg. I suppose it’s a good name for a small dragon.”

“Or maybe your parents did not want you to grow up to be a scary dragon,” said Tili slyly. “Maybe they thought you’d be the good Dragon Vatroslav, who loves children and bathes in the springs and basks in the morning sun.”

“I really do like to swim in the springs and bask in the morning sun,” said the Dragon Vatroslav, who liked a lot of things and, thinking about it, realized there were more things he liked than things he did not like. And they were all very nice things; he loved nature, he loved the sky, he liked the sun and the water and rainbows. In fact, the only thing he did not like was when the wicked Wizard Hrastomor called upon him to do evil things. But Vatroslav could not resist it, because Hrastomor was a great magician, and Vatroslav was only a dragon, who liked to sunbathe and swim. Vatroslav decided to tell that to the girl who was hanging out between his claws.

“Yes, Hrastomor is one wicked sorcerer,” agreed Tili, when she heard the dragon’s arguments. “He put a curse on my family, tried to separate us forever, take me from my mother, and make my father forget all about my mom and me, so as to obey the will of the King, my grandfather.”

“You’re a Princess?” asked the dragon, who did not know much about human affairs in the country. “Then it is no wonder that wizard summoned me to kidnap you. He especially likes to do evil to royal families.”

“But he is in the service of the King, my grandfather!”

“Being in someone’s service does not mean you have to love him,” the dragon told her. “Neither do you have to love one who orders you to do things.” It seemed that the dragon was actually more justifying himself than the wizard.

“No wonder then he’s so wicked and surly,” concluded Tili, who was still talking about the wizard. She didn’t consider the dragon to be really evil, anyway. He should find another job, which was not so obnoxious, maybe then he wouldn’t be so morose.

“Or maybe he’s just an evil wizard,” said the Dragon Vatroslav. Tili looked into the dragon’s face. While flying, talking to her, and frowning with his golden eyebrows, the dragon to Tili looked like a big, shiny, flying cat. At that point she should already have remembered her fairy cat/frog, but she was entirely focused on reforming the dragon, so the thought never crossed her mind. If she remembered, she would probably have wondered where the frog was, because it was no longer in the pocket of Tili’s dress.

“Vatroslav, you’re not evil,” Tili said.

The dragon at first said nothing, but looked as if he liked to hear it. “Thank you,” he said. “I do not think I’m evil. My parents did not raise an evil dragon.”

“Why don’t you resist the evil wizard?”

It seemed like the idea had never occurred to Vatroslav.

“He is a wizard,” Vatroslav said finally.

Tili shrugged, although the dragon could not see it, because she was hidden in his webbed fingers.

“And you’re a dragon,” she said. “Both of you are magical creatures.”

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” said the dragon, because he really had not. In fact, the whole time he had just wanted to do things he liked, and if it happened that the wizard called upon him, Vatroslav always only wanted everything to be over as soon as possible, in order to dedicate himself to the things that were dear to him. It had never occurred to him that he could say no to the wizard just because he himself was a magical creature. Even exceptionally magical, because wizards are many and dragons are few.

Much can be said about dragons. To say that they are not very clever may not be the nicest thing in the world, but really, dragons do not like to think too hard. They could develop migraines from thinking too much, and smoke would come out of their ears. When frustrated, they would spit fire, which made their teeth sooty. Dragons did not have hands, so they could not brush their teeth. Sooty teeth aren’t very attractive to most people. So, we can say that dragons avoided unnecessary thinking so that their teeth wouldn’t go sooty. That was the logic.

But Tili had already noticed this dragon’s teeth were quite sooty, and from that concluded that this dragon was not a complete stranger to thinking. He should just need a little boost, and the little wheels in his head would begin to spin. She only needed to spin them in the right direction.

“You know, when you put it that way, it seems easy,” mused the dragon.

Tili also noted that since they’d started talking, they were flying more slowly. Wind no longer whipped them as badly as before, and they could hear each other better. And the better they could hear each other, the easier it was to talk. And the more easily they talked, the more they liked each other.

“You’re not that bad, for a Princess,” said the dragon. It crossed the dragon’s mind that he liked this little girl, whom he was ordered to abduct and take to the high mountain where his cave was, and that it was a wizard who had ordered him to do so.

“I am also a witch, because my mom’s a witch,” said Tili proudly. This was the first time that she could speak freely about that; she knew that it must be kept a secret. In this land, being a witch was not looked upon as a good thing, even if you were a good witch.

“Oh, I see!” said the dragon and arched his golden eyebrows in amazement. “So, you’re a magical creature also.”

That surprised Tili. Indeed, witches and wizards, elves, dragons, salamanders and a few butterflies were all magical creatures. She didn’t have most of a witch’s skills, but that did not make her less of a witch. She was just an inexperienced witch.

She immediately decided this new realization should be used to win the dragon to her cause.

“We magical creatures should stick together,” she said.

The dragon nodded his head, as if it were common knowledge.

“But we should not do evil things, just because other magical creatures force us to do so,” she continued.

The dragon again nodded his head. She waited a moment.

“I wish to go back to the King’s castle and free my father,” Tili said quietly. The dragon, who had gotten used to nodding to everything she said, nodded again. Then he said, as if he’d thought it through thoroughly, “So why not use your magic to free your father?”

“I do not know how to use it,” said Tili sadly. She was sorry she hadn’t remained in her own world a little longer, with her mother, to ask her to teach her how to use magic.

“That’s easy,” said the dragon. “You only need to imagine. You can imagine, can’t you?”

In that moment, Tili thought there was nothing easier than that. She wondered, as she knew well what magic in this world meant, how come she had not already thought of it.

“A witch and a dragon…” Vatroslav the dragon mused. “Maybe we could really beat the evil Hrastomor.” He suddenly slowed down in flight, flapping, keeping in place and said, “Do not be afraid. I’m going to put you on my back. So you can fly more comfortably, and we’re better able to talk. Hold on to my mane.”

And the dragon bent his long neck, catching the back of her dress in his mouth, and he put Tili on his back.

The dragon’s mane looked something like metal waves along his neck, and Tili now sat between two of the bursts, holding the one that was in front of her. Sitting on the dragon’s back may have been a bit more comfortable, but at the same time it was a lot scarier. Now she saw all around them. They were high, high, among the clouds, and the stars were shining on them. From time to time the dragon would enter the cloud, its dairy whirls, leaving vague vortexes behind him and shattering the forms of the clouds. Tili imagined that the clouds were in the shape of sheep with curly fleece, and in no time, clouds turned into misty sheep, which drifted through the air like a chamois on the crags.

“That’s a wonderful spell!” laughed the dragon.

“That’s the magic?” wondered Tili. “It was so easy! I just imagined!”

Suddenly Tili realized why her fairy was so moody all the time, and why she didn’t want to help her. She was trying to make her understand the use of magic! She only had to use her own head! Good old Bartolomeow, Tili thought. A lot could be said about him, but he was not the best teacher. Children need better explanations. Children are able to do a lot of things, if only they are well taught.

She felt her dress pocket and realized that the frog was not there anymore. In a way, she was not surprised.

“You have rich imagination, girl! That’s why sorcery is so easy for you. Speaking of which… I have not even asked your name.”

“My name is Matilda of Oblivion!” she exclaimed cheerfully.

“Oh, excellent! And why do they call you that?”

“Because one who meets me, never forgets me!” exclaimed Tili, and the dragon laughed and went down, between the happy sheep-clouds, which fled before them across the sky, all in different directions.

For a while they played like that, and Tili imagined that the clouds were all sorts of things: birds, and fruit, and a huge cake in which they immersed themselves, pretending to eat it. Then it was a cloudtain, or clouds in the form of a fountain, and a cloud-shaped firework, and she even made one in the shape of a dragon, who on its back had a little girl who was waving to them as they approached.

“What do we do, when we get back to the King’s castle?” asked the dragon eventually.

Tili was not even aware that they had changed direction, or that they were going back the way they had come. The dragon’s question made her think.

“We should come up with a plan to beat Hrastomor,” Tili said. Remembering the terrible dark wizard, her mind was not at ease. How could one little witch, who did not know very much about magic yet, beat such an evil wizard, who had already done a lot of evil deeds?

“We can’t do it by ourselves,” said the Dragon Vatroslav, as if it had just come to him. “In this country, there are many witches, although most of them live in secrecy. We could call them for help. When they hear that we’re fighting the evil Hrastomor, maybe they’ll all join our cause. Everyone fears him, but no one has ever dared to confront him.”

“We’ll be the first!” said Tili enthusiastically, unaware that it actually put them in quite a quandary. The fact was, they did not know what would happen, or what the chances of victory were.

“But how do we inform the witches?” Tili asked.

Dragon Vatroslav already had the answer to this, and started to descend.

“I’ll go down, quite low, and you call them! We will fly over the whole kingdom in less than two hours. I can fly very fast, when I want to. And you will help me.”

It was a very strange, and indeed downright crazy proposal.

“Vatroslaaaaav!” cried Tili, having to really hold on to the dragon’s mane, while the wind whipped around her, threatening to knock her off his back. “Slooooowwww dowwwnnn! Yooouuuu ccccaaannnn’tttt ddooooo thaaattt!”

Vatroslav seemed to realize what he was doing, so he slowed down, but continued to descend.

“Sorry! I got a little carried away!”

“And by the way, what do you mean I’ll ‘call them’?! How will they hear me, as we fly high above them, with the wind howling like this!”

“Well, use your magical voice,” said the dragon, as though it were obvious.

“Vatroslav, you’re forgetting that I’m not particularly skilled in magic! It’s one thing to change the shape of a cloud, and quite another to use, what did you call it, a magical voice.”

“Yes, I keep forgetting that you do not know how easy it is. Matilda of Oblivion, did you forget? You need only to imagine!”

“Hmmm,” said Tili, because she really had forgotten. She had not had any time to think the whole thing through. Would it be just as easy as to wish for something? For instance, chocolate pancakes?

“Hey!” exclaimed the dragon as he was struck in flight by a few chocolate pancakes. “Really, girl?”

Tili was stunned. Was it so easy? You imagine it and—it’s done!

She suddenly remembered the duck that turned into a doorbell. She remembered how she fell asleep in the barn, and woke up at the entrance to the city. These were all magic acts? And she had done it, without even meaning to?

That simple.

“Then I could have imagined that you had let me go, as soon as you caught me! I can imagine that we are already at the King’s castle!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. It began to dawn on her how simple it all was, if you thought about it. She was a witch in Fairyland. And she could make real anything at all.

“Of course,” the dragon said with a smile. “But first imagine shouting at the top of your voice, but only for good witches to hear you. Invite them to help you.”

Tili grinned, opened her arms, and did just that. Wind howled around her, but she imagined that the wind couldn’t do anything to her, could not pull her off her dragon’s back. The magical voice with which she spoke awakened hundreds of witches. But only the good ones, because evil witches and evil wizards could not hear the voice of the Witch-Princess.

Chapter 14

“Olly, olly, oxen free!” said Tili. For some time now, those words had been echoing in the Prince’s head and he could not shake them off.

“If I may ask…” said Amelia, to whom an idea just occurred. “…Why did you call me, Dodo? If you intended to return Leo’s memory, you must have known that he’d remember how to do magic. Why not bewitch your way out of prison?”

“You can’t do magic on the castle grounds,” said Prince Leo absently. They prowled the corridors, avoiding the guards. So far, they had managed to unlock all the doors without anyone noticing them. “It’s Hrastomor’s spell. Since Mahovilka and I performed that trick with the creation of The Land Outside of This, Hrastomor cast a spell on the castle, so no one can do magic except him. He’s completely safe in here. That’s why he never leaves. Sly old man! He’s thought of everything.”

“Turn right, Leo, turn right!” complained the frog, when the Prince took a wrong turn. “He has forgotten it all, without any help from the curse! As if you lot did not spend your childhoods sneaking through the secret corridors and running away from the castle… Matilda hasn’t locked the door. It’s our best chance.”

They ran through the hallways. Now they were already in the castle and seeing courtiers passing by from time to time, but they paid no attention to them. All the guests had been driven out of the banquet when it ended, ingloriously, by dragon attack, and the corridors were almost completely empty.

“Wait!” Leo came to a sudden stop. “Why are we running away?”

“Oh! Is this a residual effect of the spell?” cried the frog, whom the Prince carried in his hand, then stretched on her hind legs to look into the Prince’s face. “What is the last you remember, my little calf?”

“Do not call me that!” The Prince’s nerves were on edge.

Amelia, who was much subtler than the frog, probably because she was a fox, just blinked her eyes and said, “What are you up to, brother?”

“Those two are there, alone.” Leo lowered his voice, as if someone might overhear and whisper their plan to the King. “They don’t know we escaped. They must not, because someone would be chasing us already, if they knew.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Amelia said, and licked her lips.

“She’s thinking about fried chicken, don’t listen to her,” said the frog grumpily. “Even when she was little she was a great eater.”

“Shut up, Dodo! You wouldn’t be the first frog that I ate!” snapped the fox.

The frog was so stupefied, she fell on her back (luckily, the Prince was still holding her on the palm of his hand) and began to flounder her hind legs, with the front two stuck out in front of her, as if she were having some kind of attack.

“Terrible! Horrible! What impertinence! I wiped your ass, when you were little, and you speak to me like that! Shame on you! Shame!”

“Do not push it, Dodo,” said the Prince. “Meli just wants to say that now is not the time for your drama. When it’s all over, I promise you, we’ll give you time to write your best drama play, because you’ve waited a lifetime to write. But until then—don’t make a fuss, please!”

The frog went silent, offended beyond words. So much, from the royal brats she nursed! Soon they’ll discard their nanny in a stale puddle, with all the other aged frogs, so no one would be bothered by her croaking. Well, fine, then!

“Do you think that they are in the throne room?” Amelia asked her brother.

He nodded. “If possible, he would sleep in there,” the Prince said with disdain. “I’ve never met a King whose butt is so united with his throne. So I do not understand why he was so pushing me to take it. I do not believe that he would be able to abdicate.”

“It’s only pretend,” Amelia said, with inappropriate hatred, given that she was talking about her own father. “He wanted me to marry an old King. Older than him, imagine that! He was ready to sacrifice his own daughter to that ugly old man, just for ‘political peace in the country’. I think, actually, that he just wanted to move me out of the court, because I look like our mother. Did anyone tell you how much you look like our mother? It’s the same, I imagine.”

Leo could not know if her words were true, since she was a fox and looked the same as any other fox.

“If I may ask…?” the frog said, deliberately using the same expression Amelia had used a few minutes ago. “What are you planning to do, when you burst into the throne room, like Bruce Willis and… a fox?”

Amelia did not understand the whole sentence, because she had no idea who this Bruce Willis was, but it was clear that their nanny was picking on her because she had mentioned eating frogs. Being a fox was sometimes not too glamorous a profession and Amelia had been a fox for several years. There were hungry winters. There were dry summers. You eat what you can find.

“Believe me, it was just an ordinary frog, it wasn’t anybody’s fairy,” said Amelia, trying to apologize. “I do not think I could ever eat someone’s fairy, no matter how hungry I was.”

“I know nothing about that,” said the offended frog, but somewhat less dramatically.

“Seriously, brother, do you have a plan?”

“No, but I’m sure that Dodo does,” remembered Leo, because he knew that it was their nanny who was always getting them out of trouble. “Can you kiss a boo-boo, one more time, nanny dearest? Father is angry. We’re in trouble. What do we do?”

She was roused by old memories, when they were only tiny children, and she their fairy and protector, hiding them from their angry father when he returned from the battlefield with business left undone, without prey, or with excessive casualties, and just like Leo earlier, and Matilda a few hours before, the frog said, “Olly, olly, oxen free!”

* * *

What a sight it was! In the moonlight, in the middle of the night, stars fell down on the earth. And every now and then one more would be illuminated, growing stronger, brighter, than the one before. These were witches responding to Tili’s magical voice, lighting bonfires on the chimneys of their homes.

For two hours, the dragon circled over the country, from one end to the other, and all witches that could hear Tili’s voice were now awake. The dawn drew on, and with the first rays of the sun Tili could see them, standing on the doorsteps of their houses, and watching Tili and Vatroslav with hope in their eyes, hope they never dared to experience since the first day the terrible King Ferdinand hired the even more sinister Hrastomor as his court wizard.

There were all sorts. Large witches, small witches, young witches, old witches… and good wizards who waved with their hats and cast spells of good fortune on them.

“Those are your grandparents,” said Vatroslav the dragon, when they flew over one hut, and on the doorstep stood a couple of old people, watching them, firmly embraced. “Mahovilka’s mom and dad.”

Tili’s eyes filled with tears; although she’d never met the old couple, she almost could feel their love, reaching and enveloping her like a cloud of the strongest spells. Their hearts whispered to her greetings for her mother, sending kisses to the girl who flew on the dragon and in the middle of the night woke up all the witches’ folk, to notify them of her intentions. The castle will fall… Hrastomor will break… I will set my father free…

There is something we have to say, now that we’re talking about Tili’s father. I do not know if you’ve already figured out, but when the hunter dropped his hat and when she saw his eyes, while the guards were taking him, Tili recognized him.

It was like in a game of hide and seek: close your eyes and count, and when you turn around, everybody’s hidden. But if you look closely, you’ll see someone’s legs peeking out from behind the wall, you’ll see two scuffling behind the same tree, which is not wide enough to hide even one, you will see… oh, you’ll see a lot! And that’s why… Olly, olly, oxen free!

That was the thing that crossed Tili’s mind, just before the dragon burst in, making a mess. And the only thing in that moment she could think about was how it was that she did not recognize him right away. Regardless of the time passed since she last saw him, regardless of his overgrown face, regardless of him not knowing who she was, not remembering her, she should have recognized his voice!

I can hardly describe how Tili felt all that time, while the dragon was taking her farther and farther from the castle, and from the father whom she had finally found. She had to gather all her strength not to cry, and not to scream. What use would she be, if she began to cry and scream? Vatroslav would never have been engaged in conversation with her, she would never have made friends with him, the dragon would never have been forced to start thinking and to realize that Hrastomor was not his master, but an evil wizard who summons dragons whenever he likes, even if dragons are equally magical creatures, in fact a lot more magical, because wizards are many, and dragons few, of which Vatroslav now was aware.

And when Vatroslav gave his honest, dragon-like suggestion, on how she should oppose Hrastomor with her witch power, the hero’s heart awakened in Tili, and she got fired up with righteous flame, believing she was the one who would take the witches on the path to salvation. So strong were these flames, that she didn’t remember her father, until Vatroslav pointed out her grandparents, whom she’d never met.

“Time to go!” said Tili to the dragon, and he circled once more above the hut of Mahovilka’s parents, letting the light of dawn overflow his scales of gold and bronze, making his whole body seem aflame.

“Witches! Wizards!” Tili called out once more in her magical voice, and all good witches in Fairyland heard her. “Make water boil in your pots! Make soup and tea boil in your caldrons! Let the steam rise! And let all hearts that were hurt by injustice fly with us in the fight against the tyrant and the evil wizard! Let no witch fall in vain! Let no wizard’s name be forgotten! The brave are those who dare, and the bravest those who do not give up! If ever there was a time to unite and rise up—that time is now!”

As Tili spoke pots and kettles all over the country began to bubble, and steam began to rise. And in one moment hundreds of witches and wizards jumped into the steam and went the way of the King’s castle. Matilda and the dragon were already there, transported by her magical thoughts, and waiting for the lot of them.

* * *

The King nervously paced back and forth across the throne room. Hrastomor, huddled in the corner to the right of the throne, was clenching his fists. If he hadn’t been toothless, he would have gnashed his teeth, but he was very old and had lost them a long time ago, and although he could come up with vicious spells, it had never occurred to him to magically make himself new teeth. Some people just love to be miserable, in order to blame others for their dissatisfaction and thus justify their own wickedness.

“You say it is no longer under your power?” murmured the King.

The wizard shook his head. “It is not. That crazy girl convinced it to let her go. The dragon is now convinced that it’s a magical being. A dragon! A mindless beast, which breathes fire.”

“It was your idea to summon him. To punish that unruly child.”

“The idea made sense at the time. People need to know what will happen to them, if they oppose your will, Your Majesty. They need to fear! So they would not think twice…”

“Someone thought twice,” said the King indignantly and then glared at the wizard. If he weren’t afraid of him, he would have thrown him in the dungeon by now.

“Raise an army, Your Majesty. She returns on the dragon. No matter how mindless the beast is, the dragon can do great damage.”

“Can’t you do something? Turn it into a sheep? A beaver?” The King loved turning people into animals. If someone’s character could determine his animal fate, that very much pleased the King’s dark sense of humor.

The wizard did not say anything. He did not want to tell the King that he had already tried. But from the moment the dragon and the girl became aware that they were both magical creatures, the wizard was powerless. Their magic seemed to permeate them, protected them from Hrastomor’s evil influence. As long as they were together, no one could fight their magic. If Hrastomor had caught them, just a moment before it happened… But until they’d become aware of each other, the wizard was not aware that his plan had gone awry. The witch and the dragon… who would have known? The wizard now regretted his rash actions in summoning a dragon just to show off. He could have turned the girl into a frog, and summoned a stork to eat it. But that was not glamorous enough, or scary enough. It was his love for drama that would be the end of him.

“I believe at this point, it’s time to raise an army,” he just said. “A little sword waving is the best way to strike fear into a simple people. The peasant was not born who would not fear the sword.”

The King had nothing against swords and raising armies. Indeed, it was his preference, and one of the things he did best. The fact that the wizard was not able to use his magical power just confirmed to him that he trusted the old man too much. What had Hrastomor ever actually accomplished? He could not cure the King’s wife, or make his children stay, and the only good thing that had come from Hrastomor’s witchcraft turned out to be the fear that people felt when mentioning the King’s name. Maybe the King could do that with his escapades on the battlefield, but probably not to such an extent. Everyone fears magic much more than the sword.

* * *

Only in the movies had Tili seen what a battle looked like. This was for the best, for unfortunate are those who witness such a terrible event. It does not matter if the battle is fought with swords or magic. Two battling groups, using any means necessary in order to win and justify their goals… it’s never a beautiful sight.

We do not say that Tili’s goals weren’t really worthwhile, and needed to be justified. But should it really come to this? In every conflict only one thing can be recognized, and that is the weakness of both opposing sides, the inability of humans to find a human solution. That defeats everyone involved. Unless, of course, we assume that wars and conflicts are human affairs, but we wouldn’t go so far.

Tili, although she was only nine, almost ten years old, wondered just that, as she watched all the powerful witches, who flocked in front of the castle, surrounding it on all sides. In front of the castle, armed guards waited for the order to attack. A command was supposed to issue from none other than Tili’s own grandfather. And this huge sorrow overcame the child, and she trembled, sitting on the dragon that hovered over the crowd.

The dragon, being already so used to the girl that he could feel changes in her mood, bent his head toward Tili and looked at her.

“Do not be afraid,” he said. “In fairy tales, good always wins.”

But Tili had a different idea of fairy tales, and about the real world. In her life, they were mixed in a strange way, and you could never say with certainty where one began and the other ended.

“I do not want anyone to get hurt,” the child said. “And in every battle, someone always gets hurt. And these soldiers, who stand there and wait for a command, are not at fault for my grandfather being one stubborn old King, stone-hearted.”

“Wake up pampan in all of them,” said the dragon, and he made another circle above the castle. In the early morning sun, his large body cast an elongated shadow on the ground.

“What is pampan?” asked Tili, who’d never heard of it.

The dragon was surprised to learn that she didn’t know about it.

“It is a spark that exists in all living beings, standing alone on the scale of good and evil. It’s a little spark, but heavier than all the evil that can be imagined or done. Parents carry pampan for their children and will do all in their power in order to make their children grow up good and happy and healthy. Lovers carry pampan for each other. From pampan, your parents created the whole world, so you could live together. Artists carry pampan for their work. Scholars, for their science. Pampan is that something that we live for, and work for, and what we strive to achieve. It is happiness inside of happiness, a little spark that burns like a hundred suns.”

Tili liked the idea of it. If only she could wake up pampan in everyone, they would realize how crazy it is to fight against each other, since no fight is worth the loss of dear ones and loved ones.

“Can I wake up pampan in my grandfather?” she queried. “Then he’ll realize how terrible it is what we’re doing, and maybe we will not have to fight against each other?”

“Try,” said the dragon. Neither of them knew anything about Hrastomor’s magical defense, which repelled anyone’s spell except his own from reaching anyone within the castle walls.

Tili began to imagine. She did not know what kind of magic could awaken pampan in people’s hearts, but by now she had learned that magic is everything that can be imagined. She closed her eyes, and imagined that there was a little spark in the hearts of people, a little flame that burned like a hundred suns, and that its power was overwhelming them all. Not only these soldiers here. Every witch that stood in front of the castle, everyone in town, waking up in their beds, every man and woman and child, all the people of Fairyland. It was getting stronger, and taking over every bit of evil in people’s hearts, extinguishing darkness with its powerful, tiny flame of love for what is someone’s dearest.

For one moment, in all Fairyland, all the people, all the beasts, every living thing that existed, was overwhelmed by a feeling of immense happiness and love.

All, except those concealed by the haunted castle walls.

The spell’s immediate effect (although, again, there were no special effects and nothing went “poof!” or “woof!” or whatever sound you want to imagine) was apparent, as soldiers, standing in front of the castle walls, immediately began to put down their weapons. Slowly, one by one, they dropped their swords and spears, those standing on the walls leaving their bows and arrows. (Tili’s magic touched them, because they were above the castle, on the edge, that was not very well guarded by Hrastomor’s black magic.) Slowly, one by one, they realized they were fighting someone else’s battle, which was terrible by itself, because here a parent fought his child, and that fight was unnatural and impossible, like fighting against yourself and the good there is in you.

“It works! It works!” exclaimed Tili, and she leaned over the dragon’s neck to see if anyone was coming out on the balcony of the castle, wishing to see her grandfather, and maybe her father.

But in the castle, all was silent. Those petrified in evil magic had not been reached by the magic of good.

In that moment, something happened that Tili had not anticipated. The soldiers, whose hearts were now blazing with fires of goodness, began to open the castle doors. As if they wanted to say, “Save them, help them. Their hearts are petrified, and they cannot feel anything. Let them feel, release them from evil, so that they no longer serve the cruel King and his evil wizard.”

That was both good and bad, because all of those in the castle, and there were many of them, were still ruled by fear and threats, and determined to fight against those who were, until recently, their friends. Good soldiers met those from the castle, of whom we will not say that they were evil, but they were not cleansed from evil. In that moment, what Tili wanted least began to happen: people began to perish.

The cries of the wounded and injured echoed everywhere. Tili’s eyes were blurred by tears.

“Why are they doing this? Why don’t they feel my magic?” she sobbed. Very soon all understood the reason why.

Witches and wizards rushed into the castle to help soldiers who were on their side. They began to cast spells everywhere, but all in vain. All they imagined would stay just a dead image in their minds. Their spells were not working! Spells cast inside the castle walls had no effect! The magic was reduced to a few disconnected images of what someone would like to become real.

“Spells don’t work!” exclaimed the dragon, who had never seen anything like it. Magical creatures are usually greatly surprised when their powers are taken away from them, and that’s how they become victims of non-wizards.

“Help them, Vatroslav! Help them!” cried Tili, covering her eyes because she could not watch such horrors. “They’re just standing there, and they don’t know what to do!”

It was true: when they realized their spells didn’t work, the first witches and wizards to fly in just stood there, bewildered as children, not moving. And the soldiers were running at them with drawn swords.

Vatroslav, if he had been an evil dragon, would now have begun to breathe fire and burn the soldiers to the ground. But Vatroslav was a good dragon, besides which Tili had woken pampan in him as well, and his pampan burned for the young ones he’d left behind in his nest, along with his blue-maned girl-dragon Sofia. Vatroslav did not want them to ever be in a position where some evil wizard could summon them to do evil deeds in his name. Vatroslav knew he would do anything to protect them.

For that reason, when Vatroslav did start spewing fire, he did it over the heads of the soldiers, searing their hair and heating up their helmets, so that they screamed and started to throw the helmets off their heads and ran to every side to extinguish their hair. It was enough to buy a little time, for those who were on the side of good to wake up, and escape out of the castle walls, back to where magic worked, and where they could defend themselves against swords with their magic.

Those soldiers who weren’t singed by Vatroslav’s breath rushed for the witches and good soldiers, but those witches who’d stayed outside realized what was happening, and they quickly raised their magical defenses, so the attacking soldiers were not able to get outside of the castle walls. The Evil was detained inside the castle walls, but the Good didn’t have the strength to fight against it.

It was a stalemate, as they say in chess.

And here, as it usually happens, the whole thing was saved by the frog. I mean fairy, forgive me the slip of the tongue.

The fairy stood at the top of the tallest tower, at its window, and was calling Tili’s name. Although the fairy was just a little frog and had a very small, ribbiting voice, she used her magical voice and Tili heard her immediately.

“Vatroslav, it is Bartolomeow, my fairy!” exclaimed Tili. “Fly to him!”

The dragon swooped down toward the tower, and the momentum of his powerful wings, which swirled the air, almost knocked the small frog out of the window.

“Control your dragon, Tili!” said the frog grumpily, when she regained her balance.

“Vatroslav is not my dragon,” said Tili. “Vatroslav doesn’t belong to anyone.”

The dragon was overwhelmed by tremendous love for the child, when he heard her words, and he realized how foolish he had been when he allowed himself to be subjected to the will of an evil wizard. Hovering cautiously, so as not to knock the frog down from the window again, he roared with joy, blowing small clouds of smoke through his nostrils.

“I’m glad you both realized that,” said the frog. “And did you figure out that the magic of one dragon is stronger than any wizard?”

“Wizards are many, but dragons only few,” Vatroslav said. It had already occurred to him, but he had not realized the full strength of this idea.

“Exactly,” said the frog. “If all the witches and wizards who are on your side, Tili, transfer their magic power onto the dragon, there is no wizard that they couldn’t defeat.”

“Is that so?” wondered Tili, and she stroked the gold and brass bursts on the dragon’s neck. The frog nodded sagely and said, “Did you not know? An army led by a child on a dragon always wins.”

And indeed, Tili, using her magical voice in order to be heard only by witches and wizards who were on her side, told them the fairy’s plan. And all of them, especially because their hearts were burning with pampan, easily found strength in themselves to transfer all their magical power in one beam, and all beams, from all the magical creatures gathered around the castle, flashed, and rushed into the dragon, as if he were a mirror, mirroring hundreds of suns.

The dragon’s entire golden and bronze body blazed.

The dragon plunged toward the wall of the throne room, where there was still a big hole, through which he’d passed the previous night.

* * *

Oh, what a beautiful encounter between father and daughter this would have been, had it happened anywhere else, in any other situation! When the dragon burst through the hole in the wall, Tili immediately recognized her father, as well as the small fox she’d rescued, who was standing by his side. She would have gladly run to meet them, but before them all, blocking the way, stood the black figure of the evil wizard.

The wizard raised his arms, ready to cast some evil spell, but Vatroslav roared and breathed flames that burned his hat. It quite surprised the wizard, because even though he knew that the dragon had turned against him and was no longer in his power, it never had occurred to him that the dragon would be able to overcome the magic that should have protected the wizard, not only when he was inside the castle, but from any kind of attack, anywhere.

“Don’t bother, Hrastomor,” said Tili, as she jumped down from the dragon, whose fierce eyes, burning on his gold and brass face, stared at the wizard. “You’re done. Your magic is worthless compared to a dragon’s magic.”

The wizard was caught in the same amazement that had recently overcome the witches in the courtyard of the castle. But he quickly pulled himself together, because the King was descending from his throne, and was, half hidden by the wizard’s old, hunched body, piercing the girl with his cruel eyes.

“Wretched child!” said the King. “How dare you to oppose the will of a King!”

Noticing the growing danger, Leo headed for the King, but Tili halted him with her raised hand. She completely ignored the King. All her attention was directed to the black wizard.

“Let go of my grandfather, Hrastomor,” Tili said. “Your reign of terror is over.”

At this the King laughed loudly and evilly, because he did not understand Tili’s words. He considered himself to be the greatest and most terrible King who had ever lived. Something had become clearer to Tili, every time someone told her that she should separate the wizard from the King; they fed off one another’s evil and hatred, but the King hadn’t noticed it at all. Ever since he started to use the wizard’s power, the King had thought that the wizard was his servant, and that he carried out his will. It would never, in a million years, occur to him that the situation was entirely different.

“Never!” growled Hrastomor. “I should have destroyed you before you were born, before your parents realized you were coming.”

“But you could not, Hrastomor,” said the child, sounding very grown up and serious in her self-confidence. She was not aware of it at that moment, but when she woke up pampan in all the people in Fairyland, she awakened it in herself also. Everything she had hitherto considered important became even more important. All those vague ideas that she had, half-formed, were now so clear. She just knew everything, and the power of knowledge was as strong as a dragon’s magic.

“I was protected by the love of my parents, even before they knew they were going to have me. Even the very idea of me was protected by their love. And the power of an evil old wizard cannot harm those born out of the love of a witch and a Prince.”

“Where are the guards!” cried the King, his disheveled gray mane swaying from side to side every time he turned his head, searching with his eyes for guards that did not appear. “How is it possible that no one’s here? I’ll throw them in the dungeon, all of them!”

“The moment the dragon entered the castle,” explained Tili, but she spoke to the black wizard, not the King, “your spell broke. The magic of all witches and wizards radiates from this dragon, waking up pampan in the hearts of people in this castle. Only one man cannot be awakened by the dragon’s magic, one aside from you, Hrastomor. Let go of my grandfather. It’s over.”

To Leo it was very strange that the whole time, Tili was talking to the wizard and asking him to let go of the King, rather than addressing him, his father, her grandfather, which was the goal of this whole mission. And now, well, watching the King’s eyes, he realized that the King actually looked quite strange. Behind his eyes there was not the shine of a living being. Although the King always seemed to be burning with anger and envy and hatred for all around him, now, when one took a closer look at him, you could see that it was only a superficial illusion, just a show for careless observers. Leo suddenly began to understand…

The King was a puppet! Just a marionette, whose strings were pulled by Hrastomor all this time!

“I will never give him to you! Never!” screamed Hrastomor suddenly, apparently becoming aware that everything Tili said was true, and quickly straightening his hunched figure. He was no longer a skinny, stooped old man, who obeyed the will of the King. Now they all could see his real, cruel appearance, a whirlwind of malice and hatred wrapped in black robes.

Startled by this sudden transformation, Tili failed to predict what followed. The wizard turned to the King, made a gesture with his hand, muttered some words, which were too quiet to be heard by anyone, and the King disappeared!

“Give him back! Give him back!” screamed Tili. The wizard laughed loudly in his magical voice, so that he could be heard by all the creatures in Fairyland, so they would tremble in fear.

“You’ll never find him! Never!”

As it happens, people usually ignore the smallest among them. Tili was perhaps the youngest in the throne room, but not the smallest in stature. That was Amelia, a small orange fox, who suddenly realized who was to blame in all of this, who turned her own father against her and against her brothers, and who had caused all the evil that was happening in Fairyland. Without a plan, fervent and temperamental fox that she was, Amelia jumped at the wizard and bit his leg.

There was now a great confusion among all present. The wizard screamed, because even the greatest and most terrible and evilest wizard feels pain, when bitten on the leg. Leo jumped to help Amelia, for fear that the wizard would hurt her. (More than he had already hurt her by turning her into a fox.) Tili moved for the same reason, afraid but hiding it beneath her self-confidence. The dragon was the only one who, seeing all this, had a funny thought. The fox just caught an old rooster. And then that was exactly what happened.

The dragon had forgotten, or just did not think of it, that he was still filled with the magical powers of all the good witches and wizards, and that their magic was shining through him. And beyond that, a dragon’s power is greater than the power of any wizard. And so, as the dragon painted this funny picture in his head – it became true.

Suddenly in Amelia’s fox’s mouth was a plucked old rooster, which was clucking and struggling, but could not escape from her teeth.

Once they get into a fox’s snout, roosters usually do not end well. Amelia could not fight her nature. When you think about it, once she realized the new situation, she probably wasn’t even trying.

“Excuse me. Fox nature,” said Amelia slyly, blowing the feathers from her muzzle. The wizard was tough and old, but didn’t taste a bit different from any other chicken.

Everyone else stared at her in amazement. Nobody dared to move. They could not believe that this was indeed the end of the terrible wizard.

The dragon was the first to come to his senses. So it is with dragons, becoming wise when one least expects it of them.

“I thought the curse would be broken once you got rid of the wizard who cast it,” he said. Everyone looked at him, and then at Amelia. Indeed, she was still a fox.

“Does this mean that the curse is not over yet? Will I lose my memory again in a few weeks? Will Tili be forced to stay in Fairyland?” asked Prince Leo. After the infamous wizard’s sudden end, which they hadn’t had time even to celebrate, they were all again full of doubt and sadness.

“And what happened to the King?” asked the dragon.

Tili was thinking. In her head swarmed so many thoughts that her ears buzzed. “I’m afraid,” said the girl finally, “that waits for us to be answered in some other adventure.”

Chapter 15
Also known as

Mother Mahovilka cried for days. Then she stopped crying, because her tears dried up, but she was still sobbing inside. Her beautiful face turned gray. Her fiery curls loosened. Her warm, brown eyes lost their light. I’ve lost everything, she thought.

Her friends came to console her, but she just kept quiet. After she called the police and reported her daughter’s disappearance, nothing more could be done. Friends comforted her that the police knew what should be done, and that Mahovilka would very soon get news of Matilda’s whereabouts. Subconsciously, they were thinking about all those terrible scenarios of child abduction, which they heard on the news and read in the newspapers every day. But to the grieving mother, no one said anything. In such a terrible situation, it was best to speak of only the most positive things. Anyway, most of Mahovilka’s friends thought that the child had been kidnapped by the father, about whom they didn’t know much, and whose disappearance three years ago had stunned them all. Mahovilka never talked about him to her friends. Now, when Matilda disappeared, Mahovilka sank into the same kind of quiet sadness that she was in when Leo was gone, and no one could get a word out of her.

Mother Mahovilka sensed the real truth from the very beginning. When she began to be visited by all those witches who knew her, and when she finally got word from the old world, that just confirmed her suspicions. Neither the police nor anyone in this world could help her.

Since Matilda embarked on her adventure, Fairyland’s witches, from all over the kingdom, had watched over her carefully. Here and there she was seen, doing this and that. The witches whispered among themselves, but secretly, above flames over whose crackling not even evil Hrastomor could hear what they were saying. And then they cooked large pots of soup, and sent messages by steam to the witch refugees in The Land Outside of This, as they called the world that Mahovilka and Leo created.

These were just disconnected stories, from which Mahovilka learned that Matilda was still alive and free. But when Javor sent a message from a pot of tea, saying that Matilda had come to him, and telling what she was up to, all the witches were seized by great sadness. Now they knew where the child went and what she intended to do. They were aware that nothing good could come from this. Three days later, their worst suspicions came true. Matilda was kidnapped by a dragon.

Witches started to come out of Mahovilka’s refrigerator, one after another.

“We heard…”

“We know…”

“Oh, Mahovilka, what can we do?” they whispered and hugged Mother, who was bending over the big pot of strawberry jam she was cooking. Her pantry was full of jam jars. She could not give it all away, that’s how many she was making. Some of her friends, who were until recently camped out at her house and gladly receiving her gifts, now spoke of her psychotic behavior, and said that sooner or later she’d have to see a psychiatrist. The witches had no such complaints. They all had, at some time, cooked the jam when they were sad, because sweet fruit best hides the bitter grief.

On that day, many witches visited Mother’s house, but only a few stayed. Among them, of course, were Luki and Bri. In Bri’s purple hair, the bird had a new hatchling and was constantly flying around the house, catching flies and collecting crumbs off the floor for her young. Luki was angry, because she thought its constant flying would upset Mother Mahovilka. The truth was that Mahovilka didn’t even notice. The sadness she felt for her child left her frozen to the outside world, turning it into a meaningless game of colors and shapes, which were no concern of hers. She wanted just to cook jams, stuffing them into bottles and stacking them on the shelves of the pantry. But in her there was so much sadness that it would not fit in all the pantries in the world.

Eventually, she collapsed. Bri helped her to wash her hands, which were smeared with sugar and fruit. She washed her face. Put her in bed.

“Go to sleep, my dearest,” whispered the purple witch, and kissed her on the forehead. It left a silver seal, like when the witch of the North kissed Dorothy. Bri pressed on Mahovilka’s forehead a small blessing spell of Oblivion, to sleep and not to think about anything. Just one little spell, so the body did not break before the avalanche of grief. “Go to sleep, I’ll watch over you.”

But Bri was already an old witch, and she herself fell asleep, with her head resting on Mahovilka’s bed. And Mahovilka’s grief was so terrible that even a spell of Oblivion could not completely assuage her.

It was night, but just before dawn, when Mahovilka awakened. She saw Bri next to her bed, sitting on a chair with her head propped on the bed. Her hair was full of feathers, but inside all was quiet—the birds were asleep. Mahovilka listened, because she was hungover from the magic and not sure what woke her up. Then she got out of bed, glanced toward the window to try to figure out what time it was, and concluded that it was late at night. And again, her heart shivered with the knowledge of all that was happening far away in Fairyland.

I will go there, whatever happens, she thought. If necessary, I will die there, but I’ll be there where all my dear ones are.

Still hungover from the spell, she got out of bed and immediately started boiling a pot of water.

The lights were off in the kitchen, but it wasn’t very dark. The refrigerator door was ajar, and light was coming from inside of it. Mahovilka could not stop wondering who had left the door open. Probably some of the witches that hadn’t stayed the night. They will hear from me, she thought. What kind of behavior is this? And before she closed the refrigerator’s door, she glanced inside, as if she expected to find the guilty party in there.

There were some strange marks in the butter, footprints of feet with webbed fingers and sharp claws.

“How do you know if a dragon was in your fridge, Mom?” asked someone from the darkness of the living room, and laughed, spoiling the joke. “From the footprints in the butter!”

Am I crazy? Mahovilka thought, rushing into the room and turning on the light.

She screamed so loudly that everyone in the house immediately woke up, congregating in the living room, those few witches who had decided to spend the night at Mahovilka’s house, to help her in any way they could, and of course Luki and Bri. Bri’s bird circled its nest like crazy, flying around her head, probably scared that something was threatening her young.

The group of people standing in the middle of the living room just laughed at the commotion they caused, waiting for all the fuss to calm down.

Here stood Prince Leopold, in his hunting garments, somewhat rumpled and muddied from his escape from the dungeon, but this did not diminish his good looks, so when Mahovilka ran into his arms, she could not care less about mud staining her nightgown.

Beside him stood Matilda, Princess of Oblivion, the unforgettable little witch who finished off the evil Hrastomor and turned him into a chicken, with a little help from the dragon, of course. She hoped that Amelia enjoyed each of his bones.

There was, of course, Bartolomeow, who was again a thick old cat, but he was also a grumpy frog, fairy, and royal nanny. It was a lot of titles for one creature, so Bartolomeow immediately did what he knew best—curled up and fell asleep.

And the last of the brave bunch was a dog with long, pale fur, merry eyes, and a long pink tongue, that dangled as he panted. Vatroslav had agreed to escort them to The Land Outside of This, and the moment he got out of the refrigerator he turned into a dog. Do not ask me why. He probably knew that in this world dragons were not common, so he took a rather more modest figure, to better fit in the new world.

I can now tell you all about the joy that pervaded, and hugs and kisses given, shouts and laughter erupting, echoing until dawn broke. And then, out of the refrigerator again swarmed the witches of the world, and they raised even greater uproar and even greater celebration. I can narrate it all, in detail. But I will not do that. I’ll let you imagine your ideal celebration, and allow you to fill your heart with endless joy. Nothing can be so fulfilling as imagination, and I am not going to limit you to my imagination and what I can conceive.

However, one thing I will tell you, because it is important for the story.

Actually, there are two things. I must tell you why our family went back through ompivaj, instead of returning via steam, as one might expect. Forgive me, for the reason is very childish and it will not satisfy a big, literary connoisseur, who will dismiss it as unconvincing. It was for the sake of the joke, which Tili had immediately remembered when Vatroslav decided to follow them to The Land Outside of This, to make sure that they arrived safely. Remembering the joke, she decided to imagine, bewitch the first ompivaj ever to exist in Fairyland. Because how many times in your life do you have the opportunity to tell Mom a joke like this—how do you know that the dragon was in your fridge? How, I ask?

When the hubbub died down a bit, and our small, finally reunited family found itself again, several important statements were exchanged.

“Mom, I know it’s dangerous, but we’ll have to do it.”

“If nothing else, we need to help. We need to find the King. And moreover, Amelia is still a fox! I could have killed her! She is young and inexperienced and likes to have fun. What if a hunter… Oh, I cannot even imagine!”

“And Philip. I was a frog, now I’m a cat again, but I certainly would not like to be a rabbit. I do not envy him. Even with the help and support of the wizard…”

Only Vatroslav said nothing. He sat there, panting happily, dangling his pink tongue and was very happy. He used to be a giant dragon. At that moment, he was just a dog and that made him incredibly happy. He was no longer supposed to breathe fire, and worry about sooty teeth.

Mahovilka watched this cheerful, excited group and thought, after all we have been through, they and I, they cannot help but think about the new adventure, the new danger! She could resent them, if she wanted to, she could yell, “Do you know how much I cried, how many jars of jam I cooked!?” But as she watched their bright, excited faces and eyes aglow, the same enthusiasm and fascination overcame her. Things in Fairyland were to be radically changed. And this revolutionary foursome were the ones who started that change. It was only right that they see it though.

“Only this time, you’re not going without me,” said Mother Mahovilka, as her warm brown eyes flared with the same fire as theirs.

“Of course! We wouldn’t consider any other way!” they chorused, and even Vatroslav barked.

And so, they began to forge a plan on how to free the young Princess and Prince, and how to find the King, now that he was deprived of his evil wizard, and now that his heart might have been relieved of the evil spell. But the details of that plan I cannot tell you yet, because I have yet to write that story.

Viktoria Faust is a Croatian horror, SF, and children’s/fantasy writer. Her first short story was published 1996 in the literary magazine Plima. Her first novel Beauty of The Beast, written in 1994, was first published in the year 2000. Since then, over the years, she won the title of Croatian Queen of horror novels. She won four Croatian SF and horror awards. She began to write as an experiment, when she was thirteen. She liked the experiment, so by now her name (as author or translator) is in more than fifty books. She was born in Pozega, Croatia and since 2003 lives in Samobor, Croatia.