The King of the Enchanted Forest was twenty years old and lived in a rambling, scrambling, mixed-up castle somewhere near the center of his domain. He sometimes wished he could say that it was exactly at the center, but this was impossible because the edges and borders and even the geography of the Enchanted Forest tended to change frequently and without warning.
When you are the ruler of a magical kingdom, however, you must expect some small inconveniences, and the King tried not to worry too much about the location of his castle.
The castle itself was an enormous building with a wide, square moat, six mismatched towers, four balconies, and far too many staircases.
One of the previous Kings of the Enchanted Forest had been very fond of sweeping up and down staircases in a long velvet robe and his best crown, so he had added stairs wherever he thought there was room. Some of the steps wound up one side of a tower and down the other without actually going anywhere, which caused no end of confusion among visitors.
The inside of the castle was worse than the outside. There were corridors that looped and curled and twisted, rooms that led into other rooms, and even rooms that had been built inside of other rooms. There were secret passageways and sliding panels and trapdoors. There were several cellars, a basement, and two dungeons, one of which could only be reached from the sixth floor of the North-Northwest Tower .
"There is something backwards about climbing up six flights of stairs in order to get to a dungeon," the King of the Enchanted Forest said, not for the first time, to his steward.
The steward, a small, elderly elf named Willin, looked up from a handwritten list nearly as long as he was tall and scowled. "That is not the point, Your Majesty."
The two were in the castle study, going over the day's tasks. Willin stood in the center of the room, ignoring several chairs of assorted sizes, while the King sat behind a huge, much-battered oak desk, his long legs stretched out comfortably beneath it. He was not wearing a crown or even a circlet, his clothes were as plain as a gardener's, and his black hair was rumpled and needed trimming, but somehow he still managed to look like a king. Perhaps it was the thoughtful expression in his gray eyes.
Willin cleared his throat and went on, "As the center of Your Majesty's kingdom, this castle-" "It's not at the center of the kingdom," the King said, irritated. "It's only close. And please just call me Mendanbar and save all that 'Your Majesty' nonsense for a formal occasion."
"We don't have formal occasions anymore," Willin complained. "Your Majesty has canceled all of them-the Annual Arboreal Party, the Banquet for Lost Princes, the Birthday Ball, the Celebration of Colors, the Christening Commemoration, the-" "I know," Mendanbar interrupted. "And I'm sure you have them all written down neatly somewhere, so you don't have to recite them all. But we really didn't need so many dinners and audiences and things."
"And now we don't have any," Willin said, unmollified. "And all because you said formal occasions were stuffy."
"They are stuffy," King Mendanbar replied. "Stuffy and boring. And so is being 'Your Majestied' every third word, especially when there's only the two of us here. It sounds silly."
"In your father's day, everyone was required to show proper respect."
"Father was a stuffed shirt and you know it," Mendanbar said without bitterness. "If he hadn't drowned in the Lake of Weeping Dreamers three years ago, you'd be grumbling as much about him as you do about me."
Willin scowled reprovingly at the King. "Your father was an excellent King of the Enchanted Forest ."
"I never said he wasn't. But no matter how good a king he was, you can't deny that he was a stuffed shirt, too."
"If I may return to the topic of discussion, Your Majesty?" the elf said stiffly.
The King rolled his eyes. "Can I stop you?"
"Your Majesty has only to dismiss me."
"Yes, and if I do you'll sulk for days. Oh, go on. What about the North-Northwest dungeon?"
"It has come to my attention that it is not properly equipped. When it was first built, by Your Majesty's great-great-great-great-grandfather, it was naturally stocked with appropriate equipment." Willin set his list of things to do on Mendanbar's desk. He drew a second scroll from inside his vest and began to read. "Two leather whips, one Iron Maiden, four sets of thumbscrews-" "I'll take your word for it, Willin," the King said hastily. When Willin got going, he could read lists for hours on end. "What's the point?"
"Most of these items are still in the dungeon," Willin said, rerolling the scroll and stowing it inside his vest once more, "but the rack was removed in your great-great-grandfather's time and has never been replaced."
"Really?" King Mendanbar said, interested in spite of himself. "Why did he take it out?"
The little steward coughed. "I believe your great-great-grandmother wanted it to dry tablecloths on."
"Tablecloths?" Mendanbar looked out the window at the North-North-west Tower and shook his head. "She made someone haul a rack up eight flights of stairs and down six more, just to dry tablecloths?"
"A very determined woman, your great-great-grandmother," Willin said.
"In any case, the dungeon is in need of a new rack."
"And it can stay that way," said Mendanbar. "Why should we get another rack? We've never used the one we have." He hesitated, frowning.
"At least, I don't think we've ever used it. Have we?"
"That is not the point, Your Majesty," Willin answered in a hurry tone, from which the King concluded that they hadn't. "It is my duty to see that the castle is suitably furnished, from the topmost tower to the deepest dungeon.
And the dungeon-" "-needs a new rack," the King finished. "I'll think about it. What else?"
The elf consulted his list. "The nightshades are becoming a problem in the northeast."
"Nightshades are always a problem. Is that all?"
"Ah…" Willin cleared his throat, then cleared it again. "There is the matter of Your Majesty's marriage."
"What marriage?" Mendanbar asked, alarmed.
"Your Majesty's marriage to a lady of suitable parentage," Willin said firmly. He pulled another scroll from inside his vest. "I have here a list of possible choices, which I have compiled after a thorough survey of the lands surrounding the Enchanted Forest."
"You made a survey? Willin, you haven't been talking to that dreadful woman with all the daughters, have you? Because if you have I'll . . . I'll use you to test out that new rack you want so badly."
"Queen Alexandra is an estimable lady," Willin said severely. "And her daughters are among the loveliest and most accomplished princesses in the world. I have not, of course, talked to the Queen about the possibility, but any one of her daughters would make a suitable bride for Your Majesty."
He tapped the scroll meaningfully.
"Suitable? Willin, all twelve of them put together don't have enough common sense to fill a teaspoon! And neither have you, if you think I'm going to marry one of them."
Willin sighed. "I did hope Your Majesty would at least consider the idea."
"Then you weren't thinking straight," the King said firmly. "After all the trouble I've had…"
"Perhaps Your Majesty's experiences have given you a biased view of the matter."
"Biased or not, I'm not going to marry anyone any time soon.
Particularly not an empty-headed princess, and especially not one of Queen Alexandra's daughters. So you can stop bringing it up every day.
Do you understand?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. But-" "But nothing. If that's everything, you may go. And take that list of princesses with you!"
"Yes, Your Majesty." With a final, fierce scowl, Willin bowed and left the room, every inch of his two-foot height reeking of disapproval.
Mendanbar sighed and dropped his head into his hands, digging his fingers into his thick, dark hair. Willin meant well, but why did he have to bring the subject up now, just when it looked as if things were going to calm down for a little while? The feud between the elf clans had finally been settled (more or less to everyone's satisfaction), the most recent batch of enchanted princes had been sent packing with a variety of improbable remedies, and the giants to the north weren't due to raid anyone for another couple of months at least. Mendanbar had been looking forward to a quiet week or two, but if Willin was going to start nagging him about marriage, there was little chance of that.
"I might just as well go on a quest or hire some dwarves to put in another staircase for all the peace I'm likely to get around here," Mendanbar said aloud. "When Willin gets hold of an idea, he never lets go of it."
"He's right, you know," said a deep, raspy voice from somewhere near the ceiling. The King looked up, and the carved wooden gargoyle in the corner grinned at him. "You should get married," it said.
"Don't you start," Mendanbar said.
"Try and stop me," snarled the gargoyle. "My opinion is as good as anyone else's."
"Or as bad," the King muttered.
"I heard that!" The gargoyle squinted downward. "No thanks to you, I might add. Do you know how long it's been since anyone cleaned this corner? I've got dust in my ears, and I expect something slimy to start growing on my claws any minute now."
"Complain to one of the maids," Mendanbar said, irritated. "We weren't talking about hiring a housekeeper."
"Why not? What are you, cheap or something?"
"No, and I wouldn't discuss it with you even if I were."
"King Mendanbar the Cheapskate, that's what they'll call you," the gargoyle said with relish. "What do you think of that?"
"I think I won't talk to you at all," said Mendanbar, who knew from experience that the gargoyle only got more unpleasant the longer it talked.
"Wait a minute! I haven't even gotten started yet."
"If Willin asks, tell him I've gone for a walk," Mendanbar said. As he left the room, he waved, twitching two of the invisible threads of power that crisscrossed the Enchanted Forest. The gargoyle's angry screeching changed abruptly to surprise as a stream of soapy water squirted out of the empty air in front of it and hit it squarely in its carved mouth.
Mendanbar smiled as the door closed behind him, shutting out the gargoyle's splutters. "He won't complain about dust again for a while, anyway," Mendanbar said aloud. As he walked down the hall, his smile grew. It had been a long time since he had taken a day off. If Willin wanted to grumble about it, he could go ahead and grumble. The King had earned a holiday, and he was going to have one.
Getting outside without being caught was easy, even without using any invisibility spells (which Mendanbar considered cheating). Willin was the only one who might have objected, and he was at the other end of the castle somewhere. Mendanbar sneaked past two maids and the footman at the front door anyway, just for practice. He had a feeling he might want to do a lot of sneaking in the near future, especially if Willin was going to start fussing about Queen Alexandra's daughters again.
Once he had crossed the main bridge over the moat and reached the giant trees of the Enchanted Forest, he let himself relax a little, but not too much. The Enchanted Forest had its own peculiar rules, and even the King was not exempt from them. If he drank from the wrong stream and got turned into a rabbit, or accidentally stepped on a slowstone, he would have just as much trouble getting back to normal as anyone else. He still remembered how much bother it had been to get rid of the donkey's ears he'd gotten by eating the wrong salad when he was eight.
Of course, now that he was King of the Enchanted Forest he had certain privileges. Most of the creatures that lived in the forest would obey him, however reluctantly, and he could find his way in and out and around without even thinking about it. He could use the magic of the forest directly, too, which made him as powerful as any three wizards and a match for all but the very best enchanters.
"Magic makes things much simpler," Mendanbar said aloud. He looked around at the bright green moss that covered the ground, thick and springy as the finest carpet, and the huge trees that rose above it, and he smiled. Pleasant as it looked, without magic he wouldn't have wanted to wander around it alone.
Magic came naturally to the Kings of the Enchanted Forest . It had to; you couldn't begin to do a good job of ruling such a magical kingdom unless you had a lot of magic of your own. The forest chose its own kings, and once it had chosen them, it gave them the ability to sense the magic permeating the forest and an instinct for using it. The kings all came from Mendanbar's family, for no one else could safely use the sword that did the choosing, but sometimes the crown went to a second son or a cousin instead of to the eldest son of the king.
Mendanbar considered himself lucky to have followed his father onto the throne.
Uneasily, he glanced back toward the castle, then shook his head.
"Even a king needs a day off once in a while," he told himself. "And it's not as if they need me for anything urgent." He turned his back and marched into the trees, determined to enjoy his holiday.
For a few minutes, he strolled aimlessly, enjoying the cool, dense shadows.
Then he decided to visit the Green Glass Pool. He hadn't been there for a while, and it was one of his favorite places. He thought about using magic to move himself there in the blink of an eye, but decided against it.
"After all," he said, "I wanted a walk. And the pool isn't that far away."
He set off briskly in the direction of the pool.
An hour later, he still hadn't reached it, and he was beginning to feel a little cross. The forest had shifted twice on him, each time moving the pool sideways or backward, so that not only was it farther away than it had been, it was in a different direction as well. It was almost as if the forest didn't want him to find the place. If he hadn't been the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar would never have known he was going the wrong way.
"This is very odd," Mendanbar said, frowning. "I'd better find out what's going on." Normally, the Enchanted Forest didn't play this sort of game with him. He checked to make sure his sword was loose in its sheath and easy to draw if he needed it. Then he lifted his hand and touched a strand of magic floating invisibly beside his shoulder.
All around him, the huge tree trunks blurred and faded into gray mist.
The mist thickened into a woolly fog, then vanished with a suddenness that always surprised him no matter how many times he did the spell.
Blinking, he shook his head and looked around.
He was standing right where he had wanted to be, on the rocky lip of the Green Glass Pool. The pool looked as it always did: flat and still as a mirror, and the same shade of green as the new leaves on a poplar.
"Oh!" said a soft, frightened voice from behind him. "Oh, who are you?"