Miles peered through his binoculars and held his breath.
“Shh!” he hissed when Freddie and Stevie began to fidget. “It’s almost here,” he whispered.
The other boys went still and he could tell that their breath was held as well as the last seconds ticked away. At noon exactly, just as Miles had told them, a shimmering castle appeared against the distant sky and a gleaming path stretched across the mound of grass under their bellies.
“Go!” Miles ordered, already running forward.
Stevie was close on his heels with Freddie panting loudly behind, his backpack clinking with every step, filled with thousands of unseen mysteries. Miles wondered what Freddie would have considered essential for an adventure like this. The kid’s backpack was nearly bursting its seams. It seemed odd since Freddie had been the one to laugh openly when Miles had shared his discovery.
“A castle that appears for a minute every day, at noon,” Freddie had scoffed. “What do you take us for?”
Miles had remained calm. He knew what he’d seen, and he’d waited weeks before revealing his discovery to his two best friends. He’d wanted to be sure. First, he figured out that it only happened on days that had rained in the morning, and then only at noon exactly. Sleek white spires appeared, reaching to the sky in triumph or ambition. It was hard to say from such a distance. Always, the palace was accompanied by a path that stretched right up to Miles’ shoes, gleaming as if freshly touched by dew.
“All you have to do is come see for yourself,” he’d said. “Next time, I’m following the path.”
Both Freddie and Stevie had been suspicious of a prank of some kind, but their curiosity won out and they had arrived as scheduled, bags packed. Now they ran. For a minute they sprinted down the slope of the hill, following the path until it dimmed and grew vague. They panted at the bottom of the hill, Freddie clutching his knees and looking somewhat green.
“What do you want to do now?” Stevie asked.
Miles shrugged. He was disappointed.
“We could go to my tree fort,” Freddie offered.
The three boys trudged back up the hill, taking their time. At the top Miles stopped and looked back over their town wistfully, and froze. Their town didn’t look like their town anymore. It was trees. A lot of trees. A thin stream of smoke drifted up a ways off, and even further on there seemed to be a cluster of red rooftops clustered together, but the town that he called home was most definitely gone. And there, in the distance, a shining palace reached for the sky.
“Woah!” Stevie gasped.
“Yeah,” Miles agreed.
Freddie sighed. “Wish I’d known that before doing this hill again,” he muttered, pushing past Miles and Stevie on his way back down.
The path was gone and they weren’t far into the trees before the feeling descended upon all of them that they were lost. Shadows deepened and branches shifted overhead, lending to the sense that the forest watched their progress. The boys trudged ever forward, losing the nerve to speak in the waiting silence. When Stevie’s stomach growled, Miles actually flinched at the sound.
“Here,” Freddie said, handing Stevie and Miles each a long stick of beef jerky. He then opened one for himself and kept walking.
Miles glanced into his own pack at the binoculars, matches, socks, comic book, chips and chocolate bar he’d thought to bring. He zipped it shut and followed after Freddie.
Sounds soon began to liven the wood as if it had decided finally that the boys weren’t a threat. Birds began to call from the branches and smaller sounds rattled under low branches and ground cover as critters went about their business. A distant Thud, Thud caught their attention. Soon they saw larger movement ahead of them and light, indicating a clearing. An old man chopped wood over a well battered stump.
“Hello,” Freddie greeted before Miles or Stevie had a chance to stop and discuss what they’d do.
The man scowled at the boys for a moment and resumed his chopping.
“Can you tell us about that castle?” Freddie asked undaunted.
The man grunted while he moved a new log into position.
“We’d like to visit it,” Freddie continued amiably.
To this the man chuckled and shook his head.
“Come on,” Miles urged, pulling on Freddie’s shirt sleeve until he followed.
“I can’t believe you marched in and talked to him like that!” Stevie said, turning on Freddie as soon as they were out of earshot of the old man’s chopping. “Did you see the size of that ax?”
“What does that matter?” Freddie asked. “He needed a large ax to chop wood.”
“I’ve never seen anyone chop wood with a battle ax before,” Stevie said.
“Let’s keep going,” Miles said, watching the still trees behind them. He couldn’t hear the old man’s chopping anymore and that made him nervous.
“I was being friendly,” Freddie said defensively.
“Next time just keep your mouth shut,” Stevie grumbled, pushing Freddie along.
Soon they came upon the collection of houses they’d seen from the hilltop. Neat puffs of smoke dotted the sky above their chimneys and the smell of savory food made all of their stomachs growl.
“Hi!” Freddie said, waving at a woman in an apron who was busy pulling a full bucket up from a well. “Let me help you with that.”
Stevie and Miles shared a look of exasperation while Freddie raced forward to help, his backpack clinking heavily. He huffed and snorted with the effort to haul up the bucket, and when it surface they all saw why. A little boy holding a wet cat sat in it. The boy and cat climbed down and ran into a house while the woman smiled gratefully at Freddie.
“You saved me a lot of trouble young man,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes thanks,” Freddie said. “We’re walking to the castle. Can you tell us about it?”
The woman laughed as if Freddie had told a good joke and went into the small house where the boy and cat had gone. A minute later she and the boy came out with wooden bowls steaming from a thick stew. Miles and Stevie gazed at their bowls with worry but Freddie dug in, moaning a little at the first bite.
“This is delicious!” he said. “Please, if you know how to get to the castle, could you tell us the path to take?”
The woman and boy shared a glance.
“Son,” the woman said, “it’s a rain palace. Getting to a rain palace is a bedtime story. A silly tale. You can’t actually walk to one. Did no one tell you?”
“Thank you,” Stevie said, setting his untouched bowl of stew on the lip of the well. “We should get going.”
Miles was halfway through his bowl and reluctant to leave it. He hadn’t been sure when he’d seen the piles of armor behind the first house, as if a whole army had lost their clothes, but the stew was good and he felt strengthened. He gulped down the rest and handed his empty bowl to the little boy with a grateful smile before following his friends across the small village and again into the trees.
“What is wrong with you?” Stevie hissed. “Did you not see the piles of weapons hidden under those straw bales? Whatever was going on in that village, we did not need to hang around and help them haul children out of wells!”
“He was rescuing his kitty,” Freddie said, sounding wounded. “And he was far too heavy for her to lift. Did you see how much she struggled?”
Stevie threw his arms over his head in frustration and kept walking.
“I wish we knew if we were going in the right direction,” Freddie mumbled a while later. The light was fading and the forest was taking on a more sinister tone. “I would like to see that palace up close before my mom gets mad and comes to find me.”
“Freddie, we’re in some kind of other world,” he said. “You do realize that your mom is so far away she could search forever and she’d never find you. We’re in trouble here. You do know that we’re in trouble, right?”
Stevie kicked at a root.
“I never should have come along,” he grumbled. “I’m so hungry.”
Freddie pulled a cheese and bologna sandwich from his bag and handed it to Stevie.
“Did you bring the entire kitchen?” Miles asked.
Freddie glanced at his toes, his cheeks flushing red.
“I just brought a few things,” he said quietly.
“I’m hungry too,” a new voice said.
All three boys jumped as a bent old woman emerged from the shadows. Long white hair swayed around her like a fringed shawl and light and dark spots splotched her face and hands.
Stevie hid his sandwich behind his back. Freddie reached into his bag and produced another sandwich, handing it over to the old woman.
“I made it myself,” he said.
The woman bit into it with a toothless mouth and chewed for a great long while considering each of the boys in turn.
“Do you live near here?” Miles managed to ask.
The old woman didn’t answer, but eyed him with interest.
“You’re seeking something,” she said at last.
Miles nodded. “We saw a palace,” he said. “We came from a different world to see it, it was that beautiful.”
The old woman nodded, still working on her bite of sandwich.
“The trick is to recognize which path to take,” she said. Her gaze strayed to Freddie. “The other trick is to show your worth,” she added. She chewed a while more in silence, her gaze never leaving Freddie. “There’s a clearing that way,” she said at last, nodding over her shoulder. “Good place to watch the stars at night.”
Miles glanced in the direction she had nodded but saw nothing.
“What!?” Stevie exclaimed behind him. “Where’d she go?”
When Miles turned back, the woman was gone and Stevie and Freddie both gaped at the spot where she’d been standing.
“This place is creepy,” Stevie grumbled, already moving toward the direction of the clearing.
They’d been nearly upon it. The clearing was long and narrow, and a full sky of stars took their breath away. They settled down on the ground with the idea that they’d sleep the night there and continue on in the morning. Miles’ eyes were nearly closed with heavy sleep when he heard Freddie gasp.
“The path!” Freddie cried, bolting upright.
Miles failed to see any kind of path, but Freddie’s finger was trained at the sky.
“It’s just the Milky Way,” Stevie said, settling back down.
“Don’t you see the palace?” Freddie asked.
Stevie shook his head, but Miles saw it. Made of starlight and gleaming on the horizon of the sky, the palace glittered in the distance. Miles was about to get to his feet when Freddie stopped him.
“Like this,” he said, lifting his feet into the air.
Miles did the same, and gasped when he felt gravity shift. Soon the world was above his head and starlight prickled his feet. Freddie stood beside him. Stevie soon floated down to join them.
Their walk to the palace wasn’t as long as they’d thought it would be. Soon starlit steps led up to gleaming terraces and glittering doors that swung open when they neared. A solitary figure stood awaiting them in the first soaring hall. She was tall, and clad in light itself. Freddie dropped to his knees and dug through his backpack, producing a silver vase and a plastic wrapped bouquet of flowers which he hastily shoved into the vase.
“Of all the things you thought to bring…” Miles marveled.
“These are for you,” Freddie said to the woman. “They came from another world.”
The woman smiled and accepted the flowers, and Miles suddenly felt foolish. He retrieved his chocolate bar and presented it.
“This is sweet,” he said lamely.
Stevie remained mute.
The woman accepted the chocolate with a kind smile and touched each of their cheeks.
“Freddie,” she said, “I watched you bring kindness to a land still recovering from old wars,” she said. “Your generosity is the reason why I helped you boys to find the way here. I give you this gift.”
She handed him a small white stone.
“With this you may return to visit any time you like.”
She turned to Miles.
“Miles,” she said with the same tone of ceremony, “you were aware enough to see this palace and brave enough to inspire adventure in your friends’ hearts. You were cautious and wary, but found ways to trust. I give you this.”
A stone fell into his palm.
“Keep it with you and you will always have guidance when choosing when to trust.”
Miles accepted the stone and dropped it into his pocket, trying to hide his disappointment. He wanted to be able to return whenever he wished like Freddie.
“Stevie,” the woman said, dropping a stone into Stevie’s palm, “you worked to protect your friends by reading the signs you were given. Your wariness made you a poor guest, but a good friend to those you cared about. This gift will take you home.”
“How do I use it?” Stevie asked, but the woman was already gone.
“Here goes nothing,” Stevie mumbled, and a moment later the three of them stood at the top of their hill, looking out over their town with all of its twinkling lights.
It looked the same as it always did, and that was a welcome sight. Deep down, though, Miles felt that something was different. Not with the town, but maybe with the way he saw it.
“My mom made lasagna today,” Freddie offered, and without another word, the boys turned their hungry bellies toward Freddie’s house.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!