THE LOST QUEEN—Opening of Chapter One
It was the end of the longest day of her life. Things that some nymphs had never experienced in a thousand years had all happened to Iona in one day. Her life had never been quite boring, but this day had been the king of them all.
It had all begun with those surreal night visions that Iona had awakened from early that fateful morning. In the cryptic, prophetic dream, the Deities of the Great Merge Fecund Festival had turned into horrid dragons that were feeding on nymph cocoons. The faces of the young nymphs Shara, Byla and Liani had contorted from their usual youth and beauty into dried, prune-like carcasses. Satyr horns were growing from Iona’s abdomen. Her fingers kept turning into water lizards, and Elder Idella kept cutting them off, only to have them grow right back in place. A two-headed unicorn gave her six Black Zodae berries and whispered ominously, in simultaneous voices, “ You must eat them if you are to find the Lost Queen.”
Iona had woken from the dreams in a confounded sweat. She was so shaken by the warped visions that she got up from her sleeping pallet many ticks before the drying of the first morning dew. Unable to rest or eat, she dressed in her “wood wear” skins. She knew she would need to visit the Valley of the Grove later to think the strange dream through. She had slipped behind the nooks of the colony just before leaving Crystal Orchard for the Valley of the Grove to spend a quick tick in the counsel of Elder Nora.
Iona was one of the select few third-generation nymphs who knew about the secret tunnels that lay hidden behind the colony’s living quarters. Actually, she was the only third-generation nymph who knew about them. Some of the older nymphs had knowledge of the ancient hidden passageways of Crystal Orchard, but most of them rarely, if ever, used them, so their knowledge was theoretical at best.
Even many of the Elders themselves were unaware of the labyrinthine corridors that lead from their very dwellings to various places within the orchard and beyond. Iona, unlike the others, was not told about the passageways, but instead had discovered them by way of her own innate instinct for exploration . Elder Nora was the only one in the entire colony who knew that Iona not only knew about the secret passageways, but used them quite regularly. Especially for their very frequent and very secret meetings.
Elder Nora may not have been the Head of the Elder Council like Idella, but she was the eldest of all the council and one of the few who hadn’t turned on Iona. Iona wound her way along the secret tunnel to Elder Nora’s dwelling in a hurry and whistled the password at the entrance. With one hand Elder Nora opened the door to the narrow hole. She used her other hand to puff the smoking Juju leaf she had rolled up, now hanging loosely from the corner of her mouth. A cloud of thick blue smoke slapped Iona in the face like an acrid blanket as she choked and lowered herself onto the dwelling floor.
“’Bout time ya got here, little one. The slosh is gettin’ cold!” Elder Nora scolded, hovering over Iona while puffing on her Juju leaf. “ C’mon get up now and tell me all about it so’s I can send ya on errands before da ol’ bitties get here!” When Iona told her mentor about her whirling visions, Elder Nora scratched her chin thoughtfully and said, “Ate six Black Zodae berries, huh? One will do the trick easy, but six? Hmmm. . . that’s enough to kill half the orchard!” Elder Nora resumed toking on her smoking Juju leaf, as Iona went on about her dream.
“Sounds t’me like ya got yerself a case o’ the Satyr scaries,” Elder Nora finally declared numbly.
Iona looked at Elder Nora, puzzled. “That’s it? Satyr scaries? That’s all you got for me? “ Iona snapped. “Come on, Elder Nora. You know there ain’t much that can scare me. But this is something deeper, more serious. I know it. I can feel it! And what. . . what does a ‘lost queen’ have to do with anything?” Iona shook her head ruefully and stared distantly into the floor.
Elder Nora raised a concerned eyebrow, then asked, “Who told you about the ‘Lost Queen’?”
Iona glanced up and replied, “I told you about the two-headed unicorn–”
Elder Nora sharply cut her off growling, “Now don’t imp around with me! I asked you who told you about the Lost Queen?!”
Recognizing that Elder Nora’s concern was severe, Iona said, “No one. I promise! I just told you everything I know. I need to know what this dream is trying to tell me.”
Elder Nora studied Iona carefully. She decided that the nymph was just as serious about interpreting her dream. Elder Nora sat the Juju leaf in its smoking dish and doused it with the remaining bit of slosh that was cooling in the bottom of her mug. She put her fingers to her temples and began to massage them in tiny little circles. “Well, traditionally the Black Zodae berries are used to ward off the Satyrs when they are in season, as you already know. And yes, they are very poisonous to us nymphs. And you say Satyr horns were growing through your tummy?” Elder Nora paused in deep contemplation before giving her opinion. “I think that it is a warning for you to stay out of the Valley of the Grove until the first budding of the Black Zodae. It may be that some Satyrs are going to attack you if you do.”