Vanessa’s hazel eyes stared out of the third floor window of her history class but they did not see the red brick wall of the building next door or the dark concrete of the fenced in courtyard below. Instead, they were focused on the small patch of blue sky she could glimpse between the buildings and the darkening clouds. This patch of sky had opened up to drop a moment of escape into the middle of her lesson about the Middle Ages. This was nothing she hadn’t heard before, at least a thousand times, it seemed. Nobody had an education (we should be grateful that in our country education is compulsory), everyone was poor (we should remember to be thankful for what we have) and girls had to do what they were told (so what else was new?).
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Except for the nobility. They got to live in grand castles and wear wonderful silken dresses that trailed the ground in all kinds of different colors with beautiful ribbons and lace. They never had to attend school but could choose to sit around all day reading whatever books they wanted or work on whatever craft projects they were interested in. Vanessa had seen some examples of the beautifully detailed tapestries they had made during a special museum exhibit she had gone to last year. Princesses had it best of all, with elegantly decorated apartment suites that were all their own, even when they were little, and maids who would do anything they asked them to do, including helping them get dressed and doing their hair for them. They had horses to ride into deep forests and never had to do any work. When they were bored or in love, they could walk for miles on top of the parapets, looking out over some romantic landscape that would stretch for miles in every direction with a city at its base.
Vanessa sighed. Her life was so much different from all this. Even now, she had to peek at the sky through the heavy iron bars that guarded the school from vandals and kept the students securely locked within. The musty old classroom had once been a storeroom and the walls closed in around her as if she were to be kept locked up forever as well. Her teacher droned on and on about whatever he felt was important for the next test, but he seemed even less interested than the students, if that was possible. The classroom was cold and it was only a few minutes until the bell, so everyone was poised to go.
Loud and clanging, the school bell rang just outside the classroom door and everyone bolted. Maybe it was because she’d been almost asleep or maybe Billy Braski just couldn’t take sitting still one more second, but as soon as she stood up, she was knocked forcefully backwards into the window. There was no glass to break. The window had been broken some weeks before and had been fixed by taping cardboard over it. Luckily, being three floors up, the windows were still heavily barred, supposedly to keep students from falling. It was the first time anyone would believe that story. Unfortunately, the bars were made of iron and Vanessa’s head came sharply up against one of them, stunning her and making everything go black for just a moment.
She heard a buzzing in her ears and blinked a few times to clear her vision.
When Vanessa could see again, she saw an entirely different scene than what she’d expected. She was standing in a large opulent hall facing a man and woman dressed in medieval clothing to look like a king and queen. They were even sitting on thrones! Looking around, Vanessa noticed an entire crowd of people, all dressed in expensive-looking medieval clothes. Near her was standing an old man in a full-length blue robe and long white hair and beard. He looked so much like the pictures of Merlin she’d seen in storybooks that she couldn’t help but giggle, having concluded she must be hallucinating.
“What is this … creature you have summoned, Merlin?” the man on the throne demanded, somewhat angrily Vanessa thought.
“This is the hero, my King,” the old man next to her answered.
Vanessa looked at him in surprise – hero? Not even in her dreams was she ever a hero.
“What is it?” the lady asked.
“Lady Gwenivere, I believe it is a girl,” Merlin said, with a small smile on his lips that perhaps only Vanessa could see.
“A GIRL!!” the man yelled. “We need a hero, Merlin. Our knight is lost and must be found! What can a girl do to help us!!”
“She is the one we need, Your Majesty,” the old man answered. “She can see things we cannot and her special vision is what will save the day.”
“I can’t send a girl on a quest alone!” the king yelled.
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“Of course not, your Majesty. She will lead, others will follow far enough to render assistance if needed, but will not be companions.”
They just couldn’t be talking about her, Vanessa thought. A quest? Alone? Her?
“What is your name, lass?” the woman asked.
It had been a strong suspicion before, but now there was no denying that the woman was looking to her for an answer. “Vanessa.”
“You may call me Lady Gwenivere,” the woman said and then turned to one of the other girls in the room. “Why do you wear such strange garments? Is it the nature of your craft?”
Looking down, Vanessa realized she was hardly dressed the part, either, and not just because fashions had changed. She was wearing her newest pair of jeans, the fabric so old that they had split at the knees until only the seams were holding the lower portions to the uppers. Her T-shirt was a promotional item for some old Disney movie, faded and with the logo so cracked that you couldn’t tell anymore which Disney princess was being featured. Vanessa’s non-descript brown hair was only shoulder length and insisted on curling in all the wrong places. Rubber flip-flops completed her outfit.
“This is just what I had on, L-Lady Gwenivere,” Vanessa said, trying hard not to be offensive.
“Well, she must be placed in suitable clothing. We cannot have this – creature – wandering through our lands in the king’s name like this!”
As several ladies started rushing toward her, the old man next to Vanessa – Merlin? – held up his hand and stopped them. “I will outfit her. Arthur, choose who you will send as protectors and send them to me, I should think no more than two should be sufficient.”
Within half an hour, Vanessa found herself dressed in a plain brown tunic and hose with soft brown boots keeping her feet warm and a brown leather belt around her waist with various tools attached to it. Fortunately, everything that had been in the pockets of her jeans had been transferred to the pouches on her belt, so she also had her lighter, her mirror and her keychain. She didn’t know why, but she felt better for having them. Now she was being led to the seat of a wagon and being handed the reins. After a quick lesson, Merlin stepped back and seemed to expect her to act. When she didn’t, he grew irritated.
“Time is short,” he said impatiently.
“What am I doing?” Vanessa asked, trying to whisper across the distance, but other people heard because they started laughing in spite of the solemn mood of the court.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Merlin asked. “Maybe I didn’t,” answering himself. “You are to find the lost knight. Sir Derien went missing and no one in the court can find him. He must return to the castle by this evening or he will be unable to take up his great destiny. You are the only one who can find him.”
“Why me?” Vanessa asked.
“Trust your own abilities, trust your heart and you will succeed.”
“But I have no special abilities!” Vanessa said, realizing this was immensely true. “I don’t even know what this knight looks like.”
“You have all the talent you need, more than you know,” Merlin said. “You will know, now you must move! It is already mid-morning.”
Without even touching the reins, the horses of Vanessa’s wagon suddenly burst into a run and Vanessa was bouncing out of the main gate looking for all the world like a young peasant farmer on his way back to the farm. The lone difference between her and every other farmer on the road was the presence of the two knights, riding casually but watchfully some distance behind her.
Vanessa rode for what seemed ages until she just couldn’t take the jouncing anymore. Without much clue as to how to drive a wagon, her horses had followed their noses somewhat haphazardly toward a small clearing in the depths of a deep forest. While they took a drink, Vanessa decided to walk around a bit and try to get feeling back in her legs.
Just as she turned her back on the trees, she was hit from behind by something very heavy and snarling. Knocked flat on her stomach, there was little she could do to protect herself and felt her head grabbed by what felt like a pair of pinchers and then realized was probably the jaws of some large beast. Although she had knights behind her, it was unlikely they’d get to her before this creature killed her. With only seconds to act, Vanessa grabbed a large stick lying close by her hand and jabbed it with all the force she had backward, aiming for a point just behind her head. She felt it hit, meet some small resistance and then penetrate, causing an immediate reaction in the creature. It dropped her head, began screaming and howling all at once. Vanessa turned just in time to see a huge wolf-like creature disappearing back into the trees, with one of the knights, a look of immense surprise on his face, chasing after it and the other jumping from his horse to run to her aid.
“Are you all right, my lady?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m find,” Vanessa said as he helped her up. “What was that thing?”
“That was a werewolf, my lady. They are thick in these woods, yet we were told not to halt your quest. No one would enter these woods willingly. I have never seen a person, much less a woman, fend off a wolf in such brilliant fashion. You have my respect, my lady. You were fearless when many men would be defenseless.”
It wasn’t until Sir Lancelot, the other knight, returned to Vanessa’s small camp that she learned she had managed to stab the beast in the eye, blinding him and chasing him off at the same time. This made it possible for Lancelot to track the creature and put it out of its misery. After they had all had some lunch, Vanessa started out in the lead again with Lancelot and Gawain trailing behind her.
After another long, bouncy ride, Vanessa found herself approaching a small village in the center of a large clearing. Riding into the village, she found the streets were full of people, it seemed much too many to be housed in the few buildings present. As she rode through the village, she realized that many of the people she was seeing were not doing anything but wandering aimlessly around. Vanessa still had no idea who she was looking for and she was getting tired and hungry again. She’d been riding in her wagon all day, almost eaten by some wild mythological creature and had failed to be saved by one of the two glorious knights following her who were, incidentally, not wearing their shining armor. For a fantasy, she thought, this wasn’t such a fantastic trip.
Finally too hungry to worry about manners, Vanessa stopped one of the wandering people to ask where she might find something to eat.
“I can’t tell you, miss,” the woman said. “We are all hungry, we are all tired, we would all like to go home, but we cannot find the way. We are trapped here and we cannot return until one of us finds the gate.”
Looking around, Vanessa clearly saw the gate to the town and pointed it out to the woman, but the woman looked mournfully at her.
“We have tried and tried, miss, but there’s no going through that gate. It is closed to us and we cannot escape.”
Vanessa went to the gate and tried it herself. She found, to her surprise, that the woman was right. No matter what she did, the gate only seemed to lock itself tighter the harder she tried to get out.
“There has to be a trick,” a male voice said near her. Vanessa couldn’t say why, but the voice sent a thrill from her head to her toes when she heard it. Turning to face the voice, she realized it was him – the missing knight.
“You’re Derien, aren’t you?”
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“I was sent to find you. Today is the day you must return to the castle.”
“It’s no use,” he said. “I must miss my destiny. I cannot escape this village. I cannot save these people.”
“That is because that is not your task,” another voice said and Merlin stepped out of the wall. “Now, my dear, is the time for you to use your vision. Only you can save the future.”
Suddenly, Vanessa was dressed in an exquisite gown of deepest purple trimmed with black lace. Derien took a step back, surprised to find she was female and Vanessa looked down to discover a small silver chain around her waist from which dangled the mirror and the keychain she had insisted on keeping with her. Without knowing just why, that mirror was the first thing she reached for. Pulling it up to glance in its depths, she suddenly saw a keyhole in the gate that she didn’t remember seeing before. Turning around for a better look, the keyhole disappeared. Looking again in the mirror, it was clear again. Not having any other keys available at the time, Vanessa reached for her own house key and tried to fit it in the lock. It worked perfectly and the gate swung open.
The entire village of people turned toward her. Derien was thrilled and lifted her off her feet in celebration.
“If we hurry, I might still be able to catch my destiny,” he said.
Quickly, Vanessa and Derien climbed on board the wagon, loading as many of the older or very young villagers as they could in the wagon. With the werewolf dead in the forest and Gawain and Lancelot available to stay back with those villagers who had to walk, they allowed the horse to run as far as he could straight back toward Arthur’s castle. They arrived at the gates just as the sun was going down. As they passed through the darkness under the portcullis, Vanessa suddenly felt dizzy and lost her vision for a moment.
Opening her eyes, she realized she was still standing against the window of her classroom, which was now mostly empty, and her teacher was looking at her with some concern.
“Vanessa, are you all right?” she asked.
Shaking her head a little, Vanessa laughed at herself for allowing herself to get so caught up in a fantasy that she almost forgot she must be in one.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Mrs. Dupree, thanks,” and she walked out of the classroom.
In the hall, just before she started her long trek down the crowded stairwell, Vanessa was stopped by the sound of a voice in her ear.
“Might I carry your books for you, my lady?” he whispered.
With a smile, Vanessa looked down at the soft leather boots on her feet and realized life was going to be much more interesting from now on.