“I love story time!” one of the faery children said. They settled down on the logs around the campfire and eagerly waited for their mother to speak.
Lilly narrowed her eyes at her twin, but Willow sat down next to Rudy, the oldest of the faery children and probably the closest to his age. “Come on, it would be rude to leave without hearing her story,” he pleaded. She shook her head but sat down next to him anyway. If she had to admit it, she was a little curious about the faeries, too.
Nettle and Thorn sat across from them on another log. Thorn tucked wayward strands of her curly brown hair behind her pointed ears. Then she began to speak.
“In a time past, maybe twenty or so of your human years, some campers got caught in a wildfire right here in the woods. Nettle just happened to be trimming the hedges by an old, abandoned portal when he smelled the smoke. He peeked out and saw a human family scrambling to protect themselves from approaching flames. My husband’s heart was pricked, for you can see we also have children we love.”
“I had to do something,” Nettle said, his face grim with the memory.
“Of course, dear,” she said, patting his hand.
“Nettle had no idea whether the old portal still worked. It had been dormant for centuries. Faerie centuries. But he could try. He reached through the portal and grabbed one of the children. Her brother saw his sister being dragged away and held onto her. The other children tried to free her. But Nettle’s magic was too strong, so the children were all pulled into Faerie. As the last of the four children landed in our garden, the parents also fell through.”
“That’s amazing,” Willow said. “Everyone in our world thinks they died.”
Lilly tipped her head like she was chewing on a deep thought. “No one ever saw them again. Why?”
Thorn and Nettle exchanged glances. “They remain in Faerie,” she said.
That’s when Lilly remembered that faeries couldn’t lie. But they could bend the truth and leave out what didn’t serve their purpose. “But they must have had friends and other relatives that they left behind,” she said.
“Sacrifices had to be made,” Thorn said, getting up quickly. “Does anyone want some lemonade?”
Lilly didn’t like how the faery mother had changed the subject quickly. But she didn’t have anything to accuse her, and Nettle had saved that family.
“So now you use the portal to come here camping?” Willow asked, taking a cup from Thorn.
“That’s right,” Nettle said. “When I pulled the human family through the portal, its magic was changed. It now allows six faeries to travel through it. Only six. The same number as the humans that came to us. When we are in your world, no one else can use the portal. Anyone who tries it gets bounced back.”
“That’s weird,” Willow said.
“For sure,” Rudy said. “But it means our family can go camping in these woods. We love it here!”
“It’s fun to go to a place where we don’t have to hide from dragons,” one of the little girl faeries said.
“A nonmagical world is a much safer world to camp in,” Thorn said. “We’ve talked about it so much, now some of our friends wish to join us. However, the way the portal works, it would be impossible.”
“That is too bad,” Lilly said. There was something more that the faeries weren’t telling them, but she wasn’t sure what to ask. “We should be getting back. It’s been great to meet you, but we don’t want to get in trouble with our parents.”
“It’s okay, Lilly. We could stay a little longer,” Willow said.
“No. We need to go now,” Lilly insisted. She stood and pulled her brother to his feet. “Thank you for the marshmallows and lemonade.”
Thorn and Nettle stood, and their children gathered around them. “Well met, Willow and Lilly,” Nettle said with a slight bow.
Thorn smiled and it was like a beam of sunshine. “It’s wonderful that you have parents. A family of four. Perhaps you could bring them back with you tomorrow.”
“Sure! That sounds great!” Willow said.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Lilly dragged her brother through the woods until they reached the road where their bikes were parked. Her head felt fuzzy, and her legs were wobbly on her bike.
As they rode, Lilly could glimpse the sun resting on the horizon between the trees. No doubt they had missed dinner and would be in trouble.
“Why did we stay there so long?” Lilly yelled.
“You don’t meet faeries every day,” Willow cried.
Lilly had a sense of uneasiness that settled over her like night over the sunset. The faeries had been nothing but nice to them, and yet… Every faery tale she’d ever read warned against dealing with the fae.
Hopefully, eating a few marshmallows was safe.
When they zoomed into their campsite, their dad was walking toward them with a lantern. “There you are,” he said. “We were getting worried. I was just getting ready to come find you.”
“Sorry,” Willow said. “The sun set extra fast today.”
Mom jumped up from her chair. “Lilly, I expected better from you. Your brother has no sense of time, but you are usually more sensible.”
Lilly’s heart ached when she saw her mom upset. “I’m so sorry, Mom. We went on a hike in the woods. It was shady in there. I didn’t realize what time it was.” She hated lying to her parents, but there was no way she was going to tell them they met faeries.
“I’m starving,” Willow said.
“Your plates are on the kitchen counter,” Mom said. “After you’re done, you can do the dishes and take the trash down to the dumpster. You can expect extra chores tomorrow.”
The next day, Dad decided the family should take a hike. Lilly and Willow were excited because usually Dad preferred to sit in the shade and watch sports on their big screen TV on the outside of the trailer.
“It’s a beautiful day, and families should enjoy it together!” he said. Mom packed lunch. Lilly grabbed the trail map the ranger gave them when they checked in.
“Maybe we should hike down to the lake,” she said, squinting at the different colored lines on the map. “It’s only 1.7 miles and it’s rated moderate. I think we could do that.”
“Let’s go!” Willow said.
It didn’t take them long to find the trailhead for the hike to Lake Cuyamaca. Lilly and Willow walked ahead while Mom and Dad followed. The path was paved with tiny gravel, so it was easy to walk on. Occasionally, another path would branch out from the main one.
“Willow, don’t go down there,” Dad said. “We don’t know where it leads. I need to conserve my energy.” He was already sweating in the steamy late morning sunshine. The lake trail crossed a huge meadow without any shade. Lilly was already regretting her choice.
“Dad, maybe we should rest under those trees,” she said, pointing to the woods on the left.
“Good idea,” Dad said. “It’s hard for us old folks to keep up with you kids in this humidity.”
“I brought granola bars and tangerines,” Mom said. “This would be a good time to take a break.”
Lilly and Willow followed their parents into the woods. Dad kept going until he found a place for them to sit down. The twins realized that the clearing looked familiar.
A large unnatural brush-free area with a fire circle in the middle, surrounded by fallen logs forming benches around it.
This was the same place they met the faeries!
Lilly started to shiver, which made no sense for a hot day. She was pretty good at directions. The clearing she and Willow visited last night was at the other end of the campground. In fact, when she chose the lake trail, she had purposely picked a route far from where they had met the faeries.
A rustle announced six familiar foxes as they bounced out of the bushes.
“Look, Arnie, foxes!” Mom said, taking a step back.
“Stay away from them, dear,” Dad said, shielding her with his arm. “They might have rabies or something.” He turned to Lilly and Willow, who were standing frozen with looks of surprise on their faces. “Kids, they won’t attack you. They’re afraid of humans.”
“Not all are,” Nettle said, standing up on two legs. “Lilly, Willow, nice to see you again. And thank you so much for bringing your parents.”
Mom grabbed Lilly’s arm. “You know these creatures?” she asked.
Lily attempted a weak smile. “Of course, Mom. But they’re not really foxes. They’re faeries.”
“You can’t see what they really look like until you eat some of their food,” Willow added. “We met them last night. They’re super cool.”
Thorn came forward and handed two graham crackers to Lilly. “Give these to your parents. Then they will believe.”
Lilly realized this was a lot easier than trying to argue with her parents. She handed a cracker to each parent, which they ate with a lot of doubt. As soon as they swallowed them, their eyes were opened.
“My, my! You ARE faeries!” Dad said.
“Arnie, are they dangerous?” Mom asked, rubbing her eyes.
“We’d love you to join us for an early luncheon,” Thorn said. “We’ve prepared something special for you.”
Before Lilly could protest that they were in the middle of a family hike, Nettle grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes.
Several things happened at once.
Thorn pulled Dad into the woods. Rudy took Willow’s arm and pulled him behind her. Mom shrieked and ran after them. What did the faeries want with them?
Did faeries eat humans?
Whoosh! Twisting around, she could see a whirlpool in the air, framed by the ancient branches of two oak trees. The portal. Next thing she knew, Nettle passed through it, making her ears pop. The rest of the faeries and her family followed.
Nettle set her gently down into a bed of soft pine needles. She couldn’t see anything because on this side of the portal, it was night. But it smelled tangy like a forest. She thought she could also smell grilled chicken and corn.
Then she felt the thump of her brother and parents falling next to her. The faeries stood over them, their green eyes reflecting the pale moonlight.
“What do you want from us?” Lilly said in a half-sobbing voice.
“You’d better let us go,” Dad said. “I’ve got a knife.”
“Arnie, it’s only a pocketknife,” Mom argued.
“You weren’t supposed to tell them that. It’s iron after all. Doesn’t iron hurt them?” he said.
A few whispered words produced a flame which Thorn used to light a lantern. Her beautiful face looked haunting in its light.
“We are sorry to distress you in any way. You are very important to us. Because the four of you passed through the portal, now we can bring four of our friends out to your world for a camping trip,” Thorn said in a soothing voice.
“Our children play with theirs,” Nettle said. “They love to play in the woods. It gives us adults plenty of time to sit around the campfire.”
Lily’s mind whirred. “So, you need humans to go through this portal into your garden so that you can take faeries back to our world for a camping trip? What about our camping trip?”
Dad stood up, looking around. “Where are we? Send us back immediately!”
Thorn sighed like a patient mother. “I’m so sorry. It’s time for you to rest now. When you awaken, luncheon will be served.” She waved her hand and a thick purple mist covered Lily and her family, sending them into dreamless sleep.