Some years back I wrote a short story called “Wisp the Wayfinder” about a fledging young faerie who finds her way in the world. It was cute enough I suppose. The story evolved later to include more characters and depth and villains and twists and turns, but it got a little unwieldy and never congealed quite the way I wanted it to. I decided to post some chapters here incrementally with no real timeline in mind. I might edit chapters later. I might not. I might add sketches to flesh it out. Or not. Somewhere in this sordid mess is a good story, I just need to polish it mercilessly until the coal can shine. That might never happen, the Wisp ship has likely sailed, but it was a story worth sharing. Still is. – May 2021
Tales from the NoWhere & NeverWhen
Wisp the Wayfinder
Once upon a time, in a place with no real name, in a land not quite like any other, where time held another meaning – if it existed at all – something happened at a flower in a field. At dawn, three glorious suns rose from the horizon. Accompanied by the sound of tinkling wind chimes, the morning dew and pollen swirled into a bright ball, gasped in a breath of living sunlight, and it became something else.
A newborn ball of light hung above the flower, momentarily confused. The sky arced above her in a cathedral of azure blue and gentle green swaths. The air smelled of sweet grass, loamy dirt and fragrant blossoms. A breeze passed through her shimmering body as if she did not exist. She doubted if she existed too. She wasn’t quite real yet, ethereal and limber, her identity still forming, and fragile as an eggshell.
What am I? she thought.
She didn’t know how to answer that. Her mild confusion was tempered by an even stronger sense of curiosity. There was something she was supposed to do, but she didn’t know what.
She saw something pretty nearby called a “flower” – a name she somehow knew – and, beyond that flower she saw another flower, and another beyond that one, and more and more and more flowers stretching endlessly into a meadow of bright petals bending in the wind.
Bees – yes, she was sure they were called bees – hovered from bright flower to flower; big, fat, black bumblers, their deep hum filling the meadow with a quiet drone.
Three fiery suns huddled in the sky, two smaller yellow ones flanking the larger golden sun like armed guards protecting a Queen. The ball of light felt their warmth and it…pleased her.
“Hmm. Well, perhaps I am a flower, since I’m among the flowers. So…am I some sort of flower?” she asked the flower beside her.
The flower shook its petal head. “You are definitely not a flower,” it said. “Silly question, little one.”
“Pfft. Well, I wasn’t sure. I’m new here! But why can’t I be a flower? Doesn’t seem so silly to me.”
“Well, look at you,” said the flower, as if bored. “You have no petals, you have no roots, you have no enticing aroma. I’m sure you don’t even know what to do today.”
The ball of light thought about that. It was true. She didn’t really have anything to do, just a vague sense that there should be something. Something very important. But what?
“Well, what do you do?” the ball of light asked.
“Oh, I have a wonderful life! I open in the morning and drink the sun and dew. I dance in the breeze, and I sing with my friends all day long. That is what I do.”
“Well then,” said the ball of light, “I must discover what I do too. Goodbye, flower.” She floated away, bouncing on the wind like a wayward leaf, actually enjoying herself quite a bit. She drifted to even more flowers, all of them a menagerie of colors, asking each one, “Who am I?” But none of the flowers knew. She soon began to suspect that flowers were genuinely not very smart.
When she found the flowers unhelpful she started asking the bees that flew busily from the upturned petals, gobs of sticky yellow pollen clinging to their legs.
“Hello? Hello? Kind bee, can you tell me what you do? Or even better, what I do? Maybe I am a bee. You see I—”
“Can’t talk, working,” grunted the bee and it launched off, bobbing uncertainly.
The ball of light followed behind it. “But are you sure? You…you fly. I can fly too! Maybe are cousins? Maybe? Could I be a cousin bee? A sunny bumbler?”
She giggled inside. She liked the sound of that, a sunny bumbler.
“No talk. Busy. Honey time,” grunted the bee with single-minded determination to reach its hive and ignore her pesky questions.
She groaned and peeled away, intersecting a different bee, but her inquiries received a nearly identical dismissal. She followed it all the way back to its hive and observed hundreds of bees swarming over a honeycomb that oozed with golden, sugary liquid. She tried to engage them again, demanding answers, but the bees ignored her queries.
“You bees are terrible at conversation!” she yelled at them.
The bees didn’t seem to care and continued on their bumbling circuits to collect and deposit pollen. But as she watched them move about she realized that they had a job – a purpose – motivating their every waking moment.
“I must have a purpose too,” she whispered. “It would be so boring not to have one.”
She eventually reached the end of the meadow where a large, dark forest rose before her. She didn’t know the meadow even had an end, and the new terrain delighted her, something different from the fragrant field of her birth. She saw the forest growing from a distance, just a wide smudge of blackness that turned into a smear of teeth, and then a low row of jagged spines, and finally became full grown trees, stretching to the puffy clouds above, the upper branches swaying in the breeze.
I love forests! I…I think I do anyway. Do I?
A path wound into the thickets and the ball of light followed it, bouncing childlike and free through the shadows. She wasn’t sure what to expect in these dark woods, but the prospects thrilled her. Anything could lurk around the next bend. Maybe things with gnashing teeth! Or kindly eyes. Or sharp claws! Or soothing words. How exciting to find out! Any of those options sounded fun, even the scary ones.
The trees here were ancient, their woody boles spiraling high into deep clusters of green leaves and endless limbs. Roots as thick as snakes intertwined and wrapped around each other, and the whole place was filled with strange howls and hoots from unseen creatures creeping through the brush.
She soon heard running water. Passing over some mossy, wet boulders, she saw two beavers splashing in a stream. A half-constructed dam squatted beside them, and water cascaded from a small waterfall. It looked like fun so she gently glided down.
“Hello,” she said. “You’re certainly having a good time. May I join you? I never swam in a stream before.”
The beavers stopped playing and gawked at her. “You never swam in a stream?” one of them said. It looked incredulously at his friend.
“Never basked on a log?” said the other. “Never pad-pad-paddled your tail in a bubbling brook?” the she-beaver asked.
“Or gnawed on a feisty fish?” added her husband. “Oh, you are missing the grandest things in the world!” they cried together.
“Well…I don’t want to miss out,” said the little ball of light, and she dipped into the stream. She saw water flowing over smooth flat rocks. She saw tiny blue and orange fish darting hither and thither. She saw a fat red creature with pincher claws that hid from her radiance under a rock. Giggling, the ball of light burst up from the water and circled the beavers.
“Delightful!” she said. “I like your home. You seem to be very good at what you do. By chance, may I ask you a question? Would you happen to know what my purpose is, and why I might be here? I asked the flowers and the bees, but they could not answer.”
“Well, you float,” said the he-beaver, nodding to his wife as if this was the best answer possible.
“Yup, yup, yup. You float,” the she-beaver agreed. “Oh, and you glow! You glow very well, in fact. That must be your purpose, you young wisp of a thing. You are a floater and a glower! Ta! Ta! Ta!”
The beavers smacked their tails in the water several times, seemingly overjoyed that they found an answer.
“Oh, those are two very good points,” said the ball of light. “Yes, I do float, and I float quite well. And I do glow, don’t I? I just realized that.” She looked down and saw her reflection in the swirling current below.
I float and I glow. I’m a floater and a glower! Float and glow and glow and float! She was happy enough with that and pulsed brightly several times, enjoying her new ability.
“Oh! Look what I did!” She buzzed around the half-built dam, sputtering and sparking and greatly entertaining herself. The beavers laughed too, sitting on the shore now, slapping their tails in the shallow water and chuckling at her antics.
When she finally grew tired of this new game, she spun down to the beavers. “What do you do all day; I’m sure it must be amazing.”
“Oh, we have a wonderful life,” said the he-beaver. “We are builders.”
“That’s right,” said the she-beaver. “All day, every day, we build, build, build!”
That impressed her. One there to always help the other; never lonely, never lost. Did she need a friend to help her too? Team Float and Glow?
“And a fine job you’ve done,” she said. “Fantastic dam you have. Much better than I could have built. Well, I should be on my way, beavers. Thank you, and good luck!”
The beavers waved goodbye and the little ball of light careened into the forest, enjoying her newfound flickering. She illuminated all sorts of new holes and hollows, playfully chasing reddish squirrels or zipping through the webs of startled spiders. For a short while she was a terrible tyrant, but eventually she grew bored.
’You young wisp of a thing,’ the beaver had said. How nice. But is that my only purpose? To fly and play and be ever so bright like the suns three? There must be something else.
So she kept looking.
She passed into a new part of the forest, the trees here different than the others, with thicker trunks, ruddy and red, rising higher than the others, their limbs twisting above her like the bulging arms of sunburned giants. Gold and red veined leaves fluttered in the breeze and carpeted the forest floor as she danced among them, pulsing and laughing.
Before long she came across a troll sitting against a knotted tree. She wondered briefly how she knew it was a troll, but the name came so easily that she really had no doubts. Greenish warts covered its body and bluish snot dripped from its nose. It sat with its chin cradled in its palms, looking like the unhappiest thing in the world.
“Hullo!” she chirped. “By chance, do you know who I am? Or what my purpose might be? I feel rather lost not knowing. I asked the flowers in the field, but they did not know, and I asked the bees, but they didn’t care, and the beavers had some really, really good ideas, but there must be something more. Seeing you sitting here, I couldn’t help but ask.”
“Harumph!” growled the troll. It rolled its eyes at her. “You have no purpose, ball of light. You do nothing. You are nothing. Now go away. You are bothering an old and useless troll.”
“Well,” said the ball of light, exasperated, “I’m not sure that’s true. I must be something. Everything is something. And that wasn’t very nice to say to me!” She bopped the troll on the head and motes of glittery dust shimmered down.
That’s interesting. What did I just do?
The troll shook its head, dazed. “Well, maybe you’re right,” it said. “Sorry. I…I am grumpy. Been having bad dreams. Bad dreams all night long. Toss and I turn I do on my mossy bed, but still the Dark Thing calls me.”
“Oh, well, you are forgiven Mr. Troll. But why these bad dreams? And what is this Dark Thing that disturbs your sleep so badly?”
The troll sighed and shook its head. “I do not know what it is. Or where. It shows me bad things. Terrible things, but things I want to do! Things I did in my younger years. Ripping and roaring! Shrieking and shredding. And eating! Eating. Always eating. A young troll’s hunger has no end. A young troll’s tummy is never filled. A young hungry troll beneath a bridge…”
The troll looked excited now, as if seeing something that the ball of light could not. Its eyes got bigger, and its tusks protruded even more, and its teeth glinted sharp and sheer, but then the troll relaxed, its feverish expression passed, and it eased back against the knobby trunk. The troll wiped a dripping glob of blue snot from its nose.
“Heh. No. No more. I am a bored and old troll. A useless old troll near the end of my days.”
“Oh, I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said. “But it’s not as bad as it seems. Maybe you need a hobby. Why don’t you design a bridge, and then you can live under it? You look like you have strong hands.”
“Hmm,” mused the troll, looking at its beefy, green, sausage-like fingers. “Maybe so. Maybe so…”
“I think it’s an excellent idea. Look, there are some beavers not far away building a dam. Maybe you can use some of their wood? I think that would be wonderful! I will even come and visit, once I figure out just what I am. I still don’t have a clue. So first things first, you see. Pri-orities!”
“Hmm, a bridge…” said the troll, a hand to its chin, lips pursed. “Build a troll bridge again, like the ones from my youth. Hmm. Good bridges I built, yes…full of traps and pits and spikes. Oh yes, the many squealing creatures I snared on my bridges!”
“Well, I don’t know about all that, said the ball of light. “How about a nice, simple bridge to get from one side of the creek to the other?”
The troll shrugged. “Good enough. For an old troll.”
“Well then, the best of building luck to you! And no more bad dreams, you silly, sad troll. You’ll be just plain grumpy in the morning!” And with that remark she floated deeper into the forest.
“I’ll try,” said the troll behind her, and managed a toothy smile. Not the prettiest smile, but still a smile.
The ball of light had no destination, winding her way through sun dappled glens, over crisscrossing brooks and past grassy green fields. Some deep intuition drew her, but she could not how, other than she felt she’d been to these places before; they seemed achingly familiar.
She thought again about the troll and its bad dreams, glad that she had been able to help, but she didn’t know exactly how she’d done it. She had bopped the troll right on the head, motes of golden dust shimmered all around, and suddenly the troll’s mood was improved.
Pathways split and diverged and met again, and she bobbed heedlessly down each new avenue. Shadows swayed through the underbrush and cast strange patterns upon the matted forest floor. The path grew dark, darker and darker. Thorny vines crept in from the sides and black roses tipped their heads. Even the light from her body seemed to diminish, lessened somehow as if the darkness sucked it away, but she willed herself to pulse even brighter, as she had discovered with the beavers, and she continued on, feeling no fear, none at all.
Eventually the red and gold sunburned forest opened into a wide, rocky clearing. At the top of a high, narrow path sat an odd little hut made of stone. From a small, open window she saw dim light.
“I wonder who lives there?” she murmured, and up she traveled.
The rickety door was slightly ajar, so she slipped inside. Hunched over a table in the middle of the room sat a large, brutish ogre. At least she thought it was an ogre; the word came to her as soon as she saw it, just it had with the flowers and bees and beaver and troll.
Covered in coarse hair and dirty rags, it raised an eyebrow as she entered and stopped eating a spoonful of sloppy porridge. It was even uglier than the troll and bigger too.
“Hey, who are you? And whatcha doing in my house?”
The ball of light looked around before answering. The mounted and stuffed heads of animals hung from hooks on the walls. Deer and elk and moose, their grand horns still sharp and splendid, their black eyes replaced with glass to appear alive, but she knew that life had long fled them.
She bobbed closer to the table, glimpsing other animals that decorated the cottage; small brown squirrels and yellow beaked birds, all stuffed, and even – and her light flickered unconsciously – a silent beaver clinging motionless to a piece of driftwood. The ogre waited for an answer, shifting impatiently in its seat. It wore no shoes and had long, yellow, gnarled toenails. Big tusks protruded from its mouth similar to the troll’s, but these were even sharper and more twisted, yellowed like its toes.
“Ya hear me, ya big firefly? Whatcha doing in my house?”
The ball of light composed herself. “Oh, forgive me, I was just distracted by your…collection. Well, Mr. Ogre, and I do think you’re an ogre, I am on a journey to discover what I am. I have asked the flowers already, and I asked the bees, and I questioned the beavers and I even asked the dreary troll. Well, the troll said I was nothing at first, but he was just having a bad day. I know I can float, and I can fly, and looky look! I can glow as bright as I want! But there must be something more. You seem like a big…um…strong fellow. Do you have any ideas?”
The ogre grunted and wiped porridge from its mouth. “I am an ogre,” it said. “All I know is my purpose, and that is to eat whatever I find in the forest and hills, lakes or ponds. Sometimes I make critters into a special porridge. Like this one. Swamp Water Stew I call it. Seven squishy frogs, four crunchy crawdads, a handful of squirming earthworms, and my secret ingredient which I’m not going to tell you, but it sank into my boiling broth, complaining all the way! Hawr! Hawr! Hawr!”
The ball of light dipped and bopped and blinked, mulling over the ogre’s description and decided she would certainly not enjoy swamp water stew! “Well, that sounds…well, I can’t say that’s something I would like. I don’t even think I eat food. But if you do enjoy it, good enough I suppose.”
“Indeed I do, indeed I do,” grunted the ogre, smiling somehow, but with its yellow tusks, ochre teeth and the way its beady, purple eyes narrowed and stared at her as it reached for a flagon of ale, tilting its head back for a long draught, the little ball felt a twinge of – not fear – but…apprehension. Her gaze slid again to the stuffed beaver on the wall, forever frozen on a piece of dead driftwood.
“However,” continued the ogre. “I do not know what you are. Maybe a big firefly who talks too much.” It put the flagon down slowly and wiped its mouth with the back of a hairy hand. “Yes, a big firefly indeed. In fact, I know just what to do with you!”
The ogre suddenly swung the empty flagon, moving faster than the ball of light expected. The drinking mug engulfed her and she slammed into the bottom, and just as fast, the ogre’s other palm sealed her inside. She couldn’t see anything other than the ogre’s calloused palm.
“Har!” it roared. “Stupid firefly. I thought a bigger one like you might be smarter.”
This was ridiculous! She buzzed and bounced inside the flagon, hitting the ogre’s palm repeatedly, but the ogre kept a firm grip and she could not escape. She lurched as the thing stood up from the dinner table and walked away, its ugly scabbed feet thudding on wooden planks.
“You let me go you mean old thing. Let! Me! GO!”
“Don’t think so, firefly. We got some business tonight. You’ll see. Then we meet Nedmund.”
“Oh you big….meanie!” she repeated, unable to think of a worse insult.
“Har, that I am, little firefly, that I am. The meanest thing you’ll meet today. Well, until you meet Nedmund. He’s a piece of work.” The ogre shook the jar and jostled the ball of light inside. “Oh, he’s gonna love you,” he growled.
She heard the footsteps stop and then a door squeaked open. Footsteps again, and then metal bolts and locks clacked. Then she heard a flurry of animals squealing and bleating all at once, and the ogre roared, “Shut up in here!”
More footsteps, the scrape of glass, the rasp of metal, and then she was being shaken out of the flagon––none too gently either––and into a clear, glass jar. A lid was quickly screwed on top and the jar was thrust down among a cluster of other, similar jars.
But the ball of light wasn’t alone. Other starry little things drifted in other jars; smaller beings than her, almost like motes of twinkling dust. Not as bright as she, they morosely circled each other in their prisons. Another jar held little creatures that looked like humanoid twigs. She saw cages hanging from hooks elsewhere. Most were empty, but two of them housed unhappy animals she could not even name. Something that looked like a monkey with shaggy blue fur stared at her sadly from behind the bars, its black eyes mournful, its tail hanging outside its tiny enclosure, twitching.
In another cage languished a small pony – a miniature horse really, about the size of a dog – its fur brilliant white, with a rainbow colored mane and a single horn jutting from its forehead. A unipony! she thought. Oh, poor, poor unipony…
She felt another burst of emotion –not fear, for she had no idea what that was– but immediate concern for the pitiful things trapped here. She wanted to help them, but had no idea how. She was just as trapped as they were.
She felt something shifting within her fractal body of light again, as if she was becoming denser, particles of herself coalescing into a more solid form. She almost felt as if she could press ethereal hands against the cold, glass walls, her fingers spread ghostly and white.
“Don’t cause no trouble, firefly,” the ogre said. “I’ll be back soon.” The ogre departed, closing and locking the heavy door behind it. The footsteps receded. The ball of light circled inside the jar, hitting the lid several times but it didn’t budge.
“Well, a fine way to end the day,” she muttered. She glanced at the starry things in the jar beside her, their containers so close that they nearly touched. The little stars, three of them, twirled around faster now, blinking frantically, and the ball of light suddenly knew what they were – starsprites. In the third jar, twiglits, she thought, who hardly shined at all, almost as dull as brittle sticks now, and they were all probably in foul moods.
How did I know that? Am I one of these things?
The starsprites’ blinking became even more erratic, and then she realized they were talking to her. “Help us! Help us! Help us!” they said, over and over and over.
The ball of light hovered quietly in her jar, unsure of whom to ask for help herself.