Ronnie thought her lungs would burst. She’d run further and faster than when she knew Echidna was on her trail. The path twisted and turned leading her deeper into the trees. She rounded a corner and stopped abruptly.
Seated before her, in the middle of the path, on an abalone shell, was a mermaid. She wore a bright blue shirt that matched her eyes and, upon her head was a red hat that came to a peak like a wizard’s cap. Instead of wizard-like stars and moons, this hat was decorated with sea shells. Her super-curly sea-green hair sprang out from under it and went in all directions. Ronnie whirled around, prepared to run. She had had enough of strange creatures for now and feared that this one would be no better a friend than Seripha had turned out to be.
“Wait, you cannot get out that way.” The creatures voice demanded obedience and Ronnie, much to her own surprise, stopped dead in her tracks. “The labyrinth will have closed upon itself, keeping that vile creature out. Pan hoped his music would draw you in. Entering here was your only chance to escape Echidna.”
Ronnie turned around hesitantly. “Why should I trust you? I trusted that creature and she wanted only to steal my pendant and harm my friends.” Ronnie’s patience had worn about as thin as it could wear.
Pan’s music closed in around her as he stepped out from the trees. “It is all right Ronnie, she is a friend and can be trusted. The gate to the Labyrinth of the Well is always kept by one of Iridal’s creatures. Today you have the good fortune to meet the mermaid. She is here to guide you. The one from whom you run, as you may have guessed, is Echidna and is a vile creature. She is half woman and half snake. Fortunately, she is the only one of her kind. She was not brought to Iridal with the rest of us and is welcomed here by no one. The Harpies placed her in this forest for a purpose we can only guess at.
“For now, Ronnie, you need to walk through this labyrinth and clear your mind. You’ll be able to focus and set aside trivial things. It is here you will discover the magic that dwells within you. You will meet creatures in the Labyrinth who will guide you to the Well of Nechtane. Its waters are the source of Knowledge. They reveal all that is in one’s head and heart but one must be pure of heart and clear of mind to truly benefit. Because the magic chose you to be the Key Keeper, you are known to be pure-hearted. You will find the answers you seek at the place where the water nymph sings.
“I carry a message from Wollomombi. He has been reunited with your companion, Tilly. They are now on their way back to the Gateway. They travel with another who is a friend to Iridal. I trust that your task will be an easier one with the knowledge that your companion is safe.” At this news, Ronnie nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. “I must leave you now. Trust in yourself and the answers that you seek will come to you.”
He was gone again, as quickly as he’d come. As Ronnie turned her attention back to the mermaid, Pan’s sorrowful strains faded into the distant trees.
“Okay, if Pan says I should trust you, I guess I should.” She spoke with an air of apology in her voice. “I am sorry for doubting you, but I was fooled so easily by - what’s her name? Oh yeah Echidna - that I was not sure I could trust any stranger here in these woods.” At this point, her voice became more conversational, “You already know I’m Ronnie, but Pan didn’t tell me your name. How can you live here, out of water? I thought that all mermaids lived in the ocean”
“I am Sirena” The mermaid’s voice had also mellowed and Ronnie was reminded of a soft breeze. “I am a fresh water mermaid and live in the lake nearby. A few of us came, with Wollomombi, from the Dreamtime World and have adjusted to the difference in the water here although I have yet to figure out how to make my hair once again flow down my back. When I lived in the oceans, for a time, the salt water provided something for my hair that the fresh water lacks.
“As for my ability to be out of water, that is but a short tale and one you have time to hear. Many years ago, I was swimming near the shore of my lake-home and saw a young Iridalite frolicking in the water. I watched her for a long while, fascinated by her ability to be in or out of the water as she chose. I dreamed of a time and place that would allow me the same freedom. Suddenly, she was flailing about and screaming for help. I swam under her, lifted her up and flung her onto the sandy beach. She hurried away without a word but soon returned with Iris who introduced her young friend as Azulia. She told me that I had saved the life of the Iridalite’s Chosen One. The magic serves that one well and she is destined for greatness amongst her people. As a reward for saving Azulia, Iris granted my greatest wish and gave me this hat which allows me to be out of the water. I am unable to roam as freely as I would like since I have no legs, but my shell acts as my transportation and I am comfortable enough on it. The red hat I wear allows me to breathe the air. I trust my story has answered your questions.” Ronnie thanked the mermaid and asked what she was to do now.
“ You must continue your journey. News of your arrival has spread throughout the land. The message that Pan carried came from a gathering of Woodland folk who met Wollomombi and his companions in another part of the forest. They have told one and all the tale of the new Key Keeper - who is, surprisingly, a Mortal - and here you are. I am honoured to be at the gate to the Labyrinth on the occasion of the new Key Keeper’s first journey to the Well. Those you meet within will know of you and your quest. Each will assist you through a part of the maze. Heed their instructions!
“When you leave me, which you must do quickly when I finish speaking, walk in that direction.” A flip of Sirena’s tail indicated a path to Ronnie’s left. “You will pass two paths on your right and several on your left that will look cool and inviting but pass them you must. The first path you see on your left after the second one on the right will be the one you desire.
“The labyrinth does not tolerate dawdlers; those who forget the task at hand and allow themselves to be distracted herein, find themselves forever wandering as the framework changes and directions become useless. The magic does understand one’s need for rest and refreshment along the way and will allow for the pauses of a road-weary traveler. The road to the Well is long and you will need to pace yourself accordingly.
“It is time now for you to begin your quest for the place where the water nymph sings. Goodbye Ronnie Biv. Go now and follow your heart. Perhaps we will meet again one day. The magic will serve you well.”
Ronnie obediently sped off, but glanced over her shoulder to call out a farewell. Sirena was gone from her sight; the labyrinth had already changed behind her. Sirena had been right about the paths. The ones Ronnie had been instructed to pass by did look inviting. They were lined with sweet smelling violets and their shade was dappled with sunshine. A fragrant bouquet hung on the cool, lingering air at the entrance to each - beckoning her to stay and rest. As much as she was tempted to enter one for just a few moments rest, Ronnie knew that to do so would mean to be forever caught in the trap. She continued on the hot and dusty main path, breathing in the cool air as she passed each forbidden trail.
The left-hand path she had to take was less enticing. Not only was there no shade, but the plants along its edges had wilted in the glare of the sun. Ronnie sighed a deep sigh and started down the sun-beaten trail.
After a while, she started to feel the effects of the hot, dusty trek and of her long, hard run. She cheered herself with some amiable chatter. “Appearances sure can be deceiving. If Sirena hadn’t been there, I’d have taken the first one of those lovely paths. Goes to show that you can’t judge anything by its looks. That’s a lesson I could have used before I met Echidna but I suppose the important thing is – I get it now.
“I wonder how much further it is to the Well. I guess I’m supposed to just keep going till I meet up with another creature. I hope that happens soon. I sure would like to find someone who can direct me to a nice cold stream; this is a long thirsty walk.”
Ronnie realized that doing her thinking aloud would add to her thirst and decided to continue down the path in silence. There was finally a bend in the road ahead that she hoped would lead her to shade. She reasoned that she was road-weary enough to be granted a short rest. She was delighted to round the bend and find just such a spot. Wild berries covered the area and after testing one with a tiny bite, she attacked the blue bushes with relish. The berries worked to quench her burning thirst and their flavour reminded her of home. She put the thought of home aside, determined to allow no distractions to misguide her. She prepared to continue down the path when a tiny voice called to her.
“Keeper of the Key look down! See me here on the ground. Lend an ear, hear what I say. I will guide you on your way.”
Ronnie looked down and spied a tiny creature near her foot.
“At last you hear my hue and cry. You could have crushed me by and by. The berries seemed your only care. You walked so far to find them there. Come closer now. I hate to yell. My voice won’t last through what I tell”
Ronnie stretched out on her tummy and was face-to-face, so to speak, with a pink-haired wood sprite, complete with pastel blue wings and a shimmering yellow gown. Ronnie had not realized just how small a being could be and still be able to carry out an important task. “Hello. I’m sorry if I made you nervous but I was very thirsty and the berries are so juicy that I could think of nothing else. If you were calling to me before, I didn’t hear. According to Sirena, you know my name. Please tell me yours. Do you have instructions for me to help me find my way?”
“I am Nisse of the Woodland clan. We sprites live throughout the land. Some in tall grass or caves by the sea, but the forest is best for folks like me. Through the Labyrinth you must go. One way leads to and another fro. Follow along as you did before and pass all paths from one to four. When at the fifth path you arrive, take a stroll down number five. Ignore the sounds along the way. From the path you must not stray.
“Good day to you now, Ronnie Biv. May the magic serve as long as you live.”
In the wink of an eye, Nisse was gone, having scurried under the ground cover. Ronnie got to her feet and after gathering a few berries for the road, set off again. As she approached the first path on the left, she heard a voice calling her name. Had the sprite not warned her to avoid distracting noises, she may have taken that route. It would have led her back to the meadow and into the clutches of the Echidna. She continued on her way, ignoring the enticing voices carried on the sweetly scented breezes that wafted from each of the first four paths. She came to the correct trail and hurried along it. After a short time, she stood at a fork in the road. There was no way to tell which was the right way and no guide was there to greet her.
“Hello,” Ronnie called. “Is anyone here? Is there someone who can help me find my way? Hello. I sure hope I didn’t step on my guide. Oh where can they be? There must be someone”
“Ronnie, Ronnie Biv. Greetings, Key Keeper. I hope I did not keep you waiting. I am so sorry to be late.” A copper-skinned creature hurried toward her, panting. The top of its head barely came up to Ronnie’s knees. Its ears were pointed and stood out on the sides of its oval head. The creature wore a green tunic covered with a golden vest and sported a rust colored cap that narrowed to a point at the back. Its hands and feet were large for its body and the fingers and toes extended far beyond the place one would expect them to stop. Within the round smiling face were deep violet eyes that slanted up and a delicate nose. Ronnie was at a loss to figure out whether the creature was a male or female. Nothing in its dress or appearance was of any help to her.
“Well, I was beginning to get a little worried,” Ronnie answered. “I’m sure glad you’re here to tell me the way. What’s your name?”
“I am Acerti Jo.” The creature bowed in greeting and Ronnie did the same. “I am here to help you on your way but, I fear, you are still allowing matters of no consequence here to take over your mind. We, that is all the other pixies and I, thought a little riddle might help you clear out all those addled thoughts. It took some time to compose, making me a little tardy. Listen carefully; I will only say this once and then you must be on your way: One is left and one is right. One wrong, the loser’s belt. The other one will bring delight. The pathway must be felt. That is all. Good-bye Ronnie Biv. I know you will choose wisely. The magic will serve you well.” Acerti Jo leaped into the air, twirled around three times and vanished.
“Well, I guess I am on my own. Everyone here is in such a rush to leave.” Although Ronnie knew she had an important task to carry out, she wished there was time to get to know more about each of the delightful creatures she was meeting on the way to the Well. “Let’s see… The first line is a given; there’s a right path and a left path. Then ‘One is wrong, a loser’s belt.’ I’ve heard sometimes that they call a stretch of highway a belt. I guess it means if I go the wrong way, I’ll travel along that stretch as a loser. Okay, now the third line just tells me that if – no when – I choose the correct path, I’ll find happiness. The puzzle is in the last line,‘The pathway must be felt’. What can that mean?” Ronnie sat down with a stick and wrote the line in the dirt. When she did so, she saw the answer clear as day. She got to her feet and headed down the correct path with a newfound confidence.
This path was full of twists and turns and had no other paths leading from it. Ronnie was so turned around after a while that she began to wonder if she had somehow made a mistake and was being led astray by the Labyrinth. As she rounded yet another bend, she heard a song in the distance. With a clear mind and a skip in her walk, she let herself be drawn to the place where the water nymph sang.