"Hey, whatcha doing, Gabby?"
Gabby did not even look up when her best friend came walking up to her, ready to wreak havoc on this beautiful late summer day, prepared for anything - except this.
The blonde girl was sitting propped up against a tree in her back yard, her eyes riveted on the pages of a large hardcover book on her knees, her index finger sliding awkwardly along the lines of text. Her lips were moving soundlessly as she read, her brow creased in concentration. She had only recently started reading beyond her school books, and some of the less familiar words required saying them to yourself so you could grasp them better.
From time to time, she'd pause, frown, and stick out her tongue, considering, before nodding a little to herself and reading on.
Sina squatted down beside her, slightly puzzled.
"Duh! I can see that! What's it about?"
The smaller girl made an impatient sound. "It's on the cover. See for yourself." She turned a page.
Sina craned her neck so she could see the title. "'The Line, The Wish And The Wardobe'," she read haltingly. "What kind of a dumb book is that?"
Now, it would probably help to know that Sina wasn't really good at reading, simply because, with a friend like Gabby who could tell such wonderful stories, she never needed to. And, to be perfectly honest, she didn't really enjoy doing any kind of work for school, and reading just seemed entirely too much like school stuff. Therefore, she disliked it on principle.
"The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe," Gabby murmured absently. "Found it in dad's study."
"Why are you reading that?"
Gabby carefully placed her finger so she wouldn't lose her spot, and finally looked up at her friend. "He said it was okay to read it."
"You mean it's a grown-up book?" Sina said incredulously.
Gabby nodded importantly. "Yup. It was sitting on his bookshelf, so it's got to be a grown-up book."
"Makes sense. And he said it was okay for you to read it?"
"Uh huh, he sure did. He was a little angry when he caught me going through his books, but then he said 'Oh, that one. Why not, you can read it.' It was weird, he looked really relieved for some reason. But he said to go ahead and take it."
"Wow, grown-up stuff..."
"Well, it's got children in it," Gabby amended.
"Really? What's it about? Tell me..."
"Well, it's got these four children who have to stay in a huge old house with an old professor. And then the little one, Lucy, she hides in a wardrobe and finds a magic land there, and then she goes back through the wardrobe, only her brothers and her sister don't believe her."
"A magic land?" Sina was mildly interested.
"Yeah, Narnia, with fauns and nymphs and dwarves and a lamp post. The faun says an evil witch is making it be winter all the time. And then he says he has to take Lucy prisoner and give her to the witch, but he won't since she's so nice, and the witch so evil."
"Cool," Sina said. "A witch? And are there dragons too?"
"And what happens when her folks don't believe her?"
"I don't know. I've only got this much." She held up the book to indicate the few pages she had read.
Resigned to the fact that her little friend would not be roaming the streets with her any time soon, Sina settled down beside Gabby, leaning against the tree trunk and playing idly with her long, dark hair.
Meanwhile, Gabby happily buried her face in the book again.
From time to time she'd gasp, shake her head, and answer Sina's questioning looks with intriguing snatches of a magical tale. Thus Sina learned that animals talked in the land of Narnia, that there was a divine lion named Aslan, whom Sina would have like to meet, but that only humans could deliver the land from evil, and that time passed differently there.
But very soon Gabby was too immersed in the book once more to pay much attention to her surroundings. Sina was left sitting a little forlornly at her side, sighing softly from time to time and counting the ways in which Xena the Warrior Princess might dispose of the White Witch, and bring Spring back to Narnia. She was going to ask Gabby about it as soon as Gabby paid attention to her again.
But Gabby read on.
Sina drew patterns into the dust with her finger. Chakrams and swords came into existence and were wiped clean again.
And Gabby read on.
Sina found it hard to believe that a book could be so much fun. There must be some sort of magic there that held Gabby's face glued to the text. Surely otherwise she would have responded more to Sina's subtle prods to come play now.
Although admittedly a bit curious, the little Warrior Princess finally decided she wanted no part of it. She would go home and play with Gabby's Barbie dolls - she still hadn't returned them to their rightful owner - and come back in a few hours. If Gabby still hadn't moved, she'd save her from whatever bane held her in thrall. She owed her friend that much, even if she did feel utterly neglected just now.
With one last look at her friend, she slowly got to her feet. Gabby didn't seem to notice. So, with a little sigh, Sina slunk dejectedly back home.
As usual during the day, the back door was unlocked, and Sina let herself into the kitchen quietly. Passing by the fridge, she decided a snack was in order, so she helped herself to a mug of cold milk and some cookies from the jar on the counter.
She sat at the kitchen table for a while sipping her milk and nibbling around the chocolate chips, which she carefully hoarded on a little plate.
If she craned her neck a little, she could see into the small living room, where her mother was typing away on the computer, with that frowny look on her face that suggested that she was "nearing a deadline", whatever that meant. In any case, it meant that she needed to concentrate, and was not to be disturbed.
Tom, her brother, had left with friends earlier that day. Once, just once, she wanted to accompany them, but while Tom had promised he would take her along some time, today had not been it. That was okay, though, she knew Tom would keep his word.
So, she was on her own for now. Excellent.
With a tiny splat, a chocolate chip found its way into the milk. With mild interest, Sina watched it bob to the surface, where it floated, oozing snakes of brown color into the creamy white liquid.
"Die, vile fiend," she murmured, and put the mug to her mouth. When she put it down, the chocolate was gone. More chips soon shared its fate, until all the milk was gone. Books! Who needed them anyway? She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and got up from the table to head to her room and find Gabby's toys.
Tiptoeing past the living room - mom was grumbling to herself in that frustrated way that suggested she would not take kindly to any noise - she padded lightly up the stairs and towards the end of the corridor where her bedroom was. She'd let mom know she was home later.
In passing, her gaze fell upon the stairway up to the attic.
She wasn't allowed up there, because her mother feared she might hurt herself on all the accumulated antiquities that were stacked haphazardly all over the place. But she knew, from a previous excursion (I hope you won't tell on her!), that there was a huge, oak wardrobe up there, that had belonged to her great-grandmother...
No, she couldn't. She wasn't supposed to. She put her foot on the bottom step.
Surely, by now it would be okay to go up there. After all, she was so much older now than when her mother had forbidden her to do it.
But no, she wasn't allowed. She'd only get in trouble if she was caught. She climbed the second step.
She could take care. She wouldn't disturb anything. No-one would even know she had been there. She would be quiet as a mouse....
But if mother found out...? She wanted to be good, honest, she did. It was just so... hard sometimes!
She was still debating with herself when her hand touched the rusty handle of the door to the attic. She usually only saw it from the bottom of the stairs, that door with the flaky blue paint and the little window with the crossed bars that was so covered with grit that you couldn't look through, even if you were tall enough.
We all know that Sina never really had a chance to resist this particular temptation, not after learning of all the wonderful things that could be hidden in wardrobes. Before she knew it, she had opened the door - ever so slowly, because its rusty hinges tended to protest screechingly - and closed it again behind her. The wonders of the forbidden attic rose before her in all their dusty glory.
The dry smell of old linen and aging wood wafted towards her, mingled with floating dust so thick she had to rub her nose fiercely to keep from sneezing. At her feet, she could just barely make out two sets of girl-sized footprints covered in slightly less dust than the surrounding floor panels. One was leading in, the other out. Her own, obviously. Nobody had been up here since. She bit her lip. She'd have to remember to cover her tracks this time. Some warrior she was!
Looking around, her gaze scanned stacks of old newspapers, tons of cardboard boxes stuffed with all types of odds and ends, an open chest with some of her and Tom's old toys - Hey! What was her Tonka fire engine doing among those? She'd been looking all over for that. She also made a mental note to check out that pirate ship later. She'd been jealous of it every time she'd seen it sitting in Tom's room, with all the little pirates, cannons, and treasure chests. The captain even had a tiny eye patch, a peg leg and a parrot sitting on his shoulder. Funny, though, she'd never realized it was gone from her brother's room.
She shrugged, and continued her scrutiny, dismissing the blonde doll with the straggly haircut (Barbie-Horse Argo had received a beautiful golden mane in exchange) and the teddy bear with the gash down his tummy, where the stuffing protruded like an explosion in mom's knitting basket.
A beam of bright sunlight shone through the slanted attic window, glittering dust motes setting it off clearly against the musty darkness. It fell directly onto a large, dark object that sat against the opposite wall, outlining it in a brilliant halo.
Drawn like a moth to the flame, the little explorer carefully made her way past shelves of yellowing, mottled books (Ugh! Books, again!) until she stood facing the wooden monstrosity.
It was a massive thing, with heavy double doors carved with all types of vines and leaves - quite ugly, to Sina's eyes. One door was ajar, hanging slightly crooked, but not enough to really attract attention. Her gaze went up and up until her head was bent way back. It was gargantuan.
A scraping noise coming from underneath the monstrous wardrobe made her jump and very nearly shriek. She held her breath and listened intently, poised to make a dash for the door.
There it was again. Something scrabbling across the wood.
Silently, so as not to betray her presence, Xena pulled her sword. She felt vaguely out of place in this strange environment, and had no idea what horrors awaited her. The Magic Wardrobe rose up before her, its enormous bulk obliterating everything else. She could only guess at the wonders and the horrors awaiting her within.
Apparently though, there were guards even here, on the outside. The White Witch didn't fancy intruders!
Closer and closer the sound of pattering feet approached, and yet Xena could not make out its source.
Envisioning a horde of kobolds with wicked, pointy teeth and large, gnarly feet, Xena pointed her sword towards the sounds, ready for mayhem, and waited.
She breathed a colossal sigh of relief when she saw a rather fat mouse emerge. It paused and raised itself on its hind feet when it saw her.
Sina grinned, although her heart was still pounding so hard it made her tremble all over.
"You just be glad it's me and not my mom, or you'd be a dead little mouse," she told it in a shaky whisper. She made a lunge at it with her invisible sword, accompanied with a whispered battle cry (mustn't betray her presence to the Mom, after all).
The diminutive rodent raised its quivering snout and froze briefly, before dropping back down on all fours and scuttling back into the darkness.
With a satisfied sniff, the little warrior sheathed her make-believe blade, and then, straightening her shoulders resolutely, she pulled at one of the wardrobe's heavy doors. Rusted with age, its hinges resisted with a grating, tooth-shattering groan. Eventually, though, Sina managed to pry it open far enough for a little girl to slip through.
An aroma of brittle leather and musty cloth wafted out at her. In the narrow beam of light that found its way in from the window above, Sina could just make out a dark, tailored suit. One of her father's, presumably, although she only ever remembered him wearing blue jeans.
She grazed the rough fabric with her fingertips, and sighed. Man, she missed him, sometimes!
But, she had a witch to battle. Her jaw set, she squeezed quietly through the opening. The door, happy to be released from her grasp, lazily swung back into place with a hollow, wooden thud. The metallic click of a long-unused lock snapping shut was barely audible above the sound of the door closing, but Sina was already forging on ahead.
It was dark in here, the air dank from years of confinement. Xena wrinkled her nose in disgust as she dug her way through tangles of moldy clothing. It wasn't long, however, before the stagnant tightness of the space gave way to a rather chilly breeze blowing into her face from up ahead.
It seemed Gabrielle had been right after all. There really was a whole secret land inside the wardrobe!
"Cool beans," the stoic warrior murmured, but she drew her sword nonetheless. You never knew.
As old air gave way to fresh, so the old suits, coats and dresses soon gave way to thick, tangled forest, covered in pure white snow, just like Gabrielle had said. Which probably meant there would be a lamp post shortly up ahead, but there was nothing to be seen. The forest was nearly as dark as the inside of the wardrobe. That, of course, made sense, if you really thought about it.
A low, rumbling growl close by made her snap to full attention. She barely had time to regroup before a large, shaggy shape rose up before her, clawed paws the size of the warrior's head waving threateningly, fanged snout glistening with saliva as the monstrous bear lunged forward.
It was right around that time that Gabby put down her book, rubbing bleary, stinging eyes that felt like they had gone all dry from staring at the text so hard. She had read far enough to be with the four children as they entered the magic land of Narnia, and felt a sense of great satisfaction at the fact that Lucy's siblings were now forced to believe her, and had felt suitably bad for making fun of her.
But now, she simply could not read another word. Letters were blurring before her eyes, strange patterns were forming on the pages that weren't there when she looked again - she was just not used to reading much.
So, although she was just dying to meet that wonderful talking lion, Aslan, she knew she had to take a break, or she'd go blind. She'd go to Sina's and tell her all about the story. To be perfectly honest, she felt a little bad because her friend had grown bored and left, and that she had been so captivated that she had hardly noticed. She didn't even remember saying good-bye to Sina. Maybe if she gave a good account of the tale so far, Sina would understand. Gabby bit her lip. She hoped so.
Skipping along the sidewalk, she made her way to Sina's place - it was only a few streets down and around the corner. A few minutes later, she was pulling the string on a rather old-fashioned and - for a child - absolutely fascinating doorbell. She knew that the back door into the kitchen was unlocked during the day, but she was a polite child and reluctant to just sneak in when Sina wasn't leading the way.
The door was answered by Sina's mother, Mrs. McRunnel. Her eyes looked rather red and strained, and her hair was in disarray, like she'd been running her hand through it a lot, thinking. Why, she must have been reading a very interesting book, much like Gabby herself!
Mrs. McRunnel looked at the girl in mild confusion. "Yes? Do you need something?"
"Hi, Mrs. McRunnel, can Sina come out and play?"
"Sina? She went out to play with you hours ago. You mean you haven't seen her?" Now she looked a little worried.
"Well, she was there for a while, but she left. I thought she'd gone home..."
Sina's mother ran her hand through her hair again. "I suppose she could have come in through the backdoor. I'm working on this article that's due tomorrow, you see, so I might not have heard her." She grinned guiltily. "Why don't you go upstairs and see? She'll be in her room, then."
Which Gabby did, up the stairs, past that dark and creepy stairway with the old, blue wooden door to the attic at its top, into Sina's bedroom at the far end of the corridor.
It was empty.
Plus, it was tidy, except for a sloppily made bed and a single sock on the cartoon character rug in front of it. Sina could not have been in here much since getting up. Not one toy was carelessly left on the floor.
Gabby bit her lip. This was not good.
Breathless, she ran down the stairs to tell Mrs. McRunnel, and almost bumped into her on the way down.
Breathless, she reported.
Breathless, Sina's mother hurtled up the stairs to see for herself (she was in pretty good shape for her age, thought Gabby).
This was how Tom, Sina's brother found them when he came home - breathless and distraught, both talking to him at once.
Now, Tom was really a rather calm and sensible young man - he got that from his father, Mrs. McRunnel said - and he managed to get his mother and Gabby settled down enough to get the full story from then, and to organize a search. After all, Gabby knew all their favorite haunts better than anyone else. Sina was probably just hanging out somewhere playing pretend in that strange warrior game the two girls liked to play. Nothing to worry about.
All over they searched, Gabby even took them into the dread Walk of the Wight that led through the park to the gym, and on to the soccer field where a few bigger kids were playing. Everywhere they went, calling Sina's name, asking people if they had seen a brunette little girl, about this tall, anywhere.
Of course, nobody thought to check the attic.
Nobody had been up there in a while (not that Sina's mother knew of, anyway), and so it never occurred to her that Sina might have gone up there.
As for Gabby, she really should have thought of it, but having her best friend missing and, to be honest, feeling more than a little responsible for it, she was too frightened and confused to think clearly. Oh, how she wished she was as brave and smart as Gabrielle, surely she would have been able to find the errant warrior in no time at all.
Unaware of the commotion she was causing downstairs, a little Warrior Princess was having a few problems of her own.
The bear had been much brawn and bravado, but finally had not been too hard to convince that mangled warrior was not going to be on the menu this time. It all but slunk away whimpering after she had been through with it. A few smart raps on the snout with the pommel of her sword had made it pause to reconsider. Then a whack on the head had sent it sliding to the floor like a boneless fur rug.
After Xena had jumped on top of it and hopped up an down a few times for good measure, the bear's appetite swiftly turned elsewhere.
But as she ventured deeper into the dark, dark forest, still in search of the lamp post Gabrielle had spoken of, she found herself assaulted by all kinds of creatures. The further she went, the stronger became the sense of something evil, close, all around. She must be getting closer to the White Witch's Abode.
If she had been a little girl instead of a fierce, big Warrior Princess, she might actually have been a little frightened...
And then, at last, she stood before a large set of oak doors, thick and heavy - and locked. The entrance to the Witch's castle, no doubt. She'd have to have a word with Gabrielle. The bard's descriptions of this place had been anything but accurate, so far. Except for the snow. And the fact that it was dark.
The surrounding wall was overgrown with vines and hardly discernible, but it was clear that this was where she had to go. As she prepared to throw herself against the wood, she became aware of a slight movement off to the side, amidst the tangled vegetation.
At first glance, it looked like one of the vines stirring in an errant breeze, but the low hiss and the glistening of scales in what little light there was, was warning enough for the seasoned fighter. Her sword was in her hand before the large serpent had raised its head for the strike. The animal was huge, almost as big around as Xena herself.
"Who ssseekssss to enter my domain?" the snake hissed.
"You talk," Xena remarked. But then, Gabrielle had told her that animals talked in the land of Narnia, so it really wasn't that much of a surprise.
"Well, who do you think you're dealing with, human?"
"Snake," Xena grunted, faintly disappointed since she had hoped to face a dragon. But, you had to take your opponents as they came. She raised her blade high above her head. The serpent opened its maw wide, displaying a set of fangs as long as a finger, dripping green with venom.
"Ugly one, too," the warrior added, swinging her weapon in a wide arc aimed just below the creature's neck. She missed, though, underestimating the thing's agility when its head whipped to the side, neatly avoiding the cut and very nearly nipping Xena's arm.
"Oh, you have no idea," it said.
Jumping aside to dodge the wicked teeth, Xena whirled and came in for a second cut, again aiming for the monstrous head. The serpent's sinuous form swung to the side, hissing face hovering just above the warrior as its body twined and writhed.
This time, Xena's attack was more successful. Her weapon cut a gash down the creature's length. She heard the enraged screech of the snake with satisfaction, and watched, expecting it to go down after this hit.
Far from it, though. The Warrior Princess gaped as the scaly hide slid back, revealing not the mess she would have expected, but something resembling white satin - in fact, that was what it was, pristine and spotless, like snow on a moonlit night.
Blue eyes wide, she watched a figure peel out of the now limp snakeskin. Writhing and twisting to free herself of the hide's confines, a voluptuous woman dressed in white soon emerged. Any beauty one might have perceived in her was utterly destroyed by the evil glint in her eyes and a harsh twist to her features that spoke of a cold, cold heart.
There was no doubt in the warrior's mind now that she was facing none other than the White Witch herself.
Inhaling deeply even as her free hand went to the trusted Chakram at her hip, the Warrior Princess prepared to unleash her fearsome battle cry.
If Xena had anything to say about it, the evil one was in for a nasty surprise.
Meanwhile, in Sina's bedroom, Tom was trying to calm down a very distraught Mrs. McRunnel sitting on Sina's bed and playing with the lone sock, for of course their search had been fruitless.
Quite possibly, the only thing that kept her from losing it completely was wide-eyed Gabby, sitting beside her chewing her lower lip, obviously just as frightened as she was, but bravely biting back her tears.
"I'm calling the police," she said, starting to get to her feet.
Tom nodded his agreement. He, too, looked worried.
Then they heard it.
"What the..." said Sina's mother, just barely catching herself before saying a word a child like Gabby was not supposed to hear.
And again. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!"
Tom cocked his head, listening. "It's coming from above..."
Sina's mother jumped up, slapping her forehead. "The attic! I should have thought of that, how silly of me."
"The attic?" Gabby asked.
"What would she want up there?" asked Tom. "There's nothing up there but an old wardrobe, shelves, and a bunch of... oh, my... of old toys. Well..."
At Tom's words, Gabby's face lit up. "A wardrobe..." she said thoughtfully. A slow smile spread as comprehension dawned.
"Plus, I told her not to go up there," said Mrs. McRunnel, a relieved grin finally finding its way to her face after all the stress.
"Heh. You told her she couldn't go up there? What are we waiting for?" Tom, smirking, was already on his way to the stairs. Woman and girl followed on his heels.
Sure enough, when they opened the old, blue door, and Tom flipped the protesting light switch, they could see where Sina's little feet had disturbed the dust of the decades. In fact, it looked like she had dragged the old doormat across the floor, partially obscuring the footprints, and discarded it at the base of the wardrobe. Strange, that.
Gabby's jaw dropped at all the wonderful things stowed away here. Toys, old furniture, and dusty shelves full of old books (she resolved to have a closer look at those later), and who knew what was hidden in the dark depths beyond, or all those closed boxes. Paradise! No wonder Sina had snuck up here!
Loud, insistent thumping from the inside of the large wardrobe ahead yanked her out of her reverie. Tom was already prying open the stubborn door, grunting with the effort. He'd carefully left it open last time he and his mother had been up here, because he knew the old, rusty lock was not working properly and tended to block. Yet, he had to grin. Trust his little sister to get herself into this kind of fix.
"Don't worry, Sis, we'll have you out of there in no time," he said.
"Watch out, Tom, she's got a few beastly spells up her sleeve!" came a muffled voice from the other side of the door.
Tom paused for a second, catching his mother's mildly confused look that mirrored his own. He shrugged, and with a final heave, managed to force open the heavy door.
Out jumped Sina, waving her invisible sword, a victorious grin on her face. She wore her dad's old tweed jacket.
Behind her, the inside of the wardrobe was a sight. Not one piece of clothing remained hanging. A mink coat lay crumpled on the floor, next to it was a pair of trousers in snakeskin look that apparently had once belonged to Mrs. McRunnel (although Gabby thought that Sina's mother couldn't possibly have fit in there, ever). There was a long tear down the inside seam.
All manner of clothing lay strewn around the place in a jumble of color, topping it all was a fancy wedding dress, sitting upright against the right wall, bent at the waist and looking almost as if it was a living, moving thing. Gabby's breath caught as she realized who 'Xena' had just vanquished.
Meanwhile the little Warrior Princess did a double take upon seeing her mother, bloodshot eyes staring wordlessly back and forth between the jumble of clothes and her daughter. For a terrible moment, Sina wasn't sure if she was going to die a slow or a quick death. The smile fell from her face. She'd gotten into trouble. Again.
Her lower lip trembled.
When her mother rushed forward, a mixture of irritation and profound relief written on her face, Sina expected pretty much anything except being pulled into a fierce hug. Mrs. McRunnel buried her face in her daughter's hair and held her close for a while.
Sina looked over her mother's shoulder at Gabby, who shrugged, at a loss.
At last Mrs. McRunnel pulled back. "What on earth were you thinking, Sina? We've been looking all over for you. And look what you've done to my clothes!" Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but no more words came. She just shook her head and sighed helplessly.
Sina's eyes lit up when she realized she wasn't going to be punished quite as badly as she had feared. "It was incredible, mom, the witch, she cast all these spells, monsters and talking animals came at me from all sides... But, I finished them all off." She grinned expectantly.
Sina's mother looked at Gabby, utter confusion written on her face.
Tom, leaning casually against the open wardrobe, just shook his head and chuckled softly. The antics of his little sister never ceased to amaze him.
Gabby, meanwhile, shared a grin with her best friend. Then her gaze fell on one of the shelves. She tilted her head a little, her lips moving soundlessly as she scanned the titles. "Gee, Mrs. McRunnel, you have five books about Narnia..."
And for a third time that day, Sina's voice rang through the murky gloom of the attic.