The next day, at dawn, all of the toy-people gathered in front of the palace. In their mist, in the flower garden, a colorful balloon was tied down, with the nacelle’s small door open. Ani and Carmen stood next to the balloon, bidding farewell to the White Kingdom’s guests and to Giggle Teddy.
‘Great Counselor, keep in mind that Ella and Tina are in your charge. It is your duty of upmost importance to bring them back safe and sound, in return for the courage that they have shown’, said Carmen. ‘Over there’, the fairy went on, pointing to a small chest on the basket’s floor, ‘you have supplies for the road. Whenever you feel hungry or thirsty, open it. As soon as the lid goes up, the chest will fill with sweets and cups of fresh spring water.’
‘Well, then, let’s shall!’, said Tina, stepping determined inside the basket. Ella and the Great Counselor closely followed.
As the balloon lifted, Ella and Tina could feel the gazes of the inhabitants of the White Kingdom still following them. All eyes were filled with hope. The terrible responsibility of saving the toys in the Human World weighed heavily on their shoulders. The sisters looked at each other with a shadow of a worry in their eyes. But they could not, and would not, allow the ruthless spell to do more harm than it had already done.
And with these brave thoughts, the girls turned their attention to the horizon of the White Kingdom and waited for the balloon to rise above the palace.
‘Balloon, head for the realm of the Witch-with-Water!’, ordered Giggly Teddy.
Tina seemed somewhat absent and utterly uninterested in the landscape that flowed beneath them. Ella, on the other hand, watched every hill, forest or bird that they encountered and assaulted her guide with all sorts of questions about the life of the White Kingdom.
‘So, do the toys only live inside the palace? Or can they be found in other places too?’
‘Only some of them live in the palace. Everyone may come or go as they please. But there are settlements with pretty, little houses all over the kingdom.’
‘How do the toys get here?’ asked again the girl before the plush bear could finish talking.
‘Through the curtain that you saw when you first came. Ani and Carmen hear the signal and help cross everyone who so desires.’
‘I’ve got it!’, shouted Tina, bursting out of her day dreaming and interrupting the question that her sister had begun to ask, making Ella stop in amazement.
‘You’ve got it? What?’
‘I know how we can get to the witch faster. Keep in mind that we only have one day.’
‘So how?’ Ella asked, more with her eyes than her lips.
‘We cast a spell with our charmed powder: we ask it to take us to the witch’s castle. Will five seconds be enough for that, Great Counselor?’
‘Hmm… no, not for that. But it could take us somewhere near the boundary of her realm.’
Ella and Tina took out their cubes, lifted them above their heads and said the incantation learnt in great secret from Ani and Carmen, the night before.
In the blink of an eye, the scenery changed completely. From the shining marvel of the White Kingdom, to cold, unwelcoming darkness.
‘We’re in the right place’, said Giggly Teddy, ‘somewhere near the border.’
‘This place is so quiet’, said Ella in awe. ‘So this is how it looks like!’
‘The night is eternal in the realm of the witch. There is never any daylight. In fact, the only light that unveils this place comes from the full moon. Forever night and forever a full moon.’
Frozen silence reigned over the forbidding emptiness. All around them, there was nothing to be seen but narrow paths, lined with barren rocks and sharp mountain tops.
‘My, this is a cheerful place!’, noticed Tina, trying uselessly to look in all directions at the same time.
The stillness seemed deepened by the army of shadows cast by the moon, making it hard to tell what was path and what was rock. What was spot of light and what was pure fancy.
The balloon advanced slowly, melting into the night.
‘We will soon arrive at the Stone Forest!’, announced Giggly Teddy. ‘If we can get through it, we’ll find ourselves at the castle.’
‘If?’, asked the girls in a single voice.
‘All I know is that there is a dreadful trap in the forest. But I cannot tell what it is or, how to keep clear of it.’
‘But we have the magic balloon! Why can’t we just fly over the forest and be safe?’
‘Unfortunately, Tina, the forest is so tall that it would take years to fly over it. Besides, the branches of the trees are so thick and tangled, that there would be no room for the balloon to pass. The only way to take it with us is by floating along the path. Not to mention that this trail is the only lit one. If you stray from it, deep among the trees, you will find yourself sunk in pitch blackness. So profound that you won’t even know if your eyes are open or shut.’
Soon after, the forest came into sight. A sea of gray stretched forever on either side of the trail. They all stepped onto.
The moon poured golden glitters all around. The girls’ feet thumped on the stone beneath, sending echoes far into the thickness of tree trunks and shrubberies. The only ones who made no noise were Giggly Teddy and the balloon. The former because the fuzz that covered him from head to toes was soft and thick enough to muffle any sound and the latter because it floated calmly a few inches above the path.
As they moved along, the eerie silence seemed to deepen ever more. Disturbed only by the echoes of their footsteps, it sounded more like the roar of thunderbolts than the stride of little girls. By then, they could no longer see the point where they had entered the forest.
‘The echo is so loud!’, complained Tina.
Nobody answered. There was something in the air that reminded them of a cathedral where it is forbidden to disturb the silence ritual. They walked on without speaking, tight against each other, lost in their own thoughts. Step by step, they ate away at the road’s length. Hurriedly. Anxiously.
But the forest proved difficult to cross, as they had been walking for hours withought getting anywhere. And they couldn’t even estimate the distance they had covered, because the scenery was always the same! The same moonlit path, the tree trunks that sank in the dark, shrubs here and there turned by their imagination into fantastic creatures of the night.
‘Hey!’, shouted Ella, making everyone jump, ‘we’ve been through here before! It is the exact same place! I know because I remember that bush, which looks just like a giant bear ready to attack!’