I have just returned from my four t-shirt summer to post the first chapter of my YA fantasy novel The College of the Crones. This project has taken about 3 years to complete, with the help of my husband, writers group, and my editor. Enjoy!
Birthday parties are usually happy, highly anticipated events, and yet Meghan’s heart was clouded with dread. Her stomach felt like it housed a backflipping dance troupe, and her head was fuzzy from lack of sleep. Persistent questions filled her mind. Why wasn’t she excited? Her cousins had already turned eighteen, expected age for marriage, and moved forward into their adult lives with enthusiasm. Their wedding dates were announced, as customary, at their birthday parties. Now it was her turn.
Her cousins’ husbands, carefully chosen by her uncles, provided their wives with every pleasure and beautiful adornment. Had she not seen her cousins joyfully wave at her from their carriages on their way to a party? Had she not been blinded by Cousin Mary’s dazzling diamond rings? Had she not heard Cousin Bridgette’s satin skirts swish with importance as she moved? Such wealth! Such finery! So why did Meghan feel apprehensive when she pictured herself as the baker’s wife?
Her father had chosen for her Harold, the village baker, an important man in a land of perpetual parties. His cakes were legendary in all of Beautiful, even asked for by name by the prince. Surely her father loved her, his only child, so much that he would not choose to pass her off to an ogre. Yet when she looked upon her future husband, she saw a round, balding middle-aged man, missing some teeth—a casualty of the frequent tasting of his creations. Not pleasant to behold now, and surely worse as time passed, she imagined.
Meghan shook her head, thinking herself a superficial snob for worrying about his physical appearance when perhaps he was made of something sweeter beneath his vanilla veneer. Alas, she remembered their first conversation; her clever quips were met with a never-ending litany of ingredients and measurements that made her mouth water but her eyes droop. He spent so much of his time in the bakery developing more exotic and delicious desserts– exquisite, breathtaking desserts–that he rarely spoke at all. Even yesterday, with their betrothal pending, Meghan visited the bakery to pick up tea cakes and greeted him using her most genuine smile, but his pale eyes betrayed no passion for her. He took her gold, handed her the cakes, and turned back to mix batter. Was this man to be her life’s companion and father of her children?
So many questions darted through her mind. She knew what Crone Mother would say. “Meghan,” she would remind her, “You always have a choice, my dear. You don’t have to blindly follow the ways of your people. If you desired, you could forsake party life by running away to the College of the Crones. You would not become a man’s plaything. Your studies would prepare you for a fulfilling life, serving others with your skills.”
Then Crone Mother would stroke Meghan’s silky copper hair. “Of course, you would end up old and ugly like me,” she added, pointing toward her wart-covered face.
“Oh, Crone Mother,” Meghan protested, hugging her dearly. “You are the most beautiful person I know.” Then Crone Mother would kiss Meghan’s check with her rough lips and whisper, “Remember that, my lovely child, when you are out there in the world.”
What will I have time to remember? The wives in the land of Beautiful led busy lives. Meghan’s mother, Margaret, spent her days shopping for beautiful clothes and preparing for the prince’s nightly parties. This took much time. Between beauty treatments and hair styling and the two hours it took the crones to dress Margaret in her fabulous gowns, party preparation was nearly a full-time job. Layer upon layer of rich velvet, slippery satin, and shimmering silk provided the perfect frame for her mother’s lovely face. Cosmetics highlighted her glowing green eyes, a feature she shared with the other wives in the land. Not an ounce of fat or blemish marred her perfect beauty. Flawless beauty that never faded, year after year.
What do I have to fear? Meghan sat in the window seat, looking out over the rolling hills. Taking the tonic would turn her eyes green and maybe even change her hair color, but marriage was expected to be a life-changing event. Every girl was expected to marry at eighteen, and she had to marry before she was allowed to take the tonic.
Meghan remembered the first time she saw the small brown bottle sitting on her mother’s dressing table, right next to a silver hand mirror. She had picked it up and tried to pry out the cork when her mother entered the bedchamber and quickly rescued it from her three–year-old hands.
“No! Bad girl!” she had cried in panic. “Don’t play with Mother’s things!” Her mother was wide-eyed and flushed of cheek, still beautiful but also frightening enough to make Meghan cry. She was too young to understand the bottle’s importance. Only years later, when she was sent to finishing school, did she realize the tonic’s value.
“Meghan, what are you doing?” Crone Mother called from outside her door. “It is time to choose the wine for your birthday party. Come down and help your mother.”
“Coming, Crone Mother,” Meghan replied. She jumped down from the window seat and went down to help with preparations for her party.
As she descended the stairs from the bedchambers, she saw her mother seated in the front room in a pale blue velvet cushioned chair. Its elegance and gem-tone color complemented her beauty but did nothing to detract from it. She was the full grown version of Meghan, tall and thin, pale with braided bronze hair elaborately wound into coils on her head. Sparkling green eyes reflected the multicolored jewels she wore. Today, her dress was dove grey satin, trimmed with lace at every edge. Even alone in her private suite, she was a vision.
Before her on an ornately carved table were a half dozen wine bottles open, breathing. Miniature crystal wine goblets formed an arc around the bottles, each with no more than a taste of wine in it. After sipping one, she sighed, took a tiny bite of the cheese from the plate in front of her, and moved on to the next goblet.
Meghan seated herself across from the exquisite woman she barely knew, and waited for her direction. While boys Meghan’s age had studied history, geography, and literature, her childhood instruction had included such crucial lessons as how to pair the right wine with the right course at dinner, how to pinch her cheeks to give rise to just the perfect (and believable) blush, and how to curtsey in a manner that showed respect and just the right amount of flirtation. Girls of Beautiful were educated to be the perfect hostesses, the role they would perform as wives.
“What do you think about this elderberry wine from Ferrytown? It’s slightly tart which would go nicely with the brie pastries,” her mother asked and answered in one breath. Meghan reached for the goblet that she indicated. She sipped it cautiously, holding the dark red liquid in her mouth for a moment before swallowing it. It burned but left a sweet aftertaste. “I like it,” she answered. “It has good balance.”
“Thank you, daughter,” Margaret said with relief. “Sometimes I think it’s getting more difficult for me to tell the difference between vintages. They all begin to taste the same after a while.” Her perfect face clouded with the slightest wisp of concern. Knowing that concern made her forehead crease unattractively, she quickly shook the sensation and her porcelain skin smoothed in response.
“Have you chosen the gown you will wear at your party? Crone Mother hung the dresses I purchased in your wardrobe. I need to know today whether you will wear the blue or ivory, so that I can order the appropriate flowers.” Her mother seemed a bit cross with her, as usual. No doubt she was disappointed in her daughter’s lack of enthusiasm for the details of her own party.
Meghan had seen the row of shimmering gowns in her wardrobe. Her mother sorted them with her two favorites facing the front. Each choice Meghan made brought her closer to her birthday party, the event which would end childhood and usher in adult married life. Her hands felt clammy as she considered her choice. What difference would it make if she wore blue or ivory? The color of her dress seemed insignificant compared to the huge decision she was making for her entire life. Why was this so difficult for her? Everyone who cared about her was excited about her upcoming marriage. Why couldn’t she breathe? Her mother looked at her expectantly. The clouds in Meghan’s mind swirled like a whirlwind. Her headache pounded in rhythm with her racing heart.
“I can’t decide, Mother. Choose the gown for me,” she finally blurted out, and dashed out of the room.
“If you don’t like the gowns,” her beautiful mother called after her, “we can find others.”
She ran through the kitchen, where Crone Mother was preparing dinner. “Meghan!” she called after the blur that was Meghan. “What’s wrong, child? Come here a moment.”
But Meghan did not answer as she ran out the back door. She kept running out into the fields, past the knot eyed oak tree, over the stones in the creek, and into the woods, her childhood retreat.
As she ran, she wondered what drove her speed. Was it the thought of marrying the dreary baker, or was it the prince who frightened her? The prince presided over every birthday and ball and when giving his blessing, if he was taken with the presumed bride, it was his right–and one he exercised from time to time–to take the woman for himself. She would leave her home (and her hapless would-be husband) that very night, to join the prince’s court. Their husbands could not reclaim them, but instead must choose a replacement wife.
The prince could command the hand of any woman he chose, even one with a family. If he took a woman with children, she wouldn’t see her children again until they were wives themselves, visiting the castle for parties. To be at the whim of the prince was part of the price the citizens paid for the tonic. Some were more willing than others.
But the prince was overwhelmingly handsome, charming in speech, and strong in will, and none of the women who joined his court could resist him. Meghan only knew this from stories Crone Mother told, as young girls were not allowed to look upon the prince until they were married. Her mother never spoke of the prince, although her eyes would glaze over and her mind would seem far away when her father mentioned him. Her parents, like all the landowners in Beautiful, went nightly to feasts at the prince’s castle. This repetition of festivities was a normal part of their lives. Girls at her finishing school talked feverishly about the day when they would become a beautiful wife and enjoy the prince’s parties.
For some reason, though, these thoughts of tradition and ritual were not a comfort to her. Instead, they drove her on, deeper into the forest.
Breathless, Meghan found her tree, a proud, spreading oak with many low-hanging branches. She hugged its rough bark fiercely, turning to lean against it as she caught her breath. After a few moments, she carefully set her feet into the carved holds on the ancient trunk and climbed up into her leafy refuge. Here she could remain hidden until she was ready to come down. As usual, her hair tangled into the hovering branches, and she settled in thoughtfully to while away the afternoon untwisting the tangles. Ahhh, if only my life could be so easily set straight!
Why was she so afraid to embrace the life of pleasure that stretched before her? Pleasure! Who could turn from such a thing? It should be an exciting adventure; and yet somehow deep within her, she knew something was wrong. Something was missing from this perfect life that awaited her. And, until she unraveled this mystery, there was no way she was marrying Harold the baker.