The Cave Part Six

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As they traveled down hallways decorated with elaborate paintings of flowers, Meghan and Hardly said nothing to each other. The faery’s boots pounded on the polished wood floors, as Meghan walked silently in her slippers behind him. She held Noodles firmly in her arms, grateful that the Queen had given him back. Too delicate for a pet, the Queen had said.

When they reached a door at the end, Hardly opened it with the ease of someone who was at home. He spoke a word and torches burst into life down the stone staircase. As he led her down the smooth steps, Meghan could stand it no longer.

“What about your friends?” she said. “You’re just going to leave them in prison?”

The faery stopped and turned toward her. “Of course not! I’ll find a way to get them out. I can’t act too concerned about them in front of my sister or she’ll be sure to seek a more permanent solution.” His eyes gripped hers with determination.

“But why did your sister, the Queen, allow you to remain free, and me to return to my world? It seems like favor to me.”

Hardly sighed, and turned to continue down the steps. “Keeping me at court and sending you away are ways to show perfect cruelty.”

“Doesn’t she read minds or something?” Meghan asked. “I felt really weird at times, like she was rummaging around in my memories.”

The faery stopped at the bottom of the steps and faced her. “You are more aware of her talents than most humans. My sister has a rare magic that allows her free access to anyone’s mind, even mine. She uses what she discovers against you. Even I can’t keep her out. That’s why I have to get out of here.”

They walked down a tunnel, their steps echoing off the earthen walls until they reached a large cavern with a wood shack at one end. At their approach, a faery in green scrambled out of his office with a chicken leg in his hand. Noodles started to bark, more for the food than for the sudden appearance of a stranger. Recognizing Hardly, the faery dashed back inside and emerged with clean hands.

Meghan saw a familiar beam of light coming from a hole in the ceiling and a disk centered below it. Although she had been eager to escape the attentions of the Queen, now she was reluctant to approach the portal. Riding with the Dragon Riders Group had been an exciting adventure, and going home only meant locking herself away in her room to avoid the war between her parents. School wouldn’t be starting yet, would it? Her sense of time had become foggy in Faerie.

“Welcome, Prince Heatherope,” the porter greeted his ruler with a deep bow.

“Come on, Greyleaf,” Hardly protested. “It’s just me. You don’t need to give me the prince treatment.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the porter replied as he raised his eyes. “Where are you going today with this pretty human child and her creature?”

“I’m not leaving, but they are,” Hardly answered. “And she’s my friend. Her name is Meghan. The creature is a dog, and he’s named Noodle.”

“Welcome to the Queen’s portal, Meghan and Noodle,” the porter said. “Friendship with Hardly is not easily won. You must have some magic of your own.” He bowed to her with a knowing grin. “Your ticket and destination, please.” He held out his hand.

Meghan had the overwhelming desire to turn and run back down the tunnel toward the palace. Maybe she could help Hardly rescue the other riders and dragons. She turned toward him, as he stood there with an unreadable expression. Does he want me to stay? I wish I had his sister’s magic for just five minutes!

            “I want to stay and help you,” is what blurted out of her mouth.

Hardly looked startled, and then smiled. “I know you do, but it’s too dangerous for you here. This is not your world. You have no magic here.” He handed her an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket. “Come now, Meghan. You’ve had a magical adventure. Now it’s time to go home.”

She gratefully took the tiny linen cloth trimmed with blue flowers and dabbed her face. Why am I crying? I never cry. Noodles sniffed at the handkerchief curiously. She wondered at her feelings that had been buried for so long. It was too embarrassing to have close friends when your parents might erupt like a volcano at any time. For a long time, it had been Noodles and her only.

Now she had a friend, and actually more friends, although they were locked up. But Hardly was right. She had to go back.

“Thank you for being my friend,” Meghan said, trying to smile. She hugged Noodles and handed the silver ring to the porter. Then she stepped onto the portal disk. “Back to my world. Carlsbad campground, please.”

The faery prince acknowledged her with a bob of his head right before the light whited everything out around her. She felt like she was flying, riding on Petal again, but she could see nothing.

Then she landed firmly on wet sand and realized she was back at the mouth of the sea cave once more. Noodles barked and wriggled out of her arms to chase a sea gull. The surf crashed close to her feet. She got up and brushed off sand, and headed off after her dog.

The Cave Part Five

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Washed up and dressed in a green gown, Meghan was escorted to a large dining room lit by giant pine cone chandeliers. Her stomach grumbled when she smelled the platters of savory meat that the servants were passing around a long table draped in white linen. All the chairs were filled except one, and the human servant gestured toward it without a word. All of her interactions with the young girl were wordless, as hand signs had told Meghan she was incapable of speech. Whether it was the result of disease or spell Meghan couldn’t discover, but it hampered her ability to find out more about the Queen and the Spring Court.

As she sat down to her meal, Meghan looked around to find familiar faces, but only Hardly was present, seated next to the Queen. His eyes darted toward her but looked away quickly. He was too far away for conversation, so she turned her attention toward their meal, as the servant was waiting to her attention to give her some meat. It looked and smelled like beef, seasoned with herbs and roasted to perfection. Another servant brought her potatoes and tiny carrots. She was so hungry she forgot her captivity and ate heartily.

But her eyes kept wandering back toward the dragon rider. If he really is the Queen’s brother, why aren’t we free to go? On either side of her were faery ladies, the one on the right in a shimmering dove grey gown, and the other wearing yellow satin. Maybe I can find out more about what’s going on from one of the courtiers.

“Pardon me,” Meghan asked the one in yellow, thinking the color was more cheerful so perhaps the owner was as well, “My name is Meghan. Your dress is beautiful! It looks like a sunny spring morning.”

“You will have to excuse me,” the faery said, wrinkling her tiny nose. “But I don’t give my name to humans.” She turned her shoulders so that Meghan couldn’t see her face.

Maybe I’ll try the other one. She waited until after a few more bites of potato. “Excuse me,” Meghan said to the faery on her right. “The feast tonight is unbelievable! Is the food always this good?”

But the faery acted as if Meghan was invisible, talking and laughing with another faery to her right.

After all had finished, the servants whisked away all the plates, and everyone’s eyes looked expectantly toward the Queen at the far end of the table. To Meghan’s surprise, she patted Hardly’s hand, and then addressed the guests.

“Many thanks we give to you for feasting with us this evening. Communion knits us together as one family,” the Queen said, her voice unnaturally loud and clear even from Meghan’s end of the table. “We are pleased to have my brother, Heatherope, back from his travels.” She nodded, and the assembled faeries clapped obediently. Hardly hunched his shoulders and looked away from Meghan’s curious stare.

“As many of you know, our soldiers have captured the DOGS, and they have been thrown down the dungeon well, awaiting their trial.” Her dragon rider brother looked like he might throw up at any time.

Meghan’s heart pounded as she thought about the gruff but kind faeries she had ridden with over the past weeks. What will happen to them? It appeared that Hardly’s relation to the Queen had saved him, and possibly Meghan, but had not extended to his friends.

“But what are we to do with the human child?” The Queen’s words brought Meghan’s attention back. “She is neither changeling nor tithe. In fact, she has no contract at all. Her day pass has expired, and her fate is in our hands.” At that moment Meghan felt the pressure of the Queen’s mind pressing against hers again. Why am I thinking about my parents and their fighting?

            “Perhaps it would be punishment enough to send her back,” the Queen pondered aloud. “But she’ll have to buy another ticket.” Meghan felt a strong compulsion to stand up. She stood and fought her legs as they brought her over beside the Queen, who smiled at her like a cat does at a mouse. “What can she do for the price? Can she weave gold or make shaved ice for our drinks?

“I don’t think I can do anything like that,” Meghan said quietly. She felt Hardly’s eyes in back of her head as she stood between him and his sister. She dared not look at him, and jumped when he spoke for the first time that evening.

“She can sing human songs,” Hardly said, standing up and moving Meghan aside so that he faced the Queen directly.

Murmurs rose around the table as the faeries looked at each other in pleased surprise.

“Songs? We care nothing for silly human songs!” the Queen scoffed. But then she looked around at the eager faces surrounding her. “Maybe if she knows a song about death. That would be a song we would like. Death has some weight.”

Instantly Meghan knew what song she needed to sing. “I have a song.”

The faeries clapped their hands and sat back in their chairs. The Queen slowly nodded, and Meghan knew this was her chance. She began to sing another children’s song:

“Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies,

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.”

She sang it three times, each time more confident than the previous. The faeries seemed captivated by a silly song that mocked the Black Plague. When she had learned the true meaning of the lyrics, she had been shocked. But the faeries sure seem to love it!

            When Meghan finished, all the guests stood and applauded her. The Queen didn’t rise, but she clapped as well. Hardly let out a deep breath, and his eyes shone as he looked at her.

“Human child, you have purchased your ticket,” the Queen said as she relaxed back in her chair. She took one tiny silver band off her finger and handed it to her brother. “Hardly, take her to the portal. This ring is her ticket home.”

 

 

 

 

The Cave Part Four

 

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Meghan and the dragon riders, cocooned by a regiment of faerie soldiers, walked directly to the Queen’s audience chamber. Her stomach still felt queasy from their portal jump. Besides the stationary portals, the faeries had field portals that could be transported easily wherever they traveled. So here they were, moments after they had been caught in a net like witless rabbits.

Where did they put Noodles? Her terrier had been taken from her arms without a bark when they were captured. Meghan had cried for her dog, but the soldiers told her he would not be harmed. With nothing she could do about it, she hoped that they spoke the truth. She glanced behind her at Hardly, Never, and the rest of the Dragon Owners Group. The riding club walked with their heads down, their hands bound behind them and their mouths gagged. Their captors took no chances that one of them would cast a spell. Their dragons were back in the woods, still held in nets.

Since they knew she was human, Meghan walked in front unbound. The soldiers had no fear that a young child could escape. She looked around at the overarching trees that formed the hall they walked. Behind the trees, which looked like some sort of overgrown elms, tall hedges formed walls on both sides of them. They were still outside in the woods, although it was easy to think that they were inside since the only light provided was from tiny lamps that hung in strings from the trees. She expected them to be electric, and looked for outlets, but the lamps were glowing with their own power.

At the end of the hall stood a large oak tree with an enormous knot in front of its trunk that looked like a door. The soldier on Meghan’s right knocked, and it was opened by a faerie in a bright green tunic and pants. They exchanged words in that strange murmuring language that Meghan heard Hardly speak with the other riders. Then the door opened wide, and they were escorted inside.

The chamber inside was vast, impossible to be contained within the oak tree. Meghan squinted in the bright light that filled the ceiling of the room from an unseen source. On both sides were faerie courtiers, dressed in every color of the rainbow with silks and laces. Their beautiful faces frowned at their procession, their cherry lips turned down. Hardly seemed to perk up at their reaction, and he grinned wickedly at a lady in front, who prompted melted back into the rear of the crowd.

Then Meghan felt unsettled, like someone was staring at her. She saw steep stairs straight in front of them that led up to a dais. Upon the dais sat a throne made of two living birches, twisted together to form a chair. The soldiers stopped at the base of the stairs, and bowed on one knee. When she saw the dragon riders fall on their knees and bow their heads, she copied them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldiers look up, so she followed their gaze but remained on her knees. Better not to offend the Queen any more than what’s been done.

On the tree chair sat the most beautiful woman Meghan had ever seen. Even though she was seated, the queen was tall and thin, her skin like eggshell, and her eyes like a deep pond. Those eyes were inside of Meghan’s head, rummaging through her thoughts and memories like thrift store owners at a garage sale. One moment, she was playing catch with Noodles in her back yard, and the next she was back in the cave, looking for her lost dog.

Noodles! Meghan gasped when she saw her tiny dog sitting on the queen’s lap, her hand on his head. Why doesn’t Noodles come to me? Or at least bark? Perhaps he was under a spell, but at least he looked unharmed, nestled into the dark green silk of the queen’s ruffled gown. The faery queen’s arms were bare and covered in sparkling bracelets of gold and jewels. Her hair was twisted on top of her head where rested a crown covered in glowing opals.

Meghan’s mind quieted, and she realized the queen must have completed her probe for the moment.

“A human, in the company of dragon riders?” she said in a musical voice that reminded Meghan of a babbling stream. The Queen frowned, and it seemed that everyone in the room frowned with her. “Finally the DOGs are brought to judgment, and they bring us this prize. A human who entered Faerie of her own free will, therefore not under any contract.” She stroked Noodles’ head and sighed. “Guard, bring us her visa.”

Meghan took the folded paper out of her jacket and handed it to the guard. He carried it up the stairs to the queen. He unfolded it and handed it to her. Her frown increased when she read it.

“Let me explain,” Meghan said. “I would have gone home that first day, but the dragon riders took me with them. It was days before I realized my mistake, and by then it was too late.”

“Do not address the queen unless she gives permission,” one of the guards growled, kicking her to the ground. Meghan laid there, her ribs aching, afraid to look up.

“Just keep quiet.” She could hear Hardly’s whispered advice.

“We will take care of the dragon riders first,” the Queen announced. “Guards, take this child to get cleaned up. She smells of dragon.” Instantly, Meghan was pulled to her feet and marched out of the room.

As she was going through the door, she heard the Queen say, “Guards, unbind him.” A heatbeat passed, and then, “Heatherope Hallowhill McDreary! On your feet!”

And a familiar voice answered, “Uggh! Come on, Sis. You know I hate it when you call me by my true name!”

The Cave Part Three

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Meghan chewed on her roasted turkey leg, or at least she thought it was some sort of wild turkey, and listened to the riders swapping stories in the flickering light of the campfire. A faerie with curly black hair called Never, was spinning a tale with great skill about the time he and his dragon had landed on Mount Tabletop, the highest mountain in Spring. The others listened with a reasonable amount of skepticism. She knew a few of the other riders’ names, but there were twenty of them, and their names were so strange. Hardly and Never had been riding together for years, hundreds of years if she really believed them. She often saw them in serious conversation before they took off for the day.

She inspected her bone for any last strips of meat, but it was picked clean so she threw it behind her into the woods. Noodles sat gnawing his bone at her feet. Then she wiped her greasy hands on the back of her jeans, and took out a folded paper she kept in her jacket pocket. She opened it up and looked at it again. It was her day pass, her permission to enter Faerie. In vain she tried to read the small print at the bottom above her signature, but the print was so small there was no way she could see what it meant without a magnifying glass.

Although she had enjoyed her two weeks riding with the Dragon Owners Group, she was a little worried about her visa. What would happen to her if someone asked her for her pass and saw that she had been here past its expiration? All the stories she had been told included harsh consequences for breaking rules in Faerie. Nothing I can do about it now. Carefully she folded it back up and put it away.

“Meghan, sing us a song,” one of the faeries, a red head named Sometimes, pulled her out of her thoughts. “You know, the one about the kids who climbed the hill and broke their noggins!”

“But it’s only a nursery rhyme!” she protested, knowing that she would be forced to give in. What is it about faeries that they love children’s songs?

            “We told you that you would have to pay for traveling with us,” Hardly reminded her with a smile. “Come on, now. Your voice is so lovely.”

Meghan took a pull of water from her waterskin, and started to sing:

“Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

The riders cheered when she was done, and toasted each other with the strong dark ale that they drank every night. Stories resumed, and Meghan wrapped up in a blanket close enough to the fire to enjoy its warmth, Noodles curled up beside her. In this region of Faery, nights were chilly, although not too cold for camping outside. Soon her head nodded, and when she woke the next morning, she was lying next to the other bundled up faeries at the base of a large oak tree.

That morning began as any other. Steamy porridge with strong tea, then everything was packed up and loaded onto the dragons. During the night, the dragons had hunted and slept, so they were ready to go. Hardly’s dragon, the largest with the longest spikes, was named Petal. Such a strange name for a dangerous beast. Petal had warmed up to Meghan quickly, purring in his growling manner, and thrusting his head in her chest for petting. Even Noodles adjusted to being around the dragons, although her dog kept close to her at all times.

Hardly called out “Time to fly!” and the riders and Meghan mounted the dragons. Petal was fidgeting, anxious to rise up into the sky where he belonged. Meghan inserted her boots into the stirrups that were adjusted to her smaller stature, and checked the straps on Noodles’ harness that held him to her chest. Looking around at the magnificent dragons bobbing their heads and letting out clouds of steam made her feel small. But at the same time she felt more grown-up than her ten years, riding with the daring faeries through the skies. If her parents saw her now, they would not see their daughter, but instead an adventurer, clad in black leather clothes and helmet.

That’s strange! I haven’t thought about my parents for a long time. She supposed she should feel guilty for not missing them, but it was such a relief to be away from the fighting that she pushed them out of her mind. I deserve to have an adventure.

Hardly nodded to Never, who waited while the rest of the dragons rose into the air.  Never was their sweep, so he would ride last to make sure that everyone stayed together. The riders rode west, away from the still pink morning sun.

Last night, Meghan heard Hardly say they were headed toward the Great Grove, a forest of birch that was a day’s distance. Noodles slept peacefully in the pack, by this time accustomed to this strange form of transportation. Perhaps he thinks he’s in some type of car. Below her the farmland formed a green patterned quilt, broken up by brown dirt roads and dots of trees. Then the dragons pierced the canopy of puffy clouds, and all she could see was a landscape of white.

Hours passed without the dragons tiring, and Meghan pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. It was cold up here, cold enough to keep her awake even with the monotony of white. She looked up ahead and saw a black speck. As she watched, it grew larger until it became the shape of another dragon.

“King’s boils!” Hardly cried, and he held up his left fist, signaling the others for a landing. The riders followed him down as he shot suddenly through the clouds, dropping like a duck shot in a hunt. Meghan held Noodles close with one hand, and the other clasped the horn of her saddle desperately. Who could that other rider be?

            The quilt of farms below her had been replaced by woods and hills while they flew above the clouds. The ground came up quickly as Petal put them down in a tiny valley surrounded by trees. Meghan braced for the jolt as they hit the ground, and the dragon’s strong legs slowed them to a stop.

“Hurry, Meghan, get down!” Hardly shouted to her as he slid down the mounting rope.

“What’s going on?” Meghan asked as she slid down her rope. All around her riders were leading their dragons under a shelf of rock that would hide them from eyes in the sky. She kept Noodles in her pack as she picked her way through the piles of jumbled rocks.

“The queen’s sky patrol,” Hardly said as he caught up to her, carrying a large green blanket. Sometimes and Never helped him fold it out, larger than a blanket of that size could. Meghan watched in amazement as they kept unfolding until it took six of the faeries to hold it out. Then they lifted it up, the blanket stretching out like a firm wall and it attached to the roof of the rock ledge. Immediately they were in darkness as the blanket blocked out the sunlight.

Never lit a small lamp, and everyone sat down, seeming to hold their breath. They heard a dragon roar somewhere out in the valley. No one spoke a word, but faery, girl, and dragon alike sat perfectly still. The woosh of flapping wings came close and then faded away. Minutes stretched into at least an hour before anyone moved.

“Come on,” Hardly said. “He’s gone.” The riders got up and removed the blanket, and crawled out of the crevice.

“Why did we hide from the queen’s patrol?” Meghan asked as they prepared to continue their journey.

Never paused and looked at Hardly, who nodded slightly. “Once there were many dragon riders clubs. We used to have parties and races. But one night in Littleton, things got out of hand. No one was watching the dragons, and the next thing you know the whole village was burnt down. Now the queen hunts us like animals.”

“How terrible!” Meghan said. Up to this point, she had seen the riders as fun-loving travel companions. She had forgotten the Nod’s warning back in the field. The dragons were dragons after all, fire-breathing beasts that could be destructive.

Just as she was thinking that, a large group of soldiers holding swords stood up from the rocks surrounding them. A tall faerie in chain mail shouted something, and a large net flew through the air and trapped the dragon riders. Hardly and the others took out their knives and tried to cut the net, but it was enchanted and they couldn’t break a strand.

Never looked at Hardly and said, “That’s what happens when the dragons get into the ale.”

 

The Cave- Part Two

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“Hey, watch out!” a tiny voice screamed at Meghan as she fell out of darkness and into the back of a loaded hay wagon. After she regained her breath, she felt movement under her back and then a sharp pain.

“Ouch!” She rolled over, the hay stubble sticking to her jacket. A small creature crawled out of the indention Meghan had made in her landing. “Did you really bite me?”

“You’re the one who crushed me with your hugeness!” the tiny creature replied, a wide smile showing his tiny pointed teeth. “I didn’t bite you. I just nipped you a bit. Got you off me, I did.” Its large ears stood up on an otherwise human head like a Chihuahua and its large dark eyes twinkled with mischief. Dressed in overalls and a blue checker shirt, he couldn’t have been taller than up to Meghan’s waist.

“What are you?” Meghan wondered aloud. Maybe that’s not polite. “I mean, I’m not from these parts, and I’ve never met anyone like you before. My name is Meghan. I’m sorry for landing on you. I had no idea the portal would dump me into a wagon.”

“Apology accepted,” the creature said. “Since you have named yourself, I must also. You may call me Malarkey. Obviously you are a human tourist, as you don’t know that I am a Hob.”

“A Hob?”

“Hobs are extremely useful persons to have on a farm, which is where you landed, by the way. Mr. Greenleaf’s farm, to be exact,” Malarkey continued, as he brushed the straw from his shirt and reshaped his crushed straw hat. “I guide the cows to the best grazing and lead them back home in the evening. In between all that, I try to grab a few winks in the hay wagon. Didn’t expect to be crushed by an incoming visitor.” After placing on his wide brimmed hat, he jumped down from the wagon.

Meghan also jumped down, straw falling around her in piles. “It’s nice to meet you, Malarkey.” She looked around at the rolling fields of wheat that spread out around her on every side. In the distance she could see a grove of trees, perhaps shielding a farm house and barn.

Suddenly, she realized that she hadn’t seen Noodles since the portal. She was no longer holding his leash.

“I’m missing my dog!” she cried. “Noodles! Noodles! Where are you?”

The field in front of her rustled and waved, and a small black and white dog shot out of the wheat and into her arms. Meghan squeezed her dog close. The clasp for the leash was still attached to his collar, but the length of the leash was missing, roughly chopped off at the clasp.

“Where have you been?” Meghan wondered. But Noodles looked no worse for his travel, jumping down from her arms to bark at the Nob.

“Be still, beast!” Malarkey commanded, and Noodles lay down immediately with his head down.

“How did you do that?” Meghan asked. “Noodles barely listens to me, and I’ve worked with him since he was a puppy.”

“I’ve a way with beasts,” the Nod answered.

The bright sunshine suddenly dimmed and a growing roar approached them. If Meghan had been back in her world, she would have seen a squadron of fighter planes in tight formation circling toward them. But she was in Faerie, and instead of airplanes, it was a group of dragons coming in for a landing.

The dragons flew in staggered formation, their long arrowhead tails close to the snout behind them. Their golden bellies faced the ground, shimmering in the sun. She saw at least twenty of them, their huge segmented wings pulled up to slow their descent. The head dragon roared commands which were repeated down the line, creating an endless stream of sound.

The leader hit the ground running on all four of its legs, slowing to a stop right in front of Meghan and the Nod. The rest of the pack landed behind it in the field, creating a trampled down hole.

“Won’t Mr. Greenleaf get angry about his field?” Meghan asked the Nod.

“No doubt,” Malarkey agreed. “But there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s a dragon rider club. They’re too dangerous to mess with.”

“Dragon riders?” Meghan asked, but then she saw the tiny saddles set in between the spiked ridges on top of the giant creatures. A rope hung down the side, and riders slid down to the ground beside their mounts. Each rider said something in an unknown language, and the huge dragons slid to the ground and lay still.

“Let’s get out of here,” Malarkey said, pulling on the girl’s leg. “It’s never good to have dealings with dragon riders.”

The leader approached them, a slender man wearing a black leather jacket, leather pants, and boots. He took off his leather gloves, and removed his leather helmet. With his pointed ears and bright green eyes, Meghan realized she was meeting her first faery since her arrival.

“Good morning to you, miss,” the faery said with a quick nod. “Visiting on a day pass?”

“Yes, I am,” Meghan said. “Good morning to you also. I’m here on an adventure.”

“Well, no better place than Spring for adventures,” he said, motioning for his companions to join them. “The DOGS welcome you to Faerie.”

“Dogs?” Meghan asked. “You have dogs, too?”

The faeries behind the leader rumbled with laughter. “No, miss. We’re the DOGS- Dragon Owners Group. We’re a dragon club. See?” He turned around to show Meghan the green and gold embroidery on the back of his leather jacket. It showed a dragon twisted around in a circle with a knife in his mouth and a very human-looking skull clutched in its front claws.

“I see,” Meghan said. That was embarrassing. The faeries surrounded her, watching her curiously. They look like they’ve seen as many humans as I have seen faeries. Malarkey folded his arms and stood as tall as he could. Meghan thought about movies she had seen about faeries. Unlike the movie faeries, these beings were at least six feet tall, and no visible wings. Despite the leader’s polite words, their presence exuded menace. She had the uncomfortable feeling of being in a dark alley with a street gang.

“We were headed down to the house for tea,” Malarkey said firmly. He reached for Meghan’s hand and started leading her to the dirt road between fields. “Good bye, riders.”

The leader took Meghan’s other hand, and stopped them. He frowned at Meghan’s new acquaintance. “Now wait a moment, Nob. I can see that the young lady wants to ride a dragon. Don’t you, miss?”

Meghan looked into those green eyes, and felt like they pierced the secret longings of her heart. How exciting would it be to ride a dragon! “But sir, I don’t know you. Would it be safe?”

The riders roared with laughter. “Of course not!” the leader said, as he started walking her over to the dragons. “But it’s exciting! The wind rushing through your hair, the land below you a patchwork quilt of colors!”

“I’ve been on airplanes before,” she said, but she allowed the dragon rider to lead her over to his creature, who turned his long neck to watch her, steam curling out of its nostrils. With its tail wrapped around it like a cat it looked larger than any of the elephants she had seen at the zoo. It’s like one of those dinosaur skeletons, with skin on, come back to life. Noodles, realizing he was in the presence of larger dogs than he could ever imagine, followed his master in submissive silence, but with wild eyes. The dragon paid no more attention to the dog than to a bug crawling on the grass.

“It’s amazing,” she said, wanting to reach out and touch its shiny green scales, but its bright red eyes made her pause.

“You can touch her,” the faery said. “She’s tame enough, especially with me by your side.” He took her hand and placed it on the side of the creature’s neck. It felt cool and slick, like a lizard. Noodle stood at her feet whimpering softly.

“You’re okay, Noodles,” Meghan said, picking up her dog. “Look, it won’t hurt you.”

The other riders came up to their leader. “Should we go, Hardly? We need to get to the forest before nightfall.”

Hardly nodded to his group, and they sprang into action. They replaced their helmets, buttoned up their jackets, put on their gloves, and climbed back up onto their dragons. The leader took another leather helmet out of his saddle bag and offered it to Meghan.

“Come with us,” he said. “My name is Hardly, and I’ll make sure you have a great adventure.”

Meghan looked back at Malarkey, who was shaking his head vigorously. How can I turn down a dragon ride?

            “My name is Meghan. I’ll come with you.” She took the helmet from the faery as Noodles licked her chin. “What about Noodles? Can he ride, too?”

The faery laid his hand on Noodles’ trembling head, and the dog was still. He pulled out a leather harness from his bag and slipped it over Meghan’s head. After fastening it securely around the dog, he smiled at the girl. “He should be fine. Let’s go.”

Meghan slipped on the helmet, pushing her bangs out of the way. She fastened the leather buckle under her chin. Hardly climbed up on the dragon and secured an extra saddle behind his saddle. Then he called down to her.

“Climb up the rope and sit behind me.”

With an apologetic look back at Malarkey, Meghan took hold of the rope and found herself seated on a dragon, taking off into the blue sky of Faerie.

The Cave

sea-cave-of-1000-steps-beach“For once, I’d like to eat something that wasn’t charred black!”

“Why do I always have to cook? If you don’t like what I serve, do it yourself!”

Meghan could hear her parents argue from the other end of the campground. She wondered why they even went camping when all they did was argue, just like at home.

“Come on, Noodles,” she called to her tiny wire-haired dog, who was busy sniffing every deposit in the dog run. Noodles looked up, his black eyes shining, and trotted back over to the entry gate. Meghan clipped on his leash and closed the gate. She walked over to the worn wooden stairs that led down to the beach. After looking in the direction of her parents’ trailer, she sighed and started down the three flights of stairs.

A battered sign announced that dogs were not allowed on the beach, but during the week they’d camped there, the ten-year old had noticed that in the mornings dogs accompanied people on the beach with no consequence. Before the lifeguards set up on their towers, of course.

Camping was supposed to bring families closer together, she thought as she descended the creaking stairs. But the tension that hovered over her parents followed them wherever they went. At least she could get away from it on the beach for a while. At the bottom of the stairs, she jumped down onto the sand which had eroded into a large gap. Noodles jumped down with her and stopped, waiting for her to unleash him.

“Here you go,” she said as she unhooked him. The black and white dog sped away onto the beach, looped around and headed back to her. He would repeat this pattern during their walk, never leaving her sight. Meghan tied back her shoulder length ash hair with a pony tail, slipped off her flip flops, and wallowed through the dry sand to the water line. She started walking down the shoreline on the wet, firm sand.

The crashing waves, hissing foam, and the early morning mist made her forget about her volatile home life. The sky and sea blended together in tones of grey, the horizon a mere smudge in the distance. She took a deep breath, suddenly realizing that she had been holding it. Noodles barked at a sea gull and chased it, the bird waiting for the last possible minute to launch into the sky. Meghan smiled for the first time that day.

Noodles continued his pursuit of sea gulls which led him close to the cliffs that rimmed the beach. A small ground squirrel poked its head out of some dried seaweed, and the dog changed his direction. The squirrel raced for the shelter of the cliffs with Noodles in pursuit. With the small creature almost in reach of his barking jaws, the dog entered the cave.

“Noodles, get out of there!” Meghan cried, fearful that her dog would uncover a snake or something worse. She slipped on her flip flops and followed him into the cave.

Damp coolness made her shiver, in spite of her warm hoodie and jeans. The walls of the cave were smooth from the tide and slanted back far beneath the cliff. Years of pounding waves had carved out a larger space than the entrance indicated. Other than large flat rocks, the cave was empty.

            “Noodles!” she cried. “Noodles, Noodles.” The cave echoed back to her. She looked behind every rock but there was no sign of him.

She sat down on a rock, tears springing to her eyes. She pushed them away, for she would not cry. Her parents’ endless drama had drained her of emotion. Her dog had to be here somewhere. She took a deep breath and looked around.

From her seated position, she could see a large gap under the rock in front of her. It was large enough for a person to crawl through, and definitely large enough for a small dog. She got up and inspected it, discovering familiar paw prints. There’s where he went!

            Thoughts of snakes and rabid squirrels forgotten, she crawled through the hole. Suddenly she fell to soft sand in darkness. Meghan took out her smart phone and turned on the flashlight. This cavern was not as tall as the one above it, but it was wider, and she heard water trickling nearby. Next to her on the sand she could see a dog-sized impression and paw prints going away.

What am I doing? How am I going to get out of here? The flashlight revealed that the hole she fell through was at least ten feet above her. The smooth walls gave no hope of climbing. Sighing, she turned to follow Noodle’s trail. She hoped there was another way out somewhere.

The cave split into several tunnels at one end, but the paw prints led her the right way. Fortunately the tunnel was tall enough for her to walk standing up. The ground was sandy but to her right a trickle of slimy water flowed, draining from somewhere.

“Noodles!” she called. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cave echoed. No answering bark. She continued to follow his trail. Her flashlight gave her glimpses of green mossy dripping walls, but thankfully no large bugs. Her heart pounded anyway with the thought that there had to be other creatures down here.

After what seemed an eternity of listening to her own breath and walking in the dark, she saw a light ahead. Afraid to hope, she trudged toward it. The tunnel made a dog leg right turn, which was where the light originated. When she made the bend, another large cavern was revealed, circular with natural ledges sticking out like balconies. The light came from a large hole in the roof, shining down in a beam to the ground.

A joyful bark announced the wet dog circling her ankles, and Meghan scooped him up, pressing his matted down fur to her face. “Noodles, Noodles,” was all she could say. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cavern agreed.

Now that she had found her dog, Meghan turned her thoughts toward getting back up on top of the ground. She walked around the edges of the cavern, but she found no other tunnels. Then she walked into the center of the room to stand in the beam of light. She squinted as she looked up to the ceiling. The hole was large enough for her to get out, if she could just find a way up to it.

Suddenly, she heard a rumbling from the side of the room she faced. Looking down, she could see the edges of a dull metal plate under the sand she was standing on. She bent down and wiped away the sand. It was a dark metallic disk with no markings on it. It looked almost as ancient as the cave. The sound intensified as the huge rock that she had assumed was part of the wall slid aside. With Noodles in her arms, she entered the new room.

Another hole in the ceiling filled the room with light, and Meghan couldn’t believe what it revealed. The surrounding walls were covered with tapestries in bright red, green, and blue. Their patterns were of trees, flowers, and fruit. The room was filled with antique wooden furniture, including chairs, tables, and small sofas. Then she realized that she and Noodles were not alone.

“Welcome to the Carlsbad Portal, young miss,” announced a thin, dark-haired man dressed in dark green tunic and pants. “Where might you be traveling today?”

“What? What are you talking about?” Meghan asked, with her arms clenched around her dog.

“This is part of the Faerie Portal System, miss,” he explained patiently. “From this station, you can visit Summer or Spring Courts. Which would be your destination?”

Meghan stared at the man, suddenly noticing his bright green eyes and slender, pointed ears. “Are you an elf, like in that hobbit movie?” She looked behind her. “Where are the cameras and the director? You’re shooting a movie, right?”

The man cocked his head to one side, and looked at her carefully. “I understand. You’re not fae. Not to worry, miss. I have visas here. You can visit on a day pass.” He went over to a small desk, and took some paperwork and pen out of a drawer. “All you have to do is fill in your true name and your family homeland, and you can be on your way. The weather at the Spring Court is lovely today.”

Realizing that he was serious, Meghan stood there speechless.

“The price for a day pass is only a song. We’re running a special this month,” the man continued, motioning for her to join him at the desk.

“A song? What do you mean?” she said, her curiosity overruling her unbelief. She set Noodles on the ground and firmly clipped on his leash. Then she walked to over to see the paperwork.

“Any song will do, miss,” the man explained, “but lullabies are preferred. Come, fill this in, then you can sing, and you’ll be off.”

Meghan looked at the paper on the desk. It was a printed ticket titled “Day Pass, Mortal Use Only,” and had a rather large paragraph of fine print. At the bottom was a blank line for her name and her hometown. Convinced now that somewhere in the tunnel she had hit her head and blacked out, and this was her dream, she decided to go along with it. She signed her name and Riverside and handed the pen back to the man.

“You want me to sing now?” she asked. The man nodded, and took her paperwork. He stamped it and handed it to her.

“Okay, here I go,” she said. She sang the only lullaby she knew, even though as she grew older she understood it had a grim ending:

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will fall baby, cradle and all.

“Very good, miss, that will do nicely,” the man said. “Now step into the portal. Don’t lose your ticket. You’ll need it to get back.” He gestured toward a metal disk directly below the skylight.

Meghan took another look around the strange room. Is this real? Am I really traveling through a portal into Faerie? Her worried parents’ faces flashed through her mind, but she shook her head. They were too busy fighting to even notice that she would be gone.

Even if this is not real, only a dream in my head, why shouldn’t I go on an adventure?

“Thank you, sir.” she said with a nod, and she stepped onto the disk. The bright light blinded her as the room around her disappeared.