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!”