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.