Meghan had expected to emerge from the portal next to Queen Amber, but when the smoke cleared and her stomach settled, she and her friends stood alone in a stone-walled hallway lit by glowing lamps.
“Where did she go?” Debbie said, looking around. “Who transports us back with them and then disappears?”
As if on cue, a tiny faerie woman in a dark green dress appeared and gestured toward them. “My Ladies, if you please. Follow me.” She turned and started down the long hallway with the teachers following.
After climbing a spiraling stone staircase, crossing another long corridor filled with royal portraits, and climbing yet another staircase, they approached a tall dark wood door. Meghan groaned. If it was possible to be transported to the castle, couldn’t they at least end up where they needed to be?
“Ladies, the Queen awaits you in her war room,” said the servant with a curtsey. She leaned up against the door and whispered. It slowly opened on its own, creaking under its weight.
Mary jumped. “After three summers here, I still can’t get used to the casual use of magic.”
“To them, opening a door is merely an extension of their will,” Meghan whispered. “Magic is much more explosive.”
As they walked into the room, Meghan noticed that they must be inside one of the towers that held up the corners of Hollystone Castle. Last summer, the teachers had traveled by carriage to Queen Amber’s Solstice Ball, and from the window, she had noticed the white stone towers topped with purple and pink flags flapping in the wind.
The queen sat at a large wooden table resting on a floral rug in the center of the circular windowless room. A large map was unfurled on the top of the table and markers that looked like pieces from a chess set were placed upon it. A deep frown marred the perfection of Queen Amber’s face as she shook her head in response to a tall white haired faery wearing shimmering armor. His helmet sat on the table.
The general’s face brightened at their approach. “Your Majesty, the teachers have arrived.”
The queen sighed, and then stiffened in her high back chair. She wore a pale lavender robe trimmed with clear beading and matching silk slippers. Even in her castle, she still wore her crown, which seemed to press down tightly on her head.
“Thank you, ladies, for accompanying us back to Hollystone. This is General Lodestone, the commander of my army. He prefers the security of the war room. The wards surrounding this room make it impossible for anyone to eavesdrop on our conversation.”
Meghan shared a worried look with Mary. Why would the queen of the Summer Court want to hold a secret meeting with them? And include her general?
“Come join us at the table,” the queen motioned toward three empty chairs across from her. “And you may drop the court manners in here. You may address us freely.”
The teachers sat down in the hard wooden chairs, trying not to scrape them loudly on the polished wooden floor. Meghan eagerly studied the map. It was drawn by hand on thick velum with delicate scrollwork and lettering in the Faerie Common Tongue. Since their first visit, Meghan had applied herself to learning it. Spoken language was no problem since Thistle doused them with magical eardrops every time they arrived.
However, she had never seen a map of Faerie, so she tried to see if she could find their location. A chess rook near the middle stood on a spot labeled Hollystone Castle. Far to the left, next to General Lodestone, she could see an opening in the forest labeled Fairmeadow. That was near Willow House.
“As you can see, this is a map showing the holdings of the Summer Queen,” General Lodestone began. “Here’s where we’re located,” he pointed at the rook. “And here’s where the blight has struck.” He pointed at black pawns scattered across the map.
“There doesn’t seem to be any pattern,” Debbie observed.
“They’re all some distance from Hollystone,” Mary said, squinting her eyes at the map.
Meghan shook her head. First things first. “This blight. We glimpsed it when we arrived. But what is it? We couldn’t get a straight answer from Thistle.”
Queen Amber nodded and General Lodestone continued.
“We’re not certain how the blight started, or what exactly it is. The affected areas don’t immediately die off. A human botanist at court told us about photosynthesis, that the plants need their green color to make food. When the blight takes away all color in its path, the plants slowly die from lack of nourishment. What’s curious is that everything else also loses its color—tree trunks, streams, even the rocks.” He stood up and began to pace. “Our best magic practitioners, both human and faery, could not destroy the blight or slow its progress. Court mathematicians estimate we have about two years until the blight overruns the entire land.
Mary threw up her hands. “What do you want us to do, teach it not to destroy?”
Meghan whispered frantically to her friend, “Court manners or not, you can’t just blurt out snarky comments in front of the queen.”
Queen Amber’s eyes widened, but she remained silent. General Lodestone glanced at her before continuing. “Ladies, in your own land, you are known for your scholarship. Due to your nonmagical environment, your education is far different from scholarship in Faerie. It is entirely possible that this blight is not magical but manmade. Or a combination of the two.” Meghan thought she saw him suppress a shiver, but maybe she was imagining it.
“You want us to study it,” Meghan realized. “Report back on what we find.” Even as she said it, she had a hard time believing that the faerie queen required their assistance. She had seen what faeries could do, and royals had more ability than most.
Queen Amber nodded. “You might be able to discover something we could not. What it’s made of. Maybe even a way to remove the blight before it takes over.”
Debbie stood up first, ready to walk into anything for fun. “Let’s do it, girls. We can’t let the land die.”
Meghan’s curiosity drove her to her feet. “I’m in.” Even with her doubts, she had wanted an opportunity to explore more of Faerie.
Mary, who had been writing in a tiny notebook she always carried, tore out the sheet of paper. “We’ll need some books from our land. Can these titles be retrieved for us?”
Queen Amber said, “You will be given whatever you request. Don’t speak about the blight to anyone you encounter in your travels. We don’t want to alarm the peasants. Let’s keep it between us.
Oh great, Meghan thought. Now Debbie would never give up. Her friend’s sheltered childhood had resulted in an usually strong taste for anything secretive.
General Lodestone whistled a piecing tune. The door opened, and four mail clad guards entered.
“Captain Granite will get you anything you need from your world,” he said. Mary gave the lead soldier her list. He glanced at it curiously. It was written in Common Tongue, but he seemed to be fascinated by the blue lines on the paper and the torn off spiral notebook edge. The soldiers left immediately on their errand.
Much later that evening, after a lengthy feast in their honor, the teachers met on the balcony in Meghan’s room.
“Is this really a good idea?” Meghan asked, as her eyes scanned the dark landscape beyond them, twinkling lights reminding her that there were farmhouses scattered amongst rolling hills. The peaceful sound of crickets was deceiving. Waiting in the wilderness were any number of predatory magical beasts and dark faeries. Tales best shared in front of a fireplace rather than in person.
“What a great opportunity to help our hosts,” Debbie said with excitement. “You’re the one who kept telling us it wasn’t a good idea to be in their debt. Three summers and they’ve never asked for anything.”
“I know, but remember how faeries have a bad habit of not telling you the whole story?” Meghan replied.
“All we’re doing is research. The Queen doesn’t want us to take on the blight ourselves. What do you think, Mary?” Their friend had been quiet all evening.
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “It just feels weird, like something from a story I read. I sent for the book, along with the others we need.”
“It’s not surprising you feel like we’re in a story,” Meghan said. “Spending time in Faerie does that to you.”
“It’s great that General Lodestone is sending two of his best soldiers with us, but I can’t help feeling that we’re unprepared. I wish I could access my Kindle library from here.” They didn’t bother bringing any electronics with them since there was no Internet and no electricity for charging.
“Don’t be such a worry wart,” Debbie said. “It’ll be a great adventure. The Quest for the Blight Bane.”
“I came here to chill out,” Mary protested. “Paint some landscapes, eat delicious food and drink honey wine. Not traipse across the countryside bouncing on a horse, sleeping on the cold ground or lice-infested straw pallets. This is my summer vacation!”
“There’s no pleasure without cost,” Meghan reminded her. “Sooner or later we have to earn our keep.”
“Isn’t it exciting?” Debbie said. “It might even be dangerous!”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Mary answered with a sigh.