The Witch Who Was Afraid of Magic

     

No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.

The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.

Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.

They both brought pain.

The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.

Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.

Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.

Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.  

A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.

One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.

Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.

The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.

When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.

The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.  

That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.

Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.

 Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.

 Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?

 When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.

Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.

Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.

 When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.

 The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.

Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.

 The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.

Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.  

A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.  

The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.

And she smiled.

Teachers in Faerie: Part Four- The Secret of the Blight

sorm2

A high-pitched yowl ended the light show, and a few moments later, two faerie guards emerged from the trees. As usual, their uniforms were spotless, although their faces looked worn. Meghan was glad that she couldn’t see the remains of the dire wolves. She gave Captain Granite a spontaneous hug. He gently pulled her away from him with his usual brisk manner.

“Come now, Lady Meghan, it’s all over now,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “Let’s get some  sleep.”

“As if we could sleep now,” Debbie said, holding onto Mary.

At dawn’s light, Meghan and her friends headed back to Hollystone. Both guards kept their eyes roaming in all directions. They passed a few farmers headed to market, their wagons heavy with fragrant peaches and plums. In the Summer Court, the weather was always warm and the harvest was continual.

When they reached the castle, the teachers gratefully accepted hot baths and fresh gowns before presenting themselves to the Queen in the North Garden. She was sitting on an elaborately carved wooden bench, painting a colorful scene of the lilies next to a pond.

“Your Majesty, the teachers have returned,” her lady-in-waiting said as she held the Queen’s palette. Queen Amber handed the tiny faerie her brush, accepted a linen cloth for her fingers, and turned to Meghan and her friends. They curtsied low before her.

“You may rise,” Queen Amber said eagerly. “Did your travel prove fruitful?” Her lady-in-waiting offered her a silver cup filled with her favorite peach wine. She took a tiny sip and waited for their news.

On the way out to see her, the teachers had agreed that Meghan should speak for the group. “Queen Amber, the blight is horrible to view in person. We brought back some samples. With your permission, we’d like to do some tests.”

“Of course,” the Queen said. “Go directly to Chamberlain Chalk, and he’ll take you to my son’s laboratory. His resources are at your disposal.”

Chamberlain Chalk was an ancient wrinkled faerie with sparkling grey eyes and white hair that stood straight up. He was in the middle of discussing the evening’s guest list with the servants. Upon hearing their request, he led them to the northwest tower that had been nicknamed Mica’s Lair.

“With all their magic, you’d think they’d come up with an elevator,” Debbie grumbled as they climbed the steep stone stairs.

“It would hurt us to get a little exercise,” Mary said. “Those evening feasts are killing my diet.”

“Come on, girls, we’re in a castle, in Faerie,” Meghan said. “It’s part of the charm.” She was in the lead and called to their guide. “Pardon me, Chamberlain Chalk, but we’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Queen Amber’s son. What is he like?”

The faerie paused on the stair, as if considering what to reply. After a moment, he said, “Prince Mica is a bit eccentric, not doubt due to the time he spent in your world going to university. He was quite indulged as a child.” The chamberlain shook his head. “Prince Mica believes that the most powerful magic combines both high magic and your world’s science. In his laboratory, he has several scientific instruments he brought back with him. They’re quite disturbing, really, all those blinking lights and whirring sounds.” He turned and continued climbing.

Meghan marveled at his words. A faerie wizard that used machines! She looked at the jars she carried in a basket. Surely they would be able to find out some answers.

Finally, they arrived at the top of the stairs. Chamberlain Chalk, not winded at all, knocked at the heavy door.

“Who is there?” a deep voice boomed.

“Chamberlain Chalk, Your Highness. You have visitors from the Queen. Is it safe to enter?”

The door opened without a sound, and the teachers walked in. The chamberlain bowed and quickly descended the stairs.

“Welcome to my lab, ladies,” a pleasant voice, different from the one that guarded the door, invited them. The voice’s owner was a tall, thin faerie dressed in a white lab coat, latex gloves, and safety goggles, his long red hair pulled back in a braid. He was in the middle of adding drops to a boiling glass container with no flame under it.

“Who was at the door?” Debbie wondered aloud.

The faerie finished his mixture, waved his hand over it and chanted a few words. The liquid in the container turned black and stopped bubbling. “That was my door spell. Often I’m in the middle of an experiment, and it would be too dangerous for me to stop and answer the door.”

The teachers looked around the circular room in wonder. There were computers, control boards, and machines of every size. Meghan saw a large aluminum refrigerator, cages containing strange creatures, and even a treadmill. “How do you power all this?” she said, forgetting to address him as the prince. “Prince Mica,” she added quickly.

“Solar power,” he said proudly. “I made my own panels. Part of my grad studies project at Cal Tech.” He smiled. “Good times. Oh, and don’t worry about formality here in the lab. You can call me Mica.”

His smile was mesmerizing. Meghan shook her head. “I’m Meghan, and this is Mary and Debbie, my friends. Queen Amber brought us here to Hollystone to help with the blight.”

“Your lab is impressive,” Mary said. “I never thought I’d see machines in Faerie.”

“Still no elevators,” Debbie commented. “Why don’t we see any technology anywhere else?”

Prince Mica shook his head. “My mother won’t allow it. She follows the old ways. But at least here, in my lab, I can do what I want. Did you bring me something?” He looked at the basket Meghan carried. “Those are the containment jars I designed.”

She handed the basket to him, his hands brushing against hers. Even with gloves on, she felt a shiver from his touch. “These are samples we collected from one of the affected areas. Can you test them to see what they are?”

He picked one up and looked at it, frowning. “I’ll have to run some spectral analysis on it, and maybe even some DNA tests. It could be organic.”

“Do you need some help?” Mary asked.

Prince Mica smiled. “No thank you, ladies. I work better on my own. If there’s a containment issue, I can usually deal with it using my magic. I wouldn’t want you to get in the way of a spell.”

Meghan couldn’t help noticing that his bright green eyes keeping coming back to rest on her. Was he interested in her? Probably nothing more than scientific curiosity. Here in the Summer Court, humans were regarded as fireflies that shone for a brief moment, delightful as friends but nothing deeper. However, in the Winter Court, faeries saw humans as disposable entertainment.

Her cheeks reddened and she turned away to look at one of the machines. “We’d like to stay and help. We’ll be careful.”

“Well, then, if you can’t be frightened off, I’ll put you to work,” he said with a shrug. “There are more lab coats and gloves by the door.”

The rest of the day, they spent extracting contained samples and submitting them to the various machines in the lab. Prince Mica tested for viruses, bacteria, shape-shifting microorganisms, curses, poisons, and genetically altered insects. When they finally cleaned the last test tube and made sure the samples were stored in sealed containers, he offered them some rose tea from an electric kettle.

“That’s all the tests I have,” he said and crunched on his tea biscuit thoughtfully. “We now know what the blight isn’t—not an organism or poison. That leaves us with a purely magical cause.” He looked at his notebook where he had carefully recorded their results. “That leaves the Winter Court.”

“But haven’t you been at peace for the past three centuries?” Mary asked. She took another sip of the sweet scented tea.

“There’s a new faerie on their throne now,” he answered. “He calls himself The Frost King. He wants to go all traditional, magic only, no human ways. There’s quite a following for that these days.”

His voice was melodic even when he was serious. Meghan tried to resist staring at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his pointed ears were pierced down their length and covered in emeralds and diamonds. She had an irresistible urge to reach over and touch them.

“What do we do now?” Debbie asked, pinching Meghan on the arm to break her trance. To her friend she whispered, “Snap out of it. He’s a faerie.”

“There’s one more test I can do,” he said. “I can talk to it.”

“Talk to it?” Mary echoed.

“Yes, I can conjure up the spirit of the blight, and ask it what drives it. There has to be a trigger on this kind of magic. If we can find out what it’s linked to, we can develop something to counteract it.”

Meghan couldn’t believe she was acting so foolishly. After Debbie pinched her, she took a deep breath and tried to focus on the problem they were working on. Tonight her friends were going to give her a hard time. She thought she was past all that faery crush stuff after their first visit.

The prince took one of the specimen jars and placed it in the middle of a chalk circle in the middle of the room. He lit candles and placed them around the circle.

“Step back,” he warned as he added a plastic face shield to his outfit. “This could get messy.”

Meghan and her friends backed away from the center of the room. The prince began to walk around the outside of the circle, singing softly.

“Magic made, spell well woven,

Come reveal your purpose given,

Power ancient power hidden,

Open magic, spell well spoken.”

A cloud of white smoke poured out of the top of the sealed jar. It filled up the circle all the way up to the high ceiling, staying within the circle, a cylinder of smoke. Prince Mica clapped his hands in success, and addressed the cloud.

“Mighty magic, why have you come to our land?”

A rumble like thunder preceded the reply. “Master bids me eat, eat all the color. So I eat.”

Meghan looked at the others. Eat color?

“Mighty magic, noble spell, how do you eat color?”

Another rumble. “Stories fade, voices silent. Suck color out of silence.” The rumbling got louder and louder as the cloud turned red and then black. Lightning shot out of it and struck the nearest machine, short-circuiting it.  Torrents of rain burst from the cloud and soaked everything in the room. Prince Mica shouted at it, and suddenly the cloud disappeared and it was silent.

“Well, that was informative,” he said, taking off his drenched lab coat and replacing it with a dry one. “Is everyone unharmed?”

Meghan came out from under the table. “That was crazy! I can’t believe you stopped it.”

“What does it mean?” Mary said, stepping out from behind the computer.

“Eating color? How can something eat color?” Debbie said as she jumped out of a cabinet.

“One moment.” Prince Mica pulled a book from a shelf covered with plastic, a lesson perhaps learned from another incident. He turned to the back of the book, found what he was looking for, and turned to another section. He looked up with a worried expression. “It’s worse than we could ever imagine. This is definitely the work of the Frost King. How diabolical! He’s using ancient magic. A spell no one dares use anymore.”

“What kind of magic?” Meghan asked. The teachers pulled out the stools from under the table and pulled them up close to the prince. He turned the book toward them, revealing an engraving of a lizard creature with a large mouth eating the leaves of a tree.

“The spell is called Prismatic Draining, and it will destroy our entire queendom.” He slammed close the book and quickly replaced it. “Come with me. Mother needs to know right away.”

 

 

Teachers in Faerie- Part Three: Sightseeing

horseback

Meghan’s mouth was bone dry and her bottom ached so badly she was ready to drop off the sturdy white mare that carried her. She could tell Debbie and Mary were feeling the same by the way both of them crunched over their saddle horns. The queen’s guards, one in front and one in back, sat tall and undisturbed in their saddles. Must take practice.

Rather than restate her complaint to Captain Granite’s unsympathetic ears, she tried to distract herself by enjoying the surrounding green meadows dotted with purple and yellow flowers. They had started out from Hollystone Castle at dawn, an ungodly hour for both faeries and teachers on summer vacation. The nearest location of the blight was two and one half days north, following the valley that cradled the capital city of Hollystone.

They followed the Queen’s Road, a scraped dirt road rimmed by small white stones that bisected Queen Amber’s lands from north to south. If they kept riding for five days, they would reach the edge of the Summer Court and end up in the Crystal Mountains, the natural boundary between the Summer and Winter Courts.

“Do you think he’ll ever stop for the night, or will he make us sleep on our horses?” Debbie grumbled on her right.

“It’s a new moon tonight, so I would guess he’d stop by twilight,” Meghan answered.

Just then, Captain Granite pulled his horse to a stop and turned toward them. “Let us make camp. Follow me off the road into those trees.” He gestured toward a clump of overhanging trees.

“I don’t think I can get down,” Mary moaned.

“Do not worry, my Lady. Shale will provide assistance,” the Captain added with a sigh.

After the guards set up their tents, and Meghan showed her Girl Scout skills by starting a fire, the travelers enjoyed some turkey, bread, and berries packed by the queen’s kitchen. Four years ago, she never thought she’d be eating by firelight with her friends, watching swarms of stars overhead. Meghan tried to recognize any familiar constellations, but the sky reminded her she was in a different world.

Later as she drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard distant howls. Too far away to worry about. Besides Captain Granite set a ward over their camp for the night.

At the first pink of dawn, Shale poked his head inside the teachers’ tent. “Time to ride, ladies.”

“Uggh, I feel worse than the first week of school,” Mary groaned as she pulled on her boots.

“Eventually it will hurt so much that it will stop hurting,” Debbie offered, layering on her cloak.

“That’s supposed to be encouraging?” Meghan asked as she tugged a brush through her hair and rebraided it. She pulled a knit cap on and followed the others outside.

“Did you hear that coyote last night?” Meghan asked Shale, who started pulling down their tent.

“Lady, I do not know a ca-yo-tee, but I assure you what we heard was a dire wolf. They roam the hills at night. That is the reason Captain Granite set our camp so close to the road. In addition to our wards, the queen layered enchantments on that road that keep most creatures away.”

Meghan was sorry that she asked. She looked around the lush green meadow that surrounded them. Birds twittered in the trees, and she spied two cottontails hopping away. Nothing lethal.

Their second day riding seemed easier. When the sun finally rested again in the never-ending parade of hills, they reached a tall wooden wall that protected the thatched roofs of Shadowglen. Evening had not yet fallen so the gate was open, and they rode straight in, headed for the village’s only inn, The Barking Dog.

After washing up in a magically heated tub in their room, the teachers met their guards down in the common room. Steaming bowls of stew awaited them. Other travelers sat crowded at the long tables, drinking dark beer and singing along with a young faerie playing a lyre.

“I still can’t believe we get to spend our summers here,” Debbie said, downing her last sip of ale, and looking hopefully toward the barmaid. “This place is like something out of a faery tale.”

“Hopefully not the kind of faery tale with giants or wolves or evil queens,” Meghan noted.

The next day, the teachers were up and ready before Shale knocked. It was peculiar how none of the villagers mentioned any about the blight last night, but Shale told them that most faeries were lulled into complacency by centuries of peace under Queen Amber that no one wanted to admit that there could be a problem.

“That’s foolish!’ Mary said. “In order to solve a problem, you have to first admit that it exists.”

“Sounds like some of my students’ parents at conference time,” Debbie said.

“Come on, girls! This is summer vacation, no school talk!” Meghan reminded them.

As they left the village, they rode toward the rising sun, until Captain Granite turned off on a narrow road that wound up through the hills. After riding in the cool shade of the canyon, their leader took another path that clung to the canyon’s side. Meghan kept her eyes straight ahead, trying not to notice the sheer drop off.

Even though she had seen it from a distance, none of them were prepared for the effects of the blight. After gleaming white rock, deep blue stream, and dark green thickets they had just passed, the affected area stood out like a dead man’s bones. The blight covered an area about ten feet square, turning every leaf, stone, and blade of grass into a dull shade of grey. There was nothing living in its path—no birds, squirrels, or even snakes.

Debbie approached the blight carefully. She touched a low hanging branch with her gloves and the leaf broke off in her hand, crumbling into dust.

“I don’t see why this area doesn’t blow away,” Meghan said. “It looks like all the color and moisture has been sucked out of everything.”

“But what about the rocks?” Mary said, kicking one boulder with her boot. It cracked into pieces.

“Everything seems dead,” Captain Granite said. “But what causes this blight?”

“We’re going to take samples,” Meghan said. She took out a glass jar that had been magically prepared with a containment spell. After carefully breaking off a small branch, she dropped it into the jar and screwed on the lid. Debbie and Mary also took samples of the rocks and grass. There was no sign of disease or insect damage.

“I’m thinking this is magical,” Meghan concluded. “There’s nothing back on our world that would compare to this. If it was a microorganism, it wouldn’t affect the rocks or water.”

Captain Granite looked around them. “We need to get back to the castle. I feel eyes on my back here.”

They mounted their horses, retraced their path back to the Queen’s Road, and set off back to Hollystone. It was almost dark when they came near to where they camped the first night.

After they heated up the stew they brought from the inn, Meghan and her friends discussed their findings.

“How can we expect to figure this out?” Debbie said. “It’s not like we have a lab or anything here to analyze these samples.”

Meghan smiled. “I think you underestimate magic, my friend. Queen Amber is giving me access to her mages and court healer. They have resources that will give us some answers.”

“We’re just teachers,” Mary said. “What can we do?”

“We used to making lessons out of nothing, and changing students into voracious readers. We can do this.”

It seemed like Meghan’s eyes had just closed when she awoke to a violent shaking.

“Wake up! We’ve got to get close to the fire!” Debbie said urgently.

Meghan shook her head, pulled on her cloak and followed Debbie out of their tent. Mary, Captain Granite, and Slate were standing close to their campfire, which was roaring with magical intensity. The guards’ faces looked grim in the reflection of the flames.

“Stay close to the fire. Don’t move, whatever you hear,” Captain Granite warned them. Then they disappeared into the gloom.

“What’s going on?” Mary said, her yawns suppressed by fear.

“You must have been dead asleep! Those howls kept getting closer and closer until finally Slate came to get us. It’s dire wolves! They can only be fought with magic,” Debbie said. “Isn’t it exciting? Our first magical creature battle!”

“Yeah, I guess, if we had any magic to protect ourselves,” Meghan said.

Suddenly a howl interrupted their conversation, so chilling that Meghan could only describe it as a mixture of a baying hound, eagle’s scream, and a child’s cry on a haunted house ride. The surrounding trees prevented them from seeing what was happening, until ground shaking thumps and flashes of light revealed that the guards were fighting their attackers.

The teachers stood with their backs sweating against the towering fire as they waited to see what would happen.

Teachers in Faerie Part Two- The Blight

blight

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.

Teachers in Faerie: Part One- Summer Home

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Meghan handed her classroom keys to Alice, the school secretary, and started her summer vacation. As she got into her car, she looked over at the other teachers coming out of the gates. They would probably have a normal summer, sitting by the pool, going to lunch with friends, or working in the back yard.

But Meghan and her friends Debbie and Mary were headed into another world.

Just as she pulled into her driveway, her cell phone buzzed, still on silent from the school day. She looked at it, and saw that it was Debbie.

“Hey, Debbie, are you ready to go?”

“Yeah, just wanted to know if I should pack something formal. Remember last summer when we scored an invitation to the Spring Court Ball?”

“Don’t worry about that. We can buy something more appropriate there if we need to. Just remember to bring lots of candy, especially chocolate bars. They were better than gold last time.”

“Got it. See you at the hotel.”

“See ya.”

Meghan grabbed her bulging duffle bag and set it by the door. Then she looked over her note for Carrie, who was staying in her home to take care of her Pomeranian for the summer. She pulled her long brown hair back into a bun and changed her shorts and t-shirt for a sundress, acceptable attire for their destination. Finally she gave Barker a treat, grabbed a bottle of water, and she was on her way.

The entry point for their vacation was in an old hotel downtown. A few years back, she and her friends had booked a girls weekend there, so they could hang out at the huge swimming pool. The hotel, The Mission Inn, remodeled various times over the decades, was full of passageways and small hidden rooms. Megan’s overactive imagination demanded they explore all of them. During their wanderings, they had discovered an old freight elevator, the kind that looks like a cage.

“Finally, you’re here!” a familiar voice called to her when she reached the lobby. An older woman in her sixties with long straight grey hair jumped out of an overstuffed chair by a brick fireplace.

“Mary, I can’t believe the school year’s over,” Meghan said with a smile. “I can’t wait to see Clover again. I miss her brown bread and corn muffins.”

Another woman walked in carrying a duffle bag. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat that kept her dark curly hair under control. “Ready for some fun?” she said as she joined them.

The three women entered the maze of hallways lit by dim lights set in wrought iron holders. They passed a few housekeeping carts and guests in swimsuits. Then they opened a door at the end of the corridor and walked down ancient stairs that looked like they were made of stone. Down and down they descended into the humming body of the hotel.

After four flights, they finally reached the bottom. Meghan opened the wooden door and they stepped into a small room with a freight elevator. She pulled up the outer gate, and her friends pulled apart the metal doors. Then they stepped in with their luggage and closed the doors. Meghan pushed a button labeled SUC, and the elevator whirred to life, taking them up with jerky movements. The structure of the surrounding walls showed through the slatted wooden gates, and she felt, not for the first time, that they were inside a large beast, looking at its bones and muscles.

The elevator creaked to halt, dropping slightly, causing the women to grab the railings that ran around the inside of the elevator car. They opened the gates into another bare room with a wooden door.

“Finally, we’re here,” Meghan said as they stepped out into a dirt road.

“Back in Faerie,” Debbie sighed.

“Back where we belong,” Mary added. The room they left looked like a small wooden shed from the outside. The road before them led into a series of rolling hills, dotted with trees that clustered next to a hidden creek.

Standing on the road was an open bed wagon drawn by a towering grey mule.  A cheerful-looking man in coveralls with slanted green eyes and pointed ears that poked through his curly red hair greeted them.

“Good day, ladies! Long time beyont and welcome once more. On time as usual. Come on aboard, and let me take you home.”

“Thank you, Thistle,” Meghan said. “Back once more, and welcome accepted.” She and her friends tossed their bags into the back of the wagon and pulled themselves into it, sitting on some wooden crates that smelled like peaches.

“Thistle, you got some dapples! My favorite,” Debbie said. “I hope Clover’s going to make pie!” Meghan knew that her friend’s months of eating only carrots sticks and protein drinks ended when they emerged into their summer world. Sometimes, she worried about her friend’s obsession with being thin.

“Of course she is,” the faery said, rubbing his ample stomach. “The missis is cooking a proper welcome back dinner tonight with all the neighbors.”

“I missed this so much,” Mary said, looking around at the many shades of green surrounding them. “It’s so brown and dried up where we’re from.” They rode down into the cool shade of the glen. The breeze carried wildflower perfume, and twittering red and yellow birds peaked out from the trees overhanging the road. Mary had packed her paint set and a roll of canvas, as she preferred to sit out in the countryside painting the beauty she saw instead of worrying about what she would wear to the evening party.

Meghan soaked into the colorful landscape, her eyes seeking out every detail to compare it to her fond memories of past summers. Then she frowned.

“Mary, do you see that, over there to the south?” she asked, shielding her eyes with her hand against the bright sunshine.

As Mary followed Meghan’s gaze, she gasped. “It’s grey over there, down by the mill creek. There still are trees but nothing has any color. I hope there’s not some blight on the forest!”

“Thistle, what happened down there? Has there been a drought?” Meghan asked.

The faery glanced back and sighed. “You will learn soon enough. Not the right talk on your first day back.”

The three teachers looked at each other, but didn’t press the issue. If a faery was closed up about something, you wouldn’t find out until they were ready.

“There it is,” Debbie said, as the wagon crested the hill and revealed Willow House. It was a tall brick house with rows and rows of shuttered windows, surrounded by draping willow trees. The servants, dressed in pale blue with white aprons, stood outside waiting, which from this distance looked like bluebirds on the lawn. Their servants! So different from their other lives. The mule plodded on, too slowly for Meghan’s racing heart, until they reached the front drive.

Clover, a short round faery with a grey bun, walked up with a small stool to help them down. The other servants reached up to take their luggage. They were home.

Later, after baths in rose scented water and dressed in green gowns that shimmered like beetles, they came downstairs to a roar of greetings. Faeries from the surrounding farms gathered at a long table, one end reserved for the teachers. Wine was flowing liberally, and laughter bubbled up everywhere. Servants scurried around carrying heavy platters of roasted meats, fish, potatoes, and vegetables.

Meghan and her friends quickly joined in the feast. “Isn’t it amazing how the food here tastes so much better than anything we have back in our world?” Mary asked her.

“Better than any restaurant,” Meghan agreed, and she tore into her turkey leg.

Suddenly, a tinkling bell rang, and everyone froze. No one expected the Summer Queen to visit here, so far away from her court. But that bell announced her eminent arrival so everyone rose to their feet, wiping greasy fingers on their clothes.

A flash and puff of smoke made Meghan blink, and then there was the Summer Queen, standing in their hall. A tall creature with long braided dark hair, her beauty causing everyone to squint. Her gown that shimmered with colors of bright blue, pale green and pink and she wore a silver circlet on her brow. Her female attendants surrounded her in blue uniforms covered with chain mail. Everyone in the room bowed or curtsied, waiting for their monarch’s instruction.

“Rise, everyone. Grace and peace to you all in this humble house,” Queen Amber said in a grave voice. “Please return to your festivities. Our purpose here is to speak with the newly arrived teachers.” She gestured toward Meghan and her friends. “We require a meeting with you in the palace. Come with us immediately.”

A queen could not be refused. Guards took their hands and pulled them close to the royal entourage. Another flash and puff of smoke and they were gone.

 

Dragon Rider Part Nine- Change Arrives

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Music swirled around the ballroom, wafting through the twirling gowns and tickling the drooping mustaches of noblemen. Emeri sighed, a shallow one because of her corset, and pulled up her scandalous bodice with her free hand. Her head ached from the pounds of curls that cascaded down the back of her head. At least her feet didn’t hurt, already numb from being squeezed into satin slippers. She endured the endless change of dance partners with a practiced smile, and longed for a large glass of Silverpointe brandy.

Two weeks had passed since the dragon riders returned from their ride to the Crystal Mountains, but to Emeri it seemed a season ago. Although First Mistress had frowned at news of Petal’s disappearance, her reaction to Emeri’s rescue at the lake almost resembled concern. Concern for her political card game.

“We’re relieved that our daughter finally got dragon riding out of her system,” her foster mother had said with a sniff, assessing her like she was a horse ready for auction. “Thank the Goddess you didn’t break any teeth in the crash. And all your bones are hale.”

When Twinkle and Emeri had arrived at the lake, a local fisherman and his wife took them in. Sparkle waded into the water and pulled out fish after fish, eating them like chips. Signal smoke poured out of his nostrils, leaving a trail up into the skies. As the sun lowered its heavy lids on the horizon, dark shapes loomed over the cottage. The dragon riders had found them! That night’s celebration had included liberal amounts of brandy that Avery had brought back with him from Silverpointe.

Now she longed for that homemade brandy, but must be content with hundred season vintage wine. Tonight’s ball was even more opulent than the three previous. Golden candelabras lit up the palace ballroom as bright as daylight over the crush of dancers and party goers who watched from the sides. At one end of the hall a large orchestra played the latest dance music and the open doors at the other end led into the dining room, where some guests still sat at table eating cake.

Finally, the conductor held his hands still, and the music stopped. The princess curtsied to her current partner, and dashed onto the outside garden. The selection of princes provided for tonight’s ball had been especially tedious. All she wanted was relief from the blaring music and endless prattle of meaningless conversation. One of Avery’s stories, even though she had probably heard it at least ten times, would be preferable at this point.

Emeri followed the flagstone path through the rose trellis, seeking her favorite place. The white gazebo loomed like a ghost in the waxing moon, hiding the two silhouettes who rustled on the bench inside.

Boldly she invaded their space, not caring how important these guests might be. The nobleman released the curl topped young woman, who shrieked at Emeri’s sudden appearance. It was Morrison, of course, one of the available suitors, with some baron’s daughter that she had met tonight but already forgot her name. The woman glared at Emeri while she readjusted the neckline of her gown. At least Morrison had enough conscience to look embarrassed. Emeri would be sure that he got crossed off her list. The couple fled back in the direction of the palace.

Finally, she was alone with the crickets and moonlight, the cool breeze rustling through her bouquet of curls.

Emeri stretched out on the bench, causing splinters to snag her top layers of silk. She didn’t care at the moment. It felt so good to lay down, even if it caused the volume of her dress to pile on top of her. She kicked off her slippers, and flexed her toes to get the feeling back. There was no way she would be able to get those shoes back on her swollen feet tonight.

From her hiding place, Emeri could hear the faint strains of music from the ball. She knew she should go back in. First Mistress would send a guard to find her eventually. It was so hard to hold up her part of the bargain she struck with her foster mother. How easy it had seemed, that night in the library, to promise that she would enter the courtship game when she returned from Silverpointe!

She had done her best. The princess had held her tongue while she was measured and fitted for new gowns worthy of the courtship dances. A wedding planner was called in, and Lacey was forced to step aside as a new stylist curled and pinned up her mistress’ long locks, powdered her face, and carefully outlined her eyes and lips. Emeri watched in the mirror as a stranger emerged before her eyes. A stranger that would be given in marriage to another stranger to strengthen the queendom.

Over and over she replayed Twinkle’s words in the forest. If Emeri hadn’t been so certain that she alone had to make a plan, she might have been able to keep her dragon in secret. It had never occurred to her that she should enlist the support of the dragon riding group. She had been certain that she could solve her problem by herself.

The ground shook beneath the bench, and the princess sat up quickly. A blast of familiar smoke made her cough, followed by a welcome face poking out of First Mistress’ prize rose bushes, crushing them under her massive feet.

It was Petal! The princess’ heart stopped, and she couldn’t catch her breath. What was her dragon doing here? Her former dragon, since she had broken their bond.

The dragon reached her long neck into Emeri’s lap, begging to be petted. She sat outside the gazebo and curled her long tail around her. Emeri could see that the barbed tip was restored.

At first, she sat there, stroking Petal’s jaw and gently patting her neck. The dragon’s actions were clear. Petal was choosing to bond with her again. Even after her mistress had caused her great pain. Emeri felt all the walls she had built up around her heart over the past weeks come crashing down. In rushed unconditional love and acceptance that she would never find at court. This was why she became a dragon rider.

Checking first to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted like she had done to the couple, Emeri pulled down the underskirts from her gown and loosened her corset, no small feat without servants. Then she tossed her skirts and slippers into the bushes. She was left with her knee length upper gown, much easier to ride a dragon.

Climbing up Petal’s down-stretched neck, she seated herself as comfortably as possible without a saddle, clicked her tongue and kicked Petal’s rough sides with her bare feet. Petal drew them both up into the sky with a few sweeps of her wings. The bright lights of the palace became smaller and smaller until they were but stars upon the black ground.

Emeri held onto the spikes on Petal’s neck as the night wind tugged at her curls, pulling out the pins, and leaving her hair a long twisting ribbon behind her. The chill night air caused a shiver to run down her back. She felt so alive!

Where were they going? The princess attempted to direct their flight, but Petal seemed determined to take them somewhere. They left Thorington Castle behind and headed south. Emeri could see a pinpoint of light that grew larger as they approached, revealing itself as a campfire. Petal descended to the meadow near it.

As they were landing, Emeri could see shapes in the darkness. When she slipped down Petal’s neck to the ground, she fell into an immediate hug.

“Emeri! I knew Petal would bring you!” Worley said, twirling her around.

“Worley, what are the riders doing out here?” the princess asked, all thought of her problems forgotten. The circle of riders emerged from the trees where their dragons were still hidden, curls of smoke creating a haze in the broken down underbrush.

Twinkle stepped forward with a mug. She handed it to Emeri, who sipped it with delight when she realized it was brandy. “We were out on a moonlight ride when Petal appeared. She landed here so we followed her. After we all were settled, Petal wouldn’t let us near her. Instead she took off in the sky, and we decided to see what would happen.”

“Petal went to find you,” Avery said, as he led Emeri over to their fire. “Come, sit down. While we were waiting, we came up with a plan.”

“But I broke the bond,” Emeri said as she sat down on a log and warmed herself at the fire. She wished Petal would have brought her leather riding clothes and gloves. Worley saw her shiver and brought a blanket for her shoulders. “How could Petal come back to me?”

“Your dragon is unique,” Twinkle said with a smile. “She chose you twice. So we should make sure you two stay together.”

Emeri shook her head. “But I don’t even know who I will marry or where I will live,” she said, her face pale in the firelight.

“That’s why we need a flexible plan,” Avery said, taking another sip of his brandy.

“You’ll love it!” Worley said, his words muffled by the roasted corn he was inhaling.

“But I don’t deserve it,” Emeri said. “I didn’t seek your counsel, instead choosing to do the unthinkable. I don’t know why Petal came back, but I don’t deserve a second chance to be a dragon rider. I’ll go back to my dresses and curls and parties. And wedding.” She choked on her words and looked away.

Twinkle handed her a cloth. “Get yourself together, Dragon Rider. Now that you’ve done the most difficult thing a rider can do, anything else we can come up with will be easy.” Emeri wiped her eyes.

“That’s better,” Twinkle said, giving her a hug. “Now sit there and listen.”

Emeri pulled the blanket closer around her and spread her gown over her bare legs. She was afraid to hope, and yet here were her friends, gathered around her.

“Petal will stay with Sparkle, who’s still on the mend. I’ve got room. And I live by myself, except for Molly, so no one’s tongue will be wagging about me having another Crystal Dragon,” Twinkle said.

“Then you can send messages through Worley when you can get away to ride. You can meet Petal in Avery’s family’s field, near their cottage. We’ll keep your riding clothes and tack at their home. First Mistress or her servants would never think to look there,” Avery continued.

“If you move away, it will even be easier,” Worley insisted. “With dragons, we can be wherever you are.”

The princess looked at their eager faces reflected in the firelight. What they neglected to mention was that if First Mistress discovered their secret, they would all be thrown in the dungeon and their dragons sold. Emeri would escape because of her marriage plans. Why would her friends take this risk for her? For Petal?

Petal had been quietly resting behind her the whole time. Emeri turned and patted her nose. She dared not send away the only people, and dragon, that accepted her for herself, with no hidden motives. Even though she knew her future was at royal court, she now realized how much she needed to keep this part of her life. Even if it must remain secret, her dragon would help her keep her balanced.

“Thank you, everyone, for taking on this enormous task,” Emeri said to her friends. “Trying to go on without Petal for these past weeks has proved to me that it’s impossible. I can’t live without being a dragon rider. I will go along with your intrigue.”

“I told you she’d do it!” Worley shouted.

“We must swear an oath,” Twinkle said. She took out a small knife and made a cut on her finger. After that she squeezed a drop of blood into her empty mug. Then she passed the knife, and each rider did the same. When all had contributed, Twinkle poured more brandy into the mug and threw it into the fire. The flames burst higher for a moment, like the hope in Emeri’s heart.

“We are bound by friendship, blood, and fire,” their leader said, as they stood around the fire holding hands. “Emeri of Thorington, First Royal Dragon Rider, we are bound to your secret service and the service of your dragon, Petal, until the release of death.”

The determined faces of her friends convinced the princess that whatever title she might gain in the future; none would be greater than Dragon Rider.

Dragon Rider Part Eight- Truth Told

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“Hang on!” Twinkle shouted, as her dragon reared up on his hind legs, pulling his passengers out of the mountain cat’s reach. Emeri held onto her road captain and watched the cow-sized tawny cat pace back and forth, growling its disappointment with finding an easy kill.

With spikes standing like a warrior’s mace, Sparkle roared back in response, shooting out smoke and flame and making the pine trees surrounding them vibrate. Hidden behind the dragon’s back, the two women were safe for the moment. Emeri knew that Crystal Dragons had no natural enemies except other dragons, especially since they could fly away to safety. However, with a broken wing, Sparkle was more vulnerable. She noticed that Twinkle had her sword ready the same way she did as they waited to see what the dragon would do.

The dragon sat back on his haunches like a huge dog, his tail thumping a warning on the ground, sending piles of pine needles flying through the air. The cat seemed unimpressed as it continued to pace, coming closer each lap. Its eyes were lit with an otherworldly glow and saliva dripped from its finger length fangs. The raised fur on its back made it look twice as big, but it was dwarfed by the dragon.

The standoff continued for what seemed to Emeri to be hours, until finally the cat made its play. With a giant leap, the creature bounded into the air, headed for Sparkle’s neck. Sparkle reacted with a burst of flame that threw the cat to the ground. As the cat raised its singed body, the dragon fixed his gaze on its murderous eyes. Then suddenly, the cat slid back down and fell limp.

“What did Sparkle do?” Emeri asked as she eased her stiff body down to the ground. “Is the cat dead?”

“No, it’s just sleeping,” Twinkle said as she replaced her sword. “Crystal Dragons have empathic telepathic powers. When both creatures were wounded, Sparkle was able to establish a mental link. Then he could put the animal to sleep. We were never in any real danger.” She gently checked the bandages on her dragon’s wing.

“But why didn’t Sparkle just kill the cat?” Emeri wondered, staying close to the dragon despite Twinkle’s assurance that the creature slept.

“Crystal Dragons are an unusual type of dragon,” Twinkle said, stroking Sparkles jaw, offered to her in thanks for mending his wing. “They abhor violence of any kind. Rarely will they ever take a life, only if they can’t mentally sidetrack the attack.” She turned to look at Emeri. “That’s why your story about Petal doesn’t add up. If Petal was attacked by another dragon, she could use her mental powers to protect herself. Let’s get out of here, and then you’re going to tell me what really happened to Petal.”

The relief that had flooded Emeri’s heart at their escape from the cat drained away and left a sour ache in its place. Should she tell her friend the truth? A darker thought blossomed in her mind –what if Sparkle’s broken wing was due to the bond-curse? It that were true, so far she had managed to endanger the lives of two dear friends and a dragon. Twinkle had years of experience with dragons. Maybe she knew a way to defeat the curse.

The dragon riders crunched through the needles in the direction Twinkle’s compass indicated was east. The older woman hoped that they landed on one of the main ridges that intersected with Crystal Lake, so there should be a stream nearby. If they made the stream, they could follow it downhill to the lake and find rest at a village there. Or the other riders would find them.

“It’s time for truth,” Twinkle said, when they finally heard the welcome rush of water. After Sparkle and the women drank the cool mountain water, they paused for a rest, sharing their last pouch of jerky.

Emeri took a breath, uneaten jerky in her hand, feeling the weight of her actions pressing down on her like a huge rock. “This is my last dragon riding trip. When we get back to the palace, I have to begin my courtship. First Mistress was going to sell Petal.”

“Bad news,” Twinkle said with a sigh, “but not unexpected. There are no other royal dragon riders. But I was hoping that you might be the first.” Her blue eyes held understanding that had been forged during miles of dragon rides.

“I vowed that Petal would not be kept captive,” Emeri continued, wiping her moist hands against her trousers. “So I took her to the edge of the Crystal Forest, and I cut off the tip of her tail.”

Her teacher sighed even deeper, and looked at her dragon, who was resting his broken wing in the stream. “I’m not sure what I would done in your place, Emeri,” she said after a while. “But that’s a hard decision to make on your own. Why didn’t you come to me? We could have figured out some way to buy Petal for our group, and sneak you out to ride her when you could. Severing the bond is an extreme solution.”

Emeri’s mind swirled with Twinkle’s words. She could have kept her dragon? Telling the dragon rider group, outside of Avery and Worley, had not even occurred to her. Obstacles to Twinkle’s plan flashed before her –someone would see her and tell First Mistress, her future husband would not allow her to travel anywhere alone. But none of that mattered anymore. She broke the bond. Petal was gone.

“Twinkle, I didn’t know about the bond-curse,” Emeri said. “I am so sorry that I put Worley and the rest of the group at risk. If I had known…”

“But we can’t do anything about that,” Twinkle said. “Besides, the effects of the bond-curse don’t last forever. It’s worse at the beginning, and then after a while it fades away. As long as you don’t ride on another dragon, you should be safe enough.”

Emeri perked up at the thought that the curse would diminish. “So the bond-curse goes away on its own? How long do I have to wait?”

“Not certain,” Twinkle said, shaking her head. “Only known a few people who went through it. They had suffered crippling injuries in a dragon fall, and could never ride again. So they stayed away from the dragon riders for many years. The next time someone took them for a ride, they were fine.”

“How long did they wait?”

“I think it was near to fifty years.”

Emeri’s broken heart splintered even further. Not only did she lose her dragon, but now she would be forced to break contact with the whole dragon rider group. She held her breath to prevent tears from rushing down her face.

Her friend gave her a fierce hug and handed her a rag from her pack. “It’s not weak to cry, Emeri. Losing a dragon is worse than losing a husband. When my husband went down in the Battle of Bones, I thought that life was over for me. After the memorial, I walked through the forest, thinking to find a cliff to jump. But then Sparkle appeared out of nowhere, whooshing down to land at my feet, and I had a reason to go on. If I lost my dragon, nothing would keep me here.”

“That’s not encouraging,” Emeri said, her sobs muffled by the roaring stream. “I have to do my part for Thorington. I know my duty to the crown. Dragon riding was just a childhood dream that I must give up.”

“That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt,” Twinkle said, holding her close. “Come on, now. Rinse your face. Dragon riders don’t give up. We need to reach the lake before nightfall.”

Dragon Rider Part Six- Cursed

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The princess squinted through the swirling snow. In the sea of white, the dragons surrounding her shivered and pleaded with their large eyes. No riders to be seen.

“Anzel! Worley! Twinkle!” Emeri’s shouts were swallowed up by the storm’s fury. Where was everyone? Their road captain would have taken the dragons to shelter by now. Only certain types of dragons could tolerate long exposure to freezing temperatures. Petal, being a Crystal Dragon, didn’t mind the cold at all.

Petal! Her stomach churned again, like it had on the way back up from the forest. She couldn’t believe she had really gone through with it –broken the bond between dragon and rider. It was the hardest decision she had ever made. And no one must know.

“Emeri? Is that you?” she barely heard over the wind. Suddenly, Worley’s snow-covered grey hair popped into focus in front of her. His dark eyes flashed at the sight of his friend. “There you are! Everyone was looking for you –well, except Twinkle and Anzel, who are out looking for a cave large enough for the dragons. Where were you?”

Suddenly, it was real. She would have to lie to her best friend, the riders, and her family. Emeri took a breath.

“Petal and I went on a short ride, to see the forest,” she began. “Then, out of nowhere, a huge dragon appeared and began to attack us. Petal fought valiantly but it wasn’t enough. The wild dragon carried her off, and I was left alone.” She was glad that she hid her riding tack in a deep crevice before leaving with her dragon. It would be hard to explain why she took off her saddle and bridle when they weren’t yet stopped for the night.

Worley gave her hug, sending powder flying off both their shoulders. “Oh, Emeri. I’m so sorry! Petal’s strong! She’ll survive and come back to you!”

“Not this time,” the princess said softly.

More snow-covered shapes appeared out of the storm, and the dragons rumbled at the sight of their owners. The riders quickly grabbed their dragons’ bridles and started leading them toward their chosen shelter. Twinkle hugged Emeri and spoke into her ear.

“You should know better than to wander off at a rest stop.” Her eyes looked as cold as her face.

“I’m sorry, Twinkle,” Emeri said, her stomach cramping up more fiercely than before. “I think I’m sick!” Then she fell to the ground and emptied her breakfast onto her teacher’s boots.

The road captain jumped back and wiped her boots in the gathering snow bank. “Come on, let’s get out of here. You’re not well.”

She pulled the groaning princess up to her feet, and between Worley and her were able to drag her down to a natural shelter created when a huge boulder had fallen down on top of two upright stones. The dragons sat huddled together at the entrance while in the rear a roaring fire provided relief from the storm. Anzel brought blankets, and they settled the princess close to the warmth.

The storm continued and the only way they knew that night had fallen was that the whiteout had turned to black. However, the dragon riders were in good spirits as they had plenty of food and whiskey to share from their packs. Emeri ate nothing, but held a mug of tea to warm her hands as she watched shadows shaped like dragons in the fire.

The next day, Emeri still felt weak. The previous evening, she had answered everyone’s questions about Petal’s disappearance, and more than once she caught sight of Twinkle watching her with narrowed eyes. But it seemed like her story was accepted, and with blue skies in the morning, the dragon riders had decided to go on with their journey.

“Are you sure Mist will be able to carry both of us?” Emeri asked Worley as she climbed up the ladder to sit behind her friend.

“She’s a strong dragon, even if she’s shorter than some,” Worley reassured her. “Besides, I am the smallest rider. Both of us together don’t weigh as much as Manley!”

“I don’t think all of us together weigh as much as Manley!” Emeri said, in an attempt to keep her spirits up. She was concerned that her weak stomach might cause one of the riders to leave the trip and carry her back to the palace, the last place she wanted to be right now.

“Let’s ride!” Twinkle shouted back to the riders, and they lifted into the sky, headed directly for Silverpointe.

“It’s too bad we’re not staying at the lodge,” Worley called back to Emeri, who was seated on a blanket behind his saddle and holding onto him securely. “I’ve never seen it. I hear they have apple ale there that is the finest of all the mountain settlements.”

“You’ll always have another ride,” Emeri reminded him. “We’re a day behind so we need to reach Silverpointe today. You’ll love it there. The mountains are beautiful!” She tried to focus on their conversation and not on her lurching stomach. She chewed on the herbs Twinkle had given her. Dragon riding was not as much fun when your stomach had become a bucking horse.

After a short break for food and drink, the riders soared back up, Twinkle pushing them to gain Silverpointe before dark. None of the riders had slept well during the storm, and many were draped over their dragon’s neck, allowing their mounts to follow each other without much direction. Emeri had noticed that Worley’s eyes seemed glazed, his usual enthusiasm tempered by Petal’s loss.

Every time her friend glanced back at her, Emeri’s stomach hurt more. Her lie about Petal was almost worse than her dragon’s absence. What would be gained by telling him the truth? “A secret shared is twice as hard to keep,” Twinkle used to say.

Fortunately, after the first night, no one spoke aloud about her dragon. There was an unwritten rule that mishaps on a ride were not discussed until after the trip was completed. Dragon riders thought it brought bad luck upon a riding group. So everyone pretended that Emeri had begun her ride behind Worley. And her stomach never stopped aching.

Hour after hour passed and still they rode on. Worley at first had done his best to stay upright in his saddle, but his weariness overcame him at last and he rested on Mist’s sturdy neck, leaving Emeri to lean forward on his back.

Then suddenly, he was gone.

Without her friend to lean on, Emeri sprawled onto the saddle, catching the pommel with her chin. That woke her up. She slid into the saddle and grabbed the reins that lay on the dragon’s neck. Then she called out, “Rider down!” and pulled back hard.

Mist immediately dropped straight down below the line of riders, and Emeri ordered, “Catch Worley!” Mist responded to her training, and swooped down on the falling boy, catching him on his spiny tail.

“Ouch!” a now fully awake Worley shouted, as he took an unexpected seat between two sharp ridges. Emeri laid down the reins and turned around, guiding Worley back up to the saddle.

Meanwhile several riders had gathered below their dragon, available to catch him if needed. When the new sweep, Manley, saw that Worley was safe, he whistled, and the group reformed into their staggered line. They rode on, with their youngest rider holding his reins firmly.

Finally, the huddled town of Silverpointe came into view, and Twinkle led the grateful riders back down to the ground.

Emeri helped Worley unfasten Mist’s saddle and bags. “Are you alright?” she asked him quietly.

“Sure, I don’t know what happened back there,” Worley said. “I was trying so hard to pay attention. Thanks for having my back.”

“That’s what riders do,” Emeri said.

Twinkle stormed down the line of dragons toward them.

“What was that about?” she shouted at Worley. “You never NEVER fall asleep on your dragon! You might have been killed!” Then she grabbed him in a crushing hug.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “I didn’t get enough sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about Petal.”

“Worley,” Emeri warned. “You mustn’t talk about it. Not now.”

“That’s right,” Twinkle said. “Get your tack put away and go in and get some food in you. And no ale for you tonight!” She started to continue down the line, and then she stopped and turned back to them. “Emeri, how’s your stomach?”
At that moment, the princess’ stomach, which had settled when she was chasing after Worley, began to churn again. “Not too bad,” she answered, trying to smile.

“Well, that’s good,” Twinkle said, lowering her voice so that only Emeri and Worley could hear. “Because I could have sworn last night you looked like you were bond-cursed. But you couldn’t be since Petal was carried off by a dragon.”

“Bond-cursed?” Emeri asked, her face turning even more pale. “What’s that?”

Twinkle looked around to make sure no one else was close enough to hear them. “Riders get bond-cursed if they break the bond with their dragon. The farther away they get from their dragon, the sicker they get. But that’s not the worst of it.” She sighed.

“Not the worst?” Worley echoed.

“No, the worst part about getting bond-cursed is that everyone around you starts to have bad luck. The fatal kind.” She looked at Emeri’s wide eyes and squeezed her arm. “But you don’t need to worry about that. I’m sure you just got a simple case of air-sickness. A hot cup of tea and some chicken soup, and you’ll be set to rights! See you at the pub!” she said and continued to check on the other riders.

“Is bond-cursed real or is it another one of those dragon rider initiation jokes?” Worley asked with a frown.

“I’ve never heard of it before,” Emeri said, her hands clutching her stomach. “But I’m afraid that it just might be real. Worley, I need to tell you something.”

Dragon Rider Part Five- Storm

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Emeri’s breath circled her like dragon smoke as she saddled up Petal, her fingers stiff with cold. Why do dragon riders always leave at dawn’s light? She was grateful for her heavy leathers as she readied her dragon for the day’s ride, her boots crunching in the frosted grass. After sharing ale with the local druid last night, Twinkle had confirmed that a winter storm was on its way. The dragons would be pushed today to make it to the lodge at Crystal Bowl.

“Ready, Sweep?” Twinkle called to her as she walked by dragging her water skins.

“Ready to ride,” the princess called over her shoulder as she climbed up the ladder to her saddle. “Are we going to make it before the snow?”

“It’ll be close, but we have the fastest dragons in the land,” Twinkle answered, already headed down the line of dragons. The flurry of riders ahead was fastening saddles and attaching their bags. Some already sat mounted with helmets and goggles, holding their reins tight against the nervous energy of the dragons. The dragons seemed to sense the urgency of this day’s ride and were eager to be on their way.

“Let’s ride!” Twinkle called from the front, and two by two dragon wings lifted up the riders into the clear pink sky.

Hours passed as the dragon riders soared over the dense forests surrounding the Crystal Mountains. The shimmering white peaks grew closer to meet them. Emeri adjusted her position in her saddle and pushed her feet forward. Her bottom was numb and her fingers frozen to her reins, but still the group did not stop. Wanting to avoid drifting off to sleep again, her mind turned to the problem of Petal.

The icy sculpted mountain ahead was the birthplace of her dragon. If she was going to follow through with her plan, she would need to find a way to leave Petal somewhere down there. Even though her heart ached from the thought of leaving Petal alone in the wilderness, she knew it would be better for her.

Dragons, solitary creatures by nature, only bonded with a human once in their lifetime. Since there were not many tame dragons, Emeri would doubtless have many buyers for Petal. A rare pink dragon could demand many chests filled with gold. But Petal would resist, and spend the rest of her long years in chains and cages. Releasing her would be the kinder choice.

The forests below gave way to sharp-edged rock, tiny trees forcing their roots into cracks. Ridges became higher until they became windswept mountain peaks dusted with shimmering ice. Emeri was wide awake now, her stiffness forgotten. Would Twinkle ever call for a rest stop? The princess was afraid that if she landed by herself, her teacher would turn the whole group around to find her.

A wide plateau appeared, and shouts passed back through the line announced they were headed down. Emeri sighed and pulled up on Petal’s reins, joining the downward spiral to the ground.

Once the dragons were settled on the rock, riders slowly crawled down to stretch out and eat some jerky.

“Come on, Emeri,” Worley called. “You’ve got to see the view from the edge.” Her friend’s face was bright red from the wind and cold and his hair stuck out in all directions after its release from his helmet.

“I’ll be there shortly,” she replied. “I need to take care of personal business first.” She glanced over to the cluster of rocks that stood as sentinels over the ridge.

“See you then,” Worley said, bounding away with the energy of his first real adventure. Emeri envied his carefree life, working on the estate as his father did before him. If only that could be her fate. Seeing that the other riders had gone ahead to the viewpoint, she quickly released Petal’s saddle and her baggage. If Petal was going back to the wild, she wouldn’t need it.

Petal watched her with questioning eyes as Emeri commanded her to lower her head and gently removed the dragon’s bridle. Her dragon didn’t understand why the ride was over when the other dragons stood ready to go.

“Come on now,” Emeri coaxed. “We’re going for a walk, Just the two of us.” Petal followed her into the maze of huge boulders that looked like a giant’s blocks tossed carelessly into a toy chest. They wound their way down a path that barely accommodated the large dragon until they reached the edge of an evergreen forest. The towering trees swayed and whispered in the biting cold wind.

The princess looked around her, the rocks stacked up the hill and the endless sea of trees in front of her. This was as good a place as any.

She knew what she had to do. Lacey had helped her with research in the palace libraries. There was only one way to sever a dragon’s bond. Like other lizards, a dragon’s tail would snap off in a fight to ensure its survival. A few weeks later, a new tail would grow back.

“Sit, Petal,” the princess commanded in a wavering voice. With a thud, her dragon complied, still watching her with violet eyes. Emeri drew her sword, the one First Mistress had given her for her twelfth season, the one with pale pink pearls on the handle, the color of Petal’s scales.

Before she could change her mind, she raised her sword over her head and with two hands brought it down on the smallest section of her dragon’s tail, near its barbed tip. Dark red blood squirted out all over the snow, Petal roared in anguish, and with huge sweeps of her wings, launched herself into the air, trailing blood behind her.

The dragon rose quickly into the sky and disappeared from view.

With trembling hands, Emeri wiped her sword with a rag she had brought, and replaced it in its scabbard. With the help of a nearby stream, she cleaned Petal’s blood off her leathers and tossed the cloth into the water. It floated away on the current, carrying her guilt down the mountain to the sea.

It was over. Tears flooded her eyes, but she held them back. She would need them later to sell her story. She had done the unthinkable for a dragon rider. No one must know that she had set her dragon free.

As she trudged back, a heavy curtain of snow began to fall and dance in the gusting wind. Petal’s huge footprints in the frost were soon covered, and Emeri had to look carefully to find her way back up through the rocks. By the time she reached the other dragons, she could barely see the huge animals through the white swirl of sky and matching snow drifts.

Emeri shuddered, but the cold felt good. Without Petal, her heart felt frozen and useless. The icy emptiness was a comfort, preparing her for her royal future.

 

 

 

Dragon Rider Part Four: Ferrytown

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A sudden cross wind ripped Emeri’s gloved hand from the saddle horn and shoved her back against the high rim of her saddle. She gasped and set her feet so that she wouldn’t tumble off her dragon and fall like a huge rain drop to the far away ground. Then the young princess ducked her head, gripped the blankets with her knees, and placed more weight in her stirrups. The constant roar of the wind buffeting her leather helmet had lulled her into a sleep-like trance. Even though the Dragon Owners Group had been riding for hours, any gust of wind could cause disaster.

Ahead of her the group spread out toward the horizon in staggered two by two formation. The sun was far behind them now, as they rode eastward toward the Crystal Mountains. As the sweep, she was responsible for making sure that none of the others were left behind. During the long day, the cloud of dragons flew as one with no incident. Soon they would reach Ferrytown and set down for the night.

The growing dusk revealed glimmering lights below them, reflected into the dark still lake that bordered the town. The tiny lit boxes that would be houses and buildings once they landed were arranged in a horseshoe, the open end meeting a large dock at the waterfront.

Suddenly the dragons in front of her dove straight down. Emeri and Petal followed into the twilight chill, joining the large group of dragons that had landed in a meadow outside of town. The princess quickly unbuckled her straps, and threw down the rope ladder she kept for group rides. Her sore muscles protesting, she climbed down the ladder to the welcome ground.

“Hey, Sweep,” Twinkle greeted her, already with her tack and bag in hand. “Great ride today. We all stayed together.”

“Not much for me to do,” Emeri replied. “Great dragons and great riding. My throat’s parched from that wind though.” She hopped back up the ladder a little to release her saddle and blanket. The heavy pile of leather and wool landed with a whoosh on the cool grass.

“Time for supper,” Twinkle said, “See you there.” Their leader hoisted up her load and headed to the inn.

A while later Emeri stumbled downstairs after a long bath, clean and stomach rumbling. The common room had a low ceiling with a roaring fireplace at one end, and was stuffed with long wood tables. Travelers laughed over tales as they converged upon Ferrytown before they set out for faraway destinations in the surrounding mountains.

“Emeri! Over here!” Worley shouted over the din, and she could barely glimpse his familiar face in the smoky room. Large women in tight-fitting dresses wove their way in between the tables with large tankards of ale that sloshed over the side on unsuspecting patrons. The princess carefully made her way to her friends, thinking that she might have waiting on the bath until after supper.

Anzel, Worley, Twinkle, and four other riders were crammed into table, jealously guarding their bowls of savory stew. She squeezed in next to Worley, and as if on cue one of the bar maids slapped a tankard and bowl in front of her.

Gratefully, Emeri raised the bowl to her mouth and delicately sipped the hot soup. Chunks of tender meat, savory but of unknown origin, tasting better than any royal feast after a long day riding. She took a swig of her icy, bitter ale, and sighed with contentment.

Several bowls and tankards later, when their ferocious appetites had been appeased, the riders sat back, loosened their trousers and talked about their day. The surrounding chatter provided the illusion of privacy.

“What a great ride today,” Twinkle said, lifting her mug. “All our riders did a great job staying in formation.”

“That wind was fierce,” Worley said. “I felt like my head got whipped all the way around!”

“It could be worse,” his brother encouraged. “The further we get into the mountains, the more the wind shoots through the passes. Need to keep your head down.” Although his tone was light, concern glowed in his eyes. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Emeri almost get swept out of her saddle.”

“It wasn’t as bad as that,” the princess corrected. “I was being lulled to sleep by Petal’s smooth ride. It’s hard to stay awake when you’re riding the strongest dragon in the group.”

“Hold your tongue!” Twinkle said with a grin. “The ride’s more set by the rider than the dragon. Don’t you remember what I taught you?” She tipped back the dregs of her mug and motioned with it to a passing bar maid.

“I remember everything you told me,” Emeri said. She looked at the circle of friends around her and wondered if these would be the memories she would take out, like old love letters, when her life had been diminished into her royal duties.

“It was so clear today, I could see all the way to edge of Tessar,” Anzel said. “But not as clear as the day we flew over Razor Ridge.” He gave a conspiring nod toward Twinkle.

“How could I forget?” Twinkle added. “The air was so clear it hurt to look too long. We could see caterpillars crawling on the leaves of Razor Forest.” She gratefully accepted a full tankard from the bar maid.

“Razor Ridge?” Worley gasped. “Isn’t that where the Bearded Ones live? Did you see any of them?”

Emeri hid her smirk behind her tankard. This was the same story that she had been told on her first dragon riding trip.

“Oh, there were hundreds of them running around,” Anzel continued in a deadly serious voice. “They had carts pulled by oxen. Carts full of gold, rubies, and diamonds from their mines deep in the heart of the mountains.”

“And even with clear skies, they weren’t able to see us,” Twinkle added. “Their eyes couldn’t see in the bright sunshine after all the time they spend inside the mountain.”

“That’s when Tonlon came up with a great idea,” Anzel said with a nod to an older rider with a long grey braid that sat with them at their table. “Tonlon, do you want to tell my brother what your idea was?”
The man took a long drink, and answered. “We wanted a remembrance, a token of that day. So that when we sat around and talked about seeing the Bearded Ones, people would believe us.” He narrowed his eyes at Worley, who hung on his every word. “You do believe us, right?”

“Of course,” Worley said. “We’re all dragon riders here.”

Emeri choked back a laugh.

“Were you there, Emeri?” Worley asked.

“No,no,” Emeri managed to answer. “That was before my time as a rider.”

“Well, you see, as that day was so clear, we could fly next to each other and make up a plan,” the man continued.

“So Tonlon and Anzel followed the Bearded Ones’ caravan that wound its way through the mountains,” Twinkle added to the tale. “Anzel took the lead, and told Blade to set some trees on fire in the canyon, right after the other wagons passed, separating the last wagon from the group.”

“Tonlon came from behind and his Beauty stole one of the chests right off the wagon, in a flash, before anyone could do anything,” Anzel said.

“What did the Bearded Ones do?” Worley asked.

“Not a lot they could do, I guess,” Tonlon said. “The dragon riders were gone in an instant, and they had to rescue their wagon from the fire. What an adventure!”

“But what was in the chest?” Worley wondered.

“That’s the funny thing,” Twinkle said. “When we finally got to our stop for the night, we decided to open it up. It was so heavy; we were sure it was filled with gold.”

“What was in it?” Worley said, his ale forgotten.

“Biscuits,” Tonlon said with a sigh.

“Heaviest biscuits I’ve ever seen,” Anzel said, shaking his head.

“Hard as rocks,” Twinkle said.

Then the entire table erupted in laughter. Worley looked around in puzzlement, until Emeri couldn’t bear it any longer.

“They’re yanking on your saddle strap, Worley!” the princess confessed. “They told the same story to me on my first trip. It never happened.”

The young man’s face turned from confusion to anger to realization. “This is part of my initiation, isn’t it? I’m really a dragon rider now!”

“If your sore bottom doesn’t do it, Anzel’s stories will guarantee it,” she said, giving him a quick hug.

The fire finally burned low, and it was time for sleep before the long ride tomorrow. Twinkle settled their account with the bar maid. Emeri eased her sore legs up the stairs behind the rest of the riders, again swept with grief for the life she would leave behind.