The Singing Campground Part Six

            “T-the queen! She sent us back!” Lilly managed to choke out, her heart jumping into her throat.

            “No!!!!” Nettle roared, dropping a large duffle bag on the ground. Thorn and the children growled, exposing pointy teeth. There was nothing human about those expressions. They rushed toward Lilly and her family with their backpacks raised as weapons.

            “Out of here,” Dad shouted, grabbing the twins and dashing across the clearing.

            “Stop!” Thorn commanded. Lilly and her family froze in place.

            What are they going to do to us? she thought to Willow.

            Probably turn us into trees. No one would even notice if there were four more trees in this forest, Willow thought back.

            Not helpful, Lilly replied. She would have burst into tears if only she could move. At least she could still breathe. Of course, at that moment, she had a tremendous itch on her nose. A rustling sound made her forget about it.

            A female faery with two children entered the clearing. She wore long white braids and was dressed for hiking with boots, a broad-brimmed hat, and a backpack. The faery children’s heads were capped with curly white hair, and they looked very young, not more than two and four years old. They held their mother’s hands and stared at Lily and Willow with eyes wide as a full moon. A male faery followed her, carrying a larger backpack.

            “What is this all about?” the male faery said. “Is there a problem with the portal?”

            Thorn spread her arms wide. “Just a broken spell. You know how these things happen. We will get it working immediately.”

            The female faery frowned. “I hope so. We must return in time for my Herbcraft class. My students depend on me.”

            Nettle stood in front of where the portal had been, spreading his arms wide and muttering in his own language. After three attempts, he shouted, “The human broke the portal!”

            “Leth uss go,” Mom said, straining against her frozen lips. Lilly could see Mom’s eyes were sparking with anger, even if she couldn’t move her face. Dad was turned away from them, frozen in mid-step. She hoped he wouldn’t fall on his face.

            “I’ve got this.” Thorn pushed past Nettle and sprinkled white powder onto the ground. She spit on it and mumbled singsong words.

Nothing happened.

“Damn you, Aster!” Nettle said, shaking his fist at the sky.

“Curse that wicked queen!” Thorn said. “When we get back, I will personally tear her heart out and serve it for dessert. Over sponge cake with whipped crème.”

Lily’s heart was racing. What can we do?” she thought to Willow.
            Although he couldn’t turn, his eyes attempted to meet hers. Don’t worry. You’ll think of something. You always do.

            “First things first,” Nettle said. He waved his hand, spoke a few words, and Lilly’s parents turned into rabbits. They sat back on their haunches, sniffed the air, before hopping into the dense underbrush of the forest. Then he released Lilly and Willow.

            Lilly itched her nose furiously.

            “Twins are too valuable to waste,” he said to their friends with a shrug. “We’ll take them home with us.”

            “Turn our parents back!” Lilly said. “We had to do what the queen told us. We had no choice.” She pulled away from Rudy who had grabbed her arm.

            Two of the other faery children held Willow between them. Their sharp fingernails dug into his arms, causing him to yelp in pain.

            Yeow! These little buggers are strong! he thought to Lilly.

            We need to get Mom and Dad back! Lilly thought to her brother. She tried to remember the faery tales Mom told them at bedtime. Faeries like to trade. We’ve got to think of something we can bargain with.

            The faeries dragged Willow and Lilly to the campfire circle. Nettle and Thorn sat down across from them.

            “We can reopen the portal with our own magic,” Lilly said.

            “Magic? We don’t have any magic!” Willow protested.

Lilly exchanged a look with him. We’re talking to each other in our minds. That’s magic. I think we can do more.

“Twin magic is extremely powerful,” Thorn said. “Especially since your visit to Faerie. No doubt you’re starting to experience some of the effects.”

 “We’ll fix the portal if you change our parents back,” Lilly said. “Promise. Promise you will return our parents to human form. Three times I ask this.” She remembered that faeries couldn’t lie, and they took their bargains seriously. Also, asking three times was binding.

“Agreed, agreed, and agreed,” Thorne said. She pulled some herbs out of her pouch and mixed them in a bowl. Rudy poured liquid from a vial into the mixture and a strong licorice smell filled the air.

“This porridge will strengthen and focus your magic so it can be used,” she said, handing the bowl to Lilly. “Take two bites and pass it to your brother.”

Lilly hesitated as she looked at the grey, lumpy mass in the bowl. What if I throw it all up? she thought to her brother.

            “Just do it,” Willow said. “How bad can it be?” He took the bowl and tasted some from the spoon. He worked hard to keep his face neutral. It tastes like Aunt Gertie’s rice pudding.

            That bad, Lilly thought back. She took the bowl and downed two spoonfuls. Then she handed it back to Thorn. Other than her churning stomach, she didn’t feel any different.

            “Come, children, we have work to do,” Thorn said. She led them back over the original portal’s location. “Close your eyes. Both eyes, young manchild. Think about our castle in Faerie. This should not be difficult because you have actually been there. Think about the bedchambers you woke up in. Think about the delicious food Cook prepared for you.”

            “I’ll never forget that French toast,” Willow said. “Why couldn’t your potion taste like that?”

            “Focus!” Thorn snapped at him. “When you have anchored the location in your minds, then think about building a bridge from here to that place in Faerie.”

            “What kind of bridge? Wood or stone?” Lilly asked.

            “I want to make one of those hanging rope bridges,” Willow said.

            “It doesn’t MATTER what type of bridge! It’s only a symbol, a device to make a portal,” Nettle shouted.

            “Settle down, my love. They are only children,” Thorn soothed him.

            Lilly thought about a bridge to Faerie. In her mind, she saw it like a storybook bridge, old stone and arched. Wide enough for a horse and wagon. She sent the image to her brother.

            Looks sturdy, he thought back to her.

            As Lilly focused on the bridge and the castle back in Faerie, the forest grew silent around her. Her mind started to feel fuzzy, like after she’d spent too much time in the sun.

            How long do you think we have to do this? Willow thought at her.

            How should I know? she thought back at him.

            “It is finished!” Thorn shouted and the twins opened their eyes. In front of them was the familiar swirling circle they had been dragged through the first time.

            “Brilliant work!” Thorn and Nettle’s friend, the male faery, said. “Quickly, let us leave.”

            “Come on now. Don’t dawdle. The portal will only stay open a short time,” Thorn said, lining up her children. She gestured toward their friends and their children.

            Lilly tugged at her arm. “Wait a minute! You said you’d restore our parents!”

            Thorn nodded. “Of course.” She flicked her fingers, and Mom and Dad came crashing out of the bushes, crawling on all fours. They stopped, looked at each other, and quickly jumped to their feet.

            “Now look here, Thorn!” Dad said. “We have no magic! Let us go at once!”

            Thorn and Nettle glanced at the twins. “You have more magic than you know. But do not fret. The portal is open once more. We will bid you farewell.” And with that, the faeries jumped through the portal before it closed.

            “I’m hungry!” Willow said.

            Lilly’s stomach gurgled in agreement. “Me, too.”

            Mom gave them a weary, relieved smile. “Let’s go back to the campsite and grill up some burgers.”

            “And share scary stories around the campfire,” Dad said. When he saw the twins terrified expressions, he added, “Or maybe just regular stories tonight.”

            As they followed their parents out of the forest and back into the campground, Lilly thought she heard faint strains of singing coming out of the woods. Do you hear that music? she thought at Willow.

            Yeah, he thought back, but I’ve had enough exploring for one day.    

            Lilly checked her jacket pocket for the small jar of the remaining potion Thorn had made them eat. It was sealed with a wax ring.

In the distance, she was certain she heard the delicate peal of children’s laughter.

The Singing Campground Part 5

            The faery waiting in the library did not resemble a queen from any of Lilly’s books. She wore a dark brown leather tunic and pants tucked inside matching leather boots. Her dark hair was braided around her head and pinned in place. No fancy gown or crown.

            The faery queen’s glowing green eyes glided over the human family while her pale pink lips remained closed in a straight line. Lilly thought she was beautiful in the way of a jaguar or a tiger.  

            Lilly felt like she was in the principal’s office for something she didn’t do.

            “Maybe we should curtsy or bow or something,” Mom whispered. “We wouldn’t want to offend her.”

            “Good idea,” Dad said. He and Willow bowed stiffly from the waist while Mom and Lilly attempted to curtsy without tripping over their ankles.

             “Your Highness,” Dad said, his face to the floor. The family waited for the queen’s response. Lilly prayed Willow wouldn’t do anything stupid that would draw the faery’s anger.

            “Stand. There’s no need for ceremony here,” the Queen said, rising from the chair. “Away from court, you may address me as Lady Aster.”

            Dad introduced the family. In response, Lady Aster waved her hands in front of Lilly’s parents. They froze in place like statues. Lilly tried to shake her mom, but she did not respond. A wave of panic washed over her. A glance over at her brother revealed matching wide eyes and open mouth. This could not be good.

Lady Aster turned to Lilly and her brother. Lilly tried not to tremble under her cold eyes. Then the faery smiled, her teeth all pointed and not at all human. “Twins! A rare sight. Faery mothers bearing two children must offer one as a changeling. I wonder…”

            Lilly shivered as Lady Aster placed her hand on her head, touching her forehead with her thumb. She felt a warm sensation like she was taking a shower. Memories popped into her mind. She and Willow talking about the strange singing. Threading their way through the woods. Foxes roasting marshmallows. She had no control over her thoughts as they were plucked out of her mind. Her anxious eyes sought her parents, but they stood frozen in place.

            “Stop it!” Willow shouted, grabbing Lady Aster’s arm, and breaking her contact with Lilly. “You can’t go rummaging through her mind like that! It’s rude!”

            “So you are protective!” Lady Aster said, her face flushed and eyes wide. “You can feel what I am doing to your twin.” She tried to touch Willow’s head, but he wiggled out of her grip.

            “Fear not! I wish you no harm,” Lady Aster said. “I found what I was seeking.” She snapped her fingers, and their parents blinked.

            “I’m… sorry. I didn’t hear you,” Mom said. Her forehead wrinkled as she looked at Dad for an explanation. He shook his head.

            That was so creepy, Lilly thought.

            Which one, pulling thoughts out of your head or freezing our parents? Lilly heard Willow’s voice in her head.

            How can you speak to my mind like that? Lilly thought.

            It must be a side effect of what she did to you. Are you okay?

            Yeah, I guess. She hasn’t turned us into trees yet.

            I don’t think she’s evil. I’d definitely like to learn how to do the spell to freeze Mom and Dad. That could come in handy.

            Willow! Be serious. We’ve got to focus on getting back to our world.

Lady Aster dipped her head toward their parents. “Thistle is preparing tea, and she would like your assistance. Run along, and I will chat with the twins.”

            Without a word, their parents walked out the door. Lilly and Willow were alone with the faery queen.

            I’m scared. Lilly thought toward her twin.

            Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out.

            “Now then, come sit down with me, and tell me more about the portal in the garden.” Lady Aster perched on the edge of the chair and gestured toward a tiny couch across from her. Lilly and Willow exchanged glances but sat down. Lilly was pushed into her brother’s elbow by a pillow embroidered with a large raven. The thumping beat of her heart matched Willow’s foot tapping on the floor.

            “You may think I am here as a friend of Nettle and Thorn,” Lady Aster began. “But I am only welcome in this place because of their absence. Thorn’s mother is Queen of the Spring Court. We have been rivals since birth. Her mother was betrothed to my father, yet she betrayed him for a mortal. My father broke off their engagement and married my mother instead. Thorn and I were born the same year.”

            “What does that have to do with us?” Willow said. “All we did was follow their stupid song.”

            Willow! That’s no way to talk to a queen! Lilly thought. And to Lady Aster, she added out loud, “Lady Aster, please forgive my brother’s rudeness. We are all stressed out. Nettle and Thorn kidnapped us. Although Faerie is a beautiful place, it is not our home.”

            Lady Aster appeared lost in her own thoughts, barely aware of the twins. “Perhaps the perfect punishment for Nettle and Thorn would be to leave them in the human world. Not only would they be absent from court, but they would eventually lose their magic as well.”

            At that moment, Thistle, Mom, and Dad came in with trays of tea, cakes, and sandwiches. Although Lilly was worried about how they were going to get back to the campground, the dainty white cakes with pink icing looked delicious. She couldn’t help herself from filling her plate. Breakfast seemed a long time ago.

            I don’t know why they cut off the crusts, but these egg salad sandwiches are awesome! I could eat fifty of them, Willow thought to Lilly.

            Please don’t act like a pig! We need her to help us, Lilly thought back.

            “Lady Aster, is there another portal we could use to return to our world?” Mom asked. Her hands didn’t tremble as she set her cup down in its delicate saucer. Mom was under control in all circumstances, even when she was having tea with a faery queen.

            “If it is a question of payment, maybe we could give you something you don’t have, like coffee,” Dad said, wrenching his finger out of the tiny teacup handle. “Or maybe some good Irish whiskey.”

            Lady Aster shook her head. “Your assistance will be payment enough. To get back to your proper place and time, you will need to return through the same portal. After you cross through, I will give you a spell to close it permanently on your side.”

            “You can open the portal?” Lilly asked. She felt a tiny glimmer of hope flicker inside. Although she was motivated by court politics, it seemed like Lady Aster was willing to help them.

            The faery queen took another sip of tea before answering. “No portal is closed to the Queen of the Summer Court. I suggest we send you back quickly to avoid any ugly confrontations.” She set down her teacup and saucer. “No time to dawdle. Now that we have been refreshed, let us proceed to the garden.”

            When we reached the portal, Lady Aster handed a leather bag to Lilly. “I’ll take that,” Mom said, reaching for it. Lady Aster stepped in front of Lilly. “She and her brother must perform the spell. Mortal children are more sensitive to magic. And as twins, they reflect each other’s power. It will not harm them.”

            “How do we know that for sure?” Dad said. “I’m not going to allow my children to do some ritual, or whatever it is, if we don’t know it’s safe.”

            “This is the price of your return,” Lady Aster said in a stern voice, waving her hands in front of their parents. “You will comply with my instructions.” Mom and Dad froze in place like they did before.

            Lilly opened the small bag in her hand. Inside was a tiny bone, maybe from a bird, a ball of string, and a black stone. Willow peered in over her shoulder and reached out to touch the items.

“Do not touch the elements before it is time!” Lady Aster warned. “We do not want them to lose any of their potency.”

            “What do I have to do?” Lilly asked. Her hands were shaking, and she could think of a million things she’d rather do than fool around with magic. Magic was the wild unknown. Lilly would rather stick with what she was good at, like multiplication or taking tests.

            “I’ll help you,” Willow said, putting his arm around her. When did he decide to act like a brother instead of a monkey? That was magic by itself.

            Lady Aster put one hand on each of their shoulders. “Do not be anxious, little lambs. This is simple magic. Listen carefully. When you come through to your world, Lilly will pour the items into her hand. Then she will spin around three times and say, ‘Be closed.’ As the portal begins to narrow, she will toss the items into the window, causing it to lock. Permanently.”

            “How will you know that we did it?” Lilly asked.

            “I will know,” she said. Then she snapped her fingers. Mom and Dad started moving again. “Come, I will send you home!”

            Lady Aster spoke some words that sounded like water bubbling in a stream. A large window opened, and Lilly could see the woods from her world. The faery queen dipped her head toward them. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Especially the twins. Do not hesitate to cast the magic when you arrive. Good day, human family.”

            With a stern look back at the faery queen, Dad stepped forward into the portal. “Come on, kids,” Mom said, taking Lilly and Willow by the hand. Lilly felt the resistance as they passed through.

            With a few steps, they were back in the forest. Birds chirped and pine needles rustled in the wind. Lilly wanted to run over and hug each tree.

            “Let’s do the magic,” Willow said.

            Lilly poured the bone, string, and rock into her hand. She spun around three times and said, “Be closed!” in her best bossy voice. Then she threw the items into the shrinking portal. It winked out of sight.

            I can’t believe I just did magic. I wonder if it worked, she thought.

            I’m sure it did, Willow thought back.

            Lilly’s eyes grew wide. We can still talk to each other’s minds!

            Totally awesome! Willow thought to her.  

            Even as Lilly was debating whether it was good to have her brother’s voice in her head, she felt waves of hot anger coming from behind her. As she turned around, she saw Nettle and Thorn, their eyes flashing and teeth bared, holding her parents. Even the faery children looked ready to pounce on her and tear her eyes out.

            “Human child, what have you done?” Thorn wailed.

The Singing Campground Part 4

            Lilly struggled to sit up in the soft feather bed. Her heart raced and she could barely breathe. The room in which she woke was peculiar. The stone walls were covered with brightly colored tapestries of forests and animals. The floors were wood planks and partially covered with thick green rugs.

            Or were they rugs? As her foot slipped out of bed, she felt blades of grass.

            The bedframe was built with huge logs. There was a carved pattern of birds along the side facing her. A brilliant white comforter spilled over the sides of the bed with pale green bedding underneath. Bedding that looked suspiciously like giant leaves. And the comforter looked more like milkweed fluff than fabric.

            Where was she?

            She ran to the narrow, high window, and reached up on her tiptoes to peek out. The scene below revealed rolling green hills bordered by dark forests. No sign of any cars or trucks. Or telephone poles.

            I’m in Faerie.  

            Her fuzzy mind cleared, and she remembered. Her family was tricked and pulled through the portal by the faeries they heard singing at the campground. Just so the faery family could take four more people on their camping trip in her world.

            It was too much for her to think about. Time to find her parents and Willow.

            Up to this point, she didn’t even notice she was dressed in a long white nightgown. Someone had dressed her for bed. She tried not to think about that as she threw open the doors of a huge carved wardrobe. Inside were various tunics, leggings, gowns, and other clothing she was not certain of their purpose. Everything was in shades of green and brown. She grabbed brown leggings and a plain green tunic and put them on. Then she pulled out some soft brown leather boots.

            Now feeling like she was in a Robin Hood play, she left her bedchamber and carefully descended the narrow, stone steps that led down to the main floor of this …Palace? Castle?

            After wandering down a long, narrow hallway, she found the dining room. Seated at a table that was longer than ten cafeteria tables set end to end were the rest of her family. Willow was chowing down on several slices of toast and what looked like oatmeal covered in cream.

            “Mggmg! Ya mmgup!” he said, gesturing toward her.

            “Willow! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Mom scolded. She stretched over to hand him the large linen napkin from her lap. “Wipe your face. You look like a barbarian.”

            He swallowed, dabbed his chin, and repeated, “Lilly! You’re finally up. We’ve been waiting for you. Get some food. It’s great!” He grabbed more toasted bread from a huge plate.

            “Mom, Dad, what are we going to do?” Lilly said.

            “Sit down and eat your breakfast,” Dad said. His plate was overflowing with sausages and scrambled eggs. “It’s hard to think on an empty stomach.”

            Lilly rescued two slices of toast before her twin could eat them all. The pieces were small and dark brown, and they didn’t have holes like bread from the grocery store. She scooped some honey from a pot with a wooden ladle and spread it on the bread.

            She hesitated. Although the bread looked delicious, she couldn’t get the warning about faery food out of her head. The rest of her family looked normal, though. Her stomach rumbled to settle the argument. She nibbled the bread, slightly crunchy and bursting with sweetness. Then she took a sip of tea that a servant brought her. It was spicy and sweet.

            “Now that we’re all here, we need to figure out how to get back,” Dad said. Mom nodded from her seat across from him. “There’s no need to panic. Willow told me that Thorn said the portal here was no longer used. That means there must be others.”

            Lilly jumped up and clapped her hands. “Let’s go find another portal!”

            Before her parents could respond, a ruddy-cheeked faery wearing a blue dress and white apron entered the room. “If you are finished with your breakfast, there are some humans that are eager to meet you.” Her wrinkles deepened with her smile. She tucked a wisp of white hair back into her bun and then wiped her hands on her apron. Lilly had never seen an old faery before. Truth be told, she’d never seen any faery before yesterday. In her mind, she always thought they would be tiny like Tinkerbell and eternally young.

            “You may call me Thistle,” the faery said. “I am the housekeeper of Forest Home. My master and mistress left me strict orders to make you comfortable in every way. You must be disoriented, going through the portal like that. Meeting more of your kind will make you feel at home.”

            “There are other humans here?” Lilly asked.

            “They come in various ways,” Thistle said. “Tributes, changelings, and humans who wander through portals.”

            “We got pulled through that portal!” Willow said. “We didn’t choose to come here.”

            Thistle nodded, and her face turned pale. “I know. Nettle and Thorn are always getting into mischief. Been that way since they were wee babes. They need to be more careful. If the Queen found out they reopened that portal, she would be quite angry about it.”

            “We need to go home,” Dad said in a firm voice. “Can you help us?”

            Thistle backed away, shaking her head. “I cannot help you. When the master and the mistress return from their trip, you may ask them.” She turned to the maid clearing the breakfast dishes. “Leave that and take them down to Connell’s cottage.”

            Lilly and her family followed the maid out of the castle and across the grounds.

            It is a castle. I can see the outer walls surrounding us.

            Next to the rear stone wall sat a tiny stone cottage. Behind the cottage was a garden full of flowers and vegetables. The maid led them to the wooden door. Lilly and her family stood there waiting as she knocked.

            Lilly wondered if they’d be friendly.

            The door opened, and a tall man with red hair and a bushy beard appeared. “Well, well. Who do we have here?” he said. Immediately he was surrounded by four small children.

            “Daddy! Daddy! More people like us,” one of the little boys said, peeking out from behind his leg.

            After we met everyone, we went inside and sat down on a couch that smelled like moss and was incredibly soft. The mom, Angela, brought us tea. The children, Tommy, Anna, Kevin, and Danny, sat on the ground watching us intently.

            “So you are the campers that everyone thought died in the brush fire,” Dad said.

            “Yes, if Nettle hadn’t seen us through the portal, we would have been goners,” Angela, said, patting Anna on the head. “We owe him our lives.”

            “Why didn’t you go back?” Lilly wondered out loud. Anna was only three years old and kept trying to touch Lilly’s hair. Little kids could be so annoying.

            “Nettle and Thorn need us to remain on this side of the portal in order for them to use it,” Angela said. “When we saw how much they loved camping in the human world, we decided to stay here. There are many advantages to living in Faerie.” She pulled Danny and Tommy into a hug.  

            “Nettle hired me to oversee the running of his farms,” Ryan added. “He gave us this cottage and all the food we can eat. The land is welcoming to all plant life and the faery workers are strong and tireless. It’s a lot less stressful than my law career.”

            Mom shared a look with Dad, but he shook his head. “That sounds wonderful for you. However, our family needs to get back to the campground. Is there another portal nearby?”

            “If there is, we have no knowledge of it,” Angela said. “I’m sure you will settle in quickly. I’m excited to have someone to share human recipes with. It will be fun. This is your world now.”

            While the adults were talking, Lilly and Willow got pulled outside by the kids.

            “Do you have any video games?” Willow asked.

            Tommy laughed. “No electronics here. No electricity at all.”

            Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re kidding! You can’t even watch TV. What do you do for fun?”

            “We’ll show you,” Kevin said. Lilly, Willow, and the rest of the kids followed him to the barn where four dragons waited in stalls. One of them roared with delight to see Kevin, causing a burst of fire and smoke. He gently patted the dragon’s neck. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said.

            Moments later, Lilly and Willow were riding the skies, each sitting behind one of the kids on a dragon. On a dragon! Lilly was so excited that she couldn’t even speak. She rode behind Anna, her pearl pink dragon’s wings stretched wide.

It was breathtaking to see the land from above. Lilly thought it was the most thrilling thing she’d ever done. She looked over at Willow, who had his eyes squeezed shut and his arms tightly wrapped around Kevin’s waist.

            When they finally landed, Willow jumped down and ran over to the bushes to throw up.

            “Not much for flying then?” Kevin asked, covering a smile.

            Willow wiped his mouth on the inside of his tunic. “Nope. I’d rather sit in my living room and play “Fantasy Combat” with my online friends anytime.”

            “I can’t believe your parents let you ride dragons,” Lilly said. “My mom wouldn’t let me ride a horse until I was eight.”

“We’re a lot older than we look,” Tommy said with a shrug.

            Then Lilly remembered what Willow said about the missing campers. It happened 25 years ago. That meant even if Anna had been a baby at the time, she should be at least 25 years old now. “Wait a minute! You haven’t gotten any older than you were when you came through the portal. How can that be?”

            The Connell kids laughed.

            “I’m actually 28 years old in the human world,” Anna said. “After a few years here, Mom and Dad noticed we hadn’t aged. They got worried and asked Thorn. She said time moves way slower here than in the human world. Our minds still mature like they would back there, but our bodies change more slowly.”

            “That’s creepy!” Willow said. “You guys aren’t really kids at all!”

            “Nope,” Kevin said. “Mom loves it. She says she never wants us to grow up.”

            But Lilly did not think she wanted to have a little girl body forever. She wanted to be an adult. Then people would take her seriously.

            Her parents came out and joined them. “Nice dragons,” Dad said. “Willow and Lilly, I hope you didn’t ride without permission.”

            Lilly’s face turned red. “Only a short ride.”

            Dad gave her a stern look. “We’ll talk about this later. Right now, we’ve got to get back to the castle.”

            The maid who had brought us to the campers stepped out from behind my parents. She appeared to be in great distress as she wrung her hands and stepped back and forth from foot to foot. “Quickly. You must return to the great hall. The Queen is here.” Her eyes grew wide as she added, “Whatever you do, you must not say anything about the broken portal.”

The singing campground Part 3

            “I love story time!” one of the faery children said. They settled down on the logs around the campfire and eagerly waited for their mother to speak.

            Lilly narrowed her eyes at her twin, but Willow sat down next to Rudy, the oldest of the faery children and probably the closest to his age. “Come on, it would be rude to leave without hearing her story,” he pleaded. She shook her head but sat down next to him anyway. If she had to admit it, she was a little curious about the faeries, too.

            Nettle and Thorn sat across from them on another log. Thorn tucked wayward strands of her curly brown hair behind her pointed ears. Then she began to speak.

“In a time past, maybe twenty or so of your human years, some campers got caught in a wildfire right here in the woods. Nettle just happened to be trimming the hedges by an old, abandoned portal when he smelled the smoke. He peeked out and saw a human family scrambling to protect themselves from approaching flames. My husband’s heart was pricked, for you can see we also have children we love.”

            “I had to do something,” Nettle said, his face grim with the memory.

            “Of course, dear,” she said, patting his hand.

            “Nettle had no idea whether the old portal still worked. It had been dormant for centuries. Faerie centuries. But he could try. He reached through the portal and grabbed one of the children. Her brother saw his sister being dragged away and held onto her. The other children tried to free her. But Nettle’s magic was too strong, so the children were all pulled into Faerie. As the last of the four children landed in our garden, the parents also fell through.”

            “That’s amazing,” Willow said. “Everyone in our world thinks they died.”

            Lilly tipped her head like she was chewing on a deep thought. “No one ever saw them again. Why?”

            Thorn and Nettle exchanged glances. “They remain in Faerie,” she said.

            That’s when Lilly remembered that faeries couldn’t lie. But they could bend the truth and leave out what didn’t serve their purpose. “But they must have had friends and other relatives that they left behind,” she said.

            “Sacrifices had to be made,” Thorn said, getting up quickly. “Does anyone want some lemonade?”

            Lilly didn’t like how the faery mother had changed the subject quickly. But she didn’t have anything to accuse her, and Nettle had saved that family.

            “So now you use the portal to come here camping?” Willow asked, taking a cup from Thorn.

            “That’s right,” Nettle said. “When I pulled the human family through the portal, its magic was changed. It now allows six faeries to travel through it. Only six. The same number as the humans that came to us. When we are in your world, no one else can use the portal. Anyone who tries it gets bounced back.”

            “That’s weird,” Willow said.

            “For sure,” Rudy said. “But it means our family can go camping in these woods. We love it here!”

            “It’s fun to go to a place where we don’t have to hide from dragons,” one of the little girl faeries said.

            “A nonmagical world is a much safer world to camp in,” Thorn said. “We’ve talked about it so much, now some of our friends wish to join us. However, the way the portal works, it would be impossible.”

            “That is too bad,” Lilly said. There was something more that the faeries weren’t telling them, but she wasn’t sure what to ask. “We should be getting back. It’s been great to meet you, but we don’t want to get in trouble with our parents.”

            “It’s okay, Lilly. We could stay a little longer,” Willow said.

            “No. We need to go now,” Lilly insisted. She stood and pulled her brother to his feet. “Thank you for the marshmallows and lemonade.”

            Thorn and Nettle stood, and their children gathered around them. “Well met, Willow and Lilly,” Nettle said with a slight bow.

            Thorn smiled and it was like a beam of sunshine. “It’s wonderful that you have parents. A family of four. Perhaps you could bring them back with you tomorrow.”

            “Sure! That sounds great!” Willow said.

            “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Lilly dragged her brother through the woods until they reached the road where their bikes were parked. Her head felt fuzzy, and her legs were wobbly on her bike.

            As they rode, Lilly could glimpse the sun resting on the horizon between the trees. No doubt they had missed dinner and would be in trouble.

            “Why did we stay there so long?” Lilly yelled.

            “You don’t meet faeries every day,” Willow cried.

            Lilly had a sense of uneasiness that settled over her like night over the sunset. The faeries had been nothing but nice to them, and yet… Every faery tale she’d ever read warned against dealing with the fae.

Hopefully, eating a few marshmallows was safe.

            When they zoomed into their campsite, their dad was walking toward them with a lantern. “There you are,” he said. “We were getting worried. I was just getting ready to come find you.”

            “Sorry,” Willow said. “The sun set extra fast today.”

            Mom jumped up from her chair. “Lilly, I expected better from you. Your brother has no sense of time, but you are usually more sensible.”

            Lilly’s heart ached when she saw her mom upset. “I’m so sorry, Mom. We went on a hike in the woods. It was shady in there. I didn’t realize what time it was.” She hated lying to her parents, but there was no way she was going to tell them they met faeries.

            “I’m starving,” Willow said.

            “Your plates are on the kitchen counter,” Mom said. “After you’re done, you can do the dishes and take the trash down to the dumpster. You can expect extra chores tomorrow.”

            The next day, Dad decided the family should take a hike. Lilly and Willow were excited because usually Dad preferred to sit in the shade and watch sports on their big screen TV on the outside of the trailer.

            “It’s a beautiful day, and families should enjoy it together!” he said. Mom packed lunch. Lilly grabbed the trail map the ranger gave them when they checked in.

            “Maybe we should hike down to the lake,” she said, squinting at the different colored lines on the map. “It’s only 1.7 miles and it’s rated moderate. I think we could do that.”

            “Let’s go!” Willow said.

            It didn’t take them long to find the trailhead for the hike to Lake Cuyamaca. Lilly and Willow walked ahead while Mom and Dad followed. The path was paved with tiny gravel, so it was easy to walk on. Occasionally, another path would branch out from the main one.

            “Willow, don’t go down there,” Dad said. “We don’t know where it leads. I need to conserve my energy.” He was already sweating in the steamy late morning sunshine. The lake trail crossed a huge meadow without any shade. Lilly was already regretting her choice.

            “Dad, maybe we should rest under those trees,” she said, pointing to the woods on the left.

            “Good idea,” Dad said. “It’s hard for us old folks to keep up with you kids in this humidity.”

            “I brought granola bars and tangerines,” Mom said. “This would be a good time to take a break.”

            Lilly and Willow followed their parents into the woods. Dad kept going until he found a place for them to sit down. The twins realized that the clearing looked familiar.

A large unnatural brush-free area with a fire circle in the middle, surrounded by fallen logs forming benches around it.

            This was the same place they met the faeries!

            Lilly started to shiver, which made no sense for a hot day. She was pretty good at directions. The clearing she and Willow visited last night was at the other end of the campground. In fact, when she chose the lake trail, she had purposely picked a route far from where they had met the faeries.

            A rustle announced six familiar foxes as they bounced out of the bushes.

            “Look, Arnie, foxes!” Mom said, taking a step back.

            “Stay away from them, dear,” Dad said, shielding her with his arm. “They might have rabies or something.” He turned to Lilly and Willow, who were standing frozen with looks of surprise on their faces. “Kids, they won’t attack you. They’re afraid of humans.”

            “Not all are,” Nettle said, standing up on two legs. “Lilly, Willow, nice to see you again. And thank you so much for bringing your parents.”

            Mom grabbed Lilly’s arm. “You know these creatures?” she asked.

            Lily attempted a weak smile. “Of course, Mom. But they’re not really foxes. They’re faeries.”

            “You can’t see what they really look like until you eat some of their food,” Willow added. “We met them last night. They’re super cool.”

            Thorn came forward and handed two graham crackers to Lilly. “Give these to your parents. Then they will believe.”

            Lilly realized this was a lot easier than trying to argue with her parents. She handed a cracker to each parent, which they ate with a lot of doubt. As soon as they swallowed them, their eyes were opened.

            “My, my! You ARE faeries!” Dad said.

            “Arnie, are they dangerous?” Mom asked, rubbing her eyes.

            “We’d love you to join us for an early luncheon,” Thorn said. “We’ve prepared something special for you.”

            Before Lilly could protest that they were in the middle of a family hike, Nettle grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes.

            Several things happened at once.

Thorn pulled Dad into the woods. Rudy took Willow’s arm and pulled him behind her. Mom shrieked and ran after them. What did the faeries want with them?

Did faeries eat humans?

Whoosh! Twisting around, she could see a whirlpool in the air, framed by the ancient branches of two oak trees. The portal. Next thing she knew, Nettle passed through it, making her ears pop. The rest of the faeries and her family followed.

Nettle set her gently down into a bed of soft pine needles. She couldn’t see anything because on this side of the portal, it was night. But it smelled tangy like a forest. She thought she could also smell grilled chicken and corn.

Then she felt the thump of her brother and parents falling next to her. The faeries stood over them, their green eyes reflecting the pale moonlight.

“What do you want from us?” Lilly said in a half-sobbing voice.

“You’d better let us go,” Dad said. “I’ve got a knife.”

“Arnie, it’s only a pocketknife,” Mom argued.

“You weren’t supposed to tell them that. It’s iron after all. Doesn’t iron hurt them?” he said.

A few whispered words produced a flame which Thorn used to light a lantern. Her beautiful face looked haunting in its light.

“We are sorry to distress you in any way. You are very important to us. Because the four of you passed through the portal, now we can bring four of our friends out to your world for a camping trip,” Thorn said in a soothing voice.

“Our children play with theirs,” Nettle said. “They love to play in the woods. It gives us adults plenty of time to sit around the campfire.”

Lily’s mind whirred. “So, you need humans to go through this portal into your garden so that you can take faeries back to our world for a camping trip? What about our camping trip?”

Dad stood up, looking around. “Where are we? Send us back immediately!”
            Thorn sighed like a patient mother. “I’m so sorry. It’s time for you to rest now. When you awaken, luncheon will be served.” She waved her hand and a thick purple mist covered Lily and her family, sending them into dreamless sleep.

The singing campground: Part 2

“Let go! Got to get a video of this!” Willow tried to pull his arm and phone out of Lilly’s grip

“Shush! They’ll hear us.” She dragged him back into the surrounding trees. The clearing in front of them was a large circle, too perfect to have been formed by nature. But it wasn’t the clearing that raised the goosebumps on her arms.

They both stood there staring like mannequins in a store window. From the singing, Lilly had expected to see real people, sitting around a campfire. But this wasn’t a regular campsite. And the fire was not in a campground fire pit. She was certain that was against the rules. Mom always read the rules to them when they stayed at a new place.

Willow, his head full of stories about the campers lost in a wildfire years ago, expected to have his first glimpse of ghosts.

Neither twin saw what they expected.

Furry, red foxes with white faces, holding sticks in their hands (paws) and roasting marshmallows over a blue fire. Lilly knew fires were not usually blue, except natural gas flames under a stove. This was a blue fire coming out of a huge stack of logs piled in log cabin style.

And the foxes must have heard them arguing, because they stopped singing, and looked toward the trees where they crouched.

“Awesome!” Willow whisper-shouted. “They’re foxes!”

“What should we do?” Lilly asked, being the more practical twin.

At that moment, one of the larger foxes set its stick down on a rock, making sure that the partially browned marshmallow didn’t touch the ground. It walked on its back legs a few steps towards them.

“Come out from the trees, human kits,” it said in a low-pitched, deep voice. Lilly’s mouth dropped open. The voice was so human that if she wasn’t watching the words come out of the fox’s snout, she would be certain it was an adult man.

“Run!” Lilly grabbed her brother’s arm.

“Not only can they roast marshmallows, but they can talk!” Willow said, his smile ear to ear. “I want to meet them.”

“We should go. Mom said not to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers are human, silly. These are foxes. That can talk.”

“Come into the clearing,” the fox said. “We are eager to meet you. Did you hear our song?”

“Yes, we heard it,” Willow said. “It was awesome. We wanted to see who was singing it. Are you ghosts?”

The small foxes laughed, and it sounded like water tinkling on glass. Another large fox came near, standing by the first one.

“No, we are quite alive,” the second fox said in a high feminine voice. “But our true natures are concealed by glamour. Those who don’t hear our song, see only normal foxes in the woods.”

“If you’re not foxes, what, or who, are you?” Lilly asked.

The female fox gestured toward the campfire. “See for yourselves. We intend no harm toward you.”

Willow and Lilly looked at each other. When Mom had gone over all the rules about camping, she had not told them what to do when encountering magical talking foxes who ate marshmallows.

“Don’t be a baby, Lilly,” Willow said, making the decision for them both. He pushed her into the clearing where they took seats on large fallen logs around the roaring campfire. One of the smaller foxes handed each of them a carved stick with two marshmallows stuck on top.

“If this is one of those faerie tales, we really shouldn’t eat any food they offer us,” Lilly whispered to her brother.

“It’s only marshmallows,” Willow said. He thrust his stick into the fire. His marshmallows were a burning torch in seconds.

“That’s not the way to roast them,” Lilly said. She carefully dangled her stick at the edge of the fire, avoiding the strange blue flames. After a few minutes, she turned her stick. The side of her marshmallows facing the fire had turned golden brown.

“That’s the proper way to do it,” the largest of the small foxes said. “You can call me Rudy. What do you call yourselves?” The fox licked the gooey white from his claws. The other small foxes huddled together, staring at them with unblinking black eyes.

“I’m Willow, and this is Lilly,” her brother said. “We’re twins.”

“How delightful!” the older female fox said. She shared a knowing glance with the male fox, and then handed Willow two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate. After putting it together like a sandwich, he ate it quickly.

“Mmmm. This is delicious,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

Lilly was still not sure whether she should eat her perfectly roasted treat. She watched her brother, holding her breath. If something went wrong, she would grab him and run back to their campsite.

Willow jumped up from the log. “I can see you!” he shouted to Rudy. “You’re not a fox. You’re a boy!”

Lilly stared at her brother in horror. Did the food do something to him?

“Don’t worry. Your brother was not poisoned by our s’mores. When a visitor eats with us, they can see who we really are,” Rudy said. “Go ahead, eat it. You’ll see.”

She slowly pulled the marshmallow off the stick. Its crunchy gooey sweetness exploded in her mouth. It was the best roasted marshmallow she had ever tasted. As she swallowed it, her eyes were opened.

The foxes around the campfire were replaced by slender people dressed in various shades of brown and green. Two of them looked like adults and the rest were children of various ages from around four to twelve. Rudy looked like the oldest. They could have passed for survivalists living in the woods except for their long pointed ears that poked out from their silky dark brown hair.

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

“Summer Court, to be exact,” the father said. “You can call me Nettle. This is my wife, Thorn. You’ve already met Rudy. The others are Loden, Sunny, Tawny, and Golden.” The faeries nodded as Nettle named them.

Willow frowned. “What are you doing out here? Don’t faeries live in a different realm?”

Thorn smiled. Her glowing emerald green eyes framed by waves of shimmering dark brown hair were so lovely that Lilly and Willow’s hearts felt like they would break. “We’re camping. Like you and your family are,” she said.

Lilly pushed out of her mind the faery’s radiating bliss. From the books she’d read, she knew faeries were tricky and not usually nice to humans. Leaving right now would be the reasonable thing to do.

“Nice to meet all of you. Willow and I have to go now. Dad needs us to help with dinner.” She tried to pull her brother away, but he shook her off.

“Is there a portal around here?” he said, looking around. The surrounding woods, other than the perfect campfire clearing, looked like normal trees. There was no hint of magic.

“Sit down,” the mother said. “It is a long tale, but I would tell it to you.”

Willow sat back down on the log. Lilly sighed but joined him anyway. Her brother had no common sense whatsoever. She felt like she was born as his twin so that she could keep him out of trouble.

Sometimes it worked.

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

summer home

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

dragon 2

 

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.

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