The Witch Who Was Afraid of Magic

     

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

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

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

They both brought pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she smiled.

Losing Control: A witch’s dilemma

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ZAP!!! Boom! Tinkle! My grandmother’s favorite teapot hit the floor and broke into a million pieces.

Staring at my hands in horror, I realized the cause. It was happening more and more. My hands trembled as I swept up fine porcelain scraps and dumped them into the trash can. Last week, I set my sister’s cat’s tail on fire. The week before that, I was pretty sure I caused my other sister’s rash.

Practicing magic is a responsibility. That’s what our mother used to say when we were young witches. I can still see her furrowed brow, her thin lips set in a straight line. Strict but caring. I still miss her, gone all these years.

After she passed, I became the most responsible witch in our family. I washed our clothes, swept our cottage, and cooked stew over the fire. That’s more than my lazy sisters, Rose and Camellia, ever did. They were only interested in coming up with new spells.

For the first twenty years of my life, my spells were obedient to my commands. Then suddenly, after last Midsummer’s festival, magic started leaking out at inopportune moments.

Practicing magic requires control. Successful spells and potions were the result of focused intent and attention to detail. A pinch more lavender than required, and the entire village could fall sleep instead of easing one anxious mother into slumber. The village elders only accepted our family as witches because we pledged to do no harm.

If I couldn’t get my magic under control, I would lose it. Literally. The regional coven would show up and drain me of my magic. Without a trial. On the spot. And I would spend the rest of my life mundane.

Think. Think. How could I tame my magic? Maybe I was working too hard. Meditation. That would help.

Rose, my older sister, helped me set up candles and pillows outside under the willow tree. Away from anything breakable. Her eyes told me she knew what was at stake. We didn’t discuss it. Any talk about misused magic could draw the attention of the coven elders. They seemed to be everywhere.

I closed my eyes, settled into the goose down pillows, and listened to the birds warbling high above me. The breeze sighed through the willow’s drooping branches, tickling my face with the scent of wildflowers. The birds called out to one another, the same melody repeated over and over again, like an inappropriate tavern song stuck in your head.

Hard to meditate with that cursed chirping. Suddenly silence fell over me like a blanket. Small objects pelted me and hit the ground, some tipping over the candles. With horror, I realized they were dead birds. My stomach churned with urgency. I leaned over past the pillows to vomit on the grass.

If I didn’t want to kill my sisters and burn down the village, I would have to either move into the woods or have the coven drain my magic. I started to pack my bag when my younger sister, Camellia, came in from the garden.

“Where are you going, Violet?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Have you been called away on a quest for the queen?”

I didn’t want to lie to my sister, but I did anyway. “Of course, that’s where I’m going. I will miss you and Rose, of course, but if the queen summons me, I must obey.”

As I stood at the door with my bag over my shoulder, Camellia hugged me farewell. As she released me, there was a POP and a cloud of silver smoke. As the smoke cleared, a small black rabbit sat on the floor. Poor sister!

I ran as fast as I could down to the main road. I guess I could have stayed and tried to turn her back, but I didn’t trust my magic. What if I turned her into a fly and Rose swatted her with the broom? Rose would figure it out when she returned.

Where could I run to escape myself? I followed the road as day turned to night. Pulling my wool shawl closer, I worried it wouldn’t be enough. I mumbled a warming spell and felt its instant effect. At least that magic still worked.

A full moon guided my steps as I reached the northern woods. I ducked under its covering, following animal trails. A childhood memory tickled in my head. There had been an abandoned hut out here where a woodcutter used to live.

The humming of insects and scurrying of unseen creatures kept me company as I threaded through the trees. I did not worry about becoming prey as my protection spell would cloak me from sight and spell.

Then I saw it. Nestled near a rushing stream, a crumbling wooden shack. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and drew a picture in my mind. When I opened them, I saw a small, thatched roof cottage with a sturdy wooden door, one window on each side trimmed with boxes of bright colored flowers.

When I stepped inside, a roaring fire in the hearth welcomed me. With a sigh, I unwound my shawl and hung it on a hook by the door. I unwrapped the bread I had brought and set it on the table. I put the kettle on for tea and then sat down in a rocker by the fire.

What would I do now? Forage for food in the woods and stay away from people? I was no hermit. Then I saw a letter on the mantle. I got up and opened the seal, a butterfly symbol that looked like the one Mother used to close her letters.

Tears leaked down my face as I read:

“Dearest daughter,

By now, you have learned that trying to control your magic in

your own strength is futile. This is your first step toward

mastery. Your magic is strong, but you must remember

it is not your work but a gift from the Creator.

It was not given for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.

Now that you are here, away from your many tasks,

take the time to understand your purpose.

Then your magic will be under control.

With love and hope,

Mother”

Carefully I refolded the letter, tucked it into its envelope and set the letter back on the mantle.

Mother knew I would reach this point. There still was hope for my future.

I would discover my purpose and learn more about the one who was really in control.

Skulls on a shelf

The witch dried off her newest skull and set it next to the others. She dumped out her cauldron on the roses in her front yard. Then she scrubbed out the pot and set it on a hook in the kitchen.

A huge sigh escaped her lips. She hated it when she lost another friendship. Friendships took many years of thought and nurturing. She poked at the fire and then sat down in her rocker, wrapping herself in blankets. Charcoal, her familiar, jumped in her lap and started purring.

In some ways, she was like her cat. Independent, resourceful, content in her solitude. Yet endless days of tending her herb garden, bottling potions, and sweeping her small cottage left her with simmering discontent.

This discord, a rumbling like a hungry stomach, would drive her to the village. There was a tea shop where women who came to the market would gather. Curious women would invite her to sit at their table. It filled her heart to hear the local gossip and trade recipes for apple pie.

Sometimes there would be one woman to wanted to know more about herblore. The witch would sit with her new friend at another table and talk about various plants and how they were useful for cooking and medicine.

The witch only developed one of these special friends at a time, hoping she would find a kindred spirit with whom she could eventually share her craft. How wonderful it was to unburden herself from her secrets. This was her favorite stage of friendship when everything was shiny like a gold coin.

After the friendship had been forged for several years, the witch would invite her special friend to her cottage. During the summer, they would gather herbs and the witch would teach her friend about their qualities. When the cold winds blew, the women would make bread and tea and sit by the fire. Charcoal would hide under the bookshelf, her yellow eyes glowing with disapproval.

Eventually all friendships ended the same way. When the witch finally revealed that she was looking for an apprentice, her friend would gasp in horror and run home.

Then the village gossip would turn evil. Her friend would tell everyone that the witch was dabbling in dark arts. The witch couldn’t set foot in the tea shop without feeling stares and hearing whispers about her. The witch would plead with her friend not to talk about her. That she had misunderstood what the witch had said about her craft.

Because she had built the friendship slowly, her friend would relent from her mudslinging. However, the damage was done. The friend would not drink tea with the witch anymore. The other women would still look sideways at the witch when she wasn’t looking.

The witch hated what came next, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her secrets needed to be protected. She brought her special tea to the tea shop and convinced the owner to serve it. It was an ancient potion designed to make everyone forget the witch and everything anyone said about her.

For her friend, the witch had another special tea. This tea temporarily made her friend compliant to the witch’s commands. Once her friend drank it, the witch lured her back to the cottage where she did what she had to do.

Now nestled under her blanket, thoughtfully crocheted by one of her former friends, the witch gazed up at the row of white human skulls lined up on the mantle. Usually, she kept them locked away in a chest, too macabre for visitors. Today she had decided they needed to be on display. These skulls were her failures at friendship.

Perhaps this time she would learn her lesson.

What a robot learned at school

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“I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense, Anon,” Mom shouted. “Androids don’t go to school!”

“Then why was I designed to look like a child?” I wondered out loud.

Dad sighed and gave me a sad smile. “We wanted to fit in with the rest of our friends. We couldn’t have biological children, so we selected you.”

Mom took a cleansing breath and lowered her voice. She looked so beautiful when her face was relaxed, which wasn’t often. Long shimmering black hair with rebel white strands framed her symmetrical face. Her large brown eyes were filled with tears. What did I do to hurt her this time?

“Anon, there is no reason for you to attend school,” she said. “You’re already programmed to know everything you would ever need to know.” She patted the synthetic skin on my hand. “You’re a big help to me at home. How would I finish all my work for the corporation if I didn’t have you to do research for me?”

I did help Mom a lot. Not only did I research properties for the corporation to absorb into its ever-expanding empire, but I also did the house chores that couldn’t be completed by the cleaning bots.

Knowing I was useful made my core swell with pride, but it wasn’t enough.

“All the other kids go to school,” I insisted, accessing my sulky voice program.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Did they have a form of mind speak I didn’t know about? Mom sniffed. Dad set down his tablet and took a sip of coffee.

“It might be instructive for Anon to experience school,” Dad said.

#

The next morning, I stood at the bus stop with a crowd of children, my backpack hanging from my shoulder and my Avengers lunch pail clutched in my hand. Although I would not require food and bathroom breaks, my realistic human design should allow me to fit in as a normal child.

“New kid, back of the line!” A large stocky kid pushed me on my chest compartment, causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground.

“Leave him alone, Mikey,” a soft but firm voice said. I looked up to see a tiny girl in a pale pink dress standing in front of the boy who pushed me, her hands on her hips.

“Who’s gonna make me?” Mikey retorted.

“A little girl in a pink dress,” she said, touching his arm.

Zap! He jumped back like his circuits were overloaded. With a murderous glare, he shuffled to the back of the line. The girl took my hand and helped me up.

“Is this your first day?” she asked as we sat in one of the front seats. It seemed most of the other students preferred the back section of the bus.

“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. I watched her buckle her seat belt and then I did the same.

“I’m Adeline,” the girl said, her dimples deepening with her smile. “Don’t pay any attention to Mikey. His parents knock him around at home, so he has to bring it to school. I always carry a zapper with me.” She showed me the small device she’d used on the boy. I scanned its circuits to construct one for myself later. It seemed wise to add a nonlethal weapon to my arsenal.

I attempted to smile back, but my program only allows a slightly upturned mouth. “Thank you for defending me, although it is not necessary. My name is Anon.”

“Nice to meet you, Anon,” Adeline said.

When we got to school, Adeline walked me to the office where I was assigned to Mrs. Roberts’ fourth grade class. How Mom determined this was my appropriate educational level I do not know, but Adeline was in my class, and that made me happy.

We walked around the playground and Adeline introduced me to her many friends. Then the bell rang, and we lined up outside our classroom portable.

“Welcome to our class, Anon,” a tall lady wearing a “Learning is an Adventure” tee shirt and jeans greeted me. Mrs. Roberts smiled, and then added, “Class, we have a new student, Anon. Please help him adjust to our class routines.”

My programming made classwork easy. At first, when Mrs. Roberts asked the class a question, I eagerly raised my hand. After the first five questions, I noticed some of the students frowning in my direction and giving me what Adeline would later describe as “the stink eye.”

“Give the other students a chance to speak,” Adeline whispered.

That’s when I realized being in class was not about showing everything I knew. I was part of a larger machine. Mrs. Roberts’ class was made up of many moving parts, or students. We had to work together. 

But then there was recess. I stood in line at the ball room to get a bouncy ball, as per Adeline’s instructions. Just as the playground supervisor was going to hand it to me, Mikey pushed in and grabbed it. He ran out to the hand ball court, a posse of boys behind him.

“He can’t get away with that,” Adeline grumbled.

“I’ll go get the ball from him,” I offered. How I was going to do that, I had no idea. No matter how many questions I answered in the classroom, I wouldn’t be successful until I learned how to handle a bully.

So I walked up to Mikey, who was on the court playing hand ball. “Stop this game!” I said firmly, walking in the middle of their court.

“What are you doing?” the other boy on the court complained. Several kids in line at the side of the court started grumbling.

“Mikey, I stood in line to get that ball,” I said, reaching out.

“That’s too bad, you whiny weirdo!” he shouted. “Get off my court!”

Suddenly, I felt overtaken with strong emotion. My parents had never spoken to me with disrespect. I had been programmed with courtesy protocols that I suspected Mikey had no familiarity with. I was an intricately designed android with capabilities far beyond normal children. Why was I allowing this bully to dictate my actions?

“If you don’t give me the ball immediately, you will regret it,” I warned, choosing a low growl voice.

“You gonna make me?” Mikey scoffed.

“Yes. I will,” I replied. As I raised my arms toward him, I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for overriding safety protocols. My wrist cannons popped out, each barrel as wide as Mikey’s arm. “And you better not bully anyone else at this school. Give me the ball!”

Mikey’s eyes bugged out, and he handed me the ball. His supporters scattered. Adeline and her friends walked up. “Let’s play before the bell rings,” she said. No one said anything about my guns.

That night when I sat with my parents at the dinner table (not that I ate anything, but they wanted me to keep them company), Dad asked, “How was your first day of school?”

My circuits flashed. “I met a new friend. She taught me lessons outside the classroom that were not part of my original codes. Damaged humans threaten other humans smaller than them, and you have to defend yourself.”

“That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “You’re staying home with me.”

“Please, Mom. I want to stay in school. Friends, classmates, and bullies are essential to learning how to be human.”

A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

Walking with Cuddles

walking dog

 

“Come on, Cuddles, let’s go for a walk!” I brace myself as he runs into me full force, almost knocking me through the door. Got to read that obedience book again. Not controlling him always leads to disaster.

“Cuddles, sit,” I command in my best version of Frank’s authoritative voice. My husband never has trouble getting him to do what he wants. Cuddles spins around, knocking over the lamp with his tail before he thumps down on the floor and bows his head. Quickly, before he changes his mind, I slip on the choke collar with leash attached. I wish he could walk with me unleashed, but a bird might lure him away, and we’d never see him again.

Like we do every day, Cuddles and I walk down our street, his head close to my leg on the right. Proper position makes your pet respect your leadership. A few of our neighbors are out with their dogs. They nod, but remain on the opposite side of the street. Their dogs whine and tuck in their tails as we pass. In response, Cuddles growls and pulls at the leash.

“Cuddles, leave it!” I should have brought the spray bottle with us. He hates it when I spray him on the nose. The smoke cloud makes it hard for him to see, and he hates the sizzling sound.

When we reach the park, I follow the meandering path that runs through the shade of the trees. Cuddles loves being outside, and he puffs out a happy rumble. Two moms grab their children off the playground equipment and quickly strap them into their strollers. They manage to zoom away right as we approach. Some people are so chicken when it comes to having their kids around strange pets, passing that paranoia down to another generation.

But I can’t control other people’s reactions, so I walk Cuddles out of the park and head home. He is hardly pulling at all now, and I’m thankful Frank and I decided to adopt a pup instead of an adult shelter pet. These last two years have been a lot of work and cost us new cabinets in the laundry room, but our Cuddles has shaped up nicely.

Back home again, I open up the gate and take off Cuddle’s collar. He flaps away into our screened in backyard, shooting out flames as he goes. All in all, he’s a great little dragon, and we wouldn’t trade him for anything.

When Magic Fails

witch

 

 

All I wanted was to ride as fast as I could to the edge of the world and drop off.

Earlier this same day, I had not suspected anything would go wrong. I got up, drank my elixir, and got ready for work. My wrinkles and warts faded away as usual, and I braided my long shiny black hair. As I walked out the door, I kissed my cat and she hissed at me. Nothing different there.

Icy blasts whipped across my face as I rode my broom toward the office. Usually, I love fresh air, but this wind whispered evil portents. I cast a protective bubble around me and stopped shivering.

When I arrived at the large, crumbling castle, I set my broom up against the rack with the others. Everyone was here today, I noticed. That could be good or bad. I mumbled my Freshen Up spell to release the wrinkles in my black dress and walked in the back door.

Our entire staff of witches, as well as the receptionists, gathered around our CEO, Madame Bramblerose. Was I late for some staff meeting I didn’t know about? Sarah gestured towards me to get over there, her eyes flashing. That girl really was a witch.

“As some of you know, there have been reports from the Eastern Realm that are quite disturbing. None of us should panic, since we have long expected this could happen. Rest assured that Western Coven Magical Assist will do everything in our magical power to continue our service to the community,” Madame Bramblerose said in a gravelly voice. Everyone’s eyes, even Becky Speckleleaf, who usually dozes during meetings, were fixed on our leader.

I shook out my shoulders, which had started to clench up. Spells could be affected by tension in a witch’s body. What in the seven hells was she talking about?”

“In order to continue our expected level of service, witches will work in partners for every spell. Every spell. No exceptions.”

Groans echoed throughout the room. Most witches have their own personal style, and they don’t play well together. The corporate environment of WCMA kept us from killing each other. Most of the time.

“I appreciate your professionalism in these trying times. Your partner assignments have been loaded into your mirrors. Get out there and do your best.” She swept out of the circle and into her office, the heavy wooden door slamming locked behind her. That’s the last we’d see her that day. Well, I would see her in an even worse mood, but that would be later.

“What’s this all about?” I whispered to Bonnie, who shared an office with me. She came from the country, like me, and kept a level head. These city witches weren’t used to demon attacks and superstitious village mobs with torches.

“Magic is failing,” she whispered back, her tan face uncharacteristically pale. “The rate of spell failure is 17.8% and rising. It’s begun.”

My stomach flipped. Of course I’d grown up with the threat of Magic Fade, but I didn’t think it would happen in my generation. Mama had told me all about it when I was little, not exactly the type of bedtime story I would tell my children. A time would come, she would say with lifted eyebrow and low insistent voice, when the magic in our world would be used up. After all, it wasn’t a renewable resource, everyone knew that. Magic resided in the rocks, the ancient stones that surrounded us. Rocks were everywhere across the realms, plentiful as weeds. And yet, every time we cast a spell, a little more of our magic was lost.

“Sheep dung!” I swore with a hiss.

“It certainly is,” she agreed.

When I spoke my password into the mirror on the wall in front of my desk, the assignment list popped up. “Bull pies!” I spit out, as I saw who my partner would be. The Goddess hated me. Bramblerose hated me.

“Marion, get your lazy bones out of that chair, and let’s get to work,” a grating, familiar voice called from the doorway. I looked up to see a tall, thin witch with white stringy hair that hung from her head like a poppet. Sarah Nightshade. She would be working spells with me. All. Week. Long.

“I’m coming,” I called, and as I passed her, Bonnie gave me a pitying look. No one worked with Sarah for many good reasons.

The rest of day went pretty much as could be expected. Customers came into our consulting rooms, otherwise known as remodeled dungeon cells. There I spent hours casting spells with Sarah. Most of the time, customers were completely satisfied. I could feel the magic thinning a bit, but I could still access it without too much effort.

All day long, I ignored my partner’s demeaning insults and disgusting personal habits. Do you have any idea how unpleasant it is to be cooped up in a tiny cell with someone who passes gas continually? And when they brought us our lunch, she shoved the plate in her face and ate the stew without her spoon. Disgusting, and she’s the one who calls me uncouth. Called me, I mean.

Finally, I saw we reached the last customer on our list. Not a minute too soon. A tiny, tottering old crone came in, her face covered in festering warts, no doubt caused by constant exposure to poisonous plants she grew for the medicine men. Oh no. Not another beauty spell. That took positive, beautiful thoughts, and I was fresh out. Sarah obviously didn’t have any to begin with.

“My husband won’t sleep in our bed anymore,” she rasped. “He sleeps out in the sheep shed. Embarrassing when our neighbors see him crawl out in the morning. Please help me.” She offered the standard payment in her wrinkled and twisted hand. Where did that old lady get that much gold?

“No problem,” Sarah said, pocketing her money. “Lay down on the table.” The crone creaked over to a low pallet positioned in the middle of the room. Both of us could easily walk around the patient, taking magical items from the cupboard against the wall. As my partner got the woman settled, I reached into the cupboard and took out the herbs we needed, just like I’d done hundreds of times before. Can’t really blame Sarah for putting the jar in the wrong place. It’s my responsibility to pay attention.

After mixing the dried leaves with a white powder and pouring cow urine over it, I brought the elixir over to Sarah. She sniffed it and frowned. “Doesn’t look as potent as the last batch. Are you sure you did it right?”

That was it. I was done with that witch. “Who are you to question me? Just because I went to a country school doesn’t mean I’m an idiot!” I roared at her with the pent-up frustration I’d saved all day.

She stepped back from the sparks flying from my hands. When did I start doing that? I usually didn’t have much command over lightning magic. Must have been all that partner work.

After I calmed down, we chanted the spell together, and then she gave the potion to the crone, who drank it down quickly with a grimace. Then the fun began.

Our frail old lady shot up from the table and began spinning in the air. In the air. Not part of our spell. The cell filled with foul smoke and when it cleared, a large demon appeared. Again, not part of our spell.

I’ll spare you most of the details because to be honest, it happened so fast I didn’t have much time to react. Of course, Sarah and I called on our defensive magic, but wouldn’t you know, my magic worked, but hers didn’t. The ugly demon with sharp teeth and claws made quick work of our customer and my fellow witch. It couldn’t reach through my bubble, but I couldn’t touch it either. Discouraged, it burst through our door, reducing it to a pile of kindling. I ran out after it.

Eventually, the witches got the demon under control and sealed him up in a jar, just in case we needed it for something in the future. Madame Bramblerose wrote me up for sloppy spell work and suspended me for a week. None of the other witches could look me in the eye, not even Bonnie.

Now I was zooming away on my broom, disgraced and guilty as hell. I should have checked the jar. A demon-summing spell is far different than a beauty potion. Not only did I mess up the spell, but now I could feel it. My magic was fading. Who was I without magic?

I headed toward the mountains, to my favorite hideout. When things had not gone well at primary school, I had discovered a place where I could hide until Mama used her Find My Child spell. Landing on a huge, flat rock, I sat down to watch the rushing water traveling down the mountain’s back. It would be so easy to jump over the side and allow the jagged rocks and swirling water to do its work.

The evening sun was setting behind the ridge, so I cast a small ball of light that hovered in front me. Its glow was pale and weak. The water roared below me, taunting me, daring me.

If magic failed completely, would I still be a witch? Before magic school, I showed some talent with a brush. Maybe I could be a portrait painter. Wouldn’t make much gold, so I would have to move back to the farm with Mama and the boys.

I looked up and saw the endless field of stars above me. Even without a spell, I could read their possibilities. Tangy pine air inflated my lungs. I was still me. No longer could I hear the water’s cry. When I mounted my broom and headed home, I knew I would find my way.

 

 

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.