The College of the Crones- Chapter Three

Masquerade Ball

Although there were nightly parties at the prince’s castle, everyone’s favorite event was the harvest festival masquerade ball.  All the landowners and townspeople came dressed in elaborate and often ridiculous costumes. The prince chuckled to himself as he pictured it. For most of my subjects the foolish apparel is an improvement. Except for the ladies, of course. At least the ladies, thanks to his beauty potion, did not offend his sensibilities.

All the preparations were complete for the masquerade ball. The prince’s castle had been decked with garlands of ivy and flowers. From the kitchen came a whirlwind of noise and aromas, escalating as the hour of the guests’ arrival approached. The band was tuning their instruments. Court ladies reclined in their dressing rooms, allowing their servants and handmaidens to add last minute details to their costumes. All the lanterns and chandeliers had been lit. The castle glistened like a giant star upon the hill. Since it was the end of the harvest season and winter was approaching, it was already quite dark and crispy cool. It was the perfect night for a ball.

The prince relaxed in his sitting room, his chair facing a crackling fire in a massive stone fireplace. The fireplaces were always roaring in his private rooms. He thought himself quite a handsome sight with wavy black hair that brushed his shoulders, a neatly trimmed beard, piercing green eyes, and a prominent nose. Still, he was too thin, despite his feasting, and not as tall as he would have liked. His narrow pointed ears he kept hidden under his hair. He didn’t need to draw attention to the few differences between mortals and faeries. His people thought his never-ending youth was due to another potion that he kept for himself. If they discovered he was a faerie, they wouldn’t be so eager to trust him.

He didn’t like to reflect on his long centuries in the Fair Lands, but as the days grew shorter and the nights longer, he could not help but brood and think gloomily on his once perfect life. And, being immortal gave him endless years to think on what he had lost. This world was a desolate wasteland, cold and dry in comparison to Faery. No one, man or faerie, could leave that perfect place behind and be satisfied elsewhere. That undoubtedly was the reason he had been exiled rather than destroyed. The King knew this would provide long years of punishment.

But I’ve done the best I could to adapt to this barren land.  He set himself up as a ruler, after disposing of the prior occupants of the castle, and began winning the countrymen’s favor. To those with no conscience, he offered positions as his personal guards. Their obedience could be guaranteed with gold.  He also hired soldiers to keep the peace, and administrators to keep order in the outlying villages. After the wild abandon of Faery, he needed structure around him. It made him feel like he still maintained some measure of control over his life.

Most landowners and peasants were won over easily when they learned of the astounding powers of the prince’s tonic. His potion making prowess had afforded him the perfect weapon. Once the people learned what the tonic could do, his position as their leader was secured.

Of course, I am perfectly suited to be their prince. His charm was legendary. Everyone loved him. Why wouldn’t they? He gave men beautiful wives, and women beautiful parties. That they gave up certain things for these pleasures seemed a logical and fair trade to him.

A quiet knock roused him from his daydreaming. “Your Highness, carriages have been spotted on the road. Your guests are arriving,” a small voice called through the door.

“I’ll come down when I’m ready, not a moment before,” he replied. He picked up his feather-covered mask and put it on. He admired himself in his golden full length mirror. Two bright green eyes twinkled at him from behind black feathers and an orange beak nose. He was clothed completely head to toe in black leather. Who could resist me? He attached his feather cape and the costume was complete. Tonight he would reprise his role as the Raven.

The College of the Crones Chapter Two

What follows is the second chapter of my novel The College of the Crones.


Seated in the front row, Erin looked over her shoulder, watching the somber villagers file into the council chamber. She smoothed down her long black dress elegantly trimmed with black crocheted lace and pearl buttons. Her ageless face was hidden behind a veil that cascaded over the brim of a black feather-trimmed hat. She adjusted the hat so that it sat correctly on top of her dark braided hair.  She pressed her dress smartly down over her knees and crossed her hands in her lap to ensure no one could see them shaking.

I can’t believe I’m here. She closed her eyes with a sigh, and then opened them expecting to see her husband enter the room, rushing over to comfort her. I can’t believe he’s really gone. When Michael had first disappeared, she clung to the hope that he would be found somewhere in the hills, injured but still alive. She left early that night from the prince’s ball, with some of their friends. Michael told her he needed to finish up some business at the castle and would return the next day. He had kissed her hastily, neither imagining this would be their last kiss.

But it was their last kiss, as well as their last embrace, last glance, last smile together. Even now she dared not gaze at his face in her memories. The sharp knives of loss waited in ambush. Instead she took a deep breath and smoothed her dress again. She must remain poised and beautiful, despite her grief. After a few moments, her discipline failed, and her mind returned to that day.

Frantically she had appealed to the prince concerning her husband. The prince and his agents swore they sent Michael home the next morning on one of the royal stable’s finest horses, but the animal returned to the castle riderless that evening. In response to Erin’s plea, their ruler had sent out his best trackers to scour the surrounding countryside.

No trace of her husband was ever found.

Six months later, she realized that her identity had disappeared on that horse as well. After thirty years of being “Michael the blacksmith’s beautiful wife,” she wasn’t sure who she was now. Not a mother-her children didn’t need her anymore. Tom and Katherine were grown up and married with families of their own. Michael was different from most of the men in Beautiful. He truly loved her for who she was, regardless of her beauty. Best friends from the start, they did everything together. Memories of him forced their way to the front of her mind: dancing at the balls, playing as a team at the croquet tournament, holding baby Tommy in his arms. The searing pain stabbed her without mercy. Without Michael, she was a delicate crystal goblet after a party. Stunning but empty.

Even though his body was never found, Michael was declared dead, in accordance with the law in Beautiful. Because of Michael’s great service to their village, the mayor wanted to make sure the blacksmith had a proper memorial. It would also serve as the public declaration that Erin’s period of mourning was over and the time for courting had begun. Her training told her she needed to remarry soon so that she could maintain access to the tonic. Time was running out for her beauty. Every morning she checked her face in the mirror for wrinkles.  But Erin knew that a new husband and beauty tonic that came with him would never cover the ugly pain in her heart.

Some of the wives came forward to offer their condolences and admire her fine mourning clothes. Michael would have loved this dress. It contrasts perfectly with my pale skin and pink lips. Her neighbor Madeline approached her with hugs and kisses, wishing her good fortune in seeking her next mate. Adele, already a veteran of six marriages, tried to introduce her to a potential suitor, one of her distant relatives. How can they be so cold? My husband of thirty years is suddenly gone, and they choose this moment, his memorial, to begin the matchmaking. 

Michael was Erin’s first husband. Will I ever bond with another mate only to lose him as I did Michael? He carried my heart away with him that night. I have nothing left for another.  In a culture where arranged marriages and third and fourth husbands were the norm, it seemed love was a luxury few women enjoyed. But for Erin, life would forever be divided into two parts: life with Michael and life without him. Her loss was a fortress surrounding her, separating her from the kindness of others. She refused to be comforted, preferring instead to remain captive in sorrow.

After some crone singers opened with a solemn song, the mayor began the memorial, saying many fine things about her husband. He praised Michael’s every accomplishment, from the shoeing of the prince’s famous steeds to the construction of the elegant village clock. After he was finished, the prince’s representative delivered a stirring eulogy praising the marvelous weapons Michael had forged. Erin’s children and grandchildren sat dabbing their eyes and sniffing. She sat apart from them, trying not to get caught up in their grief, having too much of it herself to take on more.

Next was their son, Tom, who shared his memories of working by his father’s side. Michael had been a craftsman concerned with every detail, from heating the forge to shaping a nail. This eye for detail ebbed into his parenting duties as well as he spent many hours teaching his son to adopt standards of excellence. “Hot forge, cool head, steady hand, stout heart,” he’d always said.

Tom had taken over the blacksmith business after Michael disappeared, making his father’s shop his own. He’d even chosen an apprentice, and when his little Tommy was old enough, he’d teach the boy his grandfather’s trade as well.

Erin watched her boy, brimming with pride.  But her face and body betrayed no emotion at all. She knew if she allowed any feelings to show she would lose all control. It was hard enough to keep the knives quiet in her heart without allowing tears to seep through. She had not cried since she was a young girl. Crying made her eyes look puffy. She kept her eyes on their son. He has grown into a fine man. Michael would have been so proud to see how his son is handling the pressure.

After all the words were shared, songs sung, tears wept, and family members hugged, the crones took the children home to bed while the rest headed over to the pub. After assuring her daughter that she would soon join them, Erin allowed herself to relax in the empty room. As difficult as it was to attend her husband’s memorial, somehow now some of the crushing weight was gone.

But now it was time for her decision. She couldn’t put it off much longer. All week long, gentlemen had left their calling cards at her house. The cards sat in a silver bowl in the entry hall where the crone had collected them. Erin had ignored them like unpaid debts. Her friends all advised her that it was time to move on, but she just couldn’t picture herself as another man’s wife. She twisted the large diamond ring on her finger, unwilling to remove it.

But what was the alternative? She feared the day when her green eyes would turn back to their natural brown color. Then the transformation would begin as she aged rapidly over the next two years until she was a wrinkled, hunchbacked monster. Could she face her reflection each day as she twisted up her hair? She imagined one of the house crone’s wrinkled faces in the place of her lovely one. Nightmares on top of nightmares, and I’m not even asleep!

Without a husband, where would she live? According to their laws, the son inherited the shop and blacksmith trade. Her home would be sold to pay the prince’s death tax. Although she could move in with one of her children, they would be forced to hide her because of her hideousness. Forced to disappear from all social life, she would wander as a wraith through the corridors of the house until she perished in her ugliness.

Am I seriously considering becoming a crone? A shiver ran through her as she realized she was contemplating remaining unmarried. She wasn’t a rebel. Her entire life obediently followed the traditions of her people. But her pain gave her courage she had never known. Courage to honor Michael by allowing her beauty to follow him in death.

If she chose this path, there was another place for her. The College.

She had heard that some widows went there and learned to support themselves. They didn’t need husbands to survive. Erin had always admired the crone healers who came to the village to treat the sick and injured. If she studied to be a healer, she could have a meaningful occupation. Maybe her pain could be buried in her studies so that she could feel like herself again. Her children would not miss her as they rushed to keep up with their social lives. Seeing her would prolong their grief, as she was a reminder of what they had lost.

With a sigh, Erin stood up and walked stiffly toward the door. Even as she argued with herself she knew her mind was set. The memorial service made Michael’s death a reality and it set for her a starting point—or a jumping off point, she thought—to begin anew. It was time to leave her locked tower of grief. She would make an appearance at the wake and graciously thank all of her neighbors and friends. After all, they meant well. Then she would return home for the last time. A few items needed to be packed. She would say her farewell to her children and grandchild. At one time she had loved them deeply, but her heart was lost with Michael.  Emptiness drove her to action. She could remain in Riversedge as a shade, but she felt the slightest flutter of hope. It was time to follow it.

Four T-shirt Summer

Four T-shirt Summer

                 I laid in corpse pose on my living room floor, feeling my breath cycle through my prone body. My morning yoga had loosened up my back, sore from the various beds I slept in during my four t-shirt summer.

                First t-shirt came with Summer Splash. For the uninitiated, that’s a week each summer when 1000 or so elementary students converge on our church for bible stories, water games, snacks, and crafts. Adults use the excuse to “volunteer” as a reason to dress up as pirates and drench children with water. This year I directed the play I wrote, stepping down from the stage to become an outsider. Of course, I wore a pirate costume. I was the proud parent in the audience taking pictures instead of delivering purposeful lines on stage. Exciting but sad.

                Following that week, Frank and I retreated to Yosemite to see the real Artist’s work. After hiking to see waterfalls in the cooler mornings, we survived the heat by sitting in the Merced River, allowing the clear cold water to carry away our tiredness. I watched the waves of trees roll by with moist eyes, listening to David Crowder music as we drove home.

                Second t-shirt- The Rebellion, high school church camp in the mountains. Feeling akin to the freshman girls in my cabin. Cultural plunge. No sleep. Many tears. Special friends. Happy to get home.

                Third t-shirt- Mexico mission trip with the high school group. More focused, more realistic expectations made this trip enjoyable. Finally I was able to connect with my team and learn how to be a leader. The landscape at El Nino looked like a Mad Max movie- desolate, waterless, trash-filled, and ruined. No color except grey mud and spray painted graffiti. Instead people provided the color-with smiles, music, and great food. Heartbreak and anger against a government that keeps its citizens in chains of poverty. Three hours waiting in line, buying churros and singing with the radio. Outside the van window goes from grey to green grass and trees. We’re back in the United States.

                Fourth t-shirt- San Diego. After Mexico, Frank and I escaped to Oceanside. Tried to find my saturation point with going to the beach. Conclusion- never want to go back to the desert. After taking the train down to San Diego, we ended up in the Harley gift shop. Now that we own a Road King, we can permit ourselves to buy official apparel, which we do with enthusiasm.

                Now back in Riverside, the desert heat wrapped around me as we attempt sleep in our almost cool bedroom. Missing the gentle nights at the beach where the breeze tickles you to sleep and wakes you gently to misty mornings.

                Time to go back to school, so I take my t-shirts and fold them into my drawer until needed. I take out my Pachappa Elementary School t-shirt. Now it is time to teach students how to take pride in their work, accept others, feel compassion, become teams, and find fun every day.

                Until next summer.

The College of the Crones

I have just returned from my four t-shirt summer to post the first chapter of my YA fantasy novel The College of the Crones. This project has taken about 3 years to complete, with the help of my husband, writers group, and my editor. Enjoy!

Chapter One
Birthday Party
Birthday parties are usually happy, highly anticipated events, and yet Meghan’s heart was clouded with dread. Her stomach felt like it housed a backflipping dance troupe, and her head was fuzzy from lack of sleep. Persistent questions filled her mind. Why wasn’t she excited? Her cousins had already turned eighteen, expected age for marriage, and moved forward into their adult lives with enthusiasm. Their wedding dates were announced, as customary, at their birthday parties. Now it was her turn.
Her cousins’ husbands, carefully chosen by her uncles, provided their wives with every pleasure and beautiful adornment. Had she not seen her cousins joyfully wave at her from their carriages on their way to a party? Had she not been blinded by Cousin Mary’s dazzling diamond rings? Had she not heard Cousin Bridgette’s satin skirts swish with importance as she moved? Such wealth! Such finery! So why did Meghan feel apprehensive when she pictured herself as the baker’s wife?
Her father had chosen for her Harold, the village baker, an important man in a land of perpetual parties. His cakes were legendary in all of Beautiful, even asked for by name by the prince. Surely her father loved her, his only child, so much that he would not choose to pass her off to an ogre. Yet when she looked upon her future husband, she saw a round, balding middle-aged man, missing some teeth—a casualty of the frequent tasting of his creations. Not pleasant to behold now, and surely worse as time passed, she imagined.
Meghan shook her head, thinking herself a superficial snob for worrying about his physical appearance when perhaps he was made of something sweeter beneath his vanilla veneer. Alas, she remembered their first conversation; her clever quips were met with a never-ending litany of ingredients and measurements that made her mouth water but her eyes droop. He spent so much of his time in the bakery developing more exotic and delicious desserts– exquisite, breathtaking desserts–that he rarely spoke at all. Even yesterday, with their betrothal pending, Meghan visited the bakery to pick up tea cakes and greeted him using her most genuine smile, but his pale eyes betrayed no passion for her. He took her gold, handed her the cakes, and turned back to mix batter. Was this man to be her life’s companion and father of her children?
So many questions darted through her mind. She knew what Crone Mother would say. “Meghan,” she would remind her, “You always have a choice, my dear. You don’t have to blindly follow the ways of your people. If you desired, you could forsake party life by running away to the College of the Crones. You would not become a man’s plaything. Your studies would prepare you for a fulfilling life, serving others with your skills.”
Then Crone Mother would stroke Meghan’s silky copper hair. “Of course, you would end up old and ugly like me,” she added, pointing toward her wart-covered face.
“Oh, Crone Mother,” Meghan protested, hugging her dearly. “You are the most beautiful person I know.” Then Crone Mother would kiss Meghan’s check with her rough lips and whisper, “Remember that, my lovely child, when you are out there in the world.”
What will I have time to remember? The wives in the land of Beautiful led busy lives. Meghan’s mother, Margaret, spent her days shopping for beautiful clothes and preparing for the prince’s nightly parties. This took much time. Between beauty treatments and hair styling and the two hours it took the crones to dress Margaret in her fabulous gowns, party preparation was nearly a full-time job. Layer upon layer of rich velvet, slippery satin, and shimmering silk provided the perfect frame for her mother’s lovely face. Cosmetics highlighted her glowing green eyes, a feature she shared with the other wives in the land. Not an ounce of fat or blemish marred her perfect beauty. Flawless beauty that never faded, year after year.
What do I have to fear? Meghan sat in the window seat, looking out over the rolling hills. Taking the tonic would turn her eyes green and maybe even change her hair color, but marriage was expected to be a life-changing event. Every girl was expected to marry at eighteen, and she had to marry before she was allowed to take the tonic.
The tonic.
Meghan remembered the first time she saw the small brown bottle sitting on her mother’s dressing table, right next to a silver hand mirror. She had picked it up and tried to pry out the cork when her mother entered the bedchamber and quickly rescued it from her three–year-old hands.
“No! Bad girl!” she had cried in panic. “Don’t play with Mother’s things!” Her mother was wide-eyed and flushed of cheek, still beautiful but also frightening enough to make Meghan cry. She was too young to understand the bottle’s importance. Only years later, when she was sent to finishing school, did she realize the tonic’s value.
“Meghan, what are you doing?” Crone Mother called from outside her door. “It is time to choose the wine for your birthday party. Come down and help your mother.”
“Coming, Crone Mother,” Meghan replied. She jumped down from the window seat and went down to help with preparations for her party.
As she descended the stairs from the bedchambers, she saw her mother seated in the front room in a pale blue velvet cushioned chair. Its elegance and gem-tone color complemented her beauty but did nothing to detract from it. She was the full grown version of Meghan, tall and thin, pale with braided bronze hair elaborately wound into coils on her head. Sparkling green eyes reflected the multicolored jewels she wore. Today, her dress was dove grey satin, trimmed with lace at every edge. Even alone in her private suite, she was a vision.
Before her on an ornately carved table were a half dozen wine bottles open, breathing. Miniature crystal wine goblets formed an arc around the bottles, each with no more than a taste of wine in it. After sipping one, she sighed, took a tiny bite of the cheese from the plate in front of her, and moved on to the next goblet.
Meghan seated herself across from the exquisite woman she barely knew, and waited for her direction. While boys Meghan’s age had studied history, geography, and literature, her childhood instruction had included such crucial lessons as how to pair the right wine with the right course at dinner, how to pinch her cheeks to give rise to just the perfect (and believable) blush, and how to curtsey in a manner that showed respect and just the right amount of flirtation. Girls of Beautiful were educated to be the perfect hostesses, the role they would perform as wives.
“What do you think about this elderberry wine from Ferrytown? It’s slightly tart which would go nicely with the brie pastries,” her mother asked and answered in one breath. Meghan reached for the goblet that she indicated. She sipped it cautiously, holding the dark red liquid in her mouth for a moment before swallowing it. It burned but left a sweet aftertaste. “I like it,” she answered. “It has good balance.”
“Thank you, daughter,” Margaret said with relief. “Sometimes I think it’s getting more difficult for me to tell the difference between vintages. They all begin to taste the same after a while.” Her perfect face clouded with the slightest wisp of concern. Knowing that concern made her forehead crease unattractively, she quickly shook the sensation and her porcelain skin smoothed in response.
“Have you chosen the gown you will wear at your party? Crone Mother hung the dresses I purchased in your wardrobe. I need to know today whether you will wear the blue or ivory, so that I can order the appropriate flowers.” Her mother seemed a bit cross with her, as usual. No doubt she was disappointed in her daughter’s lack of enthusiasm for the details of her own party.
Meghan had seen the row of shimmering gowns in her wardrobe. Her mother sorted them with her two favorites facing the front. Each choice Meghan made brought her closer to her birthday party, the event which would end childhood and usher in adult married life. Her hands felt clammy as she considered her choice. What difference would it make if she wore blue or ivory? The color of her dress seemed insignificant compared to the huge decision she was making for her entire life. Why was this so difficult for her? Everyone who cared about her was excited about her upcoming marriage. Why couldn’t she breathe? Her mother looked at her expectantly. The clouds in Meghan’s mind swirled like a whirlwind. Her headache pounded in rhythm with her racing heart.
“I can’t decide, Mother. Choose the gown for me,” she finally blurted out, and dashed out of the room.
“If you don’t like the gowns,” her beautiful mother called after her, “we can find others.”
She ran through the kitchen, where Crone Mother was preparing dinner. “Meghan!” she called after the blur that was Meghan. “What’s wrong, child? Come here a moment.”
But Meghan did not answer as she ran out the back door. She kept running out into the fields, past the knot eyed oak tree, over the stones in the creek, and into the woods, her childhood retreat.
As she ran, she wondered what drove her speed. Was it the thought of marrying the dreary baker, or was it the prince who frightened her? The prince presided over every birthday and ball and when giving his blessing, if he was taken with the presumed bride, it was his right–and one he exercised from time to time–to take the woman for himself. She would leave her home (and her hapless would-be husband) that very night, to join the prince’s court. Their husbands could not reclaim them, but instead must choose a replacement wife.
The prince could command the hand of any woman he chose, even one with a family. If he took a woman with children, she wouldn’t see her children again until they were wives themselves, visiting the castle for parties. To be at the whim of the prince was part of the price the citizens paid for the tonic. Some were more willing than others.
But the prince was overwhelmingly handsome, charming in speech, and strong in will, and none of the women who joined his court could resist him. Meghan only knew this from stories Crone Mother told, as young girls were not allowed to look upon the prince until they were married. Her mother never spoke of the prince, although her eyes would glaze over and her mind would seem far away when her father mentioned him. Her parents, like all the landowners in Beautiful, went nightly to feasts at the prince’s castle. This repetition of festivities was a normal part of their lives. Girls at her finishing school talked feverishly about the day when they would become a beautiful wife and enjoy the prince’s parties.
For some reason, though, these thoughts of tradition and ritual were not a comfort to her. Instead, they drove her on, deeper into the forest.
Breathless, Meghan found her tree, a proud, spreading oak with many low-hanging branches. She hugged its rough bark fiercely, turning to lean against it as she caught her breath. After a few moments, she carefully set her feet into the carved holds on the ancient trunk and climbed up into her leafy refuge. Here she could remain hidden until she was ready to come down. As usual, her hair tangled into the hovering branches, and she settled in thoughtfully to while away the afternoon untwisting the tangles. Ahhh, if only my life could be so easily set straight!
Why was she so afraid to embrace the life of pleasure that stretched before her? Pleasure! Who could turn from such a thing? It should be an exciting adventure; and yet somehow deep within her, she knew something was wrong. Something was missing from this perfect life that awaited her. And, until she unraveled this mystery, there was no way she was marrying Harold the baker.