College of the Crones-Chp 2 pt 2

 

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As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, the prince could not help but brood on his once perfect life. 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.  His smile in the mirror looked convincing enough. 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.

The interruption flashed his anger, and the prince took his heavy silver goblet in hand, ready to pitch it at the messenger as he came in. But the servant waited outside for his reply, accustomed to his master’s moods.

“I’ll come down when I’m ready, not a moment before,” the prince replied. He smoothed his features and sighed.

Slowly he untangled himself from the layers of silk and woolen blankets that trapped him into the red velvet arm chair. He picked up his feather-covered mask and put it on. He admired himself in his golden full length mirror on his wardrobe door. 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 pulled himself up straight, set his shoulders, and lifted his chin in his most dashing gentleman pose. Then he buttoned on his feather cape and the costume was complete. Tonight he would reprise his role as the Raven.

 

The College of the Crones Chp 2

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Chapter Two Part One- 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 savored a sip of Eldertown’s best red wine, as he pictured the party guests. 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. He downed the rest of his goblet.

All the preparations were complete for the masquerade ball. But of course all is ready. I will not tolerate anything less than perfect. Hours of labor had produced a glossy shine on the tile floors. The entire castle had been decked with garlands of ivy and blood red roses. 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.

Away from the clatter of preparation, 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. All the changing seasons in this world are quite unsettling. He was always layered in fine wool and furs after the leaves began to turn fiery orange and red. His shivering wouldn’t cease until springtime warmed his face once more.

The gold trimmed mirror over the mantle was tipped to catch his reflection. He couldn’t help noticing the way his wavy black hair caught the glint of the firelight, and how his neatly trimmed beard accented his piercing green eyes and prominent nose. No man in this world can captivate hearts the way I can.

            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 I was a faerie, they wouldn’t be so eager to trust me.

The Problem with Meghan

Another story from the world of The College of the Crones:

tonic

“I don’t care if Mother forbids us to speak her name!” Bridgette snapped at her sister, Mary. “Meghan was our cousin! We played dolls with her. We played in the fields together.” She stamped her foot on the wooden stool on which she stood, sounding a boom with her silk slipper. The dressmaker’s other patrons, milling around bolts of fabric in the outer room, looked in at the young woman to see what was causing the disturbance. One didn’t scream like a little girl at a fitting. It was a time for stillness and quiet, unless one wanted to get poked with pins. The dressmaker herself, Mrs. Pincer, frowned at her, a task made more difficult by the pins in her mouth.

“She was our cousin, and a dear friend, but don’t blame Mother.” Mary gently took her younger sister by the hand, their green eyes reflecting each other. “Be reasonable,” she continued, using her most soothing voice. “Think about it. The broken engagement, poor Harold the baker, the birthday party. Everything was perfect- the flowers, the music, the cake. The only thing missing was the birthday girl. Think about how Aunt Margaret and Uncle Edmund felt.”

“Excuse me, ladies,” Mrs. Pincer interrupted. “I’ve finished marking the hem. If you could carefully take off the gown, I’ll take it. It should be finished by weeks end.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Pincer,” Bridgette replied, calmer now. Mary smiled up at her, and walked to her back, unlacing the pale green gown and helping Bridgette out of it. It sat on its layers like cupcake icing on the circular wooden pinning stand. The dressmaker pulled it up by the fitted bodice and gently pushed the full skirt through the fitting room doorway.

“But that doesn’t mean she never existed!” Bridgette said through clenched teeth. Her long bouncy blonde curls shook with conviction.

“Let’s get out of here,” her sister insisted, dragging her out of the shop. “I’m dying of thirst. Let’s go get some tea.”

The main street in Riversedge was bustling with fine ladies, some on foot and others in carriages that slowly pushed their way through the crowds. The sisters shook the summer dust off the bottoms of their dark blue silk dresses after they crossed over to the other side of the street. Both sides of the street were full of shops—dress shops, hat shops, bakeries, floral shops, jewelers, and one special shop.

The storefront itself was inconsequential, smaller than the shops on either side of it. It had a bright red door and no windows. A wooden sign hung over the door read, “The Royal Tonic Shop.” Every woman knew its exact location, yet none of them had ever crossed its threshold. Only men were allowed.

Bridgette shuddered slightly as they passed it on the way to the tea room. Was it the tonic that caused Meghan, their usually compliant cousin, to run away in the night?

            Mary glanced at her sister, and took her arm, steering them through the maze of horses, carriage wheels, and giggling girls. “Bridgette, you couldn’t have done anything. You know how closed Meghan could be. No one knew this treachery was in her heart.”

“But why, Mary? Why did she do it?” Bridgette shouted over the noise of the street, her eyes welling up with tears. Mary quickly took out her lavender scented hankie and dabbed her sister’s eyes.

“Now, now, Bridgette,” she said, putting her hankie away in her small jewel encrusted bag. “You’re going to make your eyes puffy. Forget about that sad business. It was a tragedy, that’s all.” She sighed, pulling her sister out of the path of oncoming horses.

“I can’t forget about it,” Bridgette insisted, her dainty nose turned up. “Our cousin left her betrothed, her family, and her entire future, content instead to crumble into a hideous crone. Even though all she had to do was get married to be cured.”

“It was her choice,” Mary sniffed, as she adjusted her tiny velvet hat perched on her elaborately braided tawny hair. “Every woman must choose when she becomes eighteen. Marry and take the tonic to remain beautiful, or fall to the crone curse. Meghan knew what she was doing. Obviously living with hunched over, wart-crusted crones was preferable to society life with her family.”

“But what if she knew something?” Bridgette said, stopping as they approached the tea room. “Meghan was always thinking, always reading, even though as a woman it was not her role to do either. What if she made the better choice?”
“Ridiculous!” Mary scoffed. “What woman in her right mind would allow herself to transform into an ugly old woman? The right choice, the only choice, is to marry. That way your husband is allowed to buy the prince’s tonic.”

“That was our choice,” Bridgette agreed. “Even though we were practically forced into it by our parents. Not that my Richard is hard to live with. He gives me everything I desire.”

“And the parties!” Mary sighed. “With my Robert I have invitations to dances and feasts every night. Who would want to miss the prince’s balls? I dance so much I can’t wake until evening the next day. We have the perfect life.”

The women entered the tea room and found an empty table in the back of the large room. Since the inns were considered unsavory for the local nobility, the tea room had opened exclusively for ladies. The establishment had many tables covered with white tablecloths and fresh flowers in exquisite crystal vases. The windows were large and well cleaned, allowing women passing by on the street to see who was sipping tea within. The light was cheerful, and the buzz of women’s conversations droned on throughout the day like contented bumblebees.

After they ordered their tea, Bridgette took a deep breath. Mary could see that her sister needed to unburden her heart, so she resolved not to dismiss her concerns. Instead she settled into her cushioned chair patiently as she waited for the rest of it.

“Meghan’s been on my mind, all these months since she left,” Bridgette shared. “Do we truly know what happened to her? What if some robber beat her and left her for dead? Has anyone even tried to follow her trail?”

“I don’t know,” Mary admitted. “Since no one in the family talks about her, I don’t know what has been done. I can’t imagine Uncle Edmund not trying to find his only daughter. He spent much more time with her than Aunt Margaret ever did.”

“But don’t you think she probably went to the College?” Bridgette asked. A crone dressed in a grey dress with a crisply pressed apron brought them a silver pot with a spicy aroma and two dainty ceramic cups in saucers. The crone’s thinning white hair was pulled back under a white cap. With gnarled hands she poured their tea, and bowed out of their way.

Mary took a tiny sip, mindful of the steaming liquid. “Meghan might have gone to the College of the Crones,” she agreed. “After all, she could read, and she loved to sing. Maybe we’ll see her someday, performing at the prince’s castle.” She sighed as the tea soothed her throat.

Bridgette set down her cup after tasting the sweet, spicy brew. Her flawless face showed rare furrows as she struggled to find the right words. Suddenly she was aware of her action and quickly smoothed her face. “I wonder what it would be like. Choosing your own future, apart from parties and dresses and jewels. Instead of pleasing your husband, serving others with your vocation learned at the College. The crones are healers, actors, singers, and artists. Maybe Meghan knew better than we did, sister.”

Her sister’s eyes widened in alarm. She looked around to see if any of the other women had taken notice of their conversation. But the rumble of laughter and conversations full of hairstyles and wine selections passed by them, unaffected by Bridgette’s heresy.

“Don’t speak that way!” she gasped, reaching for Bridgette’s trembling hand. “We live to serve beauty. Our prince demands it. Beauty is our mother, covering us with her favor. Any other way of life is pure ugliness.”

A crone servant passed their table at that moment, struggling with a tray of tea and cakes, and seemed to gaze at the young women with pity, but Bridgette couldn’t be certain.

Rain in the Mirror (A College of the Crones short story)

Boom! Unexpected thunder caused Yvette to jump, resulting in a black line down her cheek.

“Sunne, you’ve ruined my makeup!” she shouted at her crone servant who had been carefully outlining her eyes with a black stick.

“So sorry, my lady, but you moved,” the hunched over, wrinkled old woman insisted as she carefully sponged off the errant line. A flash of lightning blinded them both for a moment.

“I hate thunder storms,” Yvette complained for the tenth time that day. She sighed and fidgeted with her corset. Her reflection in the large mirror on the wall behind her dressing table showed a beautiful young woman being tended by an ugly old woman. In the land of Beautiful, unmarried women over the age of eighteen transformed into hideous crones. But Alfred rescued me from that fate. Her marriage was prerequisite to buying the tonic. But the beauty she saw reflected in her face became marred on days such as this one.

Rain made her life impossible. Her sleek, waist length hair became fuzzy and resistant to the straightening iron. Her face powder clotted into lumps, and her eyeliner refused to dry properly. And that was just getting dressed! Getting into her carriage was an ordeal. Carpets had to be laid from her doorstep to the carriage. Two crone servants had to carry a canopy held up with rods to cover her as she walked outside. One servant walked behind her, lifting up Yvette’s skirts so they didn’t brush against the wet steps. When they finally arrived at the prince’s castle, the canopy came out again as she carefully walked down the carpets provided by the prince’s staff. Dressing rooms just inside the castle provided a final chance to check makeup and hair. A great deal of trouble, even for the prince’s parties.

            “You are finished, my lady,” the crone announced as she stepped back to admire her work. Even though the beauty tonic changed Yvette’s appearance, most of the wives felt that makeup and hair styling were still required. The wife twirled around in her dress, a pale pink blossom of lace and satin. She checked to make sure her golden combs holding back her perfectly straight hair were tight enough. She inspected the tiny pink flowers fastened into the braids using her mirror. Upon her long neck were displayed a set of perfectly matched pearls. Her mouth smirked back at her as she remembered her husband’s uncomfortableness when she received the necklace as a gift from the prince. With a nod to herself, she smoothed down her full skirt and reached for the lace gloves offered to her by her crone servant.

“Not a moment to spare,” Yvette grumbled as she swished out of the room. Sunne replaced the lids on the makeup jars and put them away in the jewel encrusted box on the dressing table. Her stiff curled fingers made the task more difficult than it should. Carefully, she hung the other dresses that had been rejected by her mistress back into the large closet that adjoined the dressing room. Then she walked to the large ceiling to floor window, opening one shutter to glance out at the storm.

Swirling in the wind, the trees surrounding the manor house seemed to hold their vivid green leaves up to gather the drops. The rose garden below her washed their red, yellow, and orange heads in the shower. Gleaming white, the crumbled stone driveway looked like snow. “The rain renews the earth,” she said out loud to no one. No one listened to a crone.

Another grumble of thunder hailed her from the distance. She counted to ten before the answering flash of lightning. The storm was almost past them now. Even though her life was dedicated to service, her mistress sometimes irked her with her petulance. Rain brings beauty. Not the false beauty provided by the tonic, but the real beauty of life. The God Who Really Sees gives rain freely to those who thirst.

raindrop

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.