The Singing Campground Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            That was so creepy, Lilly thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I’m scared. Lilly thought toward her twin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I’m sure it did, Willow thought back.

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

            Totally awesome! Willow thought to her.  

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

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

The Singing Campground Part 4

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

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

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

            Where was she?

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

            I’m in Faerie.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “There are other humans here?” Lilly asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Lilly wondered if they’d be friendly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The Connell kids laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The singing campground: Part 2

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

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

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

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

Neither twin saw what they expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes it worked.

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.

A witch’s loss

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Her magic was failing, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was her fate. When you were over three hundred years old, something was bound to wear out.

The witch knew this with her brain, but her heart still grieved. Magic had been her companion through broken hearts, wars, and witch hunts. Over many long years, she had loved and lost friends and familiars, but magic had remained a constant hum underneath her skin. Now it was a faint whisper.

The witch steam mopped her kitchen floor, her long tangled white hair hanging in her face. She took her time, making sure to get all the blood in the grout. Living in these times was a lot easier than when she first crossed the ocean. Back then, she lived in a dirt floor hut outside the village. It was convenient to have her own animals for spells, but her city condo these days smelled a lot better. And she could order the animals she needed from Amazon.

After she tucked her steam mop away in the closet, she turned her cleaning energy to her bathrooms. Her three-bedroom condo had two of them, a luxury unheard of when she first came to this country. She sprayed her natural cleaner on the toilet and sink and scrubbed with what strength she still possessed. As she wiped down the mirror, she avoided looking at her reflection. That shriveled up crone was a stranger to her. If her magic was strong, she would be able to smooth those wrinkles with a potion.

If her magic was strong, she wouldn’t have to work like a cleaning lady. She used to be able to mumble a few words and her home would be sparkling clean. These were humbling days when she needed to save her magic for the big things.

Spells that used to spill off her tongue now sputtered and failed. Last week, she used her scry bowl to see what her sister witch, Agnes, was doing. The water refused to show her anything. In her anger, she tossed the ancient ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered on the tile floor. She had to FaceTime with her instead.

Losing her magic made her so angry she wanted to transform into a bird and fly away. Usually, anger amplified her power. Now when she spoke the spell, all she got were a few feathers and a sudden urge to eat granola.

When the bathroom was clean, the witch turned her attention to the shelves in her work room. The small room, formerly one of the bedrooms, had one whole wall covered in wooden bookshelves, mismatched and of different finishes. Jars lined the shelves, some filled with liquids while others held dried plants. Using a microfiber cloth, she lifted each one and wiped it before returning it to its place. This took a long time. She needed to be careful as some of her ingredients were volatile in combination with others.

A tear rolled down her gnarled cheek. Most of these jars would never be used again. Maybe she could sell them to a younger witch.

Weakness overcame her, and she had to sit down at her desk. What would be left without her magic? An ancient crone, powerless and friendless. How could she live without her craft?

She glanced down at her phone on the desk. Maybe she was allowing her circumstances to overwhelm her. She still had sister witches who cared about her. Maybe her magic just needed to be recharged like her phone.

There was power in mingling magics. How could she have forgotten? She reached her trembling hand to grasp her phone. She scrolled through her contacts and clicked the phone symbol.

There was more than one kind of magic.

My little life

My life was big and now it’s little.

There is a delightfully disturbing book titled Little, Big by John Crowley. It tells the tale of a man drawn into a family that deals with fairies. Fairies are often referred to as the Little People.

One of the characters remarks that her world was big but became little. She used to travel, entertain, take care of her children. Her life was big. Then it changed. She stayed home in the country, her children grew up and started their own lives. Her life was little.

My world shrank as well. My husband and I used to travel often on our Harley and in our motorhome. We flew across the country to visit our kids. We spent a week in Hawaii for our anniversary. We entertained and visited friends often. Our world was big.

Then my husband’s auto-immune disease worsened. COVID 19 arrived. I decided to retire early from teaching to write children’s books full time.

Of course, during the quarantine, my world was little. For days, our car sat in the driveway collecting tree sap. We spent the days moving from room to room in our small home before ending up in the backyard. We visited family online.

Even after my husband and I were vaccinated and some of the restrictions lifted, I didn’t have many reasons to leave my house. I got used to having my groceries delivered. I got used to shopping on Amazon. I worked with my critique group on Zoom.

In this new little life, I was available. I could help my husband with projects around the house. I could help my daughter take care of her preemie twins. I could spend time training our border collie puppy. I could call friends and encourage them in these chaotic times.

Maybe that’s the way life was designed. First we’re big, and then we’re little. To quote Tolkien “even the littlest person can change the course of the future.”

I try hard to make the most of my little life.

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.

The College of the Crones Chp 2

mask

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.

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