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

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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 Cave Part Six

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As they traveled down hallways decorated with elaborate paintings of flowers, Meghan and Hardly said nothing to each other. The faery’s boots pounded on the polished wood floors, as Meghan walked silently in her slippers behind him. She held Noodles firmly in her arms, grateful that the Queen had given him back. Too delicate for a pet, the Queen had said.

When they reached a door at the end, Hardly opened it with the ease of someone who was at home. He spoke a word and torches burst into life down the stone staircase. As he led her down the smooth steps, Meghan could stand it no longer.

“What about your friends?” she said. “You’re just going to leave them in prison?”

The faery stopped and turned toward her. “Of course not! I’ll find a way to get them out. I can’t act too concerned about them in front of my sister or she’ll be sure to seek a more permanent solution.” His eyes gripped hers with determination.

“But why did your sister, the Queen, allow you to remain free, and me to return to my world? It seems like favor to me.”

Hardly sighed, and turned to continue down the steps. “Keeping me at court and sending you away are ways to show perfect cruelty.”

“Doesn’t she read minds or something?” Meghan asked. “I felt really weird at times, like she was rummaging around in my memories.”

The faery stopped at the bottom of the steps and faced her. “You are more aware of her talents than most humans. My sister has a rare magic that allows her free access to anyone’s mind, even mine. She uses what she discovers against you. Even I can’t keep her out. That’s why I have to get out of here.”

They walked down a tunnel, their steps echoing off the earthen walls until they reached a large cavern with a wood shack at one end. At their approach, a faery in green scrambled out of his office with a chicken leg in his hand. Noodles started to bark, more for the food than for the sudden appearance of a stranger. Recognizing Hardly, the faery dashed back inside and emerged with clean hands.

Meghan saw a familiar beam of light coming from a hole in the ceiling and a disk centered below it. Although she had been eager to escape the attentions of the Queen, now she was reluctant to approach the portal. Riding with the Dragon Riders Group had been an exciting adventure, and going home only meant locking herself away in her room to avoid the war between her parents. School wouldn’t be starting yet, would it? Her sense of time had become foggy in Faerie.

“Welcome, Prince Heatherope,” the porter greeted his ruler with a deep bow.

“Come on, Greyleaf,” Hardly protested. “It’s just me. You don’t need to give me the prince treatment.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the porter replied as he raised his eyes. “Where are you going today with this pretty human child and her creature?”

“I’m not leaving, but they are,” Hardly answered. “And she’s my friend. Her name is Meghan. The creature is a dog, and he’s named Noodle.”

“Welcome to the Queen’s portal, Meghan and Noodle,” the porter said. “Friendship with Hardly is not easily won. You must have some magic of your own.” He bowed to her with a knowing grin. “Your ticket and destination, please.” He held out his hand.

Meghan had the overwhelming desire to turn and run back down the tunnel toward the palace. Maybe she could help Hardly rescue the other riders and dragons. She turned toward him, as he stood there with an unreadable expression. Does he want me to stay? I wish I had his sister’s magic for just five minutes!

            “I want to stay and help you,” is what blurted out of her mouth.

Hardly looked startled, and then smiled. “I know you do, but it’s too dangerous for you here. This is not your world. You have no magic here.” He handed her an embroidered handkerchief from his pocket. “Come now, Meghan. You’ve had a magical adventure. Now it’s time to go home.”

She gratefully took the tiny linen cloth trimmed with blue flowers and dabbed her face. Why am I crying? I never cry. Noodles sniffed at the handkerchief curiously. She wondered at her feelings that had been buried for so long. It was too embarrassing to have close friends when your parents might erupt like a volcano at any time. For a long time, it had been Noodles and her only.

Now she had a friend, and actually more friends, although they were locked up. But Hardly was right. She had to go back.

“Thank you for being my friend,” Meghan said, trying to smile. She hugged Noodles and handed the silver ring to the porter. Then she stepped onto the portal disk. “Back to my world. Carlsbad campground, please.”

The faery prince acknowledged her with a bob of his head right before the light whited everything out around her. She felt like she was flying, riding on Petal again, but she could see nothing.

Then she landed firmly on wet sand and realized she was back at the mouth of the sea cave once more. Noodles barked and wriggled out of her arms to chase a sea gull. The surf crashed close to her feet. She got up and brushed off sand, and headed off after her dog.

The Cave Part Five

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Washed up and dressed in a green gown, Meghan was escorted to a large dining room lit by giant pine cone chandeliers. Her stomach grumbled when she smelled the platters of savory meat that the servants were passing around a long table draped in white linen. All the chairs were filled except one, and the human servant gestured toward it without a word. All of her interactions with the young girl were wordless, as hand signs had told Meghan she was incapable of speech. Whether it was the result of disease or spell Meghan couldn’t discover, but it hampered her ability to find out more about the Queen and the Spring Court.

As she sat down to her meal, Meghan looked around to find familiar faces, but only Hardly was present, seated next to the Queen. His eyes darted toward her but looked away quickly. He was too far away for conversation, so she turned her attention toward their meal, as the servant was waiting to her attention to give her some meat. It looked and smelled like beef, seasoned with herbs and roasted to perfection. Another servant brought her potatoes and tiny carrots. She was so hungry she forgot her captivity and ate heartily.

But her eyes kept wandering back toward the dragon rider. If he really is the Queen’s brother, why aren’t we free to go? On either side of her were faery ladies, the one on the right in a shimmering dove grey gown, and the other wearing yellow satin. Maybe I can find out more about what’s going on from one of the courtiers.

“Pardon me,” Meghan asked the one in yellow, thinking the color was more cheerful so perhaps the owner was as well, “My name is Meghan. Your dress is beautiful! It looks like a sunny spring morning.”

“You will have to excuse me,” the faery said, wrinkling her tiny nose. “But I don’t give my name to humans.” She turned her shoulders so that Meghan couldn’t see her face.

Maybe I’ll try the other one. She waited until after a few more bites of potato. “Excuse me,” Meghan said to the faery on her right. “The feast tonight is unbelievable! Is the food always this good?”

But the faery acted as if Meghan was invisible, talking and laughing with another faery to her right.

After all had finished, the servants whisked away all the plates, and everyone’s eyes looked expectantly toward the Queen at the far end of the table. To Meghan’s surprise, she patted Hardly’s hand, and then addressed the guests.

“Many thanks we give to you for feasting with us this evening. Communion knits us together as one family,” the Queen said, her voice unnaturally loud and clear even from Meghan’s end of the table. “We are pleased to have my brother, Heatherope, back from his travels.” She nodded, and the assembled faeries clapped obediently. Hardly hunched his shoulders and looked away from Meghan’s curious stare.

“As many of you know, our soldiers have captured the DOGS, and they have been thrown down the dungeon well, awaiting their trial.” Her dragon rider brother looked like he might throw up at any time.

Meghan’s heart pounded as she thought about the gruff but kind faeries she had ridden with over the past weeks. What will happen to them? It appeared that Hardly’s relation to the Queen had saved him, and possibly Meghan, but had not extended to his friends.

“But what are we to do with the human child?” The Queen’s words brought Meghan’s attention back. “She is neither changeling nor tithe. In fact, she has no contract at all. Her day pass has expired, and her fate is in our hands.” At that moment Meghan felt the pressure of the Queen’s mind pressing against hers again. Why am I thinking about my parents and their fighting?

            “Perhaps it would be punishment enough to send her back,” the Queen pondered aloud. “But she’ll have to buy another ticket.” Meghan felt a strong compulsion to stand up. She stood and fought her legs as they brought her over beside the Queen, who smiled at her like a cat does at a mouse. “What can she do for the price? Can she weave gold or make shaved ice for our drinks?

“I don’t think I can do anything like that,” Meghan said quietly. She felt Hardly’s eyes in back of her head as she stood between him and his sister. She dared not look at him, and jumped when he spoke for the first time that evening.

“She can sing human songs,” Hardly said, standing up and moving Meghan aside so that he faced the Queen directly.

Murmurs rose around the table as the faeries looked at each other in pleased surprise.

“Songs? We care nothing for silly human songs!” the Queen scoffed. But then she looked around at the eager faces surrounding her. “Maybe if she knows a song about death. That would be a song we would like. Death has some weight.”

Instantly Meghan knew what song she needed to sing. “I have a song.”

The faeries clapped their hands and sat back in their chairs. The Queen slowly nodded, and Meghan knew this was her chance. She began to sing another children’s song:

“Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies,

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.”

She sang it three times, each time more confident than the previous. The faeries seemed captivated by a silly song that mocked the Black Plague. When she had learned the true meaning of the lyrics, she had been shocked. But the faeries sure seem to love it!

            When Meghan finished, all the guests stood and applauded her. The Queen didn’t rise, but she clapped as well. Hardly let out a deep breath, and his eyes shone as he looked at her.

“Human child, you have purchased your ticket,” the Queen said as she relaxed back in her chair. She took one tiny silver band off her finger and handed it to her brother. “Hardly, take her to the portal. This ring is her ticket home.”

 

 

 

 

The Cave Part Four

 

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Meghan and the dragon riders, cocooned by a regiment of faerie soldiers, walked directly to the Queen’s audience chamber. Her stomach still felt queasy from their portal jump. Besides the stationary portals, the faeries had field portals that could be transported easily wherever they traveled. So here they were, moments after they had been caught in a net like witless rabbits.

Where did they put Noodles? Her terrier had been taken from her arms without a bark when they were captured. Meghan had cried for her dog, but the soldiers told her he would not be harmed. With nothing she could do about it, she hoped that they spoke the truth. She glanced behind her at Hardly, Never, and the rest of the Dragon Owners Group. The riding club walked with their heads down, their hands bound behind them and their mouths gagged. Their captors took no chances that one of them would cast a spell. Their dragons were back in the woods, still held in nets.

Since they knew she was human, Meghan walked in front unbound. The soldiers had no fear that a young child could escape. She looked around at the overarching trees that formed the hall they walked. Behind the trees, which looked like some sort of overgrown elms, tall hedges formed walls on both sides of them. They were still outside in the woods, although it was easy to think that they were inside since the only light provided was from tiny lamps that hung in strings from the trees. She expected them to be electric, and looked for outlets, but the lamps were glowing with their own power.

At the end of the hall stood a large oak tree with an enormous knot in front of its trunk that looked like a door. The soldier on Meghan’s right knocked, and it was opened by a faerie in a bright green tunic and pants. They exchanged words in that strange murmuring language that Meghan heard Hardly speak with the other riders. Then the door opened wide, and they were escorted inside.

The chamber inside was vast, impossible to be contained within the oak tree. Meghan squinted in the bright light that filled the ceiling of the room from an unseen source. On both sides were faerie courtiers, dressed in every color of the rainbow with silks and laces. Their beautiful faces frowned at their procession, their cherry lips turned down. Hardly seemed to perk up at their reaction, and he grinned wickedly at a lady in front, who prompted melted back into the rear of the crowd.

Then Meghan felt unsettled, like someone was staring at her. She saw steep stairs straight in front of them that led up to a dais. Upon the dais sat a throne made of two living birches, twisted together to form a chair. The soldiers stopped at the base of the stairs, and bowed on one knee. When she saw the dragon riders fall on their knees and bow their heads, she copied them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldiers look up, so she followed their gaze but remained on her knees. Better not to offend the Queen any more than what’s been done.

On the tree chair sat the most beautiful woman Meghan had ever seen. Even though she was seated, the queen was tall and thin, her skin like eggshell, and her eyes like a deep pond. Those eyes were inside of Meghan’s head, rummaging through her thoughts and memories like thrift store owners at a garage sale. One moment, she was playing catch with Noodles in her back yard, and the next she was back in the cave, looking for her lost dog.

Noodles! Meghan gasped when she saw her tiny dog sitting on the queen’s lap, her hand on his head. Why doesn’t Noodles come to me? Or at least bark? Perhaps he was under a spell, but at least he looked unharmed, nestled into the dark green silk of the queen’s ruffled gown. The faery queen’s arms were bare and covered in sparkling bracelets of gold and jewels. Her hair was twisted on top of her head where rested a crown covered in glowing opals.

Meghan’s mind quieted, and she realized the queen must have completed her probe for the moment.

“A human, in the company of dragon riders?” she said in a musical voice that reminded Meghan of a babbling stream. The Queen frowned, and it seemed that everyone in the room frowned with her. “Finally the DOGs are brought to judgment, and they bring us this prize. A human who entered Faerie of her own free will, therefore not under any contract.” She stroked Noodles’ head and sighed. “Guard, bring us her visa.”

Meghan took the folded paper out of her jacket and handed it to the guard. He carried it up the stairs to the queen. He unfolded it and handed it to her. Her frown increased when she read it.

“Let me explain,” Meghan said. “I would have gone home that first day, but the dragon riders took me with them. It was days before I realized my mistake, and by then it was too late.”

“Do not address the queen unless she gives permission,” one of the guards growled, kicking her to the ground. Meghan laid there, her ribs aching, afraid to look up.

“Just keep quiet.” She could hear Hardly’s whispered advice.

“We will take care of the dragon riders first,” the Queen announced. “Guards, take this child to get cleaned up. She smells of dragon.” Instantly, Meghan was pulled to her feet and marched out of the room.

As she was going through the door, she heard the Queen say, “Guards, unbind him.” A heatbeat passed, and then, “Heatherope Hallowhill McDreary! On your feet!”

And a familiar voice answered, “Uggh! Come on, Sis. You know I hate it when you call me by my true name!”

The Cave Part Three

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Meghan chewed on her roasted turkey leg, or at least she thought it was some sort of wild turkey, and listened to the riders swapping stories in the flickering light of the campfire. A faerie with curly black hair called Never, was spinning a tale with great skill about the time he and his dragon had landed on Mount Tabletop, the highest mountain in Spring. The others listened with a reasonable amount of skepticism. She knew a few of the other riders’ names, but there were twenty of them, and their names were so strange. Hardly and Never had been riding together for years, hundreds of years if she really believed them. She often saw them in serious conversation before they took off for the day.

She inspected her bone for any last strips of meat, but it was picked clean so she threw it behind her into the woods. Noodles sat gnawing his bone at her feet. Then she wiped her greasy hands on the back of her jeans, and took out a folded paper she kept in her jacket pocket. She opened it up and looked at it again. It was her day pass, her permission to enter Faerie. In vain she tried to read the small print at the bottom above her signature, but the print was so small there was no way she could see what it meant without a magnifying glass.

Although she had enjoyed her two weeks riding with the Dragon Owners Group, she was a little worried about her visa. What would happen to her if someone asked her for her pass and saw that she had been here past its expiration? All the stories she had been told included harsh consequences for breaking rules in Faerie. Nothing I can do about it now. Carefully she folded it back up and put it away.

“Meghan, sing us a song,” one of the faeries, a red head named Sometimes, pulled her out of her thoughts. “You know, the one about the kids who climbed the hill and broke their noggins!”

“But it’s only a nursery rhyme!” she protested, knowing that she would be forced to give in. What is it about faeries that they love children’s songs?

            “We told you that you would have to pay for traveling with us,” Hardly reminded her with a smile. “Come on, now. Your voice is so lovely.”

Meghan took a pull of water from her waterskin, and started to sing:

“Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

The riders cheered when she was done, and toasted each other with the strong dark ale that they drank every night. Stories resumed, and Meghan wrapped up in a blanket close enough to the fire to enjoy its warmth, Noodles curled up beside her. In this region of Faery, nights were chilly, although not too cold for camping outside. Soon her head nodded, and when she woke the next morning, she was lying next to the other bundled up faeries at the base of a large oak tree.

That morning began as any other. Steamy porridge with strong tea, then everything was packed up and loaded onto the dragons. During the night, the dragons had hunted and slept, so they were ready to go. Hardly’s dragon, the largest with the longest spikes, was named Petal. Such a strange name for a dangerous beast. Petal had warmed up to Meghan quickly, purring in his growling manner, and thrusting his head in her chest for petting. Even Noodles adjusted to being around the dragons, although her dog kept close to her at all times.

Hardly called out “Time to fly!” and the riders and Meghan mounted the dragons. Petal was fidgeting, anxious to rise up into the sky where he belonged. Meghan inserted her boots into the stirrups that were adjusted to her smaller stature, and checked the straps on Noodles’ harness that held him to her chest. Looking around at the magnificent dragons bobbing their heads and letting out clouds of steam made her feel small. But at the same time she felt more grown-up than her ten years, riding with the daring faeries through the skies. If her parents saw her now, they would not see their daughter, but instead an adventurer, clad in black leather clothes and helmet.

That’s strange! I haven’t thought about my parents for a long time. She supposed she should feel guilty for not missing them, but it was such a relief to be away from the fighting that she pushed them out of her mind. I deserve to have an adventure.

Hardly nodded to Never, who waited while the rest of the dragons rose into the air.  Never was their sweep, so he would ride last to make sure that everyone stayed together. The riders rode west, away from the still pink morning sun.

Last night, Meghan heard Hardly say they were headed toward the Great Grove, a forest of birch that was a day’s distance. Noodles slept peacefully in the pack, by this time accustomed to this strange form of transportation. Perhaps he thinks he’s in some type of car. Below her the farmland formed a green patterned quilt, broken up by brown dirt roads and dots of trees. Then the dragons pierced the canopy of puffy clouds, and all she could see was a landscape of white.

Hours passed without the dragons tiring, and Meghan pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. It was cold up here, cold enough to keep her awake even with the monotony of white. She looked up ahead and saw a black speck. As she watched, it grew larger until it became the shape of another dragon.

“King’s boils!” Hardly cried, and he held up his left fist, signaling the others for a landing. The riders followed him down as he shot suddenly through the clouds, dropping like a duck shot in a hunt. Meghan held Noodles close with one hand, and the other clasped the horn of her saddle desperately. Who could that other rider be?

            The quilt of farms below her had been replaced by woods and hills while they flew above the clouds. The ground came up quickly as Petal put them down in a tiny valley surrounded by trees. Meghan braced for the jolt as they hit the ground, and the dragon’s strong legs slowed them to a stop.

“Hurry, Meghan, get down!” Hardly shouted to her as he slid down the mounting rope.

“What’s going on?” Meghan asked as she slid down her rope. All around her riders were leading their dragons under a shelf of rock that would hide them from eyes in the sky. She kept Noodles in her pack as she picked her way through the piles of jumbled rocks.

“The queen’s sky patrol,” Hardly said as he caught up to her, carrying a large green blanket. Sometimes and Never helped him fold it out, larger than a blanket of that size could. Meghan watched in amazement as they kept unfolding until it took six of the faeries to hold it out. Then they lifted it up, the blanket stretching out like a firm wall and it attached to the roof of the rock ledge. Immediately they were in darkness as the blanket blocked out the sunlight.

Never lit a small lamp, and everyone sat down, seeming to hold their breath. They heard a dragon roar somewhere out in the valley. No one spoke a word, but faery, girl, and dragon alike sat perfectly still. The woosh of flapping wings came close and then faded away. Minutes stretched into at least an hour before anyone moved.

“Come on,” Hardly said. “He’s gone.” The riders got up and removed the blanket, and crawled out of the crevice.

“Why did we hide from the queen’s patrol?” Meghan asked as they prepared to continue their journey.

Never paused and looked at Hardly, who nodded slightly. “Once there were many dragon riders clubs. We used to have parties and races. But one night in Littleton, things got out of hand. No one was watching the dragons, and the next thing you know the whole village was burnt down. Now the queen hunts us like animals.”

“How terrible!” Meghan said. Up to this point, she had seen the riders as fun-loving travel companions. She had forgotten the Nod’s warning back in the field. The dragons were dragons after all, fire-breathing beasts that could be destructive.

Just as she was thinking that, a large group of soldiers holding swords stood up from the rocks surrounding them. A tall faerie in chain mail shouted something, and a large net flew through the air and trapped the dragon riders. Hardly and the others took out their knives and tried to cut the net, but it was enchanted and they couldn’t break a strand.

Never looked at Hardly and said, “That’s what happens when the dragons get into the ale.”