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 College of the Crones Chp 2

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Chapter Two Part One- Masquerade Ball

Although there were nightly parties at the prince’s castle, everyone’s favorite event was the harvest festival masquerade ball.  All the landowners and townspeople came dressed in elaborate and often ridiculous costumes.  The prince savored a sip of Eldertown’s best red wine, as he pictured the party guests. For most of my subjects the foolish apparel is an improvement. Except for the ladies, of course. At least the ladies, thanks to his beauty potion, did not offend his sensibilities. He downed the rest of his goblet.

All the preparations were complete for the masquerade ball. But of course all is ready. I will not tolerate anything less than perfect. Hours of labor had produced a glossy shine on the tile floors. The entire castle had been decked with garlands of ivy and blood red roses. From the kitchen came a whirlwind of noise and aromas, escalating as the hour of the guests’ arrival approached. The band was tuning their instruments. Court ladies reclined in their dressing rooms, allowing their servants and handmaidens to add last minute details to their costumes. All the lanterns and chandeliers had been lit. The castle glistened like a giant star upon the hill. Since it was the end of the harvest season and winter was approaching, it was already quite dark and crispy cool. It was the perfect night for a ball.

Away from the clatter of preparation, the prince relaxed in his sitting room, his chair facing a crackling fire in a massive stone fireplace. The fireplaces were always roaring in his private rooms. All the changing seasons in this world are quite unsettling. He was always layered in fine wool and furs after the leaves began to turn fiery orange and red. His shivering wouldn’t cease until springtime warmed his face once more.

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

            Still, he was too thin, despite his feasting, and not as tall as he would have liked. His narrow pointed ears he kept hidden under his hair. He didn’t need to draw attention to the few differences between mortals and faeries. His people thought his never-ending youth was due to another potion that he kept for himself. If they discovered I was a faerie, they wouldn’t be so eager to trust me.

Plain Old Lucy- Scene Three

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Setting: In front of an elevator in the Fashion District in New York. The doors are closed.

The doors open, and David and Lucy walk out. He’s carrying a briefcase, jean samples on hangers, and Lucy’s black buyer’s bag.

LUCY

Thanks again, David, for accompanying me to all my appointments. I know my vendors really appreciated having the VP there to approve my orders.

DAVID

It’s the least I could do, Lucy. You shouldn’t have to wait until we return to the office to   get your orders signed. Anything you choose will be a best seller.

LUCY

And thank you for carrying my bag and samples.

DAVID

Don’t mention it, dear. These bags are heavy. You shouldn’t have to carry them. It’s my privilege to help you.

LUCY

(To herself) Now this is more like it! My boss following me around like a groupie!

DAVID

I’ll go outside and hail you a cab. Wait inside here where it’s warm. (He leaves)

Lucy’s phone rings, and she picks it up.

LUCY

Oh, hi Sean. It’s so great to hear from you. (She listens.) Yeah, everything’s going fine, but you wouldn’t believe it! David’s been at all my appointments- since the second day we’ve been here. (She listens.) I know- unbelievable, right? Get this- he carries all my samples and my huge bag! (She listens.) No- I’m not dreaming. I’m awake and working! He listens to me, Sean. Not only him, but the others, too. (She listens.) Well, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we get home. I’m flying out tonight, first class with David. He upgraded my ticket. Look for my orders- Susie’s faxing them over to the office with hers. (She listens.) No, I’m not joking. Stop laughing. I’ll tell you all about it Monday. Have a great weekend, bye.

She walks out.

 

Plain Old Lucy- Scene Two

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Setting- O’Connell’s Pub in New York. The buyers, except Candy, are sitting at a long bar on stage left. There are a few tables stage center stage. Mr. Green is sitting by himself at one of the tables. There is a bartender behind the bar.

SUSIE

Where is our socialite? I called the office, and Lucy’s dimwit assistant said Candy’s last appointment was at 4:00.

DAVID

Relax, Susie. This is supposed to be team building time. Have some peanuts.

(Candy walks in with huge shopping bags. She’s dressed all in black with a pale pink knit cap.)

CANDY

The party’s on! I’m here!

SUSIE

Oh goody.

CANDY

Sorry. I wasn’t planning on shopping, but Angie told me about this sale at Macy’s and I couldn’t resist.

LUCY

Hi, Candy. How were your appointments?

(Everyone ignores Lucy’s question.)

DAVID

How was our fabulous buyer’s day in market?

CANDY

Fabulous, of course!

LUCY

I found some new jeans at Hot Jeans for the Back to School catalog. They have zippers on all the pockets.

SUSIE

I was at Hot Jeans looking at the Back to School sweaters. They showed them with some new zipper pocket jeans. I worked a great price with my friend Anna. Could be a great outfit for the catalog.

DAVID

Awesome, Susie! That’s what I’m talking about- teamwork! I’ll send Lucy over there tomorrow.

LUCY

Hey, I saw them first! Is anyone listening to me?

(No one reacts to Lucy’s protest. Instead they talk amongst themselves.)

(To herself) I can’t take this anymore. It’s like I don’t even exist! I wish I could be beautiful!

(She notices a man sitting in a booth. He looks at her, and beckons her over to him. Lucy hesitates, but gets up and joins him at his booth.)

Are you a jeans vendor?  I’m with my buying team right now. I can’t really talk.

MR. GREEN

No, I work in a very different business. I came over when you called.

LUCY

Sir, I’ve been sitting with my co-workers. I haven’t used my phone since we arrived.

MR. GREEN

Oh I heard you loud and clear. Especially the part about your wish. Came straight away, I did.

LUCY

(embarrassed and confused) You heard my wish? That’s ridiculous. No one usually listens to me, well, except my assistant.

MR. GREEN

That’s where I come in, Miss Lucy. It’s my profession, you see. Granting wishes.

LUCY

How do you know my name? (She looks around the pub suspiciously.) Where are the cameras? Is this one of those makeover shows? Did Sean put you up to this?

MR. GREEN

(chuckling) Makeover? My services are much more powerful than hairstyling and makeup. My colleagues think I’m foolish to deal with humans, but I find it rewarding. I sell glamour.

LUCY

You’re a magazine editor? I don’t understand.

MR. GREEN

Long before fashion magazines, Brazilian blow outs, and mascara, I’ve been transforming women into irresistible beauties. Glamour doesn’t just change your looks- it changes how others look at you.

LUCY

You can change how other people look at me? Without a makeover? That doesn’t even make sense. Look, mister, there must be a catch. I’ve been a buyer too long to not recognize when something sounds too good to be true.

MR. GREEN

My customers are always satisfied with the results.

LUCY

(She sits and stares at Mr. Green. Then she looks over at her co-workers, who are deep in conversation and don’t even realize she’s gone. Then she turns back to Mr. Green.)

Even if I believe you, which I’m not sure that I do, how much does this “glamour” cost? My credit cards are all maxed out.

MR. GREEN

Not a problem, miss. I don’t want your money.

LUCY

How can I pay you then?

MR. GREEN

I always find that if customers really want your product, they’re willing to pay anything. You’re a healthy young woman. As short as human lives are, you still have at least 50-60 years ahead of you. All I require for payment is one year of your life. It’s a small price to pay for continual success and the adoration of everyone you meet. Even David will notice you.

LUCY

How do you know about David? (She looks over at David at the bar who is listening attentively to Candy.) One year of my life? What kind of a payment is that? Are you crazy or something?  (She stands up.) I’m going back to my group. You’d better be gone before I rejoin them, or I’ve have the bartender throw you out.

MR. GREEN

Calm down, my dear Lucy. There’s no need to get worked up. You called me, after all. Sit down, and think this through. (She reluctantly sits back down.) I know this is a big decision. Take your time. Glamour is a big step. Think about what it would be like to the center of attention. How successful you could be. Everything you ever wanted- fame, romance, power.

LUCY

How would I put on this “glamour?” Do I need to drink something foul, or have an operation? I hate hospitals!

MR. GREEN

Relax! All I will need is a few strands of your hair.

LUCY

Hey, you’re not making a clone of me, are you?

MR. GREEN

(chuckling again) Don’t worry, my dear.  I don’t believe in that test tube stuff! That magic’s too risky! Now, are you willing to pay my price, or are we done here? I’ve got other customers to see.

LUCY

(Still not really believing him, she pulls out a few strands of her hair and hands it to him.) Not sure I really believe you, but I’m just desperate enough to give you a chance. What’s one year anyway?

MR. GREEN

(He rubs the hair between his palms, mumbles a few words, and then extends his hands toward Lucy.) There, it’s done.

LUCY

But I don’t feel any different. (She pulls out a mirror out of her purse.) I look exactly the same! Are you a con man?

MR. GREEN

I’ve dealt sincerely with you, my dear. Go over and rejoin your friends. You will see the fruit of my labor.

LUCY

You’re a strange man, Mr… I don’t even know your name.

MR. GREEN

(rising to his feet and taking his hat) You can call me Mr. Green. I’ll be in touch.

(He leaves)

LUCY

(to herself as she walks back to the bar) Mr. Green, really? In an Irish pub? Sounds like some kind of faery alias or something. Why did I even talk to him?

(Suddenly, the rest of the buyers stop talking amongst themselves and turn to stare at Lucy like they have never seen her before.)

LUCY

(Feeling uncomfortable) Why are you guys staring at me? Is there something on my face? (She starts rubbing her face.)

DAVID

Excuse me. I didn’t mean to stare. May I ask you to join us?

LUCY

(sarcastically) Very funny, guys. I’m plain old Lucy, remember? The one you always ignore?

CANDY

(Surprised) Lucy? Wow! What a makeover! You look as fabulous as me!

SUSIE

(With respect) There’s something different about you. Not only the way you look, but there’s a fierceness about you. No vendor would have a chance against those piercing eyes.

LUCY

(To herself) Mr. Green was right. (To the others) Come on, everybody. It’s still the same old me. You’re just seeing me differently, that’s all.

DAVID

Please join us! We were just talking about the Back to School catalog. We’d all like to hear your ideas.

(Fade to black)

Why aren’t there any happy endings anymore?

Reading into the wee hours by Kindle light, I finally reach the end, and close the book, unsatisfied.

As writers strive in the most graphic fashion to portray the sadistic underbelly of our society, I find it difficult to keep reading to the last page. Any chance of any character enjoying a lasting relationship is tossed over the railing and dashed on the concrete below. On more than one occasion, I have stopped a few chapters into a book and deleted it from my Kindle because the author has failed to provide me any thread of empathy for their tortured, misguided characters. I simply don’t care whether the main character finds the revenge or closure that he seeks, knowing that he will undoubtably implode before he learns anything about life.

In the tales I favor evil abounds, but it follows rules that allow the amateur hero to navigate through his quest, wounded but wiser for his experiences. Happy endings are earned by the pure of heart. There is peace after the conflict. Although some may call me romantic, I often find that this is the true rhythm of life. “To everything there is a season…”

Real life can be bleak enough. We cut flowers to sit in vases in our homes, bringing the riotous color of nature into our beige kitchens. For me, it is the same with novels. Even if my path is not colorful and fragrant, the book I cuddle up with in my bed should at least satisfy me with characters that set the world right and live to toast it with their comrades.

I long for a happy ending.

The College of the Crones- Chapter Three

Masquerade Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The College of the Crones

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

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