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.

Skulls on a shelf

The witch dried off her newest skull and set it next to the others. She dumped out her cauldron on the roses in her front yard. Then she scrubbed out the pot and set it on a hook in the kitchen.

A huge sigh escaped her lips. She hated it when she lost another friendship. Friendships took many years of thought and nurturing. She poked at the fire and then sat down in her rocker, wrapping herself in blankets. Charcoal, her familiar, jumped in her lap and started purring.

In some ways, she was like her cat. Independent, resourceful, content in her solitude. Yet endless days of tending her herb garden, bottling potions, and sweeping her small cottage left her with simmering discontent.

This discord, a rumbling like a hungry stomach, would drive her to the village. There was a tea shop where women who came to the market would gather. Curious women would invite her to sit at their table. It filled her heart to hear the local gossip and trade recipes for apple pie.

Sometimes there would be one woman to wanted to know more about herblore. The witch would sit with her new friend at another table and talk about various plants and how they were useful for cooking and medicine.

The witch only developed one of these special friends at a time, hoping she would find a kindred spirit with whom she could eventually share her craft. How wonderful it was to unburden herself from her secrets. This was her favorite stage of friendship when everything was shiny like a gold coin.

After the friendship had been forged for several years, the witch would invite her special friend to her cottage. During the summer, they would gather herbs and the witch would teach her friend about their qualities. When the cold winds blew, the women would make bread and tea and sit by the fire. Charcoal would hide under the bookshelf, her yellow eyes glowing with disapproval.

Eventually all friendships ended the same way. When the witch finally revealed that she was looking for an apprentice, her friend would gasp in horror and run home.

Then the village gossip would turn evil. Her friend would tell everyone that the witch was dabbling in dark arts. The witch couldn’t set foot in the tea shop without feeling stares and hearing whispers about her. The witch would plead with her friend not to talk about her. That she had misunderstood what the witch had said about her craft.

Because she had built the friendship slowly, her friend would relent from her mudslinging. However, the damage was done. The friend would not drink tea with the witch anymore. The other women would still look sideways at the witch when she wasn’t looking.

The witch hated what came next, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her secrets needed to be protected. She brought her special tea to the tea shop and convinced the owner to serve it. It was an ancient potion designed to make everyone forget the witch and everything anyone said about her.

For her friend, the witch had another special tea. This tea temporarily made her friend compliant to the witch’s commands. Once her friend drank it, the witch lured her back to the cottage where she did what she had to do.

Now nestled under her blanket, thoughtfully crocheted by one of her former friends, the witch gazed up at the row of white human skulls lined up on the mantle. Usually, she kept them locked away in a chest, too macabre for visitors. Today she had decided they needed to be on display. These skulls were her failures at friendship.

Perhaps this time she would learn her lesson.

A witch’s retirement

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

“We’ll throw you a big party with cake and everything,” my boss said, her fake smile lost in the maze of her wrinkles.

“But I’m not ready to retire,” I said. I pointed at my overflowing inbox. “I have all these orders to fill.”

Headwitch Hazel frowned. “Another reason for you to step down. Your productivity is atrocious!” She towered over me with her arms folded, not difficult to do since I was still sitting at my desk.

I sighed. “I’ll do my best to finish my outstanding requests by Friday then.”

“You do that,” she said, and stomped back to her office.

“Hey, Puddle, wanna go to lunch with us? We’re going to Chilis,” Thistle said, coming back from the front office with a fresh batch of orders in her hand. She sat across from me, our desks touching each other. If I left the company, I would miss her management jokes.

Still feeling the Headwitch’s glare, I answered, “Not today. I’ve got to get caught up.” She grabbed her broom and rushed out the door to catch up with the others.

A giant boulder of anxiety pinned me to my desk. What was I going to do with myself without this job? When I was here, I didn’t have to think. I just filled orders, took my breaks, and clocked out at the end of the day. No risks. No magical disasters.

Now I would be on my own.

Trying to shake myself out of it, I dumped out my inbox and sorted the orders into categories. Love potions, wrinkle reducers (surprised the Headwitch didn’t cast that spell for herself), protection charms, wisdom hats, and garden pest removals. Not exactly the magic I thought I’d be casting when I finished magic school.

How did I end up in this dreary magic office, when I could have been in the queen’s army, on the front lines, casting huge wind or storm spells that changed the course of battles? Or assigned to a noble family, protecting their castle from intruders.

If I admitted it to myself, I knew how I ended up here. Every time I had big magic to cast, I choked. During finals week, several of my test spells failed. At my potions final, my brew turned into iced coffee instead of a sleeping draught. My face turned beet red in front of my teacher, who knew I had made it successfully during our practice sessions. Then came my weather control final where I ended up flooding the testing room. I don’t even want to remember my broom driving test, but I still have the scars.

With my abysmal magic school scores, I was lucky to gain a position with A Magical Solution, a magical company that specialized in small magics that most witches didn’t want to waste their power on. I made charms and potions in a small lab I shared with other unremarkable witches. Our meager efforts were then sent off to the shipping department where they wrapped and packed them carefully and sent them out to customers.

Now after thirty years of small magic, it was time for me to move on.

After I’d taken care of huge stack of beauty treatments, Thistle poured in with the other witches and laid her broom on the rack against the wall. She plopped down at her desk and stared me down with her piercing green eyes. “You’re really retiring? It was all the girls talked about at lunch.”

“Headwitch said the company changed their retirement age. I’m only 80.  Normally I’d have until I was 85, but apparently, they want to get new blood in here. Immediately. Friday’s my last day.”

Thistle jumped up and gave me a bone-crunching hug. “Oh, Puddle! I’m going to miss you so much. Whenever I got stuck on a spell, you always had the answer. And you laugh at my jokes.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said, putting on a brave face while my stomach was flipping.

There had to be something I could do with my life. I looked at the towering piles of papers on my desk and sighed. If only I could come up with a way to be useful.

Finally Friday came, and it was time for me to say good bye to my desk and my co-workers. Headwitch Hazel had sprung for a delicious strawberries and cream cake and pink punch. At 4:45 pm, she allowed us time on the clock to celebrate my eminent departure.

“Speech! Speech!” the witches cried, guzzling down the punch which may have had an intoxication spell added.

I cleared my throat and thrust my shaking hands in my pockets. I hated speaking in front of a crowd, but these were witches I’d seen every day for most of my life. “Thanks, everyone, for your kind words,” I said. “I’ve been with the company for a long time. If I never see another desperation love spell, I would be happy.”

A chuckle echoed across the office. No one liked to cast that spell, especially since it included dog feces and stinging nettles.

“It’s hard for me to say goodbye to all you wonderful witches,” I continued. “When I heard I was retiring, I was upset. I hate change. That’s probably why I stayed here all these years. But Headwitch Hazel has given me a new opportunity. An open door to the new stage of my life. When I was young, I was too afraid to make mistakes. Now I’m ready to use my experience to cast new magic. I may still make mistakes, but I will learn from them. It’s time for me to step out on my own.”

“What are your plans?” Poppy from Accounting asked.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about it all week. I could start a bed and breakfast at the beach. Or I could become a wise woman in the forest. But I know what I really want to do.” I paused. Headwitch would not like this. “I’m going to write a book.”

“A grimoire?” Thistle asked.

“Not exactly,” I said. “A grimoire is for my own personal use, to be handed down to my children, of which I have none. I’m going to write a magic book that every witch can use. A book of everyday, small magics that can make their lives easier.”

Headwitch frowned. “You mean like the spells we do here at the company.”

I nodded, swallowing my fear. “Too long have young witches ordered out spells and potions that their mothers and grandmothers always made themselves. They shouldn’t have to pay for milk preservation spells or anti-wrinkle treatments for their clothes. Witches have become lazy in their magic. It’s time for them to take back their heritage.”

Although it would affect their jobs, the witches in the room cheered. My hopes soared as I realized I was finally ready to cast big magic of my own.

Walking with Cuddles

walking dog

 

“Come on, Cuddles, let’s go for a walk!” I brace myself as he runs into me full force, almost knocking me through the door. Got to read that obedience book again. Not controlling him always leads to disaster.

“Cuddles, sit,” I command in my best version of Frank’s authoritative voice. My husband never has trouble getting him to do what he wants. Cuddles spins around, knocking over the lamp with his tail before he thumps down on the floor and bows his head. Quickly, before he changes his mind, I slip on the choke collar with leash attached. I wish he could walk with me unleashed, but a bird might lure him away, and we’d never see him again.

Like we do every day, Cuddles and I walk down our street, his head close to my leg on the right. Proper position makes your pet respect your leadership. A few of our neighbors are out with their dogs. They nod, but remain on the opposite side of the street. Their dogs whine and tuck in their tails as we pass. In response, Cuddles growls and pulls at the leash.

“Cuddles, leave it!” I should have brought the spray bottle with us. He hates it when I spray him on the nose. The smoke cloud makes it hard for him to see, and he hates the sizzling sound.

When we reach the park, I follow the meandering path that runs through the shade of the trees. Cuddles loves being outside, and he puffs out a happy rumble. Two moms grab their children off the playground equipment and quickly strap them into their strollers. They manage to zoom away right as we approach. Some people are so chicken when it comes to having their kids around strange pets, passing that paranoia down to another generation.

But I can’t control other people’s reactions, so I walk Cuddles out of the park and head home. He is hardly pulling at all now, and I’m thankful Frank and I decided to adopt a pup instead of an adult shelter pet. These last two years have been a lot of work and cost us new cabinets in the laundry room, but our Cuddles has shaped up nicely.

Back home again, I open up the gate and take off Cuddle’s collar. He flaps away into our screened in backyard, shooting out flames as he goes. All in all, he’s a great little dragon, and we wouldn’t trade him for anything.

When Magic Fails

witch

 

 

All I wanted was to ride as fast as I could to the edge of the world and drop off.

Earlier this same day, I had not suspected anything would go wrong. I got up, drank my elixir, and got ready for work. My wrinkles and warts faded away as usual, and I braided my long shiny black hair. As I walked out the door, I kissed my cat and she hissed at me. Nothing different there.

Icy blasts whipped across my face as I rode my broom toward the office. Usually, I love fresh air, but this wind whispered evil portents. I cast a protective bubble around me and stopped shivering.

When I arrived at the large, crumbling castle, I set my broom up against the rack with the others. Everyone was here today, I noticed. That could be good or bad. I mumbled my Freshen Up spell to release the wrinkles in my black dress and walked in the back door.

Our entire staff of witches, as well as the receptionists, gathered around our CEO, Madame Bramblerose. Was I late for some staff meeting I didn’t know about? Sarah gestured towards me to get over there, her eyes flashing. That girl really was a witch.

“As some of you know, there have been reports from the Eastern Realm that are quite disturbing. None of us should panic, since we have long expected this could happen. Rest assured that Western Coven Magical Assist will do everything in our magical power to continue our service to the community,” Madame Bramblerose said in a gravelly voice. Everyone’s eyes, even Becky Speckleleaf, who usually dozes during meetings, were fixed on our leader.

I shook out my shoulders, which had started to clench up. Spells could be affected by tension in a witch’s body. What in the seven hells was she talking about?”

“In order to continue our expected level of service, witches will work in partners for every spell. Every spell. No exceptions.”

Groans echoed throughout the room. Most witches have their own personal style, and they don’t play well together. The corporate environment of WCMA kept us from killing each other. Most of the time.

“I appreciate your professionalism in these trying times. Your partner assignments have been loaded into your mirrors. Get out there and do your best.” She swept out of the circle and into her office, the heavy wooden door slamming locked behind her. That’s the last we’d see her that day. Well, I would see her in an even worse mood, but that would be later.

“What’s this all about?” I whispered to Bonnie, who shared an office with me. She came from the country, like me, and kept a level head. These city witches weren’t used to demon attacks and superstitious village mobs with torches.

“Magic is failing,” she whispered back, her tan face uncharacteristically pale. “The rate of spell failure is 17.8% and rising. It’s begun.”

My stomach flipped. Of course I’d grown up with the threat of Magic Fade, but I didn’t think it would happen in my generation. Mama had told me all about it when I was little, not exactly the type of bedtime story I would tell my children. A time would come, she would say with lifted eyebrow and low insistent voice, when the magic in our world would be used up. After all, it wasn’t a renewable resource, everyone knew that. Magic resided in the rocks, the ancient stones that surrounded us. Rocks were everywhere across the realms, plentiful as weeds. And yet, every time we cast a spell, a little more of our magic was lost.

“Sheep dung!” I swore with a hiss.

“It certainly is,” she agreed.

When I spoke my password into the mirror on the wall in front of my desk, the assignment list popped up. “Bull pies!” I spit out, as I saw who my partner would be. The Goddess hated me. Bramblerose hated me.

“Marion, get your lazy bones out of that chair, and let’s get to work,” a grating, familiar voice called from the doorway. I looked up to see a tall, thin witch with white stringy hair that hung from her head like a poppet. Sarah Nightshade. She would be working spells with me. All. Week. Long.

“I’m coming,” I called, and as I passed her, Bonnie gave me a pitying look. No one worked with Sarah for many good reasons.

The rest of day went pretty much as could be expected. Customers came into our consulting rooms, otherwise known as remodeled dungeon cells. There I spent hours casting spells with Sarah. Most of the time, customers were completely satisfied. I could feel the magic thinning a bit, but I could still access it without too much effort.

All day long, I ignored my partner’s demeaning insults and disgusting personal habits. Do you have any idea how unpleasant it is to be cooped up in a tiny cell with someone who passes gas continually? And when they brought us our lunch, she shoved the plate in her face and ate the stew without her spoon. Disgusting, and she’s the one who calls me uncouth. Called me, I mean.

Finally, I saw we reached the last customer on our list. Not a minute too soon. A tiny, tottering old crone came in, her face covered in festering warts, no doubt caused by constant exposure to poisonous plants she grew for the medicine men. Oh no. Not another beauty spell. That took positive, beautiful thoughts, and I was fresh out. Sarah obviously didn’t have any to begin with.

“My husband won’t sleep in our bed anymore,” she rasped. “He sleeps out in the sheep shed. Embarrassing when our neighbors see him crawl out in the morning. Please help me.” She offered the standard payment in her wrinkled and twisted hand. Where did that old lady get that much gold?

“No problem,” Sarah said, pocketing her money. “Lay down on the table.” The crone creaked over to a low pallet positioned in the middle of the room. Both of us could easily walk around the patient, taking magical items from the cupboard against the wall. As my partner got the woman settled, I reached into the cupboard and took out the herbs we needed, just like I’d done hundreds of times before. Can’t really blame Sarah for putting the jar in the wrong place. It’s my responsibility to pay attention.

After mixing the dried leaves with a white powder and pouring cow urine over it, I brought the elixir over to Sarah. She sniffed it and frowned. “Doesn’t look as potent as the last batch. Are you sure you did it right?”

That was it. I was done with that witch. “Who are you to question me? Just because I went to a country school doesn’t mean I’m an idiot!” I roared at her with the pent-up frustration I’d saved all day.

She stepped back from the sparks flying from my hands. When did I start doing that? I usually didn’t have much command over lightning magic. Must have been all that partner work.

After I calmed down, we chanted the spell together, and then she gave the potion to the crone, who drank it down quickly with a grimace. Then the fun began.

Our frail old lady shot up from the table and began spinning in the air. In the air. Not part of our spell. The cell filled with foul smoke and when it cleared, a large demon appeared. Again, not part of our spell.

I’ll spare you most of the details because to be honest, it happened so fast I didn’t have much time to react. Of course, Sarah and I called on our defensive magic, but wouldn’t you know, my magic worked, but hers didn’t. The ugly demon with sharp teeth and claws made quick work of our customer and my fellow witch. It couldn’t reach through my bubble, but I couldn’t touch it either. Discouraged, it burst through our door, reducing it to a pile of kindling. I ran out after it.

Eventually, the witches got the demon under control and sealed him up in a jar, just in case we needed it for something in the future. Madame Bramblerose wrote me up for sloppy spell work and suspended me for a week. None of the other witches could look me in the eye, not even Bonnie.

Now I was zooming away on my broom, disgraced and guilty as hell. I should have checked the jar. A demon-summing spell is far different than a beauty potion. Not only did I mess up the spell, but now I could feel it. My magic was fading. Who was I without magic?

I headed toward the mountains, to my favorite hideout. When things had not gone well at primary school, I had discovered a place where I could hide until Mama used her Find My Child spell. Landing on a huge, flat rock, I sat down to watch the rushing water traveling down the mountain’s back. It would be so easy to jump over the side and allow the jagged rocks and swirling water to do its work.

The evening sun was setting behind the ridge, so I cast a small ball of light that hovered in front me. Its glow was pale and weak. The water roared below me, taunting me, daring me.

If magic failed completely, would I still be a witch? Before magic school, I showed some talent with a brush. Maybe I could be a portrait painter. Wouldn’t make much gold, so I would have to move back to the farm with Mama and the boys.

I looked up and saw the endless field of stars above me. Even without a spell, I could read their possibilities. Tangy pine air inflated my lungs. I was still me. No longer could I hear the water’s cry. When I mounted my broom and headed home, I knew I would find my way.

 

 

Teachers in Faerie: Part Four- The Secret of the Blight

sorm2

A high-pitched yowl ended the light show, and a few moments later, two faerie guards emerged from the trees. As usual, their uniforms were spotless, although their faces looked worn. Meghan was glad that she couldn’t see the remains of the dire wolves. She gave Captain Granite a spontaneous hug. He gently pulled her away from him with his usual brisk manner.

“Come now, Lady Meghan, it’s all over now,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “Let’s get some  sleep.”

“As if we could sleep now,” Debbie said, holding onto Mary.

At dawn’s light, Meghan and her friends headed back to Hollystone. Both guards kept their eyes roaming in all directions. They passed a few farmers headed to market, their wagons heavy with fragrant peaches and plums. In the Summer Court, the weather was always warm and the harvest was continual.

When they reached the castle, the teachers gratefully accepted hot baths and fresh gowns before presenting themselves to the Queen in the North Garden. She was sitting on an elaborately carved wooden bench, painting a colorful scene of the lilies next to a pond.

“Your Majesty, the teachers have returned,” her lady-in-waiting said as she held the Queen’s palette. Queen Amber handed the tiny faerie her brush, accepted a linen cloth for her fingers, and turned to Meghan and her friends. They curtsied low before her.

“You may rise,” Queen Amber said eagerly. “Did your travel prove fruitful?” Her lady-in-waiting offered her a silver cup filled with her favorite peach wine. She took a tiny sip and waited for their news.

On the way out to see her, the teachers had agreed that Meghan should speak for the group. “Queen Amber, the blight is horrible to view in person. We brought back some samples. With your permission, we’d like to do some tests.”

“Of course,” the Queen said. “Go directly to Chamberlain Chalk, and he’ll take you to my son’s laboratory. His resources are at your disposal.”

Chamberlain Chalk was an ancient wrinkled faerie with sparkling grey eyes and white hair that stood straight up. He was in the middle of discussing the evening’s guest list with the servants. Upon hearing their request, he led them to the northwest tower that had been nicknamed Mica’s Lair.

“With all their magic, you’d think they’d come up with an elevator,” Debbie grumbled as they climbed the steep stone stairs.

“It would hurt us to get a little exercise,” Mary said. “Those evening feasts are killing my diet.”

“Come on, girls, we’re in a castle, in Faerie,” Meghan said. “It’s part of the charm.” She was in the lead and called to their guide. “Pardon me, Chamberlain Chalk, but we’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Queen Amber’s son. What is he like?”

The faerie paused on the stair, as if considering what to reply. After a moment, he said, “Prince Mica is a bit eccentric, not doubt due to the time he spent in your world going to university. He was quite indulged as a child.” The chamberlain shook his head. “Prince Mica believes that the most powerful magic combines both high magic and your world’s science. In his laboratory, he has several scientific instruments he brought back with him. They’re quite disturbing, really, all those blinking lights and whirring sounds.” He turned and continued climbing.

Meghan marveled at his words. A faerie wizard that used machines! She looked at the jars she carried in a basket. Surely they would be able to find out some answers.

Finally, they arrived at the top of the stairs. Chamberlain Chalk, not winded at all, knocked at the heavy door.

“Who is there?” a deep voice boomed.

“Chamberlain Chalk, Your Highness. You have visitors from the Queen. Is it safe to enter?”

The door opened without a sound, and the teachers walked in. The chamberlain bowed and quickly descended the stairs.

“Welcome to my lab, ladies,” a pleasant voice, different from the one that guarded the door, invited them. The voice’s owner was a tall, thin faerie dressed in a white lab coat, latex gloves, and safety goggles, his long red hair pulled back in a braid. He was in the middle of adding drops to a boiling glass container with no flame under it.

“Who was at the door?” Debbie wondered aloud.

The faerie finished his mixture, waved his hand over it and chanted a few words. The liquid in the container turned black and stopped bubbling. “That was my door spell. Often I’m in the middle of an experiment, and it would be too dangerous for me to stop and answer the door.”

The teachers looked around the circular room in wonder. There were computers, control boards, and machines of every size. Meghan saw a large aluminum refrigerator, cages containing strange creatures, and even a treadmill. “How do you power all this?” she said, forgetting to address him as the prince. “Prince Mica,” she added quickly.

“Solar power,” he said proudly. “I made my own panels. Part of my grad studies project at Cal Tech.” He smiled. “Good times. Oh, and don’t worry about formality here in the lab. You can call me Mica.”

His smile was mesmerizing. Meghan shook her head. “I’m Meghan, and this is Mary and Debbie, my friends. Queen Amber brought us here to Hollystone to help with the blight.”

“Your lab is impressive,” Mary said. “I never thought I’d see machines in Faerie.”

“Still no elevators,” Debbie commented. “Why don’t we see any technology anywhere else?”

Prince Mica shook his head. “My mother won’t allow it. She follows the old ways. But at least here, in my lab, I can do what I want. Did you bring me something?” He looked at the basket Meghan carried. “Those are the containment jars I designed.”

She handed the basket to him, his hands brushing against hers. Even with gloves on, she felt a shiver from his touch. “These are samples we collected from one of the affected areas. Can you test them to see what they are?”

He picked one up and looked at it, frowning. “I’ll have to run some spectral analysis on it, and maybe even some DNA tests. It could be organic.”

“Do you need some help?” Mary asked.

Prince Mica smiled. “No thank you, ladies. I work better on my own. If there’s a containment issue, I can usually deal with it using my magic. I wouldn’t want you to get in the way of a spell.”

Meghan couldn’t help noticing that his bright green eyes keeping coming back to rest on her. Was he interested in her? Probably nothing more than scientific curiosity. Here in the Summer Court, humans were regarded as fireflies that shone for a brief moment, delightful as friends but nothing deeper. However, in the Winter Court, faeries saw humans as disposable entertainment.

Her cheeks reddened and she turned away to look at one of the machines. “We’d like to stay and help. We’ll be careful.”

“Well, then, if you can’t be frightened off, I’ll put you to work,” he said with a shrug. “There are more lab coats and gloves by the door.”

The rest of the day, they spent extracting contained samples and submitting them to the various machines in the lab. Prince Mica tested for viruses, bacteria, shape-shifting microorganisms, curses, poisons, and genetically altered insects. When they finally cleaned the last test tube and made sure the samples were stored in sealed containers, he offered them some rose tea from an electric kettle.

“That’s all the tests I have,” he said and crunched on his tea biscuit thoughtfully. “We now know what the blight isn’t—not an organism or poison. That leaves us with a purely magical cause.” He looked at his notebook where he had carefully recorded their results. “That leaves the Winter Court.”

“But haven’t you been at peace for the past three centuries?” Mary asked. She took another sip of the sweet scented tea.

“There’s a new faerie on their throne now,” he answered. “He calls himself The Frost King. He wants to go all traditional, magic only, no human ways. There’s quite a following for that these days.”

His voice was melodic even when he was serious. Meghan tried to resist staring at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his pointed ears were pierced down their length and covered in emeralds and diamonds. She had an irresistible urge to reach over and touch them.

“What do we do now?” Debbie asked, pinching Meghan on the arm to break her trance. To her friend she whispered, “Snap out of it. He’s a faerie.”

“There’s one more test I can do,” he said. “I can talk to it.”

“Talk to it?” Mary echoed.

“Yes, I can conjure up the spirit of the blight, and ask it what drives it. There has to be a trigger on this kind of magic. If we can find out what it’s linked to, we can develop something to counteract it.”

Meghan couldn’t believe she was acting so foolishly. After Debbie pinched her, she took a deep breath and tried to focus on the problem they were working on. Tonight her friends were going to give her a hard time. She thought she was past all that faery crush stuff after their first visit.

The prince took one of the specimen jars and placed it in the middle of a chalk circle in the middle of the room. He lit candles and placed them around the circle.

“Step back,” he warned as he added a plastic face shield to his outfit. “This could get messy.”

Meghan and her friends backed away from the center of the room. The prince began to walk around the outside of the circle, singing softly.

“Magic made, spell well woven,

Come reveal your purpose given,

Power ancient power hidden,

Open magic, spell well spoken.”

A cloud of white smoke poured out of the top of the sealed jar. It filled up the circle all the way up to the high ceiling, staying within the circle, a cylinder of smoke. Prince Mica clapped his hands in success, and addressed the cloud.

“Mighty magic, why have you come to our land?”

A rumble like thunder preceded the reply. “Master bids me eat, eat all the color. So I eat.”

Meghan looked at the others. Eat color?

“Mighty magic, noble spell, how do you eat color?”

Another rumble. “Stories fade, voices silent. Suck color out of silence.” The rumbling got louder and louder as the cloud turned red and then black. Lightning shot out of it and struck the nearest machine, short-circuiting it.  Torrents of rain burst from the cloud and soaked everything in the room. Prince Mica shouted at it, and suddenly the cloud disappeared and it was silent.

“Well, that was informative,” he said, taking off his drenched lab coat and replacing it with a dry one. “Is everyone unharmed?”

Meghan came out from under the table. “That was crazy! I can’t believe you stopped it.”

“What does it mean?” Mary said, stepping out from behind the computer.

“Eating color? How can something eat color?” Debbie said as she jumped out of a cabinet.

“One moment.” Prince Mica pulled a book from a shelf covered with plastic, a lesson perhaps learned from another incident. He turned to the back of the book, found what he was looking for, and turned to another section. He looked up with a worried expression. “It’s worse than we could ever imagine. This is definitely the work of the Frost King. How diabolical! He’s using ancient magic. A spell no one dares use anymore.”

“What kind of magic?” Meghan asked. The teachers pulled out the stools from under the table and pulled them up close to the prince. He turned the book toward them, revealing an engraving of a lizard creature with a large mouth eating the leaves of a tree.

“The spell is called Prismatic Draining, and it will destroy our entire queendom.” He slammed close the book and quickly replaced it. “Come with me. Mother needs to know right away.”

 

 

Teachers in Faerie- Part Three: Sightseeing

horseback

Meghan’s mouth was bone dry and her bottom ached so badly she was ready to drop off the sturdy white mare that carried her. She could tell Debbie and Mary were feeling the same by the way both of them crunched over their saddle horns. The queen’s guards, one in front and one in back, sat tall and undisturbed in their saddles. Must take practice.

Rather than restate her complaint to Captain Granite’s unsympathetic ears, she tried to distract herself by enjoying the surrounding green meadows dotted with purple and yellow flowers. They had started out from Hollystone Castle at dawn, an ungodly hour for both faeries and teachers on summer vacation. The nearest location of the blight was two and one half days north, following the valley that cradled the capital city of Hollystone.

They followed the Queen’s Road, a scraped dirt road rimmed by small white stones that bisected Queen Amber’s lands from north to south. If they kept riding for five days, they would reach the edge of the Summer Court and end up in the Crystal Mountains, the natural boundary between the Summer and Winter Courts.

“Do you think he’ll ever stop for the night, or will he make us sleep on our horses?” Debbie grumbled on her right.

“It’s a new moon tonight, so I would guess he’d stop by twilight,” Meghan answered.

Just then, Captain Granite pulled his horse to a stop and turned toward them. “Let us make camp. Follow me off the road into those trees.” He gestured toward a clump of overhanging trees.

“I don’t think I can get down,” Mary moaned.

“Do not worry, my Lady. Shale will provide assistance,” the Captain added with a sigh.

After the guards set up their tents, and Meghan showed her Girl Scout skills by starting a fire, the travelers enjoyed some turkey, bread, and berries packed by the queen’s kitchen. Four years ago, she never thought she’d be eating by firelight with her friends, watching swarms of stars overhead. Meghan tried to recognize any familiar constellations, but the sky reminded her she was in a different world.

Later as she drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard distant howls. Too far away to worry about. Besides Captain Granite set a ward over their camp for the night.

At the first pink of dawn, Shale poked his head inside the teachers’ tent. “Time to ride, ladies.”

“Uggh, I feel worse than the first week of school,” Mary groaned as she pulled on her boots.

“Eventually it will hurt so much that it will stop hurting,” Debbie offered, layering on her cloak.

“That’s supposed to be encouraging?” Meghan asked as she tugged a brush through her hair and rebraided it. She pulled a knit cap on and followed the others outside.

“Did you hear that coyote last night?” Meghan asked Shale, who started pulling down their tent.

“Lady, I do not know a ca-yo-tee, but I assure you what we heard was a dire wolf. They roam the hills at night. That is the reason Captain Granite set our camp so close to the road. In addition to our wards, the queen layered enchantments on that road that keep most creatures away.”

Meghan was sorry that she asked. She looked around the lush green meadow that surrounded them. Birds twittered in the trees, and she spied two cottontails hopping away. Nothing lethal.

Their second day riding seemed easier. When the sun finally rested again in the never-ending parade of hills, they reached a tall wooden wall that protected the thatched roofs of Shadowglen. Evening had not yet fallen so the gate was open, and they rode straight in, headed for the village’s only inn, The Barking Dog.

After washing up in a magically heated tub in their room, the teachers met their guards down in the common room. Steaming bowls of stew awaited them. Other travelers sat crowded at the long tables, drinking dark beer and singing along with a young faerie playing a lyre.

“I still can’t believe we get to spend our summers here,” Debbie said, downing her last sip of ale, and looking hopefully toward the barmaid. “This place is like something out of a faery tale.”

“Hopefully not the kind of faery tale with giants or wolves or evil queens,” Meghan noted.

The next day, the teachers were up and ready before Shale knocked. It was peculiar how none of the villagers mentioned any about the blight last night, but Shale told them that most faeries were lulled into complacency by centuries of peace under Queen Amber that no one wanted to admit that there could be a problem.

“That’s foolish!’ Mary said. “In order to solve a problem, you have to first admit that it exists.”

“Sounds like some of my students’ parents at conference time,” Debbie said.

“Come on, girls! This is summer vacation, no school talk!” Meghan reminded them.

As they left the village, they rode toward the rising sun, until Captain Granite turned off on a narrow road that wound up through the hills. After riding in the cool shade of the canyon, their leader took another path that clung to the canyon’s side. Meghan kept her eyes straight ahead, trying not to notice the sheer drop off.

Even though she had seen it from a distance, none of them were prepared for the effects of the blight. After gleaming white rock, deep blue stream, and dark green thickets they had just passed, the affected area stood out like a dead man’s bones. The blight covered an area about ten feet square, turning every leaf, stone, and blade of grass into a dull shade of grey. There was nothing living in its path—no birds, squirrels, or even snakes.

Debbie approached the blight carefully. She touched a low hanging branch with her gloves and the leaf broke off in her hand, crumbling into dust.

“I don’t see why this area doesn’t blow away,” Meghan said. “It looks like all the color and moisture has been sucked out of everything.”

“But what about the rocks?” Mary said, kicking one boulder with her boot. It cracked into pieces.

“Everything seems dead,” Captain Granite said. “But what causes this blight?”

“We’re going to take samples,” Meghan said. She took out a glass jar that had been magically prepared with a containment spell. After carefully breaking off a small branch, she dropped it into the jar and screwed on the lid. Debbie and Mary also took samples of the rocks and grass. There was no sign of disease or insect damage.

“I’m thinking this is magical,” Meghan concluded. “There’s nothing back on our world that would compare to this. If it was a microorganism, it wouldn’t affect the rocks or water.”

Captain Granite looked around them. “We need to get back to the castle. I feel eyes on my back here.”

They mounted their horses, retraced their path back to the Queen’s Road, and set off back to Hollystone. It was almost dark when they came near to where they camped the first night.

After they heated up the stew they brought from the inn, Meghan and her friends discussed their findings.

“How can we expect to figure this out?” Debbie said. “It’s not like we have a lab or anything here to analyze these samples.”

Meghan smiled. “I think you underestimate magic, my friend. Queen Amber is giving me access to her mages and court healer. They have resources that will give us some answers.”

“We’re just teachers,” Mary said. “What can we do?”

“We used to making lessons out of nothing, and changing students into voracious readers. We can do this.”

It seemed like Meghan’s eyes had just closed when she awoke to a violent shaking.

“Wake up! We’ve got to get close to the fire!” Debbie said urgently.

Meghan shook her head, pulled on her cloak and followed Debbie out of their tent. Mary, Captain Granite, and Slate were standing close to their campfire, which was roaring with magical intensity. The guards’ faces looked grim in the reflection of the flames.

“Stay close to the fire. Don’t move, whatever you hear,” Captain Granite warned them. Then they disappeared into the gloom.

“What’s going on?” Mary said, her yawns suppressed by fear.

“You must have been dead asleep! Those howls kept getting closer and closer until finally Slate came to get us. It’s dire wolves! They can only be fought with magic,” Debbie said. “Isn’t it exciting? Our first magical creature battle!”

“Yeah, I guess, if we had any magic to protect ourselves,” Meghan said.

Suddenly a howl interrupted their conversation, so chilling that Meghan could only describe it as a mixture of a baying hound, eagle’s scream, and a child’s cry on a haunted house ride. The surrounding trees prevented them from seeing what was happening, until ground shaking thumps and flashes of light revealed that the guards were fighting their attackers.

The teachers stood with their backs sweating against the towering fire as they waited to see what would happen.

Teachers in Faerie Part Two- The Blight

blight

Meghan had expected to emerge from the portal next to Queen Amber, but when the smoke cleared and her stomach settled, she and her friends stood alone in a stone-walled hallway lit by glowing lamps.

“Where did she go?” Debbie said, looking around. “Who transports us back with them and then disappears?”

As if on cue, a tiny faerie woman in a dark green dress appeared and gestured toward them. “My Ladies, if you please. Follow me.” She turned and started down the long hallway with the teachers following.

After climbing a spiraling stone staircase, crossing another long corridor filled with royal portraits, and climbing yet another staircase, they approached a tall dark wood door. Meghan groaned. If it was possible to be transported to the castle, couldn’t they at least end up where they needed to be?

“Ladies, the Queen awaits you in her war room,” said the servant with a curtsey. She leaned up against the door and whispered. It slowly opened on its own, creaking under its weight.

Mary jumped. “After three summers here, I still can’t get used to the casual use of magic.”

“To them, opening a door is merely an extension of their will,” Meghan whispered. “Magic is much more explosive.”

As they walked into the room, Meghan noticed that they must be inside one of the towers that held up the corners of Hollystone Castle. Last summer, the teachers had traveled by carriage to Queen Amber’s Solstice Ball, and from the window, she had noticed the white stone towers topped with purple and pink flags flapping in the wind.

The queen sat at a large wooden table resting on a floral rug in the center of the circular windowless room. A large map was unfurled on the top of the table and markers that looked like pieces from a chess set were placed upon it. A deep frown marred the perfection of Queen Amber’s face as she shook her head in response to a tall white haired faery wearing shimmering armor. His helmet sat on the table.

The general’s face brightened at their approach. “Your Majesty, the teachers have arrived.”

The queen sighed, and then stiffened in her high back chair. She wore a pale lavender robe trimmed with clear beading and matching silk slippers. Even in her castle, she still wore her crown, which seemed to press down tightly on her head.

“Thank you, ladies, for accompanying us back to Hollystone. This is General Lodestone, the commander of my army. He prefers the security of the war room. The wards surrounding this room make it impossible for anyone to eavesdrop on our conversation.”

Meghan shared a worried look with Mary. Why would the queen of the Summer Court want to hold a secret meeting with them? And include her general?

“Come join us at the table,” the queen motioned toward three empty chairs across from her. “And you may drop the court manners in here. You may address us freely.”

The teachers sat down in the hard wooden chairs, trying not to scrape them loudly on the polished wooden floor. Meghan eagerly studied the map. It was drawn by hand on thick velum with delicate scrollwork and lettering in the Faerie Common Tongue. Since their first visit, Meghan had applied herself to learning it. Spoken language was no problem since Thistle doused them with magical eardrops every time they arrived.

However, she had never seen a map of Faerie, so she tried to see if she could find their location. A chess rook near the middle stood on a spot labeled Hollystone Castle. Far to the left, next to General Lodestone, she could see an opening in the forest labeled Fairmeadow. That was near Willow House.

“As you can see, this is a map showing the holdings of the Summer Queen,” General Lodestone began. “Here’s where we’re located,” he pointed at the rook. “And here’s where the blight has struck.” He pointed at black pawns scattered across the map.

“There doesn’t seem to be any pattern,” Debbie observed.

“They’re all some distance from Hollystone,” Mary said, squinting her eyes at the map.

Meghan shook her head. First things first. “This blight. We glimpsed it when we arrived. But what is it? We couldn’t get a straight answer from Thistle.”

Queen Amber nodded and General Lodestone continued.

“We’re not certain how the blight started, or what exactly it is. The affected areas don’t immediately die off. A human botanist at court told us about photosynthesis, that the plants need their green color to make food. When the blight takes away all color in its path, the plants slowly die from lack of nourishment. What’s curious is that everything else also loses its color—tree trunks, streams, even the rocks.” He stood up and began to pace. “Our best magic practitioners, both human and faery, could not destroy the blight or slow its progress. Court mathematicians estimate we have about two years until the blight overruns the entire land.

Mary threw up her hands. “What do you want us to do, teach it not to destroy?”

Meghan whispered frantically to her friend, “Court manners or not, you can’t just blurt out snarky comments in front of the queen.”

Queen Amber’s eyes widened, but she remained silent. General Lodestone glanced at her before continuing. “Ladies, in your own land, you are known for your scholarship. Due to your nonmagical environment, your education is far different from scholarship in Faerie. It is entirely possible that this blight is not magical but manmade. Or a combination of the two.” Meghan thought she saw him suppress a shiver, but maybe she was imagining it.

“You want us to study it,” Meghan realized. “Report back on what we find.” Even as she said it, she had a hard time believing that the faerie queen required their assistance. She had seen what faeries could do, and royals had more ability than most.

Queen Amber nodded. “You might be able to discover something we could not. What it’s made of. Maybe even a way to remove the blight before it takes over.”

Debbie stood up first, ready to walk into anything for fun. “Let’s do it, girls. We can’t let the land die.”

Meghan’s curiosity drove her to her feet. “I’m in.” Even with her doubts, she had wanted an opportunity to explore more of Faerie.

Mary, who had been writing in a tiny notebook she always carried, tore out the sheet of paper. “We’ll need some books from our land. Can these titles be retrieved for us?”

Queen Amber said, “You will be given whatever you request. Don’t speak about the blight to anyone you encounter in your travels. We don’t want to alarm the peasants. Let’s keep it between us.

Oh great, Meghan thought. Now Debbie would never give up. Her friend’s sheltered childhood had resulted in an usually strong taste for anything secretive.

General Lodestone whistled a piecing tune. The door opened, and four mail clad guards entered.

“Captain Granite will get you anything you need from your world,” he said. Mary gave the lead soldier her list. He glanced at it curiously. It was written in Common Tongue, but he seemed to be fascinated by the blue lines on the paper and the torn off spiral notebook edge. The soldiers left immediately on their errand.

Much later that evening, after a lengthy feast in their honor, the teachers met on the balcony in Meghan’s room.

“Is this really a good idea?” Meghan asked, as her eyes scanned the dark landscape beyond them, twinkling lights reminding her that there were farmhouses scattered amongst rolling hills. The peaceful sound of crickets was deceiving. Waiting in the wilderness were any number of predatory magical beasts and dark faeries. Tales best shared in front of a fireplace rather than in person.

“What a great opportunity to help our hosts,” Debbie said with excitement. “You’re the one who kept telling us it wasn’t a good idea to be in their debt. Three summers and they’ve never asked for anything.”

“I know, but remember how faeries have a bad habit of not telling you the whole story?” Meghan replied.

“All we’re doing is research. The Queen doesn’t want us to take on the blight ourselves. What do you think, Mary?” Their friend had been quiet all evening.

“I don’t know,” Mary said. “It just feels weird, like something from a story I read. I sent for the book, along with the others we need.”

“It’s not surprising you feel like we’re in a story,” Meghan said. “Spending time in Faerie does that to you.”

“It’s great that General Lodestone is sending two of his best soldiers with us, but I can’t help feeling that we’re unprepared. I wish I could access my Kindle library from here.” They didn’t bother bringing any electronics with them since there was no Internet and no electricity for charging.

“Don’t be such a worry wart,” Debbie said. “It’ll be a great adventure. The Quest for the Blight Bane.”

“I came here to chill out,” Mary protested. “Paint some landscapes, eat delicious food and drink honey wine. Not traipse across the countryside bouncing on a horse, sleeping on the cold ground or lice-infested straw pallets. This is my summer vacation!”

“There’s no pleasure without cost,” Meghan reminded her. “Sooner or later we have to earn our keep.”

“Isn’t it exciting?” Debbie said. “It might even be dangerous!”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Mary answered with a sigh.

Dragon Rider Part Nine- Change Arrives

dragon 2

 

Music swirled around the ballroom, wafting through the twirling gowns and tickling the drooping mustaches of noblemen. Emeri sighed, a shallow one because of her corset, and pulled up her scandalous bodice with her free hand. Her head ached from the pounds of curls that cascaded down the back of her head. At least her feet didn’t hurt, already numb from being squeezed into satin slippers. She endured the endless change of dance partners with a practiced smile, and longed for a large glass of Silverpointe brandy.

Two weeks had passed since the dragon riders returned from their ride to the Crystal Mountains, but to Emeri it seemed a season ago. Although First Mistress had frowned at news of Petal’s disappearance, her reaction to Emeri’s rescue at the lake almost resembled concern. Concern for her political card game.

“We’re relieved that our daughter finally got dragon riding out of her system,” her foster mother had said with a sniff, assessing her like she was a horse ready for auction. “Thank the Goddess you didn’t break any teeth in the crash. And all your bones are hale.”

When Twinkle and Emeri had arrived at the lake, a local fisherman and his wife took them in. Sparkle waded into the water and pulled out fish after fish, eating them like chips. Signal smoke poured out of his nostrils, leaving a trail up into the skies. As the sun lowered its heavy lids on the horizon, dark shapes loomed over the cottage. The dragon riders had found them! That night’s celebration had included liberal amounts of brandy that Avery had brought back with him from Silverpointe.

Now she longed for that homemade brandy, but must be content with hundred season vintage wine. Tonight’s ball was even more opulent than the three previous. Golden candelabras lit up the palace ballroom as bright as daylight over the crush of dancers and party goers who watched from the sides. At one end of the hall a large orchestra played the latest dance music and the open doors at the other end led into the dining room, where some guests still sat at table eating cake.

Finally, the conductor held his hands still, and the music stopped. The princess curtsied to her current partner, and dashed onto the outside garden. The selection of princes provided for tonight’s ball had been especially tedious. All she wanted was relief from the blaring music and endless prattle of meaningless conversation. One of Avery’s stories, even though she had probably heard it at least ten times, would be preferable at this point.

Emeri followed the flagstone path through the rose trellis, seeking her favorite place. The white gazebo loomed like a ghost in the waxing moon, hiding the two silhouettes who rustled on the bench inside.

Boldly she invaded their space, not caring how important these guests might be. The nobleman released the curl topped young woman, who shrieked at Emeri’s sudden appearance. It was Morrison, of course, one of the available suitors, with some baron’s daughter that she had met tonight but already forgot her name. The woman glared at Emeri while she readjusted the neckline of her gown. At least Morrison had enough conscience to look embarrassed. Emeri would be sure that he got crossed off her list. The couple fled back in the direction of the palace.

Finally, she was alone with the crickets and moonlight, the cool breeze rustling through her bouquet of curls.

Emeri stretched out on the bench, causing splinters to snag her top layers of silk. She didn’t care at the moment. It felt so good to lay down, even if it caused the volume of her dress to pile on top of her. She kicked off her slippers, and flexed her toes to get the feeling back. There was no way she would be able to get those shoes back on her swollen feet tonight.

From her hiding place, Emeri could hear the faint strains of music from the ball. She knew she should go back in. First Mistress would send a guard to find her eventually. It was so hard to hold up her part of the bargain she struck with her foster mother. How easy it had seemed, that night in the library, to promise that she would enter the courtship game when she returned from Silverpointe!

She had done her best. The princess had held her tongue while she was measured and fitted for new gowns worthy of the courtship dances. A wedding planner was called in, and Lacey was forced to step aside as a new stylist curled and pinned up her mistress’ long locks, powdered her face, and carefully outlined her eyes and lips. Emeri watched in the mirror as a stranger emerged before her eyes. A stranger that would be given in marriage to another stranger to strengthen the queendom.

Over and over she replayed Twinkle’s words in the forest. If Emeri hadn’t been so certain that she alone had to make a plan, she might have been able to keep her dragon in secret. It had never occurred to her that she should enlist the support of the dragon riding group. She had been certain that she could solve her problem by herself.

The ground shook beneath the bench, and the princess sat up quickly. A blast of familiar smoke made her cough, followed by a welcome face poking out of First Mistress’ prize rose bushes, crushing them under her massive feet.

It was Petal! The princess’ heart stopped, and she couldn’t catch her breath. What was her dragon doing here? Her former dragon, since she had broken their bond.

The dragon reached her long neck into Emeri’s lap, begging to be petted. She sat outside the gazebo and curled her long tail around her. Emeri could see that the barbed tip was restored.

At first, she sat there, stroking Petal’s jaw and gently patting her neck. The dragon’s actions were clear. Petal was choosing to bond with her again. Even after her mistress had caused her great pain. Emeri felt all the walls she had built up around her heart over the past weeks come crashing down. In rushed unconditional love and acceptance that she would never find at court. This was why she became a dragon rider.

Checking first to make sure she wouldn’t be interrupted like she had done to the couple, Emeri pulled down the underskirts from her gown and loosened her corset, no small feat without servants. Then she tossed her skirts and slippers into the bushes. She was left with her knee length upper gown, much easier to ride a dragon.

Climbing up Petal’s down-stretched neck, she seated herself as comfortably as possible without a saddle, clicked her tongue and kicked Petal’s rough sides with her bare feet. Petal drew them both up into the sky with a few sweeps of her wings. The bright lights of the palace became smaller and smaller until they were but stars upon the black ground.

Emeri held onto the spikes on Petal’s neck as the night wind tugged at her curls, pulling out the pins, and leaving her hair a long twisting ribbon behind her. The chill night air caused a shiver to run down her back. She felt so alive!

Where were they going? The princess attempted to direct their flight, but Petal seemed determined to take them somewhere. They left Thorington Castle behind and headed south. Emeri could see a pinpoint of light that grew larger as they approached, revealing itself as a campfire. Petal descended to the meadow near it.

As they were landing, Emeri could see shapes in the darkness. When she slipped down Petal’s neck to the ground, she fell into an immediate hug.

“Emeri! I knew Petal would bring you!” Worley said, twirling her around.

“Worley, what are the riders doing out here?” the princess asked, all thought of her problems forgotten. The circle of riders emerged from the trees where their dragons were still hidden, curls of smoke creating a haze in the broken down underbrush.

Twinkle stepped forward with a mug. She handed it to Emeri, who sipped it with delight when she realized it was brandy. “We were out on a moonlight ride when Petal appeared. She landed here so we followed her. After we all were settled, Petal wouldn’t let us near her. Instead she took off in the sky, and we decided to see what would happen.”

“Petal went to find you,” Avery said, as he led Emeri over to their fire. “Come, sit down. While we were waiting, we came up with a plan.”

“But I broke the bond,” Emeri said as she sat down on a log and warmed herself at the fire. She wished Petal would have brought her leather riding clothes and gloves. Worley saw her shiver and brought a blanket for her shoulders. “How could Petal come back to me?”

“Your dragon is unique,” Twinkle said with a smile. “She chose you twice. So we should make sure you two stay together.”

Emeri shook her head. “But I don’t even know who I will marry or where I will live,” she said, her face pale in the firelight.

“That’s why we need a flexible plan,” Avery said, taking another sip of his brandy.

“You’ll love it!” Worley said, his words muffled by the roasted corn he was inhaling.

“But I don’t deserve it,” Emeri said. “I didn’t seek your counsel, instead choosing to do the unthinkable. I don’t know why Petal came back, but I don’t deserve a second chance to be a dragon rider. I’ll go back to my dresses and curls and parties. And wedding.” She choked on her words and looked away.

Twinkle handed her a cloth. “Get yourself together, Dragon Rider. Now that you’ve done the most difficult thing a rider can do, anything else we can come up with will be easy.” Emeri wiped her eyes.

“That’s better,” Twinkle said, giving her a hug. “Now sit there and listen.”

Emeri pulled the blanket closer around her and spread her gown over her bare legs. She was afraid to hope, and yet here were her friends, gathered around her.

“Petal will stay with Sparkle, who’s still on the mend. I’ve got room. And I live by myself, except for Molly, so no one’s tongue will be wagging about me having another Crystal Dragon,” Twinkle said.

“Then you can send messages through Worley when you can get away to ride. You can meet Petal in Avery’s family’s field, near their cottage. We’ll keep your riding clothes and tack at their home. First Mistress or her servants would never think to look there,” Avery continued.

“If you move away, it will even be easier,” Worley insisted. “With dragons, we can be wherever you are.”

The princess looked at their eager faces reflected in the firelight. What they neglected to mention was that if First Mistress discovered their secret, they would all be thrown in the dungeon and their dragons sold. Emeri would escape because of her marriage plans. Why would her friends take this risk for her? For Petal?

Petal had been quietly resting behind her the whole time. Emeri turned and patted her nose. She dared not send away the only people, and dragon, that accepted her for herself, with no hidden motives. Even though she knew her future was at royal court, she now realized how much she needed to keep this part of her life. Even if it must remain secret, her dragon would help her keep her balanced.

“Thank you, everyone, for taking on this enormous task,” Emeri said to her friends. “Trying to go on without Petal for these past weeks has proved to me that it’s impossible. I can’t live without being a dragon rider. I will go along with your intrigue.”

“I told you she’d do it!” Worley shouted.

“We must swear an oath,” Twinkle said. She took out a small knife and made a cut on her finger. After that she squeezed a drop of blood into her empty mug. Then she passed the knife, and each rider did the same. When all had contributed, Twinkle poured more brandy into the mug and threw it into the fire. The flames burst higher for a moment, like the hope in Emeri’s heart.

“We are bound by friendship, blood, and fire,” their leader said, as they stood around the fire holding hands. “Emeri of Thorington, First Royal Dragon Rider, we are bound to your secret service and the service of your dragon, Petal, until the release of death.”

The determined faces of her friends convinced the princess that whatever title she might gain in the future; none would be greater than Dragon Rider.