A witch’s retirement

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“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.

When Magic Fails

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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 One- Summer Home

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Meghan handed her classroom keys to Alice, the school secretary, and started her summer vacation. As she got into her car, she looked over at the other teachers coming out of the gates. They would probably have a normal summer, sitting by the pool, going to lunch with friends, or working in the back yard.

But Meghan and her friends Debbie and Mary were headed into another world.

Just as she pulled into her driveway, her cell phone buzzed, still on silent from the school day. She looked at it, and saw that it was Debbie.

“Hey, Debbie, are you ready to go?”

“Yeah, just wanted to know if I should pack something formal. Remember last summer when we scored an invitation to the Spring Court Ball?”

“Don’t worry about that. We can buy something more appropriate there if we need to. Just remember to bring lots of candy, especially chocolate bars. They were better than gold last time.”

“Got it. See you at the hotel.”

“See ya.”

Meghan grabbed her bulging duffle bag and set it by the door. Then she looked over her note for Carrie, who was staying in her home to take care of her Pomeranian for the summer. She pulled her long brown hair back into a bun and changed her shorts and t-shirt for a sundress, acceptable attire for their destination. Finally she gave Barker a treat, grabbed a bottle of water, and she was on her way.

The entry point for their vacation was in an old hotel downtown. A few years back, she and her friends had booked a girls weekend there, so they could hang out at the huge swimming pool. The hotel, The Mission Inn, remodeled various times over the decades, was full of passageways and small hidden rooms. Megan’s overactive imagination demanded they explore all of them. During their wanderings, they had discovered an old freight elevator, the kind that looks like a cage.

“Finally, you’re here!” a familiar voice called to her when she reached the lobby. An older woman in her sixties with long straight grey hair jumped out of an overstuffed chair by a brick fireplace.

“Mary, I can’t believe the school year’s over,” Meghan said with a smile. “I can’t wait to see Clover again. I miss her brown bread and corn muffins.”

Another woman walked in carrying a duffle bag. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat that kept her dark curly hair under control. “Ready for some fun?” she said as she joined them.

The three women entered the maze of hallways lit by dim lights set in wrought iron holders. They passed a few housekeeping carts and guests in swimsuits. Then they opened a door at the end of the corridor and walked down ancient stairs that looked like they were made of stone. Down and down they descended into the humming body of the hotel.

After four flights, they finally reached the bottom. Meghan opened the wooden door and they stepped into a small room with a freight elevator. She pulled up the outer gate, and her friends pulled apart the metal doors. Then they stepped in with their luggage and closed the doors. Meghan pushed a button labeled SUC, and the elevator whirred to life, taking them up with jerky movements. The structure of the surrounding walls showed through the slatted wooden gates, and she felt, not for the first time, that they were inside a large beast, looking at its bones and muscles.

The elevator creaked to halt, dropping slightly, causing the women to grab the railings that ran around the inside of the elevator car. They opened the gates into another bare room with a wooden door.

“Finally, we’re here,” Meghan said as they stepped out into a dirt road.

“Back in Faerie,” Debbie sighed.

“Back where we belong,” Mary added. The room they left looked like a small wooden shed from the outside. The road before them led into a series of rolling hills, dotted with trees that clustered next to a hidden creek.

Standing on the road was an open bed wagon drawn by a towering grey mule.  A cheerful-looking man in coveralls with slanted green eyes and pointed ears that poked through his curly red hair greeted them.

“Good day, ladies! Long time beyont and welcome once more. On time as usual. Come on aboard, and let me take you home.”

“Thank you, Thistle,” Meghan said. “Back once more, and welcome accepted.” She and her friends tossed their bags into the back of the wagon and pulled themselves into it, sitting on some wooden crates that smelled like peaches.

“Thistle, you got some dapples! My favorite,” Debbie said. “I hope Clover’s going to make pie!” Meghan knew that her friend’s months of eating only carrots sticks and protein drinks ended when they emerged into their summer world. Sometimes, she worried about her friend’s obsession with being thin.

“Of course she is,” the faery said, rubbing his ample stomach. “The missis is cooking a proper welcome back dinner tonight with all the neighbors.”

“I missed this so much,” Mary said, looking around at the many shades of green surrounding them. “It’s so brown and dried up where we’re from.” They rode down into the cool shade of the glen. The breeze carried wildflower perfume, and twittering red and yellow birds peaked out from the trees overhanging the road. Mary had packed her paint set and a roll of canvas, as she preferred to sit out in the countryside painting the beauty she saw instead of worrying about what she would wear to the evening party.

Meghan soaked into the colorful landscape, her eyes seeking out every detail to compare it to her fond memories of past summers. Then she frowned.

“Mary, do you see that, over there to the south?” she asked, shielding her eyes with her hand against the bright sunshine.

As Mary followed Meghan’s gaze, she gasped. “It’s grey over there, down by the mill creek. There still are trees but nothing has any color. I hope there’s not some blight on the forest!”

“Thistle, what happened down there? Has there been a drought?” Meghan asked.

The faery glanced back and sighed. “You will learn soon enough. Not the right talk on your first day back.”

The three teachers looked at each other, but didn’t press the issue. If a faery was closed up about something, you wouldn’t find out until they were ready.

“There it is,” Debbie said, as the wagon crested the hill and revealed Willow House. It was a tall brick house with rows and rows of shuttered windows, surrounded by draping willow trees. The servants, dressed in pale blue with white aprons, stood outside waiting, which from this distance looked like bluebirds on the lawn. Their servants! So different from their other lives. The mule plodded on, too slowly for Meghan’s racing heart, until they reached the front drive.

Clover, a short round faery with a grey bun, walked up with a small stool to help them down. The other servants reached up to take their luggage. They were home.

Later, after baths in rose scented water and dressed in green gowns that shimmered like beetles, they came downstairs to a roar of greetings. Faeries from the surrounding farms gathered at a long table, one end reserved for the teachers. Wine was flowing liberally, and laughter bubbled up everywhere. Servants scurried around carrying heavy platters of roasted meats, fish, potatoes, and vegetables.

Meghan and her friends quickly joined in the feast. “Isn’t it amazing how the food here tastes so much better than anything we have back in our world?” Mary asked her.

“Better than any restaurant,” Meghan agreed, and she tore into her turkey leg.

Suddenly, a tinkling bell rang, and everyone froze. No one expected the Summer Queen to visit here, so far away from her court. But that bell announced her eminent arrival so everyone rose to their feet, wiping greasy fingers on their clothes.

A flash and puff of smoke made Meghan blink, and then there was the Summer Queen, standing in their hall. A tall creature with long braided dark hair, her beauty causing everyone to squint. Her gown that shimmered with colors of bright blue, pale green and pink and she wore a silver circlet on her brow. Her female attendants surrounded her in blue uniforms covered with chain mail. Everyone in the room bowed or curtsied, waiting for their monarch’s instruction.

“Rise, everyone. Grace and peace to you all in this humble house,” Queen Amber said in a grave voice. “Please return to your festivities. Our purpose here is to speak with the newly arrived teachers.” She gestured toward Meghan and her friends. “We require a meeting with you in the palace. Come with us immediately.”

A queen could not be refused. Guards took their hands and pulled them close to the royal entourage. Another flash and puff of smoke and they were gone.

 

Dragon Rider Part Five- Storm

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Emeri’s breath circled her like dragon smoke as she saddled up Petal, her fingers stiff with cold. Why do dragon riders always leave at dawn’s light? She was grateful for her heavy leathers as she readied her dragon for the day’s ride, her boots crunching in the frosted grass. After sharing ale with the local druid last night, Twinkle had confirmed that a winter storm was on its way. The dragons would be pushed today to make it to the lodge at Crystal Bowl.

“Ready, Sweep?” Twinkle called to her as she walked by dragging her water skins.

“Ready to ride,” the princess called over her shoulder as she climbed up the ladder to her saddle. “Are we going to make it before the snow?”

“It’ll be close, but we have the fastest dragons in the land,” Twinkle answered, already headed down the line of dragons. The flurry of riders ahead was fastening saddles and attaching their bags. Some already sat mounted with helmets and goggles, holding their reins tight against the nervous energy of the dragons. The dragons seemed to sense the urgency of this day’s ride and were eager to be on their way.

“Let’s ride!” Twinkle called from the front, and two by two dragon wings lifted up the riders into the clear pink sky.

Hours passed as the dragon riders soared over the dense forests surrounding the Crystal Mountains. The shimmering white peaks grew closer to meet them. Emeri adjusted her position in her saddle and pushed her feet forward. Her bottom was numb and her fingers frozen to her reins, but still the group did not stop. Wanting to avoid drifting off to sleep again, her mind turned to the problem of Petal.

The icy sculpted mountain ahead was the birthplace of her dragon. If she was going to follow through with her plan, she would need to find a way to leave Petal somewhere down there. Even though her heart ached from the thought of leaving Petal alone in the wilderness, she knew it would be better for her.

Dragons, solitary creatures by nature, only bonded with a human once in their lifetime. Since there were not many tame dragons, Emeri would doubtless have many buyers for Petal. A rare pink dragon could demand many chests filled with gold. But Petal would resist, and spend the rest of her long years in chains and cages. Releasing her would be the kinder choice.

The forests below gave way to sharp-edged rock, tiny trees forcing their roots into cracks. Ridges became higher until they became windswept mountain peaks dusted with shimmering ice. Emeri was wide awake now, her stiffness forgotten. Would Twinkle ever call for a rest stop? The princess was afraid that if she landed by herself, her teacher would turn the whole group around to find her.

A wide plateau appeared, and shouts passed back through the line announced they were headed down. Emeri sighed and pulled up on Petal’s reins, joining the downward spiral to the ground.

Once the dragons were settled on the rock, riders slowly crawled down to stretch out and eat some jerky.

“Come on, Emeri,” Worley called. “You’ve got to see the view from the edge.” Her friend’s face was bright red from the wind and cold and his hair stuck out in all directions after its release from his helmet.

“I’ll be there shortly,” she replied. “I need to take care of personal business first.” She glanced over to the cluster of rocks that stood as sentinels over the ridge.

“See you then,” Worley said, bounding away with the energy of his first real adventure. Emeri envied his carefree life, working on the estate as his father did before him. If only that could be her fate. Seeing that the other riders had gone ahead to the viewpoint, she quickly released Petal’s saddle and her baggage. If Petal was going back to the wild, she wouldn’t need it.

Petal watched her with questioning eyes as Emeri commanded her to lower her head and gently removed the dragon’s bridle. Her dragon didn’t understand why the ride was over when the other dragons stood ready to go.

“Come on now,” Emeri coaxed. “We’re going for a walk, Just the two of us.” Petal followed her into the maze of huge boulders that looked like a giant’s blocks tossed carelessly into a toy chest. They wound their way down a path that barely accommodated the large dragon until they reached the edge of an evergreen forest. The towering trees swayed and whispered in the biting cold wind.

The princess looked around her, the rocks stacked up the hill and the endless sea of trees in front of her. This was as good a place as any.

She knew what she had to do. Lacey had helped her with research in the palace libraries. There was only one way to sever a dragon’s bond. Like other lizards, a dragon’s tail would snap off in a fight to ensure its survival. A few weeks later, a new tail would grow back.

“Sit, Petal,” the princess commanded in a wavering voice. With a thud, her dragon complied, still watching her with violet eyes. Emeri drew her sword, the one First Mistress had given her for her twelfth season, the one with pale pink pearls on the handle, the color of Petal’s scales.

Before she could change her mind, she raised her sword over her head and with two hands brought it down on the smallest section of her dragon’s tail, near its barbed tip. Dark red blood squirted out all over the snow, Petal roared in anguish, and with huge sweeps of her wings, launched herself into the air, trailing blood behind her.

The dragon rose quickly into the sky and disappeared from view.

With trembling hands, Emeri wiped her sword with a rag she had brought, and replaced it in its scabbard. With the help of a nearby stream, she cleaned Petal’s blood off her leathers and tossed the cloth into the water. It floated away on the current, carrying her guilt down the mountain to the sea.

It was over. Tears flooded her eyes, but she held them back. She would need them later to sell her story. She had done the unthinkable for a dragon rider. No one must know that she had set her dragon free.

As she trudged back, a heavy curtain of snow began to fall and dance in the gusting wind. Petal’s huge footprints in the frost were soon covered, and Emeri had to look carefully to find her way back up through the rocks. By the time she reached the other dragons, she could barely see the huge animals through the white swirl of sky and matching snow drifts.

Emeri shuddered, but the cold felt good. Without Petal, her heart felt frozen and useless. The icy emptiness was a comfort, preparing her for her royal future.

 

 

 

The Dragon Rider- Part Two

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“You’re selling your dragon?” Worley interrupted, as he caught up to Emeri and Anzel who were deep in serious conversation. His dusty grey hair hung over his widened eyes, his usual happy face darkened.

“That’s no way to address a royal, even though she may be the youngest,” his brother snapped as he cuffed the back of Worley’s head. He wanted to do more, but his other hand was full of saddle and tack.

“Sorry, Lady Emeri,” the younger brother said as he rubbed his head with one hand. The other hand held a dark brown leather saddle with a strap wound around it.

“You’re excused,” Emeri said, crinkling her tiny nose. “I never liked all that formal stuff anyway. When we’re riding, I’m just Emeri, dragon rider. I don’t have to think about all the duties that I’ll be immersed in when I return.” She sighed and looked toward the dragon stables they were headed toward. “The First Mistress wants me to sell Petal after the Silverpoint ride.”

“But we’re going to come up with a plan so she won’t have to do that,” Anzel added.

“But you’re a princess, Emeri,” Worley protested. “You can do whatever you want to!”

“Actually, it means I have practically no control over my life,” Emeri said. “First Mistress is determined to marry me off like my sisters. It seems that there’s no shortage of trade agreements that need to be cemented with a “joyful union.” I would have thought that Evelon’s marriage to the Baron of Duns and Ellenia’s with the Prince of Overland would have been enough. The suffering needs to be complete with taking away my freedom as well.” She shifted the weight of her saddle to the other shoulder, as if the weight of her words was adding to her burden.

“That too heavy for you. Let me take it,” Anzel pleaded with her. “Why do you always insist on carrying your own saddle?”

“It makes me feel like a real dragon rider,” Emeri replied. “Just let me do it. No one will see.”

“Why can’t you be a dragon rider anymore?” Worley wondered.

Emeri sighed, and the crunch of their steps filled the silence. The path led them through a speckled glade of white trees that separated the castle from the animal enclosures. It was a perfect sunny day for the capricious days of planting season. Finally she said, “First Mistress says that I must be married. It is her royal opinion that a prince would not want to marry a dragon rider. I need to settle down and take on more responsibilities.”

Anzel grinned. “Like producing royal heirs?” He was the oldest of the trio, nearly sixteen, and thought he was very worldly.

Flipping back her hair, Emeri retorted, “That’s not the only responsibility I’ll have. I will entertain leaders from all over Tessar. I’ll have to study what foods they prefer and how to greet them properly.”

“Doesn’t sound as fun as dragon riding,” Worley concluded.

The three friends arrived at the tall stone building that had a large chimney coming out of the center of the tiled roof. Smoke was curling out of it, but it wasn’t from a fire in the hearth.

A rumble of excitement greeted them as they walked in. “Petal,” Emeri cried, “I’ve missed you. Are you ready for a short trip around the queendom?” Her shimmering pale grey dragon shook its head, sending puffs of smoke up toward the high ceiling. The dragon stalls were huge, as was needed for keeping dragons, and built of special wood that was naturally fire resistant. Petal’s head hung over the six foot gate, and eagerly sniffed her mistress. At the familiar sound, three dragon grooms emerged from the tack room to saddle up their mounts.

Anzel and Worley greeted their dragons with apples they had brought from the main house. The older brother’s dragon, Blade, was dark green, with curly feathers that made a ring around the base of its long neck. Mist was Worley’s dragon, a smaller dark grey dragon with a shorter neck and a tail that had a hard bone shaped like a hammer at its end. The smaller dragons gobbled up the treats, turning their juices into steam as they crunched.

The grooms led the dragons outside and carried over the ladders to help the riders climb up onto the large creatures. Emeri scooted up her ladder with practiced ease and strapped in around her waist and legs. Petal watched her with a large purple reptilian eye, smoking curling out of her nostrils, waiting for her command.

When they were all ready, Emeri shouted in an unprincess-like voice, “Let’s ride!” and a loud whoosh of wings signaled their departure.

As they rose through the clouds, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Rushing wind whispered promises of freedom, and crisp fresh air filled her lungs with renewed energy. Dragon riding was her escape from a world she had no control over. To her right flew Anzel and Blade, who was wearing a huge grin. A glance to the left showed Worley holding his reins in one hand, his other on Mist’s neck.

The clouds below them thinned, and she could see the multicolored patchwork of fields surrounding Thorington Castle. For generations the Thorington line had controlled vast holdings of fertile farmland, which ensured their place as the bread basket of Tessar. Far to the south rose the wrinkled mountains of the Bearded Ones, the source of strange tales. To the west the deep blue ocean caressed the beaches of Ingest, while behind her stood the icy tips of the Crystal Mountains. All lovely lands of deep forests and tinkling streams. Only the eastern deserts were barren. From up here, all existed in harmony with no political turmoil or peasant squabbles.

The pulsing rhythm of Petal’s muscled wings reminded her of a pendulum clock, one that was counting her moments until she would have to give up dragon riding. What could she do? She knew that she could enlist the help of her dragon riding club, but to do what? Could she hide Petal somewhere with another rider’s help, and sneak away to ride as much as she could?

She knew in her heart it wouldn’t be fair to her spirited dragon to keep her secreted away. And she wasn’t sure how much sneaking away she’d be able to do once she was a royal wife. But she knew one thing — there was no way she was going to sell her dragon. If she couldn’t find a way to keep her, there was only one thing left to do.

Emeri would ride her back to the land of her dragon’s hatching in the Crystal Mountains and set her free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Three

dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Cave- Part Two

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“Hey, watch out!” a tiny voice screamed at Meghan as she fell out of darkness and into the back of a loaded hay wagon. After she regained her breath, she felt movement under her back and then a sharp pain.

“Ouch!” She rolled over, the hay stubble sticking to her jacket. A small creature crawled out of the indention Meghan had made in her landing. “Did you really bite me?”

“You’re the one who crushed me with your hugeness!” the tiny creature replied, a wide smile showing his tiny pointed teeth. “I didn’t bite you. I just nipped you a bit. Got you off me, I did.” Its large ears stood up on an otherwise human head like a Chihuahua and its large dark eyes twinkled with mischief. Dressed in overalls and a blue checker shirt, he couldn’t have been taller than up to Meghan’s waist.

“What are you?” Meghan wondered aloud. Maybe that’s not polite. “I mean, I’m not from these parts, and I’ve never met anyone like you before. My name is Meghan. I’m sorry for landing on you. I had no idea the portal would dump me into a wagon.”

“Apology accepted,” the creature said. “Since you have named yourself, I must also. You may call me Malarkey. Obviously you are a human tourist, as you don’t know that I am a Hob.”

“A Hob?”

“Hobs are extremely useful persons to have on a farm, which is where you landed, by the way. Mr. Greenleaf’s farm, to be exact,” Malarkey continued, as he brushed the straw from his shirt and reshaped his crushed straw hat. “I guide the cows to the best grazing and lead them back home in the evening. In between all that, I try to grab a few winks in the hay wagon. Didn’t expect to be crushed by an incoming visitor.” After placing on his wide brimmed hat, he jumped down from the wagon.

Meghan also jumped down, straw falling around her in piles. “It’s nice to meet you, Malarkey.” She looked around at the rolling fields of wheat that spread out around her on every side. In the distance she could see a grove of trees, perhaps shielding a farm house and barn.

Suddenly, she realized that she hadn’t seen Noodles since the portal. She was no longer holding his leash.

“I’m missing my dog!” she cried. “Noodles! Noodles! Where are you?”

The field in front of her rustled and waved, and a small black and white dog shot out of the wheat and into her arms. Meghan squeezed her dog close. The clasp for the leash was still attached to his collar, but the length of the leash was missing, roughly chopped off at the clasp.

“Where have you been?” Meghan wondered. But Noodles looked no worse for his travel, jumping down from her arms to bark at the Nob.

“Be still, beast!” Malarkey commanded, and Noodles lay down immediately with his head down.

“How did you do that?” Meghan asked. “Noodles barely listens to me, and I’ve worked with him since he was a puppy.”

“I’ve a way with beasts,” the Nod answered.

The bright sunshine suddenly dimmed and a growing roar approached them. If Meghan had been back in her world, she would have seen a squadron of fighter planes in tight formation circling toward them. But she was in Faerie, and instead of airplanes, it was a group of dragons coming in for a landing.

The dragons flew in staggered formation, their long arrowhead tails close to the snout behind them. Their golden bellies faced the ground, shimmering in the sun. She saw at least twenty of them, their huge segmented wings pulled up to slow their descent. The head dragon roared commands which were repeated down the line, creating an endless stream of sound.

The leader hit the ground running on all four of its legs, slowing to a stop right in front of Meghan and the Nod. The rest of the pack landed behind it in the field, creating a trampled down hole.

“Won’t Mr. Greenleaf get angry about his field?” Meghan asked the Nod.

“No doubt,” Malarkey agreed. “But there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s a dragon rider club. They’re too dangerous to mess with.”

“Dragon riders?” Meghan asked, but then she saw the tiny saddles set in between the spiked ridges on top of the giant creatures. A rope hung down the side, and riders slid down to the ground beside their mounts. Each rider said something in an unknown language, and the huge dragons slid to the ground and lay still.

“Let’s get out of here,” Malarkey said, pulling on the girl’s leg. “It’s never good to have dealings with dragon riders.”

The leader approached them, a slender man wearing a black leather jacket, leather pants, and boots. He took off his leather gloves, and removed his leather helmet. With his pointed ears and bright green eyes, Meghan realized she was meeting her first faery since her arrival.

“Good morning to you, miss,” the faery said with a quick nod. “Visiting on a day pass?”

“Yes, I am,” Meghan said. “Good morning to you also. I’m here on an adventure.”

“Well, no better place than Spring for adventures,” he said, motioning for his companions to join them. “The DOGS welcome you to Faerie.”

“Dogs?” Meghan asked. “You have dogs, too?”

The faeries behind the leader rumbled with laughter. “No, miss. We’re the DOGS- Dragon Owners Group. We’re a dragon club. See?” He turned around to show Meghan the green and gold embroidery on the back of his leather jacket. It showed a dragon twisted around in a circle with a knife in his mouth and a very human-looking skull clutched in its front claws.

“I see,” Meghan said. That was embarrassing. The faeries surrounded her, watching her curiously. They look like they’ve seen as many humans as I have seen faeries. Malarkey folded his arms and stood as tall as he could. Meghan thought about movies she had seen about faeries. Unlike the movie faeries, these beings were at least six feet tall, and no visible wings. Despite the leader’s polite words, their presence exuded menace. She had the uncomfortable feeling of being in a dark alley with a street gang.

“We were headed down to the house for tea,” Malarkey said firmly. He reached for Meghan’s hand and started leading her to the dirt road between fields. “Good bye, riders.”

The leader took Meghan’s other hand, and stopped them. He frowned at Meghan’s new acquaintance. “Now wait a moment, Nob. I can see that the young lady wants to ride a dragon. Don’t you, miss?”

Meghan looked into those green eyes, and felt like they pierced the secret longings of her heart. How exciting would it be to ride a dragon! “But sir, I don’t know you. Would it be safe?”

The riders roared with laughter. “Of course not!” the leader said, as he started walking her over to the dragons. “But it’s exciting! The wind rushing through your hair, the land below you a patchwork quilt of colors!”

“I’ve been on airplanes before,” she said, but she allowed the dragon rider to lead her over to his creature, who turned his long neck to watch her, steam curling out of its nostrils. With its tail wrapped around it like a cat it looked larger than any of the elephants she had seen at the zoo. It’s like one of those dinosaur skeletons, with skin on, come back to life. Noodles, realizing he was in the presence of larger dogs than he could ever imagine, followed his master in submissive silence, but with wild eyes. The dragon paid no more attention to the dog than to a bug crawling on the grass.

“It’s amazing,” she said, wanting to reach out and touch its shiny green scales, but its bright red eyes made her pause.

“You can touch her,” the faery said. “She’s tame enough, especially with me by your side.” He took her hand and placed it on the side of the creature’s neck. It felt cool and slick, like a lizard. Noodle stood at her feet whimpering softly.

“You’re okay, Noodles,” Meghan said, picking up her dog. “Look, it won’t hurt you.”

The other riders came up to their leader. “Should we go, Hardly? We need to get to the forest before nightfall.”

Hardly nodded to his group, and they sprang into action. They replaced their helmets, buttoned up their jackets, put on their gloves, and climbed back up onto their dragons. The leader took another leather helmet out of his saddle bag and offered it to Meghan.

“Come with us,” he said. “My name is Hardly, and I’ll make sure you have a great adventure.”

Meghan looked back at Malarkey, who was shaking his head vigorously. How can I turn down a dragon ride?

            “My name is Meghan. I’ll come with you.” She took the helmet from the faery as Noodles licked her chin. “What about Noodles? Can he ride, too?”

The faery laid his hand on Noodles’ trembling head, and the dog was still. He pulled out a leather harness from his bag and slipped it over Meghan’s head. After fastening it securely around the dog, he smiled at the girl. “He should be fine. Let’s go.”

Meghan slipped on the helmet, pushing her bangs out of the way. She fastened the leather buckle under her chin. Hardly climbed up on the dragon and secured an extra saddle behind his saddle. Then he called down to her.

“Climb up the rope and sit behind me.”

With an apologetic look back at Malarkey, Meghan took hold of the rope and found herself seated on a dragon, taking off into the blue sky of Faerie.

The Cave

sea-cave-of-1000-steps-beach“For once, I’d like to eat something that wasn’t charred black!”

“Why do I always have to cook? If you don’t like what I serve, do it yourself!”

Meghan could hear her parents argue from the other end of the campground. She wondered why they even went camping when all they did was argue, just like at home.

“Come on, Noodles,” she called to her tiny wire-haired dog, who was busy sniffing every deposit in the dog run. Noodles looked up, his black eyes shining, and trotted back over to the entry gate. Meghan clipped on his leash and closed the gate. She walked over to the worn wooden stairs that led down to the beach. After looking in the direction of her parents’ trailer, she sighed and started down the three flights of stairs.

A battered sign announced that dogs were not allowed on the beach, but during the week they’d camped there, the ten-year old had noticed that in the mornings dogs accompanied people on the beach with no consequence. Before the lifeguards set up on their towers, of course.

Camping was supposed to bring families closer together, she thought as she descended the creaking stairs. But the tension that hovered over her parents followed them wherever they went. At least she could get away from it on the beach for a while. At the bottom of the stairs, she jumped down onto the sand which had eroded into a large gap. Noodles jumped down with her and stopped, waiting for her to unleash him.

“Here you go,” she said as she unhooked him. The black and white dog sped away onto the beach, looped around and headed back to her. He would repeat this pattern during their walk, never leaving her sight. Meghan tied back her shoulder length ash hair with a pony tail, slipped off her flip flops, and wallowed through the dry sand to the water line. She started walking down the shoreline on the wet, firm sand.

The crashing waves, hissing foam, and the early morning mist made her forget about her volatile home life. The sky and sea blended together in tones of grey, the horizon a mere smudge in the distance. She took a deep breath, suddenly realizing that she had been holding it. Noodles barked at a sea gull and chased it, the bird waiting for the last possible minute to launch into the sky. Meghan smiled for the first time that day.

Noodles continued his pursuit of sea gulls which led him close to the cliffs that rimmed the beach. A small ground squirrel poked its head out of some dried seaweed, and the dog changed his direction. The squirrel raced for the shelter of the cliffs with Noodles in pursuit. With the small creature almost in reach of his barking jaws, the dog entered the cave.

“Noodles, get out of there!” Meghan cried, fearful that her dog would uncover a snake or something worse. She slipped on her flip flops and followed him into the cave.

Damp coolness made her shiver, in spite of her warm hoodie and jeans. The walls of the cave were smooth from the tide and slanted back far beneath the cliff. Years of pounding waves had carved out a larger space than the entrance indicated. Other than large flat rocks, the cave was empty.

            “Noodles!” she cried. “Noodles, Noodles.” The cave echoed back to her. She looked behind every rock but there was no sign of him.

She sat down on a rock, tears springing to her eyes. She pushed them away, for she would not cry. Her parents’ endless drama had drained her of emotion. Her dog had to be here somewhere. She took a deep breath and looked around.

From her seated position, she could see a large gap under the rock in front of her. It was large enough for a person to crawl through, and definitely large enough for a small dog. She got up and inspected it, discovering familiar paw prints. There’s where he went!

            Thoughts of snakes and rabid squirrels forgotten, she crawled through the hole. Suddenly she fell to soft sand in darkness. Meghan took out her smart phone and turned on the flashlight. This cavern was not as tall as the one above it, but it was wider, and she heard water trickling nearby. Next to her on the sand she could see a dog-sized impression and paw prints going away.

What am I doing? How am I going to get out of here? The flashlight revealed that the hole she fell through was at least ten feet above her. The smooth walls gave no hope of climbing. Sighing, she turned to follow Noodle’s trail. She hoped there was another way out somewhere.

The cave split into several tunnels at one end, but the paw prints led her the right way. Fortunately the tunnel was tall enough for her to walk standing up. The ground was sandy but to her right a trickle of slimy water flowed, draining from somewhere.

“Noodles!” she called. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cave echoed. No answering bark. She continued to follow his trail. Her flashlight gave her glimpses of green mossy dripping walls, but thankfully no large bugs. Her heart pounded anyway with the thought that there had to be other creatures down here.

After what seemed an eternity of listening to her own breath and walking in the dark, she saw a light ahead. Afraid to hope, she trudged toward it. The tunnel made a dog leg right turn, which was where the light originated. When she made the bend, another large cavern was revealed, circular with natural ledges sticking out like balconies. The light came from a large hole in the roof, shining down in a beam to the ground.

A joyful bark announced the wet dog circling her ankles, and Meghan scooped him up, pressing his matted down fur to her face. “Noodles, Noodles,” was all she could say. “Noodles, Noodles, Noodles, Noodles,” the cavern agreed.

Now that she had found her dog, Meghan turned her thoughts toward getting back up on top of the ground. She walked around the edges of the cavern, but she found no other tunnels. Then she walked into the center of the room to stand in the beam of light. She squinted as she looked up to the ceiling. The hole was large enough for her to get out, if she could just find a way up to it.

Suddenly, she heard a rumbling from the side of the room she faced. Looking down, she could see the edges of a dull metal plate under the sand she was standing on. She bent down and wiped away the sand. It was a dark metallic disk with no markings on it. It looked almost as ancient as the cave. The sound intensified as the huge rock that she had assumed was part of the wall slid aside. With Noodles in her arms, she entered the new room.

Another hole in the ceiling filled the room with light, and Meghan couldn’t believe what it revealed. The surrounding walls were covered with tapestries in bright red, green, and blue. Their patterns were of trees, flowers, and fruit. The room was filled with antique wooden furniture, including chairs, tables, and small sofas. Then she realized that she and Noodles were not alone.

“Welcome to the Carlsbad Portal, young miss,” announced a thin, dark-haired man dressed in dark green tunic and pants. “Where might you be traveling today?”

“What? What are you talking about?” Meghan asked, with her arms clenched around her dog.

“This is part of the Faerie Portal System, miss,” he explained patiently. “From this station, you can visit Summer or Spring Courts. Which would be your destination?”

Meghan stared at the man, suddenly noticing his bright green eyes and slender, pointed ears. “Are you an elf, like in that hobbit movie?” She looked behind her. “Where are the cameras and the director? You’re shooting a movie, right?”

The man cocked his head to one side, and looked at her carefully. “I understand. You’re not fae. Not to worry, miss. I have visas here. You can visit on a day pass.” He went over to a small desk, and took some paperwork and pen out of a drawer. “All you have to do is fill in your true name and your family homeland, and you can be on your way. The weather at the Spring Court is lovely today.”

Realizing that he was serious, Meghan stood there speechless.

“The price for a day pass is only a song. We’re running a special this month,” the man continued, motioning for her to join him at the desk.

“A song? What do you mean?” she said, her curiosity overruling her unbelief. She set Noodles on the ground and firmly clipped on his leash. Then she walked to over to see the paperwork.

“Any song will do, miss,” the man explained, “but lullabies are preferred. Come, fill this in, then you can sing, and you’ll be off.”

Meghan looked at the paper on the desk. It was a printed ticket titled “Day Pass, Mortal Use Only,” and had a rather large paragraph of fine print. At the bottom was a blank line for her name and her hometown. Convinced now that somewhere in the tunnel she had hit her head and blacked out, and this was her dream, she decided to go along with it. She signed her name and Riverside and handed the pen back to the man.

“You want me to sing now?” she asked. The man nodded, and took her paperwork. He stamped it and handed it to her.

“Okay, here I go,” she said. She sang the only lullaby she knew, even though as she grew older she understood it had a grim ending:

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top.

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will fall baby, cradle and all.

“Very good, miss, that will do nicely,” the man said. “Now step into the portal. Don’t lose your ticket. You’ll need it to get back.” He gestured toward a metal disk directly below the skylight.

Meghan took another look around the strange room. Is this real? Am I really traveling through a portal into Faerie? Her worried parents’ faces flashed through her mind, but she shook her head. They were too busy fighting to even notice that she would be gone.

Even if this is not real, only a dream in my head, why shouldn’t I go on an adventure?

“Thank you, sir.” she said with a nod, and she stepped onto the disk. The bright light blinded her as the room around her disappeared.

 

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Three

mask

The prince calmed himself as he composed his reply. Everything inside him wanted to scream in this insignificant worm’s face. He called upon his magic to quiet the storm, difficult as it was to do so in this iron-filled land. His face relaxed, and he released his grip on the arms of his chair. The silence was as weighty as the pause before a judge’s verdict.

“I…understand… your… concern,” replied the prince. He took a deep breath, letting it out completely before he continued. “I know that the men of Beautiful work hard for the glory of my land. I sincerely wish that I could give my beauty tonic freely to all who ask.” He chuckled a bit under his breath, its sound causing the dancers near him to stop in mid twirl. “But its ingredients are rare and growing more scarce by the year. And my men already travel long distances through dangerous lands to obtain what is needed. As the risk to my men increases, so must the price of the tonic.” He paused, the corners of his mouth twitching.  “If men don’t wish to pay the price, they can simply choose not to buy it.” His jewel-like eyes glittered behind his feathered mask. The eavesdropping dancers hurried away to another part of the hall.

“Of course, Your Highness,” the scarecrow said. His face turned paler than his makeup as he considered the possible future with men married to ugly crones. No man would choose that. He shuddered at the thought. “Your generosity is well known in Beautiful. I am certain you are doing everything you can. I will disturb you no longer. Good evening, my prince.” He made a hasty bow and darted back into the noisy crowd. The guards and ladies nearest to him relaxed as the tension dissipated.

The prince exhaled and drained his cup with a shaking hand.  How ungrateful these humans are! I give them perfect beauty to gaze upon for their entire lives, and they grumble about a little labor. Subjects. How they tried his patience! How they interrupted his pleasures! If he didn’t do something, they might become difficult to control. Back in Faerie, a mere gesture alone would accomplish his desires. But his power was weakened here, away from his magical homeland. If not for my potion-making talents, I might have had to actually work for a living.

Shaking his head free of unwanted thoughts, the prince beckoned to the guard nearby. The masked soldier hastened to his master’s side. The prince whispered into his ear, “Make sure that the mayor has a fatal carriage accident on his way home.” The soldier nodded his understanding and left the hall. With a contented sigh, the prince turned back to the festivities. Learning to delegate is not so difficult after all.