The singing campground: Part 2

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

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

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

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

Neither twin saw what they expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes it worked.

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.

Teachers in Faerie: Part One- Summer Home

summer home

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

dragon 2

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

dragon 2

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Three

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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.

College of the Crones- Chp.3 Part Two

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“Of course, I would be pleased to have a word with the mayor,” the prince answered instead.  He had to continue the charade if he was going to achieve his goals. Still, maybe he could appoint a royal advisor to address these trivial matters in the future. This interacting with the local simpletons is a waste of my abilities.

At the wave of the mouse, a tall scarecrow approached the prince’s table. His face was covered with white paint, his lips and eyes traced in black. He was wearing a rough burlap shirt, well-worn and patched pants, and a large straw hat. Straw was falling out of his hat, sleeves, and neckline. In spite of the playful disguise, his eyes looked worried. As he bowed low before the prince, a pile of straw formed on the floor.

“You may address me,” the prince said without enthusiasm.

“Your Highness,” he began as he stood up. “You look splendid this evening. May you live forever! Your masquerade is breathtaking. My wife and I are having a marvelous time.” The scarecrow took a breath. He seemed to consider his words. “However, there is a small matter that prevents my complete enjoyment. Earlier this week, some of the other mayors visited me, and we have discovered a common concern. I urgently bring that concern to Your Highness.” The scarecrow paused, waiting for his ruler’s acknowledgement. The prince graced him with a thin smile and nodded.

“The tonic price has gone up three times already this year, and your representatives have informed us that it will go up again before Yuletide. The price is already quite high. The men are working diligently from dawn to sunset every day. They can barely afford to buy bread. How much more can they work before they collapse? Of course, the potion is worth the price, but if the men’s strength fails, who will tend the fields and sell goods? Your Highness knows the crones and wives can’t do it.” The scarecrow reddened, shocked at frankness of the words that rushed out of his mouth. He waited tensely for the prince’s answer.

 

 

College of the Crones- Chp 3 Part One

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Interruption

As he descended the spiral staircase into the great hall, the prince was pleased to see his servants, dressed as mice, standing quietly at their posts, ready to receive guests. Masked musicians had begun to play, filling the hall with feet-stirring melodies. Long linen draped tables ran the length of the far wall, piled high with every delicacy a royal or commoner could imagine. Roasted ducks, pheasants, and chickens were kept warm under silver covers. A large tree made of pears, apples, and plums decorated one of the tables as if in bloom. Huge bowls of potatoes, puddings, gravies, and stuffing sat hot and overflowing on some tables, while cakes, pies, and pastries were stacked sweet and high on others. Servants stood by with goblets of wine and beer, their jobs to ensure no one could walk a straight line home at the end of the night. The prince surveyed it with satisfaction. No lord in all the lands provided a feast this grand.

Guests began pouring through the main entrance, and the dance floor quickly filled up. A kaleidoscope of brilliant costumes, feathered masks, dramatic capes, and silk sashes spun in obedience to magical music. The prince sat down at his head table surrounded by his court ladies, who dressed as rabbits, complete with long fur ears. They filled his goblet, loaded his plate, and competed for his glance. He would smile at one lady, admire the face of another, and then turn back to survey the dancers. Those he addressed sighed with pleasure, under the glare of the slighted. When their attentions failed to distract the prince from studying the other party goers, they turned their attention there also, watching from their luxurious perch.

The prince entertained himself by evaluating the swirling women as they passed him. I certainly don’t want that swan woman with all the droopy feathers.  She’s excessively tall, and her neck is too short. A red and yellow clown caught his eye. Maybe that one. I love fair hair, and hers is like spun gold. There is always room for another beautiful face in my court.

“Your Highness,” squeaked one of the prince’s mice. “If it pleases you, Sire, the Mayor of Oakbottom would like to have a word with you.” The twitchy mouse awaited his reply. Now what? The prince barely muffled a yawn. Not another problem with wolves? It took so much of his energy to feign compassion for any extended length of time. He needed to enjoy this ball. Didn’t these rude villagers realize it was after official business hours? I should have this annoyance thrown into the dungeon.

 

 

College of the Crones-Chp 2 pt 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

The interruption flashed his anger, and the prince took his heavy silver goblet in hand, ready to pitch it at the messenger as he came in. But the servant waited outside for his reply, accustomed to his master’s moods.

“I’ll come down when I’m ready, not a moment before,” the prince replied. He smoothed his features and sighed.

Slowly he untangled himself from the layers of silk and woolen blankets that trapped him into the red velvet arm chair. He picked up his feather-covered mask and put it on. He admired himself in his golden full length mirror on his wardrobe door. Two bright green eyes twinkled at him from behind black feathers and an orange beak nose. He was clothed completely head to toe in black leather. Who could resist me? He pulled himself up straight, set his shoulders, and lifted his chin in his most dashing gentleman pose. Then he buttoned on his feather cape and the costume was complete. Tonight he would reprise his role as the Raven.

 

The College of the Crones Chp 2

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Chapter Two Part One- Masquerade Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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