Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Knights of the Jewel: A Chat With the Jewel

      Somehow, Sonja had managed to doze off. She awoke with a terrible whip in her neck and every bone as stiff as stone. But the cellar door was opening, and the sudden rush of afternoon sun chased away the darkness of her prison. In spite of the pain, Sonja jerked her head in the direction of the door and mentally listed the choice words that she had for her subordinates for keeping her waiting so long. She let out a furious cry when she saw that it was the psychic making her way down the stairs towards her.
       “Well, hello to you too,” Eluani dryly greeted her as she began undoing the restraints. “You might want to keep a better attitude; a few friends have dropped by to see you.”
       “What did you do to them?” Sonja was furious. These brutes didn't have the right to push around her subordinates! “You'll see in just a few moments,” Eluani answered, rubbing down Sonja's newly-released wrists and ankles. “Now come with me, and if you don't cooperate, I'll just bind you and you'll end up right back here.”
       “Go to hell,” Sonja snapped, but she made no attempt to resist. What the hell is wrong with you, Sonja? Sonja chided herself. Why are you submitting? Just knock her sorry ass out, and then she can't bind a damn thing! But she remembered Eluani's abilities and quickly took her thoughts away. After spending the night being manhandled, smacked around, taken advantage of, and subsequently thrown away like a pile of trash, the very idea of freedom was enough to move her to compliance, even if she knew that the freedom was not real. The feeling of walking on her own two feet again almost brought a smile to her face, as did the grass beneath her bare feet and the warmth of the sun's rays as she emerged from the cellar. In her newfound vigor, she fought back the thoughts of escape, and anyway, she wanted to see what had become of her subordinates. From the way Eluani spoke of them, they were still alive...
       Eluani led her around to the front gate, and there they were: Rowley and Shattick, tied up like potato sacks and stupidly blinking like confused animals. Sonja had to will herself not to break away and give them both a good hard slap. They had both freedom and magic, and still couldn't manage to evade capture! Now they had been reduced to Sonja's own condition, stripped and bound and completely useless. It served them right for being so worthless.
       “You know these two, don't you?” Eluani asked, nudging Sonja forward until she stood mere inches from the disgraced magicians.
       “Ma'am!” Rowley and Shattick called out in unison, bowing their heads low. Sonja sighed, wishing they had remained silent so she could pretend she had never seen them before in her life. She felt their shame as she passed her critical eye over their sorry forms. “Unfortunately, yes,” was her response to Eluani's question.
       “Excellent,” Eluani said. “Now, why are they here?”
       You know damn well why they're here, Sonja thought scornfully. “Here for me, I suppose,” she replied with no emotion. Her subordinates refused to look up.
       “Congratulations,” said Morgana, “you've officially caused more trouble than you're worth. Your little friends just about did us in, and if it wasn't for....” She was silenced by a look from Ion. “Well, you've long overstayed your welcome,” she went on, “and we can't be bothered to keep you around any longer. Oh, hello, here comes your chariot right now.”
       Sonja turned her head to the sound of hoofbeats, and beheld the approach of Rasta's army, dressed in their gaudy red and gold and mounted upon those preposterous mechanical horses. At their head was the Princess Cordelia herself, with a sword at her side. Sonja glowered and quickly turned her head before she could be recognized.
       “Hail, knights,” Cordelia said with a nod, dismounting her horse. The knights of Rasta followed in unison, as if part of a choreographed line. It made no difference that Sonja wouldn't look at her. “Sonja Farrell,” the princess said almost accusingly. “I had a very strong feeling that I would run into you.”
       “I'm sure your idea of a meeting went a little differently than this,” Sonja said sarcastically.
       “Well, yes,” Cordelia said with a mischievous glint in her eye, “but this makes it so much easier for me.” She waved to her men. “Take them in.”
Ion and Troy tightened their grip on Shattick and Rowley's arms and handed them over to the knights of Rasta. Sonja's hands were bound by thick cords that cut into her wrists, still raw from their previous restraints. Oh, bloody hell! She shot Rowley and Shattick a dangerous look.
       “Whatever you have planned for us,” Rowley said pitifully, “it will never be enough.”
       “Shut up,” was all that Sonja had to say to him.

       For the first time in his life, Magus did not want to keep out of the way. The window in Lovisa's chamber did not allow him a glimpse of the prisoners, but whenever he tried to slip out, Lovisa caught him and called him back. His stealth rarely failed him, but she had some uncanny ability to detect him even when he was at his quietest. It only added to how magical she was in his eyes.
       But his former guardians were out there. To hear that they were so close by filled Magus with cold terror, and the only thing that would set him straight was to take just one look at them in their disgrace. The trio that had given him merry hell for the past year was now in the custody of the Knights of the Jewel. Magus could believe that Rowley and Shattick had been captured—after all, he had helped that along—but Sonja Farrell had never been captured. Sonja Farrell never submitted to anyone. Nobody could manage to apprehend Sonja Farrell for very long. Magus couldn't believe such a wild thing just because he had been told. He just had to see for himself. Concealment, concealment, Magus mulled over to himself, a spell of concealment. He was very familiar with cloaking spells and camouflage, but at this moment they evaded his memory. Perhaps it was because Lovisa was watching. There was nothing to be done without sneaking away first. He sighed deeply.
      “You okay, Magus?” Lovisa asked, waiting patiently for him to make his move in the board game they were playing. He wouldn't answer her. “I know this is scary,” she went on, “knowing that they're here.” How did she do that? How was she able to read him so effectively? Nobody else had ever been able to do that before. “But that's why you have to stay right here, safe and sound, until they're taken away into the city. They can't get at you, Magus. We won't let them!”
       “Thank goodness for that,” Magus said dryly. How could he explain that it wasn't about being scared, he just wanted to see them, so he could believe that they had really been detained? How could he explain the catharsis he would feel upon seeing his tormentors bound and imprisoned? She was so easy to talk to, but he just didn't have the words for everything. He took his next move, landing on a blank orange square.
       Lovisa took the dice and played with them in the palm of her hand. “Leana told me you want to learn to heal,” she said.
       “I do,” Magus said without hesitation, thankful for the subject change. “Or rather, I know how to heal...or, I knew how to heal. I just...”
       “You've forgotten,” Lovisa said, “and you want to learn it all again.”
       “That's exactly it!” exclaimed Magus.
       Lovisa rolled the dice and made her move, landing on a red square that awarded her three coins. “Well, Magus, there's very little that I can tell you about healing magic right now,” she said honestly, “because I'm still very new to it myself. But there's a lot that I can tell you about healing. Back in Eridell, my homeland, I was a healer too. I lived in a little commune with other healers. Every day, some poor souls would come to us with nasty wounds, terrible aches and pains, sniffles and coughs that they just couldn't shake. We would have to know the right combination of herbs, oils, and essences that would take their pain away.”
       “Did you?” Magus asked hopefully.
       “We did,” Lovisa said with a nod. “Let me tell you, Magus, there is no better feeling in the world than setting the right remedy. Nothing in this world has ever filled me with greater joy than the relief on someone's face as they start to feel well again. I lived for those days when a client would return to us with a smile on their face, entirely free of any aches and pains, thanking us for what we had done. I live to heal. The Jewel knows that, and that's why it chose me for a healer.”
       “It didn't choose you for a healer,” Magus remarked. “You already were one.”
       “I wouldn't want to be anything else,” Lovisa said wistfully.
       “I want to know that feeling,” Magus told her. “I want to feel that good after making somebody else feel good.” He was pierced by a pang of guilt as he imagined the many recipients of his magical arsenal coming to Lovisa with all of the damage that he had caused: skin as red and mottled as a bacon rasher from a fire spell, ugly red marks from the impact of magical energy, the grey, necrotic frostbite that resulted from a blast of sheer cold. He shuddered. “I don't want to cause anymore pain, Lovisa,” he said almost pleadingly. Even so, he thought back to his latest targets, whom he had struck hard enough to render unconscious. I had to, he quickly told himself. I had to protect my friends. But still, pain was pain, and he had caused it...
       Lovisa reached across the table to take Magus' hand. “I want you to know the feeling,” she said, “because I promise you, it is one of the most wonderful in the entire world. You can heal, Magus. I know you have the ability. It's just all locked up inside of you, and we're going to unlock it together.”
       God, I love her, Magus thought as he settled down enough to take his next move. But then a new worry struck him: “What if we can't? What if it's been locked up too long for that?”
       “Every lock has a key, Magus,” Lovisa stated. “We've just got to find it.”
       Magus believed that she could find it. At times like this, it seemed as though she could do anything at all. Her kindness, her beauty, her innocence, and her magical quality were so much more befitting of some otherworldly being than an ordinary girl from a healers' commune. Perhaps she is, Magus thought. I've never heard of this “Eridell,” after all. It certainly sounds like some other world to me...
       “The Jewel!” Lovisa exclaimed so suddenly that Magus jumped up from his seat. “What about it?” he cried. “Has something happened?”
       “No, no...” Lovisa's thoughts were moving too fast for her to keep up with them. She rose from her seat, laid the dice on the table, and held out her hand for Magus. “Come with me, Magus,” she said brightly. “There's someone I would like you to meet.”
Magus could have floated out of his skin. All at once, he had forgotten about the captives outside. He had forgotten who they were and what they meant to him. He didn't care about anything at all, only that he was going to see the Jewel.

       “Go on in, Magus,” Lovisa said warmly, as if she was inviting him to tea. But Magus didn't dare. His feet, which had been so light and free, had grown heavy again. He hated it. He wanted to fight against the imaginary chains that held his feet to the floor, to defy them by taking a step forward. I can't, he told himself. I'm the enemy. The Jewel's light—eight lights in eight colors—filled his vision. He blinked against it, got the disconcerting feeling that he was gazing upon a real god, and turned his head away. That light was not for him to look at.
        Lovisa held him by his shaking hand. She took one step and then another, as naturally as if she was entering her own home. She chuckled when Magus dragged his feet. “You don't have to be afraid of the Jewel, Magus,” she assured him. “The Jewel cares for us.”
       “Not for me,” Magus said.
       “You too,” Lovisa assured him, squeezing his hand. “Now come on, we're going to have a nice chat.”
       A nice chat with the Jewel? How was one supposed to speak with the Jewel? Would it be through prayer, the same as speaking to a god? Could the Jewel itself speak, and if so, could someone like him understand it. It was plain that Lovisa had spoken with the Jewel before, but how often? He had a hundred questions, and he kept them all to himself. He didn't feel as though he had a right to speak in this place. As he was led further into the Jewel's chamber, and the image of the Jewel in all of its light and glory grew closer, he was overcome by a wonderfully cozy feeling; it was as if he was back in the soft bed in Lovisa's chamber, wrapped up in silken blankets, with the warm sun touching his face. He tasted milk, sweetbreads, and pancakes again, and again he felt the delight that came with learning that such good foods existed in the world. Again, he was pulled into the warmth of Lovisa's arms. Again, the archmage kissed his face and said she would be delighted to look after “such a nice young man.” The heavy feeling in his feet had gone away, and again he felt as though he could take off and fly. “What's it doing to me, Lovisa?” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
       “The same as it does for everyone,” Lovisa said brightly ,with some understanding.
       Without hesitation, Lovisa made her way to the dais where the Jewel stood, which Magus thought to be the bravest thing that she had ever done. “Good afternoon,” she said to the Jewel. “I hope that you are well.” She gracefully curtsied. “You know Magus,” Lovisa went on. “He's doing very well now. Why, just look at him!” She put her arm around him and propelled him towards the Jewel, and Magus only took the steps to keep from being swept off of his feet. “We've taken the best care of him that we possibly could, and now he has a home with the king's archmage.” She patted him fondly, as if he was a finished project that she was proud of.
        Was the Jewel actually speaking to her then? She was silent, her face intent and interested as if listening for a voice unheard. Magus searched the Jewel's colorful gleams for a hint of a response—a change in the pattern, a shift in the colors, anything at all. But if the Jewel had a voice, then it really was not meant for him. A tear rolled down his cheek. “I'm...I'm sorry,” he choked out.
       “What is it, Magus?” Lovisa asked concernedly.
       “I'm sorry,” Magus said again. “I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry I'm bad. I'm sorry I'm the enemy. I'm sorry, Jewel, lovely Jewel...I'm so sorry!” He buried his face in his hands. “I never wanted to cause any trouble. I never did!”
       “My dear boy, you are no enemy of mine.” The voice was not heard by his ears, but inside of his mind, like a comforting thought that had just occurred to him. It was neither male nor female, and certainly could not be called human. But at the sound of it, all of his anxiety left him. He felt as though he was sitting in the arms of a kindly relative who had invited him into her home, though he had never experienced such a thing and had no family to speak of. He wiped the last of his tears and his racing heart slowed to normalcy. “I allowed you into my palace and ensured that you would be properly fed and cared for. I would never extend such courtesies to an enemy. My dear, you are an unlucky young man who's found himself in an unfortunate place. Misfortune alone dictates that we must be in opposition. But it is misfortune that creates good fortune, after all.”
       “Really?” Magus spoke without realizing he had.
       “Of course,” the Jewel answered back, its colorful gleams shifting and pulsing in tune with its words.
       “As you must have figured by now,” Lovisa said, “Magus is a very kind and gentle boy. And yet the same misfortune that puts him on the side of our enemies dictates that he must be used for destruction! But that isn't him. He's no destroyer! Jewel, you've granted me my own healing magic by assessing what was already inside of me, what I was already capable of. Could you do anything like that for Magus?”
       “There is nothing for me to grant him,” the Jewel responded. “He is already equipped with such abilities. All that he must do is bring them to the surface.”
       “But how can I?” Magus asked. “Will you teach me?”
       “You don't need me to teach you, Magus,” the Jewel told him calmly. “I have already given you someone who can: Lovisa, my Knight of the Turquoise. The healing arts are her craft, and everything that I know, I have passed along to my knights.”
       Oh goodness, Lovisa thought to herself. She trusted the Jewel, and she never wanted to question it, but clearly it had so much more confidence in her than she had in herself. Healing had been her craft since she was a young girl, but healing magic was something entirely new to her. Though she had learned it well, she certainly couldn't call herself a master, and it was far too soon for her to take on a student. But Magus looked at her hopefully, his youthful face so full of promise and so full of faith in his dear friend who, in his eyes, knew just about everything. “If Magus needs me to teach him,” Lovisa said at last, “then I will do just that.”
       “You will do well,” the Jewel said with unwavering certainty.
         Neither of them had anything left to say. Lovisa led Magus out of the Jewel's chamber, and Magus had to will his feet to stay fixed upon firm ground. In this moment he wanted nothing more than to soar as high into the air as he possibly could.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Knights of the Jewel: "Could I Be a Healer?"

       “First of all,” Morgana began, holding a red-hot ball of energy at the ready, “I need your full name, title, role, and commanding officer.”
       To Morgana's right, Eluani stood stock-still, channeling all of her concentration into the verification of the woman's answers. “Lieutenant Sonja J. Farrell,” the woman answered monotonously, “Master Archmage of the Aldinian military. My commanding officer for this particular mission was King Harkinian himself, though this was an unusual case. Normally, I defer to Captain Roy Shuster.”
       Morgana looked to Eluani, who nodded in the affirmative. “And what exactly is the nature of this particular mission of yours?” Morgana asked, holding the ball of energy threateningly high.
“To reclaim the boy, Magus,” answered Sonja, “and I won't say anything more about it.”
“I think you will,” said Morgana. “Why was the boy in your care? What were you using him for?”
“I'll say no more!” Sonja insisted, and she steeled herself against the sting on her right cheek. She gritted her teeth against the feeling of a hundred needles stabbing her face, leaving behind a burning sensation that lingered. Eluani took a few steps forward, looking her over with the expectant eyes that reduced her to the level of a worm being toyed with by a child. Morgana readied another ball of energy, this one a brighter red than the last. “I'll ask again,” she said dangerously, “what were you using that boy for?”
       For Aldine, I will endure! Sonja willed herself as she was hit by the second blast. For my army, for my people, for my king, I will endure! Another blast seared her forehead, and she bit down on her tongue. It angers them, she thought with relish. My resistance angers them, and they can do nothing about it but smack me around like brutes! But Sonja had forgotten about the psychic, who whispered in Morgana's ear, and the satisfaction on the fairy's face told her exactly what had been said. Oh hell! Sonja involuntarily recoiled, and was infuriated by the smirk on Morgana's face when she caught her at it. “You've forgotten that you can't hide anything from me,” she taunted. “Anything you hide, I will find out sooner rather than later. Knowing that, don't you think it would benefit you to just answer the questions and avoid the consequences? Unless, of course, you are enjoying this.”
       “You'll never get any information out of me!” Sonja told her. “I don't give a damn how else you get it, so long as that holds true! For my king, I shall remain silent!”
“You're quite the loyal one,” Morgana said, “or else you're incredibly indoctrinated. Which one is it, do you think?” She regarded Sonja as if expecting a genuine answer. She received nothing but determined silence, and she sighed and shook her head. “So I suppose this spell isn't cutting it,” she went on. “Perhaps you're just a little too used to it. Perhaps I need to turn up the heat.” With a flick of her fingers, the energy balls were swapped out for two deep orange fireballs, dancing wildly as if taunting their would-be victim. But Eluani caught her by the shoulder and pulled her aside. “It isn't going to work,” she whispered. “She's far more willing to endure the pain than she is to give anything up. Keep this up, and you're more likely to kill her before she talks. Let me take over from here. If I can make her feel secure enough, then I can sift through her mind with ease.”
       “Everyone has a breaking point, Eluani,” Morgana told her. “The more we wear her down, the closer she gets to cracking. The mind can be turned off, but physical endurance can only go so far.”
       “We could be here all night and then some before we're able to break her,” Eluani said, “and that's if we don't kill her first. I think you underestimate how stubborn humans can really be, Morgana.” She turned back to the prisoner then, regarding her with a smile that was so kind and serene that it came off as dissonant and unsettling. “All right, Miss Farrell,” she said, as if speaking to a frightened child, “if you don't wish to talk, then we won't keep trying to force you. After all, force only works against those who are willing to be forced. It's very late and we're all quite exhausted, and I know you are as well. You may sleep now, if you wish.”
       “You're not fooling anyone,” Sonja told her. “I'll worry about sleep when all psychics and psychos get out of my sight. Until then, I will be keeping at least one of these eyes wide open and fixed upon you. But thank you for your permission. I can honestly say that you are the most generous pair of torturers I've ever had.”
       “Well, Morgana and I won't be going anywhere, I'm afraid,” Eluani told her. “Knowing that, you may do what you wish.” She pulled an old chair over to the mage's side and settled down, and Sonja defiantly turned her head away from her. “Morgana,” Eluani said with a voice like honey, “will you go and fetch a cover and a pillow for our guest? And then you can catch some sleep yourself, if you wish. I'll be up for a while.”
       “I sleep in the day,” Morgana reminded her. “And why should I trouble myself with the comfort of the enemy? She can wake up with a whip in her neck, for all I care.”
“Morgana,” Eluani said patiently, “go and get her a blanket and a pillow.” With a groan, Morgana went off to do as she was told. At least I don't have to waste time making a bed for her, she consoled herself. I'll draw the line at that!
       This sudden cordiality from her captor only heightened Sonja's anxieties. “What in the world are you thinking, mind-reader?” she asked maliciously, and received nothing but the most infuriating grin for an answer. “You cannot expect me to believe you haven't got something up your sleeve!” She shot Eluani a glare that she was sure could kill in the right circumstances. “I'd rather curl up in dog shit than accept any accommodations from you.”
“I'm afraid that we don't have any of that on hand,” Eluani replied, “so what I can provide will have to do.”
       “Burn in hell,” Sonja spat out, turning her head away again and forcing her heavy eyes to remain open. She turned her thoughts to her subordinates, who were surely on their way to reclaim her. Or at least, they had better be, she thought bitterly, or else they had better be dead!

       The only indicator that the day had come was the tiny sliver of light filtering through a slot in the cellar doors. The fairy and the psychic were gone, and in spite of the pillow Sonja had been so generously provided, she had a terrible ache in her neck and shoulders. She could not remember when she had fallen asleep, but between then and now, anything that had been on her mind had been given up to the psychic. “Bloody hell!” she hollered, and unleashed a stream of further obscenities that would have shocked the city drunks. Her racket attracted the attention of Ion, who flung open the cellar doors and swiftly dealt her a heavy blow to the face. “Silence, vermin!” he hollered, and she shut her eyes against the dizziness that followed. “Good morning to you too,” she said dryly once she regained her senses.
       “Look at you, carrying on like a filthy bar brawler without a lick of sense! What a fine way for someone of your caliber to behave!”
       “You people aren't much better!” she said against her better judgement, and he struck her again. Red-hot fury rose within her as she fought to regain her wind. “You got what you wanted!” she shouted at him. “Your psychic friend found what she was looking for and sucked it all up like a sponge to kitchen water! What did she have to say about me? Go on, tell me everything! It's not as if I don't already know!” But Ion simply glared at her and left her alone in her misery, ignoring the obscenities and attacks upon his character that she cast at him as he departed. “These people are disgusting!” she said aloud as he slammed the cellar door. “A thing of beauty like the Jewel is wasted on such brutes!” She groaned and swore under her breath, her face burning with anger and humiliation. The moment she set foot on Rasta's soil, she had ceased to be Commander Sonja Farrell and had become a worthless toy for everyone to play rough with. She had been reduced to nothingness and cut off from her magic—her only real strength—to be tied down and knocked around like an angry child's ragdoll. Damn, damn, damn!
       Unfortunately for Sonja, she didn't have much time to mull over the injustice of her situation; the pounding of feet and the hooves of those machine horses sounded heavily over her head. Somebody was shouting orders—she determined it to be the red-haired brute. A cacophony like that could only mean one thing: an enemy. Sonja's tight lips stretched into a smile. Her rescuers had made it, and once they got her out of here, the Knights of the Jewel would wish they had never come to know her at all.
       The din passed by the cellar door almost as soon as it had hit. Taking several more hits to her injured pride, Sonja inhaled sharply and cried out, “He-e-e-yyyy!” She had been beaten, bruised, tied down, and was now reduced to crying out like a damsel in distress. You'll go back to yourself again when this is over, Sonja, she reassured herself as she raised her voice. Her calls turned to shouts, which progressed to hollers, which finally escalated into shrieks. She thrashed against her restraints, making as much noise as she possibly could in her pathetic condition. She had screamed herself completely hoarse before she realized that nobody was coming for her and never would. The sounds of hoofbeats, clashing blades, and gunfire had grown distant, indicating that the enemy—her rescuers—had been driven away from the palace. Well, she thought resignedly, letting her head drop, I'm screwed. I am well and truly screwed.
       She closed her eyes to the distant sounds of the battle.

       Lovisa! I'm going to see Lovisa!
       As Magus buttoned up the clean red boy's shirt he had chosen from his new wardrobe, he shuffled and danced around his new room like a little child anticipating some wonderful event. Those feet that felt so heavy for so many years now couldn't keep still, and Magus had to look down at them to make sure that they hadn't left the ground. He had spent the night in a bed just as soft and warm as the one he had in Lovisa's room, and he had just enjoyed the kind of breakfast he had only ever seen through others' windows or read about in books: three fluffy, sweet pancakes with blueberries baked inside and a hill of thick whipped cream. Of course he had asked for more when he was finished, but Archmage Leana, his new caretaker, smiled at him good-naturedly and shook her head. “Just wait until lunchtime, Magus,” she told him, “and we'll have sugar-plums! Would you like that?”
       “What are sugar-plums?” Magus asked her.
       “They're sweet little fruits that taste just like candies,” she told him. “You're going to love them!”
       “What am I to do while you're away at the palace?” he asked Leana as he helped the servants clear the breakfast dishes. They and Leana had been so kind to him that he felt it was his duty to earn his keep. “You'll come to the palace with me,” Leana told him. “You're already the talk of the Magic Circle, you know! And the king himself has taken quite an interest in your abilities.”
His abilities. Magus felt his stomach lurch. The image of soldiers crying out in agony as their skin melted away from their bones came back to him, as did the terrible dream that he had managed to forget. He began to shake. Don't think about it, Magus, he ordered himself. He turned back to Leana and asked, “Would it be all right if I were to visit Lovisa instead?” He added sheepishly, “I wouldn't want to be in your way.”
       “You wouldn't be in my way, Magus,” she told him, tousling his hair. “But yes, you can see Lovisa.”
       Much more than he anticipated sugar-plums, Magus anticipated a visit to his sweet, gentle new friend who had treated him with kindness he had never been shown before. He finished dressing and half-ran, half-skipped out to the carriage where Leana was waiting for him. She smiled prettily when she asked, “All set to go?” He nodded and boarded, just barely catching himself from flinging into the seat. As the carriage departed, he rested his head against the window and once again took in the sights of city that was to be his home from now on. Home. The word just didn't sound right to him, not yet. He tried not to think about it, instead focusing his attention on the city, which was leagues ahead of Aldine's capital city in terms of development. Aldine had never thought—or perhaps did not possess the technological ability—to separate its large cities into multiple levels to minimize crowding. They had human janitors clean the streets only when they could be bothered to clean them at all, and they could never work fast enough to keep the streets from getting dirty again almost as soon as they'd begun. Magus was captivated by the mechanical street cleaners that worked so diligently at their tasks. He admired the buildings that were tall enough to touch the sky with their metallic spires, and he was warmed by the positive energy that all of the people seemed to possess, even in a time of war. Perhaps he might have fared better on the streets if the streets back home were more like the streets here. That's a load of bull, he scolded himself, forcing such a thought away. The streets are the streets, no matter where they are, and the streets are cruel. He would rather die than ever return to that life.
       “You know,” Leana said, interrupting Magus' thoughts, “the king would like to see you, perhaps tomorrow if not today. I know that must sound a little scary to you, but our king is one of the kindest that you could ever meet. You must understand that at a time like this, we need all of the manpower we can possibly get, and the king is very interested in a young man who can take out an entire army all on his own.”
       “I don't want to do it!” Magus said quickly, without looking at her. “I don't want to kill! I don't want to destroy! I never want to set fire to another thing again!” Tears came to his eyes, and he quickly shifted his thoughts to his friend Lovisa. She was a magic user, and he couldn't imagine that she would ever use her magic to kill. He wanted to be Lovisa's kind of magic user—a healer, not a destroyer. He knew that he had the power to heal and restore; he had discovered it in his many long years of practice. It sickened him that the magic that had once been his only friend had become a tool to be used for destruction and carnage. “I...I want to heal!” he said, his tearful face giving way to an expression of fierce determination. “I'll use my magic to care for others! I want to heal entire armies, not destroy them! Let someone else be the destroyer. I'll be the healer!” He turned to Leana and asked hopefully, “Could I do that? Could I be a healer?”
       “Oh, Magus...” Leana put her arm around him and patted his shoulder gently. “Of course you can be a healer! But Lovisa is still quite new to magic, and I'm not skilled enough in the healing arts to teach you myself. I'll talk to a few of my colleagues and see what they have to say about it.” She smiled softly, and patted him again. “There is always a need for healers.”
Magus returned her smile. Still, he couldn't wrap his head around the idea of fighting in an army, even as a healer. But the thought of using his magic to care for others gave him a glorious feeling that he couldn't remember ever having felt before now. Contentedly, he sank against the carriage's seat and anticipated the sight of his friend, regarding him fondly with her blue eyes just sparkling in the summer sun...
       The dirt road that led out to the Palace of the Jewel was too rough for the carriage to manage. They abandoned it by the signboard, and Magus heard Leana turn a key in a padlock. He reached for Leana's hand as they walked. The air was still, the reeds and grasses lightly rustled by the breeze that gave the two a welcome relief from the summer heat. Something is wrong, thought Magus suddenly, and no matter how he told himself not to be silly, he couldn't shake the thought. He turned to Leana, but the archmage's face was neutral. He let go of her hand and quickened his pace.
       “Magus!” Leana called after him. “Where are you going?”
       “There's something wrong, Leana!” he said without looking back at her.
       “Something wrong with what?” she inquired, and Magus had to stop for a moment to think about his answer. This feeling was mysterious, and for the most part it was unfounded, but it affected him all the same. “There's something wrong with the palace,” he said finally, “with the knights...with Lovisa!” Then he darted ahead. His lanky legs proved difficult for Leana to keep up with, but she followed him as best as she could. When the princess brought the boy to her, and told her of his troubled history and the immense but mysterious power that he harbored, she had expected him to be more than a little strange. Now, he was darting off in the direction of the Palace of the Jewel as if he had always known the way, in hot pursuit of some unknown threat that had made its way into his mind. Is he psychic as well as magical? Leana wondered. Nothing about Magus could surprise her anymore.
       In the distance, Leana heard the all-too-familiar sounds of magical combat: sudden bursts of flames, the crackle of energy spells, the abrupt strike of a bolt issued forth from a mage's hand, and explosion after explosion at the points of impact. Mages were clashing in the area, and even if it had been silent (as so many spells were), she could sense the magic as if it was calling out to her. “Magus!” she cried out. “Magus, stop! It isn't safe! Magus, come back!” But the boy was too driven by his impulse. The only way to stop him was to catch him, and he was far too quick for that.
       These sounds were just as familiar to Magus as they were to Leana. He recognized them from his long days of training—at the convent, under his commanding officers, on his own during his street days—and it was all destruction. There was no clerical magic that would create such a racket. I don't want to fight, Magus thought to himself, but if the palace—the knights—are under attack, then I will! I'll fight for them! The sound of a sudden heavy crash shook the ground beneath him, so that he nearly tripped over his feet. The rumbling that ensued brought rockslides to mind, but of course it wasn't a rockslide. Magus' heart skipped a few beats. He closed his eyes and let himself be overtaken by the wind around him. The gusts picked up, growing faster, stronger, and he became one with them. They picked him up off of his speedy legs, and he was flying. He forced himself ahead, opening his eyes. The world was laid out beneath him now, and in spite of the circumstances, it was quite a pleasant feeling. He had used the power of flight to evade capture many times, and he was so quick about it that no one ever noticed his escape. So why didn't I just fly away when the knights caught me? As soon as the question entered his mind, he knew the answer.
       When Magus finally caught up with the knights, he let out a cry. Only four—Ion, Troy, Alicia, and Morgana—were still fighting. Eluani and Lovisa had been thrown to the ground like forgotten ragdolls, and there was no sign of Sanjaia or Rodin. Fury rose inside of Magus as he took in the sight of his friend, pathetically sprawled out on the grass and struggling to lift her head. Everytime she tried, it was forced back to the ground with a pained grimace, and he thought he heard a groan escape her lips.
       When Magus caught sight of their enemies, the boiling anger inside of him spilled over. He knew the two of them all too well; Sonja's two subordinates, who took sadistic pleasure in boxing his ears and singing his skin with their flames. They wielded the two artistically-carved staves that they so often brought down over his head whenever they felt like it—such a horrible waste of such beautiful staves that the students at the mages' convent would've killed to have! Magus released his anger in the form of a thunderclap, and then another. The ring of sky around him darkened to reflect what was inside. Another clap, and the brutes turned their heads to look at him. With one shout and two quick flashes of light, they crumpled to the ground.
       Upon landing, Magus ran to Lovisa's side and took her head in his hands. I can heal her, he told himself, I know I can. But the method of it evaded him. He had spent so long being used to attack and destroy, with restoration channeled into rings and stones that he no longer had.
“Magus...” In spite of her pain, there was a smile in Lovisa's eyes. He patted her gently. “I'll take care of you,” he told her. “You took care of me.” Now she smiled for real. His magic was impulsive, fueled by whatever was inside of him. So why didn't his painful desire to heal his friend amount to anything at all? But oh, perhaps it did, for the girl was finding it much easier to keep her head lifted.
       Magus hadn't heard Leana come up behind him, but now she knelt over Lovisa and said, “Let me take care of her, Magus.” When Magus' face fell, she said, “It's all right, you've done very well.” But Magus would not leave his friend's side. He held both of her hands as the archmage's staff lit up with a warm yellow glow that matched Lovisa's hair. He looked to Eluani and saw that Morgana was tending to her. I haven't done well, he thought. I couldn't heal her. I couldn't heal either one of them. He blinked rapidly to stop the tears that had come to his eyes. Lovisa stirred as her energy returned, until finally, she sat up. “I can take it from here,” she said to them both. “Thank you. And thank you, Magus.”
       “I've done nothing for you,” Magus said despairingly.
       “What are you talking about?” asked Troy, who had come over to join them. “You took down both of those bastards in one shot!”
       “Two shots,” Magus corrected him.
       “Either way,” said Troy, “you've got no business saying you've done nothing for us.” He clapped Magus on the shoulder. Immediately, Magus felt a rush of pride, and he looked down at his feet to hide his face. Of course he had done something, but he did not feel he had the right to be proud when he should have done so much more. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Into the Land of the Elves: The Final Entry (ending)

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, friend and teacher
September 7
11:30 AM

The Final Entry

       Apple Blossom starts her writing lessons on Monday. Today is Saturday, and as per the time-honored educational tradition of the humans, I will never give lessons on Saturdays and Sundays. In my childhood, Saturdays and Sundays were reserved for sleeping in, Saturday morning cartoons, and long days of play. Unfortunately, Apple Blossom doesn't entirely get that luxury. She has her morning lessons with Beryl, as well as her education and training in becoming the Greenwood's future queen. Her teachers must be doing an excellent job with her, as she is already as much a little queen as she ever could be.
       Apple Blossom has yet to tell Beryl that she will be studying under me. She might be telling her right now, and I have a feeling that it will give poor Beryl a case of the vapors. But her parents have already given me their seal of approval, though it was a very reluctant one. They were even more reluctant when they were told that Katie was going to be my teaching assistant. They said several words to Apple Blossom in tree-elven, which Apple Blossom later told me meant something along the lines of, “This is getting entirely out of hand.” But after some careful and persistent persuasion, they finally agreed—under the condition that the queen would supervise these lessons. I had no problem with that; honestly, I had been waiting for an opportunity to get to know the queen better. The most that I had ever interacted with her had been on that first day, at Apple Blossom's birthday party. We don't play with humans, Apple Blossom, she had told her daughter then. Look at how much has changed in the space of a summer!
       I'm sitting in the garden, looking toward the magnolia archway that had concealed a whole nother world for so long. Since my first step beyond that archway, I've met a princess, attended a royal birthday party, discovered a land of elves, swam with mermaids, gotten into trouble, made new friends, become a teacher, and entered into an alliance that will make history. And of course, I have produced my greatest work of all time and given it the greatest purpose. Any writer can churn out fairy tales until they get lucky with a big seller, but I doubt that any other writer out there has ever donated their work to the archives of a kingdom of forest elves. My diary will make history. By the time Apple Blossom becomes queen, a generation of Jadeites will be aware that an alliance between the Jadeites and the humans not only works out, but has produced something wonderful more than once. Of course, I'll still be around when Apple Blossom is queen. I might even be her royal scribe, or else the head of the brand new Department of Human Affairs. Ha ha, that's a long way away.
       I've never been more motivated to write than I am right now. I set out into the land of the elves in search of writing material, and came back with a steady supply of it and so much more. This particular tale will never be for human eyes, but that doesn't mean that I can't take a few elements here and there for my future stories. One day, I could write about an unlikely friendship between a human commoner and elven royalty, or about a race of people that can channel nature magic through gemstones. Perhaps I'll tell the story of a woman who finds herself in a hidden woodland where humans are looked down upon. No one will ever have to know where I've come up with such fanciful ideas. It's just Aidyn's imagination running away with her again, just like it always does...
       And of course, I will write for Apple Blossom. I'll tell her stories that will make those eyes light up with wonder. I'll weave her wonderful worlds to dream about and beautiful images to fill her lively mind. Stories will be part of our lessons. Naturally, she will learn to read my other stories just as well as she will learn to read this one. I wonder if she's ever tried to write a story before...
       But this story will forever belong to her, and to the Greenwood; it's the first of what I can only hope will be many, many stories of a friendship between humans and Jadeites. Wait, I don't need to hope! I know there will be many others, because I will write them all! And maybe someday, Apple Blossom and Wildflower will write even more. Nature magic is one thing, but if you ask me, writing is one of the most powerful magics in the entire world, and it's the kind of magic that can be shared among humans, Jadeites, tree elves, and whoever else may be out there in those hidden areas of the world.
       Katie's been blowing up my phone for the past twenty minutes. I guess I should get ready to go and pick her up now. I've got a tupperware tub of black grapes waiting in the fridge, and my teaching materials and A Dragon's Pride are all packed up in my bag. All I need is Katie, and this diary...

12:56 PM

       Hannah sent some burgers over for me and Katie's lunch, and I wish that she had sent enough for Apple Blossom and Wildflower. If they liked venison, then a hamburger would absolutely blow their minds. I'll make sure they get one next time.
       I'm curled up in the back of Katie's car, writing away as we head on down to the magnolia archway. “I don't want you to drive,” Katie told me, “I want you to write. Your story needs to end on a decent note, because if you have a good ending, then they'll want to hear more.” I've got the window cracked open, and the air is surprisingly crisp and fall-like for so early in September. It won't be too long before the leaves begin to change, and the Greenwood will be painted shades of red, orange, and gold. It's far too beautiful out to study in the library. I might move our class out to the banks of the Bell's Rush, and if we're very lucky, Katie will get to see the mermaids.
       “Don't park in the woods,” I warn Katie as the first spruces of the mini forest come into view. “The guardians wouldn't appreciate that.” Nodding, Katie pulls over in front of the spruces. “You're coming out, right?” she asks me as she holds the car door open.
       “Duh, of course I am,” I tell her. “I just want to finish this up first. Wait for me down by the magnolias.”
       Katie sighs. “You know I can't get past all that brush without your help.”
       “You've done it before,” I remind her, recalling the time she had scared the daylights out of me and Apple Blossom by showing up unexpectedly.
       “Oh, fine then,” she says. “I'll be there.” So she goes off into the woods and leaves me alone to muse over the end of my summer adventures. It doesn't feel like an ending at all, but a beginning: the beginning of a friendship, the beginning of an adventure, the beginning of an alliance, the beginning of a new chapter in both the history of the Jadeites and my own writer's life. I'm gathering up my bag and getting out of the car now. I don't want to leave Katie waiting—she isn't too fond of spiders either, even though she isn't as squeamish around them as Janelle is. I can write and walk at the same time, I've done it many times before.
       Katie's made it through the brush, I see. It isn't so hard to get to the Greenwood if the guardians want you to be there. When they don't want you to, it's another story. There they are, perched high upon their webs in the leaves above my head, watching to make sure that I keep Katie out of trouble. I nod to them. They know that the Greenwood is my second home. I would never do anything to bring harm to it.
          Apple Blossom's here. I hear her and Katie's cheery chatter. My human best friend and my Jadeite best friend are chatting it up as if they have been best friends from the very start. From this moment on, this diary belongs to Princess Apple Blossom, of the Greenwood. Let it be known that within this book is the one-hundred-percent true story of the very first true friendship between a human woman and Jadeite royalty. The story of my adventure shall be a message to the future generations of the Jadeites of this Greenwood that all it takes to form a revolutionary alliance is just a little bit of kindness and an open mind. There has been an alliance before, there has been an alliance again, and let us hope that from here on out, there will be many, many more. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Into the Land of the Elves: The Story of an Alliance

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, friend (to humans and elves)
September 4
5:25 PM

The Story of an Alliance

        “You know,” Apple Blossom said to me as she watched Wildflower copy down the words I had written for her, “it doesn't make very much sense that we can speak two languages, but only write one.”
       “That's a point,” I told her, and when she tilted her head at me in confusion, I clarified, “You're right,” before cramming two grapes in my mouth.
       “It just doesn't seem right to me at all,” Apple Blossom went on. “The English language was passed down through Chokana, right? So why didn't she ever teach her child how to write it?”
       “She might not have known how to write,” I told her. “In those days, a lot of women were never taught to write, or even read. It was a pretty backwards time.”
       “I'd like to learn to write English,” Apple Blossom said. She took a big bite out of a grape and swallowed it before asking what I knew she had been planning to ask all along: “Will you teach me?”
       I would have loved to teach Apple Blossom how to write English. Wildflower had only been at it for a few weeks, and yet she was doing so well that it was almost time for her to go from writing words to short sentences. But if I taught both Wildflower and Apple Blossom, I had a feeling that I would end up having to teach everybody. “I would love to, Apple Blossom,” I told her, “but I'm not sure when I'm going to have the time. You know that I have a lot of writing to do.”
       “If you have time to teach Wildflower,” Apple Blossom insisted, “then you have time to teach me. You can teach me while you're teaching her.”
       “Hmm...” I played with the thought in my head, just as Wildflower handed me her finished paper to look over. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to teach the two of them together. Sure, Apple Blossom was five years older, but the writing would be just as new to her as it was to Wildflower. They could copy down the same words and the same sentences—the only difference might be the pace at which they worked. I had never tutored any students before Wildflower (and Wildflower was a perfectly lovely student), but I knew that she was doing well under my instruction. I knew even more as I looked over the perfectly-copied words on her paper, beside the little illustrations I'd asked Hannah to draw, and my heart swelled with pride in my little student. “Excellent work, Wildflower!” I exclaimed. “You did everything just right! I'm so proud of you, sweetie!” I rewarded her with a hug and a handful of eight big black grapes. She accepted them eagerly.
       “Come here, Apple Blossom!” I called to her, and she came running from where she and Katie had been picking handfuls of new goldenrods. I took A Dragon's Pride out of my bag. “We can read this,” I told her, “or we can read some of the diary. Which one do you want?”
       “Oh, A Dragon's Pride,” Hannah said. “That's a real good one; one of your better stories, Aidyn.” She turned to Apple Blossom and said, “I bought my own copy as soon as it went on sale.”
       “She loves it,” I told her, smiling at Apple Blossom. “So which will it be?”
       “One after the other, please,” Apple Blossom said politely. She added, “I mean, if you don't mind it.”
       “I don't,” I said, and then I got an idea. “When you met Hannah and Janelle the other day,” I told Apple Blossom, “I got home that evening and wrote all about it in the diary. Would you like to hear what I have written?”
       “Oh, yes, please!” Apple Blossom said eagerly.
       “Hey, I kind of want to hear that too,” Hannah said, moving to sit beside Apple Blossom. Katie gathered up her goldenrods and joined us. Wildflower continued to scribble English letters down in her own diary, but I could tell that she would listen once I started reading. I took out my diary, turned to the page, and began to read.
       Ever since my adventures in the Greenwood had begun, I'd marveled at just how much my diary—my very own life—had become a story. To Apple Blossom, it was a story, a story to listen to and comment on, to interject and question, the equivalent of any other good book. Until today, I had never shared my diary-story with anyone but her. But now, I regarded the increasingly-attentive eyes of Katie and Hannah as I read this small passage that featured nothing truly remarkable. I recounted Janelle's fear of the spiders, the ugly sight of the spears lined up along the Bell's Rush (I saw Katie's face fall as I admitted that I resented her and the others just a little bit for being the reason for blocking our entrance to the Greenwood), the picnic we had, and Apple Blossom's little demonstration of the magic of jade essences. Somehow, I had made these simple little events into a story worth listening to. Somehow, I had turned this entire summer into a story worth listening to. If I may allow myself to boast, it may be the greatest story that I've ever written. And it's all true!
       But of course, it will never be published. Some stories, no matter how great, were just never meant to be published—at least, not to humans. But what about to Jadeites? What might the true story of a friendship between a human and the princess of the Jadeites mean to them? How valuable would such a story be if it were found in the Grand Greenwood Library, or even the castle's private archives? To have such a record around just might provide the insight that the Jadeites need to consider a real Jadeite-human alliance! In a way, one of those already existed, through our friendship. Friendship was a sort of alliance.
       I finished reading the entry. Apple Blossom flashed me her signature smile and said, “Thank you for reading, Aidyn. I'm glad that you wrote that.”
       I'm glad that I wrote it too. I'm glad that I wrote everything. “You're very welcome,” I told her with a smile, before getting up and taking her by the hand. “I need to talk to you real quick,” I said.
       “Have I done something wrong?” she asked, her eyes widening.
       “Oh, no, dear,” I said, “not at all! In fact, I have something to say that I think you're going to like.” I led her over to the patch of goldenrods that she and Katie had been picking. She bounced on her heels in anticipation of the good news, and I couldn't help chuckling. I loved this merry little fox so much, like she was my very own baby sister.
       “Apple Blossom,” I began, “I want to give my diary to you.”
       “Give it to me?” she asked, bewildered. “But why?”
       “If I give it to you,” I told her, “then the story will belong to the Greenwood, forever. The story of a friendship between a human and Jadeite, the story of my world and yours...” I was blown away by my own solemnity, and had to pause for a moment. My goodness, I was getting carried away. “I want you to have that, Apple Blossom. I want the Greenwood to have it. I want the Greenwood's history to hold on to the story of a real, true friendship between a human and a Jadeite. You want an alliance, don't you? Well, you may not have realized it, but there is an alliance now. Our friendship is the alliance, Apple Blossom.”
       “Nobody will be able to read it,” Apple Blossom said, her voice just barely above a whisper.
       “You'll be able to,” I said, my lips curling into a smile, “once I teach you.”
       “You're going to teach me?” Apple Blossom's eyes were so wide that I thought that they would take over her entire face. “You're going to teach me to write and to read it? Are you really going to teach me, Aidyn?”
             “Yes,” I said, and I realized that I had made this decision the very moment she had asked in the first place. “I'm going to teach you, because if I teach you, then you will be able to teach everybody else. Someone's got to do it, Apple Blossom. Someone's got to.” 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Into the Land of the Elves: Meetings and Magic

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, reforming traitor
August 31
5:36 PM

Meetings and Magic

       Katie anxiously fiddled with the wire-wrapped tag around her neck as I guided her through the thick brush and shrubbery that I had faced on my first visit to the Greenwood, which felt so much longer than only a month and a half ago. The events of the summer seemed to span a year or even longer, and it was the kind of summer meant for stories. I honestly cannot imagine life without Apple Blossom, the Greenwood, and the Jadeites anymore.
       We paused frequently so that I could help Hannah and Janelle past low-hanging vines, out of thickets that snagged at their pants and shoes, and over branches resting in our way. At one point, Janelle fell into my back, and I thought that she had tripped over another branch. When I whirled around to catch her, her eyes were wide with terror and she said, “I just saw this huge black spider, with long, spindly legs. Which spider was that, Aidyn?” She spoke rapidly, as she was apt to do when something scared her. I had warned them about the spiders, but that made no difference to Janelle. Nothing in this world would make Janelle okay with spiders. “I don't know every spider in the Greenwood, Janelle,” I said, patting her on the shoulder, “but the really big ones are usually Elder Guardians. In that case, you'd better be on your best behavior, kid. The guardians command respect, especially the elders.”
       “Why do they have to be spiders?” lamented Janelle, clearly troubled over the idea of having to show respect to a spider.
       “Because most people react to them the same way that you do,” I said with a cheeky grin.
       “This is the part with the spiders,” Katie warned as we neared the collection of webs that served as the gates to the Greenwood. “Janelle, you'd better get behind me and Hannah...oh! There's that really big one that Aidyn calls the Grand Elder Guardian. My goodness, it startled me!”
       “He startled you,” I corrected her. I peered through the threads of the web, which was lowered as I had expected it to be. Apple Blossom had requested for the guardians to allow my friends through, stating that any friends of mine were also friends of hers, but even requests from the princess had their limits—one human was more than enough. “You all wait right here,” I told my friends. “Don't touch anything, don't move, and if you see a spider, for heaven's sake, just leave it alone!”
       “I see a great many spiders,” Janelle remarked anxiously. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the Grand Elder Guardian's web. “I'm sorry about this,” I said, nodding to the spider once I got on my feet. “I'm just looking for the princess, that's all. Apple Blossom! We're here, Apple Blossom! We're all waiting for you!”
       “You're crazy, Aidyn!” said Hannah, but I ignored her and continued to call out. Soon I was answered by the sound of swift little footsteps making their way towards us. Apple Blossom emerged, her grass-green ponytails flying out wildly behind her. I heard an audible gasp from both Hannah and Janelle as they laid eyes on her for the first time. She was so very human, and yet distinctly not. She flashed her iconic sunshine smile at the three of them, and then, bouncing on her toes, she cried, “Katie! Hello, Katie! Welcome back! I missed you!”
       “You did?” Katie asked in astonishment.
       “I did!” Apple Blossom chirped. “I really, really did! And oh, these must be your, I've forgotten their names!” She turned to me, plainly embarrassed to have forgotten, and asked, “What are their names again?”
       “Hannah and Janelle,” I told her, knowing they were too stunned to answer for themselves. They looked less like they had seen an elf and more like they had seen a ghost; they were rigid, with wide eyes and tight lips, and Janelle was even paler than she had been when she found the spiders. “Come on, you two,” I taunted them, “you aren't actually scared of this little fox, are you?”
       “,” Hannah choked out, “not scared, just...” But she wouldn't say anything beyond that. Slowly, as if in a dream, she knelt down to Apple Blossom's level. “Stay on your side of the web,” I warned her as Apple Blossom scampered over to her. “I'm real,” she assured them, extending a hand that held a rounded, polished deep green jade stone—a tag. Hannah accepted the tag and turned it over in her hand, before holding it out in front of her eyes as if to make sure it was actually there. “What...what is this for?” she stammered.
       “If any humans come around here,” Apple Blossom explained, “my mother, the queen, likes to make sure to keep track of them. So she has them tagged, and then we know just how many humans have come by, and we know to keep an eye out for them. If any of them come back, bearing a tag, then we know that they have been here before. So far, eight humans—including the two of you—have come around the Greenwood, but Aidyn was the first to ever make it past the Grand Elder Guardian upon her return.”
       “Thanks to you,” I told her.
       “And that would make you the second, third, and fourth!” she said merrily, passing Janelle her tag. “They say 'seven' and 'eight' in tree elven,” she told them when they squinted their eyes at the strange carved lines.
       “Where are the taggers?” I asked, though I was glad that they hadn't shown up. “I called them off,” Apple Blossom answered. “I wanted to see your friends before anybody else got a chance to!”
       Hannah and Janelle didn't know what to say. They looked at the tags, at eachother, at me, at Apple Blossom, and at the massive web that kept them from taking a step further. Finally Katie asked, “May we go in?”
       “You may,” Apple Blossom said politely, “but I promised that I wouldn't bring you past the bridge today. But that's just fine, you'll get to see my village and my castle some other time.”        She took a few steps forward, so that she stood directly under the arrangement of webs spun by the guardians. “Oh, guardians of the Greenwood,” she said with the reverence of a priest, “I, the Princess of the Greenwood, would appreciate it very much if you would allow my new friends to come into our lands. I know that they are human, and that it is not our custom to allow humans into the Greenwood, but I also know that not every human means any harm—in fact, I have yet to meet any that do. These are friends of Aidyn, and you know her well. I know that Aidyn would never bring anyone in who meant to cause trouble or harm to the Greenwood. As the princess, it is my duty to protect the Greenwood and its people, so if I thought these humans meant any harm, I would not be asking for them to be allowed in at all. Do you trust me? Do you trust Aidyn?”
       That girl never, ever ceases to amaze me. She can go from silly little girl to solemn future queen to reverent monk and back again with zero effort. I looked at my friends, who were all as stunned as I was to see a ten-year-old girl carry on like that. But when the Grand Elder Guardian actually began to disassemble his web, adjusting and twisting and pulling at the threads in order to comply with the princess' request, it was like watching something out of a movie, only it was happening right before our eyes! Thread by thread, the web fell away and left a reasonably-sized space for my friends to duck their heads through. The other guardians followed, dismantling their own webs to begin reassembling them in higher positions on the branches. Janelle squeaked and hid her face in her hands, and I pitied her. She cared more about the movement of spindly spider legs than the real magic that was unfolding right in front of her.
       “Come on in,” Apple Blossom said cordially, as the Grand Elder Guardian worked at reassembling his web. I took Hannah and Janelle by the hand and the five of us started off together. “But how did you do it?” Hannah asked breathlessly. “How did you do it? They...spiders don't just do that!”
       “They do if their princess asks them to,” Apple Blossom said with a bit of a smug grin. I had a feeling there was just a little bit more to it than that; surely, the jade stone around her neck had something to do with it.
       On the way to the bridge, the haze that my friends had fallen into faded away. They were full of the same kind of questions that I had asked on my first day: “Are you really an elf? “What is a Jadeite?” “What is the Greenwood?” “What are the jade essences?” “What happened to the humans that came by before Aidyn?” “Why don't your people like humans?” Apple Blossom answered each one with the patience of a proper princess, but this time around she had answers that she had not had for me—such as the Jadeites' connection to humans, and how it contributed to her own inherent humanity. A couple of times, the girls had to pause to take it all in. “I feel like I'm in a fairy tale,” Hannah said at one point, and Janelle asked, “Are you sure I'm not dreaming?”
       “Oh, no,” Apple Blossom had told them, “I'm very real.”
       At the bridge, we found that Apple Blossom had set up a picnic for us, and that a row of spears lined up as a makeshift gate along the Bell's Rush dared us to go any further into the Greenwood. It felt so wrong to see the Greenwood blocked off like that, and I couldn't help but feel resentful towards my friends for inadvertently causing it. Apple Blossom, however, carried on as if the spears were just another part of the scenery. She motioned for us to take our seats. I squealed when I spotted the bowl of deep red cranberry pudding sitting in the middle of the blanket. “Oh my goodness, Apple Blossom! Did Raindrop's mother make this again?”
       “She did,” Apple Blossom said, beaming. “I asked her for it.” I helped myself to two big spoonfuls and passed the rest around to my friends, who eyed it skeptically. “You have got to try this pudding!” I told them. “You will never have tasted anything better in your life!” They inspected the rest of the food: venison, pork loaf, fresh berries, buttery yellow peaches, and the light, fluffy bread that the Jadeites call “silk bread.” I wished that I had thought to bring grapes. These were foods that I had eaten and learned to appreciate at our lunches and dinners throughout the summer, but of course my friends chose the familiar fruits and dainty cuts of the pork. I caught Hannah prodding at her pudding like a skeptical three-year-old, and I sighed.
       “Do you have any more questions for me?” Apple Blossom asked. “Aidyn and Katie had a lot of questions when we met.”
       “Well...” Janelle looked up at the leaves on the trees as if searching for a question up there. Finally, she said, “Why did you want us to come here?”
       Apple Blossom gave her a solemn smile. “I've told you that the first Jadeite was the child of a human and a tree elf,” she said in her most queenly way. “That means that there has been an alliance before, and so there can be one again.”
       “That's why we're here,” I told my friends. I stopped myself from saying, “So don't mess it up.”
       Apple Blossom had brought a few of her toys with her—a little wooden ball, three long, colorful painted sticks, and four shiny wooden rings—and after we ate she coaxed us into playing a few games. Katie and I were perfectly willing to play catch, roll rings down the little bumps and slopes along the Bell's Rush, kick off our shoes to wade, and chase eachother through the woods like squirrels. But Hannah and Janelle had returned to their original state of hazy bewilderment. They kept to themselves, wandering around and regarding everything with the confusion of Alice after a tumble down the rabbit hole. Apple Blossom scurried over to them and asked, “Don't you want to play with us?”
       “Not right now,” Hannah replied somberly.
       “Maybe later on,” Janelle tacked on.
       “Just give them a few moments, Apple Blossom,” I said in response to her disappointment. “You know that this is very new to them.”
       But it took more than just a few moments. When Apple Blossom realized that they weren't going to open up anytime today, she took a seat between the two of them and took their hands. “I'm sorry you don't want to play with us,” she said in a voice that would have melted the heart of anybody who had one. “What would you like to do, then?”
       “I'd like to know, once and for all, if this is real or if this is all just a dream or an elaborate prank,” Janelle said. I could have slapped her! She had watched spiders disassemble and reassemble their webs at the command of a little girl, for heaven's sake! How much more proof did she need? If Apple Blossom hadn't been right there, I would've gone off on her. But then an idea struck me. “Hey, Apple Blossom,” I said, “why don't you show them some of your magic?”
       “Oh, yes!” Katie piped up. “I'd like to see some magic!” I grinned at Hannah and Janelle, whose faces still reminded me of two stupid does who had been wandering around on the highway for too long. “Go ahead, Apple Blossom,” I coaxed her.
       “What should I do?” she asked, looking at Katie and I for approval.
       “Hmm...” I tapped my finger against my chin in thought. Any sort of magic would be enough to blow their minds, so I settled for something simple. I broke off a few boughs of a nearby shrub of inkberry and handed them to her. “Make these change colors,” I said, “like you did to those cranberry greens down at the bog! Can you do that?”
       “I can!” Apple Blossom said merrily. Immediately, she began sorting the boughs aside, mentally deeming certain ones as the most worthy of color-changing. She gathered a small handful and ran her fingers over them in the same way she had done for the cranberry greens. It was such simple magic with no real purpose behind it other than amusement, and yet it was enough to have my friends completely captivated. Katie watched with her mouth wide open and eyes like an owl's, and Hannah and Janelle's eyes widened as each leaf turned from forest green to pink, gold, red, blue, or purple in the girl's fingers. Apple Blossom was enjoying herself and didn't seem to notice just how much she had amazed her audience. She smiled contentedly as she worked each leaf, and when she finished she began bending them into colorful crowns.
       I turned to my friends and flashed them my smuggest grin. “How real is it now?” I asked.
        After a few moments, Janelle answered breathlessly, “ is real. And it's magic!”