Appalachian Foothills Renaissance Festival
This had been a bad, bad, bad idea.
“Finch is going to hear about this. Just when she was starting to trust me, too.” Keelie Heartwood had been sent by the Ren Faire’s administrator Ms. Finch to investigate a missing tablet computer in one of the shops, the second one lost this week. So far she hadn’t found out anything.
As an unpaid public relations assistant, she’d been charged with making sure that the vendors were happy, and now one was anything but.
Keelie glared at the orange tabby cat next to her on the dirt path. Knot was her father’s cat, and her supposed guardian. They had a long and stormy history.
“We stink, thanks to you.” They both smelled like brine and vinegar, and Knot’s fur was flecked with bits of translucent green pickle.
At least her Compendium tablet was safe in the crocheted bag Grandma Jo had made for her.
“Meow.” He delicately removed a bit of dilled cucumber clinging to his fur.
“You should’ve stayed away from Sadie.” Sadie was Pearl the Pickle Lady’s beloved cat. Knot had fallen hard for the black-furred beauty. He’d washed her tail, and apparently that set off Sadie’s crazy owner.
“Meow luv her.”
“You’d better stay away from her for a while.”
When Pearl discovered Knot and Sadie together – and Keelie didn’t want to think about exactly how they were together – she’d thrown pickles at Knot with the pickle sling. Keelie had come to her cat’s defense, which had resulted in the pickle tornado.
Something slid from her hair and plopped onto her shoulder. Disgusting. Keelie tossed the broken pickle in the woods: it hit an oak tree, which caught it in its branches.
Hey. Watch it. The tree spoke in her head, as trees often did to Tree Shepherds like Keelie.She’d learned to block out their constant conversations. They talked to themselves a lot, too.
Sorry, Keelie answered. Guilty that she’d been neglecting the trees, she added a bow to the elder oak. How are you, Lordath?
The tall hardwood waved its branches in response. On the trunk, eyes opened and a mouth curved upwards, as his face pushed through the bark. As far as she knew, only Tree Shepherds could see the tree faces.
Very well, Tree Shepherdess. Finch searches for you — the tale of Knot and Sadie has already reached the director’s ear.
Great. Thank you.
Keelie’s tablet pinged with a message and she removed it from her bag. The smooth wood that enclosed was hawthorn, from the High Mountain Faire. A polar bear app had popped onto the screen. The new app was captioned Northwoods. Was it a guide to the portal that led to the fae High Court? The Northwoods was home to elves and dragons, too. The tablet had a mind of its own. Literally.
A dog slinked out of the woods, a black and white Siberian Husky with gloriously lush fur. Keelie could see through the glamour she’d put on him, but no one else could tell that it was a coyote underneath the spell. That was what she called him, Coyote. He trotted up to Keelie, ears up and eyes alive with interest. “You’re getting more and more of those pings every day.”
No ordinary coyote, this one. Keelie had met him on a return trip to Los Angeles, and he’d followed her to the Redwood Forest. She wasn’t sure exactly what Coyote was. He usually looked like a regular little coyote, but he was more like some sort of fae, or maybe a god, like Herne. She quickly pushed away the thought of Herne. She’d spent a lot of time with the horned forest god, and she needed to recover.
Coyote grinned, as if he could read her thoughts. Maybe he could. She’d dared to use the tablet to find a magical spell that would glamour him so that he looked like a Siberian Husky. At least she’d found some practical uses for her magic since the incident at the High Mountain Renaissance Festival. Blasting goblins was not an everyday skill.
“Let’s go face the music, guys.” She headed towards the big concrete castle that held the Faire’s administrative office. Long silky pennants moved in the breeze from the top of its tall, copper-roofed towers, and shops and vendors’ stalls crowded around it, giving it the realistic air of a medieval village. The smell of horses mixed with the scents of cooking meats and fried dough. Huzzah and cheers filled the air, along with the occasional clang and smash of wood and metal crashing together.
Knights jousted on horseback on a broad, open air field within wooden gates at the rear of the castle. It was free to watch them, but for a price visitors could sit near the royal court, and be served a tasty beverage by a costumed server who called them milord or milady.
Pretty slick. Jousting was always popular, and the elf girls that played courtiers were excited about the arrival of the jousting troupe. Jousters were usually elves, but this was a human troop, The Knights of Time.
People bustled in and out of the carved wooden front gates of the castle, but Keelie circled around to the rear of the building and opened a door marked “Employees Only. All Others Will Be Eaten” and went down a short, modern hallway with a door on each wall and one on the end. The door to the right was the entrance to the enormous costume and prop room. The end of the hall led to public part of the castle. She knocked on the door on the left, the dragon’s lair.
“Get in here,” a deep woman’s voice snarled.
Keelie entered. It had been a while since she’d first met Finch, and she didn’t cower before her any longer, but the Faire’s administrator was a fearsome sight. Red hair piled high over a long face, hunched shoulders that seemed to carry the weight of the world, squinty eyes that sparked fire, smoke curling from her nostrils…
Whoa. Keelie stepped back. That was not a good sign. Finch only smoked like that before a major flameout. Finch had been the administrator of several of the Renaissance Faires where Dad sold his furniture, and she was usually in a bad mood. Keelie had not been thrilled to see that she was in charge of this one, a brand new Faire in the North Georgia Mountains.
“Sit.” The woman pointed a long, manicured nail at the plastic chair in front of her desk. What was it with Ren faire offices and plastic chairs?
Keelie lowered herself gingerly into the cheap chair, afraid it would collapse. When it held, she released the breath she was holding. “I was just talking to the Pickle Lady,” Keelie began.
Finch held up a hand. “I know what happened. I can smell it on you, too.” She glared at Knot. “Why aren’t you fixed?” Knot puffed out his fur and hissed at the red haired woman, who hissed back, her tongue looking just a bit long and forky.
“He didn’t hurt the cat, and the Pickle Lady seriously overreacted.” Keelie was used to taking the blame for Knot, but this time he really hadn’t done anything bad. Or at least, there was nothing broken other than some pickles.
Finch grunted. “Keep an eye on him. And what’s this about a dog following you around? It’s late for rabies season, but be careful around strays.”
“It’s Coyote. I glamoured him.” Finch knew Coyote. There wasn’t much that Finch didn’t know.
“I’ve got an errand for you,” Finch said. “The cashier at the castle gift shop says her tablet’s gone missing. That’s the third one now. It’s got all the inventory for the shop listed on it and we use it for making payments, too. We need to find it, pronto. Go help her look for it.” She seemed about to say something else, but stopped herself.
“Is something wrong?”
Red eyebrows rose as green eyes considered her. Little flames danced in Finch’s pupils. She nodded slightly, as if to herself. “Three tablets. These shopkeepers aren’t absentminded. Someone is taking them –“ Again, she stopped herself. She eyed the wall pensively.
“No one say anything unusual, but it’s a Ren Faire, and there’s a million people walking around. It could have been anybody.” Keelie had asked the vendors all the usual questions, but had gotten nowhere.
“Word of a sneak thief gets out and it’ll hurt business.” Finch was on the edge of her seat, once more looking like she would explode out of it any second. “We’ve spent buckets of cash on advertising and we can’t afford to get a bad reputation.”
“You mean you won’t call the police because then word will get out.”
Finch nodded grimly.
“I’ll get the trees to keep an eye out for any unusual visitors,” Keelie promised. “And maybe Knot and Coyote can look for the missing tablets.” She hesitated, then blurted out, “Do you think I could get paid for this? I need a job.”
Finch waved a hand. “I’ve got plans for you, Heartwood. I promised you before, do this for me, and you won’t be disappointed.”
Keelie frowned. What did she mean by that?
“And Heartwood? You smell delicious. Bring me a pickle when you get back.”
As soon as Keelie was outside Finch’s office she pulled her own tablet from her messenger bag. It was unharmed. She slumped against the wall, relieved. All the elven lore was on this tablet, the great magical Compendium of the elves, transformed by her magic into a digital format. She wished she knew how she’d done it, although she suspected it had done it to itself. Did someone else know and want it for its power? It seemed like a coincidence, and she didn’t believe in those any more. Maybe she could glamour it, as she’d done to Coyote.
Maybe not. It took her a long time and she’d made some awful errors when she’d spelled Coyote into looking like a dog. Knot had found the mistakes hilarious, Coyote, not so much, but she couldn’t afford to mess with the Compendium.
As she watched, a faint light appeared on the tablet surface, resolving into a sparkling swirl. The sparkles faded, leaving the swirl, next to the other icons visible. Another new app. Great.
“Did you know there’s a creeper on site? Someone’s stealing tablets.” Keelie announced to her dad as she marched into Heartwood. “Finch wants me to find them. She hinted that she might pay me.”
Zekeliel Heartwood looked up from his workbench, its surface strewn with the rough-faceted crystals he used to embellish his fantasy-inspired furniture. Keelie missed working with her dad. He’d put word out among the faire workers that he was searching for a new assistant. Finch had grown dependent on Keelie’s help, and her new magical duties kept her away from woodworking. His former one, Scott, had started his own furniture business and Dad hadn’t found a new apprentice.
“Is your tablet safe?” Dad pushed his long brown hair behind his pointed elf ear with one hand.
“In my bag.” Keelie smiled to assure him. “I checked as soon as Finch told me about the last one.” She put her hand on the bag, feeling the familiar shape of the tablet inside. She did not mention the new apps that had appeared. He wouldn’t know what an app was.
“Finch is in an epic bad mood,” Keelie added. “Have you noticed there’s been more smoke flowing out of her nostrils, lately? I understand the stress of the faire, but she’s beyond her normal crankiness. “
“I haven’t spoken to her in days. She hasn’t been around to see me, either.” Dad calmly sorted crystals by size. He didn’t even jump when a furry orange shape the size of a large duffel bag landed in the middle of the table with a solid thump. “Move, Knot.”
Knot the cat looked down curiously at the crystals around him, then batted one to the floor and took off in an impromptu game of hockey.
Dad looked after him, amused. “This cool autumn weather makes old cats feel like kittens.”
“He’s always acted like a kitten. Or a troll.”
She grinned when Knot stopped his game to glare at her before swiveling in mid air to bat his shiny toy some more.
“It’s not the weather that his him revved up. It’s this new cat named Sadie.”
Dad grinned at Knot. “Love, old man? Better be careful. You remember what happened last time.”
Knot scowled. “Meowstake.” He stalked off, tail high, its end flipping back and forth. “
“Oh my. It’s really him. Zeke Heartwood!” The woman’s high pitched squeal provoked the flinch that the cannon-balling cat had not produced. Dad looked as if he wanted to melt into the floor.
Keelie watched two women giggle like little girls by the entrance to Heartwood. They worked at one of the new pubs. It was a little creepy to have a parent who was such a chick magnet. “We’ll talk later, Dad, after your fans go home.”
Keelie had to squeeze past them to leave. The shop was a decent ten by twenty feet, but it was crammed with armchairs, dressers, tables, mirrors and coat racks. The women surged forward as she stepped away from the workbench.
She skimmed a hand lightly over the burled pattern of counter where the register stood, enjoying the satiny smooth wood, and the now familiar rush of images that the touch brought her. Walnut, from New York. She saw the lightning blast that had killed the tree. Rest well, friend.
Keelie’s ability to talk to trees was inherited from her father, her elf side. Mom hadn’t been one hundred percent human, as she’d recently discovered, but Dad was a Tree Shepherd, and so was Keelie.
She picked up a little map of the faire from a stack on the counter, and was slipping it into her bag when she noticed a tall man run up the path, straight towards her. He ran lightly, a natural runner, and wasn’t out of breath when he stopped in front of her. He sized her up boldly, an appreciative look in his brown eyes. “My lady Keliel?”
He bowed, floppy brown curls flipping down and then back up as he stood. He seemed just a little older then her. Lots of college kids worked the faire for extra cash. “I bear a message from Mistress Finch. She says, get a move on, there’s no time to waste. Also, that the lady at the gift shop expected you to go right away.”
Her face flamed. “Um, thank you. I’m on my way.”He was handsome, and he seemed to like her, too.
He bowed again. “I have another errand to run, or I’d deliver that message.”
“She could have just called me.”
The man was headed down the path again. He turned, grinning, running backwards to keep her in sight. “Not forsoothly, she couldn’t.”
He waved, then turned and leaped over a box in front of a shop and vanished around a corner. If he ran errands at the faire, then she’d run into him again.
Was she like him? Errand girl to Finch? She totally needed to find a real paying job. She glanced back into Heartwood, but Dad was still talking to the two women.
“Knot?” Instantly he appeared at her side, and rubbed against her leg. Coyote was waiting on the path, grinning his Siberian Husky toothy smile. “Let’s go guys. We have a mystery to solve.”
**Chapter Two will be up in a couple of days. See a typo or continuity error? Please don’t leave comments about it. Instead, email us at email@example.com. We’ll fix it and thank you!)