As they walked towards the castle Keelie sniffed her arm. She still smelled a little briny, but she was wearing her favorite blue gown, with a leather belt tied low on her hips, and she knew she looked good. One of the available jobs was cashier at the castle gift shop, and she wanted to make a good impression.
The path to the castle was bordered by forest. She’d greeted these trees earlier, before the unfortunate pickle incident, and now tuned out the tree chatter.
The southern forest felt different from the ones in Oregon and Washington. Green, but without the underlying spiciness of the California woods, or the deep, mossy wetness of her home forest in Oregon. The woods here were light, almost springy, if that word could be used to describe the forest.
The pines in the North Georgia woods were lush and green, and the hardwoods were alive with fall color. Usually she and Dad would be home in Oregon by now, in their home in the Dread Forest, but this new faire was intriguing, and Keelie had eagerly agreed to join him on one more trip.
After the battle at the High Mountain Faire, Dad had wanted to put distance between them and Colorado, and he wasn’t prepared to return to the Dread Forest yet. Her uncle Jake and his wife Elia were watching over the forest and caring for their new baby. Keelie’s former boyfriend Sean and his Silver Jousters troop were booked solid at other faires.
The Appalachian Foothills Faire’s hard-packed earthen paths were arranged like spokes in a wheel, with the wheel’s hub being a big two story castle of stone-shaped concrete. Zeke had frowned at the castle when he’d first seen it looming over the site. He hated concrete. It was convincing, though.
Keelie oriented herself by following the pennants that snapped in the cool breeze, beckoning her forward. She pulled out when the combs that held back her hair and repositioned it. Dad had carved the combs for her, a Winter Festival gift. She touched one for luck, feeling the raised hearts. Aspen, from Colorado.
“I’m hungry.” Coyote pointed his snout toward the line of food shops they were approaching. Knot jumped up lightly and sat on his back. The few passersby stared and pointed. Phones and cameras were pointed in their direction.
“I’ve got a job to do. We’ll eat later.” Keelie arched an eyebrow.
“You’re no fun.” Coyote sighed.
The smell of wood smoke was pleasant. She passed Johnny the hot cider man, who wore an apple hat with a giant cinnamon stick coming out of the top.
“Good day Lady Keelie.”
“Good day, Master Johnny. “ Keelie remembered to stay in character and gave him a brief bow of her head.
“Wouldst sample my latest creation?”
She curtseyed and pulled a dollar bill from her crocheted shoulder bag. “I’d love to.”
While the cider man prepared her cup of spicy hot brew, Keelie heard the ping of another app appearing on her tablet. She removed it from her bag. The new app was a scroll. Latest news in the realm of elves.
Just what she needed to know—the latest elf headlines.
She quickly slipped her tablet back into her bag and accepted the hot cup of spicy cider and paid him. “Thank you, and fare thee well.”
“You can stop for a drink but what do your guardians get? Nada, that’s what,” Coyote grumbled.
Knot hissed in agreement.
“Enough already.” She stomped over to the Steak on a Stake vendor and bought two skewers of Teriyaki Chicken, then handed one to Knot and one to Coyote, who snatched their treats and vanished into the woods. So much for gratitude and guardians.
The castle’s tall front wall loomed up as she turned the bend of the path and came out onto the village green, the big clearing in front of the castle. The castle’s immense gates were now only slightly ajar, and a man with a tripod stood in front of them, angling his camera around the green, looking for a good shot.
Vangar’s forge was to the right of the castle in a prime spot, understandable if you knew that he was Finch’s sweetie. Keelie shuddered at the thought of dragon romance. The forge was set up, and the hot coals were banked and ready, but there was no sign of the blacksmith. She’d stop by later to say hi. Vangar looked like a giant Norseman and when he wasn’t at the Faire, he rode an enormous motorcycle that belched fire and smoke. Sometimes he rode the thing right in the middle of the Faire, too, which annoyed Finch. He seemed to enjoy annoying Finch.
On the other side of the castle’s gates was a stained glass shop and a glassblower. Keelie didn’t intend to go anywhere near the beautiful glass panels. A few months ago at another faire, she’d wrecked one of the artist’s unicorn windows, smashing it into a million jewel-colored shards with a thrown pickle. In her defense, the pickle had been jinxed, but the man still blamed her for it. After today she was steering clear of all brined vegetables.
“What ho, Lady Keliel?” cried a jolly deep voice.
A tall, broad-shouldered man emerged from the back of Vangar’s forge and Keelie grinned at his familiar smile.
“Tarl! I didn’t know the Mud Men were going to be here.”
The mud men had a hilarious show that they declared loudly to all was “very dirty.” Dirty as in, everyone got splashed with lots of mud.
“New faire,” said Tarl. “Growing pains. A couple of folks backed out and others have come to fill in.”
Keelie curtseyed to him and he answered with a bow that was complicated with ridiculous flourishes that made the folks passing by laugh. She left him cracking mud jokes with his audience and went through the castle doors.
The central room had high ceilings with exposed beams that seemed to be blackened with age, and tapestries hung on the walls. For sale, of course. The place was jammed full of wicker baskets full of rolled posters, walking sticks, bowls of shiny pebbles and dowels strung with pewter rings. A shelf of hand-thrown pottery mugs with “Foothills Renaissance Faire” hung over the cash register, which sat on the only blatantly twenty first century element, a glass counter filled with fancy and expensive jewelry and small carved gemstones.
The shopkeeper was a tall woman with a beaky nose and thin lips turned down in a frown. She stood behind the counter, moving trays of merchandise around.
“Hi, I’m Keelie Heartwood. Ms. Finch sent me to help you find your tablet.” She smiled at the woman, trying to radiate charm and organizational skills.
The woman looked up sharply, and her face momentarily lost its harsh angles, softening into the familiar gooey look that her father’s name evoked in a lot of women. “Heartwood? Zeke’s daughter?”
“Yep. That’s me.” Keelie widened her grin, although she was thinking that this was another one who’d fallen under Dad’s spell.
“Nice to meet you. Your father is so charming, and so…” The woman blushed. “Well, I appreciate your help in looking for my tablet. It’s about yay big“– she held her hands out about ten inches apart – “and it has a blue Celtic knotwork cover with my initials, TN, Terri Norton.”
Keelie helped her look, lifting tee shirts and looking behind displays. After a while they both gave up. “Do you think maybe someone took it?”
“During store hours the tablet’s usually in my hands, and after we close for the day there aren’t that many people around. Terri’s frown was back, and the furrow between her eyebrows deepened. “I have the entire store inventory on that tablet. Finch gave it to me.”
Uh oh. No wonder Finch was so eager for Keelie to help find this thing. This woman was going to be Ground Zero for a Finchquake.
“Is the information backed up?” As she asked, Keelie looked up at the corners of the room, looking for surveillance cameras. There weren’t any.
“Yes, I have everything on a thumb drive, but the tablet was expensive and I’ll need to get another one in order to process payments.” Terri shrugged. “Not sure what use it would be to anyone. It was locked with a password.”
“Did it have a locator?”
“No. I meant to download one, but didn’t get around to it.”
Of course. That would be too convenient. “Sorry I couldn’t help, but I’m going to keep looking. Finch suspects it was a thief, so I’ll let you know if I see someone with a tablet cover like that.”
“Yeah. Thanks for helping me,” the woman said, “And say hi to your dad for me.”
“Sure will!” Keelie pasted on her Great Employee smile again, but the woman had gone back to work. This wasn’t the time to ask about a job.
As she left the castle, she consulted the site map she’d picked up earlier, then kicked through colorful leaves on the way to the coffee shop at the bottom of the next path. The cottage-like structure had a roof that looked thatched, but probably wasn’t, and a big deck all around it with room for tables and chairs that were stacked up in a corner. The shop didn’t have a sign either, but the unmistakably yummy scent of fresh brewed coffee beckoned Keelie closer.
She stepped up onto the deck and went through Dutch doors to stand behind a tall guy. He turned to smile at her, and she grinned.
Her messenger grinned back at her. “Did you run your errand?”
Keelie made a face. “Yes. Unsuccessful. You?”
A serving girl with blonde ringlets and a tight bodice popped out of the kitchen. “What can I get you?” She only had eyes for the guy.
“Oh, ladies first,” he said, signaling to Keelie.
“Thanks.” She turned to the server. “A large latte and a scone.”
The guy chimed in, “Me, too.”
The server looked them both up and down sourly, as if her dating prospects had just gone south, and went back into the kitchen, grumbling.
“Wow, that was professional,” Keelie laughed. “Not.”
The guy shrugged. “She didn’t pretend. She was truthful. I like that.”
Keelie thought of the fake business smiles she’d been doling out.
She offered her hand. “I’m Keelie Heartwood.”
“I know. Lady Keliel, right? Steve Barrows.” he said. “Errand guy for the Faire. The lowest possible job you can get. I think Ms. Finch actually called me the general dogsbody. I took that to be a title and a name. General Dogsbody.”
“At least you’re a general. I’m unemployed,” Keelie answered. “That’s lower.”
He laughed, a hearty sound that lit his face up and made her smile for real. “I think she meant General as in, generic.”
“Well, I think I’ll still call you the General,” she said. It made her sad to think that this handsome guy had accepted such a low job. On the other hand, he was paid for his work.
“Do you go to school around here?”
“Yes, I’m a Junior at North Georgia.”
“Nice.” She didn’t volunteer that she was in high school.
She’d just broken up with her first boyfriend, the head of the Silver Bough jousters, and the son of one of the powerful elven council. Maybe she was flirting with the guy because he was as different from Sean as possible, and the Faire’s human Dogsbody had to be the polar opposite of an elven jouster. Although this guy didn’t give off a meek errand boy vibe. The opposite, in fact.
“I’d better go. See you around,” Steve said. He paid for his coffee and left. He hadn’t even paid for hers, the way guys always did for the elf girls. Clearly, she was a loser at flirting. She pushed money at the smirking barista and walked back outside, thinking how she needed to get in touch with her elven self. Elves could charm anyone.
She also needed to spend time being a Tree Shepherd. She’d been so busy setting up the shop with Dad and running errands for Finch that she hadn’t had time to explore the forest, or even the faire. The little map showed that there was a grassy area surrounded by forest to one side of the main parking lot. She could start there.
She headed that way, sipping her latte and nibbling at her scone. Trumpets blared and she stepped off the path as the Royal Court paraded by. The beautifully dressed courtiers paraded to the jousting stands, where the Queen oversaw the jousts, pardoned the losers, and performed scripted funny bits with the crowd. Then they all paraded by again, giving everyone at the Faire a chance to see them up close.
The Queen walked behind her guards, surrounded by men at arms, and followed by her elven ladies in waiting. The Queen was played by Alandria, a tall, slender elf with long golden hair. She looked to be around Keelie’s age, but Keelie knew that elven ages were deceiving and Alandria was probably over one hundred years old.
Alandria turned her head and stared at Keelie as she passed. Sunlight made the rubies on her crown glow red. Keelie met her angry gaze and lifted her chin so that she wouldn’t be tempted to break the eye contact. For a long moment they looked into each other’s eyes, and then Alandria blinked, and the elegant Queen swept by.
None of the other elves glanced at Keelie as they passed. She couldn’t think of anything she’d done to upset Alandria. She barely knew her.
At her first faire, Elia had bullied her out of contempt for her half human side. Now some of the elves avoided her out of fear, since she was a member of the Circle of Magic, the joint council of all magical races.
Keelie moved on through the bystanders who still curtseyed and huzzahed for the royal court. She’d had a lot to deal with today. Dad groupies, grumpy Finch, public relations, failure to impress a human guy, and now she’d mysteriously ticked off the queen.
She needed a win to keep the day from being a total loss, and a little Tree Shepherding would be perfect. She headed toward the forest on the other side of the meadow, leaving the faire and its noises and smells behind her. She thought of her friend Laurie in California, where she’d lived before Mom died.
Her friend would be voicing some very loud opinions of Keelie’s lameness about now. She let Laurie’s voice badger her mentally as she sipped her coffee.
“First off, Keelie, forget the angry elf girl in the pointy metal hat. You need a paying job, something fancy and easy and this unpaid personal assistant job has got to go. You’ve saved the world and stuff. You don’t need to interact with the peasants. You need more clothes, so that you can look good at the shop and attract more paying customers that aren’t middle aged women in love with your smokin’ hot dad. Like, ew.
“And that guy? Who cares if he’s a loser or headed back to college after the faire? He’s HOT. Go for it, girl. You don’t have to marry him, just convince him that you’re perfect and he should adore you.”
Keelie laughed at her pretend conversation with Laurie. Did she know her friend, or what? She’d Skype her later for a real conversation, but with her laptop, not the tablet, or she might end up in Laurie’s bedroom, hundreds of miles away. She had no idea of what the tablet could do, and it was too scary to experiment.
The trees were tall here, old pines and oaks, and the forest floor off the newly carved paths was cluttered with broken limbs and tangles of briar. No running through these woods, that was for sure. Overhead, a massive pine shot straight up about fifty feet before sending out branches, a sign that other, shorter, trees had once stood around it. A crow cawed, and another one answered.
Then, it was quiet. Eerily quiet. Keelie listened for bird songs, the crackling of sticks.
A crow launched from a nearby branch and flew toward Keelie.
Startled, she stooped just as the edge of its wing brushed her face as it swooped upward. Keelie whirled to follow its flight into the tree canopy.
Out of nowhere, Knot and Coyote crashed through the briar and broken branches. Claws extended, Knot leaped and swatted at the air, as if he could fly after the crow.
“What is wrong with that bird?” She wondered if Herne could be around, in disguise. “Were you two chasing it earlier? I swear, it was on a branch, and then all of a sudden it flew right at me.” Had it attacked, or just flown too close?
Coyote sniffed. “I sense magic.”
“Dark magic?” Keelie swallowed. She opened her senses and felt the trees crowding around her. They felt strange. She sent greetings, but none of the trees answered her.
Coyote’s eyes glowed. “Not dark magic, it’s different.”
“Meow. No.” Knot turned in the direction of the crow. Coyote’s attention was drawn to something on the ground. Her dropped scone.
“Tree Shepherdess, greetings to you,” the forest suddenly answered in a deep, collective voice.
Keelie jumped. “Greetings,” she replied. “Have you seen intruders in these woods?”
These trees were not as friendly as Lorath and the others closer to the Faire.
Her tablet dinged again. She expected to see a relevant app, maybe to do with tree identification. Instead, she went still as she saw that the app was the face of a goblin, captioned Dark Fae Detector.
Why this, now? She turned the tablet to show Knot and Coyote. The cat hissed.
She sent her senses out to the seemingly peaceful woods, which now seemed full of lurking menace. No sign of magical energy of any sort – only a forest of surly trees. “Let’s get back. I need to show this to Dad.”
As the three hurried back to the Faire, Keelie was sure she felt eyes on her back, tracking her the entire way.