One of the good things about a Fall faire was that it got dark early, so that aside from special events like the Firelight Fairy Ball, there were no late nights. She followed Dad up the sturdy pine stairs behind the shop building after helping him close up shop, tripping over Knot, who glared at her as Dad went into their apartment.
He wanted her to tell Dad about the Dark Fae app. She started to, a couple of times, but each time she’d changed her mind. Something was definitely wrong here, and she was afraid that the dark fae app was connected to the missing tablets.
“Go with Coyote,” she whispered to Knot.
He looked out into the darkness and then silently slinked down the stairs and disappeared. Dad stuck his head back out. “Coming, Keelie?”
“Be right there.” She looked around when she got to the top of the stairs. From here, she could see the rows of buildings and the castle. Lights shone from the upstairs of many shops, where vendors who lived upstairs from their businesses. Lights glowed from the other side of the parking lot, too, where the performers and other workers lived in tents and RVs. A dozen kinds of music drifted from that area, accompanied by drumming.
This was home now, more than the life she’d had in California with her mother, more than the big house she shared with Dad when they were in the Dread Forest in Oregon. If any magic threatened it, she would find it and defeat it.
Keelie sent a calm good night to the forest, and the trees around her fluttered their leaves. As if a breeze swept from her, the fluttering extended beyond the faire and up the mountain. Keelie gathered the green energy, pulling more from the earth below her, and she returned it to the grateful forest. Except for a patch of darkness that her senses followed – and found, on the other side of the grassy clearing. The woods where she’d been earlier. Something was wrong there.
“I agree.” Dad stood beside her on the landing. He put a hand over hers, and together they reached out the dark forest, but it was as if they were blocked.
“I was there this afternoon. Those are some angry trees.”
“Did they give a reason? Come inside, Keelie, it’s getting cold.”
It was, and she rubbed her arms as she followed him inside. “They didn’t want to talk at all. And now it’s as if there was a shield over them.”
“I’ll check it out tomorrow.” Dad was the senior Tree Shepherd, and she was happy to let him deal with the trees. She had enough other stuff to do.
The upstairs apartment, a copy of the one they’d had at the High Mountain Renaissance Faire, was tiny, but the windows were large, and by day it was full of light. She loved the smell of fresh wood, and sight of the trees and other shops, but after dark the dark windows were spooky. Keelie had felt exposed until she’d tacked up sheets over all the windows to serve as curtains until they put up real ones. “I need to go shopping tomorrow. We need curtain rods so that we can hang the curtains.”
“Good idea.” He hesitated. “Do you need help?”
She almost laughed. Dad couldn’t stand shopping centers. He’d taken her to a mall once and nearly became unconscious from the concrete exposure just in the time she’d picked out an outfit. She hadn’t known that full-blooded elves had to stay near trees, and malls and that concrete buildings made them ill.
“I can handle it. Of course, your financial assistance is required.”
Dad gave her the elf Dad evil eye. “How goes the job search?”
“Ouch.” She’d given him the perfect opening by asking for money. “I was super nice to the cashier at the castle. She’s hiring.”
Her father speared her with his emerald stare. “Did you actually apply?”
Did he know her or what? “I was going to. I mean, I will. The time wasn’t right. She’d just had her tablet stolen, and I helped her look for it. She was grateful.”
“Another theft,” Dad muttered. He was pulling bowls from the cupboard. “We have squash soup for dinner and salad, too.”
“Yum,” she said automatically. Actually, it sounded pretty normal. Elves ate all sorts of twigs and leaves, and Dad liked to “stretch her taste buds”. She should find an Elven cookbook and see if there was anything decent that she could learn to fix.
She shivered. The thought of books reminded her of the Compendium and its new app. Even though her father had sensed the darkness in the trees, she didn’t mention the app. On the other hand, a goblin might be trying to hack the Compendium and the app might be an early warning system.
She was afraid he’d take the tablet away from her, unnerved by the tablet adding apps to itself, and its growing magical potential. He’d been worried when she used magic to disguise Coyote, thinking that the more she used fae magic, the bigger the chance that her power would spark another situation like the one that had touched off a brief war in Colorado.
What had once been the elves’ book of magic had grown sentient while in her care and had absorbed goblin and dragon magic so that now it was greater than it had ever been, and it seemed to have bonded with her. Dad might be able to take the tablet away from her, but that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t find her again. Before she told Dad about the dark fae app, she should tell Herne.
There was an app on her tablet, a little antlered stag head that would summon Herne the Hunter if activated. She’d pressed it once before, to test it out, and he’d appeared instantly.
The thought of seeing the woodland god made her face hot. He was busy running the world of the dark fae, and would be annoyed to have a kid call him. She needed dinner and a hot shower. Or maybe a cold one.
“Do I have time for a shower?” Suddenly, a shower sounded like the most delicious thing in the world.
The apartment was one big room, except for the galley kitchen by the entrance and a proper bathroom with a toilet, tub and shower behind a door. Dad had divided the remaining area into bedrooms with curtains that hung from dowel rods suspended from the ceiling with chains. Each of the two rooms held a twin-sized bed, one for Keelie on the left side of the room, and one for him on the right side, just like their old apartment at the High Mountain Faire, where she’d first lived with him after her mother’s death.
“Soup’s almost hot. Why don’t you wait. Sit here and chat with me.”
Keelie sighed, then sat on the end of his bed and watched him stir the pot. “Thanks for helping with the trees.”
“I like when we work together.” He smiled at her.
“Is it okay if I bring up one of the spruce tables for my sleeping area?”
“Of course. Bring up any piece you want.” He looked around the small room. “Within reason.”
“I love the way those little tables feel.” She needed something comforting after the tablet craziness, not to mention the weird episode with the crows and Coyote and Knot in the forest. “I think they’re like friends. Happy, and comforting.”
Dad stopped and looked at her. “Yes, they are.” He shook his head. “Sometimes it catches me off guard that you know and feel the same things I do, like out on the landing. There aren’t many Tree Shepherds in the world, Keelie. I hope you know how important you are.”
“A tree super hero, I know.” She said it lightly; to be funny, but it came out serious.
“Exactly,” Dad said. “And your fae blood makes it even more important that you keep up with your studies. You must learn to control your magic.”
“Right, I’ll get to it in my free time.” She stopped at the look on his face. It was totally unfair that she had to work at Heartwood, plus help Finch, plus look for a job and be expected to learn all the magic in the whole darn world, too.
Dad frowned. “You’ve made those complaints before. No need to shout.”
“I didn’t shou— Oh.” Since they were both tree shepherds, he could sometimes hear her thoughts, and she must have been shouting mentally. “Sorry. But it’s true.”
She started to set the table so that she didn’t have to look at him. She had to be more careful to shield her thoughts from Dad.
“Unfair, I know. Maybe you’ll have some good news tomorrow. I forgot to tell you earlier that Finch sent her new helper around with a message.”
“You mean Steve? I ran into him a couple of times today. What did he say?” She thought of the handsome General’s curls and big brown eyes.
“I didn’t catch his name.” Dad looked at her, eyebrows raised. “He said you need to be at the sewing room first thing in the morning. Don’t be late.”
She groaned. “Probably wants a report on the missing tablets.”
Her father put the salad bowl on the table. “Keelie, if you don’t have time for magic, you don’t have time for romance.”
She grabbed the salad tongs and started to serve herself. “Stay out of my head, Dad.”
The following morning, Keelie waited outside of the sewing room, listening with trepidation.
“Out. Out. Out. Now,” Finch bellowed from her office.
Keelie’s stomach tensed. Finch was wound up tighter than ever for some reason. Maybe another tablet had gone missing.
A long-haired, pale-faced elf girl rushed out of Finch’s office as if her butt was on fire. She was lucky it wasn’t. Keelie had seen Finch flame a goblin. Several goblins. As she pushed past Keelie, she realized that it was Alandria. She looked different without her makeup and crown.
In the office, Keelie didn’t make eye contact with Finch. She focused on the green dragon statue on the faire director’s desk.
“Elves and their ridiculous demands.” Finch swept her hand against the statue and smacked it into the wall, destroying it. That left only one dragon in the room, Finch herself.
“What did she want?” Keelie asked.
“Never mind. It’s over.” Finch belched and black smoke poured from her mouth. “She thought she could stand up to me.”
Keelie shook her head. “Very brave of her.” Elves still thought they should receive privileged treatment.
Finch had dark bags under her eyes and wrinkles above the bridge of her nose from frowning. She was too young for wrinkles, although really, how could you tell how old a dragon was? She definitely looked sick though, and the extreme crankiness had to be part of it.
“You know, I used to be afraid of you,” Keelie said, her fists parked on her hips. “But I’ve seen your mom, and she’s way worse, in a kindly old lady way. Terrifying. What are you going to do, go all dragon and flame the faire?”
Finch jumped to her feet, smoke curling from her nostrils, and for a second Keelie was afraid that the angry faire admin really would turn into her dragon form, which was almost as big as the building. Suddenly, Finch collapsed into her chair and began to sob.
It wasn’t pretty. Her face was red and shiny from tears and snot, and her hair had begun to stick straight out and wave around like tentacles. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” she wailed. “I feel sick all the time, and I’m a bundle of nerves. Me! I used to live off of stress. Problems were like candy to me.”
She looked up at Keelie, eyes wide and swimming with tears.”And I’m mad all the time, for no reason.”
No kidding. Keelie held back from saying the words aloud. She’d taken a risk, speaking frankly to Finch, but she didn’t have a death wish.
“I’m sorry you don’t feel well. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Finch sat up, back stiff. She blew her nose noisily on a tissue, then puffed a tendril of flame toward it. It burned itself out as it drifted to the floor. “Quit feeling sorry for me. I can take care of myself.”
She reached under her desk and brought up a bag of grilling charcoal. She tore the bag open with a fingernail, stuck a hand in, and came up with a sooty square briquette. She bit it in two, then crunched both halves noisily.
Finch looked at Keelie as if considering something. “Zekeliel told you to come here, didn’t he?”
“There is one something important that I need help with.”
What else was new? Keelie waited.
“You know new faires need time to ramp up in popularity. We’ve advertised, but that’s not enough. We’re going to turn this Faire into a wedding destination.”
Keelie blinked. There had been weddings at other faires.
“We’ll have special areas for exchanging vows, and for photo opportunities, and I’ve got everything priced out. Whatever the bride wants, she’ll get.”
“Wow. That’s actually a great idea.”
Finch glared at her. “Don’t sound so surprised.” She stood up and straightened her tunic. “Follow me.”
Keelie trooped after Finch, across the hall and through the sewing room door.
In the sewing workshop, several beautiful elves were being laced into their silky court costumes. They stared at Keelie. Several exchanged stares and nods.
Keelie took a deep breath to maintain control. She was not a confused fourteen-year-old any more. She could handle the elf girls.
Finch was rummaging through the racks of gowns that lined one wall of the long wooden-floored workshop. Keelie touched a fingertip to the paneled wall. A muddled vision filled her head and she snatched away her finger. Plywood. She rubbed her fingers together. It looked like real wood. She couldn’t tell where it came from, and it was upsetting.
Finch had pulled out and discarded several gowns, but now she nodded and thrust one at Keelie. “Try this on.”
Keelie looked at the fine blue silk with little golden birds embroidered on it, and long flowing sleeves. Another garment floated into her arms, a thin white underdress with tight sleeves that would set off the oversleeves of the gown. Silver buttons chimed against each other, and Keelie saw that they were shaped like acorns.
“This is lovely, Finch. But why?”
The room had grown silent, and Keelie noticed that the elf girls had stopped talking and were blatantly eavesdropping.
Keelie’s tablet dinged. She froze. She didn’t want to pull it out and see if another Dark Fae app had appeared—not in front of Finch.
The dragon narrowed her eyes. “Was that you or me?”
Another chime came from Finch’s phone.
“I think that’s you.” Whew!
The Faire Administrator pulled out her phone. “I have two messages. One is from Steve. The battle ax and her groom are here.” Finch’s upper lip lifted in a snarl.
Not a comforting sight, nor comforting words. Battle ax?
“And it seems as if we’re having problems at the Knit for Ewe yarn shop. There’s been another theft. My day isn’t turning out so pleasant. One happy event after another.”
Keelie didn’t say anything comforting to the dragon. She feared being flamed.
“I’ll introduce you to the bride and groom while I take care of the yarn shop. I’m going to call the cops, and I want them to make their report and then get out. “
“Why call the police now?”
“Insurance. And word of the thefts is getting around. Don’t want to seem negligent.” Flames flickered in the woman’s eyes. “What do you know about crows?”
Keelie thought of the bird that had seemed to attack her. “I’ve seen a few around.”
Finch nodded and lowered her voice. “There were ten of them outside of the Knit for Ewe. What does that tell you?”
“Nothing good,” Keelie answered just as quietly.
Finch stomped to the hall and tugged open her office door. She whirled around and glowered back at the Keelie, who was still in the sewing room, clutching the gown. “What are you waiting for?
Finch frowned. “Yes, you’ll need to give the bride the facility tour and she’ll be here at eleven. I’ve got it written down…” She felt at her pockets and pulled out a scrolled paper tied with a bit of twine. She stomped back and handed it to Keelie. “Just follow the map, show her the stuff, then bring her them back here to sign the contract.”
She snapped her fingers. “Almost forgot. You’ll need this.” Finch pulled a box from a shelf and handed it to Keelie. “See if it fits,” she ordered.
Keelie opened the box and stared at a golden crown embellished with rubies. “Wow. That’s the crown that the Queen of the Faire wears.”
Keelie touched one of the rubies. It looked like something out of a fairy tale. Or a museum. “Gorgeous.”
“I think it’ll fit.”
Keelie looked up at her. “Yeah, right.”
Finch slammed down the lid of the box. “Serious here, Keliel Tree Talker. We’ve had a sudden vacancy. You’re now the Queen of the Faire. Act like one.”
The elf girls gasped. Finch glared at them. None of them would meet the angry dragon’s gaze.
Keelie stared at the crown in her hands. Queen Keelie Heartwood.
The Faire Admin stopped, about to close her office door. “Yeah?”
“Is this a paying job?”
Flames scorched the paint on the sewing room’s door frame, and then the door slammed shut.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Keelie yelled to the closed door.
Queen of the Renaissance Faire. Knot and Coyote were going to die of laughter.