Author's Note: Can it really be over a year since I last posted to this story? It feels unbelievable, since believe it or not, I have actually been working on this new chapter since the last one was completed. I guess you might say it was just a very busy year for me personally (with finishing grad school, starting a new job, and moving!) I'm still as committed as ever to seeing this story to its end, and am thankful for every reader and review. Let's continue to ride the Wild Magic together as friends! :D
Chapter 4: New Camelot
Tamara stared open mouthed at the bird. It looked somewhat like a hawk to her, but the coloring was all wrong. Who had ever heard of a blue hawk, after all? Wizards – that's who, Tamara thought, suppressing a smile.
She and Charity were on the farmhouse's porch in the early morning as the avian gave a few final beats of its long wings and settled down on the railing. It had been a few days since their return from Fyfe, and life had resumed the similar pace it had always marched on with – with the exception of having the dragonet around to cause extra work for everyone.
Soon after their return from the Craft Faire, Charity talked with the town's birds, bidding them to carry a message to the Blue Hawk that she had urgent news for Merlin, and that the sooner she could convene with him, the better it would be for the good of Avalon.
Charity had told Tamara that this was no ordinary bird, but one of an ancient line that had carried messages and reported to the Great Wizards of Avalon. Tamara could see the proud history of the hawk's ancestors in its noble bearing and desperately wanted to touch it, but held back. Charity was quite firm that none but Wizards and Jewel Riders could safely approach the great bird.
Tamara watched her mother approach with a caution and reserve that was quite rare when she dealt with animals. She held a scroll tied with a long string out to the hawk.
"Azure One, I am pleased to see you here," Charity said, addressing the bird and staring straight into its golden eyes. "I, the former Heart Stone holder, hereby request that you deliver this message with all possible speed to Merlin, for the contents contained herein will surely affect the future of Avalon."
Tamara was shocked – she had certainly not expected that future of Avalon bit at the end. After all, it was just about Sugar. Maybe the Blue Hawk just responded better to really formal requests, she decided. As she watched the rest of the exchange, Tamara swore she saw a look of understanding pass between her mother and the bird. It gingerly reached out with one taloned foot and took the message from Charity before giving a slight nod and taking off into the clear sky.
When the Blue Hawk was nothing more than a speck on the horizon, Charity turned back to Tamara. "Well, with any luck the Azure One will reach New Camelot before the day is done, and we shall have our transportation tomorrow morning to New Camelot," she finished with a smile.
After some debate on the way back from Fyfe, Charity had decided that the best (and fastest) way for them to safely travel with Sugar to New Camelot and see Merlin was by taking the Travel Tree Tunnels through the Wild Magic. These were the paths she had used as a Jewel Rider to quickly move from one point of the kingdom to another. Though of course, they were not without dangers of their own – riding the Wild Magic was a tricky business. Especially for those without Jewel Armor.
Tamara had a grin of her own. "I can't believe that Jewel Riders are really coming here to pick us up! Oh, I do hope one of them is Devon; it's been ages since he's come by."
"Now now, dear, you know how busy Devon is these days," Charity said, entering back into the farmhouse to attend to breakfast. Several of the smaller animals resumed their favorite perches on her, and Tamara noticed Spike and Sugar returning to the sofa after watching the exchange with the Blue Hawk.
Tamara helped her mother set the table, and then heard the door bang shut as Doc came in from finishing his morning chores. "Well my dears, how did things with the Azure One go?" he asked, settling down and pouring himself a cup of tea from the pot.
Charity set the griddle cakes on the table, along with pads of fresh butter and a small pot of the sticky-sweet syrup she loved and imported (for an exorbitant cost) from the Northwoods. "Everything seemed to go fine. That hawk was always intimidating to me – even as a Jewel Rider," she said with a sigh. Drizzling the precious amber liquid over her griddle cakes, Charity let out a sigh. "I do hope he makes it to New Camelot by this evening, though. The sooner I can talk things over with Merlin, the better I'll feel."
Doc laid a hand over his wife's. "I know how you feel. I was pretty shaken up by what happened at the Craft Faire. I know I'd feel better with some good advice from the wizard."
Tamara tried to hide her grin. She knew that her parents were worried about Sugar and what to do, but Tamara just couldn't help but feeling terribly excited. Imagine, in the span of a day, she – a farm girl from Cantyr – could be on her way to New Camelot and the Crystal Palace!
She had always loved to hear her mother's stories of the how the palace glittered like a giant gem in the morning light, and to hear of the Friendship Ring ceremonies, beautiful court ladies in their finest gowns and handsome gentlemen with their noble bearings. For Tamara, it would be a dream come to life to see it all.
After they had finished eating, Tamara went about the rest of her chores for the morning. It was Fifth Day, so Tamara didn't have music lessons at the keep with the Maestro. She was glad that their orchestra had stuck together after the Craft Faire performance. If anything, the ordeal they had gone through together had given the young musicians a new sense of purpose. The Maestro was pleased with their newfound sense of duty to practice, at any rate.
After she heard the Noon Bell in the distance, Tamara decided to spend the rest of the afternoon with the Canticle of the Elements. Even though she had gone through a few strange experiences with the book, since the Craft Faire at Fyfe the pink-haired girl had been feeling as though should she couldn't spend enough time poring over the songs contained within the leather-bound tome. The melodies seemed to draw her in, and the beautiful harmonies kept her rooted to her armchair in the library for hours. Occasionally – if Charity was out of the house – Tamara would chance to play one or two of the songs on her flute. Her mother had warned her to not try and perform any of the songs until Merlin had taken a good look at the book, but Tamara just couldn't help herself. The music was heady and intoxicating; like nothing she had ever heard. Nothing magical had happened since the performance, though not for Tamara's lack of trying in secret.
Since her mother was still in the house, Tamara contented herself with just lightly humming some of the cheerier tunes from the "Wind" section of the book. They certainly matched her mood – getting to travel to New Camelot had Tamara feeling like she was flying all day.
Tamara was brought out of her reverie when she heard Charity calling her to help with dinner. Closing the Canticle, Tamara rose from her chair, with Sugar and Spike trailing behind her. As she entered the kitchen, her mother was stirring a large kettle of fragrant vegetable stew. Tamara could also smell the fresh loaves of brown bread baking in the brick oven, and her mouth began to water.
Outside the large kitchen windows, she could see the sun setting across the Great Plains, spilling the golden light of spring across the tall grasses swaying in the light breeze. For a moment, her breath was taken away; the Great Plains had a beauty all their own, and would likely always feel the most like home to Tamara.
Charity turned around and smiled at her gawking daughter. "Another lovely sunset – I tell you, some days this even puts the beauty of the Crystal Palace to shame."
Tamara lit the table lamp and set out the dishes. Doc came in and washed up, and the family sat down to dinner as the last rays of light slipped below the horizon, leaving the sky a lovely twilight purple. Just as they started in, however, a knock resounded on their door.
Charity looked puzzled and slightly worried. "Who could it be at this hour? Oh, I do hope there isn't an animal in trouble." She started to get up from the table to answer the door, but Tamara beat her to it.
"I'll get it, Mom," she said, making her way to the front door. Opening it, she gave a squeal of delight and almost threw herself at their visitor. "Devon!" Tamara cried with joy. She couldn't believe that he was standing right there in front of her.
The tall boy let out a deep laugh. "Good to see you too, kid!" the Heart Stone Rider said, picking up Tamara and swinging her around like a small child. They both collapsed in peals of laughter on the porch. Tamara took a good look at her friend – she swore he had grown a few more inches, and he wore his dark green hair in a longer, messier style than he used to. But his olive skin and quick smile were still the same.
Charity appeared in the doorway with Doc behind her. "Well Tamara, if you're quite done assaulting the company, you might invite them inside?" she asked, a smile spread across her face.
Devon hopped up, planting a kiss of each of Charity's cheeks and shaking hands with Doc. "Where are my manners, though?" he said with a chuckle. "Doc, Charity, Tamara, allow me to introduce the newest Captain of the Knights of Avalon." Devon's hand swept out to reveal his companion.
Tamara blushed as the other boy stepped forward and gave a deep bow. He was handsome, tall and well-muscled, with shoulder-length brown hair and a face that she could tell was more used to jokes and laughing than serious situations. A beautiful, deep green Forest Stone hung on a cord around his neck, indicating he was a member of the Pack.
"Everyone, this is Drake," Devon said, slapping the youth on the back. "He's a little green – pardon the pun – but is going to make a fine Wolf Rider."
Charity took Drake's hand. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Drake. I always like to meet the new Jewel Riders."
Doc did the same. "Welcome to the Heartland Farm as well," he added. "And before the soup gets cold, why don't the two of you come in and join us for dinner?"
Drake blushed and put up his hands in protest. "We wouldn't want to impose on you and Lady Charity," he said.
"That's good, because you aren't," Charity replied. "And I never want to hear another word of this 'Lady' business!" She whirled on Devon with mock anger. "I know you put him up to it, didn't you! You know how much I hate that title!"
Tamara and Devon shared a wicked grin, and he said, "Would I do a thing like that?"
Charity just shook her head. "Well, Doc is right – the soup's getting cold and I have two hungry Jewel Riders to feed. Of course you'll be staying here as well – I won't hear of you staying in the Inn, you know."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Devon replied. "Why stay in the Inn when I can eat your home cooking and stay in a house filled with animals. Let me just make sure Ruby and Thunderbolt are all settled in the barn."
"Can I go say hello to Ruby?" Tamara asked, excited to see the great flying cat again.
"Of course," Devon replied, motioning for her to follow him. "You can meet Thunder too."
Charity's eyebrow quirked up and she gave Tamara a wink. "Don't forget to actually help them bed the animals in your excitement, dear."
Tamara smiled with excitement and anticipation. It had been a long time since she'd seen one of the Pack's great wolves.
The twilight sky was streaked with the first stars of evening as Tamara put on one of her mother's shawls and descended the steps of the farmhouse along with the two Jewel Riders. She couldn't stop smiling as she looked between them. On one side strolled Devon, who had already plucked a piece of straw and twirled it in is teeth, totally relaxed in the farm setting where he had visited his mentor Charity many times. On her other side walked Drake, trying to take everything in, and blushing every time his eyes met Tamara's.
Suddenly, Ruby – Devon's great winged panther – dropped down in front of the group, startling Tamara. She shrieked in delight and threw her arms around the cat's huge head. "Oh, my dear, you frightened me half to death!" Ruby purred with pleasure at the little joke as Tamara scratched the feline's favorite spot behind her ears.
Turning to Devon, she smirked. "I see you haven't gotten any further with teaching this girl any manners!"
His white teeth shone in the fading light. "I'm afraid there's one in every litter. Speaking of rascals, where's Spike and your dragonet?"
Tamara gave Ruby's head a final pat and opened the door to the barn. "I think Spike is afraid of meeting his grown-up cousin here. And I'd rather be careful with Sugar – it did torch a pavilion during the Craft Faire, after all. You can see them both after dinner." Turning to Drake, she smiled sweetly and fixed him with an intense stare. "Well, aren't you going to introduce me to your companion?"
He coughed once, not expecting the sudden question. "T-this is Thunderbolt," he said laying a hand on the huge gray wolf, "but friends call him Thunder." Tamara saw a look of total understanding pass between Drake and Thunder's eyes. There were no secrets between Jewel Riders and their animal friends. Tamara envied Drake for a brief moment as she saw the corners of his mouth tug upward in a smile.
"Well, am I a friend?" Tamara asked.
"Any friend of Devon's is a friend of ours," Drake replied.
"Then…can I touch him?" she asked. She waited a moment for Drake to "hear" Thunder's mental reply.
"Thunder says it would be fine," Drake said with a shrug.
Tamara gingerly approached the wolf. It was the first time she had ever been so close to one of the Pack's mounts before, and she didn't want to mess up the chance to make a good impression (on both Thunder and his handsome rider). Tamara held out a hand for the wolf to smell. He did, and then before she knew it, he was licking her hand and then her face. Tamara giggled. "What a good boy you are!" Thunder wagged his tail and Tamara patted his head.
"Oh, thank you so much!" she said, turning back to Drake and grabbing his hand. She didn't notice him blush again and went on, "I've always wanted to meet one of the Pack's wolves face to face before! I'm so glad he liked me!"
Devon cleared his throat and winked at them. "It always helps if the rider likes a person too," he said cheerily. "And I wouldn't expect anything less of Charity's daughter, anyway."
Tamara blushed herself at those comments. "W-well, let me show you where you can bed down for the night." Opening the barn door the rest of the way, she indicated two open stalls near the front that had plenty of straw and blankets (not that two such furry creatures probably needed them).
"These beds should be perfect," said Devon. He turned a stern glare on Ruby. "You will be good, won't you? You won't make any mischief?"
Tamara stifled another giggle. Ruby was Spike's cousin, and she could definitely see the personality resemblance.
"Dear, are you planning to keep our guests in the barn all night?" Charity's voice came to them from the house.
Devon gave Ruby one last pat before the great cat folded her wings and curled up on the bed of straw. "Well, we shouldn't keep your mother waiting. And my stomach is positively growling," he added with a grin.
The group of three made their way back to the farmhouse. Doc had pulled two more chairs around the table and Charity had set extra places with large bowls of the vegetable stew and brown bread.
Tamara was now seated between Devon and Drake. The Heart Stone rider dug into the stew with relish, while the Forest Stone rider first thanked Charity again before starting to eat. Charity and Devon got talking about her experience with the jeweled antelope herd they had met on the way to the Craft Faire and the specifics of Sugar's birth, which led to Tamara and her family relating the story to the Jewel Riders.
Devon whistled and Drake looked both shocked and impressed when they came to the part where Tamara used the Canticle of the Elements to call down the Torch of Vulcan to heat the egg. "Most impressive, my dear," Devon exclaimed.
"I only did what I felt needed to be done," Tamara replied shyly, feeling awkward from the praise. "I think anyone would have done the same in my place." They had finished eating, and Tamara was clearing the plates from the table and boiling the water for tea.
"Somehow I can't imagine just anyone taking the risk of exposing themselves to dangerous Wild Magic for another's benefit," Devon replied swiftly, sharing a pointed look with Charity. "It takes a strong heart and a giving spirit."
Tamara blushed. "Who wants some bubbleberry pie?" she asked, breaking the somewhat awkward silence that had followed Devon's observations. "Drake?" she asked, turning to the wolf rider.
His face split in a wide grin. "If Lady Charity's pie is half as good as Devon has been raving about the entire trip, I'll take three slices." The group laughed, and Tamara served slices of the pie to the table.
While getting out the cups and saucers, Tamara heard a distinctive meow, and looked down to see Spike and Sugar peering around the corner from the hallway. "Oh, so I see you could drag yourselves out for pie?" Spike meowed a hearty response. "Well, neither of you will get a bite if you don't properly introduce yourselves to our guests!" she said, placing both hands on her hips and looking sternly at the pair.
Spike emerged first. Devon held down his hand, palm open, and the little blue panther sniffed it cautiously. "You remember me, don't you boy?" Devon said in a soothing tone. Spike took another sniff of his hand before licking it gingerly, followed by a thorough leg rubbing and large amounts of purring. Devon scratched behind his ears. "I think Tamara definitely owes you a slice of pie for being good," he said with a wink. Spike purred in agreement before sauntering off to collect his reward. "And now for our other visitor," Devon said, turning to where Sugar was peering from behind the corner.
Tamara could see the dragonet looked stressed and concerned, with tendrils of smoke curling out of its nostrils. She wasn't surprised – after all, these were the first people it was meeting since the events of the Craft Faire and almost dragon-napping. Tamara knelt beside Devon and tried to send mentally calming waves toward the small creature. "Everything is all right, Sugar. These are friends; they won't hurt you."
The dragonet cautiously made its way around the corner, chirping slightly in apprehension. Tamara continued to send calming thought-pictures to it. Sugar came closer to Devon, only to spook suddenly and rush back around the corner. "This might be harder than I thought," Devon sighed. "Dragons have always been the most difficult of Avalon's creatures for me to communicate with, and I've never tried to work with one this young before." Stroking the jewel around his neck, Devon appeared to suddenly come upon an idea. "Tamara, I want to try something," he said, before holding the Heart Stone out in the palm of his hand. It glowed softly, sending out pulses of magical light. Tamara nodded for Devon to continue with whatever he had in mind.
"Heart Stone shining in my hand, let this small one understand," Devon said. The glow from the ruby jewel increased, bathing Sugar, Devon, and Tamara in its light. Tamara felt Devon's presence in her mind, working his way along her connection to Sugar. She mentally helped him along, showing the dragonet that this was a person it could implicitly trust.
Slowly, Sugar emerged from behind the corner and came close to Devon. Tamara could feel that the mental bridge was working. Humming to herself as she sent the thought pictures to Sugar, Tamara felt it would be for everyone's benefit if the Heart Stone rider was able to communicate easily with Sugar and not have to use her every time. In her mind's eye, she saw the beautiful ruby magic of the Heart Stone, like hundreds of falling stars bringing Devon to Sugar. Tamara, still humming, caught a bit of Heart Stone magic, and fashioned it as a permanent tether between Sugar and the Heart Stone rider.
She could hear Devon take a sharp intake of breath as the magic faded away. "Tamara, what did you just do?" he asked.
"D-did I mess it up?" she stammered as the scarlet glow faded from the three of them. "I'm sorry, I was just trying to help, honest!" Tamara was horrified that she had possibly messed up Devon's spell.
Devon laughed. "My dear, you did amazing! I can communicate quite normally with Sugar now, thanks to your ingenious thinking. But I have to know – how did you manage to do it? It should be impossible for anyone but me – and possibly your mother – to manipulate the Heart Stone's magic."
Tamara looked perplexed. "Well, I was just humming a little song while you were working and the idea came to me."
"Just humming a little song?" Devon asked. "Tamara…you used the magic of the spellsingers."
"Without the aid of the Canticle of the Elements I might add," said Charity, looking concerned.
Tamara felt a knot beginning to form in the pit of her stomach. "Is that bad? Or dangerous?"
Devon shrugged. "Nobody except Merlin can probably be sure. There hasn't been a true spellsinger in over a hundred years, after all. The craft has been lost."
"But I think for now it would be safer if you don't try to do any more song magic," Drake added, unease coloring his voice. "If the music is tapping into Wild Magic, it could be a danger to not only you, but everyone around you."
Charity broke the silence that followed. "Well, look at the time my dears. Finish up those slices of pie, and then everyone is off to bed!"
"That's an order I can certainly live with," Doc said merrily, taking the last few bites. "You all have a long day ahead tomorrow, traveling to New Camelot and all. I'm going to check all the animals before getting to bed myself." Doc excused himself from the table and petted Spike before heading out to the barn.
Tamara helped her mother wash up the dishes, and chatted further with Devon and Drake. The fear she had felt earlier began to melt away. They would see Merlin tomorrow – the great wizard of Avalon would know just what to do and set everything to right.
As Charity led the Jewel Riders to the spare bedroom, Tamara bid them good night and finished putting the dishes away. When she had finished, Tamara grabbed one of her mother's shawls; an evening breeze had picked up, and she wanted to look at the stars. Walking out onto the porch, Tamara settled herself on the swing with Sugar and Spike, rocking slowly back and forth and simply gazing at the stars.
Until Spike settled in her lap and purred reassuringly, Tamara hadn't realized that she was incredibly nervous about the next day. She so wanted to make a good impression on Merlin; after all, it was her innermost heart's dream to become a Jewel Rider. Not that she didn't lover her life here at the Heartland Farm; quite the contrary. But didn't every child in Avalon dream of having a special magical animal and riding the Wild Magic? Her dream seemed as far off as the bands of stars blazing across the midnight sky.
"You look like you're a million miles away, Tamara," Doc said, coming up the steps and sitting beside her on the swing.
Tamara smiled slightly. "Maybe I am. Oh Papa, it's just that so much has changed in such a short time. It's just that I've always been just…me. And now I could be some sort of magical singer and a danger to everyone, and what does that mean for my dream of being a Jewel Rider?"
Doc gazed lovingly at her and put his arm around her shoulders. "Tamara, no matter where this path you begin tomorrow takes you, you should always remember that you can be only yourself – no more and no less – and no matter what, your mother and I love you very much." He said, placing a kiss on her cheek. "And I know that whichever road you travel, you will give it your very best, and your companions will be fortunate to have a friend who gives her whole heart. It's one of your best qualities, though hardly your only one," he murmured.
"Thank you, Papa," Tamara said, a warm feeling spreading through her entire being.
Doc got up from the porch swing and brushed off his pants. "Now, I think it best if you got to bed. It will hardly make a good impression on Merlin if you have big dark circles under your eyes," he teased, pulling the skin under his eyes down.
Tamara laughed and picked up her small friends, taking one last look at the night sky. Tomorrow would be filled with new things, and though she was afraid she would face them with her whole heart.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Sunlight streamed through Tamara's window, lighting up the dust motes floating through the air. Tamara washed her face and brushed her unruly mass of pink hair into submission before dressing in her teal leggings, blouse, boots and puffy white shirt. It was a presentable yet sensible outfit, and she finished it off by reaching into the back of her closet and pulling out her matching traveling cloak. No telling how cold it would be traveling through the wild magic. Tamara packed a few more essentials and an extra change of clothes in her knapsack. At the last minute, she added her flute and the copy of the Canticle of the Elements before drawing the strings shut.
A loud knock came at her door. "Tamara dear, are you awake?" she head her mother say from the other side. "Breakfast is on the table – please hurry up and eat quickly."
Tamara emerged and set the knapsack down in the hallway beside her mother's traveling case. Wandering into the kitchen, she saw Devon and Drake wolfing down large stacks of her mother's griddle cakes. "Good morning my dear!" Devon said cheerily. Drake smiled and poured her a cup of tea. "Good morning," he said more quietly.
"To both of you as well," Tamara replied, accepting the steaming mug. She took served herself some of the griddle cakes from a large platter in the middle of the table.
Devon grinned as she was about to take her first bite. "I don't know if I'd take so many cakes, Tamara," he said. "It's your first time going through a Travel Tree Tunnel, right?"
She nodded as the first bite went down. "I thought we were going through Wild Magic," she asked.
"Nobody aside from Merlin has ever actually journeyed through the Wild Magic," Drake answered. "It's supposed to be very hard to navigate through, which is why he set up the Travel Trees and their Tunnels as sort of a portal and gateway system."
"Not that it's really much safer by any means," Devon chimed in. "It's just that you won't get lost for a few hundred years as you float through the Wild Magic. It still requires skill to successfully ride the Wild Magic in the Travel Tree Tunnels, jewel armor to protect you, and a settled stomach to not lose your lunch when you reach the ride's end. A fact Drake can personally attest to!" He slapped the wolf rider on the back.
Drake blushed and Tamara giggled before she realized a true concern. "Is it really safe for mother, Spike, Sugar, and me to ride with you then? None of us have jewel armor."
"Merlin designed our jewel armor with many magical properties – one of which is that it also grants protection to anyone riding the Wild Magic with us. It just wouldn't do to have Barons and Dukes being blown out of the saddle if we have to transport them, after all," Devon said with a chuckle.
Tamara gave her friend a withering look. "You're doing such a good job of making me feel better, you know," she said dryly.
Devon shrugged before turning his smile up to full wattage. "What can I say? I'm the master of calming the ladies' pulsing hearts," he said.
"You're terrible!" Tamara half screamed, half laughed, while taking a swipe at Devon with the serving spoon.
"Well, he tries at any rate," Drake chimed in.
"All I'm getting is insubordination this morning," Devon sighed. He polished off the last of the griddle cakes on his plate before standing up to stretch and clearing his dishes. "Hurry up and finish you two – I'll be out in the barn with Doc and the animals. I didn't get the chance to properly greet the other residents last night. They're at least sure to be better mannered than the two of you," he said with a mock snort.
Tamara and Drake sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes, each of them blushing and looking hard at the tea leaves in the bottom of their cups. Even though Devon and Drake were both Jewel Riders, being around Devon was like being around an older brother (probably because her own mother had trained him to use the Heart Stone, and he and Ruby had both spent a great deal of time at the farm). Being around Drake made Tamara feel tongue-tied and nervous in a way that she usually wasn't. He was so handsome, and probably something of a celebrity back in New Camelot.
"S-so Drake," she stammered. "How long have you been a member of the Pack?"
"K-king Jared's forest stone passed to me last summer," he answered. Tamara looked up and saw that his eyes were far away as he fingered the emerald jewel around his neck. "I can't believe it's almost been a year." A small smile passed over Drake's face before he snapped back to reality. "Why don't we get the packs and meet Devon and your parents in the barn?"
Tamara nodded her agreement, not wanting to ruin the moment by saying the wrong thing. She felt as though she had witnessed a very private moment between Drake and his Forest Stone.
He helped her finish cleaning up from breakfast, then they picked up the luggage and headed out into the morning sunlight. It was a gorgeous day on the Great Plains – the year's crops were growing green and tall underneath the cerulean sky that seemed to go on forever. Tamara took in a deep breath, enjoying the smell of the turned earth and other scents carried on the breeze. "I'll never get tired of that smell," she murmured. "It's the smell of plants and animals and…life."
Drake smiled as they made their way to the barn. "Oh trust me – I understand. After being bonded with Thunder and the Forest Stone, I see the world in a whole new way every day. I can speak with the trees – sometimes walking through a forest can be louder than a trip the New Camelot marketplace!"
"But it must be so exciting – having adventures, containing Wild Magic outbreaks, meeting all kinds of people and animals!" Tamara said.
"Oh, it absolutely is," Drake replied. "But it's not all awesome magical experiences; Merlin gives us lots of reading every week, and we have to attend lots of boring parties and diplomatic functions."
"Have you met princess Gwenevere?" Tamara asked.
Drake gave her an incredulous look. "Of course – she attends all of our classes with Merlin; after all, unless King Jared and Queen Anya have another child hiding out somewhere, Gwenevere is going to inherit the Sun Stone and the throne."
Tamara noticed that Drake hadn't used the Princess's title where referring to her, and filed that bit of information away. If he liked Princess Gwenevere that way, what chance did a farm girl have?
Banishing those thoughts from her mind – who knew if she'd ever really see Drake again after this encounter – Tamara focused on something more useful. "Tell me please; what is Merlin like?"
Drake shrugged in reply. "He's…hard to describe. People say he discovered Avalon a thousand years ago and tamed the Wild Magic that ruled the land. I mean…looking at him, you'd never think he was an all-powerful wizard. But never mistake this – that old man has more power in one finger than all the Jewel Riders put together. He created the Enchanted Jewels after all."
"I know that stuff – but what is he like as a person?" Tamara pressed further.
"Well, Merlin is a great teacher. Not to say that his instruction is easy; he challenges you every day to think outside of the box. And he wants your best. He always seems to know what people are capable of and believes in us, even when nobody else seems to…" Drake trailed off.
The pair stepped into the barn then and saw Devon saddling up Ruby while Doc tended to the other animals. "Here, hand me Charity's luggage," Devon said, reaching out for the traveling case. Tamara helped him secure it to the back of Ruby's saddle, and took the opportunity to pet the large red panther.
Thunder barked a greeting to his rider as well while Drake secured Tamara's and his packs to the saddle, and Tamara found herself wishing to be in on the conversation between the wolf and his rider like she knew Devon and Charity were. The ability to actually speak to and understand these amazing creatures was something Tamara had always envied about her mother.
As if on cue, Charity swept into the barn, dressed in a fine traveling gown and one of her signature shawls. In her arms, Tamara's mother carried a wooden box with a handle that Tamara knew contained one of her mother's bubbleberry pies.
Charity caught Tamara eyeing the box. "Well, I couldn't go see Merlin without bringing him a small token of my affection. He always did love my pie, so I thought it would be nice to share a slice together again," she said with a winsome smile.
"As long as I get a piece too!" Devon exclaimed, raising his hand. Tamara caught Drake rolling his eyes, but a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Doc took a break from his work and kissed Charity. "Be safe, my love," he said. "And tell Merlin hello for me," he added.
Charity nodded before they embraced. Doc then came over to Tamara. "Just remember what we talked about last night and you'll be fine," he whispered low so that only she could hear.
"I will, Daddy," Tamara replied, embracing her father in a tight hug.
Devon was helping Charity get settled on Ruby. Tamara picked up Spike and handed him up to her mother after she was settled in front of Devon in the saddle. "Now Spike, be good for Mom and Devon during the trip," Tamara said to the little blue panther, who mewled an assent.
"I think two Heart Stone riders should be more than enough match for Spike," he mother said with a laugh. Devon handed Sugar to Tamara and mounted Ruby behind Charity.
Tamara made her way back over to Thunder. Drake helped her up onto the great gray wolf before climbing on behind her. "Well, are we all set?" he asked.
"As ready as we'll ever be," Tamara replied.
"Then we're off!" Devon said with excitement. "See you later, Doc!" he said, waving to Tamara's father. Tamara, Charity, and Drake waved as well before Ruby and Thunderbolt took trotted away from the Heartland Farm.
The group passed the outskirts of Cantyr in an attempt to avoid undue attention that Jewel Riders always seemed to cause in the small towns. Much as she loved the townspeople, Tamara was glad to avoid all the staring and commotion that the appearance of she and her mother riding out of the town with two Jewel Riders would have caused. Once the group passed the town, the mounts picked up speed through the waving amber fields.
"Want to see what Thunder can really do?" Drake asked. After Tamara nodded, he yelled out, "Devon, let's race!" before tightening his grip on Tamara's waist and mentally communicating with Thunder to pick up the speed.
Tamara was scared at first as the wolf took off like his namesake, but soon began to enjoy the rush of wind in her face and the feeling of total exhilaration as they sped along through the blurs of waving grasses.
Ruby was right behind them before Tamara heard a whoosh of opening wings. Turning her head, Tamara saw the great cat take off from the ground. Charity laughed in delight as Ruby pumped her wings, sending the trio sailing past Tamara, Drake, and Thunder.
"No fair!" Drake cried. "Flying is cheating!"
"Well, you never said they couldn't!" Tamara replied with a laugh. Thunder sped up in an attempt to catch up, but it was no use. Ruby landed about a half mile further on by the huge oak tree that stood at the crossroads.
"We win!" Devon said, clapping his hands.
Drake rolled his eyes. "Only because you flew," he muttered under his breath.
Devon cupped a hand around his ear. "What was that? Congratulations on my great victory?"
"You wish," Drake replied with a half smirk.
"Now boys, you both did fabulously," Charity said. Taking in their surroundings under the oak's shady limbs she added, "I don't remember any travel tree rings this close to Cantyr, though, so I hope you aren't taking us the long way around." To the north, Tamara could make out a green smudge on the horizon; this had to be where the Great Plains ended and the southern tip of the Great Forests began. In the east, she could see the blue-gray peaks of the Eagle Eye Mountains, the chain of tall peaks that separated the Great Plains from the largely inhospitable Burning Deserts. Further south along the mountain range was Wizard's Pass, one of the few known overland passage between the Burning Deserts and the Great Plains.
"I know you wanted this to be a speedy trip, and I certainly agree," replied Devon. "But a few things have changed since you were a Jewel Rider, Charity."
"Merlin has been planting new Travel Tree rings lately in order to give us faster access to all the areas of the kingdom," Drake added. "And the foothills of the Eagle Eye Mountains seemed like a perfect choice. The Travel Tree Rings north of Fyfe or in the south of the plains closer to Castle Greenwood or Wizard's Pass are simply too far away if we need to respond to emergent situations in the Dreamfields or Cantyr."
"Well, I'm certainly glad to see that some of our old requests are finally being addressed," Charity said with a chuckle.
The group moved out from under the oak's broad expanse on a course heading eastward. Tamara enjoyed the scenery, but even more than that she relished the time spent with two actual Jewel Riders. The fact that she was riding with an incredibly handsome member of the Pack didn't hurt either.
The path began to climb up into the hills as Tamara turned her head to face the wolf rider. "Drake, I just realized I've never asked where you're from."
"It's really not all that interesting," he replied with a shrug. "Anyway, my life is much more interesting now than it ever used to be."
Tamara gave him her best entreating stare. "Well, now I just have to know," she said. She turned her most pleading gaze (the one usually reserved for her parents when she wanted a new instrument or music book at a Craft Faire) on Drake. "Pleeease?"
She could see his willpower evaporating before her doe-eyed look before he spoke. "Oh, all right," he relented. "Anything in particular you're dying to uncover?"
Tamara tapped her chin. "Well, let's start with your hometown," she decided.
"I'm not sure you could even call it a town," he answered. "The Great North Road leaves New Camelot and travels through the Misty Moors all the way up to Snowburg in the Crystal Cliffs. About midway on the journey you reach a point where the Far Road splits off and takes you northeast up to Talus. At that juncture you will find the Welcome Inn run by my family. It's a good day's ride to any of the other towns," Drake added, "so our inn was a good stopping place for travelers, but a little boring for my sisters and I."
"I don't think it sound boring at all," Tamara said. "I can just imagine meeting people from all over Avalon and hearing their stories."
"Except that it makes you realize that – perhaps – you might want to have a story of your own to tell," Drake said with a sigh.
"And you said you have sisters?" Tamara pressed.
The group rounded a bend in the road and started up a series of switchbacks into the foothills. "My oldest sister Drucilla and her husband mostly run the Inn's day to day operations these days," Drake said. Tamara could see the loving look in his eyes that she identified with as he talked about family. "My younger sister Darlynn looks after Drucilla's two boys and helps around the Inn as well. And of course my parents are still working as hard as always."
As an only child, Tamara was just the slightest bit jealous of Drake's large family. "Do you miss them now that you're a Jewel Rider?" she asked.
Drake shrugged. "Of course. But I think the trade-off is worth it," he said. "Becoming a Jewel Rider is a high honor – not to mention inheriting King Jared's Forest Stone." He fingered the green jewel hanging around his neck. "Even as a kid, my parents will tell you I spent more time playing Pack and Jewel Riders with the kids who visited than helping them around the Inn," he admitted sheepishly. "It was always like I wanted to be somewhere else, living the adventures that I heard about."
"How were you discovered, then?" Tamara asked, curious.
Drake smiled. "King Jared and Queen Anya were on their way to a Naming Ceremony in Snowburg. Since they were traveling with the royal entourage, they couldn't just take the Travel Trees to their destination, so the whole group spent the night at the Welcome Inn. None of my family knew it, but Merlin was also traveling with them."
"That's strange," Tamara said thoughtfully. "Mother always told me Merlin didn't often spend his time with court events aside from the Friendship Ring ceremonies."
"It's true," Devon cut in, moving Ruby in beside Tamara, Drake and Thunder. "Merlin is far too busy studying and working with the magic of Avalon to attend every Craft Faire and celebration in Avalon. But this time he told Queen Anya he wouldn't mind a few days on the road to stretch his legs and get out the Jewel Keep."
Charity laughed. "I'm sure Anya was suspicious of Merlin's motives from the start," she said.
"Most likely," Drake replied. "The Queen is very observant. Anyway, the group filled up the entire Inn that night, and our stable was full of all their animals. Well, you can just imagine how excited I was to see the Jewel Riders' animals up close!"
"Probably at least as excited as I was when you arrived at our farm last night!" Tamara exclaimed.
Drake nodded. "If not more so. That night after everyone else had gone off to bed after an evening of dinner, music, and dancing, I snuck out of my room and down to the stables. When I got there, a little man with a white beard was sitting among Wintermane, Goliath, and Ruby. He had a jeweled staff that glowed every so often, and I could see the jewels on the animals glow in response sometimes. I didn't realize at the time that it was Merlin talking with the animals," he said, reaching around Tamara to scratch Thunderbolt's ears.
"Of course, he knew you were there the entire time," Devon added.
"Well, he is a Wizard after all," Drake said. "Anyway, without even turning around, Merlin said 'Come out from behind that door, my child.' I came out into the light, nervous as could be. I thought he was just the man who took care of the animals while the Jewel Riders were sleeping, and asked if I could sit with him and look at them for a little while. I thought he would be mad, but he just smiled and gestured to a hay bale near him."
"Merlin never was one for expected answers," Charity said thoughtfully.
"I sat there with him all night. He introduced me to Ruby, and Wintermane. And finally he introduced me to Goliath. King Jared's great brown wolf is impressive to the point of intimidating, but he just laid there in out stables as gentle and calm as can be. I wasn't even scared," Drake said. "I asked Merlin if I could pet the wolf, and after that silent exchange between Goliath and Merlin, he nodded. I approached Goliath gingerly, and held out my hand for him to sniff like I did with any visiting dogs. He let me pet him, and scratch behind his ears. Eventually I just sat down on the floor beside him, and I remember a light green glow coming from the Forest Stone on Goliath's chest. It was so late though, and I was so tired, that I simply fell asleep against Goliath."
"Which is where we found you the next morning," Devon finished with a smile. "I think it was a surprise to everyone to find a young man just sleeping next to one of the most respected creatures in the realm."
"Well, everyone except Merlin, I think," Charity said.
The sun was nearing its zenith as Tamara asked, "What happened then?"
"Merlin had a very lengthy discussion with my family about my future," Drake said with a lopsided grin. "He said that before setting out on this journey, he had premonitions of finding something…valuable on the journey. I suppose that turned out to be me."
"And a value Drake is to the kingdom of Avalon!" Devon added. "A great leader for the Knights of Avalon. Plus, people were very curious about who King Jared's Forest Stone would choose. You might say there are high expectations to live up to."
"I think some people are just curious if the jewel made a mistake. No-name stable boys from the middle of the Misty Moors don't tend to inherit enchanted jewels," Drake said with a sigh.
"Nonsense," contended Charity with a wave of her hand. "Most people don't understand that the Enchanted Jewels are blind to rank or title when choosing their bearers; people are chosen who are the most suited in that generation to bear the jewel and use its powers wisely. Of course it happens that some families tend to pop up more frequently as bearers, but that can be explained when you realize that there are clans that value certain things, and those values have aligned with that of a jewel over the years. My own family has had several Heart Stone riders, but we have always been people of the earth who care for animals," she said. "So Drake, pay no heed to the naysayers who deem you unsuited for the position."
Drake blushed and bobbed his head in return to Charity's compliment. "Thank you," he murmured.
Tamara looked overhead as puffy white clouds drifted by. They were high enough into the hills that the broadleaf trees of the valley gave way to more sturdy spruce and pine, which scented the air with their heady scent. Tamara inhaled deeply before breathing out. "So, have we almost reached the Travel Tree ring?" she asked.
"Funny you should ask that," Devon commented as the group passed underneath a natural stone archway into a small hidden vale that contained exactly what Tamara had been looking for. The Travel Tree Ring was composed of four tall trees that were bare wood and crowned with thick leaves at their pinnacles. Arranged in a square configuration, there were magical lines drawn in the earth connecting each of the four trees; and ringing the whole configuration was a magic circle that Tamara guessed was similar in purpose to the one drawn for her when she'd sung from the Canticle of the Elements.
"It…doesn't look that impressive," Tamara admitted.
Charity shared a knowing smile with Devon as Drake answered, "Not yet, anyway. Just wait and see." The group moved into the center of the diamond pattern created by the trees and Drake raised his Forest Stone. "Trees of Magic, Field and Wood; if we may and if we could ride with you?" he asked with a tone of utmost respect.
Tamara's mouth dropped open as magic swirled out from the canopies and down around the trunks of the trees, leaving crystalline representations of what had formerly been bark and leaf. "Who calls upon the Trees of Merlin?" she heard a booming voice ask as the trees sparkled with each word.
"We come to ride the Wild Magic as friends," Drake replied with both solemnity and clarity.
The trees glittered and shone with each respone. "We recognize the Forest Stone worn by Drake and the Heart Stone worn by Devon. Where is it you wish to go?" they rumbled.
Devon rode up abreast to Drake. "We wish to ride the Wild Magic to the city of New Camelot. We ride on an errand of Merlin to bring Lady Charity and her daughter to the palace," Devon said.
"You may travel with us to the palace," the trees replied. A shimmering portal opened in front of the group.
"By the Magic of the Heart Stone!" Devon said, holding the ruby jewel aloft. A cascade of sparkles covered him, leaving magenta and silver armor in their wake.
Drake spoke just after him. "By the Magic of the Forest Stone!" he said. Tamara felt the magic wash over them and Thunder. When she turned around to look at Drake, he had a wolf-head mask and violet-blue armor on. "Are you ready to ride the Wild Magic?" he asked her with a grin. Tamara gulped and nodded in response.
"Then what are we sitting around here?" Charity said, her voice filled with excitement. "Let's ride!" She threw a fist up into the air as Ruby spread her wings and jumped into the portal.
Tamara grabbed onto Thunder as he followed Ruby into the portal. Suddenly they were in a multicolored tunnel with jets of purple, pink, and white lights swirling all around them. Tamara tried to scream, but no sound came out. Her eyes squeezed shut and Tamara grabbed Thunder's fur more tightly before feeling Drake wrap his arms around her. He squeezed her hand in reassurance.
Tamara opened her eyes slowly and gazed in wonder at the kaleidoscope of magic all around her. It was positively the most beautiful and terrifying thing she had ever witnessed. The magical tunnel made twists and turns that Thunder and Ruby navigated easily. The animals seemed to have sure footing even though there was no ground to speak of beneath them.
Up ahead there was a pinpoint of crystalline light that grew steadily before enveloping the group, and Tamara realized it was the exit at the end of their ride. After being momentarily blinded, Tamara's eyes focused, and the sight that came into view stole her breath almost as much as being inside the Wild Magic tunnel.
Spread out before the group was the bustling city of New Camelot. Smoke curled up above the red-roofed buildings, and Tamara could hear the bustling sounds of Avalon's largest city; it seemed to practically pulse with life. Behind the city on a small rise was the Crystal Palace. The domed palace sparkled in the noonday sun like its namesake. Much like the Travel Tree rings, four turrets rose from equal points around the circle. From these turrets, four bridges met at the hugest jewel Tamara had ever seen suspended above the Palace's dome. It had to be the Jewel Keep where Merlin and Queen Anya studied magic and the Enchanted Jewels.
Tamara realized she was still squeezing Drake's hand from their time inside the Travel Tree Tunnel and blushed, quickly releasing him.
He turned a brilliant white smile on her. "Oh feel free to continue." When Tamara blushed even harder, he chuckled. "Well, what do you think of the city?" he asked, placing a hand over his jewel to get rid of the jewel armor.
"I've never seen anything so grand in all my life," Tamara replied. Next to the grandeur spread out before her eyes, Cantyr and even Fyfe seemed so small and backwater. For the first time in her life, Tamara truly thought about what people might think of her. "I'm not sure if the Wild Magic would be preferable to going into that city," she admitted to Drake.
He waved his hand in dismissal. "Nonsense – the people here are just like anywhere else in Avalon. If a boy from the sticks like me can make it here, a talented singer like you will be just fine," he said.
"Well, are we going to stand around here all day or shall we go greet the King, Queen, and Merlin properly?" Devon asked Charity, though it was certainly loud enough for Tamara and Drake to hear.
Drake rolled his eyes and the foursome moved in through the Great West Gate of the city. Devon and Drake called out greetings to the guards, who waved back in turn. The gate opened up onto an expansive market boulevard. The street was paved in brick, with jeweled patterns running throughout. Shops crowded either side of the street, and there were people everywhere Tamara looked. She tried to count, but eventually gave up as she realized there were probably as many people on this one street as in her whole hometown! Exotic smells wafted on the breeze. Tamara saw fruit sellers slicing into spiky fruits with succulent-looking golden centers. The day's catch of fish had been brought in from Port Avon. Music filled the air from every corner as street musicians performed for the coins tossed into their instrument cases. Groups of children laughed and danced in the street while their parents made purchases at the stalls and shops.
Even though there was a great multitude of people, Tamara never felt that they were pressed for space. This is probably a perk of being with Jewel Riders – you always get elbow room, she decided. Drake and Devon greeted the townsfolk – many by name – and soon she could hear whispers of her mother's name circulating. It had been many years since Lady Charity had visited New Camelot, and to arrive suddenly with her daughter and two Jewel Riders as escort seemed to be causing quite a stir.
Tamara heard the Afternoon Bell ringing far off. To the east, in the direction of the sound, she could see another large building with a tall bell tower. "Where are the bells ringing from?" she asked Devon.
"That's the University, my dear," Devon replied. "Scholars from all over Avalon come there to study and learn – alchemy, medicine, history, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, music – the University was built many generations ago to help increase learning and spread that knowledge all over Avalon."
"Sometimes Merlin had us attend classes there or study with the professors if we encountered problems we couldn't solve on our own," Charity said. "Does he still have you sit in on classes there?" she asked the Jewel Riders.
"All the time," Devon replied. "Just last month I sat in on a couple of medicinal herb lectures. Joshua – one of our Pack members – has a father on the faculty in the Engineering department, so he regularly attends those classes as often as possible."
Drake nodded. "I feel like I'm bugging the botany department all the time with questions when we run into problems."
"Can't Merlin just answer your questions?" Tamara asked, a confused expression on her face.
Drake smiled. "Merlin prefers us to figure things out on our own as much as possible. And if not, then to engage the leading experts before coming to him. Merlin really is very busy, but I think it's more about us growing and learning what questions to ask rather than him not having time for us."
"In addition, Merlin wants the Jewel Riders to be visible among the people of Avalon," Charity added. "He doesn't want them to be seen as some sort of private magical army." Tamara nodded thoughtfully. It really made sense to get the Jewel Riders as much exposure as possible. That way, trust could be built between them and the communities of Avalon.
The group continued down the street, waving and greeting those around them. Tamara noticed her mother even waving cheerily to what she assumed were old friends from her Jewel Riders days. The boulevard opened onto a central square. In the middle of the square stood a large fountain; four crystalline unicorns appeared to rise out from the water, and Tamara noticed each of them was of a color denoting a representation of a different enchanted jewel: the Sun, Moon, Heart, and Forest stones.
"Well, this is new!" Charity exclaimed. "And beautiful, too."
"This fountain was a gift from the Queen Sierra of the Unicorns a few years ago," Devon said. "She wanted something to serve as a reminder of the good relations between the Unicorns and the people of Avalon."
"Well, I think she succeeded," Charity replied. She hopped down from Ruby and went to examine the fountain more closely. "Exquisite craftsmanship," she remarked, reaching out to touch the ruby unicorn wearing a replica of the Heart Stone. Tamara got down off of Thunder and stood by her mother. For just a second, Tamara thought she saw tears gather in the corners of her mother's eyes.
Tamara knew that her mother's animal friend was no longer in Avalon, or possibly even alive. This statue and fountain had to remind her of that. Tamara didn't even know precisely what kind of animal her mother had rode, or what its name was. She remembered asking once, when she was a little girl, and Charity had broken down crying. After that, Tamara had been careful to never bring up the topic again. She had noticed her father Doc never brought it up either. All that Tamara really knew was that the Circle of Friendship had turned after that, and Charity turned over the Heart Stone to Devon.
Tamara squeezed her mother's hand, not knowing what else to do. Charity wiped away the tears glistening on her cheeks. "I…I don't know what came over me," she said, fanning herself lightly. Turning to Devon, she asked, "Do you mind if we walk the rest of the way? I do feel a bit tired from the riding."
"Not at all," Devon replied. He dismounted Ruby, and Drake did the same with Thunder. "It really is a beautiful day for a stroll up North Street."
Tamara realized that North Street's name was fairly obvious, as it ran north from the fountain square toward the Crystal Palace, affording a lovely view of the structure. North Street was far more sedate than the raucous excitement along the Great West Road after they'd entered the city. It was a broad, tree-lined boulevard with stately mansions lined like rows of neat guards on either side. Jewel-studded carriages ferried important-looking people in day suits and calling gowns up and down the lanes. Tamara really had never seen anything quite like it in her life.
Drake appeared to take note of her bewilderment. "North Street is where many of Avalon's noble families keep homes in New Camelot – some stay here year-round," he offered.
Tamara tried to imagine Lord Jairus and Lady Glorianna living here, before summarily banishing the thought. They were far too practical to think of needing multiple residences. "What about the lands and towns that they oversee?" she asked.
"Oh, some divide their time between places; others simply appoint stewards who send regular messages back and forth," Drake said with a shrug.
"It doesn't seem very…efficient," Tamara said slowly, not wanting to offend anyone.
Drake laughed. "Nobody said it was efficient! But King Jared and Queen Anya give the nobles quite a bit of free reign in governing their estates. Because the Barons and Duchesses and so forth know that if there are egregious breaches in personal rights or protocol, the monarchy has been known to step in – and quite harshly. They've been very strict with a few bad cases in order to make examples – that way the rest will get the general idea. Other than that, the nobles' estates are run quite autonomously. Kingdoms aren't managed by two people alone after all."
"That's true," Tamara admitted thoughtfully. "I guess I've never really given government much thought beyond Lord Jairus and Lady Glorianna in Cantyr."
"Well prepare to have your world expanded a little," Drake said. "You'll most likely end up meeting the King and Queen before the day is done."
"Me meet King Jared and Queen Anya?" Tamara asked, her voice incredulous. "Why on Avalon would they ever want to meet me? Surely they have more important matters to attend to!"
Drake fixed a stare on Tamara and arched an eyebrow like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Let's see…your mother was one of their contemporary Jewel Riders and by all accounts their very good friend, you're bonded to a magical little dragon who showed up mysteriously on your doorstep, and you sang a song from the Canticle of the Elements to call down an approximation of dragonfire in order to hatch it. Does that at least make you think they might be the tiniest bit curious?"
Tamara blushed. "Well, when you put it all that way, I guess so." She looked back toward Thunder, where Sugar and Spike had nestled in together, enjoying the ride around New Camelot. After walking a few more minutes, the group came to the end of North Street. Towering above them was a huge wall with an open gate set into it. Guards stood on either sides of the open gate, and through it Tamara could see a path that wound its way up to the Crystal Palace.
The palace was more beautiful up close than she could have ever imagined. Facets cut in the crystal dome caught and reflected the afternoon light like a thousand tiny prisms, creating small rainbows wherever Tamara looked.
Devon swung an arm around her shoulder. "Pretty impressive on first view, ain't it?"
Tamara simply nodded, not trusting words to describe the beauty before her eyes. Drake and Devon chatted with the guards as they moved through the gate. Alongside the patch were topiary sculptures – unicorns, griffons, gazelle, swans, fairy wraiths, and all number of beasts. Some bloomed in riotous colors of flowers, giving them the appearance of life when viewed from the corner of her eyes.
Tamara ran ahead of the group and spun around, taking in the grandeur spread out all around her. Drake smiled while Devon said, "I take it you do find all this impressive, then?"
Tamara laughed. "How could I not? I've never seen anything so grand in my whole life!"
The broad path ended at roundabout in front of the palace with another beautiful fountain in the center. Several carriages unloaded richly dressed guests before taking off around the circular drive.
Just as they started up to steps to the main entrance, the huge doors swung open and before them stood two of the most beautiful women Tamara had ever seen. The one in the foreground had thick golden hair plaited into a large braid. She wore a blue coat, cape, and tall boots with white leggings. The second had tanned brown skin and her long white hair was pulled up into a ponytail, revealing a pair of delicately tapered ears. Her face was serene and emotionless. Tamara also noticed a glowing Moon Stone at her waist.
"Charity dear! How dare you not tell me you were planning a visit!" the woman with the golden hair said.
"Well, I didn't want to cause a fuss, Anya," Charity said. "But I see you've got the fuss all taken care of on your own!"
"I haven't lost my taste for a little drama now and again," Anya said with a laugh before stepping gracefully down the stairs and embracing Charity in a long hug. "Well, no matter that you didn't tell me!" she said after pulling back. "I also haven't lost my taste for a good surprise!"
With a start Tamara realized that this had to be Queen Anya. The Queen turned her eye on Devon. "You should have told me too!" she cried.
Devon batted his eyes at the Queen. "I couldn't possibly go against my beloved old teacher's wishes," he said in a saccharine voice.
Queen Anya rolled her eyes. "Sometimes I wish I could fire you," she retorted back.
"Argent, save me!" Devon said, hopping over to the white-haired woman and clinging to her shoulder.
Tamara saw the serene mask break for a moment on the Moon Stone rider's face, to be replaced by a look of affection. "I don't know if my Moon Stone has that much power," she said calmly with a shake of the head.
"Hello, Argent," Charity said, also embracing the elfin woman. "It really has been far too long!"
Argent nodded in return. "Likewise, Charity. I have missed you."
"How are Wintermane and Aquilon?" Charity asked.
"I think Wintermane is enjoying her almost-retirement," Anya said with a laugh. "Being the huge cat she is, she and Goliath lay about most days!"
"Aquilon is well," Argent replied. "At least as well as I can tell – Unicorn males can be quite stubborn and prideful at times, you know. At least when it comes to admitting any inconveniences."
"How well I know that!" Charity said. "But where are my manners – Anya, Argent, this is my daughter Tamara," she added, propelling Tamara forward toward the women.
Tamara curtsied first to Queen Anya and then to Lady Argent. "It is a p-pleasure to meet you, Your Highness, Lady Argent," she stammered.
"Oh, isn't she just adorable!" Queen Anya said, clasping Tamara's hand. "I can't wait for you to meet Gwen – I hope the two of you become wonderful friends."
Queen Anya stepped back and Lady Argent came forward. "To finally meet Charity's daughter is an honor," she said without a hint of sarcasm. "As Devon has spoken quite highly of you, I hope to become better acquainted in the future."
Tamara blushed. "Thank you, Lady Argent, Queen Anya."
"Now, what are we all standing in the doorway for?" Anya said. "Come in, come in!" The burly palace guards bowed as the Queen and her new entourage strolled through. "Please have the Rose Suite prepared for Lady Charity and her daughter," she added to a passing servant.
"Anya, really, you don't need to…" Charity said.
Anya whirled on Charity. "How could I possibly let you stay anywhere else? You haven't even had the chance to see Jared yet! And I know that case has one of your pies in it."
Drake and Tamara shared a grin. Tamara hadn't thought that that anything could surpass the Crystal Palace's exterior for sheer beauty, but the entrance foyer certainly made an attempt. The floors were marble polished to the point that Tamara could see her reflection in them. A huge diamond chandelier hung in the room's center, where it caught the afternoon light pouring in through the translucent crystalline ceiling. Elegant staircases on either side of the foyer swept upward to a second level, but Tamara could also see elevators built into corners of the room. A marble-topped reception desk was situated between the two staircases.
"My Queen, we humbly ask your leave," Devon said, executing a small bow to Anya. "We have many duties to attend to yet today."
"Oh yes, of course," Queen Anya replied. "But we request your presence at dinner this evening. Argent, you'll make sure everyone cleans up appropriately?"
"Naturally, Queen Anya," the elfin woman said with a nod of the head.
"Good – and Drake, please make sure Lady Charity and Tamara's things make it to the Rose Suite. That should do nicely."
Drake and Lady Argent bowed to the queen as well, and the three Jewel Riders, Thunder, and Ruby exited down a side corridor. Tamara spied Devon clasping hands with the Lady Argent and filed a mental note to ask someone about that later.
"Anya, do you know where we might find Merlin?" Charity asked.
The Queen looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, he should be done with the morning's lessons, so it's unlikely you'll find him in the Friendship Ring. Why don't we try his house? We can take the Crystal Carriage."
Queen Anya led Tamara and Charity through the labyrinthine hallways of the palace. They passed elegant salons and libraries, and even took a detour through the spectacular throne room. Tamara noticed the inlaid mosaic sun in the floor, with a tree in the center – likely representations of the Sun and Forest Stones worn by Queen Anya and King Jared.
"I thought I smelled bubbleberry pie!" a huge voice boomed from behind Tamara, scaring her out of her reverie. She turned around, and came face to face with a tall, tanned man with a brown beard and long brown hair. He was dressed in a blue shirt and trousers, with a green cape across his shoulders and a golden crown resting on his brow. "Delightful to see you again Charity!" he said, encasing Tamara's mother in a huge bear hug.
"It will be less delightful if you crush her, Jared," Queen Anya said dryly.
King Jared released Tamara's mother. "It's wonderful to see you again too, Jared," Charity said. "And yes, you're welcome to a piece of my pie if you come along to Merlin's with us," she added with a coy grin.
"Well, even the king can't turn down an invitation like that," Jared replied. "And who, may I ask, is your lovely young companion?"
"King Jared, please meet my daughter Tamara," said Charity.
"Delighted! Absolutely delighted," King Jared said, pumping Tamara's hand with a great deal of enthusiasm. "You won't remember, of course, but I was at your Naming Day celebration. Anya was quite, eh, large at the time, if you get my meaning and couldn't make it, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything! Your father was the best Horse Master we've ever had, and Charity was our old Heart Stone rider, after all."
"I am honored, your majesty," Tamara said with awe. To think the king himself had been at her Naming Day! She found King Jared's good mood and lack of airs both refreshing and infectious, and liked him almost immediately.
"So, you're all off to Merlin's house, eh?" Jared asked. "It must be pretty serious for Charity to come all this way."
"Oh, I assure you it is," Charity replied as they started down a side hallway. "Did you read Baron Rolfe's report about the incident at the Craft Faire?"
King Jared nodded. "Yes, yes, quite disturbing all around. But I never quite got what started that fire in the first place."
Tamara cleared her throat quite loudly, catching the King and Queen's attention. Sugar had been hiding for quite some time underneath Tamara's cape. Reaching up behind her, Tamara brought forth the green dragonet. "Your Majesties, this is Sugar. When Civello tried to capture it, Sugar breathed fire for the first time, setting the seating pavilion on fire."
"Remarkable," Queen Anya said, breathing in sharply. "How on Avalon did you acquire a dragonet, Charity?"
"I didn't," Tamara's mother said with a shrug. "The egg literally showed up on my doorstep. I could tell by the shell that the egg was from Sugar Mountain, but nothing else. Among other developments, it has telepathically imprinted on Tamara."
"Well, the clandestine nature of the visit finally makes sense now, at least," said Jared. "Wouldn't want to advertise a dragonet's presence everywhere, especially considering what happened the last time," he added with a shake of the head.
The quartet emerged from the hallway underneath a covered portico at the rear of the Crystal Palace. To Tamara's right were doors with the symbols for the Sun, Moon, and Heart Stones. To her left were three doors emblazoned with the Forest Stone. Directly in front of them laid a huge brown wolf – bigger even than Thunder – and a Purple-striped tigress, both asleep.
"These are the Jewel Rider's quarters," King Jared told Tamara. "And those two layabouts are Goliath and Wintermane. At the mention of their names, both Goliath and Wintermane got up and made a big production of stretching.
Tamara almost squealed with delight. Not only did she get to meet the king and queen, but their bonded animals as well! "May I greet them?" she asked King Jared.
"Oh, of course! I daresay they'll take all the attention you can give them," he replied with a chuckle. Tamara handed Sugar to her mother and picked up Spike. "Time to see your Mama, little one – please make a good impression," she whispered in his ear.
Tamara set Spike back down and gave him a gentle nudge toward his mother. He took a few ginger steps forward before mewling a note of greeting. Tamara thought that from Spike vantage point, Wintermane must look huge and foreboding. The great tigress crouched down to look Spike in the eye, then suddenly purred and gave the little panther a huge lick, before turning to Charity. The diamond jewel Wintermane now wore in place of the sunstone glowed several times.
"Wintermane would like to express her gratitude to you for doing such an exceptional job raising her cub," Charity said with a broad grin, "and thanks you for bringing him to visit her."
Tamara executed a small curtsy. "It has always been my pleasure to have Spike's company, even when he gets into a bit of mischief here and there," she said with a giggle.
Turning to Goliath, Tamara repeated the greeting process she had gone through with Thunderbolt, and was glad that this wolf was just as receptive to scratches behind the ears and pets.
Queen Anya turned a sly eye toward Charity. "Seems your daughter has quite the…inclination to work with animals, wouldn't you say? That might open doors to a very exciting life. How very interesting."
Charity raised her brows and simply shrugged. "Tamara is a gifted musician as well. She studies several times weekly with Professor Hill – the old concertmaster of the Avalon Symphony Orchestra – and plays several instruments."
Tamara could sense that there was something going unsaid between her mother and the queen, which of course made the desire to know burn brighter within. Father always says patience is a virtue, she thought. If I wait, perhaps I can get to the bottom of what they're really talking about in time.
The porch they stood on overlooked a broad grassy area with setups for riding competitions and games, along with a crescent-shaped pond and several stands of trees. The King waved to two wolf riders practicing out on the field. "Joshua, Max! Come here and meet a very special guest!"
The wolves bounded over to them, and their riders disembarked. "Charity, may I introduce Joshua and Stormrunner," the King said, indicating a jovial-looking black boy wearing sunglasses and his snow-white wolf.
"It is an honor, my lady," he said with a courtly bow. "And your companion's name, if I may be so bold?" he asked with a gleaming white smile.
"My daughter Tamara," Charity responded. Joshua shook hands with Charity, then proceeded to kiss Tamara's hand, making her blush.
Queen Anya cleared her throat. "And this is Jared's nephew, Max, and his wolf Shadowgale." The tall boy – at least as tall as the king – smiled shyly at them before brushing his sandy hair out of his eyes. "A pleasure," he said softly, executing a half-bow to Charity and Tamara.
"Gentlemen, we are having all the Jewel Riders join us for dinner this evening – please make sure you arrive in a timely manner," Queen Anya said.
"It will be a pleasure to speak with Lady Charity and her lovely daughter further," Josh said.
Max nodded his assent. "Until then." He mounted Shadowgale, and Josh did likewise with Stormrunner. "By your leave, Uncle," Max said, before riding off with Josh.
"Jared, I never knew your sister had another child!" Charity said in surprise.
The king smiled. "It was a surprise for them as well – after Max's older brother Julius was born, Jenna was told by the midwife she could bear no more children. But Max seemed to not take that advice to heart, and was born anyway!" The king let out a hearty laugh. "I was very proud when a Forest Stone chose him; it'll allow him to move out of his brother's shadow when Julius inherits the Duke of Kingston title. Being a second child myself I know exactly what that's like, after all," he said with a wry grin.
They moved out into the sunlight from the portico, with Goliath and Wintermane trailing them. Tamara saw more beautiful gardens – flowers bursting forth in every shade of the rainbow, and graceful shade trees with benches underneath their leafy boughs. More topiary also graced positions along the paths, along with several reflecting pools and fountains.
Coming upon the royal stable, the group entered. Along with many fine horses, in the center of the stables lay a huge white bear from the north.
"Boreas!" Charity cried before running to the great bear and throwing her arms around it. "It's wonderful to see you again, old friend!" She gestured for Tamara to come greet the snow-bear. "Boreas is an old friend of Merlin and I; he draws the Crystal Carriage. We saved him from an avalanche in the Crystal Cliffs, and from that point on he wouldn't leave us." Silent words passed between Boreas and her mother. "And he says it is nice to finally meet you, Tamara."
"The pleasure really is mine," Tamara expressed. It was so exciting to experience and meet so many of the people animals, and places that had been part of her mother's life as a Jewel Rider. Tamara had a sudden pang of longing for similar experiences of her own.
Boreas got up and lumbered over to where the Crystal Carriage was parked. Tamara thought it was the finest coach in the entire realm, covered with intricate woodwork fitted with intricately carved wheels. The bear stood between the two poles stretching out from the carriage, and they glowed with magic, forming a harness for pulling.
"Well, best climb aboard!" Charity said, settling into the driver's seat with Tamara, Spike, and Sugar. Jared mounted Goliath, and Anya did the same with Wintermane. With a gentle tug on the reigns, Boreas lumbered forward, pulling the Crystal Carriage behind him.
They came out of the royal stable and set off down a path into the wooded area surrounding the back of the Crystal Palace. Golden sunlight filtered down through the trees, lighting up motes of dust like fire. It was a short trip, and after crossing a small creek, they arrived at a cozy cottage with a bright red roof. Several chimneys sprang up from the roof, all with different colored smoke curling upward from them. The windows had rippled glass, which Tamara guessed maintained an element of privacy while still letting in lots of natural light. Tamara and the rest of the party dismounted from their rides and came up to the door, which was red like the roof and emblazoned with a large gold sun.
Charity knocked three times. "Merlin, are you home? I've brought your favorite bubbleberry pie!"