Fairy Godfather

Chalon always knew he wanted to be a fairy godfather, ever since he was a little boy healing sick bunnies with the wave of a backyard stick.

True, most fairy godparents were women. It wasn't discrimination, it just turned out that way. Most men with godparent powers went into the wizarding business. Fortunately, his fairy godmother had understood and taken him on as an apprentice. And when she finally retired at the age of 4012, Chalon inherited all her godchildren.

He had fairy godchildren all over the world, from Arabia and China, where he appeared to them in a different guise, to Europe, where he had inherited Royla.

Royla had been sold to the local woodwitch when she was just a tiny child, little more than a baby. She'd been just old enough to do some work but not old enough to remember her parents. Now, sixteen years later, Royla was grown up and ready for her prince.

That's where he came in. Chalon watched from his perch, high in the trees, as Royla struggled with the bucket she was hauling out of the well. She was barefoot and ragged, as godchildren tended to be before his intervention, but she was a strapping lass, large and strong, with a body well formed for womanhood.

The dark, gloomy clearing, overgrown by trees, was the perfect setting for the thatched cottage that served as the witch's home. Chalon had watched Royla over the years, repairing that thatch and patching those cracks. But Hermita's exploding spells always blew another smoking hole in the roof and battered the walls until Royla was back up there again. More than once, Chalon's invisible hand under her foot had been all that kept her from falling.

Now, all he had to do was arrange her meeting with the prince. Prince Nelson wasn't a bad type. He was a dutiful son and an avid sportsman. In fact, it was his love of sport that was going to make their meeting possible.

Right on cue, a bright red fox streaked out of the bushes and scrambled past Royla. She jumped and stepped to the side, but went right on pouring water from the well bucket into her carrying bucket.

Good old Royla, Chalon thought, nothing fazed her.

The sound of baying hounds swelled through the woods and Royla turned, peering out into the haunted forest.

A huge, gray stallion burst out of the trees, rearing and lashing its mane. Prince Nelson laughed on its back and wrestled the great beast into submission. White and tan hounds boiled out of the woods around the horse's hooves, baying and clamoring, filling the silent clearing with noise.

"Well, damsel," the prince said majestically from atop his steed. "Which way did our quarry go?"

Silent, Royla pointed off into the woods behind her, away from where the fox had fled.

Chalon laughed in his tree and flicked his wand out, confusing the fox's path and laying a false scent down the deer path Royla had pointed to. Ah, was it any wonder she was one of his favorite godchildren?

The prince saluted the stony-faced maiden with his whip and lunged off into the forest. Royla watched him depart.

Chalon smiled. "Well, that went well," he congratulated himself.

Royla's stony face melted into a sneer. "Idiot."

She hauled up her bucket and went into the hut.

"Or not." Chalon said with chagrin.


Chalon appeared in Royla's loft bedroom. Royla was spread out on her pallet, a thin blanket covering her, her hair and her arms flung out in abandon. Chalon stopped at a sudden lurch in his heart. She was beautiful. Long tumbles of dark, rich curls were arrayed over the bed. Her hand was flung up near her head, her fingers innocently curled. Her large, warm breasts were exposed innocently over the top of the coverlet and Chalon felt an answering fullness in his groin. His heartbeat picked up and he backed up a step.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to him. Not with one of his godchildren.

Royla stirred and blinked open her eyes. Bright, velvety brown eyes glinted intelligently up at him in the darkness.

She sat up, not bothering to cover herself. Living all her life with only an old witch who went skyclad, Royla had never learned to equate nudity with modesty. She stayed dressed and out of sight when men appeared for business with the witch, but that was more to ensure Hermita a steady supply of virgin's blood than anything else.

"Who are you?" she asked, not at all afraid.

Chalon gathered himself and cast a mist in front of her breasts to hide them from his sight. She wouldn't notice, but it would help him.

"I'm your fairy godfather," he answered. "I'm here to help you."


Royla looked up at the tall man. She'd seen her share of hearty farmer's sons coming to get a love draught from the old woods witch. But this man was more refined. In the light of the fire, from the fireplace below, his suit glinted shiny green and purple, like a beetle's wing. His hair was a thick, wavy chestnut and his eyes were the brightest, clearest green she'd ever seen.

Her eyes roved boldly up and down him and Chalon felt the response in every cell of his body.

"Help me with what?" Royla asked.

"I'm here to help you marry the prince."

Royla's exquisite eyebrows lifted. "That arrogant fancypants who was hunting through here earlier?" she asked incredulously.

Chalon nodded.

Royla snorted.

"Don't let first impressions deceive you," he said. "He'd make an admirable husband. And you'd live in a palace, far away from this gloomy place, with servants of your own and no one to tell you what to do."

Royla tilted her head and considered, her eyes roamed over him as she thought. It would be nice to get away from Hermita. But to live elsewhere? Where else was there?

"Don't let fear stop you," the man said, he squatted on his heels beside her bed. She liked the way his shiny pants stretched over his thighs. He held a gnarled, polished stick in one hand. With a start, Royla realized it was a wand.

"Hermita's never taken you anywhere beyond this forest. But there's a whole world out there. Beautiful places with kind people," he coaxed.

Royla cocked her head at him, looking him in the eye. "I'd intended to just outlive the old hag and stay here." She'd never have dared utter that aloud, but Hermita was off harvesting night blooms and mushrooms in the forest. "It's only right," she protested. "I've rebuilt this house enough! It should be mine."

"And what about her wares?" Chalon asked, waving a hand to indicated the chirping and hissing and screeching of caged animals and bubbling potions that she'd long ago stopped hearing.

She shrugged. "I'll burn them, or bury them, or set them free."

Chalon shook his head. "This will always be a witch's hut. There's too much magic steeped into these walls, you'd never be rid of it. Eventually, it would seep into you as well. Dark, evil, insidious magic. Right now it has Hermita to focus on. But after she's gone..."

He let her draw her own conclusions.

"Do you really want to become a dark, bentbacked, bitter old crone like her?"

Royla shivered. It wasn't from the cold of the drafty loft.

She looked down and Chalon could see her mind working as she tried to think of some way around that fate. Finally, she looked back up at him. Her usually brave eyes were just a little scared. The sight lanced straight through his heart.

"What must I do?"


They stood in the wide, tree canopied clearing beside Hermita's hut.

"The prince is sponsoring a hunt," Chalon explained. "Ostensibly, it's simply a weekend's entertainment. But in reality, it is his way of bending to his parents' will to find himself a bride. He is a sportsman, first and foremost, and cannot conceive of wedding anyone who is not as athletic and daring as himself. So, the hunt. What we must do is ensure that you, of all the ladies there, are the most daring and dashing, and catch his eye."

Royla shrugged her broad shoulders and swept out her hands at the dim, twilight clearing. "How am I to do that?"

Chalon waved his gnarled wand. A wash of blue-black sparkles swept out across the clearing and coalesced into a huge, magnificent steed. The horse reared and stamped its black hooves like thunder, lashed its long, jet mane like lightning, and stared at her with intelligent eyes.

"First," her fairy godfather said. "We teach you to ride."

Royla stared. "I can't ride that brute!"

"You're not a brute, are you Stark?"

The horse shook his head.

"He can understand you?"

"Certainly. He's more intelligent than most people I could name. Give it a try. Stark, lean down and give the lady a leg up."

She jumped back when the huge, blue-black horse suddenly knelt down on one knee, offering his shoulder to her. She looked back at her fairy godfather. "Is he supposed to do that?"

Chalon nodded. "Yes, but don't expect it of a regular horse. We'll teach you to mount later, when you're wearing your riding habit."

Royla swung up on the fairy stallion and he stood, all in one elegant motion. She settled herself on his bare back like a born horsewoman. "But I don't have a riding habit," she pointed out.

"Oh, you will," Chalon promised with a grin.

Royla gave him a doubtful look but let it go. "Now what?"

Chalon waved his wand again and a silver bridle appeared on the horse, the reins looped across the back of his neck, right in front of her. "Take the reins and we'll start."


"Okay, so I can ride a horse," Royla said later as she stood peeling potatoes and dropping them whole into a large, black, water-filled kettle in the cottage's dark single room.

"Next, we'll have to work on etiquette."

"Etiquette? What's that?" she asked as she plopped another potato into the pot and picked her teeth with the paring knife.

Chalon bit back a grin. He shook his head as she resumed peeling potatoes. Even with the manners of a house troll she was adorable. He rolled his eyes at the thought. He was here to see that she married the prince, not to notice how adorable she was!

"Well, first, a lady must always be demure."

"What's that?" she asked, slicing off a piece of potato and popping it into her mouth with practiced ease. She offered him a slice on the edge of her knife. He shook his head.

"Demure. How can I explain this? A lady always defers to a man, always pretends to be weaker than he is, always fades into the background whenever important discussions are being had."

Royla stared at him aghast. "That's ridiculous!"

Chalon scratched his head with his wand. "Yes, it is. But for some reason it always works."

Royla dropped her knife and planted her hands on her hips. "Well, that's out! If you expect me to behave like some namby-pamby for the rest of my life, you can just leave. I'll stay here and wait till the old hag dies!"

Chalon looked her up and down, his bones warming at the sight. She stood there, the firelight reflecting off of her wild, satiny curls and large breasts and powerful body, glaring at him like an avenging Valkyrie.

He took a deep breath. And warned certain parts of his anatomy to stand down. He wasn't here for himself, he was here to get her married to the prince. It didn't matter that the airheaded jock didn't deserve her.

"You're right. There's no reason you shouldn't act like the intelligent, strong woman you are. But, Royla, I hate to say it, but we need to knock off some of the rough edges."

Royla's black brows slowly eased from their frown, her intense, glittering eyes never left him and he felt a shiver of awareness ripple through him. He quashed it. Think about the job.

"All right," she finally said, and let out a velvety sigh. She dropped her hands and went back to peeling potatoes. "I doubt I've learned the right things from Hermita. I could probably bellow and curse with the best of them, but I doubt that's what you mean by manners."

Chalon squashed a grin. "No, not exactly. All manners are is courtesy. You've got that already." He gestured to the rough, chipped cup of tea she had made him when they'd come inside. "What you need now is to know the right forms. It's easy. For instance, when you meet a lord or lady of higher rank, you curtsey." He demonstrated.

Her glorious eyebrows crinkled together and she bit her lips on a grin. She stuffed a potato chunk in her mouth to keep from laughing.

"Okay. I admit I look funny, go ahead and laugh," he planted his hands on his hips, the effect ruined by the fairy wand clenched in one fist.

Royla threw back her head and laughed. Chalon's whole body reacted. A shot of electricity went through him at the rich, full throated sound. Royla looked at him, her eyes sparkling with the first real merriment he'd ever seen there. His heart did a funny flip-flop in his chest.


Royla looked at her fairy godfather. Why, oh why, couldn't he have been her prince? His wavy chestnut hair glinted in the firelight, only eclipsed by the glitter of that fairy suit. Broad shouldered, lean hipped, long legged, with laughing, caring, intelligent eyes. Oh why couldn't he have been the one?

Life wasn't fair. If she had her choice, she'd pick this handsome, caring man over that stupid prince any day. Actually, if she had her choice, she'd drag him upstairs and tear him out of that glittery suit. She'd been dying all day with an insane urge to get her hands on his chest. She felt like a cat wanting to knead her claws in something. It was very distracting. Kind of nice. But very distracting.

"So you try it."

Royla jerked her attention back up to his face. What? She glanced back down to his wide chest. She had permission.

"Curtsey."

Oh. Damn. He meant that weird sideways wobble thing. She licked her lips and looked back up into his green eyes. "Show me again?"

He curtseyed, holding aside the hem of an imaginary skirt.

She frowned. Concentrating, she stepped around the side of the table. She picked up the edge of her moth eaten skirt and squatted quickly, her knees spread sideways.

"No, no. Like this." He curtseyed again. She studied him.

"Isn't that what I just did?"

He grinned.

She liked that grin. And he had dimples. God! Life was so unfair.

"Here." He came up beside her. "Hold your skirt like this. Now put this foot behind this foot, like that. And go up on your toes a little. Now, sweep down and bend your knees."

She overbalanced and caught herself on the edge of the table. "Do I have to do this?"

"Well, if you want to be a princess, yes."

She stared down at the ground then looked up at him. "What if I don't want to be a princess?"

He stepped back. That had never happened before. He considered. "What do you want to be?"

She blinked at him, as if she'd just seen a bright light. Her eyes glazed over with furious thought, she turned and looked down at the table. She picked absently at a sliver of wood in the rough tabletop, she didn't seem to see it. Finally, she looked up at him. "I don't know," she confessed. "I've never had the option before."

Chalon hated that lost look in her eyes. Of course she'd never had the option before. Locked away here all her life, what was there to hope for?

"Royla, you can be anything you want to be. Anything at all. If you don't want to be a princess you don't have to be. Just tell me what you want, I'll help."

She realized at that moment that she loved him. She wanted to throw herself into his arms and hug him tight. But she restrained herself. He was her fairy godfather. He probably wouldn't appreciate a raggedy, weeping peasant girl throwing herself at him. She stood up straight. She was Royla. She was tough. She'd survived here all these years hadn't she? She'd done all the work. Taken all the beatings. Managed to do a good enough job not to get turned into a toad. She could do anything!

"What do your girls usually want?" she asked.

He scratched his head with the wand again. "Well, usually," he admitted, "they want to marry the prince."

Royla stared down at the ground. She sighed out a great breath then straightened her shoulders. She looked him in the eye. "Then that's what I want, too."

Chalon swallowed away the tightness in his throat. "Right."

***

"I can't believe Hermita's stayed away so long." Royla said as she expertly turned Stark in a circle in the center of the clearing.

"Yes, well, that may have been my doing," Chalon admitted.

Royla yanked back on the reins and the black stallion reared up, lashing out with his hooves. Royla leaned forward, balancing firmly in the saddle. Stark landed with a crash and the two of them tore off across the clearing.

Chalon watched in delight as his favorite Amazon wheeled the horse into the woods, thundered down the game trail just behind the trees, hurtled fallen treetrunks, ducked branches and leapt the little stream with the self assured grace of a born horsewoman.

They pulled up inside the clearing, both horse and woman panting, Royla was laughing, excited and carefree in the exertion of the moment. Chalon laughed and clapped, his wand tucked under his arm. He approached the sweating, blowing stallion and reached up to help Royla down.

Royla tossed her hair, grinning, and reached down to lean her hands on his shoulders. He swung her down off the huge horse. Royla, still laughing, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him in a fit of exuberance.


It was just a light peck, Chalon assured himself as her lips touched his and his hands tightened on her waist. And it would have been. But then her toes touched the ground, and her breasts touched his chest. His arms curled around her and she leaned into him, her full womanly weight pressing along his front. She tilted her head deeper into the kiss.

And Chalon growled and lost his mind.


The man kissed like angels sang, sweet and powerful. Royla gripped him tighter.

The slick touch of his inner lip, the hot depth of his mouth, large, warm hands holding her, engulfing her without caging her.

Royla groaned and burrowed closer and felt the solid resilient heat of his body accept hers. Stars burst behind her eyes, hot, velvet winds enveloped her and stars danced under her feet.


"Royla!" The grating shriek pierced the air like shards of glass.

Royla jumped back, Chalon looked up and saw the old hag at the edge of the clearing. He waved his wand and disappeared.

"Help me with this, you useless girl!" The old witch's screech set the crows flapping from the treetops. Hermita backed into the clearing, bent over the large net of poisonous mushrooms she was dragging. Royla breathed a sigh of relief as she ran to take over.

The old hag slapped her a stinging blow on the back with one clawlike hand. "Where have you been! I've been yelling for hours. Get that into the still room, and I'd better not find anything out of order! I'll not have you lazing when I'm not here to watch you! I had to go all the way to the Dismal Swamp to find those mushrooms. Don't you go bruising them girl! Pick 'em up! Can't have you ruining perfectly good ingredients! Use your brains! If you have any."

Royla hoisted up the hundredweight of mushrooms, balancing them on her back, ignoring the woman's screeching. Never mind that the old harridan had dragged them across miles of rough, forest floor. Oh no, if anything was wrong with the mushrooms it was sure to be Royla's fault.

"And get me a tipple of my midnight brew, been dry all week I have," Hermita yowled as Royla carefully lowered the net of mushrooms onto the potions counter. "Careful! Those mushrooms are worth more than your whole hide! Virgin's blood or no. Well, don't just stand there, get me my drink. And where's my good boots? Wore a hole in these, I did, tramping all over the forest for those damned 'shrooms. I'd make you go collect them next time, if I didn't know what a brainless waste you are. Did you get that chimney fixed while I was gone? Well? Speak up girl!"

Royla gritted her teeth and kept her comments to herself. She poured a tiny glass full of the witches "medicinal" brew and set it and the bottle on the table. She bent over and rummaged under the bed for the boots. A sharp toe kicked her in the buttocks. She fell sideways and knocked her elbow painfully on the bed frame.

"Where's dinner?" the old witch shrieked. "Must I do everything around here?!"


"Are you all right?" Chalon knelt down beside her pallet as Royla rubbed ointment on another bruise on her arm where the old hag had pinched her.

"I'm fine." Royla said in a low, lifeless voice. She smeared a streak of cream across the scratch on her face where the witch's nails had sliced her.

Chalon bit down a shout of fury. "Here, let me take care of that." He raised his wand and traced it along the cut. She felt it tingle as it healed.

"No!" She grabbed his hand. He stopped, surprised. She shoved his hand away slowly. "She'll slash me worse if she thinks I've been using her magic."

Chalon sat back on his heels. He knew life was bad for his godchildren, but somehow it had never hit him so viscerally before. He stared down sightlessly at the creampot in her hand.

"Then, what's this?" he asked when his eyes finally focused on it.

Royla shrugged. "Just something I make myself."

He picked her hand up and sniffed at the pot. "Wintergreen?"

"And a couple of other herbs. I collect them in the woods."

"You've learned a lot here."

Royla shrugged, her mouth curling wryly as she dabbed her fingers in the pot and reached around to rub it into a sore spot on the back of her shoulder, under her blouse.

The move made him realize she was wearing her blouse as a nightshirt. He nodded at it. "You were expecting me?"

She avoided his eyes and carefully covered the creampot with a scrap of hide. She tied the string around it with studied indifference.

He tilted her face up to look at him. "I'm sorry I left so abruptly. I couldn't let Hermita see me."

She shrugged, trying to show it didn't matter.

He tilted his head, trying to catch her eye. "It wasn't because you kissed me."

She looked at him with shock. "You kissed me!" she hissed indignantly.

He smiled at her raised hackles.

"Let's say we kissed each other," he proposed.

She stared at him hard. Involuntarily, her eyes dropped to his lips.

Chalon could feel that look. His lips prickled and felt unusually heavy. He licked them and tried to talk. Her eyes followed the movement of his tongue and a hot shaft of greed pierced down to his groin.

He groaned. "Don't look at me like that."

Her eyes jerked up to his.

"I'm your fairy godfather. It's my job to get you together with the prince. I'm not your prince. I never can be."

"What if I don't like the prince?"

"Then there are other princes. You've got to give this a chance, Royla. You can't stay here." His eyes went back to the cut on her face, the purpling bruise on her elbow.

She hid the elbow from his sight. "I could still outlive Hermita," she protested.

Chalon shook his head. "Royla, Hermita is over two hundred years old."

Royla's eyes widened. Instinctively, she looked down over the edge of the loft at the old woman's cot below.

"No," she breathed. "You must be wrong. She's old, but..."

"You aren't the first child she's bought and worked to death. No matter how long you live, her magic will keep her alive longer. There is no place for you here."

Royla shook her head. Chalon took her face between his hands. Strong, warm hands. Royla closed her eyes and leaned her cheek into his palm. Chalon gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, he swallowed the knot in his throat. "Royla, for you own protection, you have got to get away. And the only way you can ever escape Hermita is with a man powerful enough to declare you free. She owns you. Only the prince can set you free."

Royla's eyes filled and glistened, she looked down, closing them, and a single tear spilled down her cheek to sear his hand.

She nodded.

That small, helpless gesture was enough to kill his soul. But he would not leave her here to be destroyed! If he had to give her into the hands of another man to protect her, so be it. He could shield her from Hermita's magic, but only after the old witch had no claim to her. That was the way magic worked. Otherwise, no fairy godparent would ever let their charges be abused. He couldn't counter Hermita's magic, or even her abusive actions, until Royla was out of her authority.

"When's the hunt?" Royla asked softly, burying her grief.

"The day after tomorrow."

Her head came up. "I can't be ready by then!"

"Yes you can." He stood and gripped his wand.

"Leave everything to me. You just be your brave, strong, beautiful self, and he won't be able to resist." With a last hungry look, and a wave of his wand, he was gone.

***

'Do people really ride horses in these things?" Royla demanded in disbelief.

Chalon grinned at her. That morning a young merchant had come knocking on Hermita's door, offering gold in exchange for her help against rats that were overrunning his storehouses. For that much gold, the witch had decided to survey the situation first hand. Just as Chalon had planned. He and Royla had the whole day to themselves.

"Yes, they really do wear such things," Chalon answered, admiring the picture she made sitting atop Stark in a forest green riding habit, with a veiled, top hat perched on her glossy curls. Unlike most women she was riding astride, something he was sure would appeal to the prince, though Royla didn't know there was anything unusual in it.

Royla transferred the whip from her right hand to her left and took hold of the reins with her black kid gloves. "How does getting all fancied up help them catch a fox?"

"The point isn't to catch the fox, but to be seen, to be admired. That's especially true in your case."

Royla sighed in relief and looked down at him. "Then, we don't have to kill the fox?"

Chalon grinned, remembering how she'd misled the prince that first day. "No. I can personally guarantee this fox will get away."

"Good." She wiggled herself more firmly into the saddle and Chalon groaned under his breath. He could do this. He wiped his sweaty palms on his glimmery pantlegs, his wand still clutched in one hand.

"Am I ready?" she asked, glancing down at the heavy, velvet habit she wore. It hugged her strong body and large breasts, flowing down over her wide hips and over her legs in a way sure to attract the prince's attention.

"Not yet. First we have to borrow some hounds." He waved his wand and a pack of red- eared hounds suddenly bounded into the clearing, out of thin air.

"Borrowed?" Royla asked from atop Stark as the pack of black, brown, and white hounds gamboled around the horse's legs.

"Oh, yes. They're in disguise, except for the ears. But I can guarantee there are no hounds like them in the mortal world."

Royla's eyes widened. She hadn't been a witch's assistant for her whole life without hearing the stories of where red-eared fairy hounds came from. Suddenly, she tried to sit lighter on the horse's back.

"Stark, too?" she asked in dismay, horrified that she had the audacity to be seated on a steed of the Fae.

Chalon grinned. "No. He's of a whole different breed. You can relax. Stark is here of his own free will. He likes a good hunt. Don't you, my friend?"

Stark turned his huge, black head and shook it jauntily, jingling the reins. His large brown eyes laughed at her. Slowly, carefully, she relaxed back into her seat.

"He'll take care of you. And he knows the way to the castle woods, where the hunt will take place. All you have to do is catch the prince's eye. Oh, and be sure to leave your whip behind."

"Huh? My whip?" She stared at the truncated bit of braided leather in her hand.

"Yes. Trust me. Although, I hope this doesn't give him ideas," he muttered to himself. "Anyway, be sure you get back here by nightfall. I can't be sure to keep Hermita away any longer than that."

***

The prince was a dolt, an imbecile, a buffoon! Royla raged to herself as she and the group of riders rode hell-bent-for-leather through a small meadow.

The prince, blond hair streaming behind him, laughing, thundered his great, gray stallion through the grass, over the stream, and through yet another field of grain, following the baying hounds.

Royla gritted her teeth as she forced herself to follow, knowing that she, and all these other heedless aristocrats, were trampling down some poor peasant's season's worth of hard work. Just like they'd trampled through that poor old woman's kitchen garden. Just like they'd nearly got themselves killed when they'd come stampeding through a section of the woods where men were felling trees.

Why was she doing this? The prince turned in his seat and sent her a flirtatious grin. Oh, yes, that was why. So this great buffoon would think she was worthy to be his bride.

God, when had she come this low?

From the brief conversation she'd had with the flirty prince before the hunt she knew he was intelligent enough. But he was so young! Okay, so maybe he was actually a few years older than herself. But with the life she'd led, she felt older.

And vain! If the boy flipped his golden hair at her one more time she was going to give him a permanent haircut, out by the roots! If he'd had any kind of address, talked about anything but the breeding of his favorite bitches, or had the least inkling of the harm he was doing to the very people he was supposed to protect, all in the name of killing a little, red, furry animal. Then she might have some hope.

But no!

She felt Stark gather himself to leap another stream and she collected herself in the saddle. The dogs, the prince, and the lead riders were already gathered on the other side. The dogs were milling around, casting for a scent. She hoped Chalon confused them so much that they all took off in different directions!

The prince flipped his hair at her and trotted his grey warhorse up to her. Even the horse pranced in a cocky manner! She gritted her teeth and smiled at him.

***

"I won't do it! Do you hear me?" she yelled at the sky. She stared around the abandoned clearing where she'd stopped to make her ultimatum. "Where are you?" she demanded.

"Shhh!" She turned in the saddle and saw Chalon making shushing gestures. He was standing in midair, level with her.

"Don't you shush me!" she declared pointing the whip at him. "I will not marry that brainless, hair-growing . . . twit!"

"They'll hear you!"

"No they won't, they've ridden on ahead." She pointed the whip at him again. "I warn you now. I will not marry that prince!" The slur she put on the word made it an insult.

"Okay, okay." He scratched the back of his neck with his wand, considering. "There are other princes."

"Oooh!" she growled and threw her whip to the ground. "I don't want another prince! I want you!"

Chalon stared at her, frozen.

"You can't . . ."

"Yes, I can!" She glared at him, she grabbed him by his shiny green lapels and dragged him forward. "Is there any rule that says a fairy godfather can't get married?"

He thought about it. Or, well, to be truthful, he tried to think about it. But somehow being "manhandled" by this woman was very distracting. Delightfully so.

She shook him lightly. He gave the question serious consideration. "No," he finally said, somewhat to his own surprise. "Fairy Godmothers don't generally get married. But I've never heard of a rule that says they can't."

"And Fairy Godfathers?" she demanded.

He shrugged, still in her grip, feet floating three feet above the ground. "There's not really enough of us to say one way or the other."

She slowly, carefully let go of his coat. "So, if you wanted to, you could get married?" she asked, suddenly diffident, almost demure.

He grinned and straightened his suit, his whole body standing taller and prouder. "Yes. If I wanted to," he said, just to tease her.

"And if I married you, I'd be marrying a powerful man?"

He considered, stringing her along. "Yes," he agreed.

"And you'd be able to protect me from Hermita's magic?"

He opened his mouth to say yes, then deflated. "No."

Her eyes grew wide with dismay. "No?"

He shook his head. "According to the law, you'd still be her slave. Even if we did marry, it wouldn't be legal without her consent."

"And she'll never give up her fresh supply of virgin's blood." Royla looked down, rubbing the multiple tracery of old scars on her fingertips.

"Ah, well, I may be able to help with that."

Royla and Chalon both whipped around as the prince rode out of the trees behind them.

"I noticed you'd fallen behind, my lady. I came to check if you were okay."

Royla blinked. That didn't follow her impression of the prince at all.

Chalon began unobtrusively sinking toward the ground.

"Oh, there's no need for that, Godfather," the prince said, bowing to Chalon from his saddle.

"Oh!" Royla said with startled dismay. She looked from Chalon to the prince. "Is he your . . ?"

"My godfather too?" the prince finished for her. "No. But I've seen my share of fairy godparents in my day. I suppose every prince runs into them now and again." He bowed again as Chalon bobbed back up next to Royla.

"It seems you have a problem, my lady." He turned to Chalon. "I assume this is the usual scenario? Wicked stepmother?" he inquired.

Chalon shook his head.

"Wicked witch," Royla supplied.

"Ah," the prince said, nodding. "That makes it harder. Sold to her when you were a child, I suppose," he continued.

Royla nodded. Chalon cocked his head consideringly at the prince.

The prince looked at the fairy godfather. "If I do this, can you block me from the witch's magic?"

Slowly, Chalon nodded. "Hermita only has power over Royla so long as she's her slave."

"And no power in relation to her if she's not," the prince continued in understanding. The prince looked back at Royla. "A brave, beautiful woman, especially a neck-or-nothing rider like you, should be no one's slave." He turned his eyes down to the black, beautiful stallion she rode and ran his eyes over it appreciatively.

"One of yours?" he asked the godfather.

Chalon shrugged. "Stark is his own master. He agreed to do me a favor."

The prince nodded at the stallion. Stark nodded back. The prince grinned.

"Does he like to foxhunt?"

Stark turned to look directly at him. "I like nothing better," the horse said in a deep, melodious voice.

Royla jumped.

"Well, well," the prince grinned. He turned and looked back and forth between fairy godfather and fairy horse. "How would you like to live in a castle," he asked Stark, "or the castle stables anyway, with the finest mares, the best fodder, and foxhunting, sport, and revelry year round?"

Stark turned to look at Chalon. He grinned a horsey grin then turned back to the prince. "I believe you were going to do something for my friends. I can't very well abandon them in their hour of need," the horse stated blandly, his eyes twinkling at the prince in shared devilry.

The prince grinned. "Done then. Royla, I, as a Royal Prince of the Realm, do hereby declare you a free woman. Free to wed or not as you see fit. Absolved of all former ties and obligations." He turned to the horse. "There, was that good enough?"

Stark gave a little buck and dumped Royla off into Chalon's surprised, but willing, arms. "Good enough," he declared in satisfaction. "Now where are those mares you were telling me about?" He trotted over to stand beside the prince and his dumb, grey stallion. The grey tried to rear and lash at him. Stark promptly bit him on the rump. The grey squealed and settled, backing down. Stark nodded, having achieved an acceptable pecking order.

The prince laughed and slapped the black horse companionably on the neck.

"Oh, and Godfather?" the prince said as he started to turn away with his new friend. He looked over his shoulder. "You're not the only one around here who's a fairy. I'd appreciate it if you'd spread the word. Please tell your colleagues to stop sending me princesses. On the other hand, if you happen to come across a handsome prince..." he grinned. "Be sure to send him my way. Ta!"

With a jaunty wave of his hand the prince, and his new equine friend, melted away into the woods.

"Well!" Royla said in something like awe. "What do you think of that?" She turned and looked at Chalon, she was cradled in his arms, still floating three feet above the ground.

Chalon looked down at her, a huge, warm, wonderful armful of woman. He squeezed her a little closer. He leaned down toward her, until she could see the gold flecks in his eyes, her eyes drifted to his mouth. He made a soft moue and she leaned forward anticipating a kiss.

"I think, I got a beautiful wife, and the prince got a beautiful horse. That's fair."

Royla glared and punched him. He laughed. And they both disappeared.


"Royla!" Hermita barged out of the cottage, her voice a scream that could make the crows cover their ears. "Royla, where are you, you useless scut!" she yelled into the forest, hands on her hips, looking for her slave. "I told you to fix that chimney! Get in here right now and clean it!" she screamed to no one.

Behind her the chimney boomed, knocking the old woman out into the yard. Black soot billowed out of the windows and boiled up through the thatch. "Royla!" she yelled, her voice getting ever louder as no one answered. "Royla!" she screamed.

Disembodied laughter, male and female, twinkled out into the starry night.