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Story 2

Rick Copple

Rick is a Texas writer who works by day and writes Science Fiction and Fantasy at night. Rick’s been writing stories of different types since he was in grade school. Thousands and thousands of words later, we have Clever Love – a Fantasy story that is a good, fun read.

Clever Love

R. L. Copple









The forest beckoned Jal'ra to return. His elvish kinsmen romped among those branches. Memories of children chasing squirrels and each other demanded he not leave. No longer sensing the familiar melody of the trees resonating in his heart didn't help either.

But the woman. Every night she broke through his dreams crying for help. Crying for him. Her slender beauty, her brown, flowing hair shimmering in the moonlight, drew him to her as much as the dream's madness pushed him from his home.

He gritted his teeth, breathed deep to clear his mind, and forced himself to face the barren landscape. At least it felt barren compared to the forest. A dirt road cut its way across fields of grass, dotted by an occasional tree, bush, or bunch of wild flowers. The sun felt hotter with no canopy to shield him. He sniffed. And the air had lost that leafy smell he'd grown to love. It smelled empty.

But the road pointed to a walled city resting on a foothill about a day's journey away. A snow-capped mountain provided a backdrop, causing Jal'ra to admit beauty existed outside the woods. Maybe he'd find the new world welcoming.

He shoved the narrow-brimmed, leather hat down over his ears. Reports of human unpredictability indicated his best bet would be secrecy. Jal'ra adjusted his pack and stepped toward the distant scene. One step at a time. Then one mile. He passed deer grazing, birds singing, and crossed a couple of streams. But the vision of her haunted him, even in this bright land.

The sun kissed the horizon as he strolled through the city's thick gateway. Men loaded a cart at a shop to his left. Children played hide-n-seek to his right. Dust swirled around him and he sneezed. This certainly wasn't the forest.

Jal'ra spotted a sign among the buildings that read River Inn. He entered the wood-frame structure and, after acquiring a room, decided the best way to discover news about the girl was to eat in the common room.

After stowing his pack, he slipped down the hall and followed the smell of food. Round, wooden tables greeted him. Men filled most of them, but a few women mingled here and there. The drone of voices buzzed through the air. Smoke from pipes hovered under the ceiling, while barkeeps toted mugs of ale and food among the crowd.

Jal'ra approached where four men conversed. "Mind if I join you gents?"

One with a heavy black beard craned his neck around and studied him. "You ain't from around here, are ya?"

Jal'ra smiled. Locals would be most likely to know enough to help him. "No, sir. I am not. My name's Jal."

"And where do you hail from, Jal?"

Jal'ra thought for a second. "The other side of the Great Woods."

The man smiled and lifted his mug. "Aye, that be a ways off, not to mention the trip through the woods. You're lucky to have come out alive with all those elves about."

Jal'ra clenched his jaw and hoped they didn't notice.

"Have a seat. My name's Greg. This here is John, Dan, and Stan."

They each shook Jal'ra's hand. Jal'ra seated himself and called for food. Soon a barkeep placed a bowl of stew, stale bread, and a mug of ale before him.

Greg swallowed a bite and downed it with a gulp of ale. "So, Jal, what brings you so far to the fair city of Rivertown?"

Jal'ra wondered how honest he should be, but he'd not find the information he needed by keeping his mission a secret. "I'm hunting for a girl."

Dan, a slender-faced man with the bare hint of a goatee on his chin, laughed. "Son, you never hunt for a girl. They hunt you and make you think you're hunting them."

Jal'ra chuckled. "You're closer to the truth than you know for I've never met this woman, yet she appears in my dreams every night. I'm most certainly being hunted."

Stan thrust his mug toward Jal'ra. "Tell us what she looks like, lad. Maybe we can help ya."

Jal'ra stared at the ceiling as he talked. "She has hauntingly beautiful, coal-black eyes. Flowing brown hair cascades over her shoulders. Her angular face, with high cheeks, and a discreet nose, displays an enticing smile upon reddish lips."

John shook his head. "You know how many fit that description in this city alone?"

He nodded. "But she does have one unique mark upon her left cheek: a star-shaped birthmark."

Their eyes grew wide, and they glanced at each other.

"You know this woman?" Jal'ra asked.

Greg nodded. "Aye. She's the king's daughter. She's said to be born with such a mark."

"The king's daughter?" Jal'ra's heart sank. How could he marry her? As soon as the king discovered his secret, he'd be kicked out of town, if not hung.

John slapped him on the back. "Don't fret, Jal. Everyone has a chance to win her hand. Have you heard of the contest?"

Jal'ra shook his head. "I'm afraid I know little of the local news here."

John swallowed a gulp of ale. "The king has proclaimed that anyone who passes his test will win his daughter's hand. No one has succeeded."

Dan pointed at Jal'ra. "You should go to the king tomorrow and try. I can tell she has a grip on your heart."

"Aye, she does." Jal'ra swallowed the last of the stew and drained his mug. "Thanks for the company, but I must turn in."

They grunted their acknowledgment, and Jal'ra left for his room. He lay upon his bed and lamented his luck. If the girl had been a pauper, he would have had a chance, but not the king's daughter.

His thoughts drifted into dreams.


Jal'ra jerked up in his bed, breathing hard. Images of the girl wooed him in his deepest sleep. Despite the impossibility of winning her love, she still demanded his attention.

He poured water into a cup and wetted his throat as he stared at the faint glow of the sun behind the mountains. He could do nothing else but search her out, even if it meant his death. No, he would be clever. He would fool the king and pass his test. Once married, the king would have to accept him. The king's pride would never allow anyone to know he'd been tricked.

Jal'ra slipped on a black velvet shirt, laced with frills diving into a v-neck. A tan, leather vest covered the shirt, and finished the ensemble with a pair of black, drawstring trousers. Then he pulled a jar from his pack: vanishing cream. He rubbed enough on the tips of his ears to hide the points. He'd bought it from a master herbalist in the woodland community, who had sprinkled it with the right combination of elven magic. He closed the lid and placed it in his pack.

He double-checked his appearance in the mirror. Yes, the ears appeared human. Now he could forgo the hat, which would have to come off before the king. He slid into his boots and left.

Jal'ra strolled through the streets and crowds. An occasional wagon caused people to make way for it, and children chased each other along the roadway. These people would change any forest they inhabited.

Jal'ra approached the gate of the castle. Two guards in mail and armor, bearing a shield and spear each, lowered their spears across the heavy, oak door. "What is your business with the king?" one of the guards asked.

"I'm here to accept the king's challenge, and gain his daughter's hand in marriage."

The guards glanced at each other and shared a smile. The one on the left turned to the door and opened it. "Follow me."

A musty smell attacked Jal'ra, as their feet and the guard's clanging armor echoed among the stone walls and high ceiling. They stopped before a high, split door, carved with grapevines and the symbol of a lion in the center.

The hinges creaked as the guard opened it and entered. Jal watched through the partially open door.

The guard stopped before the king and queen at a table off to the side. "Your royal Highness, the commoner Jal wishes an audience with you."

"And what is the business Jal wishes to speak about?"

"To gain your daughter's hand in marriage."

The king smiled, rose, walked over and sat upon his throne. "He may approach the king."

Jal'ra entered at the guard's request and stepped lightly along a red rug stretching from the door to the dais. Columns paralleled the carpet, separating side rooms lined with tables and chairs. Six armored guards stood before each pillar, swords drawn, points on the marble floor, and their hands resting upon the hilts. Jal'ra stopped at the base of the dais and bowed before the king.

"You may arise and state your request." The king rested his fingertips against each other.

Jal'ra stood up. "Your Highness, I understand any man who wishes to win your daughter's hand in marriage has but to pass a test. I would request, with your permission, to undergo this test."

The king tapped his fingers together. "Very well. Go to the address the guard will give you and collect the eighty crowns the woman owes in back-taxes. If you bring me the money, then I will give you my daughter."

Jal'ra's wanted to leap to the task now, but restrained himself. This would be easier than he'd thought. He had expected to slay some dragon or such. "I will do as you request, your Highness."

The king waved his hand. "You are dismissed. Don't bother returning without the money unless you enjoy the whip and an axe to the neck."

Jal'ra bowed and hurried out the door.


As Jal'ra approached the location the guard had given him, he blinked. He stared at a fragile one-room shack. Rotting wood and a perceptible lean warned it could collapse at any moment. A field of weeds surrounded the dwelling. Five kids, dirty and loud, chased each other around the small building.

Jal'ra glanced at the notes he'd written down. No other building lay close enough to fit the directions. This had to be it. He crept to the door. The kids all skidded to a halt and stared at him as if he'd come from another planet. Jal'ra worried that his vanishing cream might have worn off.

Jal'ra waved at them and smiled. They all laughed, then fled by him for another trip around their house.

Jal'ra shook his head and knocked on the door. It gave with each hit, dust and splinters of wood falling to the ground.

The door opened. A woman fixed her eyes on him and frowned. Random strands of hair jutted out from under a head-covering. "What do you want?"

Jal'ra opened his mouth, but paused. How could he ask this woman, who obviously couldn't support her own family, to cough up eighty crowns for taxes? He seriously doubted she possessed the money. But he could only ask. "Ma'am, I regret asking this, but --"

"You want to marry the king's daughter, do ya now?" She frowned at him.

"I came to collect the taxes you owe."

She laughed. "That means you want to marry the king's daughter. The king always sends them to me, you know. Each one discovers there's no way to get money from me."

Jal'ra let his shoulders sag. "Why?"

She laughed again and held out her arms. "What do you see around here? Not even this old house could garner such a price."

Jal'ra scratched his head. "Then how did you end up owing so much money, if you have nothing?"

She pointed to the field behind her house. "One year my husband goes limp while workin' the harvest. All the money from that year's crop, what had been harvested, went to paying the doctors. There was none left for taxes, and we've made little since. I earn what I can as a seamstress."

Jal'ra rested his chin in the palm of his hand, tapping his finger upon his lips. "Why didn't you hire workers to keep the field going?"

"I didn't have enough to feed workers until the harvest money would come. I've barely kept my family going." She waved her hands around her. "See all this? This is what we've got. Take whatever you think will satisfy the king." She grunted then shut the door.

Jal'ra strolled back to the road, then turned around and glanced at the field. Weeds, dotted with broken stalks of long dead plants, danced to the beat of the breeze. He wondered why weeds could grow so easily, without any attention and watering, but the things people needed for living required effort and labor.

He smiled. Of course! What a perfect solution. He removed a vial from his pack and circled the field. As he did, he spilled a drop of the liquid onto the ground. Once he'd finished circumscribing the land, he stood at its edge and sang a song:

Wiggling, squiggling, swimming tadpoles,

Pop out arms, fingers, legs, and toes.

Conversion is nature's way of growing.

Fuzzy, bending, rolling caterpillar,

Hiding in a cocoon at the miller's.

Conversion is nature's way of growing.

Weeds so profuse, so worthless and dumb,

We sing that wheat you would become.

Conversion is nature's way of growing.

Effect the change through each non-plowing.

As Jal'ra sang, the weeds shimmered, shook, and warped into golden wheat. Jal'ra grabbed a sickle by the side of the house, gathered a bundle in his left arm, and cut it lose from the ground.

He stepped back to the front door and banged on it. The woman saw him and frowned. "Go pester someone who cares. I've got..." She froze and stared at the wheat. "Where did you get that?"

Jal'ra stood straight. "If you don't mind, ma'am, I'll have the king's guards come by and pick up the rest later. There should be enough left you can sell to hire out some help."

She scowled. "I'm no fool." She pushed past him. "You saw the field. I've no wheat, none for..." She rounded the corner of the house. Her jaw dropped open. "For years." She turned toward Jal'ra, her eyes wide. "Where did this come from?"

Jal'ra tossed his free hand into the air. "Weeds, wheat. Hard to tell the difference between them sometimes. But let me know when you've baked bread with it. It'll beat the stuff at the inn, no doubt."

She stared at the field and waved her hand at it. "Take all you want for the king."

Jal'ra nodded and tipped his hat. "Until next time."

He slipped back onto the road. His lips couldn't help but grin. "One king's daughter soon to be mine!"


Jal'ra stood before the king. A servant scanned papers, then met the king's eyes. "Aye, your Highness. The men have collected all that the woman owed."

The king focused on Jal'ra. "How did you do this? The lady was destitute."

Jal'ra forced himself to not smile. "Your Highness, I simply aided the poor lady to revive her business. Once she had the means, she could pay."

The king rubbed his chin. "You're a clever one, you are."

"Then if I may be so bold, your Highness..." He bowed. "When should I expect to obtain your daughter's hand in marriage?"

"You may be so bold, but I'll be bolder." The king leaned forward in his throne. "Any future royal family member must know not only how to collect money, but how to use it. I'll have my keeper of the books place at your disposal ten thousand crowns. I expect you to invest it. If within a month you do not have more than you started out with, you cannot have my daughter as a wife."

Jal'ra frowned. "I beg your pardon, your Highness, but I thought there was only one test?"

The king yawned and covered his mouth. "I've changed my mind."

Jal'ra grumbled inside, but what could he do? "Yes, your Highness. I will do as you command."

"One other thing." The king pointed at Jal'ra. "Should you lose my money, you'll stay in prison until it's paid back."

Jal'ra nodded, but refrained from saying anything further. No sense offending his future father-in-law.

A guard motioned for Jal'ra to follow him. They threaded their way through several echoing hallways until they arrived at a room. Rows of desks filled the space, each holding an abacus, quill, inkwell, and sheets of parchment.

The guard stopped before one desk; the man sitting there raised his head. The guard placed a hand on Jal'ra's shoulder. "The king has charged this man to invest ten thousand crowns on his behalf during the next month."

The man raised an eyebrow. "He's never given me such a charge."

"You never accomplished the first test."

The bookkeeper grumbled. "All right." He turned to Jal'ra. "Do you wish to have the money now?"

Jal'ra shook his head. "I'll wait until I know what to do with it."

The man nodded. "I'll be here when you're ready."

The guard focused on Jal'ra. "Remember, you only have a month. If you wait too long, there won't be time for it to mature."

Jal'ra stifled a laugh. "Thank you for your timely investment advice. I'll return within the next couple of days for the money."

The guard led Jal'ra out of the king's castle. Jal'ra returned to the inn. He entered the common room, and upon seeing his new friends, sat beside them to eat.

Greg patted him on the back. "Good to see you again. So, how is it going with the girl?"

"Doing well so far. I passed the first test, but the king gave me another."

Dan whistled. "No one's passed that first test. You're a clever one, you are."

John rubbed his chin. "There's more than one test?"

Stan swallowed a bite. "What is the second test?"

"The king's given me ten thousand crowns to invest. If I make a profit, I'll get the girl. If not, I'm in prison, probably for the rest of my life."

John grunted. "Sounds like the safest thing to do is put it in a bank. With the interest it earns, you'd win."

Jal'ra nodded. "A good plan. Where's the bank?"

John's face sagged. "Rivertown doesn't have one. You'd have to travel two days each way to King's Dale."

Jal'ra frowned. "Too risky. Not only could bandits steal the money, but if something delays me, I may not return in time." Jal'ra considered the king could have arranged for such misfortunes to befall him, expecting him to seek investments in the major cities of the land. The king hid something, Jal'ra was sure, but what he didn't know.

Greg laughed. "If I had it, I'd end up prison for sure. Because I'd spend it!"

Dan lifted his mug. "And all on ale, no less!"

John shook his head. "It would be tempting to use it for myself. Times are hard of late, and taxes keep going higher."

Greg turned to Jal'ra. "So, have you figured out how you'll be investing it?"

Jal'ra patted Greg on the back. "Yes. You gents have provided me with an idea."

Dan lifted a bite of beef on his spoon. "You're not going to spend it on ale, I hope."

Jal'ra nodded. "In a manner of speaking, yes. Ale and much more."

They stared at Jal'ra for a few seconds before Greg spoke. "I'll come and visit you in prison when I can."

Jal'ra rose and bowed. "Fear not. Prison food I'll not be eating. Goodnight." Jal'ra left for his room.


Jal'ra stood before the bookkeeper. "I'm ready to receive the money."

The man cocked his head. "Have a plan, do we?"

"Yes, I do."

"And what is this plan?"

Jal'ra shook his head. "That's between me and the king."

"Very well." He rose with a huff, then entered the king's vaults. In a few minutes, he returned with two handfuls of bills. Jal'ra received them and stuffed them into a pouch on his belt.

The bookkeeper shoved paper, a feather, and an inkwell toward Jal'ra. "Sign here." He pointed to an empty line.

Jal'ra signed and left the building. He scanned up and down the street. Spotting a butcher shop, he entered the door and stood at the counter. The smell of blood and flesh tickled his nose.

A muscular man dressed in a bloody apron approached him. "What can I do for ya?"

Jal'ra smiled. "It's more what can I do for you. I have a business proposition for you, if you're willing to consider it."

He shrugged. "Get on with it, then. I've work to do."

"The king has commissioned me to distribute money to whomever I see fit. I'm willing to put one thousand crowns into your hands today, if you'll agree to the following requirements: you must use the money to either lower your prices and, or hire more employees, for at least a month."

The man rubbed his hands on his apron, staring at the wall for a moment. "And the king has placed no other restrictions on this?"

"No. I speak for him on this matter."

"I think I can do that. I do need the help, and lower prices could result in more sales." He reached out a hand. "You've got a deal."

Jal'ra shook it. "Deal." He pulled a thousand crowns from his pouch and placed it on the counter. "I'll check back to ensure you are using it as promised. If I find otherwise, you'll risk imprisonment."

He nodded. "I understand."

Jal'ra found nine more businesses: a blacksmith, a tanner, the inn, the laundry cleaners, the farm co-op, the town crier association, a sword maker, a cleaning service, and the last thousand he divided among ten out-of-work men, to start their own businesses.

The month drifted slowly by. Jal'ra kept tabs on the various places he'd placed the money. Business picked up for each, and several who were to start businesses served a thriving clientele. When he ate with his friends, they exhibited a more optimistic attitude as well.

The time arrived to appear before the king once again. Jal'ra requested the bookkeeper's presence.

The king drummed his fingers on the armrest of the throne. The queen sat in another chair to the side. "So, how did you invest my money?"

Jal'ra bowed. "Your Highness, after careful thought, I gave the money to select businesses and people."

The king jumped to his feet and pointed a finger at Jal'ra. "You gave my money away? Don't you know those are the very people I taxed to get that money?"

"I beg your forgiveness, your Highness, but what would you have me invest in, if not your own kingdom?"

He threw up his hands. "There are other kingdoms, other lords. There is only so much money here." He addressed the guards. "Take him to prison!"

A pair of guards moved toward Jal'ra. Jal'ra held up a hand. "If you'd give me but a minute more of your Majesty's valuable time, you should hear what your keeper of the books has to say."

The king clenched his jaw, but then nodded and sat down, scowling as he did.

Jal'ra turned to the bookkeeper. "How much taxes did you collect this month compared to the last?"

He smiled. "We collected twenty thousand crowns more this month than last."

The king's eyes grew wide. "Twenty thousand!"

One of the guards spoke up. "Not only that, your Highness, but the rumors of a riot have died off and crime has decreased noticeably over previous months."

The king scratched his beard. "Well, aren't you the clever one. I'd never figured I'd get more money by giving it away."

Jal'ra bowed. "Standard market economics, your Highness. Ten thousand crowns goes a long ways in this city."

The king remained silent for a moment. "Well then, you've proved yourself to me. You may have my daughter's hand in marriage. Only one condition left do you need to fulfill."

Jal'ra groaned inwardly. "And what may that be, your Highness?"

"You must retrieve her from her captor. She resides in a cave guarded by a dragon who fell in love with her and will not let her go."

Jal'ra shook his head. He knew a dragon would come into this at some point. But he'd come this far; he couldn't stop now. "Provide the location of this cave, and I will rescue your daughter."

The king pointed at a knight and crooked his finger. The knight approached and bowed before the king. "Yes, your Highness?"

"Go with Jal, provide him a weapon, and show him the location of the cave. Once there, leave him and return."

"It will be as you wish, your Highness." The knight led Jal'ra out of the king's hall and to the armory. Swords, axes, lances, spears, maces, bows and arrows, and other weapons lined the shelves. "Which weapon do you desire?"

Jal'ra slid his fingers along the edge of a sword's blade. "I'll only require one weapon." He pointed to a corner. "That sling."

The knight laughed. "You could barely kill a rabbit with that, much less a dragon."

Jal'ra smiled. "That's between me and the king."

The knight shook his head and chuckled. "So be it." He pulled the sling from its hook and placed it in Jal'ra's hand. "Keep in mind, this dragon's hide is impenetrable. An arrow from a crossbow wouldn't dent it, much less a rock from this sling."

"I'll keep that in mind." Jal'ra turned and left the castle, the knight pointing the way.

They left the city gates, walking on a road heading north. The mountains towered over them, snow capped and foreboding. The forest grew dense, and underbrush ensured no one left the road. Jal'ra breathed in their leafy scent, refreshing his spirits.

Jal'ra pointed at the mountains. "How far?"

"The cave's about half a day's journey."

"Tell me, have you fought this dragon before?"

He smiled. "Oh yes. Twice, as a matter of fact."

"And you've lived to tell the tale?"

"Aye. The first time I...," and the knight spent the rest of the trip relating his tales, flourishes and all.

As the sun rose high in the sky, they approached the base of the foothills. Jal'ra wiped his brow and noticed a trail that led into the forest.

The knight nodded toward it. "You'll find the cave at the end of that path. May your luck be better than mine." He stared at the sling, then laughed again, before heading back to the city.

Jal'ra raised the flask of water to his lips and drank. "Nothing for it but to go see this dragon."

He proceeded onto the path. The trees vibrated with a different tune than what he'd grown up with. Yet, they possessed a deep knowledge, as deep as any he'd encountered before. He longed to jump through their branches and commune with them, but he couldn't afford to waste time. Singing with the birds would come later, if he could save the woman of his dreams.

He spent at least an hour working his way among branches and brush as the trail wound here and there, climbing up the side of the hill. A clearing came into view; Jal'ra crept toward the edge.

A dragon lay in front of a cave. Its body shimmered in the sunlight, as its blue-green bulk rose and fell to the steady breathing of the beast. A long tail wound around its feet, and a snout exhaled caustic fumes below eyes closed in sleep.

Jal'ra skittered across the grassy knoll upon a cushion of air. He hopped upon the creature's back and glided across it until he stood over its head. He knelt and found a loose scale by the dragon's ear. Jal'ra retrieved a small ball from his pouch. The liquid inside sloshed as he opened a door on its top, then he worked the scale off and shoved it into the ball.

The dragon jerked; its eyes flashed open. It wiggled its snout and sniffed. Dragon-scented vapor escaped from the ball in Jal'ra's hand. The dragon's nose sniffed harder.

Jal'ra settled the ball into the sling and swung it around five times before releasing it. The ball sailed over a hill, leaving a thick trail of smoke in its wake.

Jal'ra leaped off the dragon as it lifted its head and stretched out its tail and wings to steady itself. Jal'ra hid behind a tree trunk. The dragon's nose led its body around, pointing in the direction of the smoke-trail.

"Another dragon? Here?" The beast roared and flames poured from its mouth. It extended its wings and lifted from the ground, blowing Jal'ra's hair with each beat. The dragon followed the vapor-trail over the hill.

Jal'ra jumped from behind the tree as soon as the dragon had left. He raced into the cave, the hard rock poking his feet. A light grew ahead of him a few feet in. He entered a cavern. A ragged hole at the top let in sunlight, illuminating the dry stalagmites and stalactites decorating the white-brown walls and floors.

He didn't have time to search the whole area. The dragon could return at any time once it realized the smell led to nothing. Jal'ra cupped his hands. "Hello, anyone in here?"

A head rose from a corner of the room. Eyes blinked amidst brown hair, cascading over her shoulders. Her eyes widened, and she dashed among the rocks until she stood before Jal'ra.

She wore a tattered and dirty dress. At one time, it would have dazzled and accented her beauty. Her slender form heaved heavy breaths. "You've come. I knew you would."

Jal'ra grabbed her hand. "Follow me."

She nodded and together they fled from the cave and into the woods along the trail. A roar sounded in the distance. Her eyes grew dark. "You didn't kill the dragon?"

"No, I merely tricked it into thinking another dragon lurked nearby."

"Then our escape may only be temporary." She leaped over stones and branches as gracefully as a doe.

Jal'ra thought her as surefooted as she was beautiful. He glanced back over his shoulder to see the dragon circling over his lair. "We'll have to go into the woods to hide."

"But the dragon can smell us out."

"Trust me." Jal'ra directed them to a low section of underbrush and they pushed through the branches. Water drops plopped against his cheeks, causing him to stare into the sky.

He'd been so focused on their escape that he'd failed to notice the storm clouds marching his way. Thunder cracked in the distance. The dragon flew toward them, searching for her scent.

Jal'ra stopped. "Wait." He examined the enticing brown threads of her hair. "I need a strand of your hair."

"For what?"

"You'll see. It'd take too long to explain." He held out his hand.

She nodded, grabbed a hair, and winced as she pulled. Then she placed the thread into his hand.

The dragon roared as it circled over them. It wouldn't be long before the beast would burn the forest to chase them out.

Jal'ra pulled out another ball and placed the hair in it. Smoke floated from the device. He positioned it in the sling, but this time he sang as he spun it faster and faster:

Roll a ball

Roll a fall

Smell me here

Smell me there

Just as long

As you're gone!

He released the sling and the ball flew into the air. It soared toward the mountain peaks, disappearing into the clouds hovering around their tops.

The dragon circled over the pair, then roared and chased the smell toward the sky.

Rain sputtered, then poured as they stood among the trees, soaking them both.

Her eyes widened.

Jal'ra examined her. "What's wrong?"

She pointed at him. "You're an elf."

His heart sank. The rain must have washed away the vanishing cream. But whom did he think he fooled? She would have discovered the truth at some point. But to have come this close... He wrapped his arm around a trunk and whispered for mercy.

She peered under his bowed head. "When I saw you in my dream, promising to rescue me, I couldn't get you off my mind."

"Nor you off mine." He sucked in a deep breath. "That's why I came, even though I am an elf."

She smiled, and he could smell her smile through the rain. "Don't be sad. I like elves, myself." She pulled her hair back to reveal pointed ears.

Jal'ra let his jaw drop. Then he grinned. "You're an elf too?"

She nodded. "Half elf, half human. My mother is an elf. The king, however, wanted to keep my race a secret. So he entrusted me into the care of this dragon."

He blinked. "Your father gave you to this dragon?"

"Yes. The dragon would devour anyone who came to rescue me. But you have outwitted my guardian. You must be a very clever elf."

"So I'm told." Jal'ra restrained his exuberance so not to appear a fool in front of her. He thought a moment as water trickled down his cheeks. "How many in the kingdom know elven blood runs in your veins?"

She leaned against a tree. "The king, the queen, and the knight who negotiated the deal with the dragon."

Jal'ra rubbed his chin. "I would like to ask your father for your hand in marriage."

A smile graced her face, but quickly died away. "He'll deny me as his own."

"But men at the inn told me my description was the king's daughter?"

"He's described me to them, all except my ears and race, because no one's ever seen me. They wouldn't know any different."

Jal'ra touched the star birthmark on her wet cheek with a finger. "So, everyone can identify you, but most don't know you're an elf?"

She nodded. "That's right."

He glanced around the trees. "Being part elf, have you ever climbed the trees?"

Her eyes sparkled. "That's where I feel the most at home."

"Me too. Let's reach the city through the trees. Less chance the dragon will find us."

"Lead on, my clever elf."

He bounded up the rain-scented trunk and she followed. He'd never felt freer as he shot around tree branch and limb with her at his side, and dew from heaven blessing their shared joy. The trees rejoiced with vibrating melodies around them. They raced the birds and squirrels, and dodged a sloth. As the moon hung in the night sky, and stars rolled across the blackness like distant candles, they lit upon the ground not far from the city gates.

Jal'ra dug in his pack and pulled out a cloak. "Wear this. The hood will hide your face, so no one will recognize you. Tomorrow, I'll approach the king and ask to marry you."

She slipped the cloak on and pulled the hood over her head. "Don't you think we should introduce each other first?"

He slapped his forehead. "I'm sorry. In all the excitement I forgot." He held his hand out, palm up. "My name is Jal'ra."

She placed her hand in his. "And I'm called Serenade, Seren for short."

He pulled her hand up and gently kissed it. "A most appropriate name, for your beauty sings a breathtaking song."

She blushed.


The next morning, Jal'ra entered the king's hall. He stopped before the king and bowed. The queen sat at the table by the wall.

The king frowned. "I'm surprised you've returned."

"Did you fear the dragon had devoured me?"

"When my knight said you selected a sling for your weapon, yes. The fact you are still here and without my daughter means you're a coward. Thus I'm doubly surprised that you stand before me now, knowing I would imprison you at best or kill you at worst."

"I'm training the dragon."

The king raised an eyebrow. "Training it?"

Jal'ra cracked a smile. "I've been teaching him to play fetch."

The king growled. "If you've rescued my daughter, then bring her forth. Otherwise, I'll command the guards to lock you away."

Jal'ra shook his index finger. "If I bring her forth now, a certain minor fact could become--shall we say--public knowledge." Jal'ra raised an eyebrow.

The king's jowls sagged and his eyes stared at Jal'ra for a moment. Then as if shaking off thoughts, he blinked and faced his chief guard. "Everyone but Jal'ra and the queen, out."

"Yes, your Highness," each said in turn and marched out the door. One hooded figure walked down the aisle. She stopped beside Jal'ra. Once the last of the guards exited and shut the door, Serenade pulled back her hood and beamed a smile at her father.

The king stared at her, his eyes wide. "You did rescue her."

"And you failed to tell me one critical fact." Jal'ra pulled her hair back, revealing a pointed ear. "She's an elf."

The king sank back into his chair and rubbed his forehead.

Jal'ra frowned. "We have a problem. I'm not in the habit of marrying elves. Yet if I refuse her now, you will be disgraced among your subjects. But if I marry her and live here, people will eventually find out what she is.

"Your Highness, to prevent either disaster from befalling you, I'm willing to marry her under one condition."

The king's knuckles turned white as he gripped the throne's armrests. He said through clenched teeth, "And what condition is that?"

"That you give me the northern forest and all therein as my and my descendant's kingdom in perpetuity."

The king leaped from his throne. "What? Are you out of your mind!"

Jal'ra shrugged and turned to Serenade. "Are you hungry, my dear? I have some friends at the pub who are dying to meet you."

The king slammed his fist on the armrest and plopped back into his seat. "All right! You can have it, but if anyone discovers her race before I die, you will lose your kingdom." The king sighed. "And one other condition: that you'll not prevent me from hunting on the land."

Jal'ra grinned. "Done." He slid out a parchment and unrolled it. "I took the liberty to draw up the legal documents last night." He wrote in the additional demands and handed it to the king.

The king called for his advisers to verify its validity after Serenade replaced her hood. As the advisers gathered around the document, the queen rose from her seat and briskly stepped toward the two.

A smile graced her face, and her eyes glowed as she met Serenade's gaze. The two wrapped their arms around each other in a long hug.

Jal'ra pointed at the queen as they pulled apart. "So, are you...?"

The queen pushed the edge of her head-covering back enough to reveal pointed ears. Serenade cupped her hands and whispered into her mother's ear. The queen's eyes grew round and a grin spread across her face. She whispered, "I'll never say a word about this."

After the advisers agreed that the terms were satisfactory and honest, the king shook his head and signed the decree. "The wedding will be in three days."

Jal'ra wanted to leap for joy, but bowed instead. "Thank you, your Highness."

Serenade beamed a smile first at her father, then at Jal'ra. A scent of racing expectation wafted from her.

The king sat upon his throne. "But you may regret the deal in the end. Those woods are so thick, you'll have a hard time clearing them."

Jal'ra smiled. "That's between me and the woods."

The edges of the king's mouth twitched. "You are a clever one. May your love be just as clever."

Jal'ra bowed. "More clever than you know, your Highness. More clever than you know."

The End


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