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
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
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
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
Jal'ra clenched his jaw and hoped they didn't notice.
"Have a seat. My name's Greg. This here is John, Dan,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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.
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
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
"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
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
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
We sing that wheat you would become.
Conversion is nature's way of growing.
Effect the change through each
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
"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
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
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
The man raised an eyebrow. "He's never given me such
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Jal'ra groaned inwardly. "And what may that be, your
"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,
"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
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
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
"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
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
"No, I merely tricked it into thinking another dragon
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"He's described me to them, all except my ears and
race, because no one's ever seen me. They wouldn't know
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
"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
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
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
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
"And you failed to tell me one critical fact." Jal'ra
pulled her hair back, revealing a pointed ear. "She's an
The king sank back into his chair and rubbed his
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
"Your Highness, to prevent either disaster from
befalling you, I'm willing to marry her under one
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
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."