To kill time (from my perspective) or to entertain (anyone else), my daughter would often ask for extemporaneous stories, which I’d have to make up during whatever chore, task, or other obligation was at play. At some point, I decided to record these to write the stories down, either as is or as inspiration for whatever off-center ideas swirling around in my head. The following is one such session that happened while I was giving my youngest a bath. She was probably about 5 years old at this point. One of her favorite subjects was stories about fairies, and from that was the genesis of my Princess Rachel tales. Most of these stories have been captured in some fashion or the other, although one will forever remain with just my daughter and me. Never ask a tired father whose driving at night to tell you a story about a princess. Otherwise, he might regale you with Corkerella, probably the most inappropriate children’s story. But I digress…
Author: Greg Miller
Princess Rachel Goes to Summer Camp (Chapter 3 — The Unexpected Visitor)
Rachel went to the front door and wrenched it open. On the stoop was an older woman with curly black hair, hoop earrings, and a floral print robe. She gave Rachel a quick scan. “Oh my, do servants here often answer the door in their pajamas?”
“We don’t have servants. I’m Princess Rachel.”
“Are you? Well, I’m Carlene, a representative of Princess Summer Camp. I’m here to get you ready.”
“I wasn’t aware anyone from the camp was coming today.”
Carlene pushed her way in. “Quite all right. Your parents may have forgotten to tell you. That’s not the first time that has happened.” She looked around the hall, casting a critical eye on the tapestries and suits of armor. “Oh, how very last millennia. I do hope your clothes are more up-to-date than these furnishings.”
Rachel frowned. She already didn’t like this woman.
Tim appeared, rubbing his backside. “Oh, hello.” Spotting Carlene, he extended a hand and smiled. “My name is Tim.”
Carlene recoiled and looked at Rachel. “Is this your grandfather?”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “No, I’m a babysitter.”
She looked to Rachel, who nodded.
Whipping around, Carlene flashed a smile. “Well, isn’t that special?” With a quick movement, she reached into her robe and retrieved a handkerchief. Wrapping it around her hand, she shook Tim’s.
“This is Carlene from Princess Summer Camp,” Rachel offered with an eye roll.
Carlene added, “I’m here to ensure Miss Rachel is ready for camp.”
“That’s my job,” Tim shot back.
She looked sidelong at him. “Somehow, I doubt you do that for a living like I do. Pray tell, what do you do for employment?”
“I’m a wizard.”
Her eyebrows went up. “That’s a skill, not a job.”
Rachel resisted a grin. The way Tim does it, I’m not sure that it is either.
“What do you know about getting a Princess ready for summer camp?”
Tim glanced at the ceiling. “I know she needs clean underwear.”
Carlene gritted her teeth and sighed. “What she needs is riding equipment, a ballroom dress, grooming equipment, makeup, and perfume, to name a few.” She flashed her card in front of Tim.
He read it aloud. Carlene Fourntnoi, Specialist in Princess Preparation And Matchmaking (SPPAM). Your future is just a prince away.”
Rachel cringed. “SPAM? You’re kidding.”
“That’s S-P-P-A-M. Don’t forget the extra P. It makes all the difference.”
Tim tried but failed to conceal a smile. “I’m sure it does.” At that, he broke out into snorts of laughter.
Rachel also tried not to laugh but whispered to Tim, “What are you, six years old?”
“I’m young at heart,” he answered.
Carlene continued to move about the room, looking behind the tapestries and pinching the throw pillows. “Now that we have that out of the way, let us see what Ms. Rachel has, and we can get her things together.”
“I’m not sure I believe any of this,” Rachel whispered to Tim.
He cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, Ms. Fourntnoi, I should probably contact Rachel’s parents and confirm your appointment.”
She sighed and replied with an exasperated tone, “Oh, very well then. But if we don’t get started soon, I won’t be able to help her prepare. I have another appointment at three.”
“This won’t take long,” Tim replied. He waved Rachel over toward the kitchen. “Get a bowl, preferably the largest one you can find, then fill it a third of the way up with water.”
“Just do it. I’m going to contact your parents.”
Rachel grabbed a large bowl, set it on the dining room table, and filled it with a pitcher.
Tim stood over the bowl and closed his eyes. “Water to water, face to face, make a connection across time and space.” The water glowed blue briefly, then swirled.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Rachel asked.
“Yes, the spell is searching for water on your parent’s end to connect to, then it will set up a connection.” Suddenly the bowl flashed green, then turned vaguely orange, and the King appeared, staring down into it.
“YIKES!” he exclaimed. “Tim, why are you in my Tequila Sunrise?”
A woman’s hand appeared on the King’s forehead. “Dear, why are you talking to your cocktail? Are you sick?” asked the Queen’s voice.
The King waved away the Queen’s appendage. “No, dear, Tim’s communicating through my drink. Take a look.”
The Queen’s face filled the bowl. “Oh, hello, Tim. Hi Rachel!”
Rachel leaned over and waved. “Hi, Mom.”
The King reappeared. “Can we make this quick? What’s the problem?”
Tim explained Carlene’s appearance at the door.
“Oh, yes, I forgot about that. Fourtnoi should be allowed to work with Rachel to get her ready.”
“Okay, thanks for the update,” Tim replied. The bowl stopped glowing and returned to normal. He looked up at Rachel. “Well, there you have it. It’s legit.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. Ms. Fourtnoi lifted the visors on the suits of armor in the foyer and sniffed inside.
Tim spoke first. “Rachel’s parents forgot to tell us about your appointment. Please forgive the confusion.”
“Quite all right,” Carlene replied. She let go of the visor, and it snapped shut on her fingertip. “Ouch!” She jerked her finger away and stuck it in her mouth. After glancing at them, she regained her composure, pulled her finger out, and studied it. “Very well.” She turned to Rachel. “Let’s go to your room and see what you have for Camp.”
Trying hard not to grit her teeth, Rachel nodded, and together they began heading for the stairs. Once they reached them, Rachel noticed Tim slinking away to the kitchen. “Aren’t you coming too?”
“Not if I can help it,” he replied.
Carlene took hold of Rachel’s shoulders. “Believe me, dear, we are better off. The only thing men can do is swing blades at each other and fall off horses.” She turned and walked up the stairs. Tim stuck fingers to the sides of his head to make devil horns and waggled a tongue at Carlene’s backside. Rachel stifled a laugh but hurried to catch up.
* * *
“OH, MY GOD!” Carlene screeched when she reached the top of the stairs. “There’s a farm animal in your room.” Rachel glanced in to see Oscar passed out on the rug, lying in a sunny spot.
“Oh, that is just Oscar, my pet pig.”
Carlene grimaced. “You have a pig for a pet. Is this a joke? Who gives a princess a pig for a pet?”
“That was Dad’s idea. But not completely, though. He misunderstood that I wanted a wig for my birthday, not a pig.”
“You wanted a wig?”
“Ah well, I was going through my Lady Gogo phase.”
Staring at her with wide eyes, Carlene muttered, “Okay then.”
Hours later, Carlene tossed another dress on the growing pile of discarded outfits.
“Child, you don’t have much to wear, do you?”
“I have all I need,” Rachel groused back.
“For a garage sale, maybe, but not a cotillion.”
“Cotillion? What is that?”
“I’ll explain later. For now, what I have picked out should do. We will find some other things on the way to Camp.”
Shopping. Ugh, that’s mom’s hobby, not mine. She preferred to walk a trail rather than stalking the shelves at the mall. Taking a chance of being eaten by a witch was more appealing that browsing bargain racks. “If we must,” she replied.
“Come now, have the right attitude – you want to fit in, right?”
“Well, yes.” Tim’s words rang in her mind. Maybe. It wasn’t fitting in that worried her; instead, she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.
Being both a tomboy and an adventure hound, she suspected she had many differences from other “conventional” princesses. Makeup and dresses were foreign to her, and jewelry looked nice. But there was no way she would let someone punch holes in her ear lobes. A shiver ran up her spine at the very thought.
No, she enjoyed the outdoors too much, seeing what she could find and what was around the next bend in the trail. That sometimes led to trouble, but she had always found a way out.
I guess summer camp is no different than that idea – an adventure in the making.
Would she enjoy it? Who knows?
Carlene left for her next appointment, and not surprisingly, Tim reappeared.
Rachel gave him a glare. “Ah, I see you resurfaced.”
“Just wanted to see the scene of the crime.”
“What crime is that?”
“I’m no slave to fashion. know that.”
“Indeed I do, but I’m always leery of other people telling me what to do, especially regarding clothes.”
Rachel considered Tim’s ratty robe. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to listen.”
“On the contrary, I suffer immeasurably when I have to listen to others’ opinions.”
“I had the misfortune to hear someone rave about a pair of underwear with velcro in them.”
Rachel pinched her eyes shut. “Too much information.”
He looked over her shoulder at the piles of clothing and barely filled clothing trunks. “So, what are you going to take? You’re not going naked, are you?”
She cocked her head to one side. “Gee, that won’t make me stand out now, will it?” Then she pointed at the trunks. “That’s all Carlene said is acceptable at Camp. Not even sure how much of this still fits.”
“Better try it on. There is no sense taking stuff that doesn’t fit.”
An hour later, Rachel slammed shut a single trunk and looked at Tim. “Okay, all done.”
“So, how much are you taking?”
“I’ve got enough to get me through a week. After that, I’m in trouble. Looks like I’m going to be hitting the mall on the way to summer camp.”
“You have my sympathy.”
He smirked. “No, not really. Better you than me.”
“So, what will you do after I go off to camp?”
“I’m going to have to take care of Oscar.” A squeal erupted from the stairs, and they both turned. He sat there with a bowl in his mouth. “Good Lord, how often does he eat?”
“Seven times a day if he can get away with it.”
“What does he eat?”
“The better question is — What doesn’t he eat?”
Tim rubbed his beard. “Well, I don’t know. Is he willing to eat apples and cheese curls?”
“I don’t think that will be a problem.”
“Are you going to miss him?”
Rachel sighed. “Oh, of course, but I’m sure he won’t miss me.”
Oscar dropped the bowl and let out a high-pitched squeal.
“At least not as much as his next meal.”
The Dark Places
Reynard wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Even in the cool air of early autumn, bringing down these trees was no easy feat and made for a long day’s work. These old hardwood trees took forever to fall, but the wood they provided would burn long into a cold winter’s night. It was good honest work but far removed from his village, deep in the dark forested lowlands of the Tessian River.
The old oaks and elms loomed over him, their still dense foliage warding off sunlight, enveloping him with shadows. The stand surrounded them, muffling the sounds of his exertion and the presence of the other two work party members. It made him feel alone when he stopped and looked at the tall sentinels surrounding him. Their faceless existence tolerated his company, not that they had a choice.
“Break time!” came a shout echoing amongst the trees. Reynard turned to see the leader of his group, Pytr Nilson, snake his tall, lanky form from between a pair of large trees.
Pytr brushed back his long sweat-matted gray-streaked black hair and gestured to Reynard. “You got any water left?”
Reynard tapped the water skin at his feet with a boot. “Yes, plenty.” He let the ax slip to the ground and grabbed it. With a grunt, he hurled the water skin toward Pytr, who snatched it out of the air.
The man yanked the stopper, tipped the skin, and guzzled water as it splashed and dripped down his matted beard and over his heavy cotton shirt. “Ah!” he sighed, wiping his lips with his forearm. “Have you seen the boy?”
Reynard shrugged, “Not since we arrived this morning.”
“He’s probably sleeping somewhere. Better call him in.”
Cupping his mouth, Reynard turned and bellowed into the forest, “SORKIN!” After the muffled echoes, silence greeted him. Drat, that boy, where was he?
After several more shouts and a few minutes, a beardless young man appeared, his heavy linen tunic stained with sweat, an ax resting on his shoulder.
“Where have you been?”
Sorkin blinked a few times before glancing at the dull, stained ax blade on his shoulder. “Cutting wood, apparently.”
Pytr laughed. “Well, what else would you be doing? Or maybe you were daydreaming about Gretta.” He nudged Reynard.
Gretta Lenzil, clearly the prettiest girl in the village, had all the hearts of the young men and perhaps some of the lusty hearts of the older ones.
“Oh, not Gretta, I’ll bet,” Reynard chimed in. “Perhaps the widow Danby then,” he said with a smile.
Pytr roared. Danby looked like the wrong end of a horse and smelled like one too.
Sorkin blinked and looked between the two men. Pytr clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly causing him to stumble.
“Relax, boy, we were just kidding.”
With a poisonous glance, Sorkin glared at Pytr.
Reynard grabbed his satchel and looked inside. “You hungry, boy?”
Sorkin looked at him. “Oh, yes, I guess I am.”
“Here!” Reynard whipped his arm toward Sorkin, who awkwardly dropped the ax and caught a small sack.
Reynard pulled out a hunk of bread and cheese from his satchel and sat heavily on a nearby stump. He looked up to see Sorkin staring into the sack. “Is there a problem?”
Sorkin looked up at him. “No.” He dug out some cheese, eyed it carefully, and sniffed it.
Reynard ripped off a chunk of bread and nipped off some cheese to go with it. Danby might look like a horse, but she baked like an angel. He looked up to see Sorkin chewing some cheese with his eyes closed.
“This is fantastic,” he said as crumbs dribbled down his chin. He stuffed most of the cheese into his mouth.
“Whoa, take it easy,” Pytr said. “You’ll choke on it if you aren’t careful.”
Sorkin looked at him but chewed rapidly and swallowed, though not without some obvious discomfort. “You got anything to drink?”
Pytr proffered the waterskin. Sorkin took it and swallowed several large gulps.
Reynard tasted bile in his throat and put his food back in the satchel. His stomach was hungry but unsettled. He didn’t know why, but these woods gave him the creeps. He looked up at Pytr.
“You suppose we’re the first ones in here?”
“No,” Sorkin said with a pinch of bread between his thumb and forefinger. He gave it a sniff and popped it into his mouth.
“How would you know?” Pytr shot back.
Sorkin’s eyes flicked in his direction. “Ah, well, that’s my guess anyway.”
Pytr rolled his eyes. “These woods are virgin stands, good solid and thick,” he said, slapping a nearby tree trunk. “No one has been in here. Not for a long time anyway.”
Reynard looked at the trees grimly. “No matter, I don’t like the feel of this stand. They feel almost alive. Nothing like the trees near the village.”
“You sound like an old woman,” Pytr scolded.
Reynard growled back, “I do not take rumors lightly. Some say these woods are haunted by evil spirits that devour the minds of those they enter and who never see their homes again.”
Pytr blew out a loud breath, “Nonsense. Nothing lives in here except squirrels and snakes.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Sorkin said, his eyes flicking between the two men.
“Oh, this should be entertaining,” Pytr laughed. “How about you tell us about it? I could stand to hear a good story.”
Sorkin blinked. “All right. I will then.” He sat down on a stump and cleared his throat.
“What do you know of the Shadowless?”
Pytr waved the question away. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. My mother used to tell us stories about them, so we wouldn’t play in the forest after dark. So, you’re going to tell us a ghost story?”
Reynar rubbed his chin. He, too, had heard the stories. But unlike Pytr, he still harbored a fear of the formless creatures who devoured the souls of those they possess, but there was no way he’d let either man know that. “Oh, let him tell the story.”
“In the beginning, not even the Shadowless knew they were different than the wild creatures they lived among. But they soon realized they could leap into the bodies of creatures around them and maintain that existence until the forms they occupied no longer suited them. Then they would move on to other animals, accumulating skills and experience and achieving self-awareness. In the old forests of the piedmont, they lived a lean and meager existence during bitter, long winters and short temperate summers. Rains fell each spring, bringing forth new life and opportunities to grow. And grow they did, from a select few, into hundreds of creatures, spreading beyond the ancient uplands into the more fertile and temperate forests and primeval swamps.
Life, such as it was, was good solid, definable, and predictable. But that changed when the newcomers arrived, first in small numbers. Their fitful and pitiful attempts often ending in disaster – whole families finding their way into the soil, only to fertilize it for the next group to arrive. But the newcomers were resilient, relentlessly scratching and clawing an existence out of the earth, chopping down the trees, hunting the animals the Shadowless relied on. The invaders reshaped the land to meet their needs, not the Shadowless. As the cancer of the invaders’ existence grew, the Shadowless watched. Some wanted to fight back, but most did not – so they retreated further up the slopes to the foot-hills from whence they came, into the thinner forests of the uplands.”
Suddenly Pytr shivered. Reynard noticed. “You okay?”
Pytr glared at him briefly. “Yeah, fine.” He looked away. “Just caught a chill.”
“Okay, Sorkin,” Reynard said, looking at the younger man. “Go on.”
“A lean existence became a meager one. They left the elk, deer, and fox for the goat, eagle, and snake. But the invaders followed, picking and hacking their way over precipices and passes, relentlessly taking away places of refuge, closing off paths of escape. In desperation, some dove deep into the caves – scraping out an existence amongst the bats, snakes, and lowly spiders. The rest scattered to even more remote areas.
As sanctuaries disappeared, so did their community. They lost touch with the other clans – and their numbers declined steadily until only a handful were left – a small pitiful remnant of a sizeable and glorious clan. So they decided to risk everything and head back to the lowlands, and the wild forested lands near the river, where some Shadowless were rumored to have taken refuge. They took courage from the fact that the invaders had not penetrated there and hoped that they could survive, perhaps even regain some of the vigor they once had.
For some time, they did find safety until the sounds of axes echoed among the trees, and the destruction began anew. There was no consideration of escape this time, only a desire to strike back.”
Sorkin paused and slowly drank from the waterskin, never taking his eyes off Reynard.
Reynard grinned, “So what happened?”
Pytr visibly tensed, staring him down. “That is up to you.”
Reynard’s curiosity wavered; he was beginning to feel uneasy. “Me? What do you mean?”
Sorkin straightened and picked up his ax. “Do you want to be a messenger or an example?”
A shiver ran down Reynard’s spine as he helplessly scoured the menacing faces of Sorkin and Pytr. He couldn’t fathom their motives but knew he had no choice. He nervously replied, “Your home?”
Sorkin glanced up at the looming trees and spoke softly yet firmly, “This is ours now. Tell your people what happens to those who dare to step here again. Leave us alone, and we will leave you in peace.”
Dread filled Reynard as he stumbled backward, away from these two imposing figures. His thoughts circled from his family’s fear-stricken faces to the repercussions that would soon follow this encounter. They wouldn’t believe him about these men, so more would come in search of them. But it would not be him who led them here. His life meant far more than risking it in the dark places.