The Fairy King -11- Guardian at the Gate

Life goes on for Megan, after her kiss from the Fairy King...

Part 11 - Guardian of the Gate

by Wanda Cunningham

Chapter 22

Winding the Clock

Like a video that's just been taken off pause, Roland and Phillip resumed their progress toward me. All around us, the world took up its ordinary tempo. A wind ruffled the crowns of the pines on the ridge and made surf-like waves in the wild oats of the meadow. It felt real and unreal at the same time, sort of like when you wake up and you're running a fever. I knew that feeling but this time it was the Fairy King's kiss that had heated my blood, not bronchitis.

I put a hand to my mouth, touching my lips. They felt hot and swollen. The kiss had been paradox, soft but unyielding, cool but fiery. I would remember that kiss for a long time, I knew, and not just with the memory of lips touching lips. Belcanto had touched more than just my skin, he had laid his magic on my soul--and proved to me that I had the soul of a woman.

I wanted another kiss and I wanted more than a kiss.

It took an effort to shake myself out of fantasy and back to the reality of a summery meadow on a Southern California mountain. I looked around, Roland and Phillip continued their interrupted journey toward me. Behind them lay the rocky wash separating the meadow from the trail behind the houses along Pine Ridge Road. I lived there now, in Number Nine and Phillip lived in Number Five, only two doors away.

The mid-afternoon sun still shone above the ridge that Tintabelle had called Pincerrie, the wind playing with my skirt still smelled of pines. My heart ached with the sudden beauty of a very ordinary place. I brushed tears from my eyes and took several deep shuddering breaths, willing myself back to reality.

It seemed hard to believe that only moments ago the Monarh of Morning Mountains and Emperor of Evening Seas had proposed marriage to me--and I had accepted for the sake of the horse and rider now approaching.

I watched Phillip and Roland come closer, no longer statues but moving at an ordinary pace; as if someone had rewound their clocks. The tall boy with strawberry blond hair ond the big brown horse with the pale golden mane had no idea that their lives had been threatened by the Fairy King.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to warn them. I wanted to run in my sundress to meet them but I could only move a step at a time. I still didn't seem to have any air. "Be careful!" I whispered.

Phillip waved, watching me. His pale red hair gleamed in the sun like the legends of fairy gold and one of his tiny, almost imaginary, smiles played around his mouth. He looked so young.

Belcanto had looked young, too, but the Fairy King's eyes were older than oceans. I won't be fourteen for another month, I thought despairingly, and someone who may have watched the Romans conquer Britain wants me for his bride. The three years or so between my age and Phillip's seemed so trivial on that scale.

I waved back at Phillip as he and Roland carefully picked a way across the broken ground of the wide meadow.

It would be so easy to think I'd gone crazy but there I stood in a sundress I'd bought earlier in the day watching my boyfriend approach and only last week I'd been a boy myself. Life was weird enough without fantasy making things more complicated.

Roland kept his eyes on the ground, choosing between dangers, loose dirt, bramble patches, squirrel holes. He looked large and brown and so very solid. In the sunlight, his mane gleamed golden much brighter than I had seen it before under the shadow of the trees. Now Roland's coat shone like metal, deep bronze body and bright brass mane and tail, one white stocking like silver.

Little creatures in the tall grass fled from Roland making a tiny pandemonium; a pair of mice, in particular, demonstrated a surprising vocabulary for such small rodents. The magical comprehension of animal voices I had gained with my first wish still worked, even though I didn't really want to hear a mouse warn a horse, "You great brobdignagian nag, you gallumphing galoot, get your apocalyptic hoof out of my parlor!"

I got my breath back and finally ran toward horse and horseman, trying hard not to cry because Phillip wouldn't understand.

"Eden," he said when we got close enough to speak in ordinary voices. His blue eyes sparkled. His smile flashed on and off, changing his expression from serious interest to secret delight, moment to moment. How could a boy look so beautiful? And so vulnerable.

"Hi, Phillip," I said unable to think of anything else to say. I wiped my eyes with one hand and tried to keep smiling at him so he wouldn't realize I had been crying.

"You look very nice in that dress, Eden," he said.

I did laugh then, nervously. He hadn't seen me in one before. "Thank you, I haven't worn one...all summer..." I trailed off, confused. I had never worn one before today in my whole life.

He nodded, half-smiling. "You should wear dresses more often," he said, looking at my legs.

"I smell fairies," commented Roland, before I could think too much about Phillip's admiration. The horse whuffled and flicked his ears. I looked around, concerned, but none of the little people or their human-sized king were visible. Even the mice were quiet.

Phillip patted Roland's neck. "Easy," he said. Then to me, "Are you going over to the trailer court to see the Hawthornes?"

"Yes, we're going to have lunch," I said. I'd almost forgotten about my planned lunch with Molly and Dolly. It seemed like an appointment made in some fictional previous existence, as if I'd agreed to meet Alice and the White Rabbit for tea. I think I must have looked a bit confused.

"Would you like a ride?" Phillip asked, quickly, before I could really sort out my thoughts. "You could sit sidesaddle in front of me," he offered, scooting back to show me how much room the big Western saddle had, room enough for two to ride.

I did want a ride. More, I wanted to sit on Roland with my back against Phillip and feel the big horse under me and human arms around me. I still shivered inside from the kiss of the Fairy King and I needed the warmth of humanity and the solidity of a big comfortable animal. Some of my fright must have showed in my face.

Phillip's expression changed only a little, a vertical line appeared between his eyes, a minimalist concerned frown. "You're not afraid of Roland, are you?" he asked.

The big horse snorted. "Of course not," he said. His voice made me think of oatmeal, almost logical for a horse.

I shook my head.

Phillip dismounted and stepped closer to me. "And you're not afraid of me?"

"No, no," I said, resisting an impulse to step back. "Just--the ground is so uneven. Rabbit holes."

"We'll be careful, nothing faster than a walk," promised Roland. "I'd be honored to be your steed, Lady Eden."

"Roland is very careful on ground like this, we'll keep to a walk," echoed Phillip. "Please?"

I nodded, quickly. Phillip took my hand and led me to Roland's side; we stopped with my back to the big animal. "Steady," said Phillip.

"I'm a rock," agreed Roland.

I giggled suddenly and Phillip almost grinned, or at least his lips quirked a bit. He put his hands on my waist, "Ready?" he asked. I nodded again and he lifted me easily into the saddle.

A tiny breeze ruffled my skirt. I squeaked, clasping my legs together and bending my knees to brace my heels on Roland's broad flank. With one hand I held down my skirt and with the other I grabbed the saddle horn.

"Thatta girl," said Phillip. Then, "Easy, boy," to Roland as he swung up into the saddle behind me with one hand still resting lightly on my waist.

I gasped. Phillip didn't look particularly strong but I could feel the lean hardness of his body against my back and he'd lifted me as easily as one of my brothers, Sean or Adam, could have, then he had mounted without using his hands. That impressed me.

Phillip left the reins where they were, looped over the saddle horn under my hand. "Sweet walk, Roland," he commanded.

"Sugarfoot," said the horse. I felt powerful muscles surge beneath us, his golden mane tickled my arm as we began to move.

"What's 'sugarfoot' mean?" I asked, not thinking at the moment that Phillip could not hear Roland's Wilford Brimley voice.

"That's his gait," said Phillip. "An even walk, very comfortable, but it covers ground quickly and he can do it all day long. He's almost shuffling his feet. It's also his breed, part Tennesee Walker, part Morgan, part Quarter Horse. The studbook is only about twenty years old."

He didn't ask where I'd heard the term and I didn't ask what a studbook was. I could sort of guess that it must be where horse pedigrees were recorded.

"He's a palomino, isn't he?"

Phillip shook his head. "Nope, flaxen chestnut; he looks like a palomino but he's darker. He's chestnut and pale gold instead of gold and nearly white. Different genetics, palominos don't always breed true but all the horses in the Sugarfoot studbook are flaxen chestnut."

"Huh," I said. "So Roland is pretty special?"

"Well, I like to think so," he said, patting Roland's flank. "You like horses, don't you?"

"Yes," I said.

Roland's ears twitched and I knew he was listening. "Horses know when someone likes them," Phillip commented.

I got distracted then by the pressure on my back from Phillip's arm as he reached around me to pat the horse on the neck this time. My heart seemed to beat faster and a warmth spread from every part of my body touching Phillip. I'd wanted to be here, to feel human warmth but somehow I felt frightened of what might happen. After my meeting with the Fairy King, why did an ordinary boy seem so scary? I'd agreed to marry Belcanto to keep Phillip--and Roland--safe but who would keep me safe from how I seemed to feel about Phillip?

Belcanto's kiss had lit some sort of fire inside me and I suddenly understood a lot better why Mom had described my sister Phoebe as "boy crazy." I hoped, Phillip thought the color in my cheeks was just from the wind.

"The entrance to the park is around by the road," Phillip commented. "Why were you headed this way?"

"Uh," I said. I wished I could kick start my brain. "Oh, yeah, there's an entrance through the back of the junkyard?" I pointed with my right hand. "Over there." It was almost a relief to have something else to think about but I couldn't hold onto my imagination for very long.

Roland clop-clopped that direction without orders from Phillip. The reins were still looped over the saddle horn under my left hand. The gentle motion of Roland's progress kept me very aware of Phillip's presence behind me. Somewhere, deep in the middle of my physical self, something quivered.

I looked back at Phillip, so clase were we that I could easily see the tiny flecks of silver and gold in his blue eyes. I realized that our gazes were locked, even in such an awkward pose.

Before I could think of the sky-deep blue of the Fairy King's eyes, Phillip said, "Your eyes are about fifty different colors, all of them green."

"You mean both of them," I said.

He smiled without the smile doing more than crinkle the corners of his mouth. "Both of them," he agreed.

I looked away quickly and tried not to giggle.

Chapter 23

The Dog with Three Names

"There's a fence," said Roland. Even though Phillip couldn't have heard the comment right from the horse's mouth, he looked up when I did. The ragged fence stretched across the angle from the back corner of the trailer park to another compound containing the offices of the junkyard and some buildings that might have been warehouses or garages. It looked as if it had been made of salvaged fencing itself, two different styles of chainlink in three different heights, part of it topped with two or three strand barbwire.

"I don't see a gate," said Phillip.

"Not a real gate," I said. "Just an opening in the fence." I pointed to the spot where two of the mismatched stretches of fencing met by simply overlapping loose ends. The four-foot-high opening I remembered would not allow Roland to enter the park this way.

Phillip grunted and Roland ambled toward the gap.

Suddenly, a black and gold form seemed to spring from a hole in the ground near a derelict Buick on the other side. "Who are you?" shouted Cerebus, simultaneously uttering one amazingly loud bark. He looked huge with his fur all bristling up, and a Rottweiler is already an enormous dog.

"Son of a bitch," said Roland. I almost laughed out loud in relief.

"Son of a mare," returned Cerebus, sharply. The big dog sniffed, then wagged his tail. "Oh, it's you," he added, looking directly at me.

"It's me," I agreed.

"The dog knows you?" asked Phillip. He had both hands on my shoulders, holding me in the saddle.

"Sure," I said. "We're old friends, aren't we?"

"You bet," agreed the dog, tail wagging. "Did you bring me something?" He moved to stand in the opening, his big head sticking through the gap. He opened his mouth and made a "yawp" sound then clapped his jaws. He looked appalingly fierce except for his tail wagging but he sounded like somebody's goofy uncle.

"He's half as big as a pony! Eden, that's a junkyard dog," Phillip protested. "They are not friendly animals."

I'd forgotten all about the toll I had promised Cerebus, the bread dipped in meat juices. "He's a nice dog," I said, a little less sure than I wanted to be.

"Sure I am," said Cerebus, adding an amiable, audible, "Woof!"

Phillip and Roland snorted doubtfully. "I could kick him into next week," offered the horse.

Cerebus stepped back, away from the gap. "You and whose cavalry, gluefoot?" he said. He showed his teeth and his tail stopped wagging.

"Be nice, Roland," I whispered, patting the big horse on the neck.

"Tell the pussycat to come out here where I can stomp him," said Roland, cheerfully.

"Cat!" yelped Cerebus. "Why you--you--you sofa! You antelope--chesterfield--you elk! I'll make a gelding of ya!" The big dog lunged back into the gap between the fencing, snarling and growling at the horse.

"Cerebus! Tigger! Bruno!" I tried all of his names, "Calm down!" I yanked on Roland's mane, "And you, stop antagonizing him."

"Huh? What did Roland do?" Phillip asked. "No, you are not getting down!" he added when I tried to slip from the saddle. Phillip's hands went to my waist now and held me firmly.

Roland gave Cerebus a horse laugh but backed off, snorting in amusement. The big black and yellow dog immediately calmed down. "That your boyfriend?" he asked conversationally, tail wagging again.

"Yeah, yes, no, I mean...." I wiggled a bit in Phillip's grip. "Let me down, he's not going to hurt me."

"What did you call him? That's an awful lot of names for a junkyard mutt and I can't let you down!"

"I don't let boys through the fence, Eden," said Cerebus Tigger Bruno. "Your boyfriend will have to wait out here with the cow."

"Your mother ate weasel food and liked it," said Roland.

Cerebus bristled again and I yanked on Roland's mane again. "Stop it, both of you!"

"What? Who?" protested Phillip. "What's Roland doing?"

"He started it," muttered the dog.

"That's 'cause I can finish it, too," said Roland smugly.

How could I explain to Phillip? "Let me down!" I squirmed some more.

"No! He may have three names instead of three heads but I'm not letting you off this horse with that monster guarding the gate!" Phillip put his left arm around my waist and linked hands, pulling me further up on the saddle.

"Phillip! Look, if you control your horse, I'll make Cerebus behave!"

The dog sniffed. "You forgot the bread and meat juice, didn't you?"

"Turn around and introduce yourself," said the horse.

Cerebus ran about five feet out through the gap, snarling and snapping and cussing and Roland shot a forefoot out in a kick that missed by yards but looked and sounded deadly. I'd never actually been able to hear a kick that didn't hit anything before.

The horse started forward. "You're all bark and bluff, rabbit-nose!" he sneered.

"I'll hamstring you, porkchop!" threatened the dog.

Phillip grabbed for the reins, still looped on the saddle horn, and I took my chance to slide off Roland's back and out of Phillip's grasp. I had to stop the two idiots before they hurt one another.

"Roland! Damnit! Eden!"

I hadn't realized what my action would do to my skirt.

I pushed my dress back down with both hands, hoping that Phillip hadn't seen my panties. What a thing to have to worry about, but there were more important worries just now.

"Eden!" Phillip yipped.

But before he could do anything to stop me, I rushed between Roland and Cerebus. "Stop it, you two!" I ordered them.

Cerebus promptly sat down right where he been barking and bouncing around, snarling at Roland. He looked up at me, "Hiya," he said cheerfully as if he hadn't been threatening massive bodily injury to the horse. I wanted to kill him.

"Nice kitty!" said Roland.

I whirled on the bigger animal and snapped, "Now you stop it, too!"

Phillip slipped from the saddle and grabbed Roland's bridle, "But he wasn't doing anything!" he protested. He couldn't hear the animals talking so he had no idea of the insults and taunts the horse had been using to get Cerebus all riled up.

How could I explain? "Cerebus doesn't like his attitude," I said lamely. "Uh, Roland curls his lip and shows his teeth."

"I did not," said Roland.

"Did too," said Cerebus behind me but he stayed sitting down.

"You did, I didn't," said Roland.

"You're a big liar and your farts smell like grass," said the dog.

"Stop it, both of you!" I snapped. Phoebe used to babysit a couple of brothers, eight and nine; at the time I was ten and tagged along with her for something to do. This argument sounded like the ones Sam and Dave had gotten into all the time. I also remembered that those verbal battles had frequently erupted into physical fights. "Boys!" Phoebe had exclaimed in disgust and so did I.

Phillip looked from me to the dog to Roland and back at me. "I didn't see either of them do anything," he said.

"They were about to," I said, frowning at each of them. "Now behave, if you can't be friends at least don't make any enemies."

"Fine with me," said Cerebus.

"Sorry," said Roland but he didn't sound sorry. "I guess I just don't like dogs," he added.

"Funny that," said Cerebus. "I'm rather found of horse...meat."

I glared at him and he lay down with his head on his paws and winked at me.

I wanted to kick him but he did look cute. "See?" I said to Phillip. "He's a good dog, he's not gonna hurt me or anybody."

"Well, he may be a pussycat..." Phillip began.

"Hey!" protested Cerebus. "Watch it."

"...but I can't let you go through that fence with him around," Phillip finished.

"How are you going to stop me?" I asked.

Phillip took a step forward. Instantly, Cerebus stood and rested his massive head against my hip. "Don't drool on me, this is a new dress," I warned him.

"Sorry," said the dog but he didn't take his eyes off Phillip. "You go on through the gate, I'll watch your back."

I put a hand through the short length of rope that served Cerebus as a collar. "You're coming with me as far as the other side of the fence."

"I don't think he's going to let me," said Phillip.

"Not you, him." I yanked on the collar and stepped backward toward the gap in the fence.

"I don't let boys through the fence," said Cerebus. "they just want to cause trouble."

"You let me through yesterday," I said, a bit puzzled.

Cerebus snorted. "Eden, you're a girl." He sniffed my other hand. "I can tell, you know."

"I..." I hadn't been a girl yesterday when I came through the fence the first time, had I? But how could I discuss this with a dog while Phillip watched and listened?

"He's got you there," commented Roland. "I knew you were a girl, too. Heck, even doofus here can tell." The big horse nudged Phillip with a massive shoulder, almost knocking him down.

"Hey!" Phillip pushed back against Roland with no effect whatsoever. "Don't you start!"

"You'd better go," I said. "Before they get into it again."

"Well," Phillip hesitated. "I'll stand here and watch.'

I sighed. "Back up about twenty feet, could you? The testosterone is getting a little thick."

He flashed me one of his minimalist grins but led Roland back to a spot more than ten yards from the fence. Cerebus watched intently, tail wagging. "Good riddance," he said to me. "Your boyfriend seems like a reasonable guy but that moose he rides is a jerk."

"Quiet," I warned him, both hands holding his collar. I didn't want him rushing after the horse. "I'm sorry I forgot the toll, your bread and meat," I said.

"That's okay," said the dog. "You can bring me some another time. I like you, Eden." He demonstrated with a tongue half as big as a bath towel.

"Hey, none of that," I said. I laughed, he was just a big goofy mutt but I felt glad to have him for a friend.

"This far enough?" asked Phillip.

"No," said Roland. "I can still see him." Phillip didn't hear that but Cerebus did and I tensed as the big dog quivered indignantly.

"Yes," I said. Straightening up, I tugged on the rope collar, "Let's go."

Cerebus obediently preceeded me through the gap in the fence. I had to let go of his collar to duck-walk through myself, using both hands to hold my skirt away from snags on the rusty wire.

While I stood up and waved at Phillip, the big black and yellow dog walked over to his dusty bed near the Buick, turned around twice, and flopped down. He lifted his head to lay his chin on the edge of the dirt he had piled up around the pit. "If you and the moose-rider have puppies, can I have one to play with?" he asked.

I just stared at him until Phillip called to me. "Everything okay?" he asked.

I turned and waved, shaking off my astonishment. I'd actually been wondering if I would be able to get pregnant eventually and what my and Phillip's kids might look like--red hair, almost certainly. I shook my head at Cerebus and whispered, "I don't think so." To Phillip I called out, "I'm fine, I'm going over to Molly and Dolly's now."

I started off that way, toward the inner gate from the junkyard to the mobile home park. "Don't wait for me," I told Phillip. "I'll probably call my Dad to come get me in the car."

"Okay," he said, sounding disappointed. Then he turned and mounted Roland and waved again.

"Goodbye, Lady Eden," called the horse.

"Bye, Roland, bye, Phillip, I'll see you tomorrow?"

Phillip nodded. "At the Atterbery's party. Goodbye, Eden."

Cerebus lifted his head and clawped his jaws. "Goodbye, see you soon."

I grinned at him. "Goodbye, Cerebus-Tigger-Bruno." I waved at everyone once more and hurried off through the gate into the park.

Next - [Truth or Dare]

More [The Fairy King]

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