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Chapter One

A Girl In Majestica

Where else, but in Majestica, would a grand adventure like this unfold?

It is a place so beautiful and so enchanting as to be the mirror of any child’s dream. It is here that King Alfred and Queen Claire transformed a once-small village into the richest and happiest kingdom in all the known lands. Now, though it is true the king and queen live a fairytale life, this royal couple know nothing of real magic. Not yet, at least.

Majestica is hidden in the middle of a vast forest where certain trees, called ticklers, grow so wonderfully tall that even on bright, sunny days it is no easy task to see the very tops. The soil supporting the ticklers’ bulging roots is the darkest brown imaginable, almost black, like chocolate cake, and it is so rich that it produces the plumpest food to be found anywhere.

Majestica’s grapes are the size of apples; apples are the size of turnips; and turnips are the size of watermelons. The watermelons often reach fifty pounds and are so filled with juice, they cause a proper soaking when carelessly sliced. Not to be outdone, the average pumpkin is much, much larger with the very largest on record measuring in at exactly four thousand pounds. It took a team of seven maidens to shovel out the innards to make the pies (all three hundred of them), and you can be certain each pie turned out sweeter than honey.

Speaking of honey, it should be noted that Majestican bumblers, who have the happiest faces you have ever seen, haven’t any stingers. The flowers grow so thick, you see, that there is no competition, and therefore no need to be armed like their wasp cousins.

Majestica’s crystal clear streams teem with cheeky trout who jump and wink when they do not want to be caught. Countless birds sing in the trees, and all manner of wildlife fills the forests. Yes, to be sure, Majestica is as beautiful as can be described: a place still free from the dark Fear that has taken root in so many other kingdoms.

The guardians of Majestica are none other than the Knights Triumphant and, not unlike the bumblers, these men have no need to carry swords. Violence and war is not yet known to Majestica. Instead, the knights are renowned for their wisdom and great feats of strength. Most importantly, whenever confronted with foreign hostility, the Knights Triumphant make peace through negotiation alone.

They wear the finest and lightest armour for decorative purposes only, and wave glorious red and white flags. You’ll see them at their best during the many festivals, or while performing for local charities. They are always smiling, always generous, and always impressing the rosy ladies – even girls like eleven-year-old Molly Withers, who pretends she is not yet interested in princes.

At first blush, Molly appears average in every way, but past the hustle and bustle of Town Centre, through all the nearby forests, and beyond the outer reaches of Majestica, Molly is well known in secret circles. From softly spoken whispers to dark debates, the word is spreading – Molly Withers knows the Magic!

Molly is painfully oblivious to this, though, and spends most her time doing very ordinary things, such as playing and singing in the forests which surround her small home. She also chases fairies knowing that she may never catch one, as it is true no mortal in the history of mortals has ever been able to catch one. Sure there are stories of people catching other fairies in other kingdoms, but no fairies are as quick and clever as Majestica’s Pinkleton Dimple fairies. These sprites, with their baby’s breath dresses, deep dimples, and rosy little cheeks, can disappear and then reappear quicker than a blink. Some claim to have even seen the same fairy in two spots at the same time!

Despite their sometimes arrogant nature, Molly can’t help but love the Pinkletons’ perfect little wings. Most of the time, their wings are that certain shade of green which can only be seen in springtime when leaves are first coming into bloom. But, if the fairies happen to cross the path of a female Unicorn, or if they hear a pleasant song, their wings turn a golden hue. They can’t help but turn, the same way someone blushes when flattered unexpectedly. To see a fairy, all you need do is walk among the flowers where they snore their lazy days away.

As much as Molly loves spending time in the forest, so too does she love curling up with an old book under her favourite tree. And what a tree this is. The trunk is thick, thick, thick and to walk all the way around would take you a full minute. Compared in height to the ticklers, though, it is quite a bit shorter, shaped much like a mushroom, and surrounded by a soft, springy bed of special clovers. Each clover has four and a half leaves, you see, which make them perfect to wish by.

Often alone, it is here Molly comes to read stories of dragons and knights, wolves and grandmothers, and genies and their magical lamps. She imagines these characters come alive for her, and if she isn’t careful, they’ll leap off the pages and escape. Molly also imagines that her tree is a gateway leading to a world of leprechauns where voices echoing from deep within its stump speak of rainbows, lost treasures, and fat pots of gold.

But her favourite fairytales are those that end with princes falling in love with simple country girls, and then marrying them as the entire kingdom cheers with joy. Of course these tales are the most appealing, because she so longs to have someone take her away from her poor, dull life, and tell her that there is real magic left in the world. It’s not that the simple spells of the Pinkletons aren’t amusing, but Molly wants to see and feel something so magical that it would change her life forever; something that would give her all she could ever want; something as wonderful as the Golden Tree of Truth.

Molly has read several stories about the Golden Tree, but she’s always been left with more questions than answers. Whether it is fact or fiction remains to be seen, and where in the world this tale first began, no one knows for sure. But, according to legend, this Tree, with its delicate golden leaves, has the ability to answer any question imaginable. One popular version of the tale alludes to the famed wizard, Engelbert the Great, who used his unparalleled wizardry to devise a magical seed.

One cloudless night, or so the story goes, he planted this seed where no one would ever think to look. Supposedly, the trunk and branches grew on the very spot, but it did not produce a solitary bud for quite some time. It is rumoured, however, that three years to the day after it first sprouted, Engelbert the Great returned to the Tree and discovered it was full of golden leaves. He was so delighted that he cast upon it a spell to protect it: should anyone happen to find the Tree and steal even one of those golden leaves, it would shrivel up and die.

Now, whoever took the leaves would be rich, but the secrets of the Universe would be lost forever. Molly knew very well what she would do if she were to find such a Tree. What was a bit of knowledge compared to a lifetime of riches? Yes, Molly spent many a day poring over old cobwebbed books in the town’s library hoping to come across a clue that would tell her if the Tree really existed and where it might be found.

After one such excursion to the library, Molly was collecting cabbage grass for dinner from Stankwater Swamp. And, as was often the case, Charlie Gregg was in attendance. Charlie was a little older than Molly and could be very annoying when he wanted to. He was scruffy, with chestnut brown hair, fiery blue eyes, and a scattering of freckles on his cheeks which he did not like because he felt it made him look like a boy. But a boy he was, and typical (or traditional) of other boys his age, Charlie enjoyed teasing girls. One of his favourite victims, of course, was Molly Withers.

Being long overdue back home and rushing to finish her chores, Molly was more agitated than usual when Charlie began inflicting his torments. She wished she could make him go away with a little spell of her own.

‘Frickity frumpity frog, be gone you mangy dog!’ she said with hardly an upward glance.

Charlie did not disappear as Molly did not know any real spells, but he did look comical now covered in the cabbage grass Molly had just launched at him. Charlie calmly removed the wet leaves from his head, as though he was quite used to Molly throwing things at him. He then reached into his pocket, retrieved two familiar flint stones, and struck them together. Spark! Neither Molly nor Charlie nor the barking bulldog frogs noticed that a something was watching them from behind a fallen tree.

‘You shouldn’t be here alone, you know,’ said Charlie making another spark.

‘Why is that, Charlie?’ asked Molly, standing knee deep in muck, with more muck covering her arms, and some muck on her cheeks as well. ‘Are you scared?’

‘Uh – no,’ Charlie faltered.

Whatever was watching them from the cover of the dark woods stepped on a branch and it made a very distinct snap. Charlie looked in that direction, but saw nothing except dark rotting trees and a murder of crows shooting to the sky, declaring cawww, cawww, cawww

Almost protectively, Charlie stepped closer to Molly who didn’t care if the whole woods came crashing down. She needed to get this done before it was suppertime or her parents would be mad. She had already spent too much time in the library, and further procrastinated in the swamp by chasing bulldog frogs, and skipping rocks.

Molly’s parents were William and Annabelle. They were both loving, but had no time for Molly’s talk of magic and fairytales. Yet, that’s not to say Annabelle had never chased fairies before. She often did as a child. But, somewhere along the way, like so many parents of their generation, Annabelle’s childhood magic was replaced with work and so-called maturity.

‘Everyone’s in the orchard getting ready,’ said Charlie, hoping to change the subject, and it was a good choice too. Tonight was All Hallows Ball and he knew Molly loved it.

She loved it almost as much as Christmas. She loved watching the knights and their feats of incredible strength. She loved seeing the skeletons fashioned from dried out cornstalks that looked quite scary and real. She loved how the Pinkleton Dimple fairies cast spider spells so that the entire apple orchard was covered in magic webs that shot little sparks of colour when you passed through them. She loved the Ball’s singing competition. She loved Grandma Jones’ oversized candy apples, though she hadn’t had one herself in years. She loved the glowing pumpkins and had already carved hers three days prior.

Other girls her age carved happy faces, or kitten faces, or, heaven forbid, pony faces, but Molly’s pumpkins were always frightfully ghoulish. Whatever the matter at hand, make it dark, or old, or scary in any way, and Molly would love it.

The most spectacular part of All Hallows Ball, though, was the outrageous costumes. Molly cherished the idea of having one night a year when she could pretend she was someone else – anyone else for that matter. If she had the means to be whatever she wished, Molly would have dressed up as a fairy princess, for she knew only the daughter of a king or queen could ever be a princess in this world.

Despite all these wonderful things, though, Molly replied: ‘I am not sure if I am going this year.’

One eye remained on Charlie, spying his response.

‘Then you are going to miss Priscilla singing,’ said Charlie, still pondering the cause for the snapping in the woods. ‘Everyone knows she has the prettiest voice in all Majestica. Looks like she might win the Majestica music award this year, too.’

‘Prissy!’ Molly shouted. ‘Prissy! Prissy! Prissy? Why she is only…what?’

‘First off, her name is Priscilla. She doesn’t like being called Prissy. Secondly, she’s my age, thirteen, which makes her only two years older than you. Everyone is going to be there to see it too. The youngest girl to win – ever!’ said Charlie being sure to emphasize the ‘ever’ because he knew Molly loved to sing, and he knew Molly wished to win this singing contest just as much as she wished to be a princess.

Now there can be no doubt Priscilla had a fine voice. She always had the best singing instructors to give her lessons and she could afford it because her parents were none other than King Alfred and Queen Claire. Priscilla had the best of everything. Her clothes were all handmade by her very own seamstresses who used the finest materials available. She owned a prize show pony which won the admiration of all the schoolgirls. She even had her own falconry which daily drew an audience of boys eager to see them feed. Though Priscilla thought handling dead furry critters was disgusting, she loved the attention so much she’d throw piles of lifeless mice straight up in the air for the falcons to catch and devour. The boys would laugh, and Priscilla would bask in their affection.

And, as if all these things were not enough, Priscilla was also blessed with very fine looks. Her long blonde ringlets bounced prettily as she walked and her big blue eyes along with her perfect smile always made the boys fumble their words, as if their mouths were stuffed full of marshmallows.

Molly recalled all this at once in a sudden flood of emotion. She seriously wondered whether or not she would enjoy All Hallows Ball this year. It was not as if she hated Priscilla, but she knew very well that Priscilla would brag endlessly if she were to win, and that might be unbearable.

‘I guess I’d win too, if I were as rich and as pretty as her,’ Molly uttered more to herself than to Charlie.

‘Well, I don’t really care who wins,’ said Charlie. ‘I can’t wait to see the Knights Triumphant competitions. Knight MacDonald is going to have a tug-o-war tonight with Brut, the king’s horse! I bet MacDonald wins too! Someday, I’ll win a tug-o-war contest with a horse, and not just any horse. I am going to out tug a big hefty Clydesdale and then I’ll be asked by the king to be his number one knight!’

Charlie made one final spark with his flint stones and then skipped up the path towards home, singing all the way until he and his voice faded in the distance.

‘Charlie the Knight Triumphant has won again. Oh yes, what a knight is Charlie. OH yes, Oh yes, oh yes.’

Molly was not amused. Knight or no knight, Priscilla or no Priscilla, singing contest or no singing contest, she was now very late. She knew her mother would be worried and her father would be angry. Molly presumed she would be punished. What if her parents decided not to let her go to All Hallows Ball? Even if Priscilla was going to win the award, Molly wouldn’t miss this night for the world – not really.

With four pails of cabbage grass, Molly left Stankwater Swamp behind. She left the lily pads, the bulldog frogs, the dark woods, and the something that retreated into the scummy water as soon as she was out of sight.

Not long after, Molly burst through the rickety front door of her family’s small home declaring: ‘I’ve got the cabbage grass for the stew, Momma, but I had to fight off Pinkletons to get home as quickly as I did.’

Molly rushed past her mother who was standing over a wash basin, and poured the greens out onto the counter.

‘It was so awful,’ continued Molly. ‘There must have been thirty, no, fifty of them buzzing around my head all at once. Half pulled at my hair, while the other half emptied the buckets, and the other half tied my shoelaces together. They stole what I first gathered so I—’

‘Three halves?’ her mother interjected. ‘Why, that is a terrible amount of fairies, isn’t it? Good thing there wasn’t four halves or you may not have made it to the Ball tonight.’

Annabelle knew Molly was telling a fib.

‘You know, Charlie came by while you were out,’ Annabelle continued. ‘I told him you were doing your chores as you ought to be doing, and I also told him that you wouldn’t want to be late for supper, as you surely would not want to be late for the Ball.’

Annabelle couldn’t help, but smirk.

‘Funny little fellow,’ Annabelle added. ‘You always tell me you don’t like him whatsoever, and he always seeks you out. Perhaps he found you in Stankwater, did he? Must have been dreadfully awful to fight off all those fairies and Charlie, too. I suppose it’s a blessing you made it home in one piece.’

Molly stood there embarrassed knowing her story was so flawed. Three halves? Honestly. But, she was pleasantly surprised her mother was in good spirits. Perhaps she wasn’t going to be scolded after all. This pleasantry passed, however, when her father came steaming through the front door in a whirling storm of woodchips.

He was a big, solid man who hadn’t lost any of his youthful strength. When he smiled, everyone around him smiled, but when he was angry, his eyes lost their brown warmth and turned a filthy red. This was a man you would not cross for any amount of leprechaun’s gold. He would sputter and curse the most awful things, and still he had one of the warmest hearts in a man. It was obvious he too had lost the childhood magic that many take for granted.

Like so many others, William came to believe prosperity only came to those who worked hard. But he also believed not everyone could be wealthy, and not everyone could do what he or she wanted, and not everyone was meant to lead, and that most were doomed to a life of servitude. After repeating these things over and over and over again, he had come to believe that life was supposed to be this way.

‘Imagine that,’ he growled. ‘Molly has finally returned with the cabbage grass. Hmph! By the time they are cleaned, and by the time we eat, and by the time we have cleared away from supper, and by the time we have brought in wood, and by the time we have fed the chickens, and cleaned their coops, and by the time we sweep, and by the time—’

‘And by the time she does all that,’ Annabelle interrupted, ‘Molly will have missed the Ball.’

Annabelle was nervous to cut him off like that, but she took a quick breath and continued.

‘Now, I can think of no better punishment than to make her go to the Ball straight away and have her applaud that young Priscilla,’ said Annabelle hoping to soften the mood. William stammered a bit more, though, stomping around the kitchen, and muttering mild profanity to himself.

‘And when it is all over,’ Annabelle pressed, ‘she can help clean up. I believe Miss Sullivan organizes the volunteers. Yes, and Molly can ask to bring us home some leftovers.’

William relished the thought of free anything, but he also wanted Molly to learn the importance of hard work. She needed a role model; someone who could show her how to have a better life than he had growing up. Maybe Gabrielle Sullivan was just the person. Even though there were several bizarre rumours that Gabrielle sought the company of witches; even though some said she was not a mortal at all, but a spirit; even though she had an uncanny way of predicting the weather; and even though no one knew where she had disappeared to for seven years after retiring, there was no denying she was a very wise and well respected teacher. Perhaps Gabrielle would take Molly under her wing, and teach her the value of schooling and hard work.

William faced Molly who hadn’t said a peep since he entered the house.

‘You be sure to find Miss Sullivan and you listen to everything she has to say,’ he growled. ‘Help her clean the orchard, and don’t forget to bring home anything we can use.’

William then retrieved his pipe from his dusty trousers and returned to his wood shop outside. Molly’s head emerged from her body like a cautious turtle. She turned to her mother and saw that Annabelle’s subtle smile had already passed. It was not replaced by anger, but rather a tiny bit of sadness that crept in every time she got a headache, and yes, Annabelle received more than her fair share of headaches. Molly felt guilty knowing her mother seemed to get headaches when things in the house were stressful, and Molly believed things were mostly stressful because of the way she misbehaved.

Annabelle reached into her apron and retrieved a ten cent piece which she offered to Molly.

‘Now, you take this and enjoy yourself,’ said Annabelle handing it to Molly. ‘I know it’s not much, but it will at least buy you a candy apple.’

Molly took the coin reluctantly knowing her parents did not have any extra money. She also knew that a ten cent piece would not be enough to buy a candy apple as candy apples have been twenty-five cents for years. But she wouldn’t tell her mother this – not to save the world.

‘Sorry I was late, Momma. Can I really go?’ asked Molly.

Annabelle smiled and Molly was off lickety split to get washed and changed. One full year had passed and it was time, once again, to experience the splendour of All Hallows Ball – apples or no apples.