The following is a short story that will one day be part of a much larger series of books surrounding Elspeth, Shepherdess of the Fae. You can read another longer tale of Elspeth’s arrival at Temple Taepaeum for her Training in The Crux Anthology, releasing on November 26.

A blaze of red flashed beneath the sun’s rays. With a twitch of its bushy tail, the skinny red squirrel beckoned. Elspeth’s chubby little hand held her giggle for a moment before releasing it to follow the scampering squirrel across the grass toward the giant hedge. The wee girl watched until the creature stopped again to turn and bid her follow him. This time she eagerly skipped along after him. Nevermind her parents’ repeated scolding answers to her questions concerning what the overgrown hedgerow contained.

“Not a thing. It’s simply a wild bush, and ye’ll do well to obey and stay clear of it. Ye’re not to go past the width of the house.”

Elspeth would drop her head and nod her agreement to obey while tugging on the sleeve covering the red markings on her arm. Even at five years old, she knew better than to question an order from her parents or to let anyone see the odd rune patterns covering her left arm. She had always known they disapproved of the marks’ existence.

As an infant, she spent hours cooing at each line and squiggle as she tapped and patted her arm. Once she began toddling about, she constantly tugged at her worrisome sleeves until a few good smacks to her bottom impressed the depth of her parents’ loathing for her tattooed limb. As often as she could hide away from their disapproving gazes, she would study each form and shape—all while singing songs in a foreign tongue more familiar to her ears, though she’d never heard them uttered by anyone else … not even her sister, Arabel.

Of course, she never glared at Elspeth’s arm or odd songs. She would smile dreamily. “Sing it again, Elspeth. Tis my favorite and makes me feel tingly,” she would say as she lay her red head on Elspeth’s arm. And so, Elspeth was able to be herself in secret or with Arabel. She had already learned the soothing solitude of the moors, but it was the hedge that called to her most clearly. At times she stared and stared, sure there was something within—just out of sight. Other times she heard indiscernible whispers emanating from beyond, carried on breezes heavy with the scent of flowers—flowers whose beauty Elspeth could envision simply from their smells.

On this morning, Elspeth’s skipping revealed her carefree, adventurous spirit as she passed the invisible confines of her house’s edge and followed the busy-tailed leader ahead to what turned out to be a rectangular hedge so tall she thought it caressed the blue sky blanketing them.

The squirrel rested on its haunches, observing her for a moment before he effortlessly hopped up and over into whatever lay within.

Elspeth cautiously approached the towering fortress. She stood only an arm-length away. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply. Spicy, floral, earthy and warm—the scent of whatever this hedgerow hid from her filled her lungs and brought a longing to her lips even as it enticed her to reach out and touch the deep green leaves. As she sang one of her secret songs and caressed nature’s wall before her, the words came back to her as a choir of hidden voices joined her own.

“Lambda socci, remiscienti tuum lumenasteri ollihesttapha maen trium coom unisum tuah, Dhae.”

As the song grew and deepened, the leaves beneath her fingertips shifted. They began to sway, then swirl in a drifting dance that created an entry into brilliant light within. The luminescence enveloped Elspeth and made her appear to glow from its brightness glistening on her deep brown locks. She continued to sing as she stepped into another world—one far from the strict, simple, unimaginative home in which she’d been raised.

Her unclad feet sank into softer moss than she’d ever experienced. It pressed up between each of her toes, cushioned them and urged her to dance and twirl to the tune she carried. Lightly landing, she jigged and leapt upon the springy ground until she’d crossed the open space to a garden teeming with flowers of every type Elspeth had ever seen, some she’d only envisioned in dreams and still others as foreign as the light and hedgerow around her.

The song slowly drifted away as Elspeth knelt before a bed of the most brilliant white flowers she’d ever seen. The light came, in part, from them and she felt their warmth gently radiating onto her skin until she thought, perhaps, she was glowing as well.

She reached out a curious hand to stroke one of the seven silky petals that curled up into itself when the sound of tinkling laughter, soft and low as a melodic whisper, greeted her. The petals unrolled themselves to reveal two tiny Faeries within them. She first noticed the red-haired one who had giggled. The tiny creature before her reminded her dearly of Arabel, but it was silver-haired Lailiana with whom she first spoke.

“How are ye so wee? I’d like to be yer size an’ sit on a flow’r to sing.”

The Flower Faerie observed the human child before her with widening, admiring soulful gray eyes. Her laugh spilled out like a song playing its way through the reeds on the banks of the river.

“At last we meet, beautiful Elspeth, Faerie Shepherdess of All Peoples. Ages I have watched and aeons have I longed for our greetings. Much you have to learn; more you have to lose; most you have to give.”

For one month Lailiana trained Elspeth in Faerie ways each afternoon in the garden by her home. Though the little girl understood very little of her destiny and couldn’t quite grasp the danger posed by Maelphaeus and all the Daemon Faeries he commanded, she understood the Flower Faeries with their lovely faces and lyrical names. She found herself able to tend to the flowers, aiding them in their growth in such a way even exacting Raisie had come to praise her on occasion.

And then one afternoon her time with the Faeries ended abruptly with a call from her mother. A fellow minister from a nearby town had come to call on her father, and she was expected to join them for tea.

“Elspeth! Whatever stained yer smock since this morning?” her mother gasped, mortified, as the minister leaned forward for a better view of the incriminating blemish.

“Oh! ‘Tis a bit of jam and greenery and magic. The Faeries set forth a most lovely tea this morn. We even had wee jam scones! And,” she leaned toward the minister, still bent toward her, eyes widened, “Lailiana—she’s the main Faerie, ye know—let me have three sugar lumps—three!”

With this shocking revelation, Elspeth emphasized her point with a well-practiced wink aimed right at Reverend MacLeod.

Barely concealing a bewildered grin, the minister cleared his throat and exclaimed, “A most amusing game of fancy you had this morning, lass!”

“Oh, sir, it wasnae fancy—well, the tea was fancy, as teas with Faeries must be, of course—but it wasnae fancy as ye mean. I take tea with them each morning. This was extra finely prepared as we were celebrating completion of my second fortnight of Faerie lessons.”

She continued in her most grown-up tone, “Ye see, I am to be their leader one day, a mighty Faerie warrior to fight against the evil Faeries and other foul creatures of the world. It is my destiny, written in the flow’r dust and foretold in the shadows of the magic stone rings.”

A jarring crash of shattering china broke the reverie of the ominously still drawing room. Elspeth’s mother’s cheeks deepened to a rich red as her father rose swiftly to contain the already embarrassing situation the young girl had created.

“Elspeth! That will be quite enough superstitious nonsense! I willnae have ye talking of such demonic subjects, especially in the presence of the minister. Awa’ wi’ ye to yer studies! And, ye will add some memory from the Confession today. I want to hear your recitations at supper.”

Her emerald eyes wide with fright and bewilderment at what offense she could have caused, they sought answers from her parents’ crimson cheeks and on the minister’s grave face, which no longer concealed anything resembling a smile. Finding no answers, she slunk out of the room, tears clouding her vision as she stumbled toward her approved lessons.

Elspeth’s spirit wasn’t broken, of course. It was simply tucked away—much like the Faerie garden—to strengthen and sharpen until the time of her Calling arrived.

“The Education of Elspeth” Copyright © 2018 by Joy E. Rancatore. All Rights Reserved.

I’d love to hear what you think about little Elspeth! Once you read her story in The Crux Anthology, please drop me a line and let me know how you liked that one as well. I look forward to further developing Elspeth’s tale.

This month’s story flowed from the inspiration of a delightful monthly online writing prompt, #BlogBattle. As you will read on their site, “Blog Battle is a monthly writing prompt meant to inspire writers and entertain readers.” To read several outstanding stories inspired by November’s prompt, “Education,” head on over to the BlogBattlers site! You may just find a new favorite author to follow!

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The following is a story from a series of short fiction exploring some of the Faerie Shepherds and Shepherdesses within my fantasy world. More of Elspeth's tale appears in The Crux Anthology.