Littlefoot (The Whole Novella)

 

Littlefoot

M.L. Millard

copyright 2014 M.L. Millard

 

Chapter One

 

Littlefoot pulled the last early carrot from the soil of her backyard garden and tossed it into her basket.

“Yo ho, truth be told,” she sang. “I would kill you for some gold.” She made up the pirate song as she went along. “Yo ho, what’s your pleasure, winsome wench or shining treasure?”

In the mud room, she kicked off her tiny, mucky, garden shoes and leaned into the kitchen door as she turned the knob.

“Ow!” She shouted when the door didn’t budge.

She heard a snicker on the other side.

“Kindra!” Littlefoot set her basket of vegetables down and slapped the door with both hands. “This isn’t funny, Kindra!”

“It is from in here,” her sister said with a snort. “How do you like your new locks now?”

“Let me in.”

“I just wanted to see how they worked, is all.”

Littlefoot slapped the door again. “You knew perfectly well how they worked.”

More laughter.

Littlefoot contemplated running around the house to the front door, but if Kindra had locked that one, too, she’d feel even more foolish.

She stood her ground. “Let me in, or you won’t have anything from the garden. I’ll take my basket straight to my room.”

“I don’t care.”

“Fine, I’ll walk to the market and tell Bron that you stuff your blouses with beanbags.”

“I do not!”

“Bron won’t know that.”

The door opened. Kindra was back to giggling about the locks. “Really, Littlefoot, what do you think we need to bar the door for?”

“Everyone should have them. You never know what might happen. I think Mom and Dad would be glad to know we had them.”

Kindra shrugged. “If they were worried about us, they wouldn’t have left for a five year sailing trip.”

This was true, but Littlefoot still thought her dad and stepmother would appreciate her locks. Kindra hadn’t even acknowledged that they were as finely crafted as the rest of the little house in the woods, with its ornamented gables, heavy doors, and built-in bookshelves, all of which Littlefoot’s dad had built when he married Kindra’s lovely mother.

Just then, Kindra’s older sister, Benedella, twirled her way through the kitchen door, unimpeded, with her basket full of eggs. “What was all the ruckus?”

“Nothing,” said Littlefoot. “I’m going to climb up to the treehouse and see if any of the wood is good enough to use to build a fence around the garden. Maybe I can keep at least a few of the critters out.”

“Oh Littlefoot,” Benedella said. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I’m afraid you’ll fall right through, it’s so rotten.”

“I’ll be careful. It looks like there are plenty of good sections.”

“What about the market?” Kindra asked. “Don’t you want to go?”

Littlefoot shook her head. “I want to get this fence started.”

“What about Asher?” Kindra said.

“What about him?”

“He’ll be expecting you.”

“He’ll survive. He sees me all the time.”

Kindra raised her eyebrows. “But don’t you want to see him?”

“I’m not sure what that look is supposed to mean,” Littlefoot said, turning to put her carrots on the counter behind her. “Asher and I are just friends.”

When Littlefoot turned back around, she sensed that her sisters had been exchanging a longsuffering look. But it was true. She thought of Asher as a friend, and nothing more. He was simple, sometimes to an infuriating extreme, and on top of that, Littlefoot liked things the way they were, living with her stepsisters in their cozy home, tending the garden while Benedella took care of the animals and baked, and Kindra kept the house tidy. Luckily, Kindra couldn’t keep her attention on one man for very long, and no one had a pure enough heart to match Benedella’s. Littlefoot felt she would have her sisters to herself for a very long time.

A wicked expression on her face, Kindra said, “So you wouldn’t mind if I went for Asher?”

Both Littlefoot and Benedella laughed heartily at this. Asher was too tall and skinny for Kindra. She preferred them musclebound. The further they were from being able to put their arms down at their sides, the better.

“And can you imagine having Asher’s mother for a mother-in-law?” Littlefoot asked.

Benedella shivered. “Good point.”

“So that ends that conversation,” Littlefoot said with a head nod for emphasis.

When they were young, Littlefoot and her sisters thought Asher’s house a child’s wonderland. Candies stuck all over the outer walls, lollipops standing at attention along the walkway, the smell of the chocolate at a slow boil inside, but the more years they knew Agnes, the creepier it all seemed.

“I don’t think she’s all that you’ve imagined about her, though,” said Benedella. “You still think she was preparing to bake that little boy, don’t you.”

“I know what I saw. Why would she have a boy in a cage and her oven heating up?”

Kindra had left the room and now returned wearing the red sweater she though best accentuated her ample bosom, ready for Bron, the market fish seller who never seemed to remember her from one flirt session to the next. “Maybe she was making candies for him.”

Littlefoot made a sound like a growl. “He was in a cage. It was a lucky thing I came along looking for Asher.”

Reaching down her sweater to adjust her underclothes, Kindra said, “I don’t know, Littlefoot.” And seeming satisfied with her cleavage, she continued, “The only thing I know is that I hate how she makes us call her “Aunt” Agnes. She’s not our aunt. Mom and Dad don’t even like her.”

Littlefoot hated that, too, but she didn’t appreciate how Benedella nodded, as if making the three of them call her “Aunt Agnes” was the worst that Agnes was guilty of. Benedella obviously still didn’t believe the story of the boy in the cage.

“Anyway,” said Kindra, “You’re not going to the market?”

Littlefoot shook her head.

“We’ll stop by the candy booth and tell Asher so he doesn’t get a neckache watching for you to come around the corner.” Kindra held her laugh in for a few seconds, but the giggle finally bubbled out of her.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Littlefoot slipped her tiny garden shoes back on and traipsed across the field to the shed. She grabbed her dad’s hammer and continued on to the old treehouse. It still seemed to tower above her as she stood at the bottom of the ladder, even though she had grown up. Littlefoot remembered her stepmother worrying about the girls falling from such a height, but her dad had brushed off her concerns and built the ladder up to the highest strong branches of the giant tree. And none of the girls had ever fallen.

She was sorry that her dad had let the treehouse  fall apart after she and her sisters stopped using it regularly. Maybe it was too much to ask, though, to want him to maintain it just so that she could have some time alone once or twice a year and feel like she was a kid again. Indeed, that’s why she’d never asked him to.

“Goodbye, old treehouse,” she said. She was sure that saying goodbye to it wouldn’t have been so difficult if she didn’t already miss her parents so much. She couldn’t even send letters to them, since she didn’t know where they’d be at any given time. She and her sisters were still waiting for their first letter from whichever southwestern island on which their parents first reached a port. Littlefoot worried a little, too. Her dad was a famous carpenter and a quick learner, but hadn’t sailed much, and even with an experienced sailor, you never know what might happen.

After tugging at the ladder to make sure it was still firmly attached to the railing of the wall at the top, Littlefoot started climbing, testing each rung before putting all her weight on it. She was never more glad to have the same small, wiry, build as her dad. Thirty tentative rung-steps later, she reached the top, tossed her hammer onto the platform, and grabbed hold of the railing to pull herself up into the treehouse. But as she pulled, she heard a crack, and the entire wall ripped free of the rest of the structure and began to tip backward.

“Salt and sugar!” She yelled, leaning forward with all her might to try to get the ladder wall back in place. But it was no use. She kicked off of the ladder and made a leap for the platform, reaching it, but banging up her knee as she landed.

“Spinach and chard! Ow!”

The ladder and wall hit the ground with a shattering thud, and Littlefoot crawled carefully to the edge and peered over. “Spinach and chard,” she swore again. The ladder was broken to bits.

Though she had explored other ways to get down as a child and already knew there were none, she glanced at all the branches anyway. It would be hours before her sisters returned.

“Well,” she said aloud to herself, “might as well collect some boards while I’m up here.”

She bent her knee to make sure it still worked, found the sections of floor that seemed safe to step on, and went to work prying up the best boards.

“Yo, ho, bottle of rum, hide your gems I’ll steal me some. Yo, ho, bottle of port, I am not the giving sort.”

Before long, Littlefoot had collected all the planks that would suffice for a fence and thrown them over the starboard side. She lay on her back looking up at the sapphire sky and the blue and orange butterflies for which the kingdom of Cenerentola was famous, and waited for her sisters. She had little to do other than lie there and miss her parents. Her adventurous dad, always happy, and the woman she called “Mom.” Littlefoot’s real mother had died when she was a baby, and her dad had found a wonderful mother for her and companion for himself. She looked like Kindra, built the same, with the same dark brown eyes and hair, and she had Kindra’s spunk, but Benedella’s kindness.

Five whole years. Of course Littlefoot and her sisters were old enough to take care of themselves, but how Littlefoot missed her parents.

Worried that she was about to cry, Littlefoot made up some more verses to her pirate song and sang them to herself. Each verse became increasingly ridiculous.

“Uh oh,” she said loudly. “The pirates are getting drunk! Yo ho,” she slurred, “raise them sails, wave to your wench and-”

“Littlefoot?”

Asher. Littlefoot’s face turned hot. Why oh why had she let her sailors get drunk?

“Littlefoot, are you up there?”

Littlefoot rolled onto her stomach and peeked over the bow. “Why aren’t you at the market?”

“I was, and then my mother sent me to buy sugar, and, well, it’s a long story. Can I borrow some sugar?”

“Sure. Take whatever you need.”

He looked as if he were about to ask why she was in the treehouse, but said, “Well, okay. I’ll just grab it from the pantry?” He turned to go, still looking at her curiously over his shoulder.

“Wait! Aren’t you going to help me get down first.”

“Oh, yes the ladder’s gone, isn’t it.”

Littlefoot rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s that pile of wood you’re standing on.”

Asher looked at his feet. “Hmmm.” He looked back up at Littlefoot and shielded his eyes from the sun. “I have an idea. I didn’t want to tell you, but the reason I didn’t buy sugar with the money my mother gave me is that I ran into a man who was selling these magic beans.

He reached into his pocket and pulled the beans out. “Supposedly they’ll grow a three-foot round, hundred-foot high stalk overnight and feed you with meal-sized beans all year long.”

Oh, Asher. “And?”

“I thought I could plant one here where the ladder used to be and -”

“Asher?”

“Yes?”

“Please go to the shed and get -”

“A trowel? Be right back.”

Littlefoot laughed. A trowel to dig a hole for the beans, indeed! She scooped up a handful of dirt and leaf bits and threw it down on him. After a second, it became apparent that he hadn’t seen her and wasn’t going to duck or squeeze his eyes shut.

“Aaaa,” he yelled. “Salt and sugar, Littlefoot! What did you do that for?” He covered his face with his hands.

“I’m sorry! I thought you saw me! I thought you’d duck!”

“I saw you, but I thought your hand was empty. I thought you were joking. Why would you throw dirt at me? Aaa, I can’t see.” He wiped at his face with the backs of his wrists.

“I don’t know,” Littlefoot said. “I’m sorry, it’s just you were joking about the trowel, and -”

“Joking? I wasn’t joking.” He tried to look up at her but couldn’t keep his eyes open.

“Oh Asher. Just go to the shed and get a rope.”

“All right, all right. I don’t know how I’m going to even see where I’m going. Too bad you don’t have extremely long hair.”

“What? Why?”

” You could cut it off and use it like a rope.”

“Asher, please.”

“All right, all right.” He stumbled over the broken ladder, arms outstretched in front of him.

“Veer left,” Littlefoot called. “Not that far left.”

Asher slowly and blindly made his way to the far off shed, Littlefoot calling directions occasionally.

“Watch out for the -”

“Ow!”

“Apple tree,” Littlefoot finished.

Asher disappeared into the shed, and Littlefoot heard him crashing around and swearing. Eventually he emerged with a thick rope around one arm, his other arm out in front of him.

“Which way, Littlefoot?”

“Follow my voice,” she called, standing up. “Yo ho, swab those decks,” she sang sweetly. “Or we’ll hang you by your necks. Yo, ho, do your duty, or you’ll get no pirate booty.”

Littlefoot was relieved when Asher made it, at long last, back to the treehouse. She was having trouble coming up with new rhymes.

“Throw it over that branch there,” she commanded.

“That would be easier if I could see,” he replied with uncharacteristic annoyance.

And so, it was quite a long time later that Littlefoot slid down the rope and guided Asher across the field, through the mudroom and into the kitchen, having stopped at the well to help him flush the dirt out of his eyes.

She handed him a whole bag of sugar. “Are you sure this is enough?” she asked penitently.

“Yes, thank you,” he said a little coldly. “Don’t tell my mother, please.”

“I won’t.” As many times as Littlefoot had told her sisters the ridiculous things Asher had said and done, she had never been tempted to tell his mother. “How are your eyes?”

“Still a little scratchy and blurry.” He walked unassisted, though, to the front door, and pulled on it.

He pulled again.

Littlefoot ran to help him. “I made locks,” she said proudly. “It’s simple. Just lift this, like so.”

“Oh. I could have figured it out, but for some reason I can’t see very well.”

Littlefoot felt very alone when he left.

 

 

A couple hours later, Littlefoot was in a better mood, getting a few chores done around the house, when she heard a loud thump on the front door.

“Littlefoot!!!”

She scampered through the entryway and opened the door for Kindra.

“Why did you lock it? It’s the middle of the day.”

“I was home alone. You never know.”

“I’ll get you back for all the bruises I have. When you least expect it.”

Littlefoot stuck out her tongue.

Kindra was still complaining about the lock when Benedella entered after her, took her purchases to the kitchen and said, “Never mind the locks. Littlefoot, you won’t believe what happened at market today.”

Kindra cheered up instantly. “You won’t believe it.”

Littlefoot followed them into the kitchen and flopped into a chair. “You know I don’t care about marketplace gossip.”

“This is not just gossip,” Kindra said. “King Arturo came through the marketplace.”

“When?” asked Littlefoot. Arturo was the king of Calmeto, their neighbor to the east. The sisters had heard of his greatness, but never seen him before.

“Today!” said Benedella. “While we were there!”

Littlefoot tried to pretend that she didn’t wish she’d been there instead of stuck in a treehouse.

Kindra slapped Littlefoot lightly on the arm. “He said hello to Benedella.”

“No!” insisted Littlefoot.

Benedella blushed and nodded. “Word is that he’s here to talk to King Dullendim because Prince Fibian is missing.”

“Missing?” Littlefoot said.

“Yes,” Kindra answered. “He and his travelling guard. Vanished. They left Fenholm weeks ago to come here on a goodwill trip to see King Dullendim and never arrived.”

Littlefoot crossed her feet on the kitchen table, and put them right back on the floor again when Benedella gave her a scolding look. “Well, if anyone can get to the bottom of this, it’s King Arturo. Everyone knows he’s the real reason the Three Kingdoms thrive. Without the sea to the north and west of us and to the south of Fenholm below us, and Arturo ruling Calmeto to the east, the Dullendims would surely have lost the throne of Cenerentola by now. We’d be in big trouble.”

“True,” said Benedella. “Arturo. Now there’s a king. Oh, and does he look the part. Silky, wavy black hair to his shoulders, sparkling dark eyes, and a dashing smile. And even younger than I’d thought. Thirty at the most.” She was lost in reverie for a moment, and then she said, “Speaking of the Dullendims losing the throne, the king and queen are throwing a ball for Prince Dullendim in a fortnight. They probably realize they’ll never get an heir otherwise – they’ve tried all the royalty in Calmeto and Fenholm, down to the seventh cousins. Every one has refused a marriage to our prince. And I can’t blame them.”

“Don’t care,” Littlefoot said, thinking again about the missing prince of Fenholm to the south.

“Yes you do,” said Kindra. “They’re inviting every single young woman so that Prince Dullendim can choose a bride.”

“Still don’t care.”

Benedella put the last of her market purchases away and joined the others at the table. “Yes you do. I’m not sure ‘inviting’ was the right word, Kindra. They say the king’s men will be coming around our area ‘making sure everyone has a ride.’ Sorry we live so close to the castle, Littlefoot, but I think we have to go. And wouldn’t you like to see the castle ballroom?”

“Not really. Maybe I’ll hide in our root cellar. Don’t let me stop you two from going, though.”

“Ugh.” Kindra stuck out her tongue as if vomiting. “Can you imagine being married to Prince Dullendim? He looks about as intelligent as a sunflower.”

“Less!” Littlefoot insisted.

Kindra let her eyes unfocus and plastered on a fake smile, a very good impression of their prince. They’d seen him parade through the market many times.

Benedella laughed. “Now, now, girls.” But she was still smiling.

“Anyway,” Kindra said, “I intend to see what the ballroom is like and then sneak out and see what the stable boys are like.”

Littlefoot didn’t doubt it. “On another topic,” she said nonchalantly, “Did you buy any sugar?”

“No,” Benedella said. “We should have one nearly empty bag and one full bag in the pantry.”

Littlefoot decided to let them find out about the sugar later.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Not many days later, Littlefoot was working on her fence when Benedella poked her head out from the mudroom and waved what looked like a piece of parchment in the air. “Littlefoot! A letter from Mom and Dad!”

Littlefoot peeled off her gloves as she ran. She threw them in her gardening caddy as she and Benedella hurried through the mudroom, and then all three sisters met at the kitchen table.

“Would you like to read it, Littlefoot?” Benedella asked.

“No, you go ahead,” Littlefoot replied, hoping that she sounded generous, and not like someone who was afraid to read aloud for fear of her voice giving away her emotion.

Benedella’s voice was strong and steady. “Dearest Girls. We have arrived on the Island of Turtalia. Your father sailed masterfully through fair weather and storm. He made friends right away with the people of this island and has made improvements in so many of their houses that we have had a dozen offers to stay in people’s homes. We knew that the people would speak a different language, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to learn. Your father is picking it up more quickly, but I fear that I still won’t be able to hold the most basic conversation before we set sail for the next island.

“It is warm here, and there are strange bugs, birds, and plants. We miss you so very much, but as I said before we left, I know you will take good care of each other. I’ll let Dad write now. Now that we’re across the biggest part of the sea, we should be able to write quite frequently. I hope we’ll find a boat leaving for Cenerentola soon to bring you this letter. I love you! Mom. P.S. Please check in on Grandma. I know you probably have, but she seemed a little frail last time we visited with her. Thank you!”

The sisters exchanged guilty glances. They had visited their grandmother on a regular basis for a few weeks after their parents left, but then their visits had tapered off. Although, Littlefoot had never seen her grandma frail a day in her life. She was probably playing cards with her friends right now, and taking them for every coin they had.

“Let’s take Grandma a basket of biscuits and fruit tomorrow,” said Benedella.

They all agreed. Littlefoot wished she could hear so much more from their mother, but when Benedella continued, she said, “And the rest is in Dad’s hand. My beautiful girls. We ran into a spot of trouble off the coast of Cenerentola. Don’t tell your mother, but one more gust of wind and we’d have been at the bottom of the sea. We are having a fantastic time in Turtalia, now that a few misunderstandings have been cleared up. I thought I had gained a basic understanding of the language, but I recently found out that I accidentally declared war on the good people of Turtalia when we arrived. Luckily, they decided to ask a few clarifying questions before chasing us back to our boat or worse. Again, best if we don’t tell your mother. Travelling round the world is everything I hoped it would be. Adventure, discovery, and all with the most delightful companion. I am sketching the homes and other structures, and sharing sketches of our home with them. My sketchbook will be full long before it’s time to come home. Say hello to Asher. I’ll write again soon. I’ve got to seal this before your mother gets —

“And then it cuts off,” Benedella said. “Oh, I wish it would have gone on and on.”

Littlefoot was relieved to hear that she wasn’t the only one disappointed by the brevity of the letter, but she was more relieved to hear that her parents had landed safely and even on the island they’d been aiming for. The sisters got the giant map out of their parents’ bedroom and drew an outline around the island of Turtalia.

“I hope the next letter comes soon,” said Kindra.

Littlefoot still didn’t trust her voice.

Benedella took a deep breath. “I think I’m going to go for a little walk.” Littlefoot thought she looked very composed, but maybe she just didn’t want to show emotion until she was alone.

 

 

The next morning, Benedella said she wasn’t feeling very well, so she sat at the kitchen table in her pajamas while Kindra and Littlefoot packed a basket of food for their grandma.

When they had piled as many biscuits, cookies, carrots, and apples as they could into the basket, Kindra went to her room and returned wearing her red sweater.

“Littlefoot,” she said, “Why don’t you stay here and take care of Benedella? I’ll take this to Grandma.”

“No!” Benedella insisted. “I’m fine, just a little tired. And it’s not safe to walk that path alone since Cain moved into the old abandoned house.”

Littlefoot looked at Kindra and her tight sweater suspiciously. “Yes, don’t be stupid. That guy is creepy.”

“I don’t know why you two think so,” Kindra said, her chin high and defiant. “I think he’s rather handsome.”

“His gray eyes are creepy,” Benedella said.
“And,” added Littlefoot, “He has those two pointy teeth like a dog.”

Kindra picked up the basket. “I rather like those kind of teeth.”

Littlefoot said, “I’m coming with you. You’ve seen the way he leers at Benedella when we walk to Grandma’s.” Of the three of them, Benedella was always the one men looked at, with her golden hair and attractive figure.

“Well, this time Benedella won’t be there.” Kindra headed for the front door. She unlocked it and said, “I’ll be fine. See you this afternoon.”

Littlefoot rolled her eyes at Benedella, said “Lock it behind me,” and followed Kindra and her sweater out the door.

Kindra sighed, and they took the path to the left and into the woods.

The woods were as much their home as the snug cottage their father had built. They knew every turn in the path, every spot of shade or sun, every scent in every season. Even if they had left the path, they couldn’t have found a nook they hadn’t hidden in or a tree they hadn’t climbed.

Before long, Littlefoot saw the path to Cain’s house crossing their path ahead. She looked to the right. She couldn’t see anyone, but still she whispered when she said, “Please be quiet, Kindra.”

“I still don’t see what’s so creepy about him.”

“Shhhh.”

As Littlefoot tiptoed across the path, she saw the back of Cain’s head above a hedge. She whispered, “What is he doing- is he peeing?”

Kindra craned her neck to see. They were almost safely across the path when Kindra sneezed, and not her usual dainty sneeze.

Cain whipped his head around. “Helooooo, ladies.”

Littlefoot huffed at her sister. “Catching a cold?”

Kindra smiled mischievously.

Cain prowled closer to them. “Off to your grandmother’s?”

Littlefoot didn’t respond, but Kindra nodded.

“Where is your sister?”

Kindra started to say, “At home,” but Littlefoot elbowed her, so it came out “at hOW!”

“She’s at Agnes and Asher’s house,” Littlefoot said, hoping with all her heart that Benedella had locked the doors.

“That’s too bad,” Cain said in his throaty voice. “I’d  been hoping to ask her in for lunch the next time you came by. In fact, I’d been hoping she would marry me. I have an enormous-” at this point he reached into his pocket and Littlefoot’s eyes grew big as coins. Cain pulled a velvet bag from his pocket and finished his sentence. “Inheritance.” Littlefoot sighed with relief. He continued, “And I’d like to fix this old house up and share it with someone. But first, I’d start with lunch.”

I’m a little hungry,” Kindra said. She had just had breakfast, but Cain had bulging biceps.

Littlefoot elbowed her again.

Cain prowled closer and looked Kindra up and down. The corners of his mouth turned down, but he nodded and smiled his pointy-toothed smile, or at least showed his teeth.

Before Littlefoot knew what to do, Kindra had handed the basket to her and was walking down the path to Cain’s door, smiling up at him. Littlefoot stood there dumbly, wondering whether she should run to Kindra and drag her away, run to Benedella for help, or continue on to Grandma’s, as Kindra was old enough to make her own decisions. In the end, when Kindra and Cain entered the house and shut the door, Littlefoot moved up the path a few feet toward her grandma’s so that she couldn’t be seen from Cain’s house, and waited, fretting.

She didn’t have long to wait. She heard a door slam, and she jumped back to the intersection of the paths to see Kindra running full speed away from the house.

“Run!” Kindra shouted. She passed Littlefoot and kept running toward Grandma’s. Littlefoot followed, not stopping when half the biscuits flew out of the basket. They ran a long while without checking over their shoulders, and when they were both completely out of breath, they stopped and looked back, and saw no one.

Still huffing, Kindra breathed, “Freaky.”

After every third breath, she repeated the word “freaky” until Littlefoot asked, “What happened?”

“I don’t,” huff, huff, “Want,” huff, huff, “To talk about it,” huff, “Ever.”

Littlefoot didn’t press her. They continued on, walking slowly and looking behind them every few steps. The woods were quiet, except for the birds and the breeze. The path curved to the right, and eventually, they made it to Grandma’s and knocked on the door.

Grandma opened the door a crack, and then all the way.

Littlefoot gasped. “Spinach and chard, Grandma! What happened? You’re the color of a gull’s wing?”

Grandma stepped aside, revealing a man lying facedown on the floor. “I think I killed him.”

“That’s Cain!” Kindra said, not unhappily.

Littlefoot knelt down and felt his hairy neck for a pulse. “He’s alive.”

“Aww,” said Kindra. “Salt and sugar.”

Grandma’s little black cat, Snowy, leapt onto Cain’s back and began bathing herself, one hind foot high in the air.

“What happened?” asked Littlefoot. “Why weren’t you using the lock I made you?”

“Well,” said Grandma. “I was, but you see I’m expecting the tax collector today, should be here any minute, so when I heard a knock, I just opened the door. But it was Cain. He told me to give him some of my clothes and hide in the closet or else. Of course, I couldn’t have that, so I took him down.”

Kindra jiggled Cain’s side with her foot. “What would he want with your clothes?”

“I bet,” Littlefoot said, “that he wanted to make us think he was our grandmother until we got in the house, and then…”

She didn’t have to finish her thought. Kindra shuddered.

“Grandma,” Littlefoot ordered. “Do you have anything that would fit Cain? Kindra. Help me get his clothes off. If he wants to fool people into thinking he’s Grandma, so be it.” She gently lifted Snowy and set her on the ground.

Kindra looked at Littlefoot like she was crazy, but she did help strip Cain down to his underclothes, not bothering to be gentle. Grandma came with her “fat” nightgown, and Kindra let Cain’s head thump back to the wood floor as she slipped the lacy nightie over.

Getting him into the bed was even harder. Littlefoot was panting by the time they finished.

“Grandma, get me some parchment and ink.”

Littlefoot wrote a note and tacked it to the front door. It said: PLEASE COME IN. TAX MONEY ON TABLE. I’M NAPPING. P.S. THERE IS ENOUGH EXTRA FOR A GENEROUS GIFT FOR THE POOR. She pulled Cain’s velvet bag out of his pants pocket and tossed it on the table. “Come on, let’s go watch from the woods.”

The three of them giggled and ran behind three trees.

“Wait,” Grandma said. She ran back into her house and returned with Cain’s clothes tucked under her arm. They giggled some more.

Moments later, Littlefoot heard the soft thop-thop of horses’ hooves on the forest floor. Two kingsmen rode up to the house, dismounted, and read her note. They conferred for a good while. Littlefoot couldn’t hear them, but finally one of them opened the door enough to poke his head through. Then he entered. He reemerged with Cain’s money bag, and they rode away.

Littlefoot turned to the tree on her left and grinned at Grandma.

“Now what?” Kindra whispered.

Littlefoot scrunched her lips over to one side and thought. “I guess we have to wait until he leaves.”

“That could be awhile,” Grandma said.

And it was. But it was all worth it when Cain stumbled out of the house and down the path in his clingy, lacy, dress.

 

Chapter Four

 

Next market day, Kindra and Littlefoot couldn’t find Benedella when they were ready to go. They had almost decided to leave without her when she knocked on the front door, smartly expecting it to be locked.

Littlefoot ran to open it, and Benedella came in carrying a bag of sugar.

“You went without us?” Littlefoot asked.

“Well, I woke early, and we only needed sugar, and I figured it was my fault that we didn’t realize we needed any last time, so I just jogged up. Asher wasn’t there, by the way. Not even Agnes was.”

As if that mattered to Littlefoot. She wouldn’t have cared about missing the market even if Asher had been there. She still had a lot of work to do on her fence. She was ready to bring another wheelbarrow load of boards up from the pile under the treehouse. It was unusual for Agnes to miss a market day, though.

“But we always go together,” Kindra said. “I like going.”

Benedella stuck the sack of sugar in the pantry. “We can go back if you like. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d mind.”

“But we always go,” Kindra said again.

“So we can go back,” said Benedella. “Just let me go freshen up. It’s warm out already.”

Kindra waved a hand. “No, it’s all right. Just tell me the latest. Was Bron there?”

“He was, but I didn’t speak with him. The only news is that Prince Fibian is still missing. Fenholm is not happy that the Dullendims are spending their time preparing for a ball instead of using all their resources to search, and I don’t blame them. King Arturo is still staying in the Dullendims’ castle, though. He and his guard go out every day looking. Now there’s a king.” She sighed. “Oh, and one strange piece of gossip – apparently there’s a man in our area sneaking into women’s houses while they sleep and kissing them. When they wake, he runs away.”

Littlefoot punched the air with her index finger. “See? They should have locks! Maybe I can offer my lock installation services to our neighbors.”

Benedella tilted her head back and forth as if she were contemplating voicing her agreement about the locks, but Kindra ignored the comment and said, “Maybe it’s Cain. I bet it is.”

Littlefoot agreed.

“Oh!” Benedella exclaimed. “I forgot! I heard that Cain said he didn’t have the money to fix up the old abandoned house after all and went back to wherever he came from. Almost all the way to Fenholm, I think. And good riddance! He didn’t tell anyone how he lost his money, though,” she concluded with a wink.

Littlefoot and Kindra shook hands and exchanged congratulations, and Benedella said, “I guess if there are no more kissing incidents, we’ll know if it was him.”

“Well,” said Littlefoot, “I may as well get some work done on the fence.”

“It’s looking very nice,” Benedella said.

“Thanks. I used all the boards I’ve brought over from the treehouse, so I’ll be making another trip now.”

“You’re not going back up I hope!”

“Naw, they’re all in a pile under the tree.”

“Oh good.”

So Littlefoot slipped her gardening shoes on in the mud room, collected the wheelbarrow and tools from the shed, and wheeled the barrow downfield to the giant tree. As she stacked up the boards, she saw something growing in the soil where the ladder had once been.

“He didn’t,” she said aloud.

She walked over and looked down at the very average-sized beanstalk. “Oh, Asher.” She wondered when he had snuck back to plant it, and whether he did it to help her or to prove he was right. She almost dug it up to take to his house, but she figured he had probably planted the others at his house and knew by now that they were just your average beans. Plus, she liked her bean plant there.

It took all Littlefoot’s strength to get the full wheelbarrow up the hill over dirt clods and weeds to the vegetable garden. She decided to leave the boards there and go visit Asher before doing any more work. The lighter wheelbarrow bounced along to the shed, and Littlefoot washed up in the house and told her sisters where she was going.

The path that led straight out of Littlefoot’s front door and through the woods was only there because of her little feet and Asher’s big ones. The path that went left to Grandma’s and right to the market street was a well-travelled road, but this one that she took today only led one place. Littlefoot hummed her pirate song as her tiny, muddy, garden shoes moved in and out of sunlight toward her favorite friend and her least favorite mother of a friend.

She strolled, hands in her trouser pockets, up the lollipop walkway and knocked on the wooden door, the only part of the house that wasn’t covered in lacquered peppermints and gumdrops.

Agnes opened the door, as usual. Littlefoot always hoped she would be out, but unless she and Asher were selling candies at market, she was always right there in the kitchen, baking.

“Hello, my dear Littlefoot. You haven’t been over in so long.” Her shapeless, purple and pink flowery dress swept the sugar and flour along the floor as she backed up to let Littlefoot in.

“Hello,” Littlefoot said simply. She had learned not to say, “Hello, Agnes,” because it inevitably led to, “Please, dear, call me Aunt Agnes.”

Asher came out of his room and smiled broadly. “I thought I heard you.”

“Hey, Bean Boy.”

He blushed. “You found it?”

Littlefoot laughed, and Agnes smiled at them, clearly trying to invite herself into the joke, but Littlefoot vindictively didn’t explain. Of course Asher wouldn’t even notice.

He said, “Want to go to the pond?”

“Sure,” Littlefoot replied.

Asher came over and poked Littlefoot in the side. “I hope ‘Bean Boy’ doesn’t last as long as ‘Merman.’ Although I think I like it a little better.”

Littlefoot snorted and poked him back. “Oh, you’re Bean Boy now and forever.”

Agnes smiled at them with misty eyes. Littlefoot wanted to believe that she was overcome with joy over what she mistakenly perceived as young love, but something didn’t seem quite genuine about it.

“Oh Littlefoot, Dear, do stop back in before you go home. You’re evidently becoming extra special to Asher, and so I want to make you an extra special chocolate truffle.”

Littlefoot had never let her dislike for Agnes stop her from devouring more than her share of chocolate while she was there, but she didn’t much like the way Agnes had dragged out the words “extra special.” She might never feel safe eating anything from this house again after those words.

“I will,” Littlefoot said as she and Asher opened the door to leave. “Bye.”

 

Two or three years before, when Littlefoot and Asher were about fourteen, Asher had run all the way to Littlefoot’s house to tell her that he had seen a mermaid in his pond. Littlefoot had pointed out that the pond was only about two feet deep, and Asher had simply answered, “It was a miniature.” And so she had called him Merman until they were at least sixteen. He still spent a few minutes looking for his mermaid every time they went to the pond, although he didn’t think Littlefoot knew.

Littlefoot sat in her favorite shady spot, hugging her knees and thinking about what Agnes might do to the special chocolate, while Asher took his slow trek around the water’s edge, “looking for tadpoles.” When he returned to her, she leaned back on her elbows, and he rested his chin on her knee and looked at her.

“Littlefoot?”

“Mmm hmm?” Littlefoot said, staring up at the trees.

“Never mind.”

“Okay.”

She continued to watch the needled branches bounce gently in the breeze as he stared at her, lifting his chin momentarily to put his hand between his bony chin and her kneecap.

“Did you go to market today?” he asked, his head bobbling around since his chin couldn’t move downward.

“Nope.”

“I was wondering if there was any news about Prince Fibian. Mother’s very worried.”

“Oh, there’s no news. I didn’t go to market, but Benedella did and brought us back the news. Why is your mother so worried? Oh, she does have relatives in Fenholm, doesn’t she.” It still seemed odd that Agnes would concern herself with anyone else’s well-being.

“Yes, she does, but another reason she was worried was that she had asked Fibian if her candies could be the official candies of his castle, and she was waiting for an answer. She could make a fortune!”

That made more sense.

He said, bobbingly, “She had written him a letter asking him to stop by on his goodwill trip and try her candies, and so he had just been to our house when-”

Littlefoot sat up, unintentionally jolting Asher’s head off her knee. “Fibian was here?”

Asher nodded, impressed with himself for having entertained royalty, and apparently unaware that this was very bad news. No wonder Agnes had not gone to market. She wouldn’t want to be questioned by Arturo and his guard. Yes, this was very bad news indeed. What if Agnes had only told Asher that Fibian had not given his answer. What if Fibian had said no, and Agnes had taken her revenge?

Littlefoot stopped herself, picturing Benedella saying, “Oh, Littlefoot, what could one old woman do to a Prince and his travelling companions?” She made herself lean back again, but she couldn’t help but imagine Agnes putting the prince in a cage and heating her oven.

Asher said, in wonderment, “She even gave them her most special candies as they left. They surely would have come back to offer her a deal if they hadn’t been attacked or whatever happened to them.”

Asher fiddled with a twig he’d found on the ground. “Littlefoot?”

“Yes?”

“What I wanted to ask you earlier was, are you going to Prince Dullendim’s ball?”

“Ugh,” she said, arching her back for a second and letting it flop back down. “I don’t want to, but the king’s men are going to round everybody up. I’m planning to hide in the root cellar. Wish me luck.”

“I,” Asher stammered, “I know a way you could get out of going.”

“You do?” Littlefoot asked, skeptical.

He nodded. “You, you could marry me.”

“Technically, I could marry anyone. It wouldn’t have to be you. And that’s a pretty stupid reason to get married.”

Littlefoot said it knowing full well that he meant he loved her, but she thought she could get away with pretending she didn’t know. She did not foresee his reaction.

His eyes pooled with tears. “I was serious, Littlefoot. I couldn’t stand it if you married someone else.”

Oh, if only she could grow a mermaid tail and escape underwater. Maybe a magic fish would swim up and offer to give her a tail in exchange for her legs, or her voice, or something else that fish don’t have.

She sat up and as tenderly as she could manage, grabbed Asher’s hand. “You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t want to get married at all. I don’t need a man. I can take care of myself.”

“I know you don’t need one, but you might want one.”

Littlefoot shook her head, and when Asher’s eyes filled up again, said quickly, “So you don’t have to worry about me marrying someone else, at least. If I had to marry someone, it wouldn’t be anyone but you.”

“Really?”

“Of course. And you also don’t have to worry about the ball. I’m going to hide in the root cellar, but if I did go, the prince would never even notice me with people like Benedella there.” Littlefoot went rigid. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought about this before. “Oh, Asher, wouldn’t it be dreadful if the prince did want to marry Benedella?”

“Maybe Benedella wouldn’t think it was dreadful.”

Littlefoot watched two frogs hopping side by side near the water. “Oh yes she would. She’s just as repulsed by him as I am. She wouldn’t mind being married to someone good, though.”

Asher put his other hand on Littlefoot’s and looked into her eyes.

Alarmed, and afraid that Asher was about to profess his love again, Littlefoot said, “Have you ever seen two frogs hopping side by side like that? How strange.”

Asher looked behind him for a moment and shrugged, as if he didn’t know whether he’d seen frogs behaving that way and didn’t think it too strange. Then he looked into Littlefoot’s eyes again.

“Littlefoot, you may never change your mind, but I hope you will, and until then I want you to know how I feel. I-”

The two frogs hopped in unison to Asher’s side and stared up at him.

Littlefoot silently thanked them for the distraction. “Asher, those frogs are unbelievable. Look.”

“Forget the frogs, Littlefoot. I’m trying to tell you that I-”

“The mermaid!” Yelled Littlefoot, pointing over Asher’s shoulder.

He dropped Littlefoot’s hand and scrambled over to the pond. “Where?”

“She went this way,” Littlefoot shouted, running around the pond to the left, splashing through shallow water just like she would have if she’d really seen a mermaid.

About a quarter way around the pond, she stopped and pointed. “She was right there.”

Asher stopped and put his hands on his knees to get a closer look. “There?”

Littlefoot nodded excitedly.

“And then which way did she go?”

“I don’t know. She disappeared under some algae, and then she was just — gone.”

Poor Asher stared at that spot for a long time, Littlefoot feeling worse and worse as the minutes went by. Then he crept along, pondside, scanning the water, slowly, slowly around, until he got back to Littlefoot again.

He put his hands on his head. “I can’t believe I missed her.” And then, as they were walking back to his house, “But you saw her. All those years calling me Merman and now you have to admit I’m right, for once. So?”

“Very well. You were right, Bean Boy.”

Asher’s victorious smile cheered her a little. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing she’d done.

When they got back to the house, Littlefoot said goodbye at the door, but before she could get away, Agnes sang out, “Oh Littlefoot, Dear, don’t forget your chocolate.”

As the chocolate exchanged hands, Littlefoot tried to touch only the paper cup and not the candy itself.

Asher said, “Mother, Littlefoot saw the mermaid.”

“Did she now.”

“Yes, Mother. I was right. Do you believe me now?”

Agnes looked at Littlefoot, and Littlefoot hoped that her friend’s mother loved her son more than she hated everyone else.

“Tell me, Dearie. What did it look like?”

Littlefoot glared at Agnes. What kind of mother would ruin her son’s day just to watch his best friend squirm? Littlefoot tried to remember the day that Asher had first told her about the mermaid. She was sure he had described it, but it had been so long ago.

Asher inadvertently came to her rescue. “She has -”

“Asher!” Agnes shrieked. And in a calmer voice, she continued. “How rude of you to interrupt your friend. I was asking Littlefoot. Go on, Dearie, what color was her hair?”

Was it a trick question? Had Asher told his mother that the mermaid was bald? That didn’t sound familiar. Littlefoot seemed to remember that there was hair, and she thought it had been an unusual color. She announced her guess with confidence.

“It was red. A bright, orangey, red. Almost glowing.”

Asher shrunk an inch and scowled at her. “Her hair is green.”

Too late, Littlefoot remembered when Asher first told her about the green hair, and how she’d figured he’d seen a fish with a chunk of algae stuck on its head. Now Asher stopped glaring and his eyes filled. He was realizing why Littlefoot had pretended to see the mermaid in the first place.

“See you later, Littlefoot,” he said, and closed the door.

Littlefoot trudged slowly home, furious with Agnes for making her hurt Asher, and furious with Asher for proposing, and furious with  herself for she didn’t know what. In her fury, she almost threw the chocolate into some bushes, but then she thought if it were poisoned, she wouldn’t want an animal to eat it. Better to take it home and bury it. Poor Prince Fibian had eaten a special candy. King Arturo would probably never find a trace of him.

While she was trying to decide whether or not to tell Kindra and Benedella of her suspicions, she had an idea. Why not take the chocolate to the castle and ask if the king’s taster knew how to safely detect poison? That way, she wouldn’t have to bury it and risk harm to worms (though she wouldn’t mind if a gopher found it, regardless of what Benedella said about their being adorable) and if the taster did detect poison, she could tell him that the chocolate came from the last person who saw Fibian. Agnes.

It was still early in the afternoon. Littlefoot marched home with new purpose. She said hello to her sisters, went to her room to set the chocolate on her nightstand, and made a quick trip to the outhouse. She didn’t need to tell Kindra and Benedella until she had proof. She’d have a snack, stop by the marketplace to see if there was any news of Fibian, and if not, continue on up to the castle.

Walking back to the house from the outhouse, Littlefoot heard Asher’s voice.

“Littlefoot! Littlefoot!”

She veered around the house just in time to see Asher running up the path, his long legs looking ready to give out.

“Littlefoot,” he panted, stopping in front of her. “I didn’t want you to spend the rest of the day thinking I was mad at you, when all I want you to know is that I love you.”

So there it was. The whole mermaid incident could have been avoided if Littlefoot had just let him say it in the first place. A blue and orange butterfly flitted between them and flew off to the garden. Asher smiled at it, still panting, and then looked into Littlefoot’s eyes, waiting for a response. She didn’t know how to respond, and she was still trying to come up with words when Benedella screamed.

Asher’s expression changed from hope to fear, and he took off into the house, Littlefoot following close behind him.

“Benedella,” Littlefoot called frantically, looking around the room for either sister.

“In your room!” Benedella shouted. “It’s Kindra!”

They found Benedella in Littlefoot’s room kneeling next to the bed, on which Kindra lay draped, face up, eyes closed, with one arm and one leg hanging over the side. Littlefoot rushed to her and checked her pulse, which beat strongly. Asher crouched down behind Littlefoot and laid his hand on her shoulder.

“What happened?” Littlefoot asked. “I saw her only a minute ago.”

“I don’t know. I heard a crash, and I came running, and I found her like this.”

Littlefoot’s nightstand was tipped over, books, paper, and candles scattered on the floor. Among the strewn items lay Agnes’s chocolate, which, to Littlefoot’s horror, had one bite taken out of it.

Rounding on Asher, Littlefoot cried, “Your mother did this.”

“What?” Asher and Benedella said together.

Littlefoot picked up the chocolate and thrust it under Asher’s nose. “This special chocolate was meant for me. Your mother poisoned Kindra just like she poisoned Prince Fibian and his men.”

“Littlefoot,” Benedella scolded. “What are you talking about?”

Asher stood up, looking too stunned to say anything. Then his disbelief turned to anger. “Mother would never. Why would she hurt Kindra? Why would she hurt Prince Fibian, when she was expecting to make a fortune from him?”

Oh, Asher. How could she be mad at him? She explained as patiently as she could, which was not very. “Fibian must have told your mother that he was not interested in bringing her candy to Fenholm, and so she gave him special candies. And she wasn’t trying to hurt Kindra, she was trying to hurt me, because she was afraid we were getting too close, and I’d steal you away from her.”

Benedella looked back and forth between them confusedly.

“Mother loves you,” Asher insisted.

“Please, Asher. Please go tell your mother what has happened to Kindra and don’t come back until she tells you how to fix it.”

Asher folded his arms across his chest. “No.”

Of all times for Asher to decide not to act at Littlefoot’s whim.

Littlefoot folded her arms, too. “Excuse me?”

“No,” he reiterated. “How can I believe anything you say after what happened at the pond?”

Benedella looked even more confused, now.

“Asher,” Littlefoot begged, pointing at Kindra. “Look at her. This is not the time to argue.”

“She’s fine,” he said, causing Littlefoot to gape. “She probably fell and hit her head. She’ll come to, soon enough.”

Benedella stopped Littlefoot from lunging at him by saying wisely, “Asher, Littlefoot is simply out of her mind with worry. I’m sure your mother had nothing to do with this, but Littlefoot’s idea to ask for her advice is a good one for another reason. She is one of the wisest women in the kingdom, you must admit. She’s sure to know what we should do.”

Kindra’s relaxed breathing was the only sound in the room as Asher struggled with his thoughts. Finally, he walked out without saying anything. Though he still looked angry, Littlefoot knew he’d go to his mother.

While he was gone, Littlefoot and Benedella fussed over Kindra as Littlefoot relayed what she’d heard about Fibian and the candies, and about how she’d flirted a little with Asher in front of Agnes and then been offered the “extra special” chocolate, and about how she’d intended to take the chocolate to the king’s taster.

Asher knocked on the front door long before it seemed possible for him to have made it home and back. Oh Asher, Littlefoot thought. Of course we didn’t lock it at a time like this.

Littlefoot left her room and opened the front door. “Bron!”

For some reason, Bron the fishseller was shirtless, his tanned, muscular torso proof that he did the hard work of a fisherman half-naked, at least. He placed his hands importantly on his hips. “I ran into Asher outside, and he told me about Kindra. He’s going home to get help, but I have seen this kind of thing before. May I see her?”

At this point, Benedella came out to see what was happening. Bron edged past Littlefoot without touching her, walked right past Benedella and into Littlefoot’s room, shutting the door behind him. Littlefoot and Benedella stared at each other for only a second before running to open the door. They could not have imagined they’d find what they did.

“Oh, Bron!” It was Kindra, sitting up now with her arms around her dream man from the market. “Benedella! Littlefoot! He saved me with a kiss!”

She was wearing a very different expression than Littlefoot had ever seen on her before. Usually she had a gleam in her eye when she talked about a man, but now her eyes were wide and doe-like. She was usually in control of her impish smile (and generally in fair control of the man himself) but now her cheeks had taken over, and Kindra smiled ridiculously.

“I’ll think about this moment every day for the rest of my life,” she said to him.

Bron kissed her again. “As will I,” he whispered.

Littlefoot grabbed the heaviest book she could find and held it up threateningly. “I thought there was something strange about you showing up here and barging in. You’re the man! The one who’s going around kissing people in their sleep.”

“No, I, I -”

Just then, Asher came crashing in. “A kiss! A kiss will wake her!”

“Exactly,” Bron said. “I said I’d seen this before, well, er, not actually seen it, but heard about it from my distant, very distant, relatives.”

“What does it matter?” Kindra said. “What does it matter how he knew?”

“He didn’t know, Kindra. He didn’t know until Asher came in and told him. He just wanted to kiss you while you were unconscious.” Littlefoot turned to Asher. “And how did  your mother know?”

“She said she’d seen this kind of thing before.”

“I’ll bet she has.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Asher yelled.

“It means – it means -” Littlefoot looked to Benedella for help, but Benedella only gave her a pitying look.

Littlefoot ran from the room, out the kitchen door, and through the mud room. She made it all the way to the well, sat on one of the tree stumps her father had placed around it for people to rest on, and wept.

Before long, Benedella came to her. She sat down on another stump. “Asher’s gone. Kindra and Bron, too.”

Littlefoot snorted back her cry snot. “You know Bron’s the guy, right?”

“No, I don’t know it,” Benedella said gently. “But I think he probably is.”

“Then why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because Kindra’s not ready to believe it. She has to see it for herself. Same thing with Asher and his mother.”

“I wish,” Littlefoot said, more to the well than to her sister, “I wish – spinach and chard, people are stupid.”

“They’re complicated, Littlefoot. Especially where love is concerned.”

I’m not complicated.”

“True. You’re very straightforward and sensible, and I love you just the way you are.” She got up, touched Littlefoot’s cheek, and turned to go back to the house.

But then she turned back to say, “But it’s not very sensible or uncomplicated to fall in love with someone who has a mother like Agnes.”

 

Chapter Five

The next day, Kindra was off with Bron, and Benedella said she had an errand to run and had left, too. Littlefoot wanted to take the half-eaten chocolate to the castle, but first she wanted to sort out her feelings. She sat at the desk in her room composing a letter to her parents that she could never send.

After ranting to them about Asher and Agnes and Kindra and Bron, she started doodling randomly, but when she realized that she had doodled a beanstalk climbing up through the clouds, she crumpled the parchment violently and got herself dressed for the day.

She soon came upon a problem. She didn’t know where the chocolate was. She searched her drawers, her sisters’ rooms, the kitchen counters, but it was nowhere to be found. Finally she thought to check the compost heap, and there it was, sitting right on top.

She plucked it up. “This could have ended up in all our vegetables!” she said aloud.

Then she left her house, wishing she had one of the fancy, rare, key-locks so that she could lock the house while she was gone. She took the path to the right and turned right again where her road ended at the market road. Soon she was among the market booths, with the castle farther on up on the left side of the road. Behind it, rocks and then green hills bumped down to the unseen shore.

She stopped at the first booth, where her friend Opal, the fox-smart daughter of the baker, sat waiting for customers.

“Hi Littlefoot! I haven’t seen you in forever. Seems like it’s always just Benedella lately.”

“I know. I’ve been busy building a fence, and we just have a lot going on.”

“So what in the crazy kingdom of Cenerentola is going on with you and Asher?” Opal never wasted time with idle chat, which was one of the things Littlefoot liked about her.

“Why? Did he say something?”

She laughed. “It’s not that he said something. It’s that he hangs around here flopping back and forth between trying to flirt with me and looking miserable. It’s kind of pathetic.”

“We fought about his mother,” Littlefoot said. “If he wants to see me, he knows I’m not coming to him. He knows what he has to admit to.”

Opal raised her eyebrows, but didn’t ask questions. She had always believed Littlefoot about Agnes and the boy in the cage.

“Hey, have they found Prince Fibian yet?” Littlefoot asked.

“Nope,” Opal said sadly. Neither of them had ever met the prince of Fenholm, but the kingdoms had a friendly relationship, and all the Cenerentolans were truly concerned.

“All right, I have some business on up the road,” Littlefoot said with no further explanation. It wasn’t unheard of for people to ask for an audience with the royal family, but it wasn’t common, and Opal would surely ask questions about that. “I’ll grab some bread on my way back.”

“See you,” said Opal.

Littlefoot passed through the market booths, saying hello to each seller. Once again, Agnes and Asher weren’t there. Past the market, there was farmland off to the right, the castle on the left. The castle being on the northwesternmost tip of Cenerentola, if Littlefoot had walked past it, she would have had to veer right and head east along the northern coast. She had taken that day hike many times, but today, for the first time, she stopped at the  long, shallow, stone steps that led to the castle gate.

Of the three kingdoms, Cenerentola’s castle was considered the most beautiful. Even the gate was made of bleached stone inlaid with white and pink pearl. People said that Arturo’s castle in Calmeto was a dreary gray, but much more secure, and Fenholm’s fell somewhere in between in both beauty and security.

Littlefoot looked at the wrapped chocolate and then braved the steps. When she reached the stone gate, she waited for the guard to see her through the small window and speak to her.

“Hello, young Miss,” he finally said.

“Hello.” Littlefoot couldn’t remember ever telling herself not to speak before. She was surprised that she listened to herself.

He looked at her kindly. “How can I help you?”

She held the candy high enough for him to be able to see it through the window. “I suspect that this chocolate is poisoned, and that the woman who poisoned it was the last person to see Prince Fibian before he disappeared. I would like to consult the king’s taster for his professional opinion. May I see him?”

Littlefoot didn’t know what she expected to happen, but it certainly wasn’t what did happen, which was that the man glowered and simply said, “No.”

And since she hadn’t expected that, she didn’t know how to respond. She tried explaining more fully.  “You see, my sister took a bite of this and immediately took ill. It was pure luck that we saved her. The woman who gave her the chocolate also gave chocolates to Prince Fibian and his men. So you see why I need to talk to the taster?”

“No.”

Littlefoot held her temper for the first time in her life. “Could you please at least take the chocolate to the taster and tell him my story?”

“I’m sorry little Miss, but you see, we have had hundreds of people with absurd stories about Prince Fibian, and King Dullendim is tired of following clues to nowhere. Now I’m trying to be polite, but the answer is no. Have a lovely afternoon.” And he stepped away from the window.

Before Littlefoot could think clearly enough even to turn around, the gate began to open after all. She prepared a grateful smile, but as soon as the gate got partway open,  Littlefoot could see that the guard was not letting her in, but letting five riders on five sleek horses out.

The riders, four men and one woman, all had darker skin than Cenerentolans, and silky black hair. Littlefoot had never seen King Arturo before, but even though the riders were all dressed simply and similarly, she knew in a second, based on his posture and Benedella’s description, that he was the one coming through the gate first. She scrambled aside to let him pass.

“Whoa,” King Arturo said to his horse, which stopped obediently. “Pardon me, my lady. I didn’t know you were there.” Littlefoot thought she saw him throw an irritated glance at the gate guard.

Suddenly Littlefoot realized that King Arturo was the person she should really talk to, from what Benedella had told her about who was actually doing all the work in the search for Fibian. Even the men who had come up from Fenholm to search for their prince were said to have attached themselves to Arturo and followed his orders.

“Are you -”

“Arturo of Calmeto, at your service.”

Littlefoot bowed her head for a moment, and took the king at his word. “I do have need of your service, good king. This chocolate came from a woman named Agnes, and put my sister in a sleep from which she could only be awakened by a kiss. This same Agnes was the last known person to see Prince Fibian, and I have heard that she gave him chocolate. If this information is any help to you, good King…”

“Are you Littlefoot, then? Sister of Benedella and Kindra?”

Incredulous, Littlefoot sputtered, “I am. How did you know?”

“My guard and I have wasted no time finding out everything about everyone between Fenholm castle and Cenerentola castle. Littlefoot the Honest, you have done well to come to me, but we have already searched Agnes’s home and the surrounding area.”

“You have?” Littlefoot asked, forgetting her talking-to-royalty voice.

The king nodded. “You are not the first to come to me with allegations regarding Agnes.”

Had Benedella come the day before? Littlefoot wondered to herself. Certainly Asher wouldn’t, and Kindra was too busy with Bron. Maybe someone else who had different evidence altogether.

Some Cenerentolans,” he said with another glance at the gate guard, “realize the seriousness of the situation. If Fenholm suspects foul play instigated by the Dullendims, our hard earned peace may crumble. Further, though Fibian is young, he has the makings of a fine and benevolent future king. It would be a shame for Fenholm – for all of us in the three kingdoms – to lose him.”

Littlefoot liked this king very much. The people of Calmeto were fortunate.

“Good day, Littlefoot,” King Arturo said with a head nod. He offered to take the chocolate so that she wouldn’t have to dispose of it, and so he’d have it as evidence if ever it was needed. Littlefoot handed him the chocolate, which he handed to one of the other riders. Then he said, “If I can ever be of service to you, please come find me again.” His horse pranced forward and down the steps. The other horses and riders followed.

“Thank you for listening to me,” Littlefoot called after him, but she wasn’t sure he heard.

 

 

When Littlefoot got home with her bread from Opal, she was happy to find the door locked. They were finally getting it! She knocked and Kindra opened the door, eyes puffy from crying.

“What’s wrong?” Littlefoot asked.

Kindra locked the door again, walked to her room, and plunked herself down on the bed. Littlefoot sat beside her.

“Bron is a goat’s behind,” Kindra announced sadly.

“I’m so sorry, Kindra. How did you find out?”

“He told me I should go to the ball.”

“I don’t get it,” Littlefoot said. “Do you think he wanted you out of the way on the night of the ball so he could sneak into a house to kiss someone?”

Kindra looked at her like she was wearing a live lizard for a hat. “Littlefoot, he’s not the guy. The kissing will have stopped now since Cain moved away.”

“Or since Bron started dating you.”

“Ugh, Littlefoot, he’s not the guy. But it doesn’t matter now. He’s a goat’s behind because he wants me to go to the ball, which means that he doesn’t think of us as a couple. He thinks of himself as single.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Littlefoot put her arm around Kindra and said, “I’m sorry.” Even though she still thought Bron was the night kisser, and she was glad to see Kindra’s relationship with him ending, or at least beginning to end, she didn’t like to see her sister sad.

Kindra sighed. “I guess that’s what I get.”

“Get for what?”

“For acting out of spite. Eating your chocolate to get back at you for all the bruises I had from running into the locked door.” She sniffled. “If I hadn’t eaten it, Bron wouldn’t have saved me and I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I’m such an idiot, thinking he was as in love with me as I was with him.”

Littlefoot patted Kindra on the shoulder. “You know what I say?”

“What?”

“I say you go to the ball. You go to the ball, and you sneak out and you find the prettiest, most muscular stable boy there is.”

Kindra laughed and cried all at once. She lay her head on Littlefoot’s shoulder and said, “Okay.”

 

 

The morning of the ball, Littlefoot tried not to wake up. Not only was she worried that the king’s men would find her in the root cellar, but she was depressed that Asher still hadn’t come to see her. She wondered if he had told his mother what she’d accused her of. Knowing him, he probably had. Maybe without even knowing he had.

She spent the day getting extra sweaty in the garden. She finished the fence, pulled every weed, and stomped on gopher holes, which she knew would not stop the gophers, but it felt good.

When the summer sun was halfway to the horizon, she went in to have dinner with her sisters and watch them get ready to go to the castle. Kindra wore her calf-length, deep red dress with the tight bodice, pulled the front of her hair back and fastened a sprig of white jasmine in it. The stable boys had little chance.

Benedella put on Littlefoot’s favorite dress of hers. The ankle-length, pale pink one that Littlefoot would never subject herself to but seemed perfect for her sister. She left her long, golden curls down. Although Littlefoot had seen her sister in the dress a few times, and with her hair down many times, Benedella looked ten times as beautiful as Littlefoot had ever seen her.

Kindra stopped fussing with her jasmine when she saw her. “Oh Benedella! You’re glowing. Simply stunning.”

Benedella blushed.

“Be careful,” Littlefoot jested. “You might become Princess Dullendim.”

Benedella giggled. “Don’t worry. I won’t let that happen.”

The sisters helped Littlefoot load a basket with goodies to snack on while she hid, and Benedella got a stack of blankets, since the cellar would be cool.

“Don’t stay down there all night,” advised Kindra. “The king’s men will probably only come around at the beginning of the ball.”

“Littlefoot,” said Benedella. “Are you sure you don’t want to come? We could have you dressed and ready in no time.”

Kindra nodded in agreement.

“No way,” replied Littlefoot. “But thank you.”

Benedella smiled. “We’re off, then.” She kissed Littlefoot on the head, and they left.

Littlefoot took the big steps down from the mudroom into the low-roofed root cellar. She sat on a crate, draping one blanket over her shoulders and folding another in her lap. She set the basket on her lap blanket and started in on the cookies.

“Yo ho,” she whispered. “your brain is small, if you think I’ll go to your ball. Yo, ho, keep your prince, his dull expression makes me wince.”

Five cookies later, Littlefoot heard horses’ hooves. As soon as she heard a knock, she remembered that she hadn’t locked the door. Salt and sugar, she thought. Never mind, they wouldn’t let themselves in. But next thing she knew, she heard footsteps and the mudroom door opening. Spinach and chard. A knock on the cellar door. Littlefoot stopped breathing.

The cellar door opened, and Littlefoot whispered, “Son of a -!”

“Hello young maiden,” said the silhouette in the doorway, in a voice usually used on three-year-olds. “Your friend outside tells me that you don’t think you have a nice enough dress for the ball.”

Friend outside?

“Never fear,” the man continued. “The prince is welcoming to all. Come on, then. I’ll, er, give you a moment to wash up.”

They can make me go, Littlefoot thought, but they can’t make me dress up. She wiped her hand on the dirt floor and smudged her cheek with it. She ratted her hair, and then smelled her armpit. Yes, her garden work had ripened nicely.

The king’s man made way for her to exit the cellar, followed her in through the kitchen and out the front door, and helped her into his carriage. As they pulled away in the last of the day’s light, she saw Asher half hidden behind a tree with his eyebrows up as if to say, “So there.”

Littlefoot scowled at him. How could he betray her to defend his witch of a mother?

She faced forward again and tried to forget about Asher. Why oh why had she told him that she didn’t want to go to the ball? “Because I tell him everything,” she thought. “Never again.”

 

So, as the sun set, Littlefoot climbed the steps up to the castle gate again, only this time she was escorted through and across the courtyard to the wide, marble staircase. Every window of the castle glowed with light, and the refined music of stringed instruments floated out and down to her. After leaving a mud trail up the marble stairs, Littlefoot thanked the king’s man, for he had only been doing his job, and he really had been kind, and then she stopped at the enormous castle door.

“Name?” asked the guard. Or was he only a servant?

“Littlefoot.”

“Delightful! And what is your proper name?” he said diplomatically.

Littlefoot hardly remembered her given name. On a whim, she used her grandmother’s.

“Rapunzel.”

At this point, he seemed to take note of her appearance, or maybe her odor, but he quickly recovered, smiled, and wrote her name, or at least her grandmother’s, on his list.

Another man appeared as if from nowhere, had a similar reaction of disguised disgust at Littlefoot’s appearance, and led her down a carpeted stone hall and to a closed pair of large, ornate wooden doors. He opened the doors and announced her in a loud voice.

“Rapunzel of Cenerentola.”

A hundred women stuffed into blinding dresses turned and stared. Littlefoot lifted her chin and found the absolute closest bench to sit on for the rest of the night. She wasn’t surprised that she couldn’t spot Kindra, but where was Benedella – keeping an eye on Kindra? And where was the prince?

Her second question was answered before long, when a door opposite the one she had entered through opened, and the music stopped.

“Presenting His Royal Highness, Prince Neander Bartholomew Dullendim.”

Trumpeters tried in vain to make his entrance glorious, but the most royal fanfare in the world couldn’t have made him look less bumbling and vapid. All hundred women in the room cared more about being a princess than having self respect. They straightened their skirts and fluffed their hair. Littlefoot shook her head sadly.

Most royal balls would have about as many men as women, but the Dullendims weren’t risking having love blossom between the women of Cenerentola and anyone but the prince. The music started up again, and Neander Bartholomew Dullendim (often called “Thol” by the royal family, as his father was also named Neander) weaved his way through the women, who were trying to get his attention without going so far as to get thrown out of the castle for assault.

Two fancily dressed servants came to Littlefoot with trays of wine and cheese. She stopped scratching at the grass stains on her trouser knees and took a glass of wine and most of the cheese. The worst they could do would be to throw her out, which she rather hoped. She sat munching and looking for Benedella. Maybe she was in the bathroom. Maybe she had taken a detour. Benedella would be the one to have the presence of mind to see as much of the castle as possible before the end of the night.

The prince chose a woman in fuchsia as his first dance partner. He took her hand, and she swayed alarmingly while the prince smiled at the onlookers. Littlefoot thought she was going to have to run and catch the fainting fuchsia-wrapped woman – the prince certainly wouldn’t be quick enough – but no, the woman pulled herself together in the end. Had he chosen a princess so soon? No, after a few measures of music he moved on, and the woman in fuchsia smiled, in a daze, until the reality that she had probably lost her chance at royalty set in.

When the prince’s first dance ended, he stood uncomfortably, smiling at no one in particular, waiting for the next song to begin. Before it did, the guards had a few more guests to announce. One was Opal, who made a bee line to sit on the bench next to Littlefoot. They mouthed things to each other like “can you believe we’re in the castle?” and “you should have seen the prince try to dance,” and “sorry I smell,” while several other women were announced.

But Littlefoot’s attention was jerked away from her friend when she heard, “Rapunzel of Cenerentola.”

“Grandma!” Littlefoot laughed appreciatively, in spite of the fact that no one else was making a sound. They were all gaping at by far the oldest person at the ball.

“What?” Grandma said, confronting the whole room. “I’m single.”

The music conductor knew when to get the attention back on the prince and started the next song immediately. Grandma came and sat on the bench on the other side of Littlefoot. Opal smiled at her.

“What have I missed?” Grandma asked.

“Wine and cheese,” Littlefoot said, and Grandma and Opal each took a piece of cheese from her cupped hand, grubby though it was. “And more of this,” she added, gesturing to the women jockeying for a place close to the prince.

Next a tray of cakes came around. Grandma, Opal, and Littlefoot each took two. While the music played, Littlefoot told the girls about Asher’s betrayal and how she had given her grandma’s name when she entered, Opal described how the king’s men had knocked on her door and waited for her to change into her simple cantaloupe-colored dress, and Grandma reported that Snowy had given birth to seven, tiny, healthy kittens. “I’m going to keep the grumpy one and the quiet one, but the rest are up for grabs. You might like the happy one, Opal.”

“I’d love one,” Opal said. “Rapunzel, why is Snowy named Snowy when she’s black?”

“Because I found her in the snow,” Grandma said. “Also, it’s just the way I am.”

“A little bit like your granddaughter,” Opal said slyly.

“I’ve heard that before.” Grandma winked at Littlefoot. “Where are your sisters?”

“Haven’t the foggiest,” said Littlefoot. “Never saw them.” She took a bite of each piece of cake.

Another song ended, and the prince, his wispy blond hair sweat-stuck to his head, waited for a new one. When it began, he looked at the faces of all the women surrounding him, couldn’t seem to find a woman he hadn’t danced with, and started walking to the edge of the gaggle of contestants. He searched the faces and then walked to a bench across the room from Littlefoot, where a few other scoffers slouched.

He walked past each bench slowly without stopping. Eventually, he got to Opal, and gave her no more personal attention than a shirt in his closet that he’d decided not to wear. His gaze passed only briefly over Littlefoot and her grandmother, too. They all gaped up at him and only breathed after he’d passed.

“Thanks be to gardening clothes,” Littlefoot whispered.

Opal breathed, “Hey, what’s wrong with me?”

“What’s wrong with me?” Grandma whispered, and all three of them snickered.

They shut up when the prince suddenly turned around.

“Wait,” he said, loud enough for the whole room to hear over the music. “Are you a girl?” Littlefoot looked to her left and her right before finally admitting to herself that he was looking at her.

“Yeah – er, yes.”

“I thought you were this woman’s servant boy at first.”

Littlefoot didn’t know how she was supposed to respond to that.

“Now I know why I haven’t found a suitable companion before,” he said, his eyes alight with destiny.

Because they’ve all run away when they saw you coming? Littlefoot thought.

“I’ve been waiting for someone who won’t just be marrying me because they want to wear expensive silks from far off lands. Someone who won’t expect feasts thrown in her honor. Someone who isn’t afraid of a little work. Someone like you, Lady…”

“Rapunzel,” Grandma said for her. Then she murmured, out of the side of her mouth, “He doesn’t know your real name. I’ll slow him down. Run for it.”

Littlefoot didn’t hesitate. She ran past the shocked prince, busted through the two ballroom door guards, and fled down the hall. Grandma was as good as her word, because even though Littlefoot heard the prince yell “Catch her,” no one followed. In the front entrance, she forced herself to slow to a brisk walk.

“Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said in a high, strained, voice to the men guarding the castle doors. They moved aside to let her pass, smiling despite her appearance.

Thought he’d reject that one,” she heard one of them say as she started down the marble steps.

And then she heard the yelling.

“Catch her! Stop her!”

Littlefoot started flying down two stairs at a time, and one of her garden shoes flew off behind her. “Salt and sugar,” she hissed. “I loved those shoes.”

She ran across the courtyard, said “Had a lovely time,” to the befuddled gate guard, and ran down the shallow steps to the market road, with an “ouch” every time she landed on her bare foot. By the time the shouts of “Catch her” reached the gate, Littlefoot was halfway to the turnoff to her house. She turned left when she got there and was in her house with the door locked before any of the men saw where she had gone.

Later, after she had rubbed the tiny, sharp pebbles out of the bottom of her foot and put on her tiny, cushioned, wool slippers, there came a quiet knock on the door.

“Littlefoot, it’s me, Opal. And your grandmother.”

Littlefoot let them in, and they told her how Grandma had “accidentally” fallen under the feet of the ballroom guards in the doorway and the prince had gallantly helped her up after stepping on her fingers.

“The dancing was pretty much over, after that,” Opal said. “The prince kept whining that he only wanted one girl, and that girl’s name was Rapunzel.”

“I kept trying to tell him I was the only Rapunzel in the land,” Grandma said, “but he wasn’t buying it.”

“Half the women there knew my real name,” Littlefoot said. “And half of them don’t like me. It’s amazing none of them gave me away.”

Opal said, “And ruin their second chance to become a princess?”

“Good point,” Littlefoot said.

Grandma and Opal waited hours for Benedella and Kindra to arrive. When they did, Littlefoot said, “Did you hear? I had one crazy night.”

“Yes,” said Benedella. “We heard, all right.”

“I barely escaped. Grandma was awesome!”

“Littlefoot,” said Kindra.

“I told them my name was Rapunzel, and-”

“Littlefoot!” Kindra said again. “They have your shoe.”

“My shoe? So?”

“The king’s men are going to go throughout the land tomorrow morning trying the shoe on every woman. You’re the only one who could possibly fit into it.”

“How do you know their plans?” Benedella asked Kindra.

“Stable boy.”

Littlefoot could not believe what was happening. “Spinach and chard! Curse my child-sized feet.”

“I could cut off my toes,” Grandma said, looking quite willing to do it.

“We could hide you,” Benedella offered.

“No,” said Littlefoot. “Then he’d probably end up marrying some poor ten-year-old who fit in my shoes. I think I’m going to be a stupid princess.”

“We’ll think of something,” said Benedella.

Grandma nodded. “If my granddaughter doesn’t want the prince to marry her, he’ll marry her over my dead body.”

“Grandma,” Littlefoot said. “Be sensible. Don’t get arrested for attacking a royal.”

“Hmph,” Grandma said. “Well, throw some blankets on the floor. I’m spending the night.”

“Me too,” said Opal.

So they all went to bed. But Littlefoot was too mad to go to sleep. Maybe the prince would accept a refusal. She intended to stay up all night crafting and rehearsing her words so that they’d be the least offensive. She made it all the way from “You’re an imbecile” to “I can’t bear children.” Nothing seemed like it would deter him, but she stayed awake anyway. She wanted to savor what might be her last night in her comfy bed in her perfect house by her familiar garden. Not sleep it away. She listened to the chorus of frogs and pulled the quilt her mother had made for her up under her chin. Her last thought before succumbing to sleep was that she’d never asked Benedella where she’d been all evening.

The king’s men knocked before any of them had woken. Littlefoot unlocked and opened the door with her sisters and the others standing behind her. Not even giving the men even a chance to speak, Littlefoot held up her remaining shoe and said, “It’s mine.”

“Oh, Littlefoot,” Benedella said pityingly.

“We’ll give you a moment to wash up,” the king’s man said, with a glance up at Littlefoot’s hair and a glance down at her muddy ankles.

And that gave Littlefoot an idea. “Benedella! Fetch me your frilly blue dress!”

Grandma yelled, “I’ll get a brush.”

“Got it,” said Kindra. “I’ll find your least muddy shoes.”

“Mother bought me new pretty ones before she left. I’ve never worn them.” Littlefoot ran to her room with Kindra and Opal, and Benedella and Grandma joined them with the dress and hairbrush, and a damp washcloth.

When Littlefoot emerged from her room, followed by her entourage, the king’s men said, “Where is she?”

“Run around the back,” one of them ordered another. “Make sure she hasn’t snuck out a window.”

Littlefoot rolled her eyes. “I’m right here.” She stuck one of her tiny feet out from under her dress and wiggled it around. “See?”

“Wow,” the king’s man said. (Littlefoot rolled her eyes again. Men were so easily tricked.) “Your carriage awaits.”

Littlefoot took his elbow, and as she strode purposefully down the front path, Kindra called, “Give ‘im hell!”

The king’s men looked a little disconcerted.

As they rolled away, a movement in the woods caught Littlefoot’s eye. Asher stepped out from behind a tree, not bothering to conceal himself at all. His face looked as though someone had just proven to him that there was no such thing as mermaids. And then he looked very, very sorry.

 

 

Up the marble staircase Littlefoot went again, this time twice as determined that her prince-repelling behavior succeed. The king’s men took her into the castle to an enormous library. She perused the books, looking for a good old classic, but could only find nonfiction, and not even histories, but only things of the self help variety. When the prince entered, she was browsing a book called, “The Beast Within (and how to let it out).”

When the prince rushed in, Littlefoot turned toward him, glanced up and held up one finger, then pretended to finish reading a sentence. She slid the book back on its shelf.

The prince looked at the king’s men. “Where is she?”

“This is her, Your Majesty. She ‘er, cleaned up well.”

“It is not her. I’m not a fool. You couldn’t find her, so you brought me another.”

Littlefoot didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended. She could clean up when she wanted to. She just couldn’t remember the last time she tried, that’s all.

“Of course you’re not a fool,” the king’s man said patronizingly. “I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But she had the other shoe. Look at her feet.”

Littlefoot was not about to help them by sticking her foot out from under her skirts until they asked.

“Show me your feet,” the prince commanded.

Littlefoot wanted to congratulate him on letting out his inner beast, but she didn’t want him to take it as a compliment. She stuck her foot out.

Dullendim looked from her tiny foot to her face and searched it for a long time.

Remembering the ten-year-olds who might be at risk if the prince didn’t believe she was the unkempt woman from the ball, she sighed and said, “Yes, it’s me. Now where is your grandmother’s tiara. I know she left it to you for your future bride. There are emeralds in it, right? If my memory is flawed, and they are rubies, you’ll have to find me another. I detest rubies.”

The prince turned to the king’s men again. “She may have small feet, but I assure you, this is not the girl!”

“But I am,” insisted Littlefoot, for the ten-year-olds. “I was so embarrassed that I had forgotten to dress for the ball that I ran out. But here I am, and I’m ready to begin my princessly duties.” She then addressed the king’s men, her speech becoming more and more affected. “Strawberries!” She clapped her hands twice. “With cream.”

Flustered, the prince yelled, “Well – well I don’t want her anymore.”

“But,” said the king’s man. “The king and queen will be -”

“I don’t care!”

Really, Littlefoot wanted to clap for the prince and his inner beast. He’d probably never stood up to his parents before. She didn’t think he’d had it in him. To be sure, he was taking it a little too far, but these things swing like a pendulum. He’d come back to the center, eventually.

The king’s man gave it one more try. “But this poor girl…”

“No,” said Littlefoot. “I’m afraid the prince has put his big, manly, foot down. I can see that emeralds and silk from faraway lands are not in my future. I’m quite devastated, of course, but so was every other girl at the ball last night. We’ll survive, and to be perfectly honest, I think the prince has dodged an arrow, here. I would have made him miserable. His perfect maiden awaits, probably not far outside these castle walls.” She gazed wistfully at the east wall as if looking through it.

The prince took his dramatic cue. “Take her away,” he said with quiet determination.

Finally, a king’s man took Littlefoot by the arm and led her out of the library and down a few corridors and stairs to the castle entrance.

In the courtyard, Littlefoot said to him, “My shoe?”

“Pardon me?”

“My gardening shoe. I’ll take it back, please.”

Clearly irritated with her for wasting his morning and playing the prince for a fool, he said, “The shoe belongs to the royal family now.”

“The prince will surely be angry if he sees the shoe and it reminds him of this fiasco.”

“I don’t even know which of the men has the shoe now.”

Littlefoot looked at the bulge in his jacket. “I have gotten to know King Arturo quite well during his stay. He’s still here in Cenerentola, is he not?”

The king’s man reached into his jacket and handed her the shoe. She snatched it from his hand, sauntered victoriously through the courtyard and out the gate.

 

Chapter Six

 

If Littlefoot expected to come home to four fretting women, she was sadly disappointed. Opal had gone home so that her parents wouldn’t worry about her, Grandma had gone home to check on Snowy and the seven kittens, and Benedella was nowhere to be found. But the most disappointing thing was that Kindra was there with Bron. The door was unlocked, and Littlefoot walked in to find them snuggling on a chair made for one.

“Where is everyone?” Littlefoot asked.

Kindra told her where everyone was, and then said, “Bron snuck in this morning to leave us muffins, but we were already awake because of the king’s men.”

Littlefoot sighed at Kindra’s naivite. “You didn’t lock the doors when I left?”

But they ignored her. Bron brushed Kindra’s cheek with his nose, and said, “I knew you’d be too exhausted from the ball to make yourself breakfast, and I couldn’t wait to see if my beloved had been snatched up by the prince. I had to give her a chance at becoming royalty, but I tell you, it was the longest night of my life waiting. I’m so sorry we had that misunderstanding.”

Kindra giggled.

Littlefoot waited for one of them to ask what had happened at the castle, but they just kept smiling at each other. Bron tickled Kindra’s side, and she laughed some more. Littlefoot kicked off her shoes and walked wearily toward her room.

Before she slammed her bedroom door shut, she yelled, “Don’t worry. I got the prince to reject me.”

It was an hour or more before Kindra knocked on her door. She made an attempt to show some interest in Littlefoot’s story, but the fact that it had taken her so long to come in made sincerity impossible.

Littlefoot couldn’t stop herself. “Kindra, don’t you think Bron might have snuck in to kiss people while they slept?”

“Then why did he have muffins?”

“Because he has half a brain. He brought them in case he needed an excuse.”

“But why did he come in the morning?”

“Because he thought we’d be out all night. The king’s men did come very early. If they hadn’t come, we’d have all been asleep, and Bron knew it.”

“Oh Littlefoot, you’ve always got the silliest ideas. I’m too happy to even be mad at you.”

Littlefoot knew she didn’t mean that she was happy her sister wouldn’t be stuck with Neander Bartholomew Dullendim. And as proof, Kindra went on to tell Littlefoot how Bron had apologized over and over again for his mistake, and how defined his abs were.

“Listen, Kindra. I’m tired and cranky and I just want a nap.”

Kindra patted her on the hip and said, “I’ll be napping, too.”

Littlefoot got up and locked the doors before wrapping up in her mother’s quilt in her perfect bed.

 

 

After her nap, Littlefoot felt much more like herself. She peeked out the front door to see if Asher was hiding behind a tree again. He wasn’t. So she locked the door, ate a huge lunch, and went to work in the garden while Kindra slept. She had worked so hard the day before, there wasn’t much to be done, so she locked herself in the house again and read a book, waiting for Kindra to wake so they could go visit Grandma and Opal to tell them about her visit to the castle.

She was just getting to the good part when there was a knock on the door. She went and looked through the peephole and saw a hunched little old woman with a basket of apples.

“Hello,” said Littlefoot when she opened the door.

“Hello, Dear. Would you like to buy an apple?”

Littlefoot had a whole tree full of apples, but she could see that the woman must be desperate for money if she was hobbling around the countryside in her condition. Her face itself resembled a year-old apple, brown and shriveled.

“I’ll take a dozen,” Littlefoot said. “Let me go get my money.”

She didn’t even ask how much the woman wanted. She got at least twice what the apples were worth and handed it over.

“Oh, thank you so much, Dearie. I hope they’re the best you’ve ever tasted. Make sure you taste one before deciding to use them all in a pie.”

“I will. I’ll have them with cheese for a snack right now.”

“You’re a sweet girl. Just take one bite and tell me what you think. If you like them, I’ll tell you how to get to my house so you can buy more when you run out.”

So Littlefoot took a bite for the poor old woman. The apple was very average, but she smiled like it was royal cake. As soon as she swallowed, something strange seemed to happen to the old woman. She stood straighter, her skin plumped out, and her eyes sharpened. Still, Littlefoot didn’t comprehend what was happening. It wasn’t until the woman completely changed back to her original form and Littlefoot became woozy that she realized who the woman was.

“Salt and sugar,” Littlefoot said. And then she hit the ground.

 

 

Kindra had never told Littlefoot what it was like to be under Agnes’s spell. But now Littlefoot knew. It wasn’t like sleep, but a horrible fully awake state in which she couldn’t move, except to breathe and swallow. It felt like when she sat on her foot too long and it fell asleep, only this time it had happened to her whole body, and it wasn’t progressing to the pins and needles waking up stage. Her eyes wouldn’t open, so when she heard footsteps receding, she had to guess that Agnes was leaving. When she heard more footsteps on the path what seemed like hours later, she could only hope that the feet belonged to Benedella, Grandma, or Asher – someone who knew that she needed to be kissed.

She felt lips touch hers with more passion than necessary to get the job done. Not Grandma or Benedella, then.

Littlefoot’s eyes opened. “Ugh. Bron, get off me!” She wiped her lips, stood up, and wiped them some more. “And stay away from my sister,” she hissed.

“Littlefoot!” Kindra said from behind her.

Littlefoot was mortified that Kindra had heard her, but not sorry she’d said it. “Kindra, he just kissed me while I was under Agnes’s spell. Get a clue.”

Kindra sighed exaggeratedly. “Bron, ignore her. Littlefoot, show some gratitude.”

Bron said, “Really, Littlefoot. That kiss was no fun for me. You had turned a very nasty shade of green.”

Littlefoot looked long and hard at Kindra, who didn’t seem any closer to believing that Bron was the night kisser.

She might never believe it.

Not wanting to cry in front of them, Littlefoot walked out through the kitchen and to the stumps by the well, which was where Benedella found her much later.

“Kindra told me what happened,” she said gently. “Are you all right?”

Littlefoot nodded. “She’s never going to believe it. Bron magically appeared when I was sprawled out in the doorway? He’s out looking for people who are asleep.”

Benedella nodded somberly.

“And,” continued Littlefoot, “I was so mad I didn’t even tell them what happened. Agnes can change forms.” She told Benedella everything about the old woman, the apples, and the waking sleep. “It’s more serious than even I’d thought.”

Benedella nodded. “I think you’re right. Something must be done. Arturo searched Agnes’s house and the surrounding woods for Prince Fibian, but maybe he will arrest her purely based on what happened to you. We need to keep Agnes away from you.”

Neither of them bothered to mention how sad it was that they didn’t even consider involving the Dullendims.

“We should give him the rest of Agnes’s apples,” Littlefoot said.

“I’ll take care of it,” said Benedella. “You go rest in your room and read this.” She handed Littlefoot an envelope.

“From Mom and Dad?”

Benedella nodded, smiling brightly. “You need it. Kindra and I can read it later. I’m off to find Arturo.”

She got up to leave, and turned to walk backward as she said, “Kindra told me about Dullendim, too. You’ll have to tell me all about it later. And please go in the house and lock the doors.”

Littlefoot hurried into the house and locked up. Not caring where Kindra and Bron were, she ran to her room, flopped onto the bed, and opened the letter. Once again, it began with her mom’s writing and ended with her dad’s.

 

Dearest Girls,

We have made it to our second island. It was hard to leave the good people of Turtalia, but Hutsa is just as beautiful and interesting. I can’t wait to show you the sandals they make. They’re ingenious. I never want to wear anything else. I bought several extra pairs, I hope enough to last me for years and years. I bought a pair for each of you, too. I hope they fit! A wonderful man named Chiril makes the best ones. He tried to teach me how, but my attempts were pretty sad. We’ll be leaving here soon, too. Even sooner than we’d planned, due to inclement weather in the forecast. Next stop, the Eastern mainland. We’ll be coming home with pen pals from all over the world. I love you and miss you so much. Don’t forget to visit your grandmother. Here’s your father.

My beautiful girls,

Well, I see your mother is having a marvelous time. No surprise that the only thing she wrote about is Chiril. Talented Chiril. Patient Chiril. Aren’t Chiril’s cheekbones remarkable? I told your mother that we have to leave for the Eastern mainland three weeks early because of weather. Really it’s because I think Chiril’s trying to convince your mother to stay on Hutsa with him. Your mother doesn’t believe that, of course. She always thinks men’s intentions are pure. Let me tell you, Girls, they are NOT. Say hello to Asher for m

 

And there the letter ended. Mother must have walked into the room while Father was writing again. Littlefoot sighed. They’d have to burn the letters when their parents got home. She chuckled to herself. Men always fell for her mother. Father had nothing to worry about, though. His wife adored him.

The letter had made Littlefoot both happier and sadder. Mostly happier. However, she wasn’t sure she wanted to ruin her mood by seeing Kindra at the moment, so she left the letter from her parents on the kitchen table, along with a note which said, “Spending the night at Grandma’s. Littlefoot.”

With a cautious eye on the straight path to Asher’s, Littlefoot turned left and carried a basket of goodies down the road to her grandmother’s.

“Knock knock, Grandma. It’s me.”

She heard the lock slide, and Grandma opened the door. “Well? What happened at the castle?”

Littlefoot locked the door behind her, sat on the floor, gave Snowy a scratch on the head, and watched her take care of her kittens. She finally got to tell someone the whole story of Prince Dullendim in the library.

Grandma hooted with laughter. “Thank goodness. I didn’t want to have to go after him with my shovel.”

And then Littlefoot told her grandmother about Agnes and the apples, and Bron.

Grandma said, “This woman is dangerous, Littlefoot. Maybe I’ll need my shovel after all.”

“Benedella is trying to get King Arturo on the case. But keep your doors locked so you don’t need your shovel for Bron.”

“I do keep my door locked, but he’s hardly going to seek out an old lady, if it is him.”

“I don’t know, Grandma. I suspect that when he starts sneaking in to people’s houses again, they’ll all start getting locks. You don’t want to be the only one with an unlocked door.”

Grandma turned her nose up at that. “I was hoping for a ‘You’ve still got it Grandma – anyone would want to sneak into your house at night.'”

“Sorry.”

 

 

They spent the evening snacking, playing cards (Littlefoot knew better than to make wagers) and talking about Littlefoot’s parents’ letter, the kittens, Kindra and Bron, the ball, and how Littlefoot was afraid she could never be friends with Asher again. Grandma thought the whole thing with Asher would blow over, but although Littlefoot thought she could forgive him for turning her over to the king’s men, especially after the look on his face as they carted her off to the castle, she knew he wouldn’t believe the story about his mother and the apples. How could she stand to be around him if he continued to take Agnes’s side?

“Some good kissing, that’s how,” Grandma said.

Littlefoot tossed her losing hand of cards on the table. “I’m in no mood for your jokes.”

“I wasn’t joking,” she said in a high, innocent voice.

“I just want to be his friend. If that!”

“Oh come now.” Grandma shuffled the cards, rapped them on the table, and shuffled again. “We all know that’s not true.”

“He’s too trusting.”

“There are much worse things.” Grandma’s eyes twinkled in the candlelight.

“And I like my life the way it is, living with Kindra and Benedella.”

Grandma paused before dealing. Her face softened. “I have a feeling it’s not going to be like that for too much longer.

“But his mother.

“But you want to kiss him.”

Littlefoot sighed. No one understood.

After Littlefoot lost most of the card games and they’d burned through two candles, they got in the big feather bed and went to sleep.

Sometime in the night, Snowy meowed to be let out. Littlefoot heard Grandma shuffle through the dark, unlock and open the door, say, “Happy hunting,” and shuffle back to bed. And then, still exhausted from the last two days, Littlefoot fell immediately back to sleep.

When she woke again, it was still dark. A noise had woken her, but she couldn’t remember what it was. Snowy scratching to be let back in? No, a thud of some sort. Before she could remember, she heard some scrambling, a man moaning, and finally Grandma’s voice.

“Littlefoot. Light a candle.”

More scrambling and moaning.

Littlefoot felt around Grandma’s nightstand. When the flame lit the room, there was Grandma, sitting on the floor, or more specifically, sitting on a man’s face. The rest of him was scrambling, trying to push Grandma off.

Grandma got up. “Bron.” She revealed the night kisser’s name cruelly. “You son of a sea wench.”

He stood up and massaged the back of his head. “I – I was walking by, and I saw your cat at the door. I didn’t want her to wake you, so I tried the door, and let her in. I was going to leave.”

“Forgot to lock the door after letting her out,” Grandma said. “Littlefoot, get my shovel.”

Grandma had Bron pinned to the ground again, facedown, before Littlefoot could even see how she did it. Littlefoot took the candle outside to the nearby shed. Instead of the shovel, though, she got some twine. She brought it back to the house and tied Bron’s hands and feet.

“Let’s hand him over to King Arturo in the morning, Grandma. We don’t need you to get arrested.”

“All right.” Grandma sighed in resignation. “Let’s play cards. It’s going to be a long night.”

Bron tried to convince them that he wasn’t the night kisser, but Grandma only said, “Don’t make me stuff a sock in your mouth. I don’t have any clean ones,” and Bron shut up until morning, when Littlefoot went home to get her sisters and go find King Arturo.

 

Kindra took the news hard. At first she tried to make excuses for why Bron would be walking so far from his house in the middle of the night, but after a while, she was chastising herself for falling for another lunatic.

“Someone should go back and stay with Grandma,” Benedella said.

“I’ll go,” said Kindra. “There are some things I’d like to say to Bron while he’s tied up.”

“I’ll go, too,” said Littlefoot. “I don’t really want to be seen around the castle.”

Benedella nodded. “I’ll find Arturo and see if he’ll send guards to take Bron to the jail. I’m sure he will.”

Littlefoot agreed.

So, they went their separate ways. When Littlefoot and Kindra got to Grandma’s, Bron was sitting with his back against the bed, still tied at the hands and feet. Kindra told Bron everything she thought about him and the time they’d spent together, including many disturbing details that Littlefoot wished she hadn’t heard. Bron might have been better off facing Grandma and her shovel. Luckily for Bron, Arturo’s guard arrived with Benedella amazingly quickly. Surprisingly, Arturo himself was with them.

The four guards helped Bron up, and as they escorted him, still pleading and making excuses, out the door, he yelled back at Littlefoot, “This is how you repay me? No one else would have kissed you when you were that disgusting color. It was like kissing a frog!”

Littlefoot gasped. “Spinach and chard!” she exclaimed. “That’s it! I was turning into a frog! Follow me. Fibian and his men are at Asher’s pond.”

 

Chapter Seven

Arturo told his guard take Bron away. On the hurried walk to Agnes and Asher’s pond, Littlefoot described to her sisters, Arturo, and Grandma the strange behavior of the frogs she had seen there, and how Agnes could change her form, and how Bron had said she was turning green when he kissed her.

“Her potion must turn people into frogs,” she finished.

“Why didn’t I turn into a frog, then?” Kindra asked.

“You probably would have, but Bron got to you right away. I think I was lying in the doorway for at least an hour before he came.”

“Do you think the kiss will still work on Prince Fibian and his men now that the change is complete?” Arturo asked.

Littlefoot took a moment to appreciate the fact that he believed her and was asking for her opinion, and then she said, “There’s only one way to find out.”

When they got to the pond, Littlefoot said, “Watch your step,” and showed them to the place where she had sat with Asher and seen the two frogs on patrol.

She thought it would be difficult to find them, but right where she had seen the two, there were now ten frogs, sitting as if waiting for them. One hopped forward.

Arturo knelt down. “Fibian?”

The frog bowed its tiny head.

To his credit, King Arturo looked prepared to do the kissing. But Kindra swept in and scooped up the frog.

She held it up to her face.

“Wait!” said Arturo.

But it was too late. Kindra had kissed the frog, and not a second later, she was on her knees with her hands pinned to the ground by the feet of a very muscular and very naked man. She looked up, and to Littlefoot’s surprise, looked right back down again, red-faced.

The man leapt behind a leafy plant, but he didn’t look embarrassed for long. He was too busy gazing at Kindra.

“I,” he said to her, “am Fibian. Prince of Fenholm. How did you know how to save us, good lady? How can I ever repay you?”

Littlefoot stepped toward him. “But I-”

Grandma clapped a hand over Littlefoot’s mouth and said, “Kindra had heard of your greatness and was desperate to save you. She is my devoted and generous and available granddaughter.”

“Kindra,” Fibian repeated. “What a beautiful name. Kindra.”

And only Kindra could have done this. She turned to King Arturo. “May I have your coat?”

Being a gentleman, Arturo whipped off his coat and handed it to her. She took it to Fibian, who stepped out from behind the bush with the coat in front of him.

With his free hand, Prince Fibian took Kindra by the hand and said, “I need such a brave woman to help me rule Fenholm. I have always searched for one, but hadn’t dared to hope she would also be so beautiful when I found her. Will you come to Castle Fenholm with me, fair Kindra?”

Kindra nodded, as if in a trance. Littlefoot looked at Benedella, who looked as dumbfounded as Littlefoot felt. Grandma smiled widely.

King Arturo said, “Congratulations and welcome back, my friend. Let us help your guard and then we’ll pay a visit to one Agnes of Cenerentola.”

Bowing down to the ground instead of lifting the remaining frogs, Grandma, Littlefoot, and Benedella kissed them one by one, averting their eyes as soon as they finished. With no more clothing to spare, they helped the men find leafy branches with which to cover themselves as they walked up to Agnes and Asher’s house.

Poor Asher, Littlefoot thought. She could hardly feel a happy vindication about Agnes’s forthcoming arrest when she remembered that Asher loved his mother, and would have to live alone now.

It was King Arturo who knocked on the door. When Agnes opened it, she tried for a moment to hide her fear, but it was no use.

“Agnes of Cenerentola,” Arturo said, “your presence is required by King Dullendim at the castle, after which, if you are found guilty of attacking Prince Fibian, I will offer to imprison you back in Calmeto.”

“Just,” she stammered, “just let me have something to eat before we go.”

Fibian said, “Of course,” but Arturo contradicted him.

“You will eat nothing but what we give you. If I see you changing form, I will not hesitate to stop you by any means necessary.”

All during the exchange, Littlefoot listened to their words, but her eyes were on Asher, who stood in the door to his room, listening to everything too, but looking at Littlefoot.

She mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”

He nodded and smiled sadly.

“Where are the prince’s clothes?” one of the naked guards demanded.

“I burned them in my oven,” Agnes replied, enjoying her last moment of satisfaction.

“Prince Fibian, you cannot walk through town like this,” the guard said, even though Fibian had more coverage than he himself had. “We’ll take the woman to the castle with King Arturo.”

“Yes, Fibian,” Kindra said. “My house is just down that path. Come. My sisters and I will sew something for you to wear.”

Prince Fibian nodded. “Very well. Thank you.”

Grandma winked at one of the older guards. “I’ll go with them.

So Grandma, King Arturo, and Fibian’s guards left, pulling Agnes down the path with them. Kindra and Prince Fibian followed more slowly, and Benedella, astutely realizing that Littlefoot would want to speak with Asher alone, followed a polite distance behind Kindra and her new love. Her new betrothed. Littlefoot couldn’t believe how fast it had all happened.

Asher came into the kitchen and moved one of his mother’s candies from its spot on the counter to a spot an inch or so further away. He rolled it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger and then set it down.

Littlefoot said it again, out loud this time. “I’m so sorry, Asher.”

“I’m sorry, too, Littlefoot. I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t. I feel so bad that you’ll be alone, here.”

He shrugged. “I guess I was already alone.”

Littlefoot walked to him tentatively and hugged him.

He collapsed onto her. “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to be. Come on. Walk me home?”

They walked slowly enough that they didn’t catch up to Benedella until they got to the house. She was waiting in front of the door.

“Oh. Hi Asher.” Even the wise Benedella didn’t seem to know what to say to him.

Littlefoot had been proud of herself for at least not saying anything stupid. She was growing up.

“Littlefoot,” said Benedella. “I have something I need to tell you.”

Littlefoot looked up at Asher. Benedella sounded like she was going to say something that Littlefoot wouldn’t want to hear. But Asher didn’t look like he knew what it was going to be, either.

“Now that Prince Fibian has been rescued,” Benedella finally said, “Arturo and his men will be returning to Calmeto.”

It was rather a shame. Littlefoot had enjoyed having a brave and useful royal in the castle for once. Enjoyed it and gotten used to it.

Benedella continued. “And I’ll be going with him.”

The words were clearly spoken, but Littlefoot’s brain seemed to be putting them in the wrong order, for they didn’t make sense. Going with him to Calmeto? No. That couldn’t be. Maybe she meant she’d be leaving at the same time, but for a different place, like to spend a week with her friend Genny while Genny had her baby.

“Going where?”

“To the castle. Arturo has asked me to marry him.”

“What? Just now?”

Benedella shook her head. “No. Have you noticed that I’ve been away a lot lately? The second time Arturo saw me in the marketplace he asked me to meet with him. We went for a walk by the sea, and later we met in the woods. Before long I was going with him and his guard on their investigations, and we snuck in a few moments alone along the way, and then at the ball, he asked me to marry him.”

“That’s why I couldn’t find you at the ball?”

Benedella nodded. “We were wandering the gardens behind the castle. I’m sorry, Littlefoot. Arturo thought we should keep it secret so that the Dullendims weren’t insulted by his finding a bride so easily while Prince Neander continued to be… unsuccessful.”

Littlefoot felt her eyes begin to water. “A secret from me, even?”

“I’m sorry.”

Littlefoot wanted Benedella to be sorry for a little while longer before she admitted that Arturo was the perfect match for her.

“He told me,” Benedella said, “that he would be happy to give you and Kindra rooms at Castle Calmeto. Kindra won’t want one now, at least not a permanent one, but I’d like you to think about it, Littlefoot. Maybe you could stay at least until Mom and Dad return.”

Littlefoot still couldn’t speak. Everything was changing so fast.

Benedella took a last wordless look at Asher before joining Kindra and Fibian in the house.

Littlefoot leaned her back against the door and looked at Asher in bewilderment.

“I’m so sorry, Littlefoot.”

“You don’t have to apologize anymore. How could a person believe that of his own mother?”

“Not about that. I am sorry for telling the king’s man you were in the root cellar, but that’s not what I meant. I meant about your sisters. I meant I know how you wanted to live here with them forever.”

“Oh.” Littlefoot’s tears spilled over, and Asher pulled her into a long hug.

“And I meant,” he said, “who will be here to kiss you if my mother turns herself into an ant and escapes and comes back to turn you into a frog again?”

“Oh,” Littlefoot laughed tearfully, “Bron always seems to find a way.”

Asher leaned closer. “I’d kill him,” he whispered.

Littlefoot laughed, and not just because of the picture of Asher trying to tackle Bron, but because she was happy. And she kissed him. She kissed him long enough that if any part of her had been asleep it would have woken up, from her throat, to the palms of her hands, to the bottoms of her feet. Then she said, “I love you, too, Bean Boy.”

“I’ll be back with my things in a bit,” he said. “Remember to lock your door.”

And she did.

THE END

 

 

Thanks

 

Thanks to my critique group girls, Robin Moore and Jeanne Jusaitis, for going over every sentence.

 

Thanks to beta readers Kristen Ruby, Kristin Isaacs, Julie Bumgardner, Nancy Scott, Sean Millard, and Maggie Millard. I took a lot of your suggestions. If I didn’t, it was not because they weren’t good ideas but because I was lazy.

 

Thanks Mom, Dad, Becky, and Chris for reading everything and cheerleading.

 

Thanks to Jeff Prinz for his beautiful cover photo on the Kindle version.

 

Thanks to Crissi Langwell for her interior formatting services in the Kindle version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nine Books That Changed My Life

If I were going to list my favorite books, this list would include Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and some of Wendy Mass’s middle grade and young adult novels, but I wanted to make a list of books that positively changed my life in less subtle ways than the change that comes simply from reading a beautiful book. These are in no particular order.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

As a kid in the early 80’s, there weren’t too many girl main characters I could identify with. These days, great girl characters abound, but not so long ago they were almost as rare as female American presidents. And the secondary female characters were never anything like me. Then came Harriet. Harriet, much like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Madeleine L’Engles’ Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, was a MESS. I loved her. I loved her sneaking around and related to her misplaced anger. Also, I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but I became a spy.

(Title Withheld) by (Name Withheld)

I always wanted to write a novel. When I was about 25, I finally started typing. I began with a middle grade novel about a girl preparing to audition for her middle school jazz band. After three chapters that were probably as good as anyone else’s first attempt at a middle grade novel, I lost my motivation. But about ten years later, my mother-in-law lent me a book that changed EVERYTHING. This best-selling novel was utter crap. The plot was boring, the vocabulary was weak, the characters were forgettable. This author has multiple best-selling novels, many of which have been made into movies. I figured that if he can sell crap, so can I!

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry by Dean Edell, M.D.

Remembering Dr. Dean from T.V. I checked his book out from the library one time. The only tidbit I tucked away in my brain is that Dr. Dean is anti-exercise. He says that jogging and gyms are recipes for repetitive stress and other injuries. That’s my kind of doctor! I assume that my life is the better for not exercising.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Okay this one’s just on the list because I love it. My favorite novel of all time.

My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss

Most new parents end up with at least one Dr. Seuss on the baby’s bookshelf. I already knew I loved The Lorax, but sometime between the time I was a baby and the time I had a baby, a new book came out. My Many Colored Days doesn’t have nearly the number of words most Seuss books have, and it’s not as silly as some. Each page has a short poem tying together a color and a mood. It makes you feel like it’s okay to have all those moods. I was so happy to start my baby off with these ideas, and just maybe it might have soothed me, too.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Two words. Expecto Patronum. This is the perfect book for people with depression. The patronus charm is the complicated mixture of faith in a father figure and finding our own resilience. Did you know that J.K. Rowling wrote out “Expecto Patronum” by hand so that a fan with depression could use it for a tattoo? So cool.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

This memoir inspired and challenged. Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Bessie were sent to a concentration camp for hiding people in their home when the nazis came to the Netherlands. I will never forget Corrie watching a female guard beating a female prisoner and being in awe when she found out that it was the guard Bessie felt sorry for. The book starts slowly by today’s standards, but it’s well worth continuing.

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Really I just wanted to announce that I read this all the way through and kind of understood what was happening.

Anaheim Tales by M.L. Millard

I don’t know that Anaheim Tales is my favorite of the works I’ve published, but it changed my life the most. There are things I would change about it, but it was the first story I hit “publish” on, and that was a huge accomplishment for me. I never think anything I do is good enough, and this was no exception. But I told myself I was going to finish something and hit “publish,” and I did it. This was clearing a major emotional hurdle, and I think it led to my pressing on through later challenges whether in my writing, my music, or my personal life. I do hope that this book will change other people’s lives by other means, but if not, at least it changed mine.

What books have changed your life?

 

Half a Year of Bravery

The other day my teenage daughter tried to come up with her own definition of bravery. Anyone would be interested to hear what their kid thought bravery meant, but I took special note since bravery is my theme for the year. She said:

“Facing your fears for the good of those you love.”

I loved her definition, and it’s one I can say I’ve often lived up to as a mother and as a vocal and passionate advocate for equality. As I reach the halfway point of my year of bravery, I realize that my focus this year has been on being brave for myself, but hey, I’m supposed to love myself too, right?

Here are four examples of how I’ve tried to be brave in the first half of 2018. They may not seem like big deals to you, but they are really big deals to me.

The Tooth

I started the year with a tooth infection. If you read my post about 2017, my year of confidence, you might know that I wanted to get the tooth removed instead of canaled and crowned. Part of my bravery was telling my dentist that despite his recommendation, that’s what I wanted. I had to resort to mentioning suicide*, but I didn’t care. It. Is. My. Body. Part of my bravery was simply showing up to my appointment. My mommy had to take me, but it’s okay to need a friend to help you be brave.

*This tactic also worked years ago when my doctor was going to give up trying to find something to help my itchy ear canals. I said I’d rather be dead than continue to not be able to sleep, and after trying to make me see a psychologist he decided to try ONE more thing—calling a dermatologist. That dermatologist saved my life. Use this tactic with care. You could end up hospitalized, or if you overuse the tactic, ignored.

The Sandwich

For some reason, I have NEVER asked for my money back for anything. I’ve never even sent food back at a restaurant including the time the grated cheddar on my salad in Nashville had mold on it.

The other day, my daughter ordered a sandwich from the deli. My husband and I both had gigs, so we weren’t home when she opened the bag. When we got home late that night, she had not eaten the sandwich because it had all sorts of vegetables she hadn’t ordered. The onions had pretty much made eating the sandwich a no go for her, because even after you take onions off your bread, you can still taste them. I thought “I’m going to get my money back for that,” but deep down I knew I’d probably let the sandwich sit in the fridge for a week until I finally just threw it out.

“Why do I do that?” I wondered. I had some sort of fear about being that person. But hey, seven bucks is not nothing on a teacher’s salary, and besides, it’s the principle. She ordered one sandwich and got another. I know, I know, returning something, big deal. But it IS a big deal to me. I brought the sandwich to the grocery store with me the next day, and they apologized profusely and refunded my money. Was that so hard?! No, but it’s okay to call yourself brave for something that seems easy to everyone else.

The Posture

Okay, here’s where it gets real. I remember a woman in the audience of the Oprah show long, long ago, and the topic was finding one thing to focus on changing, and her one thing she was going to change was her posture. It stuck with me. I have terrible posture, and I’m always saying I’m going to improve it, and it always lasts for about a day. Last week when I was having one of those days where I remembered my posture, I sat up straighter and immediately had a flash of a thought that I’m sure I’ve subconsciously had every time I start to sit or stand straight. “You’re being one of those girls who sticks out their boobs.” 

When I was a teenager, somewhere I got the idea that a girl who sticks her boobs out was the absolute worst thing you could be. I don’t know where I got the idea that it was terrible or where I got the idea that simply standing up straight put you in that category. Dear teen girls, standing straight is not sticking your boobs out. And dear teen girls, it’s even okay to stick your boobs out if you fucking want to.

The One Too Personal To Share

So if that boob thing wasn’t too personal for me to share, you know that this one must be really, really personal. I did something difficult and risky in my personal life, and I don’t know what the end result will be yet. Was it brave or stupid or both? I just don’t know. Will I find out more in the second half of 2018? I just don’t know. But it’s okay not to know how your bravery will turn out. It’s okay if it doesn’t turn into an inspiring blog post. It’s okay.

Mother’s Day and the Polar Bear of Reawakening

Last week we were at my parents’ for Mother’s Day when my mom mentioned that she would have loved to have been a landscape architect. She’s mentioned this before, but she sounded sadder than usual this time. She also would have liked to be a meteorologist or a construction worker. However, she had a very strict mom who believed women could only be stay-at-home moms, teachers, nurses, or secretaries. My mom became a (kickass) stay-at-home mom, and later a secretary and then a cashier at a department store. She also has a front yard that strangers stop to admire, and she’s done every bit of planning and planting herself.

Mom always told me and my sisters that we could be anything we wanted to be. As I’ve written before, despite what Mom said, I never felt like I could be anything I wanted to be. But why? Even after I had a degree in my chosen field I had little confidence. Why?

Mother’s Day evening, back at home, for some reason I was thinking about some of the other messages I’d grown up hearing about women. We didn’t go to church except for a very short time when I was young, but American culture is steeped in church messages, and two things I remember knowing about being a girl were 1) I was only created because men needed companions (and I was supposed to feel proud of this), and 2) women were supposed to obey their husbands, while husbands were supposed to love their wives.

Suddenly I became furious with Paul, the unmarried author of the verses about wives submitting to their husbands. And I became furious with myself. My husband was not even a Christian when we married, and I put the burden of obedience on myself. My husband had no idea I was doing this to myself. I started attending a lovely little church where people would give you the shirt off their back and older, married women told me that I could tell my husband my opinions but he got to make the decision in the end. Some of these women had stayed with abusive husbands, so who was I to complain about letting my nonviolent husband make all the decisions?

Submitting to your husband is a concept of concretes. You either do what your husband says or you don’t. And I did, from spending money right down to the direction of the toilet paper roll. Loving your wife, however, is abstract and vague. Realizing this was really what made me furious with Paul. Husbands can say they love their wives, and that’s that. Show some love here and there, and voila. Wives submit day in, day out. Minute in, minute out. At one point I remember reading Proverbs 31:16 about the perfect wife who considers a field and buys it with her earnings. This wife seemed to have significant authority, but maybe it was easier for me not to contemplate too much.

Around the time our daughter was born, my husband started attending church with me. I was thrilled when he was baptized. I’m still thrilled he was baptized. But even though we were attending the same church, he says now that he’d had no idea that I was learning at my women’s groups that he got to make all the decisions. I’m sure he has no idea how many things I would have liked to have been different.

When I fell asleep after Mother’s Day, I had a dream. In the dream, I had some raw steaks. I wanted to put the steaks outside on a wooden table (or fencepost?) but I didn’t want the white bear to get them. I put the steaks out and kept an eye on them. Almost immediately, though, here came the white bear. (At this point in the dream my inner editor said “polar bears don’t live down here” and my subconscious mind said “shut up, it’s a symbol.”) The bear got one of the steaks, and I put out some more steaks and kept a closer eye on them. This time when I saw the bear I ran and grabbed the steaks before the bear could get to them.

When I awoke, I knew that the raw steaks represented my raw emotions. But what about the polar bear? Not sure I’d believe what I read there, I went to dreammoods.com, a site I’ve enjoyed before. According to them, seeing a polar bear in your dream means a reawakening. I don’t know who decides these things, but I knew it made sense even before I made sense of it. Incidentally, raw emotion was one of the things they said raw meat symbolized.

I thought about my raw emotions. Do I want to leave my raw emotions out for all to see? Yes. I’ve been telling friends far more about my personal life than I ever did before. Lately I find I’m desperate to share my feelings. But what about the polar bear? In the dream I was afraid that the polar bear would get the steaks. Am I afraid that if I leave my emotions outside for all to see, it will lead to a reawakening?

I had to answer “yes” again.

And it hurt. Reawakening necessitates change. Change is scary.

Yesterday my friend posted on Instagram “Even on my worst day I’m deserving of hell.” This was one of the many moments recently that it was obvious how much I’ve already begun a reawakening and changed in the last year. My friend’s post was the kind of thing I used to think. But when I saw it on Instagram I said to myself “No! There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. I don’t want my religion to be about how terrible I am anymore. I don’t want my daughter to hate herself the way I’ve always hated myself.”

Thank God, when I told my daughter the other day that I’d been taught by other women that I could tell Daddy my opinions but he got to make the decisions, she said, “That doesn’t sound very fair!”

Every generation gets a little closer. My mom told us we could be anything we wanted even though she was told no such thing. My daughter might actually do it.

Come, polar bear of reawakening. Come back to my dreams, and I won’t be afraid of you this time.

A Wrinkle in Time: Why I’m Okay With Changes to the Book I Loved

***SPOILERS***

Before I Saw the Movie

I was so excited when I saw that A Wrinkle in Time was going to be made into a movie (again). I was excited about the multicultural cast, and I was excited that Disney would have the budget to do justice to the scifi aspects of the story.

But the more I saw the commercials, the more I thought, “That line doesn’t sound familiar.” Oprah says, “Be a warrior,” which I didn’t remember Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, or Mrs. Who saying. And one of the ad lines was “Trust nothing,” which I definitely didn’t remember as a message in the book.

And I read that book a lot. I mean a LOT. For a tween in the 80’s, girl heroes in books were few and far between. I moved from Harriet the Spy being my favorite book to A Wrinkle in Time being my favorite. Not only was Meg a relatable girl (she’s awkward and afraid and she’ll never be as wonderful as her perfect mom) but the book made me feel like there was something cosmically big and important going on, and that I could be a part of the good, and that my part was important.

Not to mention that my BFF and I were a little bit in love with Calvin.

Speaking of Calvin, he’s supposed to be tall and poorly dressed with unkempt red hair. I don’t mind his not having red hair in the movie, but he’s not supposed to be Hollywood cute. These thoughts about Calvin were swimming around my head when I picked up the book for a pre-movie reread. I was specifically reading for traces of “Be a warrior” or “Trust nothing.” Maybe I’d just forgotten those things.

The first paragraphs took me right back to my comfy place. Meg is in her attic bedroom during a terrifying storm. Charles Wallace makes her a sandwich. Mrs. Whatsit says “Wild nights are my glory.” Oh I loved it so much!

But then Calvin shows up. I remember him as such a tragic, lonely boy. This time, when I read about him touching Meg’s elbow protectively at the haunted house, I thought, “Get a grip, Meg. Be a freaking warrior.” Later, Calvin says, “I can function on the same level as everyone else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.” Arrogant much? If (my beloved, sorry sorry sorry) L’Engle had had someone else interpret Calvin like this, it would have made him seem tragic. Instead he’s a little pompous, and I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to think of Calvin. I flipped to the scene where (SPOILER) Meg leaves to go back to Camazotz and skimmed for the word “Calvin.” Without warning, he “drew her roughly to him and kissed her.”

Oh God.

So maybe it’s time for a change. I think a woman who dared to write for kids about tesseracts and girls who do indeed learn to be warriors even if no one uses that word might even agree. I can’t wait to see what gifts L’Engle and screenplay writer Jennifer Lee together have for the #metoo generation.

After I Saw the Movie 

***MORE SPOILERS***

First off, I have to say that Calvin was new and improved. He didn’t call the others “kid” or speak condescendingly. Instead of drawing Meg roughly to him and kissing her, he asked if he could call her later and then hugged her.

I knew that Wrinkle was getting bad reviews, but I purposely avoided reading them because I wanted to go in with no preconceived ideas.

There were some changes (other than Calvin’s attitude) that I thought improved the story. For example, the deletion of the planet Ixchel and Aunt Beast. While I appreciated this chapter as an adult, I remember being totally bored by it as a youth, and it slows the action right before the story’s climax. There were some changes I didn’t understand because they seemed unnecessary, such as Mrs. Whatsit turning into some sort of vegetation batray instead of a centaur. There were some action scenes added, which I understand they felt they needed for a modern movie audience even if I don’t personally need them.

There were only two changes I wish they hadn’t made. One was the way Charles Wallace dragged Meg and her father to “The It,” Meg’s screaming maybe a little too traumatic for younger viewers. The other was taking out every one of Mrs. Who’s Jesus quotes, and I have to admit this is a criticism I accidentally read before I saw the movie. I don’t mind the addition of Gibran, etc. but it would have been nice to leave in one quote from the guy L’Engle followed.

Overall, I don’t know what people are moaning about. (I’ll read about it soon.) This is a notoriously difficult book to adapt for the screen, and there are so few good movies for kids ages 5-12 that I see no reason to bash this one. Meg is realistic and well-acted, the movie is visually pleasing, and L’Engle’s message of love and empowerment remains intact, if the details were changed a bit. My daughter gave it 7.5 stars, and I give it 8.

Reviews be damned. Take your kids to see A Wrinkle in Time.

Why We Don’t Write Real Characters

You know how to develop characters. They have a past, a desire, a fear, a quirk. They are thrown into the crucible, and they change. They grow.

I know all this, too. I’ve read the how-to’s, and I’ve read the books where authors got it right, and I’ve practiced in my own writing. I’ve completed five novellas and cast several others aside in the middle of a first draft.

I’m about to release my third novella, The Trade. As followers of my blog know, I’ve quit writing fiction, but I decided to publish The Trade because my critique group and beta readers already put in so much work. It seemed silly and ungrateful of me to let it sit in my computer forever. A proof copy is on its way to me now.

And I’m not happy with it.

But why?

Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends what they liked to read. My sister mentioned that she liked books that make her laugh or cry—feel something. In that moment I realized what was wrong with my books, and I realized why I had the problem I did. What was wrong was that my characters weren’t real, and the two reasons that they weren’t real are deep, dark secrets. But I’m willing to share my deep, dark secrets because I learned from Oprah that if one person has a deep, dark secret, many others have it, too. Maybe ruminating on my epiphany can pull you out of the cookie-cutter character pit.

Deep Dark Secret Number One 

I got scared when people analyzed me based on my characters.

When I finished the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, I let several friends and relatives read it. The main character was, like me, a musician. Her biggest flaw was that she didn’t think she needed to be forgiven for anything. (Side note: This was long before a certain president announced the same.) When my mother-in-law read Ocean Floor, she commented “She’s you, isn’t she.” I was taken aback. Did my mother-in-law think that I thought I was perfect?

I chalked this up to irritating mothers-in-law and wrote on. Much later, I wrote the first few chapters of a book about four friends, one of whom hated that she had to accept charity from the others and had a lazy, lie-about husband. I gave the chapters to my mom, who said “This made me so sad!” She wasn’t sad because my storytelling ability overwhelmed her but because she was sure I felt like the charity-case woman. In addition, my husband (who’s been employed full-time our entire 21 years together) asked if the lazy husband was based on him. I stopped writing that book.

When I wrote Anaheim Tales, the twenty characters were described shallowly by design, but in every other story I wrote, my characters became better-written and less real. My writing didn’t even need a line editor anymore, but no one cared about my characters. Including me. I care about the Jeba I envisioned before I began writing The Trade, but I don’t give a fig about the Jeba who ended up on the page. The Jeba on the page hides her most real parts so that I can hide mine, too. And she hides her most real parts so that I don’t have to hear my family wonder “Does she think that, too?”

In essence, one reason we don’t write real characters is that we’re afraid to.

Deep Dark Secret Number Two

I stopped thinking real was real. 

When my dad beta-read Littlefoot Part One, he made the most surprising comment I’ve yet heard from one of my beta readers. He said that he didn’t think the man who ends up with Littlefoot was good enough for her. Usually when my beta readers make a comment, I think, “Yeah, I was afraid of that.” But this time I was floored. This time was the one analyzing myself based on my characters. Did I not understand human relationships?

I added an endearing sentence about the man and put the book on Kindle.

And maybe I don’t understand human relationships. Around the time I quit writing fiction, I was discovering that people I thought I knew voted for someone indefensible. I was left questioning my judgement about people, aloof, and too pessimistic to write close relationships. I’ve always thought it was irresponsible to depress the hell out of your readers, so I didn’t write anything. No one can ever be understood. Why should a fictional character be understandable then, or even tolerable?

I loved the Jeba who lived before I began typing, but is she even possible? If I faced my fear of being judged by her grittiest inner thoughts and made her more real, would she be real even then?

A second reason we don’t write real characters is that “real” is still not real.

Maybe this is why my roommate in college only read nonfiction. I still cherish the novels I loved in my youth, but my quest to write a novel for someone else to cherish may be over. If your quest for the same isn’t over, I hope that something here knocked your thoughts onto a tangential and helpful track. Keep me posted.

 

Other Half (a poem)

OTHER HALF

By Rae Messenger

 

We mingle with our glasses full

of wine from someone else’s shelves

Not big on wine, I haven’t drunk

And soon we’re standing by ourselves

Now you have swallowed half of yours

Don’t worry, I add half my cup

Now mine’s half gone, but it’s okay

I’m happy to see yours filled up

About the time the party’s at

its liveliest and in full swing

I notice with a sigh that you have

Gone and drunk the whole damn thing

I don’t know why I’m doing it

(And someday maybe I can laugh)

But I look in your hazel eyes

And I pour out my other half

Into your glass, then comes along

An older woman, Botoxed lips

She eyes my liquid in your glass

“Half empty or half full?” she quips

“Half full!” you say, and she replies

“I really like the way you think”

But I have noticed (she has not)

That you are scared to take a drink

Someone conjures up more wine

You smile and ask me “Shall I pour?”

I clutch my empty, fragile glass

And I’m not thirsty anymore