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The Piper's Song

by K.T. Seto 2 months ago in Series
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Chapter 1- Blooming Day (a YA fantasy)

“There weren’t always dragons in the valley.”

“You’re saying that like it makes everything you’ve said up to this point somehow better,” Willa said, and quickened her steps.

Dragons. Why would anyone think that hearing anything about Dragons living anywhere close by would sound good? Even the idea irritated her. Sure, Dragons sounded cool in books or looked fierce and awe-inspiring in movies, but those were safe places for them. She lived in the valley. The last thing she wanted was to find out she shared the space with a Dragon. Not that it mattered, because Dragons don’t exist, but it was the principle of the thing. Besides, she knew every inch of this valley.

There were only four houses in it counting hers, each entirely encircled by a mini forest of mature trees for privacy. The far side had a stream that cut through to pool in a small reservoir that the residents referred to as their ‘private lake’. It was one of her favorite places to visit, actually. She’d started walking that direction out of habit when she’d left the house, but she definitely couldn’t go now, she thought irritably. Dragons. She snorted. As if. Dragons are hot, if one was around she would be hot. She was only sweating a little and could hardly feel the heat from the blazing summer sun burning overhead because of the shade from the trees. If she couldn’t feel the heat of the sun, she would certainly notice the heat from a Dragon if one were there. Honestly, the only thing irritating her was the woman walking next to her.

“Well, I had to say something. You still look upset. I didn’t mean to disturb you on your coddiwomple, but it’s an important day and this is a great honor.”

“Coddi what now?”

“Coddiwomple. You know, walking purposefully without a set destination in mind. That’s what you were doing, right? No matter, back to the Dragon. Most have to travel to learn from them. In fact, most wouldn’t be ready for this level of instruction for years. It’s just that your spark-”

“Yes, you explained that. My spark is so bright I need this teacher right away. You know that none of this makes you sound any less mental, right? Everything that has come out of your mouth since you started walking next to me has made me think you need to talk to someone that helps folks. You know, the ones that charge by the hour.”

“No need to be derisive my dear. You must allow that at 13 you do not know everything. Or much of anything actually. Certainly not the more important things as clearly, your father was very closemouthed. Ah well, I guess it’s my job to prepare you for what is coming. After all, this is a very special day.”

“We might use different definitions for the word, because it doesn’t feel special from where I’m standing.”

“It is special. As I said, it’s the day you became Undimmed.”

“Un what?” Willa shook her head, wondering how long it would take her parents to find her body if this lady was homicidal too. Not that she looked dangerous. No one looking at her would suspect anything at all. They’d just see a teenaged girl walking through the woods with a tall, beautiful woman. Both of them had skin the color of autumn leaves and coppery brown curls, so they might think them related, she thought irritably. But Willa didn’t know the woman walking with her. All she’d wanted to do was get away from the train wreck at her house and then she looked up and the woman calling herself Auntie Fay was there. Seriously irritating.

This shouldn’t surprise her really. It had been, up to this point, an irritating day. Sadly, it was also her 13th birthday. The only good things that had happened so far were that when she’d woken up this morning, her bracelet was waiting, and she’d no longer needed glasses. Everything since leaving her bedroom had sucked.

The bracelet was almost identical to the others she’d found waiting for her every year on her birthday, the gold ribboned box fairly glittering on her nightstand. Opening it, folding the paper and pressing the ribbon into a neat square had become a kind of ritual for her, a memory of her mom. Her dad had brought her a chest to keep them in the year his first wife, her adopted mom, died. Her dad hadn’t always been her dad either. He’d started out as her uncle. He was her birth mother’s half-brother. After her parents died, he’d adopted her since he and his first wife hadn’t been able to have children. He’d said it had also made things easier for social services. Maryland had weird child protection laws and family wasn’t always the first choice for orphans unless the family proved themselves stable and capable of providing for the child.

Each year when it came the bracelet was larger to fit her growing wrist, and more ornate. With her age and initials engraved in the gold filigree. The bracelets were the only real tie she had to her mother, so she’d put it on, even before she’d put on her glasses and gotten out of bed.

She’d worn glasses since the age of 5, when they’d tested her eyes prior to her entry into kindergarten. The doctor said at the time that she had a slight astigmatism that would likely get worse with age as she spent so much time staring at screens. Oddly, as Willa dressed for the day, she kept bumping into things and knocking them over. She couldn’t get her eyes to focus through the lenses, taking them off and rubbing them with her soft cloth to clear them with no success. It was only on the third try that she noticed she could see perfectly fine without them, so she left them on her dresser and went down for breakfast.

When she entered the kitchen, the first person she’d seen was her stepmother, Mrs. Jean-Marie Claire Howard-Freeman. Hyphenated, thank you very much. The door of the refrigerator obscured her upper torso. Her visible lower half was clad in elegant slacks and perched on the wedge heeled slippers she preferred for walking around the house. Willa wore the unicorn slippers she’d gotten for her birthday last year. When she turned around and looked at Willa, she stood, holding the carton of milk, and smiled. Tilting her head, as if trying to figure out what was different.

“I think something is wrong with my glasses. I can’t see out of them,” Willa said, explaining. Her stepmother frowned.

“Oh no. What a way to start your birthday. How bad is it? It would be horrid to have to cancel your luncheon to take you to the optometrist.”

“Not bad, actually. Rather, the glasses are bad, and I am not. I don’t think I need glasses anymore.” Willa replied, moving to grab a box of cereal from the pantry and a bowl from the shelf.

“The doctor will be the judge of that. He’ll just have to fit you in this morning.” Her stepmother looked at the slim gold banded smart watch on her wrist and frowned. Willa could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she mentally calculated the time needed to get everything finished before the birthday luncheon. Willa poured herself some cereal and added milk before returning the box to the pantry and grabbing a spoon. When she’d seated herself at the island with her bowl and a napkin she looked up and saw Jean-Marie had her tablet out, typing furiously. Willa grinned into her bowl. Maybe if they had to spend the day getting her new glasses, she wouldn’t have to sit through another of the boring luncheons her stepmother insisted on for family celebrations.

Her father had come down not too long after, grabbed his coffee mug and walked over to her. Willa smiled up at him and accepted his one-armed hug.

“How’s my birthday, girl? Ready for the party today?” He released her and moved to give his wife a peck on the cheek before taking a sip of his coffee.

“It’s just lunch with Jean-Marie’s sorors.” Willa said, shrugging her shoulders. A catered lunch, with pretty food, a photographer, and an average age of 40. Her stepmother’s idea of the perfect party for her 13-year-old stepdaughter. Per usual she hadn’t asked for input in the planning. At least the pictures for Jean-Marie’s social media accounts will be perfect. Willa barely used social media. Taking pictures of your food and parties went out of style as soon as the blue hair patrol took over.

“Don’t you have any friends coming?” her father asked, but Willa just shrugged. No way would she subject any of her few friends from school to lunch with the Real Housewives of Derwood. The luncheons made Jean-Marie happy so she felt like a wonderful mom. Willa’s presence was enough.

“They were busy.” Her father had looked at her for a long time after she’d said this but hadn’t argued or asked her to elaborate.

Sadly, the emergency trip to the optometrist hadn’t taken the entire day. Just a couple of hours of waiting, followed by a half hour of tests and re-tests by the confused doctor who raced through the entire process to get rid of Jean-Marie in ‘your incompetence may cost you money’ mode. Afterward, she’d come home and put on the outfit Jean-Marie picked for the occasion and listened to her complain about her hair. Willa had done her normal wash and go style, letting her curls do as they pleased once she’d untangled them. The headband she wore held it mostly away from her face, and that was all.

An hour later she’d stood in the foyer watching as Jean-Marie greeted each of her besties- her fellow sorors from the HCBU she attended - with air kisses and wide smiles and posed for pictures with them on the porch before heading out to the decorated sunroom for appetizers and drinks. Of the five invited women with daughters her age, only two—Alexandra and Jean-Marie’s BFF Kelli - had brought their children. Unfortunately, neither of the girls attended her school, and both had only come because their mothers threatened or bribed them into compliance. Per usual, the girls smiled and took pretend BFF pictures with her upon arrival, then promptly pulled out their phones and ignored her as soon as the mothers forgot they existed. Willa sat alone at the table staring at the empty chairs and perfect rose gold place settings until Jean-Marie went to take the other women on a tour of the tennis court she was having built in a corner of their backyard. At which point she’d escaped and made a beeline for the woods that separated their 1.5 acre property from their neighbors. Walking alone there had relaxed her until she’d run into Auntie Fay. Who was still talking.

“It’s the day you bloom, girl. Keep up,” the woman said, and Willa frowned.

“Right. Blooming. Like a flower, or yeast. Perfectly normal way to describe a human… not. You know normal people don’t believe in any of that because magic doesn't exist. Not outside of fairytales.”

“Well, you’re not normal, and why would you want to be? Anyway, I don’t require your belief at the moment. Disbelief is fine so long as you’re open minded and wearing the bracelet,” the woman calling herself Auntie Fay continued, and Willa looked down at her right wrist.

“My aunt sent me this.”

“I know.”

Willa stopped walking and turned to stare up at the woman. She was smiling and her green eyes fairly twinkled with laughter.

“How can you possibly know? No one knows about my aunt except me and my dad.”

“And your Auntie Fay,” the woman said, and Willa shook her head.

“My aunt’s name is Nneka. You know, these woods are huge, but I am sure we are still on our property. Technically you’re trespassing. I could call the police. I have a cellphone.”

“Yes, your aunt’s name is Nneka. Nneka Foladé Adu. But I always preferred to go by the shortened form of my middle name with family.”

“Foal-la day? Fay? You’re mom’s big sister?” Willa’s mouth dropped open. “but Dad said…”

“That you would probably never meet me since I travel so much and live so far away.”

Willa blinked back tears and stared, not daring to believe she was finally face to face with someone she’d wanted to meet her entire life.

“You’re claiming to be my Auntie.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re claiming that I have magic?”

“Also, yes.”

“No wonder dad doesn’t talk about you.”

Auntie Fay threw back her head and laughed. The sound was… weird. Willa’s stomach did a little dip and her breath caught. Around her, the air of the forest lightened and the quiet sound that is nature just kind of paused as if everything in it, even the wind liked the sound and waited for it to come again. She felt inexplicably cheered and deep inside, where she felt the most alone, the most herself, something reached outward and pushed the breath from her lungs in a rush. She stared at the woman, her maybe Auntie, in awe. What was that?

“There are likely many reasons your father has chosen not to speak of me. After all, he was your mother’s half-brother. We don’t share any relatives but her. Nya and I shared a mother. Nya and Bill share a father. If he ever met my mother, she never told me.”

Willa frowned. She’d always assumed her Auntie Nneka- well, Auntie Fay was her dad’s big sister. Finding out that she wasn’t, felt weird. More weird. Ugh. There was so much weird today. Willa stared up at her and nodded.

“Ok. But you can tell me everything, right? About our family? The truth, without the umm…” she trailed off, and Auntie Fay laughed again. She realized she liked the sound. The lightness felt good, like the joy of it was filling her too.

“I will always tell you the truth. Even if you refuse to believe it,” Auntie Fay said, and quickened her steps. It didn’t take long for Willa to realize that she was leading her back towards the house and she had to fight the urge to turn and run back into the woods. The last thing she wanted to do was face her stepmother’s anger with her long-lost aunt watching.

“Umm…” she began, but her aunt turned and winked at her, speeding up. Willa concentrated on keeping pace. It might be better to let her Aunt worry about what to say and why. Maybe she could use her as an excuse for bailing on the “party”. Willa grimaced, thinking of the coming scene. Her stepmother would play it off, but she’d hear about it later. Then keep hearing about it every time she tried to get out of another one.

“Auntie Fay,” Willa said, and the woman smiled but didn’t stop walking.

“Auntie, maybe we shouldn’t go to the house. They’re having the lunch party,” Willa tried again, her conscience prickling at the thought of using her Aunt as a buffer for her stepmom’s anger. It wasn’t fair, and she likely would hear about it forever, too.

“All the more reason for us to go! I love a good party,” she replied, and Willa sighed.

“Then we definitely shouldn’t go.”

“Nonsense. Any party that has you running for the woods obviously needs something to liven things up. I could never forgive myself if I didn’t help you celebrate your 13th birthday properly. It’s not every day a young person blooms, you know.” Fay finished speaking just as they arrived at the sunroom door, the same door she’d escaped from a half hour previous. Willa came to a halt beside her, slightly out of breath and full of dread.

Through the large windows on either side of the door, Willa could see everyone seated at the table enjoying the salad course. Her stepmother had a smile on her face, but the tightness around her eyes was clear even from the distance. When Auntie Fay pulled open the door, every head in the room turned to look at them with expressions of interest and surprise.

“Willa! There you are sweetheart! Who is this?” Jean-Marie said, standing and walking over to where they stood.

“Jean isn’t it? Glorious to meet you at last, my dear.”

Willa’s stepmother stared. Then she found her voice.

“Jean-Marie.”

Auntie Fay grinned and then nodded her head.

“Oh! Excuse me. Jean-Marie. Bill didn’t know I was coming, of course, but there was no way I would miss our Willa’s- I mean, our Wilhelmina-Lee’s 13th birthday! It’s such a special day.” Auntie Fay came into the room and took the seat Jean-Marie had previously occupied, leaving the woman staring gape mouthed by the door. Willa followed Fay to the table and took the seat she’d abandoned earlier, looking everywhere but at her stepmother. Before Jean-Marie could utter a sound, one caterer swept into the room as if ordered and removed the plate and place setting Jean-Marie had been using and replaced them with fresh, handing Auntie Fay a clean napkin with a bit of flourish. Willa bit her lip. She had the sudden urge to laugh and struggled to keep her face blank. When the caterer set a place at the end of the table and held out the chair for Jean-Marie, she sat almost unconsciously, her face the picture of surprise. Willa lifted her glass and took a sip of water to stifle the growing need to explode.

“The house is simply lovely from the outside, as are the grounds. Wilhelmina-Lee, you must give me a tour once everyone leaves.”

Willa nodded and took another sip of water. If she kept drinking, perhaps she wouldn’t have to speak.

“Thank you. We’re very proud of it. But excuse me, you didn’t say who you were?” Jean-Marie said, and Auntie Fay nodded.

“Well, isn’t it obvious? Bill never mentioned you were slow. No harm done. I am Wilhelmina-Lee’s Auntie Fay.” Auntie Fay beamed up at the caterer who had returned to place a plate filled with fruits and vegetables in front of her, none of which had been on the menu prepared for the luncheon. In fact, Willa was pretty certain they didn’t have any of that in their refrigerator either. He bowed, then before he’d taken two steps, a second caterer appeared, pouring her a glass of champagne and placing it delicately on the table. The guests watched the proceedings silently. The silence filled the room like the smell of her dad’s favorite cheese, the stinky one that cleared the kitchen whenever he pulled it out. In fact, Willa didn’t think she’d ever seen any of them at a loss for words as they were now.

Jean-Marie recovered enough to introduce Auntie Fay as Bill’s sister.

“How odd. I thought I remembered Bill saying he didn’t have any family left.” Alexandra said, and Willa looked at her with a frown. Auntie Fay smiled indulgently and tsked.

“Don’t be embarrassed, dear. It’s quite alright, I find it refreshing when people are willing to admit when they are wrong. Makes life so much easier, don’t you think?” Auntie Fay said, nodding cheerfully and taking a sip of her drink. Willa took another sip of her water to cover the need to snigger at Fay’s deliberate misunderstanding.

Alexandra stared at her and frowned. Jean-Marie cleared her throat and tried to restart the conversation.

“I am obviously pleased that you could make Willa’s party. She’s an official teenager now.”

Fay raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“As if I would miss such an important day, of course I would be here.” Auntie Fay said, and Willa bit her lip, wondering if she would mention the magic thing. Auntie Fay winked at her and then ignored Alexandra’s weak “ahem” by pretending not to hear, choosing instead to lean over and place her hand on Willa’s cheek and smile.

“My, how much you look like your grandmother. It is astounding. I’ll have to mention it when I get home. Perhaps they should have named you Nnenne. I dislike going against tradition. We never should have let your father choose your name.” Fay said, smiling at her in a way that made Willa feel like she had in the forest when she’d laughed.

“I look like my grandmother? I have never seen pictures of her.” Willa said with a smile.

“I doubt any exist. There might be a painting of her in a cellar somewhere. I will have to look. No matter, that is a discussion we’ll save, yes?” Auntie Fay said, then frowned as she heard Jean-Marie clear her throat.

“Are you well Jean-Marie?” Auntie Fay asked, and the woman sputtered before regaining her composure and attempted again to draw Fay into conversation, only to be thwarted by the sound of the door opening. The caterers re-entered with the main course and set piping hot plates of food in front of them, starting with Auntie Fay. The scent of it filled the air and everyone made quiet sounds of pleasure as the team of men and women served everyone and then retreated just as quickly as they’d arrived. Jean-Marie tried again the moment the door shut behind them.

“The family resemblance is very strong between you and Willa. Did your sister favor you as well? Bill doesn’t have any pictures.” Jean-Marie said. The other women at the table looked on, just as interested in the answer.

“Some, she was very fair skinned. Closer to Bill’s complexion. How long do these things usually last Jean- I mean Jean-Marie?” Auntie Fay said, popping a grape into her mouth. She smiled afterwards in a way that made Willa think she was savoring the flavor.

“Well, we usually retire for coffee and let the girls go amuse themselves after we eat lunch.” Jean-Marie said, frowning.

“Excellent! That means you won’t be put out if we take our leave, since everyone has finished eating, Willa and I–I mean Wilhelmina-Lee and I will just be off.” Auntie Fay said, and Willa frowned. Lunch had barely started. She looked at her plate and did a double take. It was empty. Looking around the table, she saw the others were the same.

“I thought…” Willa began, and Auntie Fay smiled and winked again.

“Good food and conversation makes the time pass faster than you realize. Let’s be off now. Don’t dawdle.” Fay said, standing and moving away from the table. Willa jumped up and rushed to follow. The minute they were out of earshot she spoke.

“She hates being called anything but Jean-Marie.” Willa said, catching up with her aunt in the foyer.

“Really? How sad for her.”

Willa giggled and shook her head, skipping a bit to keep up with the fast pace her aunt set. The woman was moving like a homing pigeon through the house. After a bit, Willa realized she was making her way to her father’s office. She wanted to ask how she knew where it was but realized her aunt would probably wink and not answer.

“Good, you learn quick.” Auntie Fay said, as she pushed open the door to Willa’s father’s office. She couldn’t have heard her thought, but then again, maybe she could. The day had definitely gone from irritating to weird. Willa shrugged and ran to her dad’s desk as she hadn’t in years, forgetting to be above such things in her excitement.

“Dad! Auntie Fay is here!” she called, as her father jumped from his chair to catch her. He stared at the woman in his doorway in surprise.

“Foladé! I didn’t expect to see you ag… I mean, what a surprise. When did you get here?” Bill said and Willa pulled away from him, looking at him in confusion.

“What are you saying, dad? You always told me she couldn’t come, not that she never planned to.”

“What he means is he hoped I never would.” Auntie Fay said, walking into the room and closing the door behind her.

Willa looked between them and frowned. Her father was staring at Auntie Fay with an expression he normally saved for trash day and the weird no window church people who sometimes came to the door to hand out bible verses.

“What are you doing here?”

“William, don’t play games. She is 13 today. She has bloomed. Is time for her Nŏvĭtās.” Auntie Fay said, seating herself in one of the big comfortable chairs her dad had in front of his desk.

“What’s a Nŏvĭtās?” Willa asked, and Auntie Fay gave her a smile that made her feel much younger than 13 years.

“We discussed this earlier, Willa. You have bloomed. You’re Undimmed. You need to learn to shield immediately to protect yourself. You also need to explore and harness your gifts. That only comes with instruction.”

“The Dragon teacher?”

“Among others.” Auntie Fay said, and her dad made a noise that Willa knew well. It was the sound he made just before he lost his temper. Willa moved to the other side of the room.

“This is exactly why you didn’t get custody when Nya died. Please tell me you didn’t fill her head with that magic nonsense.” Bill said through gritted teeth and Auntie Fay stood up and began to pace the room.

“Nonsense? You who watched our sister grow into her power dare to stand before me and call it nonsense?” Auntie Fay said in a low, dangerous tone. Willa looked at her dad and then back at her aunt. Auntie Fay’s eyes were… glowing.

“Yes! Because it was. Games we played as kids have no bearing on real life.” Bill said, and Auntie Fay moved.

Willa must have blinked because one moment her aunt was by the doorway and the next she stood in front of her dad, one hand out in front of her body, palm up.

“Shall I remind you that some games are real?” Auntie Fay said softly. The curtains on the windows slid closed, throwing the room into shadow, and inside her hand a ball of light formed. As Willa watched, it grew larger and brighter until her aunt held a snapping globe of fire in her open palm stretched out into the space between her and her dad.

“Oh my go…” Willa breathed, and Bill backed away until his butt hit his desk.

“It’s a trick. You know this is a trick.” Her dad said, shrinking back from the flame.

“It’s fire, dad! She just cupped her hand, and the fire came!”

“It’s a trick, baby. She’s not well. That’s why they didn’t let her have you.”

“That’s not true. Your realm’s petty laws could not have kept me from having her had my queen not bade me leave her here. You have taught her all you can. Now is the time for her to learn of her heritage. It is not in your power to forbid her Nŏvĭtās. To attempt it is to leave her open to danger or even death.”

Willa looked from her dad to her aunt and crossed her arms nervously.

“What do you mean, danger?” Willa said softly, and Auntie Fay snapped. Making the ball of flame disappear. Then she walked over and pulled Willa into her arms. She held her tightly then looked up, and the curtains slid open again, allowing the summer sun to light the room once more.

“That’s a conversation for later. Know that I,” she turned and looked at Bill over her shoulder, “we, will make sure that you’re prepared for whatever comes. You will face no danger alone.” Willa looked up and her father sighed and nodded.

“Sit down birthday girl. Let’s find out what your Aunt has in mind.”

Series

About the author

K.T. Seto

Hi all I'm K.T. Seto and I play what if. I write Speculative Fiction with a paranormal bent and joined Vocal as a way to write stories that aren't tied to my other works.Vocal is for the odd bits that don't fit, so hang on for the ride.

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