Flames engulfed the night sky bereft of any stars as the dragon-headed ship gradually took the bodies of the warriors, complete with full battle regalia, to the land beyond. The curling orange-flamed tendrils turned the ship and its precious contents to embers becoming a testament to those died. In death, they traveled on the final journey of a faithful warrior where Odin would welcome them with honour into the halls of Valhalla. They would feast on the mead from the udders of Odin's goat Heidrun served by the Valkyries, and feast on the meat from the boar Sachrimnir. There was no finer ending for a warrior who had done his duty in battle - all afloat were worthy of such an honour.
"My Lady, the people need someone to speak for the final leave taking." Keeper Henrickson the caretaker leader of the assembly of warriors remarked.
With emotions dangerously on overload, Lady Fulla had arranged everything true to their traditions and proved to be a tower of strength in the intervening gloomy day's of the passing of their much beloved Queen. Mercie nodded solemnly as she walked with her head held high to the final and more ornate ship waiting to set sail once the funeral pyre was set aflame. She placed a single red rose from the royal garden, on the linen covered body as great sadness filled her soul as she recalled the horror of hearing that her beloved Queen was dead...
" My Lady we have bad news." Keeper Henrickson solemnly spoke as he stared up into the eyes of the Queen's favourite.
How can today be anything but bad news? "Go ahead Keeper Henrickson."
Henrickson held the reigns as the young woman dismounted. With great emotion he quietly said, "My Lady, Queen Ragnhild is dead. She was slain by a traitor."
No, no it cannot be. Mercie placed a hand to her throat wanting to scream but she did not. "I must go to her Keeper." Her strangled words seemed to echo around the courtyard still filled with the smoke from the fires.
The keeper felt the woman's distress keenly for it was much as he had felt when he had seen the Queen's body. "Councillor Spake will not leave her side Lady...perhaps you can help."
Mercie's emotions were raw beyond reason and tears refused to flow. I have witnessed the wounding of my beloved Berdlukare and now this. How can this be happening? "Will you do something for me Keeper?"
"Of course my Lady."
"Will you find out the extent of the injury to Berdlukare?"
"I will do so Lady once I ensure your safety to the Queen's chamber." They left the courtyard and shortly arrived at the royal private chamber. Henrickson dismissed a guard posted at the door then turned to Mercie. "I will wait here for you Lady Fulla".
Just as she had done hundreds of times before Mercie entered the royal chamber but this time it was with trepidation. I cannot believe that I will not see her intelligent wise eyes chastising me for not being here. What will I do without her? Her eyes picked up the grieving Spake and she quickly ran over to him dropping down on her knees to hold the old man in her arms. Tears flooded both of their eyes as they cried in shared pain.
Mercie's tears refused to stop as she stood up, closed her eyes briefly before walking to the one room in the royal palace she had never visited. There, lying under the coverlet was the body of Queen Ragnhild. If I didn't know, better I'd think she was sleeping. She knelt next to the bed and picked up one of the Queen's cold and lifeless hands as tears continued to flow unabated. Indistinctly she spoke to her Queen, "Who could do this to you my Queen, we all loved you. It is impossible to think that you will not open your eyes and with the twinkle of amusement that I often instigated in you, tell me what a foolish child I am. My Queen please, please, will you open your eyes." She swiped at the tears on her cheek. "How can I bear it if I lose you and Berdlukare? Who will I turn to for strength, who?" Sobs racked her body as she half collapsed against the bed clutching the dead Queen's hand...
"My Lady, are you feeling up to this?" Keeper Henrickson enquired gently.
Mercie dragged herself out of her morbid recollection and gave him a reassuring look. In a voice as loud as she could muster she spoke to the mourners that were gathered. "Queen Ragnhild died with honour, in a battle that had its roots in evil. Her views and her farsighted way of involving her people in the decision making process for our community, sealed her fate. She gave her life for her people and their future. For that, we will forever love her. Some of us who were close to the Queen will eternally treasure her wisdom and leadership, wishing to emulate her in every way possible. My Queen, my guide, my special friend, may you rest in peace and journey without incident to those that wait for you in Valhalla."
Tears fell as she waved her hand and the ship slipped away from shore. Several royal guards standing ceremoniously on the banks fired blazing arrows onto the ship. The Queen then made her final journey from this life to the one beyond. Mercie stood along side the other mourners and watched far to the horizon until the ship was lost forever to a land, which one day, if they were fortunate, they would all meet again.
Once she saw the last ember die Mercie turned and saw the emaciated vision of Thorleif Spake. Since the Queen's death the man had been a mere shadow of who he used to be. He suffers so by blaming himself for her death. Her face filled with compassion. How could he or anyone know the outcome of Hjort's visit? Fate chose what path to take.
"Mercie the people expect you in the great hall." Jennifer quietly advised.
Taking in a deep breath that had her chest shuddering, Mercie slowly nodded. This stranger has been a marvellous support in these dark days that have engulfed our people. She is becoming an invaluable member of the society, and I hope she will stay.
Mercie squared her shoulders and walked ahead of the contingent to the hall for the festivities to honour the Queen and the fallen warriors. Silently she wept as she acutely felt the harshness of the knowledge that all those she had loved were beyond her help. My Queen and my brother are with Odin and Berdlukare's life lies in the hands of others.
+ + +
Carolyn, refusing to open her eyes, woke up in a cold sweat. Who thought up the term 'cold sweat' she wondered. A paradox perhaps...my body is covered in perspiration with a temperature heading no where towards to the Arctic Circle. She pulled the blanket over her head. Why, just went I found what I wanted was it snatched away? A tear trickled out of the corner of her eye. She sighed deeply before throwing the covers back and slowly began dragging her body out of bed. For a moment her eyes scanned the room - it was gradually lightening as the early morning sun filtered through the flimsy drapes. Looks like the makings of another marvellous day...weather wise anyway.
For her, it was a chore to rise and greet whatever the day had in store. Until the recent traumatic events in her life claimed her waking hours, she had been content, yes extremely content with her lot in life. At least that was what I always thought. Making the conscious effort of putting one foot in front of the other she moved around the bedroom. I wonder if the news hounds will finally leave me alone and disappear onto the next event. My unwanted fifteen minutes of fame won't even be a notation in the history books. Let them snare another victim into the public glare and leave me alone. Few things made her happy... she carried sadness however, in abundance. Happiness, no, I had that chance wrenched away from me viciously. It was a memory she hated to recall because it gave her a migraine, as the intensity of the emotion railroaded every other thought or feeling she had.
With much reluctance, Carolyn trudged out of the bedroom and down the small corridor towards the kitchen. She felt the usual tightening of her stomach muscles as she opened the door and looked at the room devoid of any character or personal touches. Poised at the doorway, Carolyn felt the sense of dread that always seemed to overwhelm her these days. Will today, like all the others for the rest of my life, end like this...alone! She wrapped her arms around her midsection and sighed. Another paradox maybe, because I'm not alone, not in the relative sense anyway...I do have family. Robotically she put water in the kettle, a spoonful of instant coffee in a mug and waited. She peered at the coffee maker and sighed. Can't be bothered anymore.
As a child her needs took the backseat to her parent's jobs therefore it was a shock to her system when they arranged to take time off to nurse her back to health. Work had always been first on the agenda with them and to her recollection in all her formative years they had never taken any time off for her. This time around I feel their concern, and yes, dread that they experienced when they realised I almost hadn't come back to them. She looked at the small kitchen table and was glad newspapers weren't there. Her parent's insatiable need for news only added to her anxiety for there was invariably always some story about what had happened to her. Speculation had been rife for months now about the real facts and a newspaper had even offered her money for an exclusive - she refused. Fortunately, her story now was only a footnote and no longer front page news and for that she was grateful. But, whenever there was a mention of her or what had happened, her father would circle it in red and leave it for her to read – she never did.
It was strange to have her parents in her small apartment for her only memories of living with them revolved around palatial embassies. At first she was too ill to care and by the time she regained a modicum of strength she was deeply depressed and grateful for their presence – she didn't have to think about what had happened. After months of coddling she finally convinced them that she was safe and well enough to go it on her own. Two days earlier, promising profusely she would call every day to assure them of her well-being, they hugged her goodbye and returned to the consulate. In my own way I miss them. I saw a part of them I never knew existed...they cared. The thought tugged a tiny smile at her lips which was a miracle of sorts for her features usually remained blank. Promising to call my parents every day is easy actually doing so is another thing altogether. The smile that had ventured out tentatively was lost again and unlikely to return in the near future.
Carolyn escaped with a cup of steaming brew into the small lounge and slumped down into the shabby but comfortable sofa. Another memory invaded her thoughts as she recalled the day of the sofa's purchase, Richard had been dismayed at my choice, raising his eyes to the heavens as he often did when he considered my opinion incorrect. There were many occasions during their friendship when that happened since they had opposing views about life in general. There I was with what they call a brilliant mind, happy in academia land, loving every second of the learning process, my head always buried in a book or researching a paper and I had no clue about what real happiness is. She shook her head. They say brilliant minds often led to madness and right now, I think I've hit the crest of that particular wave. Her sigh was deep and audible as she blew out a breath. Madness is taking over. Her thoughts returned to Richard as her eyes held back the bitter tears that always threatened to fall whenever she thought of him or things that they did together. How odd that the one item that brings his memory to mind is the old sofa that Richard hated. I bet, he would laugh at the irony, if he ever found out.
She grasped the mug close to her chest and pondered what she would be doing now had life not changed so dramatically...how long has it been? Her thoughts drifted for a while on the intervening months but she refused to elaborate on what might have been. When she finally dragged herself out of the memories her drink was stone cold. She didn't care for it was not the first time that had occurred and the way things were going it wasn't about to be the last. Her hand rubbed her eyes before she got up, walked to the kitchen and switched on the kettle. While she waited for the water to boil she thought of the recent past recalling waking up in the hospital. I was in the hospital a week before I knew anything. My parents were at my bedside and a police officer was waiting outside the room to talk with me. Her brow furrowed. To make matters worse somehow the press got hold of a bizarre story that Richard had killed Jennifer and left her behind in the woods. They actually thought I had been lucky to come out with my life!My wounds were from that warrior in Xanadis and not from Richard. It was ridiculous for them to think that he had second thoughts after stabbing me. It had all been a mess but for Carolyn it wasn't the worse of it. I woke up knowing that I didn't belong there anymore. My body and soul belonged in a place called Xanadis. Her eyes flitted to the window and the new day that was unfolding. Who would believe that fairy story? She closed her eyes. They really would think I'd gone mad.
She poured the hot water into the mug, stirred then waited for the coffee to bring her an element of sensibility. I absolved Richard of any crime against me or Jennifer. In fact, I fabricated the story that Jennifer had fallen over a cliff into a ravine and we couldn't find her body as the river had sucked it under. Her mind continued to traverse what happened. A plausible solution for Jennifer but my knife wound was harder to explain away. Unconsciously she touched the scar on her chest. It was Richard who added to the story by admitting he had accidentally wounded me when he was trying to fend off what he thought was a predator in our camp. They actually believed that a knife flew out of his hand during the struggle and accidentally struck me. Sadness coloured her features as she recalled the outraged of her parents who wanted Richard prosecuted. How could anyone think Richard would intentionally hurt anyone...especially me? Fortunately her parents were more concerned about her and eventually she was able to calm them down. Who could blame him for taking a job that required he move to Canada. He needed to start again and probably wanted to get away from me.They parted as friends for they would always be that, but there was an element of bitterness on her part. He had walked away into a new life with his fiancée leaving her behind to face the loneliness that he had forced on her by bringing her home.
She sat on the sofa hunched over with her arms wrapped around her knees contemplating ways of returning to Xanadis. Her body still suffered from the effects of the stabbing, but if she let her mind go beyond sadness it was strong enough to figure out a way. Without the maps and details we took with us the task is next to impossible. Richard told her that all the maps were lost when he dropped them by the wayside while carrying her back to civilisation. She thought about asking Jennifer's family if they had found the book with the original map and details among her things but reconsidered. How can I? According to them I allowed their child to die a terrible death by being an accomplice even if it was supposedly accidental.
A brown leather notebook sat on the coffee table and she picked it up then flipped through the pages. Over the months since her return she tried to recreate the map and notes, but her photographic memory wasn't a match for the changing of Mother Nature. Now what shall I do? It's easy to take off and go back where I think we went, A brilliant idea filtered into her brain. Why not try to obtain another copy of the book...why didn't I think of that earlier! I know just the place...Professor Mannheim.
For the first time in weeks, she felt the need to shower and change without the usual cajoling to do so. She pulled on the clothes closest to her then ventured out of her apartment. She pulled a hood over her head as a precaution against the paparazzi that might be lurking, went down the back stairs and headed towards the old bookstore.
+ + +
Professor Mannheim grinned broadly, his old weather beaten features lighting up as he saw one of his old customers. He had read about her recent past and had his own thoughts as to what had happened. Nevertheless, she was here now and he was glad of that.
"My dear, how lovely to see you here again. Do you have a particular book you are looking for or has your sense of smell found that I have a fresh brew about to be poured?"
Carolyn gave the old man a genuine smile. At least he never changes. The mere fact that he offered her tea as opposed to the twenty questions most others asked had her realizing she made the right choice in coming there. "Professor, thank you. I'd love a cup of your wonderful brew." She sat at the table nearest the counter.
The old man's face wreathed in smiles as he left through the doorway into the back. Within a couple of minutes he returned with two mugs and a teapot and sat down beside her.
For several minutes, neither said anything other than vague ramblings about the weather. Then Carolyn said softly, "You will have heard things about me I suppose...not that any of it is true of course." She didn't know what else to do or say so she hung her head and took another sip of her tea.
"Then I take it that Ms. Finch isn't dead?"
Carolyn's eyes flew upwards. She saw a serious but intelligent person gazing directly back at her. He knows something!
"Jenn...Ms. Finch won't be coming back to ask you to obtain any more books for her. If that's what you're asking."
"Of course I knew that my dear. She waited a long time and was very persistent just like...well never mind. It is why she was chosen."
The professor's enigmatic ramblings stunned Carolyn until her academic mind tried to make sense of his discourse. Did he have anything to do with the book being in Jennifer's possession and that note perhaps?No that is too ridiculous. She reasoned. Right now after what I've experienced, anything is possible.
"I don't understand Professor? Are you telling me that someone out there knows something about what we went through?"
The old man smiled warmly and waved towards her tea. "Drink up my dear or it will get cold. Believe me cold tea is not palatable at all!"
Because she didn't know what else to do, she drank her tea. She silently contemplated the implications of the professor's words. "Did you know Professor Clements, the author of the book that Miss Finch searched for?" It was a long shot because Clements must have been dead for decades...long shots occasionally pay off.
"Not personally. Although someone I was close to in my early college days knew him," He shrugged. "It was his daughter. A very personable young lady and full of ideas about the future, it was such a pity at the end, but meant to be," he said wistfully.
The professor's melancholy tone had Carolyn realizing that there was something intimate in his words. "Was she an old college sweetheart that didn't work out?"
The old man, apparently lost in though, gazed through his shop window. "There are some people that enter your life, but only for a split second in time before they move out of reach. Ragnhild was a rare person and one that entrusted me before her death with a task that I hope I've fulfilled in the truest way possible. Though, I suspect that only one who has experienced the gift could testify that my actions were successful. I believe you my dear are just that person."
The woman's name is so very familiar but where have I heard it? It is strange for an academic to use the term 'a split second in time'. Carolyn was lost in thought until the old professor sighed heavily and brought her attention back to the present.
"I suppose not. How can I help you my dear what book would you like today?"
Carolyn bit her lip embarrassed that she had ignored the kind professor's veiled enquiry. "Exactly, what would you like to know Professor?"
The old man sipped his tea and gave her a thoughtful look, "Ms. Finch didn't die did she?" He raised his eyebrow. "She's in Xanadis with her grandfather."
Carolyn felt her mouth open wide while her eyes bugged out. "You know about Xanadis?" As she waited for his answer her expression turned to expectant wonder.
" Yes I know of Xanadis." He smiled gently. "Will you allow me to tell you a story?" He saw her astonished look and took it for consent. "Now let me see now where do I begin."
" At the start is usually the best place," Carolyn voiced with a slight smile. Maybe the old man can give me the answers I need.
" Quite so my dear, quite so. As I'm sure you're aware, Ragnhild is an old Nordic name." At her nod he continued, "Her father named her after a woman he loved very much. Professor Clements wasn't a romantic in the sense of the word. I suppose back then they would call him a cad for he had no morals regarding women." His face took on a reflective glow. "My Ragna was a very special woman."
Carolyn heard the sadness of his words as he spoke of the woman called Ragna. Entranced at the story, she rested her elbows on the table with her chin in her palms silently waiting for more.
"Well of course Clements found Xanadis quite by accident while on a solo walking trip. Apparently it was his habit when he broke from one relationship and before he embarked on another...a cleansing he called it." He shrugged. "At least that is how it was told to me. Anyway, while he was there he had an affair there with the Queen." He eyed Carolyn. "...or that is what was claimed and I believe it to be the truth." He saw no answering confirmation in Carolyn's eyes and carried on with his narration. "As was his normal behaviour in any relationship he left her. At that time, he was a relatively young man without an understanding of love...he didn't have a clue what to do with it when she offered him her heart. I believe that the young Queen, against the views of many of her people did just that. The book Ms. Finch and her grandfather searched for was his recollection of his discovery of Xanadis. There was only ever one copy in existence." He shook his head. "Why that was, not even Ragna knew." He wrung his hands and sighed. "Fortunately, he kept the book in a safe place"
A distressed expression crossed Carolyn's features as her mind listened to the professor's words but her heart sank like a stone. My goal might be lost forever.
"One volume he kept in a safe place. Deep inside his soul, he knew that he would return...his heart would draw him back to the love he abandoned. Ragna's mother was his housekeeper and though she knew, he loved another she loved him. One night when he was desperately lonely they shared a night of passion which resulted in Ranga's conception. Ragna's mother died in childbirth and although they never married he took on the responsibility of raising his daughter. That meant of course he could not return to Xanadis. From all Ragna told me he loved her very much and was a wonderful father. Before he died when she was seventeen he entrusted his book and its secret with her." He drew in a deep cleansing breath. "I met her when she was twenty-three and had broken a leg and arm and was holed up in the hospital where she was a nurse. We struck up a rapport and became friends from that day on. Had it not been for the outbreak of the war I think we would be together today." His face took on a sad expression. "Alas, she died a year later in a bombing raid in London. I received a package after the war when her family lawyers tracked me down. It contained the book along with an explanation."
For the first time Carolyn, interested beyond her selfish desires to know more, spoke quietly, "Wow. Will you share what the explanation was Professor?"
The old man smiled. I liked this woman. She is intelligent and beneath the thick exterior she gives the world I feel she wants to do something important with her life. "Ah you young people and your lack of patience," he said with a slight chuckle. "The letter was simple. It entrusted her with her father's legacy of what had happened to him and the way to reach Xanadis. She said I would know who was worthy of the book and that it must always be returned to me before that person ventured on the journey. It always has..."
"You mean you have the book?" Carolyn breathlessly responded before he'd finished the sentence.
"No, my dear I do not. I was hoping that perhaps you were here to return the copy to me. It was something that Ms. Finch was aware of when she was given the book."
Carolyn felt like weeping when she heard the one significant word, no. "No, she said she'd left it behind. Perhaps you can contact her parents and ask them...I can give you their address."
The old man merely smiled at the words. "No my dear, the book will return to me of its own accord. A little, like magic. I do not fully understand why it does but that has always been the case."
Carolyn looked up, her eyes awash with unshed tears. "I suppose if that's what you accept as true I can't ask any more of you. Would you believe that was the book I was going to ask you to find for me?" she said brokenly.
The professor looked out the window. I'm getting too old for this he thought as he saw his assistant walking towards the store. Soon we will no longer be alone. "I will have to ask you to be patient my dear if that is your request." He rubbed his chin as he continued watching the approaching assistant. "I was rather hoping that perhaps I had found the right person to leave this particular legacy to. You know I'm not going to be here forever and time is marching on."
Carolyn considered the words and felt honoured that he was thinking of her. As she impulsively bent to kiss the old man on the cheek she said, "Bless you Professor. I don't want to be like Clements for I'm going back there as soon as I can." As if she suddenly realized a truth, Carolyn's face brightened. "Because I know when I do she'll be waiting for me and I'll be whole again," she said softly.
"I see. For your sake I hope the book turns up sooner rather than later." He heard the tinkle of the bell above the door as it opened.
"I'm back Professor," Wayne, his assistant called out as he entered.
"Thank you Professor. Thank you for trusting me. By the way, you've done a marvellous job with the candidates you've sent. They love it there."
The professor grinned as his aged eyes sparkled with pride, "Thank you my dear. Perhaps you'll drop by again and tell me if it's changed in any way since the book?" he said over his shoulder as he disappeared before she could answer.
For a long moment Carolyn sat collecting her thoughts on what to do next. Smiling once she decided on a plan she stood up and headed for the door. It's simple really...I'll contact Jennifer's folks and ask them if they have the book.