“Get here right now do you hear me Eric!” Sally Finch said hysterically. “I just don’t know how anyone can be so cruel.” Her voice trembled.
“I’m almost there Mom just hang on another few minutes.”
Eric Finch arrived at the family home and saw his mother waiting for him on the front porch. Her hysterics on the phone puzzled him for she wasn’t the type to suffer from emotional outbursts. Even after Jennifer’s disappearance and suspicious death she remained calm still hoping that her only daughter would pop her head around the door unexpectedly and beam one of her long-suffering smiles. How unlike dad he thought. Although his stepfather’s spirit broke with the news of Jennifer’s loss, he remained stoic in the midst of chaos for everyone outside of his close family.
His mother rushed to greet him. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said between sobs.
“Tell me what has you so upset,” he said pulling her close.
“Come inside,” Sally said as she led them into the parlour before handing him a letter. “Read it for yourself and then tell me why that woman is tormenting us this way.” She wiped away a tear. “Wasn’t her defence of that man enough?”
He took the piece of paper and began to read...
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Finch,
I dearly wanted to see you personally and tell you all I know about Jennifer and her disappearance. However, I didn’t think you’d listen or even let me in the door. Consequently, I thought there was a chance that you might actually read a letter. Perhaps I can give you some closure on this episode although I doubt you will like what I say or even believe that it is the truth.
The last time I saw your daughter she was alive and happy with her grandfather in a place called Xanadis. Please don’t bother trying to look the place up in the atlas because it doesn’t exist on any map. I believe it to be the same place that Jennifer’s grandfather often spoke about. We found him there alive and well and according to Jennifer, he looks no older than the last time she saw him twenty years ago. I know this doesn’t sound plausible and believe me, from my background, it’s like a drug-induced dream or a fabrication of the mind. Except…I know it’s the truth and, if I can find it, I’m going back there because this life I know now isn’t living until I reunite with your daughter and share with her all the wondrous things we found there.
Believe me, I wish I could give you something tangible that might make you believe my words, but I have nothing. I have lived my life with facts and this, to my rational mind, is unbelievable, but as odd as it sounds, it is fact.
I’m not sure that I can even find my way back there but I’m going to try even if it kills me. If there is any way I can possibly get a message to you after my return I shall send one letting you know that everything is well.
Jennifer is happy in this new world in a way she was never in this one. She told me she was always searching for something out of reach – be glad for her, for now she’s found it.
With sincere regards,
Rubbing his hand over his eyes, Eric looked at his mother and then back at the letter. “Do you believe it…her?”
Sally Finch gave her son a weary tear-filled look. “Carolyn Black is known for her practical and brilliant mind, but this...I just don't know. Her mother called me this morning and told me that she had written to them as well. Apparently in that letter she told them she was leaving with the hope of never returning and that we,” she touched her chest, “would know why.” She wiped her nose on a saturated handkerchief. “They are angry with me! Can you believe that? Their daughter is responsible for Jennifer’s death and they are angry with me!”
Eric put a comforting arm around his mother. “What else did Mrs. Black say?”
Sally’s voice trembled as she continued, “She thought I said something crazy to her daughter like blaming her for what happened. I told Chloe that I hadn’t spoken with Carolyn in almost two years. Then, Reese asked what I knew about Carolyn’s leaving.” Sally let out a long sigh. “When I told him what she had written he was shocked. He said they would take the first available flight and arrive this evening at the latest.”
“Have you told dad?”
“I called him as soon as I read the letter.”
“What did he say when you told him about the contents?”
“I didn’t.” Her eyes searched her son’s face. “He doesn’t need to hear this kind of news over the phone. He’s wrapping up the meeting in Chicago early and will be here later this afternoon.” Her eyes went distant as she stared at a picture of her daughter and husband. “He’ll be so upset when he sees this, particularly since it says Jennifer and his father are alive.”
“You know he hasn’t been the same since we found out she was gone so maybe this news will make him smile again,” Eric said softly.
Sally shrugged. “Do you believe any of it Eric? What did she mean by wanting to be with Jennifer ? I don’t understand any of this.” Sadness filled her eyes. “How can anyone be so cruel?”
The plaintive words echoed in the room as Eric pondered the question. “You know, Jennifer always thought differently from the rest of us Mom and we all wondered why. Maybe Dr. Black is correct and the Jennifer we knew never was really happy.” He hugged his mother closer. “I for one am going to believe the letter is true because I want to believe that Jennifer found happiness along with her grandpa.”
Sally looked up at her son and wished with all her heart that he was right. Still, she wondered who in their right mind could believe such a ridiculous claim. Obviously, the woman is irrational and concocted this elaborate tale to cover up the truth – she is responsible for Jennifer’s death. “Brilliance has obviously sent her over the edge into madness,” she muttered as she leaned into her son’s strong chest.
+ + +
George Finch read the letter for the tenth time and shook his head once again. His thoughts kept coming back to the same conclusion – my father’s story was true. Secretly I always thought he was telling the truth and now I know. A smile crossed his face. My Jenny is alive along with my dad.
“So what do you think George?” Sally asked anxiously.
He gave his wife a long look before answering. “It’s possible. Have you heard from Reese and Chloe?”
“They called just before you arrived. They were able to get a flight within an hour of my call and landed a little while ago.”
“Good they will be here soon and then maybe we can all sit down and figure this out.”
“They are stopping by Carolyn’s apartment first. Since the letter arrived this morning they’re hoping she’s still there.” She looked sorrowfully at her husband. “I hope they bring her with them so we can look in her eyes when she tells us this ridiculous story to our faces.”
“Ridiculous?” He raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps, anyway it’s a long drive from Railston so I suspect we are in for a long night.” Just then the phone rang. “Hello. Oh, Reese hello are you on your way?” George frowned. “When?” He hung up and turned to his wife. “Carolyn isn’t there. The apartment manager said she gave up her lease and moved all her things out two days ago.”
“Did she leave a forwarding address?”
“No. It seems she's disappeared. They are on their way now. He said he needs to see this.” George held up the letter in his hand and smiled. Ridiculous…I think not.
+ + +
Mark Finch and his escort for the evening Freya, the head cook in the royal kitchen, were having a glorious time at the marriage celebration of the Queen and her consort Mercie. His eyes tracked to his granddaughter who stood alone in her favourite spot staring up at the evening sky - it was her usual practice. He knew that Keeper Erik Henrickson had offered to be her escort and when she refused, opting to be on her own, he knew why. Jenn’s heart is set elsewhere and as far as I can tell she has closed the door on wherever or whoever that is. Maybe I was selfish in allowing her to stay here. He sighed. It is difficult to help her if she will not allow me inside. If only she would confide in someone...that might help to ease the pain of whatever she is going through and then she wouldn’t use all her energy working every moment that she is awake. He approached her quietly, sat at her side and placed a gentle hand on her arm.
Jennifer jumped. “Oh no, not again! How is it that people can creep up on me and I haven’t a clue?” she asked in mild amusement.
Mark chuckled softly. “Because my dear Granddaughter, you were lost in a world of your own which is why I’m here.”
Jennifer shook her head and affectionately winked at her grandfather. “I’m not on my own silly for there are hordes of people here tonight and of course you.” She grasped his hand squeezing it gently.
“Not what I meant and you know it Jenny. I love you…I know that you’re happy here, but…”
Jennifer glanced up, “But?”
“There’s a great sadness in your eyes and I believe in your heart. How can I stand by and watch you die a little inside everyday without being concerned for you.”
“Is that what you think Poppy?” she said seriously.
Before he could answer a faint, but nonetheless clear sound of a horn drifted in on the wind. Jennifer’s ears picked up the sound immediately and she whispered, “Someone is coming through the gates…maybe it’s her,” before she stood up. Without saying another word she sped past her grandfather to Larsen, who was consulting with the Queen.
When Larsen was finished speaking with the Queen Jennifer announced, “I’m coming with you Keeper Larsen.”
The Queen raised an eyebrow. "That is for Larsen to decide Mgni."
Larsen, who knew of Jennifer’s intense interest in the daily reports from the gate, inclined his head slightly in agreement. "She is a warrior and as such she may accompany me to the gate." Within minutes, both were mounted on horses and galloping towards the gate.
+ + +
The three keepers of the gate heeded the words of Mgni – there are weapons that can destroy you with a single shot and are often concealed upon a person without detection - and took a defensive position by surrounding the lone figure that trudged through the entrance to their lands. Each keeper knew it was the first such appearance in over two years and eyed the stranger with equal measures of curiosity and danger. Keeper Harald, the senior of the group, stepped cautiously towards the silently standing figure clothed in dark green weather gear with the hood of the garment covering the face. Although the person's posture gave the appearance of immense fatigue and looked non-threatening he still held his weapon at the ready. “Hold stranger, and announce thee,” he said in a booming voice.
Other than the keeper’s voice echoing off the cave’s walls there was complete silence. Since it was a requirement for all keepers to learn the English language if they were to guard the gate he wondered if the intruder spoke a different language. Again, with clear and precise words, Harald said, “Announce thee stranger or return from whence you came!” The figure moved slightly and Harald tightened his grip on his sword. When a hand reached for the hood and pushed it away he saw the slate grey eyes and a pale, sallow complexion of a woman he did not recognize.
“My name is Carolyn Black and I have friends here.”
With those words the tiredness that had threatened to overwhelm Carolyn into an abyss faded as she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Her journey to find Xanadis again began several months earlier and although her heart never gave up, her mind and body threatened to do just that. When she ran out of rations and needed to make the decision to die searching or return to her old life the decision was easy - her heart won over her mind. At the lowest ebb of the journey a flash storm had produced a rainbow, which she followed to what looked like a wall of granite, except for a crevice in the mountain that she pinpointed just as she had that first time. Her body protested the freezing cold of the waterfall and exhaustion threatened to stop her in her tracks. Nevertheless, she ventured forward, regardless of her fate, into the cave towards what she knew was her future. As she stood in front of the three giant keepers she managed to smile. If this is a dream and I
’m delirious, I don’t care as long as it never ends.
With caution, the keepers closed ranks preventing her from moving. “Hold until our leader arrives.” Keeper Harald commanded.
Carolyn didn’t have the energy to argue and stood silently for what seemed like hours until she heard the sound of heavy footsteps entering the cave. In the dim light she saw that two figures had joined them. She immediately recognised the tall man as Keeper Larsen who had been their unwilling guide in those hours before she Richard took her home. She squinted at the other person who was standing in the shadow of the giant man and could only see clothes that were totally out of place for defence of the gate. Once they stepped closer, Carolyn’s weary eyes dwelt upon the one person she had committed the last two and a half years to finding again. If I’m dreaming then this is exactly the outcome I wanted. Jennifer’s gentle eyes seemed to surround her in a warmth the likes of which she had never experienced before. I’ve reached the woman who means everything to me and if this is all a dream of my troubled mind I will gladly d
ie now and find peace.
“You came back to me Carolyn." Jennifer said in awe. "I prayed you would,”
Carolyn gave a satisfied sigh before her body, which had been running on empty for several hours, finally gave up engulfing her in darkness. Carolyn’s knees buckled and sent her on a spiral journey to the cave’s floor only to be caught by a keeper.
Jennifer gasped and cut the distance between them rapidly. “She’s still with us,” Jennifer shouted after she felt her friend’s pulse beating erratically. “Larsen, we need to get her out of here!”
Without hesitation, Larsen took Carolyn into his powerful arms. “Good job,” he said quickly to the three keepers before carrying the woman out of the cave.
With hasty thanks to the keepers, Jennifer followed the leader of the Berserkers. Now this really can be my home! Carolyn you’re here at last!
+ + +
Carolyn was so exhausted from her journey that at first she had slept fitfully only waking in a delirious state to sip water. After that she settled into a peaceful, restoring sleep for the next three days. In that time, Jennifer took leave from her duties to take care of her friend. She refused to leave Carolyn’s side for any longer than it took to retrieve a glass of water or see to her personal needs. Glad to have her friend back, she spent many hours planning what would happen when the Queen and her consort returned from their honeymoon. Carolyn will have several weeks to learn the language and other facets of how the community works. Then she can present her case for staying in Xanadis. Jennifer let out a small laugh. I’m sure in two weeks she will have a better understanding of the language than I have after two years. She looked hopefully at her friend who stirred slightly. All Carolyn needs to do now is wake up and we can
begin that education.
Mark watched his granddaughter from the open doorway of the room she had given up for her friend. Their small dwelling wasn’t equipped for more than him and his granddaughter but they did have a tiny room that might get by if pushed for space. He did however have a solution to that problem and the arrival of Jennifer’s friend had solved a rather delicate matter for him. He wouldn’t mention it until the Queen made the final decision on Carolyn’s suitability to remain.
His thoughts then traveled to the situation at hand - Carolyn’s acceptance. Although Jennifer had the Queen and in particular the consort’s confidence, things were still not as balanced as they were when he arrived through the gate. Jennifer had been lucky in that she had been a tremendous help at a time of great need making her acceptance assured when chaos roamed their community. However, this situation was somewhat different and it would be a test of the spirit of not only Carolyn and the Queen, but also the community in general. Queen Berdlukare had simply stated that she would rule the land justly although it would be on her terms except when it came to the introduction of strangers into their community. For any stranger who wanted to stay they needed to answer a set of questions devised by the Queen, the Council of Elders and the leader of the Assembly of Warriors.
Jennifer looked up and saw her grandfather in the doorway. “Hi Poppy, I didn’t know you were home. How was the council meeting?”
His granddaughter’s spirits had soared since the arrival of her friend and the cheerful question made him smile slightly. As he ventured further into the room he glanced at the sleeping Carolyn for a few seconds. When he arrived by Jennifer’s side he lifted his hand and placed a warm palm on his granddaughter’s cheek. “Very well considering that the Queen and Mercie weren’t there and we have a stranger in the town.”
“The calm before the storm I guess,” Jennifer said pensively before she looked at Carolyn and smiled. “By now her healing should be complete and I bet she’ll wake up by tomorrow. From what the apothecary said, Carolyn was exhausted due to a lack of nourishment.” Her blue eyes turned to her grandfather briefly before they rested back on Carolyn’s sleeping form. “When the time comes do you think we can help her Poppy?” Jennifer asked quietly.
“We will do all we can darling, but ultimately it will be up to her.” He tenderly touched Jennifer’s shoulder. “You look wiped out why not join me for dinner.” His face brightened. “Freya has baked us a wonderful pie.”
“Yum that sounds wonderful,” Jennifer said trying to stifle a yawn. “Do you mind if I bring it in here?” She shrugged. “She might wake up and I don’t want her to be scared.” The thought of Carolyn being afraid of anything made her smile. “I mean…I don’t want to leave her alone.”
Mark sighed. “You won’t do her any good if you get sick.”
Jennifer lowered her head. “I know but I just can’t leave her here alone.” She looked up at her grandfather. “Can you understand that?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Yes, I can. Would you like me to bring you something?”
Jennifer laughed. “I’m being silly aren’t I? After all, this place isn’t that big and I won’t be that far away.” She looked at her sleeping friend again. “It’s been a while since we caught up, Poppy ” she said with a fond smile. “Mind if I join you for some of Freya’s wonderful pie?”
“I’d be honoured.”
+ + +
Carolyn opened her eyes to dimly lit surroundings and clutched at the coverlet in a moment of panic. Where the hell am I? Then she recalled the gate and seeing Jennifer again. “Jennifer …” the name rolled off her tongue as a glorious whisper and she settled back into the rough fabric that enclosed her and savoured the memory. As her eyes began to feel more comfortable in the tiny room that barely had space for the bed she was in, she saw a few items that reminded her of home. A waterproof jacket, several cosmetic items along with the holdall that Jennifer brought with her went they first entered through the gate. This is Jennifer’s room…it has to be. Nothing else is familiar. Then the smell of food permeated her consciousness and her belly rumbled in protest. She fumbled with the cover that held her captive and when released sat up quickly - too quickly. Clutching the side of the bed, which appeared to be no more t
han wooden poles, she felt the room stop spinning and right itself. Slow and easy is the surest solution to this problem.
She didn’t know how long she had been there, by the noise my stomach is making several days at least…bet it thinks someone cut my throat. She chuckled softly as she set one foot out of the bed then the other in slow motion, stood up gingerly and followed her nose to the delicious aroma. Initially her legs felt weak but soon they were strong enough to carry her as she slowly made her way to the partially opened door and pulled it wide eliciting a creak. The sight of Jennifer and her grandfather eating a meal by a roaring fire greeted her.
Jennifer’s face beamed when she heard the squeaking of the door and turned to see Carolyn standing in the doorway. At first she squealed with delight until she noticed Carolyn’s pale features. “Carolyn you should have called for me instead of getting up on your own.
Carolyn smiled slowly. “I smelled something delicious and I realized that I was hungry.”
“I’d have brought you some food,” Jennifer said while hurrying to her friend, wrapping an arm around her waist and helping her to a chair by the fire.
The look on Jenn’s face makes all I went through to get here worth it. “Thank you,” she said weakly. “I can’t believe I’m really here.”
Delighted by Carolyn’s presence, a brilliant smile crossed Jennifer’s face as she stood close to her friend. “I can’t believe you’re really here either.”
Mark reached across the table and snagged a piece of pie, placed it on a wooden plate then held it out to Carolyn. “Well my dear, you’re a welcome surprise I must say. How are you feeling now?”
"Much better thank you." Carolyn greedily took the plate and polished off every crumb before looking up at the amused glances on Jennifer and Mark’s faces. With a look of embarrassment she shrugged. “Sorry about that, I was famished.” She eyed the plate with the pie. “Any chance on getting seconds.”
Both grandfather and granddaughter laughed as Mark passed the plate in her direction. “Take as much as you want.”
“Thank you,” she said as she took a generous portion. “How long was I asleep?”
Jennifer sat down next to the fire at Carolyn’s feet and sighed. “Well it’s like this…” She briefly explained the details of how they found her at the gate and how long she had been there.
After some time Mark smiled. “As much as I would like to stay I need my rest.” He patted his granddaughter’s head and nodded towards Carolyn. “I am glad you are feeling better. Now if you will both excuse me I shall take my leave.”
Minutes later the two women were alone and a silence settled over them as neither knew what to say. After several cautious glances, Carolyn decided that she needed to explain her presence. “I guess I owe you an explanation why I came back,” she said with a nervous laugh.
Jennifer smiled warmly. I don’t give a damn as long as you’re staying for good. “It isn’t necessary Carolyn.” It was her turn to laugh self-consciously. “All I want to know is are you staying for good this time?” Seconds, that seemed like hours, ticked by as Jennifer held her breath.
Unable to stop herself, Carolyn reached out and rested a hand on Jennifer’s head feeling the silky softness of her hair as her fingers unconsciously traced a pattern. “I’d be honoured to stay if…they will allow me.”
Jennifer’s heart beat erratically at the words and the sensation of Carolyn’s touch. A part of me wants Carolyn to admit that she returned because of me, but she's here now and that's all that matters . The rest will work out, as it is fated to do. “Well I for one vote yes to that however, there is a little matter of a test.”
Carolyn lifted her hand and waved away the idea of a test. “Now what kind of test could they possible devise that a person of my super intelligence couldn’t master,” she said with amusement. “You know I feel a hundred percent better after that delicious meal and…with the company.”
Jennifer grinned. “Happy to be of service,” she said as her cheeks showed a slight tinge of red. “I’m sure you will do great with any test you take, but if you want a coach I’m willing to offer my assistance.”
Both women gazed at each other and simultaneously let out a satisfied sigh - they were where they belonged.
“A little thing like a test isn’t going to stop us,” Carolyn said with enthusiasm.
“Hmm.” A smile played around her lips. “No it won’t.”
As the night drew in and the fire welcomed them home, they indulged in a silence of comrades finding each other again. Tomorrow they would approach the new day with renewed vigour knowing that they would share it together.
+ + +
Jennifer watched Carolyn conversing with one of the elderly scholars in the town. God how did she master the language in just two weeks. You’d think she was a native. The thought made her chuckle quietly as she walked towards her friend.
The weird, yet pleasurable feeling that arose in Carolyn each time Jennifer was near flooded her senses. My sensibilities tell me it can’t be but…It has to be her perfume, or just a heightened sense that she’s near. She reasoned. I’m not sure I even want an explanation - whatever it is it feels rally good. She hastily ended her conversation, spun on her heel and grinned as she caught Jennifer unaware. “Hi there, trying to sneak up on me?”
With a wide smile, Jennifer shook her head. “How do you do that?”
“What exactly?” Carolyn said with a raised eyebrow.
“That…knowing I’m right behind you!”
Hmm, should I tell her the truth, but then what is the truth. “Oh just lucky I guess. How has your day been? Did you hear that I’ve been summoned to a council meeting later today?”
Jennifer gave Carolyn a long look. She’s not even worried that they might send her back. If they do, I’m going with her. “Yep, Poppy told me just a few minutes ago.” Her eyes fixed on the face of her friend. “You know that means that the Queen and Mercie are back.”
Carolyn moved closer to Jennifer and saw the faint worry in her eyes. “Hey it’s going to be ok. How can they fail me? I know the language, your grandfather coached me on protocol and I even have the odd member of the public who will actually give me a good testimony.” Carolyn didn’t see the concern leave Jennifer’s expression and frowned. “I have it in the bag…promise.”
“Sure you have,” Jennifer said with an anxious smile. “I forget you’ve never failed a test before.”
Carolyn gave her a serious look as her brow puckered in a frown. “That’s true I haven’t. There is always a first time, is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“No, no I think you’ll do just fine. I worry about you that’s all,” Damn why did I say that.
The few words elicited a glow inside Carolyn as a small smile tugged at her lips. Without thinking, she placed a hand on Jennifer’s cheek and gazed into her eyes. “I worry about you too Jenn. I’ve wanted to know for ages now where you go each day for an hour. I know your grandfather said it was a secret, but you always look so serious when you return.”
Jennifer, slightly embarrassed, shrugged at the question. “I didn’t think anyone noticed. It isn’t really a secret just acting on a piece of wisdom from a friend.”
Carolyn unconsciously stroked Jennifer’s cheek and felt the woman lean into the touch. “Care to share? Maybe not the secret but the friend.”
Jennifer smiled slightly. “Mercie.”
Carolyn felt a pang of jealously and removed her hand. Mercie huh, is Jennifer smitten by her too? God, I don’t think I can bare it if she is. There’s only one way to find out. “Is she your secret fantasy?” she asked softly.
Jennifer felt a sense of loss at the removal of the hand until Carolyn’s question contorted her face into a puzzled expression. What made her think that? Wow is she way off base. “Want me to show you where I go?” she said in reaction.
Carolyn nodded. Do I really want to know? Curiosity killed the cat and all that crap. “Lead the way.”
After a ten minute walk outside the town gates they arrived at a small building and Carolyn creased her brow. Is this some sort of temple? Intrigued, Carolyn asked, “Ok you got me. Is it a shrine, a burial chamber or something else?”
Jennifer grinned at Carolyn’s confusion. “It’s the temple of the goddess Lofn. I come here every day to pray. I had it on good advice that it might help me with a problem I have.”
They stepped inside the building and Carolyn saw the small shrine to a wooden statute similar to what she’d read in books about pagan worship. “What problem has you praying each day to a pagan god?”
Jennifer saw the sparkle in Carolyn’s eyes. Is she teasing me? “Are you by any chance teasing me?”
There was a serious undercurrent to those few words and Carolyn’s sensitivity to Jennifer had her carefully considering her reply. “Never. I’m interested in helping with the problem if I can?”
A small hand enclosed around one of Carolyn’s. “You…you’re one of my problems.”
With the feel of the smaller hand in hers and the feelings it was eliciting Carolyn was at a distinct disadvantage. All she could do was stare at the idol, at the floor, at the walls at anything but Jennifer’s eyes.
“I care about you Carolyn. I never wanted you to leave here the first time. I wanted you to stay with me. I’ve missed you and if they say you have to leave…well I want to leave with you if you will allow me.” There I said it! Jennifer applauded herself for finally saying all the words she’d rehearsed in her mind since Carolyn’s return except for one - love.
Carolyn’s heart speeded up like a revving racing car engine and she let a wide, slow smiled cross her face as her eyes lifted to Jennifer’s face. “You care for me?”
“Yeah, I hope you don’t mind?” Should I tell her that for first time I feel whole in every sense of the word?
Carolyn shifted slightly in embarrassment as their eyes locked. Why am I so uncomfortable? Isn’t she the reason I’m here? What the hell, it’s about time I admitted how I feel. “Did I ever tell you that you’re the only reason I’m still alive?”
“No you didn’t.” she said cautiously. This might be a good time to tell her how I really feel.
Carolyn heard the note of caution in Jenn’s voice, She probably didn’t want to hear that, and rapidly changed the subject. “You know you look like the cartoon character you wrote about in the newspaper.” Damn I forgot I have something for her! I totally forgot about it with all the studying I’ve been doing.
With eyes blinking rapidly, Jennifer gaped at her friend. How did we go from having what might have proved to be an intense conversation about our feelings for each other to my old career? Has Carolyn actually look at my work? “You've seen my cartoon?”
With a chuckle and eyes sparkling Carolyn nodded. “Sure, I wasn’t going to come back here without finding out a little bit more about you.” Her thoughts turned to the events following her return to Railston and how she glossed over them when Jennifer asked about her family. In a way I told the truth when I said I informed them that Jennifer was with her grandfather. Besides, it would be pointless to tell her what her parent’s think of me and everything that happened. Just telling her about my injury and Richard taking me back home was painful enough. When the time is right I will tell her everything.
Jennifer grinned at the words for in a way it brought them back to the original subject. “Do you mean the Missy Molly character or her alter ego?”
“Definitely Cassandra the Mighty. Just look at you and all those muscles, not to mention the weapons you carry around. I know I’m in safe hands when you’re with me.” Carolyn’s eyes twinkled.
She thinks I look like a warrior is that good or bad. She searched Carolyn’s face. From her tone and that goofy smile I think it is good. “You’ll always be in safe hands when I’m around Carolyn.” Jennifer’s eyes smouldered another meaning and caught Carolyn’s slate grey ones again.
Ok I know this is good, I can feel it way down to my toes along with this trickle of happiness down my spine. I don’t know if I can do this now, what if they send me away I’d be even more devastated if I thought Jenn and I had a chance of…well I don’t know yet but something more than we have right now. With a wry smile, Carolyn ran a hand through her hair giving it the familiar scarecrow look. “You know I completely forgot to give you something when I arrived. With all the stuff I’ve been learning and doing, we haven’t had a chance to catch up properly have we? Tell you what, when the test is over I’ll give you the surprise…maybe we can talk more about…well this little problem you have with me.”
Jennifer adored the way Carolyn had of mussing up her hair into a scarecrow style. And those clothes…even here she still has that eclectic look. I love everything about her and maybe if I’m lucky this evening Carolyn might actually admit the same. An image of Richard flashed into her mind. I know she feels something more for me than she ever felt for Richard…I’d stake my life on it. “I love surprises Carolyn and I think we’ve just arranged a date.” Jennifer groaned at her choice of words as the blush ran over her cheeks.
Carolyn felt another glow settle into her body at the word date. “I’ll look forward to it Jenn.” She opened the door of the small building and nodded. “Let’s go I don’t want to be late for the test.”
+ + +
Mercie glanced around the royal bedchamber as a satisfied sound of approval left her mouth. While they were gone the Queen had the room redecorated.
“You approve my love?” Queen Berdlukare asked as she placed her large hands gently around Mercie’s tiny waist.
Mercie’s eyes glittered in approval, as she peered up and lost herself in the loving gaze of the fierce warrior. It was remarkable that one so ferocious could be so loving and tender. But, my lover is that and more…to me anyway. “Yes, oh yes, I approve.”
Berdlukare dropped her head to snatch a tender kiss and soon found herself lost in the glory of passion and love her consort held for her. “If you look behind that curtain I have a surprise for you.” She gently steered Mercie to the long wall covered by a drape.
Like a child with a gift, Mercie rapidly pulled the drapery away. She placed a hand to her mouth as she exclaimed in delight, “It’s the tapestry.”
“Yes, you said that you had never seen anything so beautiful and I know how much you miss our Queen. It is therefore fitting that something she dearly loved not be parted from someone she loved equally as much, if not more,” Berdlukare explained softly as a rare smile hovered over her harsh features.
“I confess I did not know of its existence until her death. I have often pondered why she kept it a secret.” Mercie hugged Berdlukare to her dropping a kiss on the taller woman’s shoulder.
Berdlukare gazed at the tapestry. She knew of its existence but thought it a myth passed down through the generations. My love is not of our ancestors and does not know the oldest of our legends. “We have time before the council meeting and the approval of Hrafn so I shall tell you a story.”
Mercie grinned seductively. “If it is a story you’re going to tell me then we should at least be comfortable.” She wiggled her eyes in the direction of the bed. “At least then I can kiss you properly.”
With a deep chuckle that rumbled in the giant woman’s chest, Berdlukare lifted Mercie and carried to the bed. Soon they were lost in the kisses that threatened to escalate into so much more.
Mercie was the first to break contact. “If we continue like this we will surely miss the council meeting.” Mercie chided softly as she sank against the heaving chest of her lover. “You were going to tell me a story my love,”
“The council will wait for the Queen, but as you wish I will tell you the story of the tapestry.” Berdlukare gave Mercie a loving look and stole another kiss before beginning. “When our ancestors arrived it was decided that the land would be claimed for those that landed felt that the time had come to settle and move no more. It was our tradition with new lands to use a Haliarunos to read the runes. This was done and the people had her readings translated into the tapestry of Xanadis for the King at his coronation. As you see my love, there are many feasts of plenty and prosperity. The land of our fathers and times were changing and the runes indicated there would be much change and that we would be lost with it in the old world.” As Berdlukare solemnly recited the story her father told her she pointed to the scenes of prosperity and figures that indicated the first settlers. “You see the names embroidered around the tapestry detail t
he ancestors of the original ships.”
“It looks perfect until there.” Mercie pointed to a part of the tapestry that held a battle and the slaying of a royal figure. Her eyes widened. It can’t be…can it? Is that Queen Ragnhild and the battle we fought? “Is this what we just went through?”
Berdlukare held Mercie tightly as she nodded before softly replying, “Yes, I believe it is.” She pointed to the writing. “As you can see, they spoke of turbulence and strangers to our land.” Her eyes narrowed as she focused on another part of the tapestry. “See over there...the dark figures that wander into the land are the strangers.”
A disquieting silence passed between them before Mercie croaked out, “If the runes are to be believed it is not over. The tapestry shows more turbulence and it looks like the darkness of a stranger is responsible. Do you believe this my love?”
Berdlukare heard the disbelief and horror in Mercie’s voice. “It is my faith Mercie. The runes have not deserted us in our hours of need nor have the Gods. We must prepare for more threats to the kingdom and this time we will be ready.” She felt a fighting spirit assert itself as the truth of the words flooded her soul.
“Why don’t more people know of this? Surely, the people need to be aware of the threat.” Queen Ragnhild knew of this and deceived me…I loved her greatly yet she kept this from me. “Had I known this I would never have allowed my judgment to be swayed in favour of the strangers?”
“The people are happy Mercie. No one knew for certain what the time scale was…for all we knew it was centuries from now. Only the Queen and possibly a handful of others know the full story and its implications.” Berdlukare kissed the top of Mercie’s head. “Had you known this you would be bereft of many people you call friend, including one we owe much too, Mgni.”
Mercie closed her eyes as she felt the power of the tender touch of the lips in her hair. Yes Mgni, I owe her much as my love suggests. Yet, now that I know this I do not know if I can approve that her friend to stay here… she could be the darkness. Her eyes traveled to the tapestry and caught the final scene. Water, faith and the beginning were the words embroidered there. The final pictorial vision was one of three figures holding swords high above their heads towards a lone figure depicted as a god-like entity rising in the sky. In a far corner was a shadowy figure holding back the sea. “Who is the last figure in the far corner?”
Berdlukare thought for a few moments then quietly replied, “My father said that it is the priestess who saves us from taking our people to the edge of oblivion. She walks between the world of men and gods in harmony and her compassion is a gift from Odin to keep us alive. It is also said that when the twilight of Xanadis draws near she will emerge among us and show us the light when we need it the most.”
“We will be saved by this …priestess? What of the stranger? She pointed to the figure holding back the sea. “Is that a stranger? Is that why we allow them to remain, because they may help us?” Mercie’s emotions were raw as she felt a shiver run up her spine. I wish I’d never seen the tapestry for it does not bring good tidings as I hoped.
“The tapestry ends my love. No one has foretold if we win or lose. All we know is that the time will come. Now enough of this melancholy, I know a much pleasanter pastime.” As her lips gently entangled with that of the woman held securely in her arms they forgot the runes and the visions and concentrated on the future - theirs.
+ + +
Mark watched Carolyn walk confidently forward before the council of elders, the assembly of warriors and the Queen and her consort. He was proud of the young woman that he knew his granddaughter cared deeply for her. Since Carolyn’s arrival Jennifer was jubilantly happy to such an extent she had even missed an odd day at work. I hope that you make it my dear I really do because if you don’t I fear that my dear Jenny will leave with you.
Hakon Grjotgardson, the council elder spokesperson, stood up bowing in respect to the Queen. “May I speak my Queen?”
Queen Berdlukare gave him a perfunctory glance and with her brown eyes piercing him she assented with a brief nod.
“This stranger has asked to be welcomed into our community my Queen and we ask you to consider her request,” he said in a forthright manner. None of the arrogance of his predecessor Hjort was evident in his tone or manner.
Carolyn squared her shoulders and bowed slightly as she faced the Queen who hadn’t changed much since she had last seen her. Maybe she looks happier around the eyes but everywhere else still looks formidable. Thank goodness, Mark taught me the protocol of not speaking unless directly asked to do so.
Berdlukare had none of Queen Ragnhild’s grace and decorum when it came to protocol. Instead, she was more forthright and when she strode away from her throne to stand opposite the stranger before fixing her with an inscrutable look no one was surprised. She began walking around Carolyn taking in every facet of the woman who stood quietly waiting. All eyes in the great hall watched every move their Queen made. “You wish to remain in Xanadis, Hrafn?”
Carolyn felt the gravely voice wash over her, scratching at the surface of her inner being in an attempt to find any falsehood. “Yes Queen Berdlukare.” Damn I wonder why she’s calling me a raven.
“You will answer the questions posed to show your allegiance and your own free will to remain here,” the voice said in a minutely softer tone.
From her vantage point to the right of the Queen’s throne, Mercie watched her love scrutinise Carolyn Black and did the same. It had been over two years since she had last seen the woman and then it had been only a brief acquaintance. Jennifer cares deeply for her. In that respect I would honour her wish to stay, but after what I have heard today it cannot be as simple as that…or, can it. She pierced Carolyn with a glance that bore into the woman’s eyes and she did not flinch at the regard. A good sign, Mgni has chosen a strong heart. As her memory of the original meeting surfaced, she recalled Queen Ragnhild’s fascination with the woman. Everything happened so fast that there has been no time to speak of why the old Queen was so interested in this woman. Now we will never know, she thought with sadness.
“I will do whatever is necessary.” Carolyn answered confidently. Tests are my stock in trade let’s hope I’ve done my homework.
Carolyn was sure she saw Berdlukare tentatively smile barely baring her teeth. Hey, it could have been a smile and right now I’ll take anything this fierce woman has to offer.
“Hrafn, the Warrior’s question for you is…did you leave word where you were going and the directions on how to get here?”
All the warriors’ eyes turned to Carolyn for her answer. Of all the questions it was the most important.
“Actually that’s two questions but the answer to both is no, I did not.”
Mark closed his eyes and groaned silently as he heard the rejoinder. She could have let that one go without a comment. His eyes flashed open quickly as he heard the low chuckle emanate from the Queen.
“Good Hrafn, good you live up to the name I gave you. How do we know this is true? You have entered our lands twice now and no one has done that before.” As she would do when facing the enemy in a one on one battle, Berdlukare caught Carolyn’s gaze and their eyes locked.
“You don’t. You will have to trust me as you’ve trusted everyone else you have allowed to stay.” Ok that was a little smart but factual. I didn’t leave any instructions they had already been written.
Queen Berdlukare inclined her head slightly and then spoke quietly. “My Elders want to know what you can bring to our lands that may be of use to us.”
Carolyn considered her answer carefully. Tough question but I’ve prepared for it in my own way. She cleared her throat slightly, braced her shoulders and replied, “I’m considered a scholar in the land outside Xanadis. In a small way I’ve been teaching some of your learned scholars about the history that has gone on around Xanadis. I believe that if you are aware of what happened in the past outside your lands, you may find information that might prove useful in your future.”
Mercie listened carefully to the woman. It is amazing how she has mastered our tongue in such a short space of time. Mgni was right; Hrafn is gifted in languages, though she is too confident in her manner for me to like her as I do Mgni. It is strange because I had the opposite feeling when we first met two years ago. Perhaps it is the knowledge that my beloved Queen Ragnhild knew something about this woman and I do not. Her features scrunched as she concentrated hard until an idea appealed to her. Why Spake, of course why didn’t I think of that before. Dear Spake will know. Her attention returned to the inquiry when she heard the Queen speak.
“You are considered by some here to be an excellent choice to join us Hrafn however, there is a question I have deliberated over for many moons now. The guards will take you to the palace’s royal library and there you will remain until the sun rises. I have written one question which you must answer to my satisfaction if we are to welcome you into our land to live and become part of us.”
Carolyn frowned. Damn, I didn’t expect that! I thought learning to speak the language was the key…obviously not. “May I ask a question Queen Berdlukare?”
The somber faced woman moved her head slightly. “I expected nothing less from you Hrafn. Ask your question.”
“What happens if I don’t answer it correctly? How will I know? Maybe you just don’t want me to stay.” Without fear, Carolyn stared directly at the woman and saw a sparkle of amusement dancing in the brown eyes.
Mercie, who had listened fascinated by the dialogue between the Queen and the stranger, blinked astonished by her beloved’s reaction. What surprised her even more was the answer.
“That was two questions Hrafn. You already know the answer to the first and the second I believe to quote you earlier, you will have to trust me. ” The Queen noted the astounded faces and murmurings from the others in the room then turned her back to Carolyn. She signaled to the two guards at the side door of the hall. “Take her to the library the test has begun.”
+ + +
Jennifer paced outside in the courtyard. Though she was a loyal member of the inner circle of friends to the Queen and her consort, she could not enter the hall unless specifically requested to do so by the Queen - the circumstances made that impossible. God, how much longer is this going to take? She kicked the dirt under her feet and then her attention diverted, as the large wooden doors of the hall opened. The council members along with the assembly of warriors began streaming out. Her eyes tracked immediately the crowd for any sign of her grandfather and Carolyn - there was none.
After five minutes of impatient waiting she ground her teeth and closed in on the open door in an attempt to peer inside. The guard at the door gave her a stern glance and she moved away in frustration. Finally, Mercie appeared and Jennifer pounced on her immediately.
“Mercie am I glad to see you. How did it go? Will Carolyn be allowed to stay? Where are they?”
The Queen’s consort laughed softly as she listened to her friend’s frenzied questions. She held out a hand and placed it on Mgni’s arm. “And there I was thinking that my friend would be glad to see me and ask how I was after being away for a few weeks. Instead, it appears I have been replaced by another in her affections.”
Jennifer’s eyes opened wide in horror at her insensitivity towards Mercie. “I’m so sorry Mercie. Please forgive me…I can’t believe how rude I was to you. Please tell me how the honeymoon was.” She hugged the woman warmly. “By the way, you look wonderful…the joining agrees with you.”
“I confess that my love is very good for me. As to your…friend, she is still undergoing the test the Queen has devised for her. You will have to wait until sunrise before we know for sure whether she can stay.”
“You mean she isn’t coming home tonight?” she said in shock and regret. I was hoping that tonight we might go a step or two further in our relationship. Damn!
Mercie saw the disappointment in her friend’s eyes. It is reminiscent of one I wore many times in the past. “I’m afraid not,” she said gently. “I am going to see Councillor Spake, would you like to accompany me Mgni? I think it may be of interest to you.”
The comment, which seemed to come from nowhere intrigued Jennifer and caught her imagination. It’s not like I’m doing anything but waiting around anyway…why not. “Ok, let’s go. I want to catch up with you…I need some advice…”
Berdlukare entered the royal library and spied Carolyn looking out onto the courtyard intently. She was so wrapped in what was happening below that it was easy for the Queen to sneak up her. “There is something of interest in the courtyard Hrafn?”
Carolyn felt her heart jump into her throat as she swung around in astonishment and saw the giant frame of the Queen towering over her. How did she do that? It’s not like she's small and dainty. “I was waiting and observing, your Majesty.”
Berdlukare looked down onto the courtyard and felt her own pulse rise - her consort was avidly conversing with the woman they called Mgni. “Ah yes, your friend. She and my consort have a special friendship.”
Softly Carolyn replied, “I know.”
Berdlukare had heard an undertone in the voice. “You sound as if you do not approve, why is that?”
Carolyn hesitated in her reply. Do I disapprove? Nope, but I think I’m a little jealous. After all Mercie has spent more time with Jenn than I ever have. Yes, but Jenn said she cares about you idiot. “No, not disapproval…I guess I’m just nervous about the test you have for me.”
“I understand. Sit at the table Hrafn and I shall give you the script with the question I need you to answer truthfully.” Berdlukare motioned to a straw padded seat at the long table were several ancient volumes were stacked.
When Carolyn sat, Berdlukare handed her a parchment of a crisp yellow paper reminiscent of ancient samples she’d seen. She unrolled the document and her eyes rapidly scan it. Oh, shit it’s in Norse! Now why didn’t I expect that? This is going to be fun I haven’t mastered the translation into the written word yet, just the odd symbol. She looked at the Queen and nodded before allowing a smile to play around her lips. “Thank you.”
“I shall leave you now Hrafn and when I return I shall expect my question answered.” Berdlukare smiled faintly in Carolyn’s direction as she proceeded to the door.
“May I ask one more question before you go your Majesty?” Carolyn ’s brain was already trying to decipher what little she knew of the ancient language.
“One only?” Berdlukare asked without turning back to face the woman.
One, ok I can handle this. “Why do you call me Hrafn?”
There was a bellow of laughter from the giant woman who continued on her way. “All will be revealed if you answer my question,” she said with a chuckle as the door slid shut behind her.
Damn! She goes from a person of virtually no conversational skills to mastering the art of nuance and gives nothing away. “Ok onwards, what now?” Her hands unrolled the parchment and she looked at it again. “Well, I’m in a library where there are books and probably one is on the language itself. Let’s get the brilliant brain I’m renowned for into action.” Carolyn chuckled sarcastically. “Yeah right. It’s going to be a long night.” Her eyes tracked to the ornate bookcases and scrapped back her chair. “Let the search begin.”