Carolyn caught her breath in horror as the door to the hut opened. The large figure of Larsen marched inside holding and the petite, unmoving Jennifer in his arms. Stumbling behind him was the old man Mark, his face ashen but paradoxically wreathed in smiles.
“ What’s going on, what happened to Jennifer?” Carolyn asked clenching her fist and moving in a protective motion towards Jennifer. “Did that brute harm her?” With each question Carolyn’s voice rose. Once the warrior had placed the apparently unconscious form of her friend on a small cot, Carolyn moved quickly to her side.
Richard from the small vestibule where they cooked heard the commotion and rushed to their friend. His eyes, dancing dangerously glared at the warrior. “What’s going on, what’s happened to Jenn?”
Mark heard the anger and desperation in the two voices and saw the irate stares shooting in Larsen’s direction. In hopes of diffusing the situation, he turned to the outsiders and quietly said, “Jenny’s going to be fine, she fainted that’s all.”
Perplexed by the familiar way Mark had spoken of her friend, Carolyn glanced at the still form. Her eyes tracked to the old man briefly before levelling on the fierce warrior. “If it’s just a faint why hasn’t she woken?”
Mark gave the anxious woman a slight smile as they heard the movement from the straw bed. “I think she’s about to answer that herself.” Without regard to the others, Mark knelt beside the bed gently took one of Jennifer’s pale-skinned hands. He studied her face and was certain that he saw features of his son and his deceased wife - this woman is indeed my granddaughter.She said Poppy…I’d almost forgotten what she used to call me.
Carolyn and Richard watched in fascination as the man gently prodded their friend awake. “Come on sweetheart open those beautiful blue eyes for me.”
One of the main reasons they went on their expedition was for Jennifer to discover what had happened to her grandfather. Looks like she found out, Carolyn thought when she heard the man speak.
The man’s kindly smile hovered between happiness at seeing her again and hesitation at what she would actually say to him after so long. As she opened her eyes fully, Mark said, “ Hey there poppet, how are you feeling now? After all this time, I’d be a poor grandfather if I let something happen to you.”
Jennifer blinked rapidly as she gazed into the eyes of someone she loved and thought she had lost. “Is it really you Poppy?”
“ It’s really me Jenny. I know you’ve had a shock, but do you feel okay to sit up and say something to your friends? I think Larsen would appreciate it since I think they were considering attempting bodily harm because they thought he hurt you.”
When Jennifer clutched her grandfather’s hand, she was surprised at how soft it was. Looking at him closer, he didn’t seem any older than the last time she had seen him when she was ten. Obviously, my mind is playing tricks he must be about eighty now. She glanced past her grandfather’s shoulder to the anxious looking faces of her friends. “Hey guys I’m fine. Sorry if I scared you like that…I guess you’ve realised that this is my grandfather?”
Instead of speaking, Carolyn eyes scanned every visible crevice of Jennifer’s face for any sigh of trauma - she found none. What happens now? Will Jennifer decide to stay for good if they allow her to do so?
“ Well that’s great news Jenn. I’m very glad you’ve found him… alive. I’ll finish making the coffee.” Richard pointed in the direction of the warrior who stood silently in the doorway. “It looks like we all need some, even him.”
“I’ll help him,” Carolyn remarked quietly.
Jennifer glanced at her friend wanting desperately for her to understand what she was feeling at that moment. It’s important you understand thatI want you to be part of this too. Will you?
For a brief moment while Carolyn left the room, Jennifer’s eyes caught hers with a question hovering in them. Unable to decipher the message Carolyn’s expression became perplexed as she entered the cooking area.
“ What’s wrong,” Richard asked.
“ Not sure.” Carolyn shrugged. “Wonder what will happen next.”
“ Just as soon as the water boils we’re going to have coffee,” Richard answered brightly.
In the main room, Mark moved closer to Larsen, smiled then spoke quietly. “It seems that this young lady is my granddaughter. She fainted because she thought I was dead.”
Larsen inclined his head slightly as he listened to Mark’s explanation. From her prone position, Jennifer was certain she saw a barely discernable smile curl the lips of the keeper. “ Poppy will you tell him that if he wants to go and help the others we’ll be safe here until he returns.”
Mark turned to face his granddaughter and smiled. “You have a lot to learn about Xanadis and the traditional order of the culture….particularly the warriors. I can tell him Jennifer, but he won’t leave.”
Puzzled, Jennifer looked at the warrior and asked, “Why not?”
“ He has been given orders by Berdlukare and he will not knowingly betray those orders. If she instructed that he was to stay and keep you safe, that is what he will do. Only death will serve to sever that responsibility.” He winked. “I will tell him anyway.”
Mark spoke softly to the warrior once again. “My granddaughter wants you to go help the others. She says we will be safe until you return.”
Larsen gave Jennifer a long hard stare and muttered a few unintelligible words in her direction. He shook his head then opened the door and left closing it quietly behind him.
“ He’s leaving?” Jennifer asked in surprise.
Mark laughed. “Why no my dear child, he’s protecting us. He will wait outside for new orders.” Mark approached the cot where his granddaughter was laying. “Please tell me all that’s happened to you. I really can’t believe this. You’ve grown up to be a beautiful woman, not that I thought any different your grandmother was very beautiful.”
Jennifer chuckled. Only a proud parent or grandparent would ever say that about my appearance. She then began to relate in a potted version the events that led up to her being here with him.
In the other room, Richard glanced at his friend who stared at the pot of boiling water suspended over the fire pit. I thought she was going to help. “Great news for Jenn finding her grandfather, don’t you think? This means we can get out of here sooner than we thought. As far as I’m concerned we can leave immediately.” He considered there leaving. “…after coffee will be a good time.”
Oblivious and still reeling from the new turn of events, Carolyn continued to stare at the bubbling water. This proves beyond any doubt that this place is exactly what it’s purported to be and with it the implications of returning to the real world. One thing she knew in her heart was that Jennifer wouldn’t be returning with them - that made her feel profoundly sad. I don’t know why I feel like this about Jennifer, we hardly know each other.
Richard took in his friend’s expression and shook his head. Whatever is going on in her mind they certainly aren’t happy thoughts. “ Hey, are you listening to me Caro?” Richard placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder to drag her attention to him.
“ Sorry Richard I was thinking, what did you say?” Richard posed the question again. “Isn’t Jennifer finding her grandfather great news? I was thinking that since she’s found him we should get our things together and leave here right away.” As he waited for her reply, he carefully removed the cast iron pot from the fire to begin the slow process of pouring the hot water into a much smaller vessel.
“ Yes, yes it’s excellent news.” The question of leaving she didn’t answer because she didn’t want to leave. She particularly didn’t want to leave Jennifer behind and alone. Although technically she really won’t be alone, after all, she has found the one person she has spent years looking for. Her grandfather is a very lucky man. It must be wonderful to know that someone loves you so much that they spent all the hours they could searching for you. She sucked her lips inward and clenched them. I doubt I’d inspire that in anyone.
Richard realised that trying to have a fruitful conversation with his friend wasn’t going to happen. Once she’s drunk a cup of coffee she’ll be more reasonable…caffeine always proves to be the elixir that has a marvellous affect on her.
They heard a sudden shout from outside followed by Larsen’s gruff voice and the door open. Carolyn walked inside the main room and saw Mark conversing with the warrior. Her eyes tracked to Jennifer who with a puzzled expression, shrugged.
Mark turned to the others in the room and said, “ There is a lone rider on the horizon. Larsen does not see a threat, but he thinks that we should remain in the hut and stay quiet until the rider’s identity is known.”
Carolyn bristled at the instruction and moved towards the door until the old man placed a gentle hand on her arm. “It wasn’t a request my dear,” he advised solemnly.
The few words only sparked Carolyn’s frustration more. “Yeah, right!” she hissed as she waved off the hand and stepped outside.
“ Is she always like that?” Mark asked his granddaughter.
With a slight chuckle, Jennifer got up. “Sometimes she’s stubborn.” She passed by her grandfather and patted his arm. “I’ll bring her inside.”
The old man kept an eye on his granddaughter until the aroma of coffee filled the hut and assailed his nostrils. Richard walked into the room holding the beverage and offered him a vessel. “What a wonderful smell. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I tasted coffee?” Mark eagerly took the cup, brought it to his lips and blew slightly before he savoured the delicious brew. “Thank you, thank you this is wonderful,” he said with a sigh.
When Richard looked around the room, his eyebrows creased. “Where are the girls?”
“ Oh, Carolyn insisted on ignoring Larsen’s warning and went outside to see who the rider is. Jenny went after her to try and persuade her to come back inside.”
Richard laughed and shook his head. “That sounds like Caro. I doubt Jenn will have much luck in convincing her to do anything other than what she wants.”
Mark took another sip. “Bet when they smell the coffee they will come right back in.”
“ Don’t count on it,” Richard said as he let out a belly laugh. “No one tells Carolyn what to do.”
When Jennifer exited the hut, she saw her friend standing with her arms firmly crossed and a scowl on her face. She touched Carolyn’s arm and nodded in the direction of their protector. “Please come back inside he won’t be happy.”
Carolyn watched the rider galloping towards them. “I’m not having anyone tell me what I can and can’t do. We have a right to know what’s going on!” She turned her worried grey eyes to her friend. “At this moment Jenn, I don’t think it’s good.”
Jennifer frowned for she knew that Carolyn generally worked on facts rather than fiction. “Is that a gut feeling or have you seen evidence to prove your theory.”
“How are you feeling?” she asked avoiding answering the question.
Jennifer felt a glow at the words. Carolyn isn’t the most adept at showing how she feels about others, but I can tell from her eyes and voice that she is genuinely concerned about me. “I’m good, thank you for asking. What about you?” Jennifer asked as she gently nudged her friend.
“ Tense is a good description,” said in a tight voice.
“ Yeah I know what you mean,” Jenn said blowing out a breath.
Both stood silently for a few moments as the rider came into view. “Isn’t that the Queen’s lady in waiting?” Jenn asked. “Shoot, what is her name?”
Carolyn face creased in suspicion as she said absently, “ Lady Mercie Fulla.” She watched the rider dismount and noted the agitated look on the woman’s face as she spoke rapidly to Larsen.
“ What’s going on?”
“ I don’t know but I’m going to find out,” Carolyn said as she began to approach Lady Fulla.
Jennifer gripped her friend’s arm. “Not yet, let her approach us,” she shrugged, “you know protocol and all that stuff.”
Larsen turned his gaze to the women. He knew they were there and a small part of him had been pleased they were inquisitive, but mostly he was annoyed at their inability to obey an order. “They don’t know how to follow orders,” he harshly muttered to Mercie.
Mercie smile graciously at the warrior. “I will take care of them,” she said softly before walking towards Jennifer and Carolyn. “I’m sorry for all the commotion, but it seems that we may have more strangers arriving. The Queen needs to know if you are aware of their arrival and who they are.”
Both women shook their heads. “All we know about is our party,” Jennifer said.
Richard opened the door slightly and announced that the coffee was ready. When he saw the young woman they met the day before, his eyes sparkled in her direction. “We have room for one more…” His eyes travelled to Larsen who was blankly staring at the ridge. “Maybe even two.”
“ Why don’t we talk about this over coffee Lady Fulla?” Carolyn smiled cautiously and noticed the woman’s eyes curiously scanning the area. “Is something the matter?”
“ Where is Berdlukare?”
Jennifer pointed to the crest of the hill. “She joined up with what looked like an army on black horses and went over the ridge towards the gate.”
Mercie closed her eyes as her stomach heaved before rolling into a tight knot. I can’t believe that Berdlukare…my Berdlukare might be in a battle with an unknown enemy. She opened her eyes and gave the blonde woman a small smile. “I would like to try your coffee, thank you.” Before she entered the hut, Mercie looked back at Larsen. He’s as worried as I am. She will prevail she’s the best we have whatever the problem is.
The warrior continued to watch the ridge silently, waiting for any sign of his comrades’ return his expression bleak.
+ + +
Death greets the warrior in two ways - nobly or cheated. Berdlukare held a hand up to halt the Berserkers when they arrived at the hill above the gate. From the cover of a wooded area, her eyes quickly scanned the area and saw a ring of riders protecting those on the ground. “I count twenty on horseback and ten on the ground,” she whispered. “They look like they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect the gate they’ve captured.” She shook her head. “I doubt our keepers are alive.” Then she said quietly, “Who are they?”
Within seconds they watched as several of the enemy warriors, in a crude victory march, held up the lifeless bloody bodies of the two keepers and paraded them in front of the others. From their vantage point on the hill, the Berserker’s heard laughter fill the air and watched as the enemy strung up their comrades by their feet and hung them from opposite trees. Then, they watched as the invaders slit each of the keeper’s throats causing crimson blood to gush out onto the lush green grass beneath them.
The abomination of the cruelty was a clear violation of the warrior code the Berserkers lived by. Each, eager to take down the foes who had slaughtered their brethren, moved in their saddles in agitation while their horses, ready for battle, stomped and snorted in anticipation. All eyes focused on Berdlukare as each Berserker waited impatiently for the signal to attack.
Berdlukare felt the moisture at the back of her half-closed eyes as she recalled the vibrantly alive men whom she had spoken with less than an hour earlier. Today two of my Berserkers lost their lives. She felt keenly the loss of one in particular. How, do I tell Lady Fulla of her brother’s death? He was her only family. How do I explain how he died or the hideous way his body was treated? Who are these warriors and why have they taken the gate? Berdlukare forced the emotion that had briefly surfaced away into the hiding place she kept for such emotional disturbances. If she had been honest with herself, she would have to admit that she used that defensive mechanism on a regular basis where Lady Fulla was concerned. To allow my warrior heart to love one such as the lovely Lady is a foolish dangerous dream-but I do. Though now, I cannot allow such a luxury as that emotion.
With anger and revenge she turned to her Berserkers. There is no doubt that they will be a match for the horsemen at the gate. “We will retake the gate and have our revenge for our brothers,” she told them. Then, with a wave of her hand followed by the action of clenched fist in the air she yelled, “Attack!” Dust filled the air as the black riders with the golden horse riding point, descended towards the gate with swords drawn.
Although outnumbered, the element of surprise was on their side as the Berserkers swooped down on the invaders. Swords slashed through the air as they met body parts with precise accuracy. The enemy force, startled by the arrival of the Berserkers, shrieked their battle cry as their warriors began to cut down the elite of the Xanadis forces. As the battle for supremacy raged the air was thick with the heady smell of dirt saturated with blood. The voice of Berdlukare roared above the din of combat. “For Xanadis, our Queen and in the presence of Odin, we reclaim what is ours!”
+ + +
The message the horn sounded was clear to every warrior and possibly one or two of the older nobles - the gate was under siege. Urania Haklang, leader of the assembly of warriors, had trained all her living memory for one glorious moment of action. Being a politician wasn’t the action she wanted as a lasting remembrance for she was a warrior heart and soul. When she watched as the Berserkers left the walls of the town towards the gate to battle the intruders she felt cheated. It would have been so easy to mount my horse, follow them and help defend our lands. Her sense of duty had her grinding her teeth in frustration as she summoned the Royal Guard to be at the ready to protect their Queen and the royal household.
Even though there appeared to be no imminent threat to the town, they could not rule it out therefore she placed the guard on high alert. If it happens, we will defend the Queen and the town to the death with all that we have and all that we are! Once she was certain that the Royal Guard was in place her next duty was to ensure that the sovereign was safe and secure. She hurried towards the Queen’s chamber then rapped on the heavy wooden door and waited impatiently for an answer. All her senses on a hair-trigger if trouble should arise, she was ready for action. Come on…come on answer.
Moments later Thorleif Spake, the Queen’s trusted advisor, opened the door. “What is your business Haklang?” Even with the warrior’s important position, entry into the royal chambers was by the Queen’s invitation only. Spake heard the change of the horn’s tone while on his way to a requested meeting with the Queen and knew it was different. For her part, the Queen did not seem the least bit worried about the situation so he decided that perhaps she already knew its interpretation. The arrival of Haklang at the Queen’s door had him questioning that judgement.
“ We have a situation at the gate and I must ensure the Queen’s safety immediately.” Haklang bristled when Spake held up a hand. We can’t waste valuable time with protocol this is far too important!
“Just a moment,” the advisor said as he closed the door only to reopen it a few seconds later. “The Queen will see you now.”
Haklang bowed respectfully. “Queen Ragnhild, the gate has been attacked. Berdlukare and her Berserkers are on their way to stop the incursion. My top priority is to secure your safety therefore I have dispatched the Royal Guard with instructions to squelch any intrusion into the royal household.” The warrior finished and waited for the Queen to reply. When she did not, Haklang peered at Spake who only shook his head slightly.
Spake tried to suppress the fear for his Queen’s safety that wanted to bubble to the surface. There has never been such a situation in my lifetime. Never before, have we seen our Queen threatened in such a manner or have our lands be under siege.
The tall stately figure of the Queen stood up. Haklang’s disclosure of the situation and her concern for the wellbeing of the people and me is as it should be. “I appreciate your concern Haklang. Shouldn’t we wait to see if I am indeed threatened or in any danger? I’m sure you, as I, trust that Berdlukare and the Berserkers will take care of the breach at the gate. After all, it may be nothing more than more strangers who have lost their way.”
“ Your Majesty, I understand your reluctance to take refuge when there does not appear to be a threat, but we cannot take that chance. I would be defaulting on my oath as your royal champion. I must ask again that you, Councillor Spake and anyone else you deem fit to accompany me to a secure position.” It is unusual the Lady Fulla is not here beside the Queen. She rarely leaves her side during the day. I wonder where she is?
The Queen listened to the warrior’s words before placing her hand to her mouth. Oh no, Mercie. “I despatched Mercie on an errand outside the town walls to see the strangers.” The old eyes squared on the warrior leader. “Haklang locate her for me and bring her home safely. That is your priority and as your Queen I demand that you do this at once. When she is safely within the walls I will do as you ask.”
Until that moment Haklang had never doubted the Queen’s judgement. Right now I’m not sure what my Queen asks is the true path to take. “I will send one of my most trusted guards to bring her home my Queen.”
The Queen’s agitation grew. “No! No, Haklang you will personally bring her to me. At this time, I trust only you. That is not a request but an order. I will be safe in my rooms and will not venture out until your return. You may leave now.” She turned her attention to her advisor. “Spake, bring Hjort to me at once I will need to speak with him about this situation.” The Queen left without another word for her bedchamber.
Haklang levelled a look at the old councillor. “Spake you must try to change her mind. I can only be certain that the Queen will be safe when Berdlukare returns. Please, you must reason with her and convince her go to the room below the warriors training room,” she implored. “There is no safer place in the land for only a few trusted warriors know of its existence.”
Spake’s uneasy thoughts were at odds with his duty and the perceived threat. It is easy to be complacent and that is what the Queen appears to be at this moment. We have never encountered any infringement that might harm the community or our Queen directly. He looked at Haklang’s strained expression, Haklang looks serious about the whole affair and she is not one to be spooked unless there is a measure of danger.
His head moved from side to side as his thoughts cascaded like a waterfall. For years there has been insignificant rumours that dissention is within our ranks, but nothing tangible has ever developed or been proven. Some say it was because of the strangers’ influence while others were uncertain of the source but feel that a power struggle is imminent, perhaps it is as the old runes once foretold. I will not believe that is so. The Queen’s fragility in matters of importance in the last few years had caused even the most devoted to ask if the Queen was able to make important decisions for them. I have never been one of those voices. The Queen is more than capable of providing us with leadership as she always has. She maybe a little slower, but aren’t we all these days. Perhaps her particular brand of ruling, allowing more democracy than her predecessors has irked some since change is not usually our way.
“I will do as the Queen asks and bring Hjort to her for council. Be assured Haklang I will defend the Queen with my last breath, as I believe Hjort and the other elders will if warriors are unavailable. Do as she requests and bring Mercie home. Once that is taken care of she will comply with your wishes.”
Haklang glared at Spake then to the closed door where the Queen retreated. With a smart click of her heels she turned and marched loudly out of the royal chamber. Her anger that the Queen had ignored her attempt to provide safety filled the vacated room. Can’t she see the seriousness of the situation? Spake is right though, most any of the community would defend the Queen to death for it is our way.
Her stride increased purposefully as she headed towards the stables - her gut churned incessantly, which was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong. Within the hour, I will return with Lady Fulla and then I will personally ensure that the Queen is in a safe location. May Odin watch over you my Queen, until I return.