Infinite Possibility

                                                INFINITE POSSIBILITY

 

© Ann Linquist

 

Chapter One

 

 

        Tessor squatted on a shelf of gray rock and considered the two unfamiliar horses tied in his paddock below.  From his vantage point he could survey his thatch-roofed cottage nestled into the mountainside as well as his terraced garden and goat shed.  He saw nothing out of the ordinary except two bridled horses with their heads hanging low, nothing that accounted for the anxiety humming through his bones.  His knees ached, but he didn’t move.

        One plus one plus one.

        Tessor heard the message as if it were dripped into his ear like a liquid.  The weight of some unknown menace poured down through his chest and belly into his bowels.  Two horses, he lectured himself, fighting back fear–not three.

        His body continued to register a serious disruption to his typically peaceful world.  Tessor twisted a curl loose from the mat of his white beard and opened up his inner senses.  He had visitors.  It wasn’t a frequent occurrence so high up the mountain, but the accompanying feeling of danger and dislocation was highly unusual.  He sniffed away the thought.  He could drive his visitors away if he chose; certainly he had power enough for that.  No one could pose a real threat.  Well, almost no one.

        One plus one plus one.

        He heard the words in the rustling of the yellowing aspen leaves, in a sudden blue jay’s squawk, and in the uneven thumping of his heart.  Two horses, he told himself.  Only two.

        Smoke rose weakly from his chimney.  The late afternoon sun sent a muted gold over the red, orange, and brown leaves of the trees on the mountains stretching out below him.  A squirrel dug at the ground where Tessor’s garden met the edge of the forest and then run off.  The nights had grown cold.  He needed to go inside and stir up his fire.  His knees also told him to move, but he did not rise.

        One plus one plus one .

        The Great Tessor indeed.  Once he had been able to command the lightning, the wind, and the rain; now he was too scared to go into his own hut.  He snorted, and then pushed himself up with one hand, tugging at the rope cinching his gray robe.

        He could discern a subtle agitation all around, a low convulsing pulse riding the sensations of power.  The impression sent his thoughts teetering at the crest of an inward slope toward painful memories.  With an effort he pulled them back.  It wouldn’t do to start pouring over his past.

        He silently picked his way down from the higher crags to approach his cottage from the rear until he reached the horses with their hanging heads.

        One plus one plus one .

        The words whispered at him from the mane of the bay mare when he ran his hand over its strong neck.  Tessor exhaled carefully, trying to ignore the fear curdling his stomach.  Sweat, lathered on the horses, told him they’d been worn out on a hard ride.  Rolled leather edges trimmed the quilted linen riding pads, and silver studded the bridles.  Brass bits and fittings showed the skill of practiced craftsmen.

        With a shake of his head, Tessor pulled the pads off the backs of the horses and forked some goat fodder over to them.  He looked at the flecks of sweaty foam where the padding had lain.  The tired animals needed a good brushing.

        He put a hand on the neck of the mare and stroked her while he sought out her presence.  That couldn’t hurt anything, surely.  After all, he probably should find out all he could before encountering his visitors.

        “Honor to the strength of thy four legs,” Tessor whispered but also sent an inward message.  Animals had little use for words, but only words could bring him in contact with the power.  It was best to be formal as well, for beasts observed rigid codes of conduct.  “Whence and whither?” he tried again politely, and let his mind wander, waiting for any impression the animal might form in response. 

        The mare stomped the dry earth, jerked her head up and down, and snorted breath that clouded white.  Evening had arrived; the air had cooled.

        Tessor heard a mourning dove call out from the crest of his hut and another answer from the woods.  He heard the soft whisper of his own hand stroking the animal’s neck.  He sensed again the disruption in the blooms of power that were always around, but no flicker of an answer rose except the same rhythmic foreboding.

        One plus one plus one .

        Yes, but three what?

        “Don’t you even have a small message for me?” he urged the mare in his softest voice.  She blinked and bumped her nose against his chest.  He sighed and gave her a last pat, then padded through matted grasses around his cottage to the front door.

        The thatching on his roof was falling into shadow as the sun went down.  Tessor shivered.  With horses of that quality, most likely two of the nobility waited inside, having gotten lost in the mountains.

        He stopped at his front door and prepared himself for a grand entrance, straightening the rope at his waist, running his fingers back through tangled hair, pulling and patting his beard in a futile attempt to make it lie flat.  He was about to sweep open the door and stride over the threshold, when his hand froze in midair.  The message pounded hard inside his chest.

        One plus one plus one !

        The message was louder now.  Run!    He stared at the weathered boards and thick leather hinges of his door, his hand hanging in the air.  Only two horses, two.  That didn’t add up to disaster.  Was he afraid to go inside?  He could stand on the doorstep all night.  Run away?  His heart whispered yes, but he refused to listen.  Was he not a man?

        He pulled his shoulders back, pushed open the door, and stepped firmly inside.  For a moment his eyes could not see in the darkness.  He had to hold his bold pose longer than he would have liked before he finally focused on two faces turned toward him from stools by the hearth.

        They were just children!   He felt a chuckle of relief bubbling up, but caught himself and settled for a cough and an exhale while he studied the two young people who huddled together transfixed.

        A young man jumped up, his head pulled down into drawn-up shoulders, clenched fists at his sides.  He leaned toward Tessor as if ready to spring.  Dark eyes peered out of a scowl nearly hidden by snarled hair.

        A slim young woman with a boy’s haircut remained seated just beyond him, holding herself in a regal pose, her hands folded at her waist.  She looked Tessor over with wide eyes and frank curiosity.

        “Guests!” Tessor boomed, inwardly wincing when he heard his voice crack.

        The young woman rose to her feet, but when the boy edged in front of her as if to protect her, she grabbed his hand and stood beside him.  She was expensively dressed.  The embroidery at the neck and pleats of her woolen riding gown were obviously the result of long hours of work and quite an extravagance on clothes intended for rough use.  The poorly patched vest over layers of tattered clothing marked the boy as a servant, but he had a horse and bridle equal in quality to hers.  Odd, but not frightening.

        Yet the fear had not gone away.  It clung to Tessor’s chest, its claws digging deeper and deeper into his skin.

        One plus one plus one .

        “I hope we are not intruding, good father.”  The young held her head and posture high and straight, seeming to lean slightly away, certainly the mistress to the boy, her servant and…companion?

        “We saw your cabin when the sun began to set and hoped we might impose on you for shelter.  I would be pleased to pay for such hospitality.”  Again she displayed her polished courtesy.

        Noble from birth, he’d wager, in spite of her strange haircut.  “Consider yourselves my guests.”  Tessor bowed, spreading his arms.  “Please sit, and let me get you some food while you tell me how you found my lonely cabin.”  They were an unlikely pair to be scrabbling about on a mountainside with night falling, all alone.

        He grabbed a stack of three bowls and stirred the beans and vegetables that simmered in a clay pot on a rock off to one side of the low fire smoldering in his wide hearth.

        One plus one plus one , a damp log hissed at him.  Tessor hissed back at it.

        “I hope you like my stew.”  He ladled portions into the bowls and handed them out, taking his own and sitting down in a lashed-wood chair off to one side of the hearth.  To encourage his visitors he took a bite of fat carrot even though his appetite had vanished.  The hot mash burned the inside of his mouth.  He had to fight to keep a straight face while he swallowed and watched them peering at him over rough spoons.

        The young man was obviously the girl’s servant, but the two of them pressed close together with a physical ease and practiced intimacy.  In spite of his layers of gaudy rags, the boy’s kept himself so still that he nearly erased himself from the scene.  His feet were drawn beneath his stool but were flat and carefully placed, ready for quick action.  The head of wild brown hair did not move, but the eyes roamed, then returned to the floor as if safety lay in not making too prolonged a contact with anyone or anything.

        He wore torn ribbons of colorful cloth tied around wrists, forearms, and legs in unlikely decoration, as well as bits of cord and several lengths of rope around his waist.  Odd pieces of wood and metal–bridle rings, a buckle, and several unidentifiable lumps–hung from various leather and woven string thongs around his neck.  Obviously he felt a need to strap his treasures to his body to keep them safe.  They gave an impression of beggarly riches.  He was certainly not used to an easy road, but was he an enemy?  Tessor thought not.  But neither was the boy only a servant in spite of his rag-tag appearance.

        Tessor shifted his weight, and the wood of his chair creaked at him.

        One plus one plus one .

        Tessor tried being annoyed with the urgent prompting of his inner sense.  There were two here, not three.  Yet the press of danger had grown worse now that he was inside.  Run!

        After several quick bites of stew, the young woman cleared her throat to speak.  Tessor felt a spasm of terror trap a swallow high in his throat.  He made himself look at her.  Medium height and small-boned, she appeared taller because she held herself so rigidly.  Her black hair had been cropped short, its curls sneaking out around eyes that stared at him with poorly disguised interest.  A well-made cloak with a silver brooch rested on the floor beside her stool.  The wool of her wide-skirted riding outfit was fine and soft.

        Noble-born surely, but the way she bore her fatigue told him she had not been pampered.  The stiff pose of control was not in place to cover fear.  It hid something else, perhaps something dangerous.  The impression surprised him.  Dangerous to whom?  Was she his enemy?

        “I hope you will not be displeased when I tell you that we traveled here in the hope of finding you,” she said.

        Tessor’s eyebrows arched.  He felt his shoulders creeping up in readiness to mount a defense and forced them down.  If fear would not go away, fighting it was only wasted effort.

        “I am looking for a lost relative,” she went on.  “An old woman down in the foothills said you had much knowledge of the kingdom’s history.  I hoped you might let me ask you some questions.”

        She looked him straight in the eye.  It was she, not the boy, who had brought the danger inside; Tessor was certain of it.  Yet she looked so young, so vulnerable beneath her stiff poses.  Not a serious foe, surely.

          Tessor cocked his head at her, waiting to see if she would say more, but his eyes were again drawn away by the servant-boy who showed subtle signs of agitation.  Lips twitched; rag-bound feet shuffled in a dance of discontent.

        “Is anything the matter, young man?”  Tessor intended the question to give the boy permission to join in.

        The young man’s eyes narrowed.  His hand reached up to grasp one of the many baubles on his chest.

        The girl answered for him, her voice rising.  “He is not able to speak.”

        Tessor inclined his head, smiled politely, and said nothing.

        “I understand him well enough,” she went on, uncomfortable in the silence.  “He communicates with gestures when he needs to talk to me.”

        The young man’s lips tightened at her words.

        The girl continued, her eyes demanding that Tessor respect her explanation.  “Like this.”  She moved her hands, making a handclasp of thanksgiving, then opening her palms toward Tessor, indicating her bowl, and bowing her head.

        Tessor nodded.  “You’re welcome for the food.  I’m happy to share it with you.”  So the boy was a mute.  Tessor turned to him.  “Young man?”

        The boy looked up, cold-eyed.

        Tessor opened his palms and used a tone of honor and politeness.  “What do they call you?”  He waved aside the girl who started to protest.

        The boy did not move.

        Tessor tilted his head to one side, nodding to give the young man permission to answer.

        The girl took a breath between clenched teeth.  The two exchanged glances.  The boy shook his head a fraction at the beginning of her intervention.  He glared at Tessor, daring him to make mockery, and then lifted both hands.  The sign started with fists clenched to his heart and ended with a simultaneous releasing movement and raising of the head.

        Tessor felt as if a great soaring bird had been set free to fly up through the thatch of his fire-lit hut.  “Wonderful!”  The word burst out, unbidden.  “Again, if you would.”

        The boy made the gesture again, allowing himself a greater measure of grace in his movement but watching for any hint of mockery.

        Tessor grinned.  “It is indeed a handsome name.”  He turned to the girl.  “Do you call him this as well?”

        She gave Tessor a guarded smile.  “His spoken name is Portal.”

        “Portal.”  Tessor rubbed his lips with his fingers.  The name echoed inside his head, sending a hot poker of premonition down his spine.

        One plus one plus one .

        He had thought the girl was the one to worry about, but those signs–so like the gestures of a spell.

        He nodded in appreciation.  “As interesting spoken aloud as given in signs.”  He examined the young man for a clue to the omen.  A servant boy sat before him, his face nearly hidden by shaggy hair, his limbs wound in many-colored strips of cloth, his waist and neck clinking with ornamental bits of metal and wood.  His attention to his mistress was overly familiar, more than friendship.  Though his fists remained clenched, he was also beginning to relax, ever so slightly.

        Portal rose to his feet, opened his arms in a gesture for “Greatest thanks,” and gave a quick bow.

        Tessor made his eyes twinkle.  “Well said.  You speak very clearly, I think.”  He turned to the girl.  “And what is your name, my dear?”

        A blank stare and a renewed stiffening of the back snuffed out the liveliness that had suffused her face when Tessor welcomed her companion.  She was certainly hiding something.  Was that the danger?  Tessor watched her indecision and saw her share it in a glance with Portal who had protectively leaned over to physically block her from Tessor.

        “And what may we call you?” she said politely, gently easing Portal back with a light hand.

        “You may call me Tessor.”  He waited out her flanking maneuver.

        “Tessor.”  She tried his name.  “When I asked the villagers in the foothills for someone who might help me find the relative I’m looking for, they did not mention you with much affection.”

        “They lack tolerance for someone who doesn’t wish to spend his time among them.  They distrust me because I am different.  I’ll wager Portal knows something of such behavior.”  Tessor nodded at the young man.  “To them it’s madness living alone on a mountain instead of seeking the warm bustle of men.  But this is right for me.  This is where I belong.”  He paused, wondering why he was babbling so much.  “My friend Portal doesn’t think me so strange, do you, young man?”

        Portal shook his head, one corner of his mouth escaping upward in a grimace of a smile.

        Tessor turned to the girl.  “And you.  Are you afraid of me, young lady?”  An eerie refrain echoed around her head, seeming to come from the confusion of her short black curls.

        One plus one plus one .

        “Certainly not,” she said with a small laugh, relaxing for the first time.  Then, catching herself, her eyebrows drew together, and she sat up very straight.  “You’ll have to forgive me, but I’ve lived a very sheltered life.  Most of my time has been spent in scholarly pursuits.  But I do hope we can have the pleasure of talking with you at length.  Perhaps….”   She hesitated and glanced at Portal.

        Tessor decided to help her make up her mind.  “It should prove a treat for me to talk with you as well,” he said.  “I see before me a lovely young lady, but one full of secrets.  Her companion is dressed like a servant, but it is plain he is her close companion.  Together, they take fine horses on a hard ride into the mountains to find an old hermit and ask about a lost relative.  You huddle close together, perhaps out of fear or long habit or both, exchanging messages with a nod of the head, a lift of the brow, a jut of the jaw.  You seem at home in this world of two, where no one else is allowed.  But I hope that, since you wish my help, you’ll tell me what it is you’re running away from.”

        The girl tried to look perplexed.  “What makes you think we’re running away?”

        “Your horses told me,” Tessor said, then silently berated himself for the terrible fib.

        The two young people looked at each other and swiftly exchanged hand signals.

        It pleased Tessor to see that he could follow their conversation fairly well.  Ingenious, he thought.  So evocative.  But again he felt a warning throb of danger.

        One plus one plus one .

        The girl’s signs said, “He is strange, but kind, yes?  We need to find out if he knows anything that will help us.”

        “He might be dangerous,” Portal responded.  “Or mad.  Be careful, my love.  He says he talks to horses.  If he betrays us to your father, you’ll be locked up in the tower for the rest of your life.”

        “And you….”  She did not finish the thought.

        Portal shook his head, dismissing her concern.  He set his jaw.  “We’ve got to start taking those risks.  This is what we came for.  I’m here to protect you.  Now ask him about the three women.”

        Tessor quickly dropped his head to avoid seeing any more of their conversation.  He made himself look at the floor, examining dust patterns for a sign.  Suddenly they were everywhere.

        Three black stones lay in the dust by his left foot.  His old staff in the corner flashed at him with a vague greenish glow.  On the mantle above the hearth his crocks huddled together in trio: one tall, one slim, another squat.

        One plus one plus one .   Makes three. 

        He tried to cloud his mind over, think of other things.  Just an over-active imagination, that was all.

        He raised his eyes to examine the face of the girl.  The features assembled themselves into a pattern that cried out to him from old memories: the slight tilt of the eyes, the graceful neck, and that black hair–even cut short it was full of curls.  Ties from the past snaked out from distant days, wrapping themselves around his ankles, his waist, his neck, coming back to claim him.

        The girl rose in the flickering firelight, shoulders back, and her eyes on him.  As she stood, Tessor’s stomach sank.

        “My name is Esmeralda.  My father is the king, Randolph of Neoull.  I’ve run away to find three women who killed my mother when I was born and stole her ruby necklace.”

        Tessor sat motionless, trapped by her words, unable to move.

        Esmeralda misinterpreted his silence.  “You think I can’t possibly be a princess, but I have proof.”  She removed a walnut-sized gem of deep green from beneath her bodice and held it out on its heavy chain for Tessor to see.

        “Would any but a princess have a gem like this?”

        The massive jewel caught the firelight.  The reflected beam pierced Tessor’s eye, illuminating the secret place where he had hidden his memories.

        One plus one plus one makes three.  Three women who had killed her mother.   

 

Chapter Two

 

 

        The two-wheeled cart rumbled to a stop in a gravel clearing near the base of a massive slab of granite that reached so high, the top half was still lighted by the sun in the growing dusk.  Dead trees bordered the dusty patch of gravel.  In front of the stone face of the mountain, a massive mound of brush had been piled high in an impenetrable tangle of branches, dead limbs, and brambles.  The towering heap of gnarled wood reached higher than the treetops and disappeared into the gathering gloom.  A brook ran parallel to the narrow cart track, rattling over stones and rotting limbs.  No bird-sound, rustle of squirrels, or whir of insects broke the silence among the silver-trunked hulks in the long-dead forest.  No fish leaped.  No frogs peeped or twanged.

        A plump woman with faded orange hair eased herself down from the driver’s perch onto the barren ground, wheezing and puffing.  She stuck her face over the cart’s wooden-slatted side.

        A second woman lay on her back in the cart, her forearm covering most of her face.  She wore men’s clothing.  Blood stained the side of her purple-sleeved shirt.

        “Altamaine,” the plump woman said.  “Can you hear me?  We’re home.”

        The soft voice disrupted the fuzzy repetition of what the wounded woman came to realize was a dream.  The rhythmic jarring of the cart no longer animated the echoing shouts and the clanging of sword against shield that had filled her fevered sleep.  The cart had stopped.  Altamaine was home.  She would open her eyes and have to face the fact that the days of riding off to battle might all be behind her.

        Altamaine dragged her left arm from where it lay shielding her face.  She groaned and made an effort to sit up.  Her right arm, lacerated and twice broken, throbbed beneath its splints and tight bandage.  She grimaced and continued her struggle to straighten.

        Around her on the cart-bed lay pieces of her scratched and dented battle gear: a bloodstained linen and leather corselet, her bronze helmet with the purple horsehair crest, nicked leather greaves, her wicker shield, and long lance.  She had let her sister Gusta remove her sword, but had insisted on keeping the dagger.  She might be past the days of youth, carrying a badly fractured arm and a couple of nasty flesh wounds, but Altamaine had nothing but impatience for the state of her disability.  Plus, she had men’s clothes on–Lexander’s clothes–and they always made her feel able and strong.  She loved the leggings and loose-fitting shirts.

        Altamaine glanced down to make sure she still wore her crystal.  Yes, her talisman hung safely around her neck.  An oval droplet of clear stone the size of a quail’s egg dangled on a gold chain down to her waist.

      “Do you have to keep it wrapped so tight?”  Altamaine lifted her arm to let her sister check the wound.  “Boars’ warts, Gusta; I think you enjoy this.”  She gasped at the swift pain.

        Gusta pressed her full lips together while probing beneath the splint and bandages.  The break had been vicious–the bone from the upper arm had been smashed in two places; one of the ragged ends had torn through the skin.  Happily, the binding and stitches were still tight.  The paste Gusta had slathered on the wound had kept bleeding to a minimum.  She huffed as she fussed over the bindings, rubbing her hands across her pink face to wipe away the sweat.  Gusta squeezed the arm to see if the splints had kept the bones in place and merely grunted when Altamaine gasped.  Satisfied, Gusta stood back from her ministering and grinned, the creases in her saggy cheeks nearly swallowing up her dimples.

        Gusta slung back her red cloak and ran her hands through her frizzy, gray-orange hair.  She yanked on the sash tied around her generous waist and arranged the ends so they dropped over billowy black trousers tucked into high boots.  She untied the drawstring on the collar of her blouse, uncovering a wide expanse of generous bust line.  She, too, wore a crystal on a chain around her neck.

        “You’re lucky you’re not dead,” Gusta said, pulling her blouse up from where it had fallen off a pink shoulder.  The blouse slipped back down.  She left it there.

        Altamaine started to ease her way out of the cart, cradling her side.  “Luckier than you know.”

        She let out a slow hiss of air and pulled herself erect.  She swayed and leaned unwillingly on Gusta’s shorter, softer figure.  Turning, they nearly bumped into their third sister, Marrat, who stood frowning next to a gap in the looming mound of dead brush and brambles.

        Marrat clasped her hands in front of her small frame and shook her head.  She had close-set eyes and a severe bun of brown hair pulled back from a lined face.  A crisp gray-green smock covered her from chin to feet.  She had chisels and a mallet stuck in the large pockets of her apron, but as usual, no speck of dirt had dared attach itself to her person.  Like her sisters, she wore a necklace with a heavy crystal dangling to her waist.

        “I’m not going to say a word.”  Marrat held up both palms, turned her face away, and then let her hands fall.

        Gusta helped Altamaine stagger through the gap in the towering heap of dead vegetation.  The passage opened into a tunnel made of sticks and branches woven into a hallway.  Translucent globes filled with the pulsing glow of hundreds of tiny worms hung from iron chains at intervals and lit the woven wicker walls.

        Marrat led the way.  “I’m glad you’re back at Woven Wood.  I hope you won the battle at least.”  Her voice echoed in the long hall.

        Altamaine smiled through her pain and fatigue.  “The Borkosians won’t be leaving their swamps for many years to come.  The southern border is secure.  Simestra is safe in the king’s hands.”

        “I trust Randolph knows how much he owes you for helping him secure this victory,” Marrat said.

        “Owes Lexander, you mean.”  Gusta lifted her head to correct her sister.

        Marrat pulled her chin into her neck.  “Owes Lexander then.  It’s all the same, although it’s irritating that you have to pretend to be a man to go to war.”

        Altamaine changed the subject.  “You’ve been working hard, Marrat.  What have you done to these walls?”

        In the glow of the lamps Altamaine could make out a design carved on the silvery woven wood of the hallway.  Marrat had used her chisel to inscribe a continuous spiraling line into the woven walls, ceiling, and floor that seemed to move as it disappeared in the distance. Altamaine felt dizzy.

        “You noticed.”  Marrat perked up.  “Do you like it?”

        “It’s making me sick to my stomach.  Actually, those two are more to my taste.”  Altamaine jerked her chin toward the carving that outlined the large wicker door at the end of the tunnel.  Two serpents with human heads and muscular torsos curled around the edges of the doorframe.  The faces of opal-eyed man-serpents peered down, their gem eyes gleaming under half-open lids, as if watching the sisters’ approach.

        “Mine, too.”  Gusta wiggled her eyebrows up and down.  “Of course, you were a lot younger when you carved those, Marrat.”

        Marrat exhaled through her nose and pulled open the heavy door.  Moist air blew over their faces when they stepped over the threshold.  Marrat and Gusta tensed.

        Altamaine let her awareness be washed by the agitation that came from a dark pool of water at the far end of the room.  She had trained herself not to think of the sensation as unpleasant, though the closeness to such a power place always made her catch her breath, feeling as if many hands pressed on her chest.  It had taken years of meditation to learn to banish the fear that power evoked.

        A ring of ancient trees formed the walls of the vast round room, their trunks so large that six men with arms outstretched could not have girdled one.  The leafless branches had been forcibly bent and woven together to form arching walls and a lofted ceiling.  Peaked doorways punctuated the circumference between the massive silver trunks.  Each tree had been carved in great detail to reveal the figure of a tall, robed woman whose branching arms stretched high overhead until the circle of their wooden fingers met at the top of the distant dome.

        The long silent faces of the tree women stared down at the trio below.  Altamaine peered at the carved features of the sculpted tree women through the dim light of the worm globes, trying to gauge their mood.  She never stopped marveling that Marrat’s colossal sculptures should have taken on such lives of their own.  The faces and bodies of the tree women displayed unpredictable and ever-changing emotions.  Today they seemed impatient, as if annoyed at the slowness of her walk toward the far end of the rotunda.

        A pool, roughly oval in shape, filled a depression toward the back of the room beneath the high dome.  A bog surrounded it on three sides, black mud glistening in the worm-light.  Misty steam gave off a cloying warmth.  Boulders and flagstones close to the edge of the water served as stepping-stones, but the sisters had never been able to completely ring the pool with footholds.  Rocks placed too close to the edge sank, disappearing forever beneath black ooze.  Enough stones remained to approach with some safety, but all three women knew from experience that the pool was a dangerous, unpredictable place.

        Gusta helped Altamaine sit slowly down onto one of the small boulders, careful to test that the ground underfoot remained stable.  “You ought to let me put you to bed,” Gusta said, repeatedly glancing over her shoulder at the pool.  “I’ll fix you up with a nice sleeping draught.  Let that wound begin to heal.”

        “Not just yet.”  Altamaine placed her feet in front of her, leaned a palm on her left knee for steadiness, and held her right arm against her side.  “I need to talk to you both.  I’m back for good, this time.  Randolph found out that Lexander is really me.”

        “Was it Randolph who wounded you?”  Gusta glared, placing both hands on her hips.

        “Nothing so dramatic, I assure you.  My horse got slashed in the fighting and went down so suddenly I was thrown.  My arm slammed onto a tree stump with all my weight behind it.  Ripped it up and smashed the bone.  I managed to hide in a stand of swamp willow to put a spell on the wound and bind it.  Without my knowing it, Randolph followed and saw me change from Lexander into myself.  I was lucky he didn’t kill me.  He was too shocked, I think, when he realized that his best friend for the last sixteen years was the very enemy he sought.”

        “That explains it!” Marrat suddenly called out with a great whoop and clapped her hands, making her sisters jump.  She rubbed her palms together.  “I think the king has finally given Esmeralda her emerald.”

        Altamaine looked up at Marrat and blinked to quash a wave of dizziness.  “What makes you think so?”  She had to push the words out between clenched teeth.

        “Here.  I’ll show you.”  Marrat turned to the water of the oval pool.  “Show me Esmeralda’s tower room.”

        The black surface of the water dulled, and a picture of a stone bedchamber rippled out from center to edge.  The three women scanned the room in the pool, noting the curved stone walls decorated with detailed paintings, the perfectly-made bed, and the rack of neatly arranged embroidery in one corner.  A large desk with an orderly pile of parchments and straight row of writing instruments dominated one wall.  Above the desk, long shelves held books and scrolls.

        “What does that prove?” Gusta said.

        “I’m not done yet.”  Marrat gave her younger sister a superior smile and spoke again to the pool.  “Show me the Princess Esmeralda.”

        A shimmering green haze slowly covered the scene.  The water in the pool glowed with deep green light.

        Altamaine’s senses reached out to the pool.  She painfully rearranged her body to better face the water, and then let her eyes go out of focus so she could achieve the attitude of casual disinterest that best attuned her to the power in the room.  She thought she could feel a distant new humming.  There was a subtle disturbance; she was sure of it.

        Marrat went on.  “As you know, I look in the pool at least once a day to supervise Esmeralda.  Of course I check on you too, Altamaine; that’s how Gusta knew to come get you with the cart.  I checked on the king as well and saw Randolph and a few of his men leave the battle almost before it was over and race back to Neoull.  Esmeralda was waiting for him.  They had some sort of confrontation.  He took her to his room–something he has never done before, to my knowledge–and gave her a metal box.  As soon as she lifted the lid, their reflection in the pool was covered over by this green glow.  It’s very frustrating.  I haven’t been able to see her since.”

        They looked at the beams of green playing on the water.

        “The next day I used the pool to explore every single room in Randolph’s castle, and do you know what I found?”  Marrat paused triumphantly.  “Esmeralda has run away, and Portal is gone as well.  Watch.”

        She turned to the pool.  “Show me the serving boy, Portal.”

        The green light shimmered, but showed no change.

        “We can’t see him because they’re together.  I believe the king gave Esmeralda the emerald.  Only a talisman of such power could block our view.”

        Gusta put a fist on one cocked hip and smirked.  “You’re just guessing.”

        Marrat ignored Gusta, speaking directly to Altamaine.  “Of course, I tested my theory.”  She addressed the pool again.  “Let me see Reyna.”

        At these words a warm red light bubbled up in the center of the pool and stretched out to the edges to cover the green.

        Marrat pressed her lips together in a tight smile.  “The gems are great talismans.  We’ve always known that, even if Reyna does refuse to learn about the power in her ruby.  I think it’s safe to assume that the red haze is caused by the gem worn by the queen, up in the mountain kitchen, close by.  In my opinion, that proves the gems have enough power to block our view in the pool.”

        Altamaine’s mouth crept up at the corners.  She nodded at Marrat.  If Randolph had given his daughter the emerald….  Marrat had said he was back in Neoull.

         Altamaine addressed the pool.  “Show me the king.”

        The pool rippled, and a new scene spread out from the center–a great stone hall with statues of men and women lining both walls.  Many colored banners hung from wooden ceiling beams.  Intricately carved pillars defined an aisle leading to two black thrones standing empty on a marble platform.

        A broad-shouldered man with graying blond hair combed back from a high forehead strode along a line of soldiers.  His leather tunic slapped his thighs when he stopped in front of each soldier and spoke.  His head jerked slightly with the force of his anger.

        “Not a happy man,” Gusta said in a small voice.

        Altamaine watched the familiar face.  She knew that look.  If Esmeralda had found a way to slip out of her father’s castle, then one of her guards was about to pay for that escape with his life.  If Marrat were right, and Randolph had finally given the girl the emerald, then his torment would be magnified by the knowledge that he was the one who had placed her in danger.  Altamaine knew better than most the measure of his rage.  Someone would shortly lose his life.

        She slammed her fist against her knee, cursing the shooting pains from the wound in her arm.  She should have been there.  She had intended to be there.  Now Esmeralda had her gem, but had somehow managed to run away.  Everything was happening too quickly.  Altamaine would have to act carefully to make sure her plans were not compromised.

        She whipped her head around to Marrat.  “What possible explanation is there for Esmeralda running away like that?”

        Marrat shook her head.  “I’ve mulled that question over for the last two days.  Several possibilities present themselves.  Randolph may have told Esmeralda that her mother is still alive.  It is also conceivable that Esmeralda is rebelling against being shut up like a prisoner all her life.  Though I’ve taken every step I possibly could, she remains an extremely headstrong and willful young woman.  She’s much like her father in that way.  I quite believe her capable of running off if she’s in a temper.”

        “What about the boy, Gusta?”  Altamaine narrowed her eyes at her youngest sister.  “Is he still our pawn?”

        Gusta laughed nervously and threw out her arms.  “If they’ve left the castle together, Portal will be drawn to Woven Wood without ever suspecting a thing.  The oval charm around his neck will bring him to us like a homing pigeon.”

        Marrat rolled her eyes.  “Personally, I don’t think we should jump to conclusions.  We must find a way to pierce that green mist to see if our suppositions are correct.  Of course, I thought it best to wait until you got back, Altamaine.”

        Altamaine shut her eyes.  “Don’t make me guess.  If you know how to get rid of the green haze, just tell me.”

        Marrat stiffened, but her voice remained composed.  “I propose we use the queen.  Gusta’s close to her.  She can give Reyna a key to let her in here, explain that Esmeralda has run away, make certain subtle suggestions….  Gusta is such a nice person and, of course, she would do this because she always likes to help her friend.”  Marrat paused and blinked her eyes at Gusta.

        Gusta scowled back.

        Marrat smiled.  “The possibility exists that the ruby gem may be the tool we need to cut through the emerald’s protective haze so we have a clear view of Esmeralda in the pool.  I doubt Reyna will even know her gem is involved.  All the while, we can watch over her shoulder, so to speak, from up there.”  She pointed to the very top of the woven dome.

        They all looked up.  The reaching fingers of the twelve women carved into the massive trees outlined a circle of shadow far above their heads.

        “It’s so nice of you to volunteer me for the dirty work.”  Gusta made a face at Marrat.  She hoisted her blouse back onto her shoulder.  “Remind me to return the favor.”

        Marrat folded her hands at her waist, pursed her lips into a smile, and waggled her head.

        Altamaine ignored the bickering, her mind filled with a vision of the number of stairs she would have to climb to reach the dome room above them.  She had lost a lot of blood before Gusta had found her.  She needed rest.  It would have to wait.

        Altamaine placed her feet so she could stand and held out her good arm.  “Give me a hand.  Using Reyna is a good idea.  I want to try it right away.”

        She ignored Marrat’s preening over the compliment and glanced at the pool while her sisters helped her to rise.  In the water’s reflection, Randolph stood over a body lying crumpled at his feet.  Blood dripped from the king’s sword.  He had killed a guard for letting his daughter escape, but he hadn’t killed her in the swamp wood when he’d had the chance.  Maybe there was reason to hope.

        Altamaine suffered the attentions of her sisters while they helped her up the many creaking stairs spiraling around the pool chamber to the hidden viewing area above.  They entered a small room made of intertwined silver boughs.  A half-sphere of woven branches rose out of the floor with a circular opening at its apex.  A wicker bench ran around the curve of the small dome.  Gusta and Marrat lowered Altamaine onto it.  All three leaned over the hole to stare at the pool below.

        Altamaine caught Gusta’s eye and gestured with her chin at the door.  “Go get Reyna and show her the pool.  Tell her whatever you want.  We need her to use the pool to see her daughter.”  She waved her good arm impatiently.  “You know how to deal with her.  We must know if the ruby’s power can break through that haze.”

 

        Reyna watched Gusta disappear through one of the many doors that ringed the vast room.  Gusta’s exit had been hasty and ill-graced, as if she already regretted sharing her key with Reyna.  Gusta had not been able to look Reyna in the eye while explaining that Esmeralda had run away from the safety of the castle in Neoull.  “We know all about her emerald.”  Gusta had said, looking everywhere but into Reyna’s face.  “It seems that Randolph may have taken it out of its hiding place and given it to her.”

        The deep red ruby that hung on a chain at Reyna’s neck matched neither her frayed garment nor the tattered sandals she had strapped to her feet.  Her hands were rough from heavy work.  A long black braid hung over her shoulder, but the curls that escaped did not enliven her face.  She stood very still, her quiet the only truce she’d found in the war between her hope and her despair.

        Reyna suffered her anxiety, letting her eyes be drawn up the long-trunked bodies of the tree women.  She twisted all around to see the many carved faces tilted down at her with their look of wearied waiting.  Even Gusta had been hushed in their presence.  Marrat had certainly outdone herself, Reyna thought, or perhaps the power Gusta said resided in the dark water had endowed the sculptures with strong feeling.

        Reyna stepped closer to the water, carefully using the flat stones spaced randomly in the ooze around the edge, as Gusta had directed.  It had been an extravagant gesture of kindness for Gusta to take her to the pool.  It showed a generosity of heart Reyna had warmed herself on many times.  Reyna only hoped the poor woman did not get herself in trouble.  Apparently Altamaine was back at Woven Wood.

        For herself, Reyna had no fear.  She had learned over the years that none of the sisters would harm her.  She was a prisoner in the cave high up the steep face of the mountain where she cooked for them all, but in spite of her confinement, she was carefully protected.

        Reyna’s eyes contracted a fraction when she realized that beside her own reflection in the water, she could see other hazy scenes.  Gusta had told her the pool was a place of power.  Reyna swallowed, feeling sullied.  The whole of Woven Wood was saturated with a feeling of subtle agitation, like a drumming beneath the skin.  For that reason she had been glad when they’d moved her to the cave on the sheer rock face of the mountain above the mass of dead forest that hid the snaking passageways of Woven Wood.  High up the mountainside where she did the washing and kept the cooking fires, she could breathe; she could see the sun.

        With Altamaine gone most of the time and Marrat consumed with the task of expanding and embellishing their hidden retreat, it had originally been Gusta’s job to do the chores while also acting as Reyna’s principal jailor.  But Gusta was lazy, and Reyna, frustrated by inactivity, had assumed most of Gusta’s household tasks.

        Over the years, Reyna had enlarged the mountain cave, slowly chiseling away stone to make space for a terrace garden and a pen for chickens.  Facing south, her kitchen had become a refuge of light and living things away from the terrible silver beauty of the wicker temple of dead wood below.

        She often wondered if the sisters felt the same.  They obviously preferred to take meals in Reyna’s sunlit kitchen around the stone table even though the only way to reach the high cave was to climb steep stairs cut diagonally up the sheer rock face of the cliff.  There the sisters sniffed at pots simmering on the fire at the front of the cave and rested on the stone seats.  Reyna preferred to remain quiet in their presence.  To participate in conversation, especially with Altamaine, meant that Reyna’s refusal to use the power of her ruby would inevitably be challenged.

        When the sisters had need of her in the rooms and passages of Woven Wood, they took her with them down the stone stairway, through a locked wicker door.  Woven Wood, with its walls, floors, and ceilings made of plaited tree limbs seemed to grow larger and more silvery every year.

        Marrat’s monumental works adorned each room.  She seemed driven to decorate every surface with her vision of beauty.  She’d emblazoned the walls with carvings of winged eyes, cats with the heads of birds, men who were part dragon, and women who bounded over doorways with the bodies of lions. 

        Such representations were unlike any Reyna had ever seen.  All the art in Cinnobal, the city of her birth, had depicted real men and women, neither larger nor smaller than life-size.  The Cinnoballian ideal held that human beings could find the strength to face life’s struggle in their own nature instead of in the sorts of mysterious powers the sisters sought out.

        Reyna remembered being led by Marrat through the maze of twisted hallways.  They’d passed through a room where subtle winds stirred gauzy drapery and set off hanging wooden rattles and the chimes of tiny bells hung on long strings.

        The high wooden walls of another great room had been carved into a frozen waterfall with rapids and white water crashing toward them over boulders.  Reyna had gasped and pulled back at the sight.  Marrat had been pleased at the reaction, although she had pretended indifference.

        Standing in front of the pool, Reyna felt certain that all of Woven Wood had been constructed around that particular rotunda with its vaulted ceiling, trees carved into women, and mysterious black water.  Subtle agitations vibrated through Woven Wood, yet Reyna had never felt it with more intensity than by the murky water of the pool at her feet.  Hundreds of bees seemed to swarm around her, not quite touching her skin.

        In the early years of Reyna’s imprisonment, Altamaine had often urged her captive to cultivate an awareness of the power in the ruby, to explore its great potential.  Reyna had remained defiant, stubborn in her refusal to surrender to the strange power she felt all around her.  She would not let them use her ruby, and they seemed unable to use it against her will.  Altamaine had never forced the issue.  Reyna felt a grudging gratitude for that small respite.

        On the way down the stone stairway, Gusta had described how the pool could show whatever scene one desired.  Now Reyna stood on a wobbly rock, feeling danger all around.  She could sense the threat, so seductive, so full of promise–the temptation to use the power in her gem, to rise above the impotence of her servant role and become a sorceress who might confront the sisters with power perhaps equal to their own.  For the hundredth time she wondered if she was foolish to cling to the old ideals and rely only on herself for the strength to oppose them.  For years she’d clung to the beliefs she’d learned as a child, struggling to remain true to the life she had lost.

        And now?  She must use the power in the pool if she wanted to see her daughter.  Reyna pressed her palms against her eyes.  Had Randolph broken his promise and given Esmeralda the emerald?  If that were true, Altamaine would surely be plotting to bring the girl to Woven Wood.  Reyna remembered the dear, small infant she had held in her arms for so short a time.  No.  Esmeralda must not suffer the way Reyna had suffered.

        Reyna pressed her fists over the rags on her breast.  Perhaps she would not have to use her ruby.  The pool itself had power; Gusta had said so.  Perhaps Reyna could borrow a little.  Perhaps it would be all right.  Just one small miracle.

        “Let me see my daughter, Esmeralda.”

        Green and red light flickered and danced on the surface of the pool, as if bubbling up from great depths.  The image cleared.  Reyna saw the sleeping figure of a young girl with short black curls who lay wrapped in a blanket on a dusty floor by a rough hearth.  A young man slept at her side.

        A cry burst from Reyna in her joy at seeing her child for the first time in sixteen years.  She covered her mouth to hold back the sound and heard the echo of her cry high above her, coming back as if in notes of triumph, taunting her with the penalties of discovery.  She clamped her hands hard over her mouth and rocked with silent sobs.  She had not known the pain of her wasted life still had such power to hurt her.

        After long years of learning to quell her hope, she suddenly had something new and precious to lose.  She wanted more–days and days of the vision of her lost daughter.  But Altamaine was back.  She might find out that Gusta had given Reyna the key.

        If she didn’t already know.

        Reyna wrapped her arms around herself.  There were too many possibilities, too many ways everything could end in disaster.  She had to see more, to find out where her daughter was, no matter what the risks.  But she had to be careful, to plan, to think it through.

        Tomorrow night then, after the sisters had eaten, after she had looked into their faces to see what they knew.  Then she might come again.  Reyna held out her arms to her daughter’s form in the pool one last time, stifled a groan, and ran from the room.

       

        Marrat leaned back from the round opening at the top of the dome, her eyes flashing from sister to sister.  “It worked.  Now we know Esmeralda has definitely left the castle.  She seems to have found shelter in some peasant’s hut for the night.”

        Altamaine continued to stare through the opening at the pool below even though it lay dark like a shiny black stone.  The world seemed spread out at her feet, waiting.

        “Portal is there too,” Gusta said, smiling and nodding.  Her face twisted into a question.  “Reyna has been cautious for so long.  Do you think she’ll come back to use the pool again?”

        “She won’t be able to stop herself now that she’s seen her daughter.”  Altamaine’s voice cracked from fatigue, but her eyes shone with excitement.  “She’ll believe what she wants to believe–that she has a secret, and that I will not find out.  We need only wait.  Reyna pulls them to us, while Portal, unknowingly, leads the way.”

        Altamaine lowered her head and tried to banish her weariness.  After so many years of planning and waiting, it was a moment of real triumph, but all she felt was a deep desire to sleep.  It infuriated her to be so weak, to be unable to command her body and make it obey.

        She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  No matter.  If her flesh had an imperative of its own, she had the will to wait.  Wasn’t the world itself swinging inexorably into alignment with the goals she had set in motion long ago?

        A great victory drew near.  The end was almost in sight.

        She lifted her head and smiled.   No, not the end.  The beginning.

 

Chapter Three

            The emerald.  A second gem.

            Tessor sat motionless while the jewel gleamed in the light from the hearth.  An emerald for Esmeralda, just as her mother, Reyna, had a ruby.  Queen Reyna.  Princess Esmeralda.  What could be simpler?

            Tessor’s face felt frozen, as if it belonged to someone else, as if he weren’t the one listening to the girl’s calamitous recital.  He was reduced to being a mute witness while his world took a grinding turn from the comfortable routine of his life to a new path.  Yet part of him wanted to burst out laughing.  Such justice!  Only a madman would have failed to heed the clear warning his body had given him.  He should have run away the first instant he spied their horses.  Disruption in his awareness of the power.  Chest-rattling fear.  But no.  He had blustered on, thinking he was a man of courage.

            Well, here you go, he thought.  Trot out your courage, old man.  Let’s see what you’ve got.

            He looked at the questioning face of the young girl and the ill-disguised suspicion of the boy.  What twisted chance had brought them to his door?  It was hard to meet their eyes while they sat waiting to find out if he would help them.  The emerald winked at him.

            One plus one plus one.

            Another prize for those three harpies.  Certainly they would soon arrive to claim it.  And the girl–was he supposed to protect her against their power?

            He glanced over at the wooden staff leaning against the far corner of the cabin, the greatest talisman his father had ever given him.  Spiders had woven their homes between it and the quiet corner where it lay.

            He rose and took two short steps to his fieldstone hearth.  Being deliberate was the only avenue he could find through stiffening fear.  He raised an iron poker in a memory of normal life and pushed at the logs of his fire until they settled into a sparkling heap that threw golden light on the two young faces.

            It was too hard to be human.  If he were a bird he would have the sense to fly away from such danger.  But he was not a bird or an animal that knew enough to flee in the face of fear.  He was a man, and he could not pretend he did not know what he knew.

            Tessor examined Esmeralda’s face while she watched him.  Yes, she was Reyna’s daughter with that subtle slant to her eyes and the proud beauty.  She had marched into his hut and pulled out her emerald to prove her royalty.  But who was the young man who could not speak?  They were a strange pair: the defiant servant and the cloistered princess.  And lovers too, if he wasn’t mistaken.

            What had she said earlier?  “I’ve been rather sheltered.”  What an understatement.  Randolph had kept her shielded behind the castle walls all her life.  It had been rumored that she resembled her mother, the queen, but few people had ever seen the child, for Randolph seldom allowed her out of the north tower.  No one had ever known why she was kept hidden.

            Now Tessor knew.  He wished he did not.

            Tessor leaned the iron poker against the fieldstone.  Poor child, he thought.  She obviously had no idea she was the center of a whirlwind.  Tessor wiped his forehead with a damp palm.  The innocent young princess, isolated in a lonely tower all her life, had suddenly marched out in search of the very women who wanted nothing more than to capture her and her emerald.  Well, she would soon have a chance to face them.  And what about her young hero?  Did the oddly clothed serving boy have any strength he could use to protect her?

            Tessor hesitated, rubbing his chin through his beard.  Perhaps a small test of some kind, for all of them, to see how they behaved under more trying circumstances, to see if he himself had enough gumption left to take on the role of guide and mentor, now that all the sweet routines of his life and all the careful distractions he’d built up over the years had drifted away like thin smoke.

            He moved to one side of the hearth and grabbed his staff, crooning a low chant as if singing idly to himself while he poked the fire.  He made his eyes go out of focus and tapped the dirt floor with his right foot.

            With a loud snap a blazing coal the size of a hen’s egg flew out of the fire, landed on the edge of Esmeralda’s skirt, and burst into flame.  She jumped up with a startled cry.  The fire spread with unnatural quickness toward her waist.  For a moment she could only jerk around wildly, trying to back away from the burning pleats, pushing at them with her hands.

            Portal lunged at her, folding his arms around her flaming skirt and knocking her to the ground.  He rolled on top of the burning cloth, trying to smother the fire with his chest, arms, and hands.  He beat furiously at the stubborn flames heedless of the burns.

            In a moment, only the sour smell of burnt wool remained.  Tessor caught the tenderness with which Portal pulled back from the young girl and caressed her face.  Then the young man brushed at the charred edge of the skirt and peered into her face with a question.

            “I’m all right,” she said.  “What about you, your hands?  Oh, Portal.”

            His palms were black with burns.  Portal’s face turned up to Tessor in a scowl.  Esmeralda’s followed.

            Thank the stars it worked, Tessor thought, careful to keep his own face a mask, to let his visitors act out what they would.  Very interesting; he could gloat over his stellar performance later.

            Portal tapped Esmeralda to get her attention and moved his hands in painful communication.  “The old man.  I think he did something strange with his staff and made that coal leap out of the fire to burn your skirt.  We should get out of here.  It is not safe for you here.”

            Esmeralda’s face swung up toward Tessor.  “How dare you attack me!”  She flung the words up at him from her small spot on the dusty floor.

            Tessor leaned forward and made his voice sharper than hers had been.  “How does it feel to have fire creeping up your body?  Can you face that sort of terror?  And you, Portal,” he added, with a whiplash in his voice.  “Don’t you find it belittling to have a girl do your talking for you?”

            Portal recoiled ever so slightly, his eyes narrowing.  

Tessor had an impression of Portal shooting quick roots out into the floor, responding to Tessor’s verbal attack by showing his intention not to be moved.

            Esmeralda bristled, yet said nothing.  She froze Tessor out, pushing her anger down inside herself and reestablishing her superiority with slit eyes and stiff posture.  In one blink she hardened into fury.  Beneath the icy princess pose, Tessor saw the throttled rage that would burst forth if he attacked them again.  She would have leaped for his throat like a tiger, not a thought for her own safety.  She was reckless to a fault, but he detected no threat or use of any sort of strange power.  She apparently knew nothing of the gem’s potential.

            Tessor decided to push them a little more.  “Did you think it was going to be easy, a pleasant little ride in the country looking for three evil women?  Scared of a tiny fire, Esmeralda?  Afraid of people finding out you’re different, Portal?  Maybe it’s time you two thought about how much danger you’ve chosen to face.  Maybe it’s time to consider the depth of terror that awaits you along this path.

            “You are children!” he thundered at them.  “And yet you think you can find these women whose powers are so exquisite they’ve eluded even the king.”

            Tessor sat down slowly, leaning back with a creak into his chair by the hearth, eyes half-lidded, his lip raised at one corner.  “So tell me.  What do you think you’re doing here, Esmeralda?”

            She lifted her chin and answered him from the floor with a jeer of her own.  “Making the mistake of seeking your help.  Your tricks and cruel words don’t frighten me, old man.  If you won’t help us, it is only a small set back.”

            Tessor considered her.  A rather brave little speech.  Would that he had such certainty in his own path.  His eyes lingered thoughtfully on her for a moment, and then shifted to Portal.  Tessor raised one eyebrow at the young man.

            Portal rose to his feet, unfolding from his sitting position to loom over Tessor as if he were a cat in mid-pounce.  “Leave her alone,” he signed, ignoring his burns.  Then he settled back on his heels, tempering the threat.  “We would be grateful for anything you can tell us; then we will be on our way.”

            A pragmatist, thought Tessor, willing to put his pride and anger aside for a greater cause, but no coward.  And he would gladly suffer to help her.  Good.

            Then, as if a wet wind had smothered his gathering momentum, Tessor felt utterly sad.  Even a little awareness of the power and he felt as if he could pull the strings of the world.  He had to take off the blinders.  It might very well be the end for him as well.

            He closed his eyes and there it was.  One plus one plus one. 

            He let the shudder he had been resisting race through his body.  The familiar comforts of his simple life quickly receded down a dark tunnel into the past, leaving him stuck on the bright point of a dangerous future.  Fear would be his constant companion.  Well, he knew the face of his fear.  Let it come; it was an old acquaintance.

            He sighed and got up to take a small lidded pot from the mantle.  With an apologetic gesture, he waved Esmeralda and Portal back to their stools, and then reached for their burn-blistered hands, gently taking them in his brown fingers.  They shrank back, but he held up his palm.

            “I needed a measure of you, if I am to help.  As it turns out, I can be of some small assistance in your search.  And while the danger is truly as great as I’ve described, the rewards of success are far larger than you know.”

            The three of them sat before the flickering glow of the fire while Tessor spread the sticky balm from his medicine pot onto their hands.  He worked with great tenderness, sending them a new message, stroking on the unction generously, massaging the pain down and out through their fingertips.  A sweet affection rose in him while he worked, and he sent it into his hands, to soothe, to comfort, and to reassure.

            Tessor adjusted his creaking knees beneath his robe and watched the two young people try to make sense out of the way he’d twisted events. 

            “You stood up well against my assault,” he said.  “I am proud of you both.  If we work together, there is a slight chance of succeeding at your task.  But you must understand the risks.  I retract none of my earlier words.  These burns are only a small taste of the terrible course you’ve chosen.  You must decide if you’re willing to continue on this path knowing that more pain and danger await you.”

            Esmeralda and Portal looked at each other, a whole conversation going on with each lift of a brow and squint of an eye.

            Tessor’s focus was inward.  “We live in strange times.  I have had many years to contemplate the changes going on in the world.  Sorcery has turned into a story told by old people instead of the great power it once was.  Even I, who have more than a little knowledge at my command, am at a loss to understand what this means.  All I know is this.  If you are hoping that the power you’ve seen me wield can be of assistance in your quest, you will be disappointed.  We are up against three women far more gifted than I.  Still, we too may have an advantage, for if I’ve learned anything in my time on this mountain, it is that the power in spells will never be of any true help to human beings.”

            He knew it was time for him to look such reality in the eye as well.  His father had tried to show him the right path, and had been exasperated at Tessor’s eagerness to experiment with the powers of infinite possibility.  Tessor himself had spent years squeezing thin truth out of his bones.  It was far past time to see if he had learned his lessons.  He could no longer hide, soothing himself by assuming he had changed.  Here was the true test of where his strength really lay.

            “That we will face your foe, I have no doubt.  That our cause is worth the struggle, this too I know for certain.  They will come for you, and we will meet them armed with….” He paused, straddling the past and the future.

            “We must learn to arm ourselves with courage and to listen carefully to the truth that comes from our hearts.  These are the only sword and shield I trust.  Forget about sorcery; it can do nothing to help you.  Believe me.  I know this to be so, even though you may feel like I’m only offering you thin straws.  We cannot fight them on their terms.  We must meet them on our own.

            “I see much strength in each of you to build on.  You did well, Portal, disregarding your own safety to help Esmeralda.  And you, Esmeralda, have faced real physical harm for perhaps the first time in your life, and yet you are ready to continue in spite of its threats.  The pain tells your body to run, but your head says you must stand and fight.

            “Forgive me for testing you so unpleasantly, but it was time to make a decision.  You have both shown me much.”

            He clasped each of them on the shoulder.  A lump rose in his throat when he saw the flash of pride in their faces at his small compliment.  They were holding hands. 

            Tessor stood and brushed the dirt from his robe to hide the heaving in his heart.  He guided the two of them back to their stools by the hearth.  “Now we must sit and talk.  I need to know everything if I am to help you, and we do not have much time.  It is very confusing that you are here at all, but I’m sure there are parts of your stories that will help me understand.”

            He bustled about getting them fresh bowls of stew, all the while knowing that even though he might be quieting them with his gestures of normalcy, he was not fooling himself.  He could still hear the refrain echoing in his head, his stomach, his chest.

            One plus one plus one.

            He could still imagine leaping for the door and running deep into the forest, never looking back.

            He handed Esmeralda a bowl.  “I have talked enough.  Tell me your story, Esmeralda.  Why did you decide to leave your father’s castle?”

            Tessor made himself settle into his chair by the fire as if he really were what he pretended to be: the interested host and helpful old man.  He was aware that part of him watched his every action, critiquing his performance.  Somewhere deep inside, a leering smile widened, a grin that threatened to burst into terrible laughter while he faced his two guests, knowing they would lead him directly into the conflict he had avoided all his life.

Chapter Four

            Esmeralda stared down at the redness on her palms that had so recently been the blisters of a bad burn.  Without lifting her head, she shot a glance at the old man.  He sat quietly in his creaky chair, waiting for her to speak, an expression of great gentleness on his face.  First he’d set fire to her skirt and ranted about how much danger they were in.  Now he offered soothing words and assistance.

            How comforting it would be to believe him, to let him advise her and be her ally.  He seemed to know so much.  But no, she must evaluate, expect the worst, and rely on no one.  Only Portal had ever stood by her.  His love for her was the biggest miracle of her life.  She shifted her stool closer to him.

            Esmeralda opened her eyes wider, trying to stretch them, trying to focus more completely, see more clearly.  She wanted to jump to her feet, shout at the old man, throw her bowl against the stone wall, and stamp her foot on the packed-dirt floor.  Well-timed tantrums had been an effective tool in the past.  She was a princess.  Her wishes had always been primary, her control over servants a dull certainty.  She’d never realized what a comfort that had been.  Now she was on uncertain ground.

            For a moment she let her thoughts retreat to her old life:  her stone tower room, her precious collection of books and manuscripts lying in straight rows on desk and shelves, her embroidery, her maps, and the predictability of her days.  She’d thrown away the safety of that monotony with its rigid structure and the discipline she had imposed on herself in her effort to impress her father.  No matter what she’d accomplished, he hadn’t cared.  She was never going back.

            Certainly the cantankerous old man across from her must be put in his place.  He must not be allowed to think he could intimidate her, take control, and make decisions for her.  She looked around at his cabin with its dirt floor, its two shuttered windows, its single table, the one candle, and the sturdy stone hearth.  The fire cast a warm glow on the old man’s face.  Even Portal’s scowl was softened by the golden light.  The cabin was tiny but felt far friendlier than her castle room.

            “The pain and the ordeals you mentioned,” Esmeralda said, chin raised, fingers curled into fists, “they won’t stop me.  I’m going to get my mother’s ruby back and punish those responsible for her death.”

            Tessor gave her an approving nod.  “Yes, my dear.  That is very good.  I commend you.”

            Esmeralda’s shoulders fell a notch at his lack of opposition.  She had been geared up for an argument, more yelling, at least some sort of resistance, but the old man merely smiled.  She glanced at Portal.  He leaned over and rested his hand on her knee.  As always, his touch made her feel better.

            Tessor’s voice came out a deep bass with a fuzzy edge to it, caressing and soothing her.  “The best place to begin is to tell me about the necklace.”

            It was all she could do to straighten up, organize her posture, and remember who she was.  She needed the old man to understand that she was in control, not he.  Yet part of her wanted to slump back, to bend.  Her dress was half burned away, her hair cropped off like a boy, and a rough wooden bowl lay in her lap.  All the usual ways of doing things seemed irrelevant.

            “My father gave me the necklace two nights ago.”  She paused for effect and leaned forward.  “He told me things that would surprise you.”

            Tessor’s head tilted to one side.  For a moment his face filled her whole range of vision, as if he were quite close, blotting out all else, as if his head were the moon, and it had come down out of the sky to hover in front of her, to fill her with its healing beams, to surround her in an aura of safety and assurance.

            She blinked.  The picture righted itself.  He was a white-haired old man, smiling and nodding in the firelight, yet she felt as if he had gently stirred her secrets before she had begun to tell them.

            “He said something about three women.  They caused a plague that killed my mother and so many others when I was born.  They were the ones who stole her ruby necklace.”

            She watched Tessor, her mouth open, waiting for him to react.  His eyes were full of–what?  Pity?  She was breathless and wondered why she felt like crying.

            Esmeralda pounded on her knee with her fist.  “I am going to find that necklace and avenge my mother’s death.”  The words sounded childish, peevish to her ears.  She had no plan, no clue where to look.  She had acted like a willful child.  But she knew she meant it.  She would never go back.

            “And what about your father?” Tessor said.  “He is certainly searching for them too.”

            “I asked him to let me help, but he refused.  He said he wanted me safe.”  The memory made her throat hurt.  She had to stop and clear it.  “But I couldn’t stay there, knowing someone was to blame for my mother’s death, that they had never been caught and punished.”

            She glanced over at Portal.  He had retreated into the quiet way he had of fading into the background when anyone else was around.  Yet she could read the slight tightening at the corner of his eye as their glances met.  It was encouragement.  It was a pledge to stand by her.  It was constancy, determination, support, and love.  She took a deep breath and let it out.

            “Portal helped me escape, at great danger to himself,” she said.  “He deserves all the credit.  My father probably doesn’t even know I’m gone.”  Her voice went hoarse on the last few words.

            “A busy man,” Tessor said softly.

            Esmeralda cleared her throat, annoyed with the difficulty she was having with her voice.  Her throat was dry and constricted.

            “Very busy,” she said, croaking, then coughing.  She looked at her hands, her bowl, the hearth, and cleared her throat again.  It didn’t seem to help.  “He rules a great empire.  People say he is a fine king.  When I was fourteen, he let me stand by his side during the Ceremony of the Heroes.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

            Now why had she thought of that?  She half expected Tessor to interrupt and tell her to get to the point, but he only leaned over with such great interest that she felt obliged to continue.  She slid easily into her memory, the hoarseness gone.

            It was after the great victory at Qantar, when her father had returned with his army in the late fall, a season of campaigning over.  Usually she was banished to her room in the north tower when the troops camped around the town.  Her father’s orders at such times were always the same:  She was to remain in seclusion.  But this time was different.

            Powerful men and women from all over the empire gathered at the two-towered castle on the bluff over the River Daena.  Esmeralda watched out her window and recognized the elegant hooded capes of the people from Cinnobal as they gathered in clusters on the cobbled courtyard inside the brightly painted wooden gates.  She saw fur-draped mountain men from the tribes of Isaar, heard the heavy accents of Yakatian woodsmen, and delighted in the swirling white robes of the desert people from beyond Uchtan.

            Esmeralda bit her lip and tried to stand still as her new servant struggled to fasten her dress.  She had long ceased talking to her servants.  Getting to know them only made the pain worse when they were replaced every month.

            For the moment, however, Esmeralda had more on her mind than the bitterness of her lonely life.  She could barely believe that her father had asked her to stand by his side at the Ceremony of the Heroes.  Could he have noticed she was growing up?  Maybe he had decided she could take part in life at court.  Maybe he….

            She froze in mid-thought, closing her eyes and letting out a long breath.  She had to stop hoping.  His asking for her was probably an aberration; it would all come to nothing.  She would be back in her room in a very short time.  Nothing would change.  She smoothed out her dress, raised her eyes to the mirror, and pulled herself erect.

            The white linen gown glittered with elaborate embroidery.  She’d worked hard with her needle to create the design of a silver lattice hung with twining golden ivy.  Flowers appeared at intervals along the vines.  In the center of each cluster of petals, human eyes peered out.

            She’d used every trick of embroidery she’d learned from the servants and tutors her father shuttled in and out.  Some had been quite skilled with a needle.  She’d invented a few tricks of her own to make the eyes gleam especially bright.  Eyes amid the twines of ivy, her golden masterpiece.  How right she’d been to labor over her creation day after day, to stitch until her fingers stiffened and her back was pierced with pain from bending over her embroidery frame.

            Today she would reap the reward.  She would stand before her father and watch him gaze in approval at her appearance, her work.  He would be proud of her in the dress with the eyes flashing out from the golden twines of ivy, proud when she told him she had designed and made it herself.  She had taken the idea from the illustration on the cover of her favorite book.  And later, if her father had time, she would play the lyre for him and sing the song she had written.  “Song of the King,” she called it.

            She frowned.  If he had time.

            She had given up many hours of study to make the dress, time that could have been spent on her most precious project, the map of her father’s empire.  She doubted there was another anywhere quite as good.  She’d quizzed every new tutor, nurse, and servant for specific details to add.  The ever-changing tutors had been a great source for books on history plus some had brought copies of existing maps, giving her a chance to add specific mountain peaks, settlements, battle sites, crossroads, and rivers until the map bristled with detail.

            Someday she would give it to him to show she honored his great achievement.  He would see that she, too, had been busy and was well acquainted with the world he conquered and explored.  But not yet.  The map was not complete.  She lacked detail for the coastline by the sea.  Her father had not pushed that far south, but if the rumors Portal had heard were true, the army would be on its way to Simestra in a few months.

            She glanced over at her neat worktable.  Above her long wooden desk ran shelves holding the many books, scrolls, and manuscripts she’d collected over the years.  Her last tutor, recently dismissed like all the others, had brought her many new books.  Such an odd little woman with her tight lips and knowing sniffs.  Esmeralda had been sorry to see her go.  The woman had been a treasure-trove of information, plus she’d been skilled with a needle and had embroidery tricks to share.

            Three new manuscripts cried out for attention on the desk, but Esmeralda had no time.  Later, when her father was gone, and the hours grew long with no one to fill them except the few servants who remained behind.  And Portal, when he could get away from the kitchens.  She didn’t want to think what life would be like without Portal.  He was her joy.

            Esmeralda brushed her hair back from her face and tied a delicate white and gold cord around her head to hold the thick curls in place.  Long black waves gleamed in her hands while she combed out the last tangles.  She had beautiful hair, she knew, but she would have traded it in a heartbeat for hair like her father’s, blond and straight.  So she would look like him.  So he would see himself in her face.  She flung the hated dark curls behind her.

            Esmeralda took her place on the marble dais beside the king’s gilt-edged black throne, certain her cheeks were crimson with excitement as she took in the sights and sounds of the crowded hall.

            Representatives from all over the empire postured in the echoing room, murmuring to one another.  Giant fireplaces notched the two long walls, blazing with burning logs and adding to the glow of the torches ensconced high on the walls.

            Rows of life-sized statues of heroes lined walls of the room.  Esmeralda had memorized the story of each, especially the first one–a replica of her mother, Reyna, who was credited with the idea of the ceremony to reward the heroism of common men and women.  All the statues had been carved in the likeness of heroes singled out for reward in past ceremonies. 

            The first Ceremony of the Heroes had been held at the end of the devastating plague following her father’s first military campaign.  Though the battle had been won, half of Neoull had been lost to a killing sickness, including her mother.  Randolph had begun holding the Ceremony of the Heroes to reward the most resourceful of his subjects, both men and women, for their extraordinary efforts to rebuild the kingdom after that tragedy.

            Esmeralda knew that to many, the sight of the warrior king of Neoull rewarding farmers, bridge builders, scholars, and other non-military heroes was highly incongruous.  Randolph was known to prefer the military aspects of empire building and to have little time for the more mundane business of administering his growing kingdom.

            But Randolph had wanted to honor the queen after her death and had used her idea as the basis for the greatest celebration in his growing empire.  The queen had been from Cinnobal, a land known for its dedication to high ideals and respect for human achievement.

            The ceremony was held at irregular intervals, coinciding with the king’s infrequent return from exploration and conquest.  All who lived within the borders of the empire could compete for the chance to better themselves through their own efforts.  All newly named heroes were rewarded with land and a title to pass on to their descendants.  To the great benefit of the empire, the new nobility had gone on to form the core of capable men and women who administered the king’s territories.

            Esmeralda stood straight and motionless by the side of the two thrones on the dais.  Horns blared in sudden announcement of the king’s arrival, their sound jarring her.  Her clasped hands tightened at her waist.  She managed to stand even straighter.

            The king swept in the doors and marched swiftly up the middle of the hall as if he had no wish to prolong the proceedings.  A clutch of cloaked generals trailed behind him.  Randolph nodded curtly to people he knew in the crowd.  Beneath his ceremonial white ermine robe he wore a brown tunic and leather leggings splashed with mud.  He had come straight from business in the field.  He had donned his hammered gold crown to honor those in attendance, but he was far less elaborately dressed than most in the hall.

            Esmeralda prayed he would glance her way.

            Her father climbed the dais and turned with a rush of heavy robe.  “Let the Ceremony of the Heroes begin,” he said and lowered himself onto his throne.  The throne to his left remained empty.  It was her mother’s throne.  Her father had never remarried.

            Heroes of all kinds were announced and came forward for their reward.  Esmeralda could barely believe she was witnessing the ceremony instead of sitting alone in her room, waiting for Portal to come and describe what he had seen and heard.

            Today the king rewarded a local hero for the inventive use of dams and canals to bring water from the River Daena to the crops around the city.  A woman was recognized for her life’s work collecting scrolls and codices into a library for scholars at Cinnobal, the great city of learning.  Esmeralda’s eyes lit up at the thought.  The third was a hero from Qantar, the newly conquered province, who came forward to be rewarded for breeding exceptionally large and swift battle horses.  A man from Isaar accepted the honor for his fair administration of disputes between the tribes who lived in the foothills of the Fissular range.  Each newly acclaimed hero climbed the steps of the dais, stood before her father, and received the king’s kiss on each cheek.

            Esmeralda held her face rigid while she watched her father embrace each of the recipients.  How they glowed with his approbation.  Singled out by their king for their skill and hard work, they yearned more than ever to serve the man who had raised them up.  Esmeralda tried hard not to grudge them the knowledge of his kiss and his approval.

            Finally the last name was called.  The man’s origins were unclear; the herald skipped the reference to homeland.  Yet he seemed well known to many present.  The crowd rippled with bent heads and murmurs while a tall warrior strode up the center of the hall toward the king.

            The man wore a deep purple shirt beneath his quilted linen battle tunic.  His auburn hair was tied back from a high-cheekboned face that was the match of her father’s in its weathered ruddiness.  To Esmeralda’s astonishment, he was rewarded for bravery in battle, unprecedented recognition in a ceremony known for its distinctly unmilitary focus.  He received the ritual embrace and kiss, frowning at the king.

            Randolph grasped the man’s forearms and spoke to him in a voice only Esmeralda could hear.  “It is high time you were rewarded, Lexander.  I want everyone to know that what I have made has been your creation, too.”

            Esmeralda examined the man with interest.  So this was Lexander, the mercenary.  She had heard of him, of course.  Who hadn’t?  He was said to be the king’s closest companion and counsel-giver, though very little was known about him.  He had no official standing, having refused offers of permanent command in favor of the freedom to come and go when he pleased.

            “I came only because you asked me,” Lexander said.  “Truly, you owe me nothing.”  He spoke with deference, but seemed in no awe of the king.

            “Nonetheless,” Randolph went on, “I insist you accept my gratitude and the gift of an estate at Qantar overlooking the Daena.  I would like to be able to visit you there.”

            Lexander shook his head slightly, looking down.  “I am glad to accept your thanks, but the truth is I have already taken far too much from you.”  He seemed uncomfortable.

            “You’re wrong my friend.  The recognition is much less than you deserve.  You know as well as I do that I never would have made it back from Qantar without you.”

            Esmeralda stiffened at the unthinkable idea.

            Lexander said no more, but unlike the other recipients in the ceremony, he did not burst with pride at the king’s praise.

            Randolph embraced Lexander in the ritual way, but paused a moment longer than he had with anyone else.  Then he shoved Lexander back abruptly, releasing him.  Their eyes locked together; tears shone in both.

            Lexander bowed from the waist.  When he straightened, he sent a long deliberate look at Esmeralda, catching her watching him.

            The glance hit her with unexpected force.  She felt as if she had been turned this way and that, examined from every side, probed, prodded, and thoroughly assessed.  She tried to glare back at him, but he had already turned, walking out of the hall.

            The experience distracted her, and she realized too late that the ceremony was over.  She hadn’t had a moment to speak to her father, to catch his eye, to make him acknowledge her.  He, too, would soon walk from the hall, gone again.

            The horns blared their call.  Randolph pulled his long robe around him.  Esmeralda took a step forward and addressed his profile in a low voice so only he could hear.  “I made this dress for you, Father.”

            Randolph turned his head and looked at her, moving his eyes to examine her dress from the shoulders down.  He nodded and then turned back to begin his march.

            She checked his progress again.  “I also wrote you a song.  I would so much like to play it for you.”

            He tilted his head toward her, still not looking at her face.  “I would like to hear it sometime,” he said, and then straightened to take his leave.

            It was the type of dodge that had kept her hoping for his attention for years.  Today she would not make the mistake of binding her hope up in the belief that he really meant what he said.  Despite the charming words, he never came; he never called for her.

            “I have a present for you, Father.”  She blurted out the words, desperate to keep him from starting down the steps away from her.  “I’ve made a map of all the lands you’ve conquered.  I thought it might please you that I, too, am interested in what you spend so much time pursuing.”

            This brought his face around to hers.

            She both rejoiced that she had won his attention and cursed herself for sharing her secret before it was ready.  Both feelings were swept away by the look on his face.  She saw none of the glowing approval he had given each of his heroes.

            “You know nothing of what I pursue,” he said, his face weary but also chilling in its firm dismissal.

            She staggered back a step.  The force of his displeasure was so great it seemed as if he had pushed her away with both hands.  He strode down the steps of the dais and out of the Great Hall with its bright fires and its multi-colored crowd.  He left her behind in her pure white dress with its eyes and ivy, with her hands clasped tightly at her waist.  She had to stop her trembling and keep the aching bound up inside where no one could see it.

            Esmeralda paused in her recollection, coming back to the present as if surfacing from beneath water for a breath.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know why I’m telling you these pointless old stories.”

            Tessor reached out and squeezed her arm.

            She frowned and stiffened, furious to think she had made such a fool of herself that he thought of her like a little puppy that needed petting.  Portal, too, smiled at her reassuringly.

            Again she wanted to rampage around the room and give the old man a tongue lashing, but the image made her feel exhausted, as if she were wearing a coat of iron and could bear its weight no longer.  She managed a scowl in Tessor’s direction.

            “The point is, he never had time for me, and I owe him nothing.”

            Tessor nodded sympathetically.  “It must have been hard for you with him so distant.”

            Hard bands formed in her throat, cutting off the tears that burned in her eyes.  Esmeralda took several slow breaths before she trusted herself to speak.  Her voice came out in a husky whisper.

            “I was a good daughter who worked hard at her studies.  I believed the day would come when Father would reward my efforts, the way he rewarded his heroes.  I thought he would want me in his life when he saw how competent I’d become.  Now I know I was a fool to expect anything to change.

            “I heard horses in the courtyard when he came back a few nights ago.  Contrary to his standing orders, I didn’t stay in my room but ran down to meet him.  I was determined, once and for all, to make him see how grown up I was.  I was ready to demand my rights as a daughter.”  Her eyes went vague at the recent memory.

            The door of the Great Hall swept open.  Chilling gusts of stormy autumn air shook the banners high on the rafters and blew in dust and grit.  There, backed up by six muddy warriors, came the king.  Across his chest stretched the glittering metal disks of his armored corselet.  A dirt-splattered cloak was slung behind his broad shoulders.

            Esmeralda stood beside her mother’s statue, panting slightly from her run down the tower steps.

            Randolph’s large head jerked up abruptly when he saw her.  He stopped his charge up the hall.

            “Father.”  Esmeralda got the word out, but it sounded like the bawling of a newborn calf.  She took a deep breath to steady herself.  “I have to talk to you.”

            The king tilted his head to speak to the lieutenant at his side.  “Escort the princess to her chambers.”  He tore off his cloak, flung it to a servant, and unfastened the sword belt at his waist.

            Esmeralda strode toward him, chin jutting, linen dress billowing behind her.  “I will not go until we have a chance to talk.  If that doesn’t suit you, then know this:  I will not rest until I get away from here so I can find people who think I’m worth including in their lives.  Maybe that would be better for both of us.  If you think so, then have this man take me away.”

            She pointed boldly at the warrior who now held her by one arm.  She kept her head high, but her inner resolution wavered.  Her gamble was too weak.  She saw the anger mixed with fatigue and road mud on her father’s face.  He and his exhausted men smelled of horses, leather, sweat, and wet wool.

            The lieutenant hesitated, and then pulled on her arm.  The king raised his hand.  The man relaxed his grip.

            Randolph snapped his fingers for a servant who loosened and removed the corselet.  His big head looked down at her, his blue eyes not moving about her face to examine it, but remaining fixed, his thoughts trapped elsewhere, impaled on memories.  He shuddered slightly, as if buffeted by blows from an invisible hand.

            Esmeralda waited, frozen to her small patch of ground, ignoring the men around her, and praying for a sign that might mean deliverance.  Long silence filled the air in the hall like the echo of a message that has drifted away.

            “Attend me in my chambers.”  Randolph turned and walked stiffly to the door that led to his south tower.

            Esmeralda’s muscles let go of their cold tenseness.  New warmth rushed through her body.  She wanted to run after him like a boisterous child.  Instead she took a long breath and let it out before following his retreating shape.  Her heart outpaced the measured rhythm of her feet on the stairs.

            The heavy doors to his suite lay ajar, and she took that as a sign she might enter.  She had never been allowed inside the rooms of the castle’s oldest tower.  She gazed shyly around.

            A fire had recently been lit in the wide hearth.  The smaller tinder and branches burned and crackled, sending a roaring blaze up around the larger logs.  A row of shuttered windows curved above the bare stones of the floor.  The royal bed looked cold and hard with its deep red spread.

            She looked about, hoping to gain warmth from her father’s personal possessions, but none lay about for her to pick up or caress.  The room was empty of life’s clutter.

            Randolph emerged from a curtained doorway wearing a draped robe of black, belted at the waist, and trimmed with a thin band of silver.  He barely glanced at her when he walked over to the fireplace.

            Esmeralda waited, barely breathing, hands clasped demurely in front of her, head down.  She had never seen him without battle garb or ceremonial dress.  In his soft robe, without crown or helmet, he seemed more human, less of the exalted person of the king.  Heavy creases ringed his eyes; three vertical lines marked his forehead between the brows; whisker stubble shadowed his jaw.

            He waved her toward the fireplace and held his hands out toward the blaze, warming them, speaking with his back to her.  “Tell me what you want.”  His voice held no friendly edge, no invitation.

            She shut her eyes and absorbed the pain of his battering tone.  This was the scene she’d imagined hundreds of times.  She must take her chance no matter what the cost.

            “Now that I’m grown, I want to be of some help to you,” she said, coming closer.  Even to her own ears, her words sounded weak.  Why had she come?  He didn’t want her here.  She was just another burden.

            She clamped her teeth tight and made herself continue.  “I am educated.  I can help with your duties, or perhaps we could discuss problems in the kingdom.  I want you to know I would do anything to make your life easier, Father.  I am willing to make any sacrifice.”

            He dropped his hands.  His shoulders sagged.  He dragged his feet when he turned to look at her.

            She looked up into the strained, weather-reddened face and tried not to disappoint him by being a frightened, needy child.  They were very close.  She could reach out and touch the scars on his cheek.  She could throw herself against his broad chest.

            He closed his eyes, shutting her out again. “You said you’d like to talk.  Let us talk, then.”  He took two steps toward the heavy wooden chair by the hearth.

            His robe brushed her when he passed.  Esmeralda stifled the urge to grab a bit of his clothing and press it to her lips.

            He lowered himself into the great chair with a muffled groan and shut his eyes.

            Silently she came and knelt by the side of his chair, smoothing her skirt for that first communion.  His great scarred hand lay in front of her on the chair-arm, reddish-brown like the stones of the hearth.  With hope in her throat, she reached out and touched the back of his hand with her fingertips.

            At her touch his eyes sprang open.  He pulled his arm down into his lap, away from her, and dropped his head.  “What do you wish to talk about?”  He pushed out the words.

            Tears burst through without her permission.  Did he dislike her so much?  An image whisked through her mind:  She could throw herself at his feet, sobbing and pleading.  Instead she yanked her body erect, stood, and with perfect posture proceeded around the front of his chair to face him.

            He looked past her at the fire.

            Suddenly, with grim pleasure, she knew she had hurt him, that somehow she held the upper hand.  He seemed defenseless against her, as if he were lashed to the chair, unable to move, awaiting an inevitable assault.

            “Father,” she said, hoping he felt some small sting of irony at her use of the word.  “Tell me how my mother died.”

            He took so long to reply, she felt her imagined superiority seeping out through her feet as if it were water and she, a bucket with a hole.  With his lips set in a firm line, he raised his eyes to look at her, slowly taking in every detail of her hair, her face, her clothing, her hands, and her feet.

            “Reyna, forgive me,” he whispered, looking away.

            “Reyna.”  Esmeralda imitated the sound of sweet caress she heard him put in the word.  “Where did my mother get such a name?”

            The trapped look returned to his face.  He spoke as if at her command, rigid in his seat.  “It’s Cinnoballian.  She was named for the shining ruby she wore on a gold chain around her neck.”

            His eyes filled with visions of the past that overflowed into his words.  “I was betrothed to your mother when she was an infant.  I was already a young man.  She was first-born to the king at Cinnobal who wisely allied himself with the fighting men of Neoull.  I watched your mother grow.  Without knowing it, without meaning to, I began to love her.  She was a singular human being–beautiful, intelligent, warm–and she loved me.”

            Esmeralda tried to absorb every bit of the precious moment, barely letting herself breathe while her father whispered his memories.

            He hesitated in his story, raising his eyes to Esmeralda’s face and holding them there like a man tempting himself with a forbidden pleasure.  Then he sighed, his shoulders sinking as if under a weight he found hard to bear.  “You are very like her.”

            “Is that why you cannot bear the sight of me?”  The furious words came out before she could stop them.

            He started, as if he had not expected her to speak, and grunted a bitter laugh.  “Is that what you think?  Would that my burdens were so small.”  The faraway look came back into his eyes.

            “My life truly began the day she came to me as my queen,” he went on.  “We lived together in these very rooms.  She would stand by the window and call to the birds in a low whistle, leaving nuts and treats for them.  For over a year I led the fullest life a man can lead, filled with love, joy, and dreams.”  His voice thudded to a stop on the last word.

            “And then what, Father?” Esmeralda said, encouraged by the unexpected gentleness of his tone.

            “You were born.  The plague came.  I lost her.”  He rose, walked over by the fireplace, and raised his arms to press his hands against the rocky mantle.  He bent his head toward the fire, his boot scraping the hearthstones, moving the ashes off to one side.

            “My wife was taken from me,” he said, his teeth tight together.

            “I’ve read about the plague.  Did she suffer?”

            He grabbed a long iron poker and stabbed at the burning wood.  He wrestled with the flaming logs, raging at the fire.  “The very heart of things has been twisted until the whole world is upside down.  How can I know what is right or wrong?  What has been left me but to do whatever I must?”

            “I don’t understand.”

            He pushed the logs farther back in the hearth, piling them on top of one another.  Cascades of sparks sprayed about him while he manhandled the crackling logs with his poker, his boot, even grabbing the wood on the unburned ends.

            He straightened, wiping lines of sweat from his forehead, and talked to the fire, the logs, and the hearth he had cleared.  “We will meet again no matter what I have to do.  I’m sorry, Reyna, but this is the only way.”  His hand held the poker, as if waiting for a chance to strike.  Suddenly he wheeled and pointed the iron rod at Esmeralda.

            “You said you wanted to help me.  Then come; it is time to take your part.  I have something here for you, a gift from your mother.”

            He scraped the ash near the front of the fireplace with his boot until he located a small gap and inserted the poker’s hooked tip.  With a great downward heave against the lever of the iron rod, he succeeded in lifting a portion of the cleared hearth, moving a thick stone plate.  He knelt, then reached down and removed many stones, peering into the hole he was making.  Then he straightened, inserted the hooked end of the poker deep down, and pulled a heavy metal box slowly out of the hole with a grating sound.  He took the battered box over to a table and blew the ash from its lid.

            “Open it,” he commanded.

            Esmeralda touched the leaden casket, feeling awkward while he watched her struggle with the clasp.  She expected the box to be hot, but instead the outside was icy.  It gave off the smell of cold metal, as if it had lain where night wind whistled over it.  The stiff clasp resisted her touch and sucked the warmth from her fingers leaving them aching before she succeeded in loosening it.

            Slowly she lifted the lid.  Inside a snow-white lining of soft cloth shone up at her, a protective cushion for a walnut-sized jewel on a heavy gold chain.

            “My mother left this for me?”  Esmeralda lifted the chain and held the gem up to examine it by the fire’s glow.  A deep green jewel caught the light.

            She was overcome with a sudden feeling of recognition.  Of course–an emerald.  Her mother had had a ruby of her own, and she had wanted her daughter to have an emerald.  For the first time Esmeralda had something besides useless yearnings for a half-real creature called Mother.  A face seemed to appear far away in the facets of the gem.  Was it her own?  No, it must be her mother, for that is how she had always known her mother would look.

            Esmeralda raised her head in triumph, and then froze.  Her father stared at the necklace, his face full of hatred.  An icy wind blew over the heat of her great joy.

            “I saw her in it,” she said.

            “It was your own reflection.”  He stalked over to the window, throwing open a shutter into the night.

            She examined the fabulous jewel in the firelight and then pressed the heavy stone to her heart.

            “Mother,” she whispered.  “Now there is a real bond between us, even if you are dead.”

            The gem throbbed against her breast, but Esmeralda wasn’t sure whether it was her jewel or her heart beating there.  She looked up at her father standing by the window with his back to her.  He was also her parent, and he was close, alive, and real.  She went to him, holding up the emerald on its chain, hoping that the gift from the woman they both loved might bind them together.

            “Father, will you help me put it on?”

            His shoulders contracted as if he’d been struck.  He glanced at her with the smallest movement of his eyes.  “Take it away.”

            She bit her lip to stifle a sob.  The distant look was on his face again, the look that said he couldn’t stand the sight of her and was about to tell her to leave.

            “Mother had a ruby just like this?” Esmeralda said to keep him talking.  I will not cry, she thought furiously, putting the emerald around her neck and hiding it beneath the bodice of her dress.  She and her father had come so far tonight.  She must sustain their new beginning.

            He peered into the night as if some news might arrive from out of the darkness.  “She had a similar necklace, only her gem was a ruby.  She wore it always, as you must now wear yours.  It was very special to her.”

            “Where is her necklace?”

            Again, his shoulders contracted, so slightly she could not be sure she had seen it.  “It was stolen,” he said.

            “Stolen?  And you never found the thief?”

            He spun around and roared at her.  “The gem means nothing.  They stole my wife from me, don’t you understand?  They brought the plague–those three women with their tricks and their loathsome bargains.  I will do anything to destroy them.  You said you were grown now, that you wanted to help me.  Then wear the emerald.  That is how you can serve me.  But you must go back to your tower where I can protect you.”  He turned with finality.

            Esmeralda’s dreams of a future with him shattered.  She wanted to grab him, cling to him.  “Father, let me stay near you.  I will be your helpmate.  I can do many things.  I can….”

            “No.”  He cut her off.  “I have given you the emerald to wear.  Now go back to your rooms where you are safe.”  His face was rigid.

            “Father, please.”

            He jerked up his hand to silence her and strode from the room, never looking back to see his daughter crumple to the floor.

            “That was two nights ago,” Esmeralda told Tessor, her back bent by her story.  She huddled over herself, shoulders hunched forward.

            Tessor laid a hand on her arm.  “A difficult experience.  You are lucky to have someone like Portal to turn to, someone who cares for you.” 

            “Oh yes.”  She rubbed her eyes and gave her head a shake to toss back long hair that was no longer there.  “Portal, the most stubborn man in the world, had no intention of letting me leave without him, even though he was in danger every minute.”

            Esmeralda picked up Portal’s hand in hers.  He watched her, with his rakish rags like flags tied to every limb, a puzzle of pure quiet and bursting energy.  How she loved him!  She would have died of loneliness and despair without him all those years.

            “He thought up the whole plan,” Esmeralda said.  “How to lower me from my window with a rope so the guards at my door wouldn’t know I was gone, how to get the stable boys intoxicated.  I thought we’d be caught at the gate, but Portal had given the sentries something to make them sleep.  My only contribution was to cut off my hair so I wouldn’t be recognized.  Portal was the one who knew what to do, which way to go.”  She beamed her pride at him.

            Portal gave her a small smile and slowly turned his head toward Tessor.  He moved his head very slowly, somehow turning the movement into a demand.

33 responses to “Infinite Possibility

  1. I keep checking to see if Chapter 2 has been posted. In a quiet, subtle way that enticed me to keep reading, I get to the end and realize I’m hooked and want more.

  2. Here you go.

  3. I don’t usually read this type of genre. Never thought I’d be interested. But I was wrong. I am getting more hooked as I go along. I am (I don’t want to use the word “amazed” but I will anyway) amazed at your imagination and descriptive writing. Is this a novel you’ve had published? Or waiting to be published? I would love to keep reading but I don’t know how you feel about posting more chapters. So, if it shows up here, I will read it. You sure don’t need to be hiding in your corner over this thing! What does that say about a writer who can cause a regular old person like me to read a genre that she’s never read before and wants to read more?

  4. Thanks, Kathy. I’m thinking about whether to post more.

    To tell you the truth, I’m not a big fan of fantasy either, but I did get a start on this when one of my kids was sick and needed to hear a story. After that, it was a challenge to see if I could turn it into a whole, meaningful piece.

    It taught me that genre doesn’t really matter. What matters is following the characters through events to see how they cope and evolve with the curve balls I throw them. What fun. What discovery. What an expedition.

  5. All this from writing something for your child? What an inspiration you are! Are you saying when you began this, you did not have any idea where it would take you? I realize I’ve only read two chapters but I am blown away by your imagination. An expedition. I like this way of describing the writing process. That gives me something to think about. Expedition. I have always loved that word. And the feelings it brings out of me. Who knows, maybe it will bring out some writing. (I’ll keep checking back here for ch.3 but I respect your decision whether or not to post it. In other words, I won’t be a pest about it!)

  6. I hope you decide to post more… I can’t wait to find out what happens!

  7. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  8. Frances,
    You inspired me to post Chapter 3. Hope you like it. –Ann

  9. Hello Ann,
    I was reviewing Chabot College online writing class. We are a non-profit and we are looking for someone to come in and work with our mgmt on a business writing course. Are you available to do onsite training or recommend anyone in the SF area. Please contact me. Look forward to hearing from you.

    Suzy
    510.252.5888

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  17. Great article. Im planning on something similar this summer and this helped with my decision.

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  19. I hope some of you new folks will take some of the writing challenges on the home page. Let’s hear from you! This is a great spot to get your writing read!

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  29. Ann, seems I found you again! I want to be a part of your blog. Tell me how please. In January I will be in Columbia looking for my “little girl”.

    Butchy

    • Hello Linda! When you come to the blog, feel free to try any of the challenges that appear. I add a new one frequently. Most of the folks you’ll meet here are ex-BWW classmates. Welcome!

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