Authors: Guy Antibes
“What about Chapel Vale?”
Willow’s eyes darkened. “You won’t be going to Chapel Vale. The Baron is not a nice man and he has a penchant for young ladies. The Vale is just a hamlet. Forty souls live there and till the Lord’s land. Unca’s property line begins at a ridgeline just inside the forest and the wizard paid the Baron a large amount of gold for his independence. As far as the Lord knows, Unca is a nearly-retired merchant. I pay a tax to the Lord for everything I sell in Chapel Vale. If I choose to make the trip to Sally’s Corners I keep everything.” She gave Sallia a brilliant smile.
Sallia gazed out the window. “Why don’t you just stay here?”
Willow began to pull out her things to begin measuring. “Hal. He and Unca don’t really get along. Unca’s not his father and he’s tried to give my Hal good fatherly advice a little too many times.” She shook her head and then forced a smile. “Let’s get started.”
littering points of scarlet light danced
around Unca’s study. He swung the teardrop-shaped Bloodstone on its platinum chain in the late afternoon sunlight that flooded through the window. He pursed his lips and rubbed his newly shorn head. What had the King gotten him into? Certainly, permission to flee the palace with Sallia had saved his own life. He had successfully brought her to his retreat, even if they did take more than twice the normal time to get here.
He turned around in his chair and lifted up a corner of the rug. He whispered a spell and a crack appeared in the wooden floor. Unca lifted the section of flooring and pulled out an iron box. Putting the Bloodstone back into its pouch, he placed it into the box that now sat along with his important papers and money. It would be better to shut the amulet away for now.
Unca didn’t want the gem close. The temptation to do something with it might be too much. As it was, he couldn’t get over the fact that he possessed, in Sallia’s trust, one of the four great Warstones of the ancient world. Fessano, the Court Wizard in Beckondale, had told him that the Moonstone was recently found and in the possession of the youngest of King Goleto’s daughters, of all people. The Sunstone had been lost eons ago and the Emperor of Dakkor on the continent of Zarron claimed to have a ‘darkstone’ that was the ancient Purestone. He’d never bothered to learn much about their histories.
Histron would desperately seek the stone to justify his usurpation. Unca smiled with satisfaction. Now that he had reached his sanctuary, the Duke could choke from rage if he wished. The Bloodstone could stay hidden in the iron box until Sallia could regain her throne.
His study contained all of his remaining magical tomes. Most of the works in his study at Foxhome were copied from the ones that lined the shelves of this study. Perhaps he’d brush up on the Warstone histories after all. Winter was not a kind season up here in the northern hills of the Red Kingdom, so there would be plenty of time for lots of things. His first order was to cease to perform any magic for a few weeks. All of the events on the road had dangerously lowered his power. He still hadn’t fully recovered from all of the water globes he had made for Pol and Ness’s fire along with Sallia’s eye-color spell. Some spells just took more power than others and that seeming innocuous one had really taken much more out of him than it should.
Unca knew just what book to read
Legends of the War Stone
, along with others he didn’t think he would have time to read, had been sent from Foxhome to Regetta at The Traveler’s Rest last fall. Willow had brought them up here from Sally’s Corners. The handwritten book was more of a history than anything, but it had been written centuries ago by a wizardess who provided her insight to the four stones. He had never made it past the introduction before, hence its banishment to his holding, but then he never thought the Bloodstone would fall into his grasp.
He forced himself to stay awake, reading about stones. The book had been written hundreds of years ago on good parchment and ink. The ruler of Zarron, Emperor Wallyr made four stones while he conquered the world with three huge armies conquering the three other continents. Wallyr, reputedly a wizard of legendary strength, held the Purestone and used the others to communicate with his generals.
The general assigned to Besseth, communicated with the Bloodstone. With advanced age, the ruler had imbued the Bloodstone with the power to allow the general to stay young.
In Roppon, the people were less than forthcoming. Unca chuckled as he read. Things hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. Bessethian rulers shunned the Ropponis for their rigid culture. The Sunstone allowed the general to know if those addressing him spoke the truth.
Wallyr had delegated the rule of Zarron to two Serytaran generals, a man and a woman, siblings. The general never trusted his sister, so the Moonstone was created to bond the two so that they knew each other’s thoughts and give them more physical and mental strength.
All four of the stones didn’t even require a wizard to operate them and the instant communications allowed Wallyr to manage the takeover all of Goriath. He moved his capital to Ayrtan, but through the treachery of his generals, Wallyr’s family had been killed including his wizard sister, who, the writings said, might have been the one to craft the stones. Somehow a curse capped off all of the nexus sites in Ayrtan at the same time of his death. The civilization crumbled with the Ayrtan loss of magical power and the demise of Wallyr. The empire quickly crumbled.
Unca mused that Ayrtan had never recovered. Every expedition to the continent verified that a vast wasteland stretched from coast to coast. He skipped the details of the fall of each country on Ayrtan, but came to a chapter that he’d never noticed before. The Moonstone and Bloodstone still openly in possession of their respective holders at the time of the wizardess-author.
Fessano told him that the Moonstone was recently discovered by the son of the Duke and Duchess of Bomia in northern Valetan. The pair had been killed nearly a generation ago, fleeing from Emperor Daryaku.
In all Unca had read, no one with power had tried to use the Bloodstone since before the history had been written. Should he? The temptation gnawed at him and he retrieved the stone from his secret box. He touched the stone and felt the facets through the tips of his fingers. It glowed and Unca could feel its power flow into his old bones. At least he knew the king had given him the actual amulet.
Reluctantly he replaced the stone and continued to read a section on each stone’s rumored magical powers. He came across a passage that caused his spine to shiver.
The Bloodstone can imbue its holder with youth. The transformation comes at a cost, however. If the power of the stone is summoned to make the change permanent, all magical ability to use the restorative powers of the stone will be eradicated from the spell caster. Wallyr purportedly constructed the amulet in such a way so that a magic holder of the Bloodstone could never achieve eternal life.
Eternal life? Unca continued to shiver. Unca had realized that he was wearing out. His magic declined along with his body’s physical strength. His eyes went to the spot on the rug where the iron box sat below the floor. No. He needed to keep Sallia safe and would not let some wild rumor entice him.
He rose and left the room to find Sallia. He ascended the stairs and heard voices coming from the Red bedroom. He could think of no more appropriate place in his house for the princess. He would let Willow and Sallia talk. The Princess needed a relationship with another woman, not an old man. Turning around, he walked out on the porch. He could feel a draft of cool air from the pond cut through the warmth of the summer evening. He smiled and looked towards the setting sun. Sighing, he gazed at his little domain, the meadow, the pond, the little mill that did so much and his hillside vineyard.
Why would he ever want to leave all of this beautiful serenity? Boredom. As much as he loved his hideout from the world, it still wasn’t part of the world and even though he was past sixty years in age, he had no desire to hide from all that went on in Besseth. The unsettled life that propelled him as a youth still propelled him in his dotage. A few months at his holding and he’d be yearning to get back out on the road.
Sallia had saved him from a different kind of death than the one he had saved her from. He had to admit it. King Billeas had finally brought up retirement. Sallia’s father had known about his holding and tried to talk Unca into retreating here at some unspecified future date. He would then only be called up in a state emergency.
Unca’s restive nature didn’t allow him to give the king an answer. He knew he couldn’t stay here for very long before the house would drive him crazy with boredom. Coming here once a year or so to recharge was one thing, but living here full time? Unca shook his head and leaned against the railing of his porch gazing out at his land. He wondered what the world had yet in store for him. With Histron’s usurpation, the hideaway wouldn’t go undiscovered forever and they might still have to flee.
He might not leave until after winter. He would enjoy living out the year, knowing that eventually they would have to move north to Gensler or even to Beckondale, capital of Valetan. Perhaps he could present her to Princess Restella, who now possessed the Moonstone and, he understood, had taken a commission in her father’s army. A warrior princess might not be an appropriate companion for Sallia. But in the long term, she did need a more stimulating environment than his hold.
And once he deposited Sallia with a Duke or King, what would become of him? His powers were far diminished from his youth as his ability to tap into the nexus had become as sluggish as any old man’s heart, yet Unca knew he could not stay anywhere for long. Always there was a military or political dispute that the king would send him along to help solve. He had slowed up as he grew older, but he refused to come to a complete stop.
Unca sighed. He’d have to cease doing that. Sighing was not a positive expression and he had to remain positive as long as Sallia stayed at his home. He realized that he had begun to sink into melancholy, a more-regular refuge for him as his power dissipated in the last decade. He made a fist and gave the railing a pounding. No sighing, no deep breaths, no melancholia. He would find a way out of this. He always had in the past, but could his age finally have slowed him up? He had never escaped with the Princess of the Red Kingdom before and a usurper never had sat on the throne of the Red Kingdom.
Everything was new. He would summon the strength, somehow, to return Sally to the throne. Unca smiled as he thought of her name. He quite enjoyed using it with the princess.
He shook his head and returned into the house, now bathed in twilight. Willow called out to him that a simple dinner would be ready in half of an hour. He shook his head again. No sighing, melancholia and no head shaking! The thought brought a smile to his lips and he decided that he would read a story tonight. Perhaps aloud to Sallia, should she desire. He’d like doing that for the girl.
irdsong woke Sallia up.
She gathered a robe, that Willow had found, around her and went to the window. She smiled as another flock of geese landed on Unca’s pond. The morning mist clung to the reeds and the fowl swam in and out of her sight. The sun, rose angry and red over the trees to the east, unhappy that winter was about to cool what it so valiantly warmed when they had first arrived, just after mid-summer.
Could she have already slept one hundred nights in Unca’s house? Yet it was so. She washed up for the morning and put on the gray dress she had bought her first day at Sally’s Corners. She had returned to the village a number of times with Unca, Willow, and with Willow’s son, Hal, selling the overly abundant harvest.
She sat down at the kitchen table where the three of them usually broke their morning fast.
“I have some news for you, Sallia. You won’t like it, but I’m going to leave for a few months. Strange things are happening in the world and I need to know more than what I can pick up at Sally’s Corners. I’ll be heading to Crackledown. I know the Duke and he’ll receive me discreetly. I’ve loaded up our wagon with barrels of our white wine and will sell a few along the way disguising myself as a merchant. Between the Duke and any number of innkeepers, I’ll learn what we need to know.”
“But to leave me alone—” Sallia could feel her heart beat faster. She didn’t want her protector to leave.
Unca poured some tea in a mug and said, “Willow has agreed to winter here. Hal’s new wife would just as soon winter with her husband without her mother-in-law in the same dwelling. From what Willow says, that makes two of them. You’ve probably both talked about that relationship often enough.”
“What did you say about me?” Willow said as she brought in a pitcher of cold milk. She sat down between Unca and Sallia and began to eat after pouring each of them a cup.
“Wintering in the house with me,” Sallia said. ‘You really won’t mind?”
The housekeeper made a shooing motion with her hand. “I will gladly spend the season here in this house. It isn’t as cozy as my cottage, but that’s a good thing the way things are with my daughter-in-law, now.”
“How are the pair doing?” Unca put a little sugar in his cup and concentrated on stirring it in.
“Be prepared to hire someone else to help work your holding. I think Hal wants to work on the Lord’s land full time. Too many trips to Sally’s Corners and too much work here. He won’t be so happy at the end of the harvest when the baron settles with his tenants.” Willow shook her head. “I can’t make his decisions for him and…” She left it at that.
“What will we do?” Sallia said. How could so many people abandon her all at once?
Willow had just taken a mouthful of shredded potatoes and began to laugh which delayed her response even more. “We’ll take a trip into Sally’s Corners and get skeins of wool, cloth, thread, needles. All kind of womanly craft to teach you this winter. It’s not that we’ll be snowed in. There is snow, but we can generally make it through to Sally’s Corners when we want. It’s just that it is a cold, wet trip. Have you ever embroidered?”
“I never liked it.” Sallia hated just sitting around and ‘chatting’ with women much older than herself. She had to admit, Willow made a much more interesting partner. The woman hadn’t run out of stories and they’d been together for months.
“It’s a social event in the winter. I’ll teach you to knit and embroider and how to take care of yourself. My fingers will hurt, but when we can have fun anyway. I know some people in Sally’s Corners who will make for interesting company. Who knows how long Unca will keep you captive?” Willow smiled mischievously at the wizard.
Unca sputtered into his mug of tea. “I didn’t capture Sally. She’s gone to the village with Hal and could leave at any time. Right Sally?”
She didn’t know what to say and only nodded. “I’m not happy about you leaving, but I am pleased that Willow can keep me company.”
Sallia didn’t want to admit that she’d miss Unca terribly. She enjoyed his reading them both stories at night and his futile attempts to teach her magic. He seemed to take such an interest in her and that personal touch had removed the chronic irritation that she had always felt at Foxhome. Everyone seemed to endure her presence and that made her mad. Here, she had become one of a relaxed family, not bound by honor and duty, ever under the pressure of ruling.
“Learn some new things. You’ve only touched my library. There are more than books and scrolls on magic. I also have more books downstairs in the cellar, if you can stand a bit of dust.”
Sallia waved to Unca as he rode away on the hold’s only wagon. She walked back into the house and sat in front of the fireplace in the kitchen. Willow had left to tend to the rabbit traps on the south side of the meadow and left with instructions for Sallia to feed the chickens. The birds had been moved to the cave for winter. Unca had rigged a hidden window over the hen house so the birds had plenty of light. Unca raised no other livestock, since he had given his cow to Hal as a wedding present just before he left. Other than tending traps and feeding the chickens there wasn’t much to do.
She grabbed one of Willow’s shawls and headed to the back of the house and used the attached entrance to Unca’s cave. The chickens never complained about her feeding. Sallia smiled as she watched the mindless birds pecking in the dirt. Any person could make chickens happy as long as they learned to cast the seed.
She didn’t miss her former life. Unca’s house had become more than comfortable and Sallia had learned more about life and tending to herself in the past few months she had lived under Unca’s watch, than at any other time in her life. Sallia still wondered everyday about what went on in the rest of the world and could understand Unca’s restive curiosity.
Had the citizens of the Red Kingdom accepted the usurper as their king? They hadn’t a month ago when she made her last visit to Sally’s Corners. But if Histron ruled long enough, would her people forget her? Forget King Billeas, her father? She wiped away a tear. The only princess of the Red Kingdom now tended chickens, yet Sallia had never been happier. Her old self had died along with the wheat and the vegetables in Unca’s garden. If she gained the throne she’d be a different kind of queen than she once expected to be.
Her ideas of what queens should do had changed. Her duties weren’t to charm the nobility with her intelligence and by the force of her position, like she once thought. Sallia fought against being forced into such a role once her tutors had begun to attempt to groom her for rule. She now understood what it was like to live to serve, like Willow. If only she could adopt her good cheer. She knew Willow didn’t live an ideal life with her son, but she had the right attitude. Sallia marveled that she would be looking up to a servant, but she did.
She rubbed the seed from her hands and hung the bucket on its nail. Sallia could feel the roughness that came from the little work that Unca had let her do around the house. Willow didn’t let her work all of the time in the garden, but Sallia helped her around the house. Sweeping, dusting, polishing. Sallia didn’t like the washing, but she did learn some basics in the kitchen and wouldn’t starve for not knowing how to brew tea or basics of cooking stew and even baking bread.
By the time she returned to the house, Willow stood at the kitchen sink, skinning two rabbits.
“Rabbit stew again?” Sallia said.
“Not quite. Rabbit and dumplings. I’ll show you how to make dumplings tonight and don’t worry about having to eat it two or three nights in a row. The extra I’ll take to Hal. I still have a few things to collect, anyway.”
Sallia sat back and forced herself to watch Willow prepare the rabbit. A princess didn’t skin forest creatures, but Sallia didn’t consider herself a princess at the moment and she’d be a better traveler when Unca spirited her away again. Their flight from Foxhome had shown her how incapable she was. Accepting Unca’s help had been difficult the entire way until the incident at the Traveler’s Rest. But she would only trade her recent education for her parents to be alive and back on the throne.
Snow covered the meadow and blanketed Sallia’s mind with a kind of peace and contentment. She spotted Willow trudging through the snow, returning from the Vale.
Sallia waited until Willow removed her cloak and came into the sitting room. “What is Unca doing?”
The housekeeper laughed and shrugged. “I don’t worry about the man. In the past, he’s been gone for years at a time. It’s only been a few months and here I am on pins and needles waiting for word. Worrying about the Duke’s men finding out about us.”
“Doesn’t the Baron know that Unca lives here?”
“When Unca bought this land, he did it through intermediaries. Lord Beckhall has no idea who the man I work for truly is. In Sally’s Corners, they most people know him as Jemmy Bodkin who has a large cabin somewhere in the hills. It’s no secret that I do housework for him.”
“I see.” Sallia thought the disguises might have once seemed silly, but now she saw the wisdom of Unca’s false identities. The house, the disguises, his invention all showed aspects of the old man that she’d never seen in the castle. Her first impression of him was as a bumbling advisor to her father. Perhaps that, too, had been meant as a disguise.
“Remove those thoughts, Sallia. What are we going to do today? I won’t inspect the traps. The rabbits are probably snoring in their holes.” The housekeeper laughed as she always did and Sallia found herself laughing along more and more. It somehow made the day seem brighter, within.
Sallia smiled despite her worry for Unca. She’d feel better when he returned, but until then, she would continue to learn how to be a real person. Part of her still yearned to take back her father’s throne, but a continuously evolving new person was supplanting the shallow spoiled princess. Sallia liked the new person much better.