There once was a kingdom called Poldar. It used to be empty and gray, full of slimy bogs and misty marshes. Then one day long ago, when the great magicians walked the land, the evil Kangraff made it his home. His heart was as dark as the blackest of tar, and he was a sorcerer of great power. Bending the land to his will, he turned the misty marshes into treacherous swamps and raised the slimy bogs into festering volcanoes. A red, smoky haze hovered over the whole kingdom and drew to it all those with wicked hearts.
The evil Kangraff delighted in ruling by fear and oppression, but one day he realized the end of his life was nearing. He set about finding his successors, searching the lowest pits of his land until at last he found what he was looking for: A man and a woman who would rule Poldar with all the foulness and depravity he so cherished. In the dark of the night, he abducted them and forced them to marry each other. Then he spoke this curse over them:
“May you and your descendants rule this land out of the wickedness in your hearts, and may you and your descendants never know love.”
The evil Kangraff mentored the couple until the end of his life, and their family took his name as theirs.
Yet after the evil Kangraff’s death, his greatest foe came before the dictators of Poldar and spoke this counter-curse: “Wickedness will not rule Poldar forever, for one day your family’s line will end.”
For many generations, they prospered through trickery, bribery, theft, and lies. Poldar grew into a powerful threat to its neighbors. Its kings took pleasure in conquering nearby kingdoms, though none exceeded King Eric’s glory in winning the great kingdom of Clachan nor his disgrace in losing it to an eighteen-year-old girl.
Still, the counter-curse always hung over the Kangraffs. Then one day, the king and queen, Maxwell and Louise, could bear no children.
Poldar was about to collapse into civil war over who would rule it next. At the last moment, just in time to avert bloodshed, the king and queen produced an heir, a stolen child they claimed as their own. They named him William and called him Bill, and as their family had been since it began, they were cruel, abusive parents.
Then the strangest thing happened. On William’s seventeenth birthday, he ran away.
He knew the moment he first stepped onto Ferngold’s soil. For one thing, its border was a sharp line with sticky brown mud on one side and green, springy grass on the other side, the Ferngold side. It was more than that, though. There was a strange feel to the air. It dug inside his chest and did something to him that William could not understand. He decided it was a pleasant feeling, though.
For a moment, his knees gave out and he dropped to the ground, breathing heavily. He was safe. Ferngold was a good place—his parents would not find him here.
A moment of rest was all he could indulge in at present, he decided. There was much he had to do.
He jumped when a strange, lovely music burst from a tree with more leaves than he had ever seen. He drew his sword with a metallic ring as it scraped along the inside of the scabbard, and peered closely up at the branches for the source of the sound. When he found it, he had never been more surprised. Who knew birds could make such pleasant sounds? The sword returned to its scabbard and his shoulders relaxed.
After weeks of running, William could hardly comprehend he was no longer in immediate danger. The journey had taken so long—three times longer than it could have, since he had to skirt the edge of Clachan and could not cut through it. From everything he had ever been taught, horrible things happened to people of the Kangraff family when they stepped into that land.
His break was over. William stretched his weary, sore muscles and once more shouldered the small brown sack containing the meager remains of the supplies he had managed to steal before he fled home.
It was time to take on a new identity and see if someone would teach him a real profession.
Louise of Kangraff stood at a window set in the cold grey walls of the castle. Her arms, crossed tightly over her chest, served two purposes: They added warmth against the cold in the air and inside her, and they gave physical demonstration to her deep frustration.
Short, sharp footsteps behind her gave notice of her husband’s presence. She did not turn around to address him. “Tell me you have good news, Maxwell.” It was half an order, half a plea.
“I do…in a way,” his oily voice replied. She hated his voice. It made her involuntarily shudder in disgust.
“Then say it.” She had no patience for his usual manner of drawing everything out. Why could he not just be concise and stop wasting words, filling the air with his putrid breath?
He huffed out a sniff of displeasure. “If my mother ever spoke to my father the way you speak to me,” he threatened, “he would have killed her.”
She turned slowly, pinching her cheeks and mouth into an expression of pure loathing. “If you even tried, I would slit your throat faster than you could blink.”
Maxwell’s slender fingers gripped the air at his side. She knew he was fantasizing about strangling her. “And that, dear wife, is the only reason you are still alive,” he returned with mock sweetness.
Louise uncrossed her arms and set her hands on her hips. “The news, Max.”
“I know where he is.”
It took a few attempts before she was able to speak. “Him?” she gasped. “Bill?”
Maxwell nodded, but his mirthless smile told her that all was not well. She did not give into his games; she waited.
When it was clear she would not satisfy him by inquiring, he added, “Oh, yes, I know where the boy is. He’s in Ferngold.”
“Ferngold?” Louise choked on the name. That wretched land? What was their son doing in a kingdom known for love, kindness, peace, and health? Despite Poldar’s greatness, she knew it was no match for Ferngold. Even if they could somehow prove stronger, Ferngold’s alliance with the fearsome Clachan made their defeat inevitable. They would never get Bill back.
“But do not despair,” the king continued. “I also found a sorcerer. He has a plan, a very good plan.”
She rolled her eyes at his stupidity. “When has a partnership with one of the race of mages ever gone well for us since the evil Kangraff? This won’t end well, dear.” Never had a term of endearment sounded less endearing.
He waved off her objection. “That’s because they were all either good or too weak and feeble. This sorcerer is even wickeder than I, and not only is he incredibly strong already, he knows how to get stronger. This will not be a repeat of the evil Kangraff’s foe or of Ivan the magician. Trust me. Ferngold has no chance of withstanding us. Bill will be back in our grasp within a week.”
It was a typical day for Steven Booker. His master woke him and his fellow apprentice, the quite Will Scriber, at the break of dawn. They ate their usual ration of oatmeal, trimmed their quills, and sat down at their benches to begin hours of copying manuscripts.
“Someday,” Steven said when the master padded out of the room to deal with a customer, “someday we’ll have our own shop, eh Willy? Then we can pay two poor boys a pittance to crick their necks and squint their eyes all day while we talk with fine ladies and gents.
To which Will replied without looking up, “Fine ladies and gents aren’t all you make them to be.”
“Oh-ho!” Steven laughed. “Says the oh-so experienced pauper who hadn’t a decent shred of cloth on his back when I found him searching the rubbish bins for food.”
Will pretended to ignore him, but Steven knew it was all part of their game.
“Say—” began the latter young man, but he left off abruptly when their master reappeared, trailed by two of the royal guards.
“Lay down your work, boys,” the master graciously commanded. “The Fern has called for our Will.”
Steven’s tan eyes widened in excitement. The Golden Fern, from which Ferngold drew its name, was a magical plant of great wisdom. Not only did it guard the land’s peace, it from time to time dropped a leaf emblazoned with a person’s name. When that person appeared before the Fern, it would tell them something of great import.
“Willy-boy, we’re going to the Telling Tree,” Steven rejoiced, plunging the cork back onto his inkwell and springing from his seat.
Will looked decidedly less excited than he ought. Steven even thought he looked a bit afraid. That was, of course, ridiculous. Who would fear the Fern?
The royal guards escorted them to the emerald hill atop which sat the giant shrub. All the way, Steven hypothesized. “I bet it tells you who your girl will b. Or maybe—you’re an orphan, too, right? Maybe it’ll reveal who your parents are. No, it’s for certain going to give you a quest. Or tell you what you’re supposed to do with your life. Wait, maybe you’re to marry the princess! Imagine that: Rags to royal. Remember me, your Highness.” He bowed with flourish and his jovial laugh rang out.
Will ignored him, focusing on the waving fronds of the Fern in front of them. Yet Steven thought he saw a hint of a smile in the corner of Will’s thin eyes.
A reedy voice came from the Fern’s depths. “He who calls himself Will Scriber must bring with him the servant girl Annette.”
Wrinkling his nose, Steven looked at Will. Where was he going? And whatever could he want with Annette? The two didn’t even know each other. He hadn’t seen Annette since she entered into service as a castle domestic nine years earlier, except for that one brief time when the master was summoned to transcribe a story for the princess and Annette happened to be by the fireplace.
A shout from one of the guards cut him off before he could inquire.
“Stand back! Everyone, get away from the Golden Fern!”
What Steven saw next was the most terrifying thing he had ever beheld. Black replaced the Fern’s golden leaves, running up the branches with unearthly speed, like ink strewn over clean cloth. Where the darkness took hold, the swooshing fronds hardened mid-movement, freezing in place.
“O Fern!” the chief guard cried. “Tell us how to help you!”
The reedy voice rasped out, “Only the heir of Poldar can save me now.”
Then the black stiffness covered the Fern, and it was deathly still.
Sara’s worn soles slapped against the worn stone as she ran. Words flew in her head: “Telling Tree frozen—air of Poldar—find Annette.” Such horrible things were announced in the castle Great Room, such evil happenings. Ferngold was in danger, so she did what she could. She ran to fetch her step-sister Annette, who was necessary for some incomprehensible reason.
She knew exactly in which wing of the castle Annette would be. The girl was doing Sara’s work, after all. She was so gullible. Would a cough really excuse Sara from her work—and who but a fool would believe that faked cough was real?
When she got close, she began throwing doors open and scanning rooms. To disgruntled occupants she called, “Sorry, emergency,” over her shoulder, already well on her way to the next room.
Finally she found her step-sister in the nursery, covered in dirt from head to toe as always. “There you are!” Sara gasped. “Come with me. The Telling Tree’s in trouble!”
Annette blinked dark brown eyes at her, dropped her cinder shovel into her bucket, and stepped out of the fireplace she was cleaning. Satisfied that she would follow, Sara trotted back toward the Great Room.
It was even more crowded when she returned than when she left. The crowd did not deter her, however much it might make Annette shrink back. She grabbed the other girl with one hand and used the other to push their way between elbows and bodies that needed a bath almost as desperately as Annette needed one.
Her grip loosened when they reached the front and could see the king, queen, princess, their old neighbor Steven, and a young man who must have been Steven’s fellow apprentice. Steven grinned when he saw them and pointed at Annette. “That’s her.”
A guard materialized in front of them and relieved Sara of her job as Annette’s supervisor. Sara bounced between her feet and dared to sneak closer, straining to hear what was being said.
“But how can the air of that putrid kingdom do any good to our Golden Fern?” the king and queen were muttering.
Steven slung his arm over Annette’s shoulder. “Annette, allow me to introduce Will Scriber. You’re going with him on a journey, or quest, or…a walk, or something. I’m not really sure what, yet.”
Sara inspected the other apprentice when Steven turned Annette’s gaze to him. He was tall and oddly filled-out (for being a poor apprentice). His brown eyes stood out in his face, which was as white as the princess’s sleeves, and he barely took them off the monarchs of Ferngold long enough to nod at Annette.
“I don’t understand,” Annette’s frail voice barely reached her ears.
“Neither do I,” Steven chuckled. “Isn’t it fun?”
Then the boy—Will—stepped forward and bowed. “Your majesties,” he said in an unexpectedly deep voice, “I do not think it meant breathing air. I think it meant the heir to the throne of Poldar.”
The queen covered her mouth and the king clutched his heart. “Then we are doomed,” he lamented. “The boy disappeared two years ago. What chance have we of finding him?”
It was odd, Annette thought, to be dragged into the room of a large, lonely fireplace she’d cleaned hundreds of times and find it now surrounded by more people than she’d seen for years. It was odd that someone would hurt the Telling Tree, and even more odd that the youth next to adult-Steven, her childhood friend, proclaimed himself the run-away prince of the vile Poldar.
Yet nothing surpassed the oddness of finding herself next to that prince, bearing a pack laden with provisions provided by the king and queen themselves, with the king’s hand on her and the prince’s shoulders.
“May all speed be with you,” the king said, “and may the Golden Fern’s blessing guard you.”
It seemed like the wrong time to ask why, exactly, they needed provisions, speed, and the Fern’s blessing. Then she was walking alongside the prince, the castle behind and a mystery before her. A look at her companion’s grim face made her think it was still the wrong time to ask what they were doing. Perhaps it would be better to start first with introductions. That was the usual course of action when interacting with other people, right?
“Hello,” she spoke into the silence.
The prince started at her voice and looked at her for the first time. “Hi.”
“I’m Annette Mason,” she offered.
He opened his mouth and shut it, and a haunted look crossed his brown eyes and aquiline nose.
Interacting with humans was unusual, after so long cleaning fireplaces in the shadows of the castle, but Annette was fairly certain the prince was supposed to tell her his name now. It was like an exchange: Words for words, information for information. Wasn’t that how conversations worked? Maybe he, too, was unused to other people.
“It’s your turn,” she prompted. “What’s your name?
His throat twitched as he swallowed. “I…which name do you want?”
There, that was how it worked. Conversation.
“How many do you have?” she asked.
He shrugged. “There’s the one my parents gave me and the one I chose.”
She pursed her lips in contemplation. “I think I want both, please.”
She didn’t miss the way his mouth puckered at the first name like it had a foul taste. “My parents call me Bill Kangraff,” he supplied. “I chose Will Scriber.”
“Bill? That name doesn’t fit you at all,” she disapproved. It seemed too abrupt a name for the boy beside her, who seemed gentle and thoughtful. “I’m going to call you Will.” The “W” made its beginning softer, she thought.
To that, he said nothing. After he failed to uphold his part of the conversation at Annette’s net few attempts, she gave up until later.
They crossed the Ferngold-Poldar order in silence. Annette noticed Will’s shoulders tense when the air became suddenly oppressive. “Be careful,” he said the first words either had spoken in hours. “Anyone we meet here will be dangerous.”
Annette swallowed and nodded.
If the scenery was any indication of the people of Poldar, Will was certainly right. The trees creaked ominously overhead, and every so often a branch would tumble down, narrowly missing their heads. Big green flies buzzed around them. Each time one landed on her skin, it gave a sharp, painful bite. She had to constantly watch her step. Sharp twigs and shattered stones threatened to slice her bare feet, and sometimes the ground felt less than firm.
Will paused when night grew near. “We should make camp.”
“But there’s people nearby,” she pointed at the remains of a campfire a few feet away.
He shrugged. “It’s old. They’re probably long gone.”
She quirked her eyebrows. “Have you seen the color of that ash? It can’t be more than a day old.” Tentatively, she put her toes in the outermost ring of soot. “Still warm. I’m surprised there’s no smoke coming out.”
“Why don’t you have shoes on?” Will pointed with a frown.
“I was born of the dirt and live among the ashes. What need have I for shoes? Besides, aren’t there more important questions to ask right now?”
A rush of heavy steps proved her right. Three meaty heads covered in scabs and scars burst out of the thorny shrubs just beyond the fire. To her embarrassment, Annette shrieked. Then Will’s hand closed around her wrist and yanked her sideways. “Run!” he shouted.
And run she did. With the big brutes chasing after them, Annette ran as fast as she could make her legs go.
Bright color flashed through the trees. “There!” she shouted to Will.
“No!” he sounded panicked. “That’s Clachan.”
Clachan. A name she had heard before. Voices of the king’s advisors talking warmly of the kingdom came from her memory. Ally, they always said.
“Come on!” she grabbed his sleeve and pulled him after her.
The brutes behind them let out a shout of dismay. It spurred Annette on faster. Will fought against her hold, but she dragged him forward until her toes met spring grass, the air in her gasping lungs was sweet, and she dropped to her knees, certain the rogues from Poldar wouldn’t dare follow them here.
Will’s cry of alarm made her heart jump again. Was she wrong? Did she stop too soon? She whirled in time to see the terror on Will’s face just before a tree completely engulfed him in its branches and all signs of the boy disappeared.
Will fought. He fought the branches of the tree that wrapped around him like vines. He fought with everything he had. And he cursed the foolishness of the girl for dragging him to Clachan and his eminent death.
If only he could reach the dagger the king of Ferngold had given him, he could cut his way free. Yet the tree squeezed him until he could hardly breathe, cutting innumerable gashes into his skin in the process. His left arm was pressed too close to his body to move, and his right arm was being pushed into an unnatural angle above his head. With a pop, his shoulder dislocated. He couldn’t bite back the yell that took too much of the oxygen left in his lungs. The tree squashed his chest, making it hard to breathe.
Death by tree was a horrible thing.
The plant must have decided he was sufficiently immobile, because now it set to work killing him. Leaves unfurled over his mouth and nose. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see.
Just before oxygen deprivation made him lose consciousness, the girl’s voice reached through the foliage. His mind was fuzzy. He couldn’t concentrate his ears enough to understand her.
The leaves shriveled away from his face. Air rushed into his lungs, changing his sluggish sleepiness into dizziness. Too quickly, the branches dropped away from him. He fell out onto fresh grass, limbs too numb to hold him. As circulation returned, it felt like a thousand needles poking him all over.
“Will!” the girl called. Her hands were on his back, rolling him to face the sky that was endlessly, deeply blue. In the process, she jarred his dislocated shoulder and he saw the stars in the evening sky swirl. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“No,” he grumbled.
The worry in her brown eyes deepened. “What’s wrong?”
Where to start? “I’m going back home to the worst parents in existence, I’m on a quest with little chance of success, by a fern’s word I have to bring along a strange, useless servant girl, we got attached on our first day, she forced me into Clachan, I was almost eaten by a tree, and I’m pretty sure my shoulder’s dislocated.” That about covered it. It felt good, too—he had never vented his frustrations in his life, and now he understood how cathartic other people made it sound.
When hurt pinched the girl’s—Annette’s—face, he thought he had probably never said such hurtful words in his life, either. His brief pleasure soured into disgust. There was more Bill in him than he liked to think about.
“I’m sorry,” he softened his voice. She didn’t respond. Perhaps it would be best to steer the conversation in a different direction? With great care to sound as nice as possible, he asked, “What did you say to get the tree to release me?”
“Nothing,” she pressed her lips together.
He started to apologize again. “Annette, I’m really—” he forgot about his shoulder, until he pushed himself to a sitting position and had to stop mid-sentence to hiss through his teeth.
“We need to find someone to fix your shoulder,” Annette said curtly. “And we should probably get those cuts looked at.” Without another word, she stood and started walking.
Somehow, Will managed to suppress a groan as he followed her. Why did nothing in his life ever go right?
Even finding help didn’t go right. Soon it was night, and they hadn’t seen a soul.
“Let’s stop here,” Annette said when they could no longer see the ground.
Though nothing else had attacked him, the general atmosphere of Clachan made Will feel like he was being watched. The air seemed to drag at him in an effort to slow his progress. He imagined the land was only waiting for him to drop his guard before it finished him off in a sudden sinkhole.
“No, let’s go over there,” he pointed to the Poldar side of the border.
Annette shuddered. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“You’ll have to, eventually. But I can’t sleep here. Clachan hates me.”
Her eyes roamed the damage the tree had done to him, and she sighed. “Fine. But we’re staying as close to Clachan as possible.”
“Deal,” he agreed.
His foot crossed the line, and the air shifted. Its malice was now less directed fully at him and more general hatred for all living things. Of course, it was still dangerous, but Will let himself relax and drop to the ground.
“I don’t suppose you know how to start a fire?” Annette asked in a small voice.
He looked over to see her small arms wrapped around her and her eyes darting about them. “No,” he sighed. “Do you?”
She shook her head. “I know how to put them out, not how to start them.”
There wasn’t much else they could do. She sat down well within arm’s reach of him and tucked her knees under her chin.
“What did you mean earlier,” he asked the least important question of the day, which had nonetheless been plaguing him the most, “when you said you were born of the dirt?”
She inspected her short fingernails. “That’s what my father always used to say.”
“Why?” he prompted.
“He found me lying in the dirt outside his house when I was a baby. He said the fairies made me from the dirt for him so he wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”
“Where is he now?”
She turned her face away. “He died soon after he married my stepmother.”
“That’s why you and your sister work in the castle?”
She nodded and laid down with her back toward him.
Huh. She seemed to genuinely miss her father. How was it possible to have parents that you liked—or even, that you loved?
Will laid down, contemplating this marvel, and prepared to sleep.
But sleep was long coming. The mystery of Annette’s affection for her father slowly left his mind, but only as a creeping awareness of stinging in all of his cuts and scrapes grew. Soon, it felt like the slices left by the tree were on fire. Shivering set in. He tried to wake Annette, but found he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak.
Sleepiness poured over him, but Will fought the inclination. If he lost conscious now, would he ever gain it?
But maybe, he thought, maybe it would be okay to close his eyes for just a few minutes.
Repulsion filled Maxwell at the sight of his wife. “Take me to him,” she demanded.
“To whom?” he drawled. Playing ignorant would infuriate her.
Her eyes narrowed. “To the sorcerer. Do not play games with me, Maxwell.”
He bit back the many rejoinders that came to mind, since he did not particularly desire to feel her ringed fingers slap across his face. “I’m sorry, but no. He is not fond of people. Even I am not allowed to see him,” he lied smoothly.
She crossed her flabby arms. “I don’t believe you.”
“Fine. I’ll give you directions to his laboratory. But don’t blame me when he turns you into an insect.” He gestures for an attendant to bring him writing supplies.
Louise the lout pursed her lips. “Are you certain?”
“Why would I lie?” he asked. “He’s a very powerful sorcerer, and his powers just increased tenfold. He is not to be trifled with.”
The attendant placed parchment, ink, and his pen on the small table next to his hard wood throne. He dipped the pen in the ink and held it poised over the paper, quirking an eyebrow at his wife. Louise would surely relent in the face of his willingness.
She did. With a tiny nod, she spun to leave the room. “You better tell me at the first news,” she called over her boney shoulder. “Or else.”
To which empty threat she was referring, Maxwell took his own guesses. None of them disturbed him much anymore, so as soon as she was out of sight, he swung up from his seat and ducked behind a drapery into the passageway that was known only to those privileged enough to be born into the Kangraff family. She would never find it, and that made him laugh.
“What tickles your humor?” a high male voice asked.
Maxwell stepped into the chamber at the end of the passage and beheld a balding, chubby, middle-aged man. Odd that such power should reside in such mundane packaging. Yet he had seen proof enough of the sorcerer’s prowess. He smiled at the memories of devastation and disease. “I’m just reveling in the Lump’s ignorance,” he answered. “Now tell me, is there any news?”
The sorcerer smirked. “Oh, there’s news. Your Bill is headed this way, just as planned. He’s on Poldar’s soil as we speak. And you’ll never guess who is with him.” The portly man whispered his revelation in Maxwell’s ear with acid breath.
Max’s smile slipped. “No,” he shook his head. “That’s not possible.”
The sorcerer grinned widely. “Oh, but it is. And I have the perfect plan to make sure they both suffer.
Trevor the sage did not often receive visitors to his cottage near the border of Clachan and Poldar. When knocking on his door besieged his peaceful reading, he muttered to his old grey dog, “I wonder who that is?”
The dog raised an eyelid, blinked, and fell back asleep.
“I’m coming,” Trevor called to stay the pounding. It paused long enough for him to reach and open the door in peace.
What he saw then took him by surprise. Such strong bloodlines the girl and the boy before him had, and such an intriguing history. Trevor momentarily forgot himself, blinking at them and reading their stories. The girl’s voice eventually managed to pull him out of his stupor. With a second look at them, this time studiously ignoring the tales of their bloodlines, Trevor realized the girl was supporting the boy, who was covered in uneven purple blotches and seemed unconscious.
“Oh, you poor things,” he exclaimed. “Come in at once. Let me help you with him, my girl.”
She shifted her grip on the boy and helped drag him over to Trevor’s bed. “My name’s Annette,” her sweet young voice said.
“Indeed. Pleased to meet you, Annette. I’m Trevor the Sage.” He picked up the boy’s legs to lay them on the bed with the rest of his body. “What happened to him?”
She bit her lip and looked at the sleeping boy. “I don’t…when we first set food in Clachan, I don’t think the trees liked him.”
Trevor nodded. “I can see why.”
She edged between him and the bed, eyes narrowing. “You can?”
“I mean you no harm,” he assured her. “I’m a sage—well, my great-grandmother was a sage and could read a person’s whole life, past and future, in their presence. I can only see vague sketches of people’s pasts. But my Clachan wouldn’t take kindly to anyone who grew up in Poldar, would they, boy?”
The dog heaved a sigh.
“Can you help him?” Annette accepted his explanation and redirected his focus.
“I’ll certainly try,” he promised. “I read something about this once, I think. Oh, yes, I remember. I need some lavender and a bit of—what was it called?” Talking aloud from habit, he padded around his cabin, gathering ingredients and concocting a treatment.
When everything was mixed and simmered together in an earthenware pot, he enlisted the girl’s help to raise the boy up and pour the compound down his throat. “You’re sure this will heal him?” Annette asked, standing back to watch their patient.
“Fairly certain. Although that might have been a drought to ease toothache,” Trevor admitted. “Do you know if he had a toothache?”
She shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
“Hm. Then we’ll have to wait and watch.” Meanwhile, there were far more interesting topics of conversation. “Now tell me, how did you two find each other?”
“What?” Her wide brown eyes left the bed for a rare moment to look at him.
“I’m a sage,” he reminded her. “Well, one-sixteenth sage. I can read your bloodlines and a bit of your history. Yours is intriguing. How did you find him? Or did he find you?”
“I don’t understand. We didn’t find each other. I don’t even know him, really,” Annette protested.
Understanding washed over Trevor. “Oh, my dear. You don’t know yet, do you?”
“There’s a lot I don’t know,” she said. “May you be more specific?”
He had never told such momentous news, but he supposed the best way was to just say it. “That boy,” he gestured at the prone figure, whose purple splotches were beginning to fade, “is your brother.”
“You must be mistaken,” Annette stated.
The sage just smiled. “No, I am definitely not. It’s as clear as crystals, plain for all to see. Why, look at your faces. You have the same eyes, same nose, same cheekbones.”
But if it were true—he was a prince. She started shaking her head. “No. I’m not a princess.”
“Is he a prince?”
“Yes, of—” of Poldar. She took a step away from the bed and the sage. It could not be! She could not have been the product of such wicked people.
“No,” she repeated.
In a way, she could see how it made sense. She must have been born to someone, after all. Fairies didn’t come to this part of the world, so she must have come from somewhere. There had to have been a reason for the Telling Tree to bring them together. And they did look rather similar.
She felt sick.
Will groaned. Her eyes darted to the sage. “Don’t tell him,” she begged.
His hesitation made her heart race with anxiety, but at last he nodded. She rushed to kneel at Will’s side, the sudden motion making her raw feet throb anew.
The prince moaned again and opened his eyes. Even if he wasn’t her brother, she was still concerned about his well-being. “Hey, are you okay?” She picked a cloth off the bedside table and wiped his brow.
He moved to push himself up and clutched his shoulder. “Ow. I don’t know.”
“Oh, I forgot!” Annette exclaimed. “His shoulder is dislocated.”
The sage stepped forward and gripped Will’s arm. “We’ll have that fixed in a jiffy,” he promised. “I’m Trevor the Sage, by the way.” Leaving Will no time to respond, he yanked the prince’s arm. A “pop” followed by a string of curses that turned Annette’s cheeks red filled the cottage.
“You should take it easy for a couple weeks, but otherwise your shoulder will be good as new, right, boy?” Trevor said. The big grey dog lying beside the rocking chair blinked.
“Thanks, but I can’t take it easy. We have to get going.” Will laboriously pushed himself to the edge of the bed.
“Ah, I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Trevor clucked his tongue. “I’ve yet to care for young Annette’s feet.”
Surprise morphed into concern as Will’s eyes swiveled to her. “You’re hurt? Why didn’t you say?”
She sat on the bed as the sage directed and tried to stop looking at Will. “It’s not a big deal. They’ll heal.” It was a far bigger deal that she suddenly had blood family.
“Normally, yes,” Trevor interjected. “But your wounds are badly infected. Another few hours and you’d be as bad off as your…friend here was.”
He was probably right. Her feet looked larger and pinker than normal, and every step made her grit her teeth. Trevor set a tub filled with a warm, cloudy liquid in front of her and lowered her feet into it. She sighed with contentment as she met coolness instead of the stinging she had expected.
“Where are we?” Will asked when Annette’s feet had turned the tub’s contents brown and Trevor began wrapping them with herbs and clean cloth.
“Your…companion brought you to my cottage,” the sage explained. “We’re in Clachan, very near to Poldar.”
“How soon can we leave?”
“Why, my young prince, you are welcome to stay as long as you wish, but I must insist you do not leave for at least two more hours. That is assuming you’re waiting for Annette.”
Will’s shoulders drooped. “I guess I have to.”
Annette resolved then that she would wait as long as possible before revealing their relationship to him. If Sara, who was only her step-sister, disliked her, how much more would Will upon discovering she was his full sister? And he already disfavored her.
The next couple hours were the most uncomfortable Annette had ever spent. She refused to speak to Trevor, still angry at him for ruining everything with his news. The sage continued talking, narrowly avoiding the big information in a painfully obvious way. Will scowled and kept whining about the delay.
It was a relief when her feet were unwrapped and declared healed enough to walk upon. The siblings took up their packs, which had been discarded outside the cottage door, thanked Trevor for his aid, and continued.
“Do we have to go back into Poldar?” Annette tentatively asked.
“Yes,” Will barked, then hesitated in his next step. “Yes,” this time more gently. “There is no other way.”
No other way for what? Annette was about to ask—but they stepped back into Poldar and a troll jumped up behind them, and she knew it would have to wait.
Three days later, Will could barely believe they were still alive. The king’s wish for the Fern’s blessing must have come true. He lay on sticky, moist ground, exhausted and panting from having just escaped a pitfall that he and Annette had accidentally found. Despite facing a troll, four ogres, a flash flood, a swarm of mosquitoes, vomit-inducing water from a lake, and a dozen other threats, the two of them had managed to stay alive against all odds.
Instinct made him look left to see a pair of large, orange eyes peering through the dead foliage. He grabbed Annette’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m really sorry, but we have to climb a tree now,” he managed to get out.
“What is it this time?” she mumbled, sitting up slowly. Her hair was a stringy mess of mud, twigs, and pebbles, as his own must have been.
“Probably a grizzly bear,” he answered, pulling her with him as he stood. The eyes blinked. He pushed Annette toward the closest tree, grabbed under her arms, and boosted her to the lowest branch. As soon as she struggled to stand up on it and reached for the next limb, he jumped and dragged himself up. His weary muscles screamed for rest, but a snout appeared out of the bushes, followed by a huge head with stubby ears and then a gigantic furry body, lumbering right at them with a roar.
“Will!” Annette called.
“Climb!” he shouted back.
He grabbed onto the next branch and swung his feet up seconds before huge, sharp claws raked the air he had just occupied.
The bear reared up, swiping for them. They climbed higher. His arms shook, and he was sure Annette was nearing the last of her strength. “Just a little bit higher,” he encouraged her in a flat voice. The bark bit splinters into his palms.
“I can’t go any further.” She crouched on a stumpy branch, arms wrapped around the tree trunk.
“Okay,” he allowed. “We should be out of its reach.”
So they clung to the tree as the bear paced below. How long would it be before they could get out of this one?
He should use the elevation to get their bearings, he decided. The view around them was much the same: Gray trees bearing black, slimy leaves. Then something caught his eyes. Tall towers of stone interrupted the dreary landscape. He never thought he could feel relief at the sight of his childhood home, but he could describe this current sensation by no other word.
“We’re going to make it,” he sighed. “We’re almost there.”
Annette shifted to bring her feet out from under her and dangle her legs on each side of the branch. “Can you tell me what we’re doing when we get there?” she inquired.
“Saving the Golden Fern.”
“Oh.” Surprise tinted her voice.
“You didn’t know?”
She shook her head.
“Then what are you still doing here? Are you insane? Why stay with me when you didn’t know and could have stayed safe with the sage?” This girl—she did the oddest things. Not that he was complaining. Usually the odd things she did helped them evade capture or escape attacks. He was growing more fond of her than he remembered being of anyone in his life.
She avoided meeting his eyes. “I’m supposed to be with you. The Fern said. Why would I go anywhere else?”
He shook his head. “You’re crazy.” But mild affection—he thought that would be the name for it—colored his denouncement.
When Will’s arms were growing numb and his legs past cramping, the grizzly finally lost interest and wandered off. Half an hour later, they dared climb down and press on toward the castle. OF course, the ground kept rising, so they were limping uphill. The flies were biting something fierce. Every sound made them jump.
Somehow, they received no further challenge until the dead plants cleared onto the castle path. Memories of his childhood flooded his mind as his boots and Annette’s bare feet crunched on the sharp gravel. Those memories quickly dispelled any relief he had previously experienced and warned him to prepare for the reunion with his parents.
Yet nothing could have prepared him to find his parents and a balding, middle-aged man at the castle door, or to hear the words the king spoke: “Hello, Bill. Nice of you and your sister to come home.”
There he was, back at last. Of course, he would need a good scrubbing before he could be thoroughly recognizable as her son, but he was back, and that was what mattered.
She should have been elated, should have felt victorious, or she should have been furious at the boy. Yet all Louise felt was uneasiness. Maxwell was no doubt gloating over his victory, and that alone was enough to put her in a poor mood, but the stupid little fat man beside him had a devious smirk that made her mistrust all was well.
And her presence gave Louise more misgivings. They had taken Bill from a poor young couple near the outskirts of the country, choosing people who would not be missed. She had wanted to take both infants, a twin boy and girl, to have a second option if one died, but Max had been adamant that they only needed the boy. It had all happened quickly, their attack on the unsuspecting house. Bill should have been the only survivor—but Maxwell had slipped (though he blamed her) and the mother escaped with the girl. “The woman is gravely injured,” he’d dismissed her worries. “Neither of them will last.”
Now here she was, grown up. Did Bill know he was adopted? Was everything ruined for good?
The boy gasped and sputtered. “My sister?” He turned to the girl beside him, whose eyes were wide, but not with surprise. “You know?”
“Will,” she squeaked in a pathetic voice that made Louise’s lips curl.
“You knew?” Bill’s voice grew. “How could you not tell me?”
The girl curled her shoulders forward. “I just—Trevor told me. But I didn’t want—”
“Didn’t want what?” Bill demanded, scowling.
She dropped her head, stringy brown hair falling over her filthy face. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
The nameless sorcerer laughed.
Louise bit her tongue, remembering their first meeting. “Tell me your name,” she had demanded.
“Sorry, but no. There is power in names. I would be a fool to trust you with mine.”
He spoke to the children. “Ah, this is delightful. But let us get to the real reason you are here. You, Bill, want to save Ferngold, and you, Annette, want your family.”
Then the courage of the little waif surprised Louise. “They’re not my family,” she pointed at her and Maxwell. “And his name’s Will.”
“Very well, so you want to be with Bill,” the sorcerer continued. “Both of you cannot have your way. Here,” he waved at a table she hadn’t noticed before, “is the antidote that will heal the Fern.”
Bill started forward, but the girl grabbed him. “Wait! It might be a trap.”
The sorcerer smirked, and Louise almost wished they had taken the girl instead of the boy. She seemed cleverer, anyways—although that was not saying much. Ooh, Louise could have done great things with a mind like that.
“You wound me with your mistrust,” the sorcerer placed a hand to his chest. “But perhaps there is something more to the exchange than I have let on.”
“Then say it,” Bill ordered.
Maxwell tisked. “Bill, where are your manners? Respect the powerful sorcerer or he might do you harm.”
Bill glared at them. “He’s working with you. I think he already has plans to do me harm.”
“Not necessarily,” the sorcerer hedged. “You should know, though, that this table is enchanted. Anyone who touches what is upon it will forget the past two years of their life.”
“I’ll forget everything since I ran away.” Bill’s face slipped into a blank mask. “Then it will be pointless. I won’t even remember to take the cure to Ferngold.”
Maxwell stepped forward. “Oh, do not concern yourself. On my word as a Kangraff, I will send you to deliver it. The fools will have their magic bush back.”
Bill glanced at the girl by his side and stepped closer to her. “What about Annette?”
“I’m glad you mention her,” the sorcerer smiled. Excitement filled Louise at the evil look in his eye. “You can forget the past two years and save Ferngold, or you can save your sister and she will live out the rest of her life in the dungeons.”
“Save me from what?” the girl asked.
“Again, I’m glad you asked.” The sorcerer brought his hands out of his coat, and with them a throwing knife that glinted in the harsh sunlight. In one fluid motion, he drew his arm back and threw it straight at the girl’s chest. The children’s screams split the humid air.
“Save her from a poisoned knife wound to her heart,” the sorcerer finished.
Annette was no stranger to being stabbed. Almost weekly, splinters left in the ashy remains of fires at the Ferngold castle would pierce her hands or feet. She would simply pull them out, squeeze out a few drops of blood, and continue with her life.
Instinct told her this stabbing would be far different.
She clutched the gilt hilt of the knife protruding from her chest. The desires to yank it out like a splinter and to do everything possible not to move it warred in her while bright red blood made her hands slick.
Someone was calling her name. He sounded a long way away.
Hands rested on her upper arms. They were so comfortingly warm. She tore her eyes away from the growing stain above her heart and found Will in front of her.
Will. Her brother. Now he knew; but fear and concern filled his face. Why didn’t he hate her? Maybe that would come later.
Her knees buckled. Will helped her down to rest on the ground, and the buzzing in her ears lessened.
“Annette,” Will choked out. “What do we do?” He stared at her red hands.
A weak man’s voice carried over to them. Oh, yes, the bald man—was he a sorcerer? “You must choose quickly. Your sister’s life, or the Golden Fern?”
Will looked between the vial held in the sorcerer’s hand and the table holding the cure for Ferngold’s guardian, then looked back at her. His eyebrows knit his forehead into a mass of lines. “You’re my sister?” he whispered, pleading.
She nodded. “The sage said,” she panted. Speaking awoke a fury of pain in her lungs. She ground her teeth and held the knife more tightly.
“I can’t—I can’t let you die,” the boy protested.
“Will,” she started, but he sprang to his feet, grabbed a branch from the ground, and ran toward the sorcerer, screaming all the way. Before he was half way to the castle steps, the sorcerer muttered words in a strange language and Will flew backward, landing next to her.
“You cannot defeat me!” the sorcerer laughed. “I know your name. I have power over you. Choose now.”
Will rolled toward her. One of his hands wrapped around her blood-soaked ones. “I can’t lose you,” he touched her cheek. She could barely feel his touch, and her legs felt numb. “I just found you. You’re my sister.”
It was getting hard to breathe. “You have to save Ferngold,” she forced out. “That’s why the Telling Tree brought us together. Will…”
All her life, Annette had been insignificant. From peasant’s adopted daughter to fireplace maid, her life had never mattered to more than one person, nor had she ever had cause for acts of nobility or courage.
That, too, she knew was now changing. Her life may have been insignificant, but her death could be a noble sacrifice, and she thought maybe that made her a hero in the end.
Will shook his head. Maybe it was her blurring vision, but his eyes looked red. “No. I’ll forget everything good I’ve ever known, and I’ll forget you.”
“It’s okay.” Her voice shook. She took a few shallow breaths and pulled a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Go,” she ordered.
Her hand fell when he slid out from under it, but it left a bloody handprint on his sleeve. Just before he reached the table holding the cure, he looked back at her. With the last of her strength, Annette nodded at him.
Then the air around her stretched, and she felt herself hurtling across space. The agony in her chest tore a scream from her throat, which ended abruptly when landing on a mattress knocked out her breath. She stared up, not into the blinding Poldar sun, but into the faces of Trevor the sage and an equally-gray, completely unknown woman.
Trevor clucked. “Well, we did it, Evangelina,” he told his companion. “My good magician, let us hope we are not too late.”
Then everything went black.
Bill glanced at his mother, then back at the package in his hand. How did he get here, to the front of the castle? Wasn’t he in his cold bedroom a moment ago? He had been plotting how to run away.
“Hush, Louise,” his father’s nasly voice rebuked. Now Bill, as I was saying, you’re not a kid anymore. No more pampering for you.”
Bill fought the urge to laugh. Since when did denying your child meals and whipping him count as pampering?
The king continued, “First new duty: The whelps of Ferngold are whining for help. Their magic plant’s sick, they say, and our sorcerer’s the only one who knows how to save it. You’re taking the antidote for us. Diplomatic relations’ll teach you some manners.”
Maybe on the way, he could escape. “Can I take my sister with me?” he asked, still staring a the bag in his hand.
“W…what sister?” his parents asked.
“Oh.” Where had that come from? Of course, he was an only child. “I don’t have a sister,” he said. “Sorry, my mind is being odd today.”
Even more odd was the lack of rebuke that followed his mental slip.
In the days leading up to his journey, Bill spent hours trying to devise a plan of escape. When could he slip away from the army of soldiers who would accompany him? Where would he go? He sat on a rough wooden stool and stared into an empty fireplace. Why were there so many fireplaces in this palace if none of them were ever lit?
Sadly, the cold hearth provided no inspiration.
“It’s time to go,” his mother barked behind him. “You should put some shoes on.”
“I was born in the dirt and live among the ashes,” he replied automatically. “What need have I for shoes?”
“What are you talking about?” the queen yelled, cuffing him over the ear.
“I…I don’t know.” He shook his head, feeling like cobwebs were keeping him from an important understanding. “I must have heard the saying somewhere.”
“Well, get your shoes on,” she swore at him. “Your father will not be happy with you.”
Knowledge of impending punishment had little effect on him anymore. At the leisurely pace he desired, Bill trudged to his room to put on his shoes that pinched his toes and gave him blisters.
Discarded in the corner of the room lay his filthy tunic from days before. Something about it unsettled him to no end. Where had that small, bloody handprint come from? His parents said he had walked into the forest in his sleep and been accosted by evil ruffians—but no one he had ever seen had a hand that small.
Something about looking at it made a lump grow in his throat.
“Where is that boy!” his father’s voice thundered through the echoey corridors.
Bill cursed under his breath and yanked his boots on. If nothing else, the trip to Ferngold would get him away from his parents. How he hated being under their harsh words and heavy hands! Surely family was supposed to be more than this.
“Bill! Get your lazy self out here this instant!” his father hollered.
With a deep sigh, Bill went.
A large blot spread over the parchment, marring the curves of the letters around it. Steven frowned at the page. With a sigh, he dabbed the blotch with a cloth and picked up a razor to scrape off the blemish.
That activity was one with which he was becoming quite familiar. Indeed, ever since he’d stood beside Will Scriber, nee Bill Kangraff, and seen the Telling Tree shrivel and blacken, everyone in Ferngold was becoming increasingly adept at fixing mistakes. The simplest and largest things kept going wrong, from milk spoiling too soon to farmers having deadly accidents with scythes and hoes. The king, queen, and princess spent all day trying with limited success to keep order and instill hope, while most people, like Steven, simply tried to live under the loss of the Fern’s blessing as best they could.
Through the open window came the tramp of heavily-shod feet. Curiosity got the better of him. With a glance to verify the master wasn’t at the door, Steven climbed on his bench to peer outside. Sunlight glinted off metal armor and weaponry. An army had come to Ferngold! And in its midst he saw the familiar face of his old co-apprentice.
But where was Annette?
The master’s rage he could survive later. Now, he needed to know what had befallen his friends.
He accidentally spilled the inkwell on the table when he tried to replace its lid, but cleaning it up would have to wait. He slipped through the small back door and began weaving through the throng gathered to witness the Poldarian army.
By the use of elbows and treading on the toes of obstacles, he managed to find a place in the castle throne room from which he could see the exchange between Scriber and his monarchs. The king’s face was warm and kind. “I am very glad to see you,” he told Will in the hearing of the crowd. “We feared your journey would be treacherous.”
He could see only Will’s back, but his voice sounded bored. “Thank you for your concern, but traveling by army does mitigate risks.”
The king blinked, then nodded. “I’m sure it does. But you did not have an escort the whole way?”
“Please, enough with these irksome pleasantries,” Will waved a hand clad in a glove that Steven wagered cost more than he earned in a year. “I come to deliver your plant’s antidote. Take it, and I’ll be gone.”
The king’s look deepened into a frown. “Oh. Yes, thank you. We are deeply indebted to your kindness and sacrifice.”
With a bow that could not have demonstrated more stiffness if his back were made of wood, Will turned to leave.
Was that it? Steven wondered incredulously. He was leaving without a word? Where even was Annette? “Hey!” he shouted, squeezing between an old man and a portly woman. “Will!” He reached out toward the prince as if his gesture could stop him.
The prince squinted at him as if trying and failing to recognize his face. “What right have you to address me so, peasant?” he almost sneered.
Steven gaped at him like a gasping fish before he found his voice. “What right? Why—Willy, it’s me, your mate Steven. I’ve only worked beside you this past year as the master scribe’s apprentices.”
“If you want demonstrate your madness, do it on your own time. Remember your place and leave me alone.”
The queen spoke up. “Your majesty, I ask that you speak to my subjects with more civility.”
Steven wrinkled his nose. “Fine. You want to put on airs and do wrong by him that saved your starving life? Then I say good riddance. But at least tell me, is she okay?”
At that question, Will started. “She?”
“Aye,” Steven rolled his eyes. “She. Annette. The girl who went with you.”
“Annette.” Will rolled the name over his tongue, tilting his head to the side.
Anxiety gripped Steven. Had something befallen the girl, and the prince was too great a coward to tell him? He lurched forward, grabbing will by the front of his fine shirt. Will’s guards shouted, but Steven didn’t care. “Where is she?” he demanded. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Will pushed him back.
“Tell me where she is! What have you done with Annette?”
“Get off me,” was Will’s only response, and Steven felt his worst fears were confirmed. Annette must have fallen to a terrible evil, and the yellow-livered prince he had once called his friend had allowed it. Before the soldiers could grab him, he drew back his arm and swung his fist at the prince’s face. “She was my friend,” he yelled. Poldarian soldiers and Ferngold guards alike grabbed him, but he continued to shout. “She was only with you because of the Fern’s words to you. How dare you! How dare you let her be hurt! You’re nothing but the lowest, meanest rat of Poldar, you stupid Kangraff. I thought you were different.” Hands clapped over his mouth then. All he could do was struggle against his captors and glare hatred at the restored prince, who clutched his swelling eye and stared at him in bewilderment.
Maybe someday he would regret violating his apprenticeship and ending up imprisoned for assaulting a foreign leader. When the cell door clicked shut and Steven rubbed his bruised knuckles, though, all he felt was grief for Annette’s loss and satisfaction at the look on Will’s traitorous face right after he punched him.
What a beautiful night it was, with the air holding the coolness of the end of summer and the fragrant scent of the Golden Fern, which was once more golden. Joyce hummed to herself as she sat outside the servants’ entrance to the castle, polishing the cutlery. Strains of music from the festivities celebrating the healing of the Fern earlier that day drifted through the evening air. She glanced up at the few stars that were beginning to show and sighed in contentment. Her chores were almost done, and not once had she dropped clean silverware in the dirt or cut her finger on a hidden sharp edge. Ferngold was back to the way it should be.
Heavy steps and a muffled curse drew near around the corner. Joyce paused her polishing and tilted an ear toward the sound. “I told you to leave me alone,” a young man’s voice hissed.
A deeper voice answered him. “Aye, so you did, your majesty, but your parents gave me firm orders not to let ya out of my sight.”
“How will they find out? I won’t tell them.”
“But they got my family in custody,” the deep voice responded, “and they’re worth a peck more to me than you are. So I’ll be coming with you, if you don’t mind.”
“I clearly do mind.”
“And I clearly don’t care.”
The squabblers rounded the corner. Joyce coughed to alert them of her presence, arched an eyebrow, and went back to her chore, paying no mind to the well-clothed young man or his armored bodyguard.
The young man stiffened and strode toward her. “You,” he pointed.
She looked him over with an expression of disinterest. “Me?”
“I need into the dungeons,” he ordered. “You will take me there.”
“I will?” she pursed her lips. Really, it wasn’t enough to be ordered around all day by superiors. Would it really hurt people to ask instead of demand?
“Yes, you will,” the young man agreed, oblivious to her meaning.
“And why is that?”
He threw his shoulders as far back as they would go. “I need to speak with a young man who was imprisoned today. I am Prince William Kangraff of Poldar. I am the one who saved your sickly bush.”
She placed the last fork in her pot and stood, taking her polished silverware with her. “Well, thank you kindly for that, Prince, but I’d best be going now.”
Panic briefly flashed across his face. “Wait, why aren’t you helping me?”
She sighed. “Don’t they teach you manners in your fancy Prince education? You could at least ask, if you’re wanting a complete stranger to do a favor for you.”
Surprise crossed his dark brown eyes. “Oh. Um, will you take me to the dungeons?” His shoulders stiffened with the question.
“Please?” she prompted with an encouraging smile.
She gave a deep nod and gestured with her shoulder for him to follow. “I would be honored to assist our savior in his very odd endeavor.”
He was making progress, but still he neglected to add a “thank you” before he and his guard followed along behind her.
The festivities thankfully meant that few servants were in the regular passages. Joyce doubted it would be easy to explain why she and a foreign prince and escort were sneaking around the castle en route to the dungeons. She didn’t even know their reason. “What do you need in the dungeons?” she asked, fitting a key into the locked door that led to the prison passageway.
He hesitated. “I…the man I want to see, it’s my fault he’s there. He said a name I’ve heard in a dream.”
The jailor came to the grated door when Joyce knocked. She often brought the prisoners’ food, so he was familiar with her face. “Good evening, Joyce,” he greeted. “What brings you down so late? And who are your companions?”
“Hello, Charles,” she grinned at him. “This is the Prince of Poldar, who saved our Fern, and his nanny. They wished to speak with the prisoner who was brought in today.”
Charles chuckled and inspected the men beside her. “The boy who gave you that black eye?” he asked the prince.
William frowned and nodded sharply.
“Well, I guess you can come on in,” the jailor stepped aside from the grate to unlock the door and usher them inside. He led them to one of the cell doors, which likewise had a small grate. “Eh, Steven,” he called, poking his face up to the grille. “You got visitors.”
A face of a young man half-way between boyhood and adulthood appeared. The smile he wore slipped off his face when he saw the prince. This should be interesting, Joyce thought. She stepped aside to observe the exchange and appreciate its entertainment.
“What are you doing here?” the prisoner huffed. “Come to mock me some more, Willy?”
“Why do you call me that?” William gripped the iron bars and squinted at Steven.
He shook his head and pressed his lips together. “Aw, come on. We were mates. We worked side-by-side for a year. We were close as kin, Will, you and me. Why’re you acting all high and airy?”
“You must be lying,” the prince insisted. “I’ve never been to Ferngold before in my life. I’ve always lived in a horrible, drafty castle with the rats that scurry around my room at night as my closest friends.” He hesitated, then continued, “I have never seen you before in my life, but I feel like you speak the truth.”
Steven stood taller to grip the bars above William’s hands and lean as close as he could. His green eyes searched the prince’s face, then he dropped back. “You really believe that,” he said in wonder. “What did they do to you two?”
“Who? What did who do?”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember I’ve been planning to run away, but haven’t figured out how. Then a few weeks ago I woke up outside the castle with a little bloody handprint on my dirty sleeve, and no memory of where it came from.”
“Anything else odd happened recently?”
He shook his head. “No. Well, my parents got a sorcerer. And for a second I thought I had a sister.”
Steven hummed. “Well. I’m going to tell you, it seems you’ve forgot a whole year somehow. You did run away, and I found you and we apprenticed as scribes together. Then the Telling Tree called for you and told you to find my good friend Annette, and someone poisoned the Fern, and you two set out to Poldar to save us all. Then next thing I know you come back alone and don’t know me or her.”
“Annette,” the prince repeated her name. “I know that name. I should know that name, but I don’t.” His jaw twitched as he stared at the stone wall, deep in thought. Then he spun around, grabbed Charles the jailor’s stool, and swung it at the back of his guard’s head. Joyce shrieked and ducked out of the way, and Charles flinched. “What did you do that for?!” he shouted at the prince as the guard dropped unconscious to the floor.
“Good sir,” William said, “please inform the king and queen that Prince William of Poldar rescinded his charges against the apprentice Steven. If you would be so kind as to let him out, I would greatly appreciate it.”
“What?” all three of them responded in harmony.
“I can’t run away without my new page,” he said as if it was obvious. “Steven and I are going to find Annette.”
It was dim and damp inside the tavern nestled in a rocky nook near the edge of Poldar, too cool for comfort on the outside of the room and too warm near the fire. Decades of filth coated everything in a veneer of gray-brown and left the air vaguely odorous.
Harried barmaids darted back and forth in an attempt to carry out their job and avoid the snatching hands of the patrons. These were rough men, bounty hunters, slavers, and mercenaries who wandered from tavern to tavern, performing their disreputable professions as they went. A group of them lolled against the bar singing bawdy songs in a key unknown to any skilled musician. Along one wall, they huddled together throwing dice and shuffling cards, seeing who could, by tricks or treachery, defraud the others out of more money.
And a trio, kicking off their dirt-caked shoes and sloshing beer as they drank, sat by the fire and exchanged news from which one could derive the chance to make a profit. An old gray dog laying in the shadows perked his ears to listen to their conversation.
“I hear the prince up and run away,” the shortest of the men began.
One of his companions stroked his long, unkempt black beard. “Well, Tom, don’t you go believin’ everything ya hear. They just got ‘im back. King and Queen wouldn’t let ‘im get loose so quick.”
The third man, across whose cheek ran a long, white scar, held up a hand. “Now, Gary, it’s true. My brother what’s in the army were sent with the prince to those weaklings in Ferngold, and ‘e told me, ‘e said, ‘Marty, we was watchin’ the prince, but ‘e got away. Gave us the slip in the middle of the night, and near killed ‘is ol’ body guard.’”
Gary looked appropriately impressed. “Who knew? Kid’s got some nerves to ‘im.”
Marty nodded. “Bet there’s a high reward for ‘is capture an’ return, too. ‘Nuf for us to split.” He and Gary started laughing.
“That ain’t the only thing I heard,” Tom interrupted their mirth.
“Oh? What else?” Marty raised his overgrown eyebrows.
“I hear the prince is pokin’ about, lookin’ for a girl who don’t wear shoes. Seems mighty important to ‘im.”
They may have continued their conversation, but at that point, the old dog stood up and slunk out of the tavern. He trotted along unopposed, crossing from the rot-covered ground of Poldar to the springy grass of Clachan and turning toward a small cottage. Smoke curled up from its chimney. As he drew near, his ears twitched to hear voices inside it.
“I’m sorry, Trevor,” a high female voice said. “I did the best I could, and came as soon as I got the vision. If I knew any other remedy for her, do you really think I’d hold it back? I want her to live as much as you do.”
At the sound of a man’s voice, the dog’s tail wagged. “I know, Evangelina. I’m just fretting about her. Poor young Annette. If only we had gotten her here even a couple minutes sooner.”
The dog nudged the cottage door open with his nose as Trevor sighed. He and a woman with straight gray hair cascading over her purple-clad shoulders hovered over the sleeping form of a girl, whose knife wound they had been working on healing for a fortnight. Both conscious humans turned at his woof.
“Ah, you are back, boy,” Trevor mirrored the dog’s grin, hunkering down to rub his ears. “What did you find?”
The dog let out a series of growls, yaps, and whines while Trevor listened closely and nodded.
“You did the spell?” Evangelina asked incredulously.
“Of course I did,” Trevor answered with a pat to the dog’s back. “He is my old friend. It was only fitting that I reward him for years of service by enabling him to communicate with me.”
“He is a dog,” the woman reminded him.
“Aw, don’t listen to her, boy,” the sage chuckled. “And you would not be so quick to dismiss him if you heard what news he brings.”
“And what is that?”
“Why, young Will has run away and is looking for our young Annette.”
Evangelina straightened her shoulders. “That is excellent news! Then my vision may yet come true.”
All three looked back at the bed. “Well,” Trevor voiced their thoughts, “first she must wake up. If Annette cannot give Will his memory back, then all hope will be lost.”
“It’s all your fault,” Louise Kangraff’s repellent tones grated on his ears.
“No, it’s yours. If we’d followed my plans, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Maxwell’s slimy voice whined back.
He sighed deeply and rubbed his bald temple. This is why he never had had children. Their incessant whining had been going on for two days, and they had made no progress. If he was to bear much more, he certainly needed tea.
While the unloving couple carried on their yelling match, he took a pinch from one of his powder pots and flicked it into the cold fireplace. Sparks exploded into a roaring flame that licked the dry logs on the grate. Checking the water level, he swung the kettle over the fire and began preparing three teacups.
With any luck, these ones would fare differently than their brethren and remain intact, not hurled against a dingy stone wall in a fit of rage.
“She shouldn’t have survived in the first place,” Maxwell was saying.
The sorcerer moved to offer the couple their tea, which they accepted automatically and then carried on with their fight.
“Well, if your nameless sorcerer is so powerful, how did she get away from him?”
And there it was, the question for which he had been waiting—the question to which he would also like an answer. In their first act of agreement that he had witnessed, Louise and Max turned on him. “How did she get away?” the king repeated.
He put on his most superior, knowing smile. “It was all part of the plan, of course,” he assured them, sipping his tea. “How else would Bill completely forget about her? I had to send her away.”
“But what if she finds him?”
“Ghosts aren’t real, your majesty.” His belly shook as he chuckled.
Louise’s eyes narrowed. “You mean she’s dead?”
“The blade I stuck her with was poisoned with the rarest poison in existence, whose antidote is even rarer,” he assured them. His old teacher was the only other living soul to know of the antidote’s existence. The odds that whatever powerful force had ripped the girl from their presence somehow decided to drop her in the cottage of a batty old hermit who talked to his dog were so small that he would take his chances. “She is dead.”
“That doesn’t solve how we will find Bill,” Louise pointed out.
“Don’t you have an army?” he taunted. “I’m not your personal retriever spaniel.”
“He’s looking for the girl,” Maxwell reasoned. “That should make him easier to find. We’ll set every soldier and bounty hunter for hire to looking for him.”
Louise took a sip of her tea, and he relaxed. The brew would do its work, and he would not need to replace another teacup. Her shoulders were already losing some of their tension as she smiled. “They’ll find him this time,” she sounded sure. “When they do, we’ll give him such a beating he’ll never dare run away from us again.”
Their footsteps were loud in the quiet, dead forest, snapping twigs underfoot like thunder to Bill’s ears.
“We need to change tactics,” the peasant Steven declared.
“Why?” he grunted, pulling himself up over a rotting log blocking their path. “We’re trying to follow the path we think we would have taken. If we split up, she’d be somewhere nearby.”
“We’ve been poking our heads into inns for the past two weeks, and we’re nowhere nearer to finding her,” Steven answered. “I think your parents are on to us, too. Last place we were, I heard a couple men talking.”
“What did they say?”
“Well,” he paused to jump over a pitfall, “I didn’t actually hear enough to know for sure, but it seemed like they’re looking for someone of your description.”
Bill scoffed, “You didn’t hear enough? How can you not hear enough to actually know what was said? We keep looking. If she’s alive, she has to be staying somewhere.”
The apprentice muttered under his breath, too softly for Bill to hear. “What did you say?” he asked.
“I said,” he raised his voice, “‘I liked you better before you were a numbskull.’”
“I can have you executed for that, you know,” he bit back.
Steven laughed. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare.”
Their bickering continued until they reached the next inn, at which point it escalated to a near shouting match that resolved when both decided to glower at the other in silence. Bill pulled open the splintered wood door with more force than was necessary and stomped up to the counter, calling for the proprietor. “What can I do fer ya?” the man peered at him calculatedly.
He cleared his throat. “I’m looking for a girl,” he answered. “A specific one. She’d be about this tall,” he brought a hand up to his shoulder, “brown hair, bare feet, probably called ‘Annette.’ Have you seen her?”
The proprietor tilted his head to the side. “Now, it’s my honor to protect the priv’cy of my guests,” he drawled. “I cain’t just be telling out information like that.”
He drew out a gold coin, tapped it on the counter to prove its genuineness, and slid it toward the man. “I respect that, and I promise utmost discretion with the information,” he said easily.
The man slipped the coin from the counter and rubbed it between his fingers. “Hmm,” he pretended to think, then something in his eyes switched and he looked to be actually thinking. Feeling behind the counter, he drew forth a stained paper with a rustle. “Hey, ain’t you this guy?” he pointed at the flier.
Bill’s eyes skimmed over the paper, and Steven put aside their tension long enough to come forward and read with him. “Wanted,” it read: “Prince William ‘Bill’ Kangraff, young man, brown hair, possibly seeking a girl of similar appearance by the name of ‘Annette.’ Will pay 1,000 gold for his safe return to the castle of Poldar.” He cursed his parents under his breath. It wasn’t enough that he had to look for a girl he couldn’t remember ever seeing in his life, now he had every petty criminal and bounty hunter after him. “Nah, that can’t be me,” he shrugged off the proprietor’s accusation. “Name’s Kevin, not Prince. Well, thank you for your assistance. We’ll be on our way now.”
Trying to keep a casual pace, he turned and stalked out of the inn. Steven’s footsteps behind him assured him the boy was following. “This is not good,” he called once they were out of earshot of the inn.
“Obviously,” Bill bit back. “Come on, pick up the pace. We need to put as much distance as possible between us and here.”
At first, Bill let himself hope. Perhaps they could get away without really drawing any attention. Perhaps he had somehow fooled the proprietor.
But then the sounds of pursuit grew behind them. He threw a glance over his shoulder. Raising a cloud of dust were two horses trotting toward them.
“Run!” Steven shouted. For once, Bill didn’t argue. They broke into a sprint, dodging between trees to make pursuit more difficult for their pursuers. A cramp grew in Bill’s side, and he panted for breath as they ran. “Look!” Steven’s voice drew his attention forward. Green peeked between trees, bright splashes of color cutting through the drab of Poldar.
“That’s Clachan,” Bill called back, veering right.
Beside him, Steven pushed him left. “So go toward it!” he yelled. “We’ll be safe there.”
“I can’t,” he shoved back.
“We have to,” he thrust his shoulder against him.
Then their momentum carried them over the border between kingdoms. Bill skidded to a halt, freezing in place. On the other side of the border, the mounted men drew up their horses, waiting.
How long would it take? Or were the stories of the terror of Clachan on which he grew up simply stories?
Their pursuers must have decided that’s all they were, because they loosened their reins and kicked their horses forward. The beasts crossed over into Clachan, and a heavy whirlwind stirred up. The boys shouted, the horses shied, and the wind swept toward the riders, picking them up out of their saddles and whisking them away.
“What just happened!?” Steven hollered.
“It’s the magician’s blessing,” Bill explained. Careful not to disturb the ground too much, he gingerly pushed himself to his feet. “Clachan hates those who threaten it, especially Poldar and Treakstand.”
“Then why are you okay?”
Before he could answer, something behind Bill barked. He whirled around, greeted by the sight of a grey dog lunging at him. He stumbled backward, tripping over a tree root that he hadn’t seen, and the dog was on him, taking his sleeve in its jaw and tugging him toward a little cottage.
“What’s wrong with it?” Steven asked.
“Get it off of me!” Bill squawked, trying to yank his sleeve free.
The cottage door swung open and a heavyset old man stepped outside. “Good boy,” he called, and the dog released Bill and trotted over to him.
Bill scrambled to his feet. “Your dog is crazy,” he insulted, pointing an accusatory finger at the hound.
The old man frowned. “That’s no way to talk to the man who saved your life,” he rebuked. “I’m astonished at you, Will.”
“What? My name’s Bill.”
His frown deepened. “Indeed. Well, that is a development. Come inside, both of you. I’ll make us some tea and we can figure out what is afoot. I am Trevor the sage, by the way.”
He knew he should run the other way, but something inside made Bill think he should trust Trevor. With a look to Steven that warned him to be alert, they accepted the offer and ducked into a cluttered, single-room hut. The bed in the corner instantly drew his attention. Forgetting manners, he wandered further into the house, stopping beside the bed to peer down at a pale, unconscious girl. The rustle of robes alerted him to their host joining him. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he asked, “Who is she?”
“Your sister,” the man answered. “And unless you can awaken her, she will surely die.”
With sharp eyes, Steven took in the cottage. Against one wall hung countless bunches of herbs and pewter pots of varying sizes. Facing that wall was a shoulder-high bookshelf laden with ancient tomes that filled the shelves and piled on top of each other nearly up to the ceiling. Words such as “Healing” and “Enchantments” stood out in faded gilt lettering on the bindings. A rough-hewn work table strewn with papers and measuring instruments stood next to the single bed holding his unconscious childhood friend.
On a three-legged side table by an ancient apholstered armchair rested a contraption of lenses that differed in size and thickness, the one article that truly confirmed the strange old man’s claim that he was a sage. He had copied a book about magical folk once, a long, arduous task for one of the master’s more eccentric customers, and it claimed that sages always had looking-glasses to help enhance their sight. Seeing the gadget, Steven relaxed, ignoring Will’s warning glance. Sages might be magic, but according to the book, they were harmless, only able to see the past, present, and future and perform minor charms.
It was time to turn his attention to Annette, and when he really looked at the girl, he knew that a sage was the least of their worries. Her face held an unhealthy pallor and looked thin, like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. “What’s wrong with her?” he blurted out, unable to stop his brow from pinching in worry.
“I don’t have a sister,” Will said, facing the sage.
Steven must have missed something in his observation of the cottage. “What?” he exclaimed. “Surely you don’t think these two’re related? Why, I knew Annette all her life, and she only has a sister!”
Trevor the sage looked at him. “Yes, indeed. You were close, perhaps closer to her than anyone else. But your lines diverged recently—maybe two, three years ago?”
“Yeh,” he agreed. “When her dad died and she went to work in the castle, and I had to start apprentice-ing.”
“Well, when the two of them were here not a month ago, she believed me when I read their bloodlines,” Trevor revealed.
“What!” Will protested. “I’ve never been here before in my life.”
“My vision may be weak, but I can certainly see a connection as strong as blood relation. And perhaps, my boy, the correct phrase should be, ‘I’ve never been here before in my memory.’”
“You mean they really came by here?” Steven checked, glancing at the bed. “What happened? Why didn’t they stay together?”
Trevor shook his head. “They did stay together then. Come, sit yourselves down,” he shooed them toward a pair of stools by the fireplace. “I’ll answer all your questions, and perhaps some more, but first I need my tea, and it would do you no harm to have some, either.”
Steven was inclined to comply, grateful to have safe lodgings for once since he joined his old mate who didn’t remember him. The new Will, on the other hand, did not take kindly to directions from others. He lowered himself onto the proffered stool and leaned his forearms on his knees to watch the prince’s face darken. “Do you know who I am?” he growled.
“You are William, crowned prince of Poldar, formerly and currently runaway, previously a…scribe? At least, that’s judging from your connection to this young man here, whose ink-stained garments give away his profession,” the sage conjectured.
Steven laughed. “He’s spot-on, Willy. I like this guy.”
At that, Will grumbled but sat.
Only when all three men held steaming cups in their hands did Trevor speak again. “Not quite a month ago, I opened my door to find that young lady supporting the young prince here, who was nearly unconscious and was covered in festering purple boils,” he explained. “I nursed him to health, told Annette of their relation, healed her feet, and sent them on their way. You two were on some desperate journey,” he nodded to Will, “but you wouldn’t say what. A week later, my old friend Evangelina showed up. She’s an enchantress, you know, and had just had a vision concerning young Annette and claimed we had to rescue her. She needed my library to do so, and together we managed to transport the girl from wherever she was at the time to my cottage. Not a moment too soon, either: She had a poisoned knife sticking out of her stomach.
“Well, I set to work healing her the best I could. It was a rare poison, but I happened to have the antidote onhand. There was a charm about the knife, though, something I can’t undo. Only a person she loves can wake her from whatever hold the charm has over her. She fights the charm. She’s strong, and sometimes she manages to call your name; but she is not strong enough.”
“Suppose I believe you,” Will crossed his arms. “Suppose you’re not feeding me lies like I think you are. How would I wake her?”
“Only you know that,” the sage smiled sadly. “But I am right. You have been made to forget by a forgetfulness spell, but lost memories cannot erase everything. You have a scar on your left arm, where a tree branch sliced you deeply. You will not remember receiving the wound, but it is there, nonetheless.”
Will rolled up his sleeve and checked his skin, then frowned at Trevor. “Say you’re right. I still don’t remember her. Why should I try to save her? Who knows why she was hurt?”
“Ah, but there was something else Evangelina saw,” the sage held up a finger. “Only Annette can defeat the sorcerer who is allied with your parents.”
“Why would I want that?” Will protested. “He’s making Poldar stronger. It’s good for us.”
The sage’s expression turned serious. “My boy, I knew your sorcerer. I’m not as young as I look. I trained him myself, two hundred years ago, and after I taught him all my tricks, I saw him for who he really was. He isn’t helping Poldar. His aim is to use it to crush Clachan.”
Who would want to hurt Clachan? Steven frowned as Will’s eyes narrowed. “Why would he do that?” Steven blurted out.
“Because his father was King Eric,” Trevor sighed. “He wants revenge.”
She was floating in nothingness, a grey, heavy nothingness that hurt and made it hard to breathe.
Sometimes there was a buzzing noise, deep weaving together with high. She thought the buzzing meant something, but it was too hard to concentrate.
So much easier to bask in the colorless emptiness and try to find relief in oblivion.
It was eternity in the void, floating through the ether with a chest of lead and numb limbs.
The darkness grew, and the floating lessened.
Soon everything would disappear altogether—including the throbbing in her stomach. Relief. To cease to be, and no longer ache. It was comfort. What was the word? Oh. Death.
Soon, death. Until then, half-alive in vacancy.
The buzzing returned, a wretched annoyance interfering with intentional unconsciousness. One buzz wove through the grey, seeking her out. The struggle to breathe intensified as increased awareness deepened the pain under her ribs. She wanted to fight, to flee the buzz, but it found her and brought warmth. What was it?
A voice. A voice she knew, reaching into her, pulling her back like a hooked fish dragged through the water by the fisherman’s line. To struggle would increase agony, but she struggled anyways. She tried to close her ears, to lull her mind back into the blur of peace.
But the voice was too strong. It was louder. There were words in it now, but she couldn’t understand them. It hurt too much to think. She tried to groan to fend off the voice, and it stopped for a minute, just long enough for her to remember its name:
Then the buzzing picked back up, more voices, but Will’s voice the clearest. “Is that good? Is she waking up?”
Not waking up. It’s not sleep if you know it’s happening.
The greyness was too far back to reach again, but a barrier she couldn’t breach separated her from the voices. She pushed against it weakly.
The other voices grew stronger. “‘Blood calls to blood,’ that’s one of the fundamentals of magic,” the deepest buzz said. “Talk to her. Maybe you can reach her, wherever she is.”
“She’s laying right there,” another voice added, so familiar she should have known it but couldn’t reach it.
“Her body, yes—” the deep voice—“but a human is so much more than body.”
Then Will’s voice, close and glowing, “Annette…if you can hear me? You can do it. You can come through. You’re not going to die, okay? Um…I guess…I mean, you’re supposed to be my sister, right? Trevor says…Anyways, I need you to help me remember who I am, and…”
His voice pushed against the barrier, stretching it thin. She reached out toward him with all the strength left in her, ignoring the flare of agony in her belly, straining toward the sounds.
The barrier snapped. She gasped. Light and color flooded her brain.
“Annette?” Will asked.
“She’s awake!” the sage rejoiced.
She screamed. It dissolved into a cry, but that hurt, too, so the cry turned into short, gasping breaths that yanked something torn inside her with every inhale. Blurred colors resolved into definitive shapes. She looked up into three faces, one concerned, one unrecognizing, one pleased, and tried to figure out where she was.
“You are alright,” Trevor assured her, a twinkle in his old eyes. “Someone tried to kill you and very nearly succeeded, but we managed to pull you through, and you yourself fought well. Steven, fetch a fresh cup of water for young Annette, will you?” He turned around and rummaged through the shelves around the cottage, looking for she knew not what, leaving her alone with Will.
Will, who clearly did not know her.
The memory slid back: Facing the sorcerer and their parents, Will’s choice, the knife thrown at her stomach, the horrible stretching feeling that knocked the wind out of her, seeing Trevor’s face just before losing consciousness. “You found me,” she rasped to Will. “Why?”
An internal conflict crossed his face before he answered. “Steven wanted to find what happened to you, and I wanted to know how he knew me and why little things kept not making sense. Then we found you, and I found out I had to wake you up.”
“Why?” the repeated word chafed at her dry throat.
“Because you’re the only way we can defeat the sorcerer and save Clachan.”
Oh. She wanted to scream, but mostly, she just wanted to ignore him and rest.
She really wanted to rest.
“It isn’t working, Maxwell!” Louise greeted her husband in the dining hall. She swept past the too-thin servants and the great roast turkey cooling on a garnished silver platter to join the king at the head of the table. “The bounty hunters aren’t finding him.”
Max shoved a turkey leg into his mouth and spoke around the mouthful, making her stomach churn. “You just need to be more patient,” he dismissed her concern.
She surprised both of them when she slammed her ands down on the mahogany table hard enough that the silverware rattled. “Be patient! Be lazy, you mean. Your “patience” will have our heads cut off! How long before people start asking questions?”
“Leave us,” Max ordered the remaining servants. They scuffled from the room, fleeing her ire.
When they were once more alone, she took a deep breath and continued. “He’s the first Kangraff to ever run away. Outside of general hair color, he doesn’t look a thing like us. Even his tutors thought he was odd as a boy. People are going to realize the things they’ve been pretending not to notice all these years, Max, and they’ll connect the dots. Do you and your sorcerer have a plan for when they realize the counter-curse came true in our generation? When they realize it’s our fault the Kangraff line is ended? There’s going to be a riot. They will murder us in our sleep, slit our throats in our beds!”
Max leaned his elbow on the table and rested his forehead on his palm. “Louise, I know. What more can I do, though?” His hand came up to punctuate his question.
“Dismiss your sorcerer,” she ordered. “He’s not doing us any good. Why keep a useless imposter around? There are people with real magical power around, people who know when it’s in their best interest to actually help the kings and queens sheltering them.”
“I would not be so hasty, if I were you,” a voice spoke behind her.
She started and whirled around to find the sorcerer not two feet from her. “Sorcerer! You startled me. I didn’t know–”
“Obviously you were not aware of my presence,” the fat man wryly observed. “Otherwise you would not have spoken so. Have you forgotten my power in dealing with Bill’s previous return?”
She covered her still-racing heart and stuttered, “N-no, of–of course not.”
“Maxwell,” the man turned to her husband with a short bow and preceded to ignore her.
“Have you news?” the king sat up straighter in his chair.
“Why else would I be here?”
“True. Please, tell me.”
“He is being sheltered by Clachan. They have been Poldar’s enemies of old. I fear they plan to use him to exploit your weaknesses and overthrow your reign.”
Max’s face grew red. He half-rose out of his chair. “Is that so? Then they are in for a surprise. Will they be ready when Poldar’s armies come to overthrow them instead?”
Louise held out her arms. “Now you need to be patient,” she inserted herself back into their conversation. “Don’t you remember what happens to people from Poldar when they set foot on the soil of Clachan? The place devours them.”
“That is true,” the sorcerer conceded, “but you need not fear. I have discovered a way to hold back the malevolence of the land long enough for you to have success and end the blessing that makes Clachan dangerous to you.”
Max pulled the chord for the bell to summon a servant. To the boy who appeared, he commanded, “Give orders to muster the troops for battle.” To the sorcerer and Louise, he said, “It is time for the Kangraffs to replace the Weavers as rulers of Clachan once and for all.”
“How are you feeling?” he asked Annette. The question could be interpreted as concerned, but truly Bill only wanted to know how long it would be until they could get to work defeating the sorcerer.
The sadness in her brown eyes told him she understood his meaning, though. She used her arms to drag herself up to a sitting position on Trevor’s bed. “Better, thanks, but I still can’t move my legs.”
This was going all wrong. How was she supposed to help them when she was paralyzed from the waist down? The sage and his mysterious enchantress friend must be deluded or lying. He wouldn’t be surprised if they were in league with the sorcerer. This was probably all a trap, a connivance to hand him back over to his parents. Who were supposedly also Annette’s parents.
He couldn’t see the resemblance, though. She was far too kind to be related to him.
“Will, what’s wrong?” the girl asked.
“Nothing,” he muttered, handing her a bowl of stew courtesy of Trevor. The sage and Steven were talking by the fire, pouring over an ancient, dusty book that sounded completely boring and tedious.
She took the bowl but waited for the food to cool. “I may not have known you long,” she said, “and you remember me for even less time, but I can clearly see that’s a lie. Please, tell me what’s troubling you?”
He could ignore her, could walk away, but the only other thing to do in this tiny little cottage was join Trevor and Steven’s boring book conversation. Bill burst out, “Why does it have to be you? What’s so special about you?”
Her shoulders drooped. Surprisingly, he felt a twinge of guilt.
“I don’t know.” Her voice was quiet. “There’s nothing special about me. I was born in the dirt and I lived among the ashes.”
Everything inside him froze. “How do you know that?”
“My father told me—”
“No. How do you know those words? I heard them before—I said them, just before I left Poldar to take the cure to Ferngold. How do you know them?”
“I told them to you,” she corrected. “We were just beginning our journey, and you wanted to know why I was barefoot, so I said that and added—”
“‘What need have I for shoes,’” he finished the quote for her. He stared at her, took in the tiny details of her face, and felt like he was seeing her for the first time. Somewhere in the back of his memory, he had seen her before. There was no way she could have known that phrase, no way someone could have told her, no way this could be a trick. They were right. “I’ve said that phrase before,” he said. “You’re telling the truth. I did know you. My memory really was stolen from me.”
Her small, rough hand gripped his. “Don’t worry, Will. We’ll find a way to get it back,” she promised.
The cottage door banged, and the three young people froze. Trevor and his dog acted unconcerned, the mutt barely opening an eye and the old man waddling over to open the door.
Outside, a man dressed in the blue and gold livery of Clachan gripped the doorframe, clutching his side. “You’re the sage?” he gasped.
“Indeed I am. Do come in and have a seat,” Trevor beckoned him inside.
The stranger staggered in and collapsed onto one of the stools. Trevor himself poured two cups of tea, handed one to the other man, and sat in his upholstered chair, while Steven joined Bill and Annette on the bed. “Who do you think he is?” Steven whispered.
“A royal servant,” Bill muttered back. That was clear for anyone to see from his clothing.
Sipping the liquid in his cup, Trevor kindly asked, “Tell me, good man, what brings you to my humble cottage?”
“Something horrible’s happened to the King and Queen and all the princes and princesses,” he answered, leaning forward. “A dark magic attacked them and turned them almost into stone. They turned black and froze, like all the life left them.” Annette’s hand, still holding his own, tightened. “The land’s growing black like them, and Poldar’s armies are amassing at the borders. But they say there’s still life in their bodies, and you have magic. Can you save them? Can you save us all?”
“But that’s what happened to the Fern,” she spoke up. “Isn’t it?”
“It is,” Steven agreed.
“Then he’s behind this,” Annette concluded. “The sorcerer. We have to go after him.”
Bill laughed aloud. “You’re joking. It’s impossible. Trevor says you’re the only one who can defeat him, but you can’t even stand up.”
She grabbed his arm and looked him directly in the eyes. “We have to. Will, if we don’t, we failed our mission from the Telling Tree. We saved one kingdom only to let another one fall. If we don’t find a way, all of Clachan will end up dead.”
All his life, he had sought a quiet, peaceful life. The other magical people he knew had risen to prominence in their kingdoms, usually with deadly results for themselves, but not he, not Trevor. He had lived under a theory that he could avoid conflict easily enough, that it was something that only came to those who sought it out.
Perhaps he was right still about the latter part. Or perhaps conflict sought out those with special abilities. He was heading into conflict now, part of a pitifully weak team of an aged mutt, a contract-breaking former apprentice scribe, a runaway prince, and a crippled servant girl carried by the brother who couldn’t remember her. There was no way to avoid it, for if he turned aside now, if he took the coward’s path, surely conflict would not end now but would spread and eventually overtake him.
Or perhaps conflict was a human inevitability. After all, his companions were all human—well, except for his trusty old dog. His companions were human, but this conflict was just as inevitable for them.
A sharp intake of breath from the girl as the prince adjusted his grip on her called Trevor from his musings. “Are you okay, dear?” he asked, placing his wrinkled hand against her forehead. A light sheen of sweat stood out on her brow and her skin felt warmer than it should.
She was brave, though, this girl from the ashes. She smiled and said, “I’m fine, Trevor. Just a little uncomfortable. Thanks, though.”
Steven, the apprentice boy, looked back at them, brow wrinkled. “Perhaps we should rest,” he suggested.
The prince paused his steps, looking down at her for her decision. Annette’s gaze lingered over the grass underfoot, which only a few days ago had been springy green but now was like charcoal, and swallowed. “No,” she resolutely decided. “We have to press on, or we’ll never make it in time.”
None of the men were pleased with her decision, including himself, but they grudgingly carried out her wishes and kept walking. She was strong, too, he reminded himself. And she knew how much she could take better than anyone.
“We should come up with a plan,” Will ordered—or perhaps he was more Bill right now. Trevor couldn’t tell. At Steven’s raised eyebrow, the boy amended his tone and added, “Don’t you think?” That was more like Will.
“A wise idea,” Trevor nodded. “What do you young ones propose?”
“Well,” Annette said slowly, “we should probably know everything possible about the sorcerer.”
Steven said, “I was going to suggest that. I copied a codex categorizing magical people once. Sorcerers’ main power comes from spells they cast with words. The words can be spoken or unspoken. This is similar to magicians, but of course the obvious difference is that magicians’ blessings and curses are permanent, while sorcerers’ powers last only until their demise. It’s hypothesized that one can become a sorcerer without actually having magical blood, but the couple example cases typically cited were recently discovered to either be frauds or actually have some faint magical blood in them.”
Will scowled. “How do we defeat them?”
“He said there’s power in names,” Annette said. “When we met him in Poldar. He had power over me and Will, but said we couldn’t have power over him because we didn’t know his name.”
The prince and apprentice’s eyes turned on him. “You said you trained him,” Will accused.
He sighed and came to a stop, taking stock of their surroundings. No signs of life came from any of the shadows around them. Still, he gestured for them to come close. Will took the opportunity to set Annette down, so he lowered himself with a grunt as his old bones protested and the boys knelt down beside them.
“I told you I trained him two hundred years ago,” he reminded them. “There is a spell, a difficult process, that was handed down in my family, one by which the performer could prolong his life. I had previously performed it myself. There was so much to learn then, so many mysteries to discover, and I was young and eager to learn everything I could in this life. Then a young man came to me, an apprentice looking for instruction in sorcery. I thought I saw a kindred spirit in him. I read that we would be near each other at the end of our lives, and foolishly revealed to him the secret.
“But you see, the spell is bound by a word: A name. There is inherent power in names, yes, but the power this spell gives names is monumental. If the name is spoken in the person’s presence, the spell snaps, and dark rumors speak of what happens after that. It is best for the name to be forgotten. That is what I did: I took another name, and none living remember what I was once called.
“My apprentice was not so humble. He deigned to replace his name with only a title, and that was the first sign I had of the wickedness inside him. I learned shortly after that he was indeed the king of Poldar, and then I feared for my life. I fled into the night and have lived in hiding ever since.”
The young siblings stared at him in horror. Annette had one hand over her mouth and one on her stomach, like she would be ill. Will’s lips curled back. “You mean he’s my great great something grandfather?”
That was the reasonable conclusion to his statement. Trevor’s apprentice had left a young son to inherit his throne, after all, and the Kangraff line had not ended. But their bloodlines looked so different…he wondered.
“That is not important,” he deflected the question. “I thought you wanted to know his name.”
“Yes,” Steven agreed, leaning forward.
In the softest voice he could manage, Trevor the sage leaned forward and whispered a name.
Their walk through Clachan, led by the sage’s old dog loping along, showed a country nothing like all the descriptions Steven had ever copied about it. Every book on foreign policy or nearby cultures spoke of Clachan’s beautiful vibrancy and fruitfulness. Now, in person, it was the opposite. Trees were no more than blackened skeletons. Damp, ashy vegetation covered the hills. A few birds flew about, but their flight paths wavered like they could fall out of the sky at any minute.
But none of that prepared him for the moment they crested a hill and looked down on the Clachan castle. An army clothed in Poldar’s colors milled around, forming a wide ring about the dingy stone walls and creaking towers. Inside their human ring was another army in the colors of Clachan. But none of them moved. Hundreds of armored soldiers stood petrified like tin toys lined up for battle. Those in the front had their weapons drawn and pointed at the same, empty spot. Some were even frozen mid-step, looking like the smallest breeze could push them over.
What could cause this?
Movement caught his eyes: A solitary figure moving amongst the Clachan army, half way between the ring of Poldarian soldiers and the castle. Will hissed under his breath, “It’s him.”
Trevor led the way now, calmly approaching the milling soldiers. “It has been many years,” he called to the sorcerer, holding his hands out when the men from Poldar pointed their weapons at their group.
The sorcerer crossed his arms over his flabby waist. “Indeed it has, old friend. Forgive me, but I expected the years to be kinder to you.”
Trevor chuckled like it was a kind joke. “Your wit has not changed much. I must say, it is unusual for one of your talents to employ an army. Come, let my friends and me pass.”
The sorcerer gave a calculating smirk that made Steven shiver. “By all means,” he held his arms out. “Come.”
The army parted to make a path for them. Will stood as tall as he could under Annette’s weight and Steven noticed the scathing look his friend gave to the soldiers. He glanced nervously at the men as they passed, wishing for a weapon, or at least for the knife he used to trim his writing quill.
They were two yards into the circle when something started to change. At first, Steven thought he was suddenly very tired, then that the air was thickening. Trevor the sage gasped, “No, you didn’t—” and then he couldn’t move. One leg held all his weight, one arm reached out in front of him where he was going to push away the air, but he could not move them. He could only breathe and swivel his eyes to see that his friends were also frozen.
The sorcerer approached them then, walking in a slow circle around Trevor. “Yes, old friend, approach me to ruin me if you can. But see, I’ve bound all life in this area, all life within a quarter-mile radius of the castle. You’re just in time, actually. I’m about to carry out what I began planning all those years ago, when I was just a young man coming to you after my father’s murder. You see over there, by the castle door? Yes, that’s the king and queen of Clachan and all of their germy children. In just a moment, I’ll execute them as they deserve and avenge my father.
“But first,” he turned and considered Will, fingers stroking his beardless chin, “first I must deal with this maggot. Do you know, they thought they could get away with corrupting my family’s name? They soiled it by giving it to a worthless worm, a squalling baby stolen from a hovel on the outskirts of society. They’ve paid the price, I assure you, the ‘monarchs’ of Poldar. They served their purpose, granting me an army to escort me here and take care of these stupid Clachan filth once I’ve done with my revenge. And you, Bill, will pay the price, too.” His chubby, white hand darted out and shoved a poultice into Will’s mouth.
The prince’s eyes grew red and started watering, but he could not move to spit the poison out. Steven thought he heard a quiet gasp, but that was impossible. Only involuntary breathing was possible under this spell.
Oh, what he would do if he could only move! The sorcerer’s name was on the tip of his tongue. One word, one word, and he could end this. One word, and he could save his friend’s life. Yet even that small movement was out of his power.
“Your suffering will be slow,” the sorcerer continued. “Our good sage taught me the secrets of herbs well.”
It could have been his imagination, but he thought Annette’s hand on Will’s shoulder shook slightly.
“But your demise is inevitable. Now, watch as I carry out justice on my enemies!”
Something happened then that halted the sorcerer’s movement back toward the castle: A girl’s voice spoke. “Wait!”
The sorcerer turned in slow motion. Steven’s eyes swiveled from the man to the girl in Will’s arms. Annette.
“Did you say something?” the sorcerer asked incredulously.
She spoke slowly, like it took great effort to speak. “I said, ‘Wait.’”
“But—how did you survive? I killed you,” he said, almost as a question. “I killed you, right?”
“You tried,” she struggled. “But you didn’t succeed. And you won’t succeed now. I name you—”
Horror flashed over the sorcerer’s face. He leapt forward, as if in one bound he could cross half a field and cover her mouth before the word slid out. But he was too late.
“James Kangraff of Poldar,” Annette finished.
Several things happened at once. Still mid-leap, the sorcerer shriveled and wrinkled before his eyes. By the time he hit the ground, he was no more than a pile of shrunken bones in empty robes.
Control returned to Steven’s limbs faster than he expected. His brain caught up slower than his body, and by the time he could move himself, he was smashing his face onto the newly re-greened grass in front of him.
Another thud sounded next to him, followed by Annette’s strangled grunt. Steven pushed himself up and turned his head to see Will collapsed and Annette half-under him, half-hovering over his head, trying to help. “Will!” she cried, just as he started convulsing.
“Will!” Annette cried. His chest lay over her legs, pinning her to the ground. Using the strength of her arms, she pushed herself upright, leaning over her brother. His muscles were jerking, making him writhe. She held on to him, trying to help, but he was stronger than her.
Steven knelt next to her, lending his strength to subdue the boy. Will’s head lolled back, striking Annette’s stomach. She choked on her breath. His eyes were closed and his face was graying. “Someone help!” she screamed.
Around them, the Clachan soldiers unfroze. Battle between them and Poldar broke out. Ironclad boots pounded the newly re-greened grass, narrowly missing their small huddle.
Trevor the sage’s wrinkled hands moved hers away from Will’s face and started feeling for his pulse. He pried open the boy’s mouth, scooping out the residual of the sorcerer’s concoction. After holding it up to the light, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, dear girl,” he patted her shoulder. “The materials to make the antidote are back at my cabin. Even if I had them, he would be gone before it could be brewed.”
No. Her brother. She’d died for him once. He knew she was his sister now, and he still didn’t hate her. He couldn’t die. No. It was wrong. It was horrible. It was worse than when her father died. She felt like something was tearing her in half.
His movements were slackening. She clung to him, cradling his head as close as she could. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “You’re going to be alright. They weren’t our parents, you know? You were never going to be as evil as them.”
Nearby whirlwinds picked up her hair and threw it around. Dozens of Poldarian soldiers squealed as the wind plucked them from the ground and whisked them away.
Will’s body was still. Annette’s fingers hovered over his mouth, feeling the shallow breaths that escaped it. “You’re going to be a good king, and Poldar will turn good, and I’ll be with you.”
She couldn’t feel his breath anymore, so she sought his pulse, tears streaming down her face. “We’ll be family,” she promised.
The ground around them began writhing. More shouts—the attacking soldiers fell into the ground, which solidified over them. The battle was over, and Clachan was safe.
His weak pulse slowed, then it was no more. “No,” she gulped. It was over.
She hugged him close, wishing with everything in her that he could still be alive. Tears dripped from her face onto his forehead, where she placed a gentle kiss. “Farewell,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
He moved under her hands.
Her eyes flew open. Was it her imagination?
No—his brown eyes peeled open and looked right at her. “Will?” she questioned.
He opened his mouth and started coughing. When the fit passed, he said, “Hey.”
Happiness morphed her mouth into a smile, even as tears continued streaming down her face. “What—how?”
Trevor the sage’s hand again found her shoulder, using it as a support as he lowered himself to kneel beside the siblings. “We are in Clachan now,” he explained, “and Clachan’s magic is at work. They were long ago blessed that the land would draw its strength from the purity and fortitude of its rulers’ hearts. Today that has meant that this miracle occurred—and it appears the land views you both as rulers. My boy, young Annette, you shall now rule Poldar.”
She didn’t know how to rule a kitchen, much less a kingdom, but here was her brother, alive in her arms. If that could happen, very little would ever surprise her again. And she just might need to find herself some shoes.
Following the defeat in Clachan, the men of arms in Poldar rose up, each vying for the throne. For the bodies of King Maxwell and Queen Louise were found slain in the throne room, where it was rumored that the hand of the great sorcerer ended their lives. Aided by Ferngold and Clachan, the siblings William and Annette rose above the squabbling and laid claim to the throne.
Under the oversight of their right-hand man, a young scribe named Steven, their reign was soon established. They ruled side by side for many decades. In the course of time, each found spouses, and their small family grew to include many happy, well-loved children.
The task before them was far from easy, but with determined diligence they persevered. Taverns were converted into hospitable inns. Pick-pockets, bounty hunters, and mercenaries were trained for honest trades. The scoundrels were expelled from the land, no longer welcome and no longer considering Poldar a desirable place to live. Hale plants took root and grew in the newly-fertile soil. Evil was expelled from the land, all its inhabitants learned how to live in peace and kindness with each other, and Poldar grew a friendship with the kingdoms around it where it had ever before had only enemies.
As for its monarchs, as unfortunate as the first years of their lives were, much happier were the last years of King William the Kind and Queen Annette the Gentle, as they came to be called. Never before and never since was Poldar ruled by more beloved rulers.
And so, though the evil Kangraff had spoken, “May you and your descendants rule this land out of the wickedness in your hearts, and may you and your descendants never know love,” yet his foe’s counter-curse also came true: “Wickedness will not rule Poldar forever, for one day your family’s line will end.”
And the land of Poldar was ruled by goodness and filled with love for many, many generations after that.