The Collector Witch



Book 2 of Heart of the Staff, Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1



.

The glorious spring day was perfect for Rose's sixteenth birthday, but she certainly did not see it that way. Her arranged marriage was to be announced, and in a fortnight her happiness would be publicly sacrificed.

Things seemed so unreal to her as she dressed. Perhaps this was a dream. But when she stepped into the grand ballroom in time to hear old white haired Jerome announce her first guest, she knew it was happening.

“Princess Myrtlebell," she said to the guest with a curtsy and the required smile. “So nice of you to come.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Myrtlebell. “My. Real emeralds for your birthday, I see.”

 “How very nice of you to notice.”

“You really must excuse me,” said Myrtlebell as she swept away. “I need to freshen up a bit after that dusty old coach ride. Powder up in the same old place, dear?”

 “Only if you still have it exposed,” said Rose under her breath.

Before long, the vestibule and hall spilt over with the burgeoning din of  those arriving, and Rose had no time for anything but shaking hands for a good long while. “Oh, Violet!” she said with a gush of relief at the sight of her with her escort from Ellsmore.  

When at last she could break away from greeting guests, she made her way through the crowd in search of Violet. A tug on her sleeve stopped her. “Where's your lucky prince?”

“You can tell Myrtlebell that James isn't here yet, Erlene," said Rose. "But I don't see the point. He'd never make it all the way in here without her noticing..."

"Here come his couriers this minute," said Erlene.

Rose looked up to see a courier with his entourage in smart green uniforms coming straight for them through the parting crowd. "Princess Rose?" he said as he came to a halt.

 "Yes?"

"Your prince bids me deliver this letter to you..."

"Prince? No prince has a claim on me," she said, yanking open the letter to fling it's seal skittering in pieces across the polished floor. 

"But you are Tywysoges Rose, aren't you?"

"I am she, but that's a right antiquated form of address. Well. You've delivered your lord's missive. Good day."

"Uh..." he said, shifting from foot to foot.

"Have a good day. You may leave."

"Please forgive me Your Highness, but I've been instructed to wait for your reply."

"Oh I'm sorry," she said, glancing at Erlene. "I do indeed have arrangements with your lord. I'm only sixteen, and I'm just being pushed faster than I find comfortable."

Erlene stayed right where she was.

"I quite understand," said the courier, looking relieved.

"But I can't imagine needing to reply to anything he might..." she said as her eyedarted over the letter."Mercy! His mother. I hardly have a bottle of ink out here on the ballroom floor. Would it do if I merely told you that I quite understand and that I certainly forgive his absence, and of course wish his mother Fatespeed for her recovery?"

"That would do, I'm sure, Your Highness," he said. "I shall give Prince James your exact words. I'm certain he will take comfort in them."

Rose turned to Erlene as the courier marched out. "You can tell Myrtlebell that James won't be here because his mother is ill and not expected to live," she said, picking up her skirts and vanishing into the crowd.

“Well?” said Myrtlebell, appearing beside Erlene. "What about James?"

“Not here.”

“We knew that,” said Myrtlebell. “When's he expected

“He's not. That was his retainer. His mother might be dying.”

“What?" she gasped over her goblet. "Poor thing! We saw dear Queen Ruella just days ago at their spring ball and she was the life of the party. Would you reckon James is having second thoughts about marrying the little tart           

“You dream,” said Erlene. “I was just at Ruth's wedding and James stood right at the punch bowl telling how anxious he was for his wedding to Rose. James might dance with you any old time, but you may as well forget him.”

“Me forget James? You don't get it Erlene. James is going to forget Rosie the fraud. Rosie the little

witch, really...”

“Myrtlebell! What's the matter with you? Someone could hear.”

“You're in the dark like Edmond and Ruella. Rose has less lineage than her mother.She's adopted.”

“No.”

"Big secret."

"Who is she?"

“All right. If you must,” said Myrtlebell, hiding her grin with a sip. “Sixteen years ago, Queen Minuet had a stillborn girl. Poor thing was just inconsolable and Hebraun went 'round and 'round, trying to get her to face giving birth to a dead baby."

"You're mean."

"Oh go on. If it's born dead, what's there to lose?"

"Nine months of prayer and mother's love."

"You want to hear this or not?"

"Certainly."

"Very well. While she was not yet coping, there was an uproar in the kingdom about sukere, of all things, and about a knight who was killed by a dragon. I don’t know all the details, but the knight’s death was linked to the queen’s sister. He was a hero of some kind and the citizens of Niarg were so angry over her connection with his death that they sent up a great hue and cry for her execution. Well, Hebraun had to think of something, with Minuet's sister a disreputable sorceress in the first place and now accused of murder.”

“So what did he do?”

“He put her in the dungeon, that's what. And to complicate matters, she was great with child. Meanwhile, the citizens had had enough of her, and they wanted to see her hang.So the Crown found an easy way out by banishing her to the Chokewoods for the rest of her days. So there you have it.”

“Have what? What does this have to do with Rose being adopted?”

 “Hush!” said Myrtlebell. “Do you want everyone to hear this?”

“Why no...”
Myrtlebell radiantly steered her away from the gathering listeners before resuming, loud as ever: “I’ll spell it out, dear. The witch sister's baby was born the very first night after she was locked up, and Hebraun and Minuet took it for their own.”

“That’s quite a story all right,” said Erlene. “You make such sport of taking me for a fool.”

“Yes, I realize there's no sport in that dear, but I have proof in this case."

“Oh?”

“Absolutely. In Niarg’s Royal Cemetery there's a little grave next to where King Hebraun’s father isburied. Its headstone says: 'Rose, Firstborn Infant Daughter of King Hebraun and Queen Minuet.’ Go read it  yourself.”

Myrtlebell watched as her story spread through the gathering. She knew the stone was actually there, if any of them bothered to go see for themselves.

Amongst the eavesdroppers was Spitemorta, who had slipped in unnoticed. “Well, I haven’t had so much fun at a party in years,” she thought. “Those imbeciles will destroy Prince James with that tale. But what about sweet little Rosie? Can't have her staying in thedark. Preposterous as Myrtlebell’s story is, it has boundless potential for amusement." She went to find her at once.

 She found Rose with Violet and her escort. “Excuse me," she said. "I'm afraid I've some information which you should hear before certain parties can spread it.”

“I'm not interested in petty tales from this lot,” said Rose.
                                                           
 “Quite understandable, but you do need to hear this. I'd think that this little rumor could be awkward.”

 “Why are you worried about my feelings all at once?”

“Oh I care less about your feelings than about exposing some fools in here.”

"Tell me then.”
“As you wish,” she said, plunging into the entire tale as she watched Rose change from aloof to being hurt and angry. Violet looked every bit as upset as Rose. Suddenly Rose was half-way across the ballroom, on her way out the door.

“How dare you ruin Rose’s birthday!" cried Violet. "You've always been foul hearted, but this just rotten! If I were you, I'd get out of here before King Hebraun and Queen Minuet hear.”

“Oh I tremble,” gasped Spitemorta. "They might tell my parents about my behavior. I am on my way out, though, because I can't imagine the rest of this party being even remotely as amusing as this was.”

Violet went wide eyed.

 "Ta-ta," said Spitemorta as she turned away.

  ***

Once outside the Grand Ballroom, Rose picked up her skirts and ran. The next thing she knew, she had knocked down someone. When she tried to see who, she realized that she was crying.

“Hey!” shouted her brother as he got to his feet rubbing his backside. “Why on earth don’t you watch where you’re going!”

“Sorry Lukus,” she mumbled as she began walking away.

“Hey, wait Rose. You aren’t at your big, dumb party. How come?”

“Shut up! It’s over. I don't care."

“What’s wrong, Rose? Did you hurt something when you ran over me?”

 “No, I’m fine, really,” she said, picking up her pace. “Now please excuse me. I have  a great lot I need to think about.”

“Sure Rose. No problem. I’ll just drop by the throne room and see if Mother and Father know what has you so worked up, if you don’t have the time to tell me.”

“Don’t you dare!” she rasped, stopping him in his tracks.

 “Well if you just tell me what your problem is, maybe, just maybe, I can actually help you a bit.”

 “There’s no way you can help, Lukus,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone can.”

“You sure make it sound serious,” he said, searching her face. “Maybe you’re right and I can’t help, but doesn’t just talking about a problem make it easier to deal with?”

 “Not this time. It's 'way too complicated. What I really need for you to do, if you really want to help me, is to just leave me alone and let me think. And Fates forbid, Lukus. Don’t you dare run to Mother and Father, telling them I'm upset.”

“If that's what you really want, Rose.”

“You'd better believe it! Just drop it. You’ll find out soon enough." And with that, she ran up the stairs to her apartment.

"I'll declare," he said with a stroke of his chin. “Something big and getting bigger.

***

"I'm a-finding out," he said with a backward dive onto his bed. He studied the beams of his ceiling. "I might've agreed not to go to Mother and Father, but that doesn’t stop me from keeping an eye on her. And
say. Surely a few passing questions would be all right. That's not running to them." With a nod of resolve, he
sprang to his feet and hurried off to see if they might not give him a clue, only to be lectured about respecting
Rose's important time in her life.

At last they let him go. "I wonder if Rose will talk to me yet?" he said, dashing up the stairs. When he raised his hand to knock, he stopped short at the sound of her voice on the other side of her door. He held his breath and listened.                                                        

Rose was on the floor petting her owl-eyed cat. “I’m sorry, Jamali.” she said, rattling a sniffle. “I
have to find out the truth and I can’t take you with me.”

“Wow!” he said, turning away from the door. He walked slowly back to his rooms. By the time he got there, he had resolved to wait for her to make her move and then follow her. Inside his quarters, he began at once to pack.


Chapter 2





Lukus carefully left his door ajar to better hear Rose when she passed by on her way out of the palace. He made a pallet in the doorway from his bed’s goose down mattress and used his panniers for a pillow so that he could peer out with both eyes through the crack left by the unfastened door. “Now, by Niarg,” he thought, as he crawled under his blanket wearing his coat, “I’ll not only hear her, I’ll see her. She’s not leaving here for places unknown without me if I have any say in the matter.”

As time passed, he found himself fighting to stay awake. “Surely she couldn’t have gotten by me while I was packing,” he said with a leonine yawn. “I sure wish she’d make her move...” For the time being, it was his last waking thought.                        

The clunk of a rocking marble floor tile shot him bolt upright. “What the floor stone...happened to the bed?” he mumbled, scratching his head. “Wow! Floor stone.” Rolling onto his hands and knees, he pushed open the door with his head to peer around it. There went Rose, gliding like a phantom down the hallway with her long cloak. He grabbed up his panniers and waited for her to go down the stairs before tiptoeing into the hall, careful to avoid the familiar stone which had been loose in the floor years before his time.

Near the bottom of the staircase, he was surprised to see her heading for the kitchen instead of the palace grounds. Once he stood peeking around the doorway, it occurred to him that she was indeed setting out on a lengthy journey, and that he would need provisions to at least match hers. When she slipped out the outside door of the kitchen, he franticly crammed into his bags greedy portions of what he thought he saw her take. The stables, he thought, speeding his frenzy, I can’t imagine any other place that she’d go.

“She’d better be here,” he said as he reached the stables. He decided to reveal himself. Surely she would welcome his company when he pointed out the dangers a lone young lady might face on the road at night. "And if that doesn’t work, I’ll blackmail her. Then she’ll take me along.”

Rose had her back to him as he went in. “Easy. Easy Mystique,” she said, heaving the heavy saddle onto the snow white unicorn. She was trying another heave when he reached out to help her in the dark. She gave a gasp and wheeled about to plant her fist on his cheekbone, knocking him down. “Lukus!” she cried. “I ought to give you good kick to go with it! What are you doing out here in the dark, spying or what?” 

“Good grief Rose. I hope you didn’t hurt yourself hitting me like that. That makes twice you’ve flattened me today. I sure hope this isn’t some new habit of yours.”

“Shut up Lukus! You scared me clean out of my skin. As if I don’t have enough to worry me without your tricks. If you were in bed, I’d be on my way this minute.”

"Yea? Well if I didn't look after you, you'd run off in the night and get yourself killed by some thug and I'd have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

“Are you trying to make me faint? It sounds like you actually care what happens to me."

“Yea? Well it would be an embarrassment to admit.”

“Well don't,” she said, throwing her leg over Mystique. “You keep my secret, and I’ll keep yours.”

“Whoa!” he said, grabbing Mystique’s reins. “No deal, Rose. I’m going with you, or you don't go.”

“What puts you in charge, dung nose?”

“Plain sense, sister dear. You go without me, and I’ll trot straight to Mother and Father, and they'll send the Guard after you and have you rounded up before you’ve gone above five mile. That’s what.”

“Blazes Lukus! You win. Go saddle Starfire, but be the quickest you’ve ever been. I want to be as far from here as possible before sunrise.”
***
Outside the curtain beyond the drawbridge, they went at a gallop that they kept up until long after they were out of sight of Castle Niarg. When at last they slowed to a trot, Lukus said: "Wow Rose. You're even a better liar as an adult than you were as a child. You actually talked a life-long military man into abandoning his post."

"Not when we're supposed to be back there watching for him."

"Yea?" he said. "Captain Bernard ought to go roaring to Mother and Father any time now."

"After they've gone to bed? Is he really going to wake them up to tell them he abandoned his post? He'll at least wait until morning."

"I don't know about that, Rose."

"Well I feel mean and rotten. He's been a sterling captain, even if he is ugly, and here we trick him into thinking he has a chance at a beautiful young woman. Poor fellow. I don't want to do that again.”

“Well this trip's worth it though, aye?”

Rose said nothing and urged Mystique into a gallop that she kept up for a good long way.

“Well Rose,” said Lukus when they finally let the unicorns walk, “Right yonder is South Cross. So which way are we going?”

“On south.”

“South then,” he said with a great sigh.

It was a gorgeous spring night, warm and humid under a vault of brilliant stars, with
stirrings of a breeze out of the south from a very distant hedge of clouds on the horizon. Choruses of tree frogs whistled and called from the hollows. Far away, an owl boomed. The
air was heady with the fragrances of lilac and locust blossoms. The full moon had risen high
in the south-east, bathing the countryside in a silver light.

So, we’re going to Loxmere, aye?” said Lukus to the rhythm of shuffling hooves and creaking leather. “Or Ellsmore? Or just Far?”

Rose made no reply.

“Did you know that you haven't told me one teensy bit about where we’re going or why?” he said, leaning in his saddle to thrust his face at hers. "Aren't you even talking, or what?”

“I suppose you do have a right to know, since you seem to be off on this adventure in spite of what I might make of it. But I’m not so sure you're going to be very happy when you find out.”

“Oh go on Rose. You sound as though we're going to the Valley of Doom or  something.”

“Close, Lukus. Quite close, actually. The Chokewoods, really.”

“Whoa!” he cried. “I knew you were my sister, but the Chokewood Forest? That’s crazy.”

“I'm your sister, what?” she said, reining Mistique 'round to face him. “Your sister! Look. If it scares you little brother, you don't have to come along. Go back now, and you could be home before morning. I have to go. You don’t.”

“Oh yes I do, 'cause if I don't, you don't either,” he said. “So it's Chokewoods for me, unless you get some sense between here and there. And all those fairy stories, those which we used to believe about Chokewood Forest, are they true or not? Well?”

“How would I know? Everyone still avoids the place, but I didn't exactly look into the matter before we came. We've heard this stuff all along. People still shudder when you mention it, is all I know.”

“So you think that there's something to all of it?”

“Something there has to be bad to keep the stories alive.”
                                                                                                                                   
“You think that and you're still going?”

“I have to.”

“You’re still leaving out a great big chunk o’ something, Rose.”

A sudden gust of wind blew back her hood, flung dirt from the road into their faces and set the boughs of nearby trees to surging with its passage. She stopped, studying the mounting towers of cloud, winking with translucent flickers, bringing the horizon nearer by the moment. “I’d say rain's a-coming up fast,” she said. "We’d better find a place out of the weather. We’re getting pretty close to Far. I know of an abandoned farmhouse which might still be standing just a little way beyond the border and well back away from the road. We might get there before the rain, if we hurry.” And with that, she bolted away at a full gallop.

“Dang you Rose!” Lukus had no choice but to hurry after.

“The checkpoint into Far is just around this bend, if I’m not clear wrong,” she said as he caught up. “So let’s take a wide swing through the woods right here.”

“And get turned around in the dark when the storm hits? Do you really know where you’re going?”

“Sort of. Pretty sort of.”
                                                                                                                                   
“Oh, great.”

“Actually I’m all but certain that the lane to the old farmstead ran straight west for quite a way, just inside the border of Far,” she said, steering Mystique across the ditch into the thick brush of the wood’s edge, “so if we angle off here, we’ll end up where we need tobe and swing wide of the guardhouse.”

They lunged up the side of a leafy hogback in the moonlight. Dodging trees, they came down the steep far side in a skidding rumple of leaves to stumble onto the abandoned lane. At last the farmstead came into view.

“This can’t be it, Rose,” said Lukus over the breathing of the unicorns. “You can see the rafters through the thatch on all the buildings, clean from here.” He lifted himself by the pommel and cantle of his saddle as he looked at the sky. The gusts of wind had died to velvety stillness, and the flickering towers of the approaching clouds had gotten close enough to be heard, rumbling balefully.

“Well, we’ll just have to get soaked. It really has rotted and fallen in since I was here last. But would you rather be out in this, or at least have some shelter?” she said, glancing from clouds to moon. “I smell rain. We’ll never have time to find any other place. Let’s see if we can get the unicorns into the barn.”

The wind rose came, flinging the storm’s first huge drops as Lukus followed her into the frail old shed and stood without bearings in the utter blackness. A sudden flash of lightning lit up the barn well enough for him to spy an old pierced metal lantern perched atop a cobweb draped milking stool. “I sure hope this thing has a candle in it,” he said as he grabbed it up, carefully following the sounds of her bedding down Mystique.

“Over here! Me too!" she shouted over the wind. "But at least it had when Violet and I were here last. Do you have a striker in your pack?”

“I didn’t think to bring one, or candles either.”

“I remembered a striker, at least. Here. I’ve undone her girth. Help me get her saddle the rest of the way off, and I’ll get it for you.”  

Directly, Lukus had the lantern giving forth a feeble winking light as he busied himself bedding down Starfire. “So when on earth were you here before, anyway?”

“Oh my. I was just trying to think. It was with Violet, ’way back. I’m not quite sure when, but it was still all dolls and make-believe tea parties, don’t you know. I think it was the next to the last summer that I visited her, five years ago, maybe?”

“Right. ‘Way back when you were merely a child. Yesterday morning you were a child. And today? Poof! You have your sixteenth birthday, and you're magically changed into some kind of grown-up woman. Pretty strange.”
             
“Strange? Sure is, Lukus. But just you wait little brother. It'll happen to you, too.”

“No it won’t.”
                                                                                                                                   
“And what keeps you from such a fate?”
           
“Oh, breasts for one thing. I don’t have those and...”

“Lukus!” she said with a grin as she slapped him across the shoulder. “You know  jolly well what I meant." She glanced at the barn’s rafters. “Listen to that rain. It sounds like it’s coming across the fields in sheets. We’re going to get soaked to the bone.” With that, she grabbed up her pack and bolted out the door for the house.
           
Lukus sprang after her, lantern in hand, overtaking her midway to the house’s collapsing porch. “What’s your hurry?” he hollered over the din coming up on their heels. “We’re in for a soaking whether we get inside or not! It might be wet enough to end up smelling like manure in the stables, but I think I’d rather stay in the barn with the unicorns. At least the roof seems to be in lots better condition!”

“Suit yourself!” she cried, as she hiked her skirts and bounded up the steps of the porch, “but the lantern stays with me!”  

A throb of lightning lit up the countryside, revealing the arrival of a roaring wall of rain. The crash of thunder and the deluge arrived together in the next instant, like a douse from a colossal bucket, dashed at once into every crack on the porch. Rose and Lukus stumbled through the front door, only to find that the parlour wouldn’t do at all. They groped from room to room between flickers and flashes until they found some cover against the inside wall of the kitchen where most of the thatched roof remained.                                                                                                 
           
They sat on the floor with their backs to the wall, combing their bedraggled hair from their faces with their fingers. Rose nudged him with the striker from her knapsack. Without a word between them, he spent the next several minutes struggling to light the lantern. At last it came to, a wee sputtering yellow seed atop the dirty stub of candle. Pale shadows leaped and waved, dancing above rivulets of water finding their way out through holes in the floor. He started to speak, but his voice vanished in the din. He studied the room, listening to the storm. “Oh, Rose?” he said, speaking out louder this time. “Wouldn’t you say we’ve lived something of a sheltered life in the castle, all these years?”         

“Yes, yes. Quite.”

“So you decided that to cultivate your new maturity, you should go out into the world for some exposure, aye what?”    

“I didn’t plan the rain.”

“If we just bed down along the wall here, I think it'll stay dry enough to sleep. And boy, am I ever hungry.”

“Sounds fine to me, Lukus,” she said, “except...”

“Except what?”

“Except you seem to have left your pack in the barn,” she said, kneeling to open her own bag.

“Oh, great!” he said. “Couldn’t you just...? I mean I’ll just run out after the rain and pay you back, all right?”
                                                                                                                                   
“Be neat for once, would you?” she said, handing him things out of her bag.

They ate ravenously, listening to the steady downpour. "Dried apricots and cheese make one strange meal,” he said between thoughtful chews, “but you know? I think it’s pretty near the best supper I ever ate.”

He finished eating to discover that no pack also meant no bed roll for him, but Rose was willing to let him use one end of her bedding as a pillow. “So Rose," he said, settling himself onto his back, stirring the empty space over his head as though it were an orchestra. "You were telling me...”

“Telling you what?”  

“You know. As you were saying back in the woods before we got off the road and came here. I mean you weren’t done were you? Isn’t there some sort of reason for our going to the Chokewood Forest?”

For a long spell, the rain was the only sound he heard. “Lukus,” she said at last, “I may not be your sister at all. If there be any truth to what I was told at my awful birthday party, you and I are only cousins.”

“Oh go on,” he said with a laugh. “Surely you don’t mean first cousins? That would make one of us Ugleeuh’s child.”

“Ugleeuh? My word. You made that up.”

“No I didn't.”

“But no one would ever name a... So who on earth is Ugleeuh?”

“Mother’s sister, Rose. Didn't you know her name?”
                                                                                                                                   
“Something else I wasn’t to find out until I was sixteen, no doubt. How come they told you, anyway?”

“No one made a point of telling me. I don’t even remember how I found out, but you weren’t singled out. Good grief. It’s not as though anyone in the family was exactly proud of her.”

“But Lukus, I can’t believe Grandfather Razzmorten would name one of his daughters such a thing.”

“Well he didn’t. Mother said that Grandfather was away when the baby was born, and she said that the baby’s mother, Mother’s stepmother, named it before he returned. I guess she wasn’t very happy to have a child and took it out on the baby."

“How awful. No wonder she grew up with such a chip on her shoulder.”

“Yeap. Probably had a lot to do with it, all right,” he said, rolling onto his haunches to stare into her face. “But good grief. She surely can't be your mother. No way.”       

“Yea? Well maybe Lukus, but somehow nobody, absolutely nobody back at the castle would be completely straight with me when I asked them, so I intend to find out for certain, one way or the other. So please don’t ask me any more questions right now. We need to get some rest. We have a long way to travel, yet.”

“But I want to know more about this, once we’re...”

“Fine. On the road. Please, let’s go to sleep.”

Chapter 3





Rose and Lukus woke and hurriedly set out on their way before light. A glow in the east gave them their bearings as they crossed out of Far through the timber and pastures of the Jut of Ellsmore. As the sun rose through tiers of fiery red clouds, they carefully crossed into Loxmere between a pair of guard houses along the Border Way. There they followed the border of Ellsmore and Loxmere, staying out of sight of the road. They kept quite busy wending through thickets and crossing fences, but it was broad daylight now and quite pleasant out with every manner of bird singing, and for a while it looked as though it would clear off.

Eventually they noticed that the guard houses had veered to the west following the border of Ellsmore, so they took to the road which continued south. It was still, humid and warm beneath fluffy white clouds. Now and again the climbing sun would come out, making things hot for a time before being covered over. A cuckoo called. Right before noon it grew still. Gusts of wind chased through the grass in the pasture by the road. A louring shelf of thick black cloud arrived, blotting out the sun. 

“I don’t much care for the looks or feel of the storm that’s brewing, Rose,” said Lukus. “I don’t suppose you happen to know of another abandoned farm nearby where we could hole up until this thing passes, do you?”

“I’m afraid not. The only thing I know… Easy, Mystique. The only thing I know about Loxmere is how to get to Loxmere Castle and how to get to…Easy, girl…how to get to the Seafarer’s Inn at Port Loxmere. If I remember right, I think James told me once that the eastern part of Loxmere is pretty thinly populated, except for right along the coast, though I honestly can’t be sure since I never listened to anything he said if I could possibly help it.”

“Man oh man! Right now I sure wish you’d have listened to him. You might have known where to go when this storm hit."

“Yea? That's asking a lot out of me five years ago… Hey, Mystique! Easy, sweetheart. It’s only the wind. Easy,” she said, patting her neck.

Mystique side-stepped, snorted and stood wild eyed and statue-still, looking as though she was about to bolt.

“Starfire wants to rear!” cried Lukus as he worked the reins to keep his unicorn's nose down.

“Why are they so bloomin' spooked by the storm, do you reckon, Lukus? Mystique's usually quite placid about such things.
           
“Look!” he cried. “That's why!” Near the horizon, under the churning pall of clouds, a monstrous column of black connected the ground to the clouds and began swinging from side to side beyond the trees. “What is that thing, Rose?”

“Cyclone!" she wailed. The air was now close and stifling, making it hard to breathe. “Lukus! What do we do now?”

“Fly!” he shouted as both unicorns wheeled and sprang into a terrified gallop.

“Lukus! Hey! Wait! Lukus, Lukus!" she hollered over the hammering hooves in the velvety silence, as she clung to Mystique for dear life. “Stop! Stop! We can’t do this! It’ll get us! We can’t outrun it! Grandfather…! Dang it! Grandfather said…!”

“Said what?”

“Down in a low place! Grandfather Razzmorten said...!”

 “Creek! Yonder!” he hollered, pointing to a line of trees across the pasture.

As they reached the trees by the stream, the silence grew to a roar, ballooning up to their backs as the air became even harder to breathe. In their terror, the unicorns refused to enter the trees at first, wheeling aside to stay in the open. A bit of merciless spurring and rein yanking got them through the trees and over the edge of the bank, but it was a long way down to the muddy bed. Starfire tumbled and fell, throwing Lukus over his ears before recovering his footing and running away.

“Lukus!” screamed Rose as Mystique threw her and bolted away after Starfire. She was on her feet at once to see her lunging up the bank to disappear through the trees. Lukus was crawling up the bank in the roar of the wind. She ran to him with everything she had, slamming him onto the muddy ground to cling mercilessly to him until the deafening fury and crashing had subsided.

“We're alive,” he said, propping up on his arm as the marble-sized rain drops began pelting them.

“Ow!” cried Rose as a hailstone struck her where she sat in her muddy wad of dress. “Dang! Let’s get under something.” They scuttled under the huge trunk of a freshly uprooted oak to watch transfixed as the ground turned white with huge eggs of ice. Soon the hail turned to driving icy rain that settled into a fine mist which looked as though it would last all day.

“Well we’re alive,” said Rose as she stood up and scraped away a gob of mud from her dress. “I wonder if the unicorns are. Do you have any idea where the road is?”

“I know where the road is, but Starfire and Mystique are probably on their way back to Niarg, if they're alive at all. Look at all these trees blown over into the creek.”

“Yea,” she said. “And look at how fast the water's rising.”

They clambered and clawed up the muddy clay bank to stand in awe at the top as they beheld the strewn wreckage of uprooted trees and even ties of thatch and pieces of board with nails from buildings far away. “Rose. Look at this. These straws have been driven right into the bark of this splintered up elm tree.”

They began making for the road, across flattened grass littered with debris. They had not gone far at all, when Rose suddenly saw Starfire and Mystique, bounding up to meet them. “They’re fine!" she cried. "They’re not hurt at all. Mystique still has my pack, too. It’s all here. How about you?”

“My stuff’s all here too. Starfire’s bridle is messed up though. Looks like a strap pulled out on his headstall, but I can fix it as we go if we get back on the road and stay there and don’t run into any more cyclones. He likes to lead, but he’ll follow Mystique if you’re steering.”

“Let’s get going, then,” she said, finding her stirrup. “This drizzle has set in for the day, and we need to get to someplace dry for the night.”

Lukus whisked away the water from his saddle and mounted, following her around the rubble left by the tornado. Soon they were on the road, heading south.

“You think we could make it to the Seafarer’s Inn before dark?” he said as he struggled with Starfire’s bridle. “It would be wonderful to take a hot bath and sleep in a bed after all of this.”
           
“No kidding, but that's just out Lukus. Sorry.”

“Why? I brought some money with me, if you didn’t.”

“Money's not the problem. That place is well traveled. Our royal entourages stop there all the time. It may be years since either of us has been there, but there are all sorts of people there who could figure us out, given the time to do so. And if Niarg stops there, I'd guess that just about anybody from Loxmere Castle would, too. How would we ever explain being there without our parents, and without so much as a bodyguard, retainer or steward whatsoever? We may be dressed for travel, but we still don’t look like commoners. Someone would figure us out sure as can be and hold us there for the Niarg authorities, or maybe even send us to Loxmere Castle. That's the last place in the world I want to be, I can tell you. I certainly haven’t come this far to be stopped by some civic do-gooder. I do want to try though, Lukus. There might be a chance we’ll find a nice warm place to sleep tonight. Maybe we’ll find an out of the way boarding house in that little town just on the other side of Loxmere Castle. What is it, Sweetpea?”

“All right. Great. But isn't that where James got all his peas to shoot at you?”

"Shut up."

“Hey Rose, look at that long queue of people off through the trees. Who on earth would have a parade on a day like this?”

“That’s no parade, Lukus,” she said, peering under the flat of her hand. "See that black coach, yonder? That's a hearse. Somebody died. Funeral procession. I wonder who? Looks like it was somebody important.”

“Look 'ee there on the far side of the hearse. See? That bald fat man on the jet black unicorn. Is that King Edmond?”

“I think you’re right. James’s mother did die. Bet anything. How awful. But I sure don’t see any little round weasel like James.”

“He wouldn't be there,” said Lukus innocently enough, as he continued fiddling with Starfire’s bridle. "No way."

"Why on earth not?"

"They wouldn't allow something like that."

"What are you talking about?"

"This part of the country? They're going to know their peas in queues... Ow!" he yelped as Rose kicked him squarely in the calf of his leg. "All right. My guess is that’s him yonder, on the far side of King Edmond.”

“Oh drat! I can’t tell if that’s James or not. If he’d just lower his hood or turn this way. Oh brother. When he does that, King Edmond's in the way. Not that it matters, mind you.” She flung a fierce look at Lukus.

Lukus yanked off a twig to chew as he studied the mourners trudging in the mud.

“They're getting close," said Rose with a tug at her glove. "If we don’t want to be spotted, we’d better get off into the brush. Let’s go through the woods and pick up the road again after they get by.”

“Righty-o, but who do you reckon that young lady is, down there?”

Rose was already in the woods when she saw that he wasn’t budging until he found out, so she came back to see. “Now where is she?”

“Right yonder, right behind King Edmond. The one wearing black ruffles, with the black handkerchief. See? The one doing all the bawling and carrying on.”

“Myrtlebell!" she cried. "I've not the slightest doubt she's been telling James her ugly stories about me."

"What do you care?" he said, following her back into the woods. "There for a while you had me convinced that the last thing on earth you wanted to do was marry James.”

“Of course I don’t,” she said as she urged Mystique into a canter through the brush. “But I don’t want to for my own reasons, not hers. And I jolly well resent her horning her way into my affairs before I’ve wrapped them up in my own way. And anyway, Myrtlebell is just plain vicious.”

"Look yonder," said Lukus with a nod at a rider coming toward them through the trees. "He's some kind of retainer of Castle Loxmere. Looks like we should've gone when you wanted to.” They halted, watching him approach.

“Why, Lukus? We haven’t done anything.”

“Not at all. But what if they’re out looking for us?”

“I didn’t think of that. Too late now. I think I can handle it. This knave could be the one who delivered James’s letter.”

“I sure hope so.”

“No kidding.”

The retainer drew to a halt. “Is this indeed the Princess Rose of Niarg, whom I have the pleasure of greeting, this right inclement afternoon?” He asked, doffing his hat and bowing from his mount.

“Indeed. I am she, and my escort be my brother, Prince Lukus of the same house.”

“Your Highness,” said the rider, nodding to Lukus, as he continued to study her. “I am Lance, Third Steward to the House of Loxmere, First Steward to James of Loxmere. I don’t recall having given a proper introduction when last we met, Princess.”

“No Lance. However, I quite understood at the time. Our meeting was tense due to circumstances much beyond my control.”

“It was, but I am in no way affronted, whatsoever. As for this meeting, may I ask why you're out here in this drizzle, soaked to the bone, watching the queen’s funeral like a couple of spies?”

“Good Heavens,” said Rose. “We just went through the cyclone, but I didn’t realize that we looked that bad.”

“No, no actually. I’m getting carried away. But you two do look like a pair of bedraggled pups at least. The cyclone, aye? We got tidings of it earlier, but it didn’t get this far. Was there much damage?”

“Considerable, but we'd just crossed into Loxmere from the north and we were well away from settlements.”

“So I reckon that you and Prince Lukus came for the funeral, but were waylaid by the storm?”

“Once again you’re right perceptive, Lance."

“Thank you,” he said with a nod. “But now, how am I to serve the pair of you?”

“What do you suggest?” said Rose, as a wave of fear shot through her.

“Well Prince James will be elated that you came, but I’m certain that you wouldn’t just… Well, I know that you would never just enter into the procession and announce yourselves. I'll certainly arrange your quarters and what not, but what shall it be first, a bath? Something to eat? I am at your service.”

“Oh yes, yes,” she said, happily hiding her relief. “I must request, as one of a pair of drowned pups, that I should like to bathe and put on fresh clothing before the Prince sees me."

“Splendid. I shall see you at once to Castle Loxmere. There you can freshen up and relax until Prince James and King Edmond return from the funeral. I’m very glad that you came. Your arrival will greatly improve his Highness’s mood. The prince was very close to the queen, as you already know.”

“I'm very much obliged,” she said with a pang of guilt.

“Well then,” said Lance, replacing his hat and shifting his reins. “Shall we go?”

“Carry on then,” she said. She glanced aside to find Lukus looking cold with a hint of livid. "Mercy," she thought. "I sure hope he plays along." She nudged Mystique's flanks and followed.

As it turned out, Lance never got out of hearing the entire way to the castle. By the time they were shown to their rooms, bathed, dressed and fed, Lukus was in a very agitated state. “What in Niarg are you thinking?” he said, rounding on her the moment they were alone. “The instant Prince James shows up, this little adventure of yours will be over and you’ll be on your way to being the new Princess of Loxmere. That is, if Mother and Father ever let you out of the palace again. Good grief, Rose. What did you ever leave home for, if you were going to fold up at the first obstacle?”

“I did not. And if you'll hold your tongue long enough for me to explain, you'll see that my decision was sound. I arranged with Lance to surprise James at supper with our arrival. That should give us some time to slip out unseen and be well on our way by then. Of course it will be 'way easier, and give us a better head start, if we leave right now. I think they're expected back within the hour."

“Wheeoo! They’re really going to think something's strange here.”

“So what? Maybe James will finally realize I don’t want to marry him.”

“Yea? Maybe our behavior will help him believe Myrtlebell’s windy stories.”

“He probably already does. I want out of here, Lukus. How quick can you be ready?”

“I am ready.”

“We have to be careful or someone will see us. Be nonchalant.”

“We aren’t prisoners, Rose. We’ll just walk right out of here. If anyone asks, we’re just enjoying a walk.”

“Of course. We are guests, after all.”

“Let's go."

When they reached the stables, Lukus peeped in through a crack. “Only a couple of stable boys,” he said. "Let's not fool around."

“Where'd they go?” she said, lunging across some unicorn manure. “No one's even going to see us leave.”

Outside the castle gates, they rode hard for the rest of the afternoon, slowing to a saunter only when the village of  Sweetpea came into view that evening.

“What a relief,” said Lukus with his hat in his teeth as he tied his ponytail. "I'm really getting sore. But now we can have a bed for the night and fresh bedding for these unicorns. They’re getting so tired that they’re all stumbly.”

“I know I said we’d stay the night in Sweetpea, Lukus, but that was before we were waylaid by Lance. There will be a search. And this close?” she said, waving at the houses ahead. “We will be found. No way we won’t.”

“So just when do you think it will be safe to stop for a real supper and bed?”

“We’ve got to ride through the night. Maybe that will get us far enough to think about some place.”

“Somewhere with a real bed?”

“I hope. I know you’re exhausted.”

By now the road had wound in amongst the cozy houses of Sweetpea. Cows were being driven inside to milk. Shopkeepers shooed out lingering patrons. Wonderful aromas of suppers being prepared wafted out to meet them through the open windows, making their mouths water and their stomachs rumble.

“Reckon it would be safe to have a teensy stop at that inn up yonder, and have a quick bite of supper, Rose?”

“It’s a risk and no mistake, but maybe if we are right wary and don’t dally, we might get away with it. But remember that there's no way we can gamble with staying the night.”

Lukus was already on his way.

The inn was a massive three storey whitewashed brick and timber affair resembling the residences flanking it, with a sod roof which was an occasional pasture for goats. A throng of townspeople milled about and sat on the benches running along the front wall. They tied up their unicorns and threaded their way inside to a crowded common room and dining hall with a low ceiling. A delicious aroma greeted them at once. The room was a rambling sea of tables, spread with green and white checkered cloths and candles.

"Something I can do for you young 'ns?" said the reedy innkeeper, squinting at them from beneath his bush of fiery red hair.

“We’ll not be needing a room,” said Rose, “but a quick bite of supper would suit us, thank you.”

“You ones got the money to pay for hit, aye?”
                                                                                                                                   
“Certainly,” said Rose with a serious look.

“’Ave ye a seat yonder by the mirror, then.”

“The house mirror, Rose," said Lukus as they found their seats. "If you have money, you get the mirror."

"Pooh Lukus."

At the jostling of the candles on the table, they looked up with a start to see the most obese woman either of them had ever seen. The sight of her left both of them speechless and then utterly startled when she completed the adjustment of her apron by picking up in her arms first one then the other of her ponderous breasts and shifting them to new locations across the front of her. She smiled with tired sincerity, gathering up her rosy cheeks on an expansive pasty face which peered from between a thick dangling mane of dark greasy curls streaked with grey above multiple lardy rolls of chin. “That there pot roast be the best to my notion,” she said, punctuated by her labored breathing, “Hit comes with peach cobbler and coffee or tea. Got both of ‘em right off the ship this very day.” She leant forward to set the candles to one side, emitting a blubbery hiss from her apron as she did so, causing Lukus to jerk upright with raised eyebrows. She stood up languidly, making a plumping sound from the same place and continued: “’Course if ye ain’t all that ‘ungry, you might just want a bowl o’ our  fa-amous beef stew, but I’d stay away from the pea soup if I was you ones. My 'usband was supposed to be a-watchin’ hit, but I declare ’e was lax. ’Course ’e denies hit, but I can tell by the smell o' hit, that he scorched hit! Gettin’ so I don’t want ’is he’p in the kitchen.”

Rose and Lukus ordered the stew and leant across the table toward each other to giggle the instant the massive woman had her back to them.

“Rose! Did you hear that?”

“That must have been her belly button.”

“Do you suppose she bathes with a bottle brush, Rose?”

“I don’t suppose she bathes. But to be fair, her clothes were spotless. Poor thing. I think she’s sweet. I feel sorry for her.”

Lukus could see that it was time to stop. “This place seems to be doing right well for itself,” he said, looking around. “There isn’t a seat left and there's even a crowd waiting for tables. I'd never guess so many travelers would pass through Sweetpea.”

“Me neither,” said Rose, “but I'll bet a good many of these are local people. Some of this could be funeral traffic, though.”

“What about those sleazy characters over there by the fireplace? Suppose they're here to waylay mourners?”

“Fiddlesticks Lukus. You and your imagination.”

“Yea? Well I’ve been watching them since we sat down, and they've been watching us every time I've looked up.”

“So?"

"Maybe they're thinking about robbing us."
                                                                                                                                   
“You keep looking over there. Are you going to rob them?"

Lukus grew sullen. To Rose’s relief, the food arrived, saving her from further comment. By the time they were through eating, the men were gone and Lukus was in much better spirits. “I’m stuffed.” he said, pushing out his belly to make a point of patting it. "With this kind of food, no wonder it’s booming. I’d eat here every day.”

"Well you managed to today," she said as she stood and slipped on her cloak. “We need to make haste.”
***

“It’s not too late to turn around, Rose,” said Lukus as they rode away from the lights. “Are you sure we can’t stay the night back there?”

“Who was worried about the seedy characters by the fireplace? I can’t believe you’re all ready to cast aside caution and return to an unbelievably busy road house only a few miles from Loxmere Castle. You can count on James’s search parties being underway this minute.”

“I knew you’d say that,” he said, settling into his saddle, “and unfortunately, I agree.”

Before them lay the border of Loxmere, beyond which lay the Jut of Niarg, a southern arm of their own country, filled with a dense forest known as the Jutwoods. They crossed the border in the broad moonlight by leaving the road in order to avoid the guard houses. When they had found their way back onto the road, they were nearly three leagues beyond Loxmere in very dense woods. Suddenly Rose halted Mystique so abruptly that Lukus ran his knee into the skirt of her saddle. “Hey! Rose, call your shot next time.”

“Hush!” she said. “We’re being watched.”

"How do you know?"

"I swear I saw movement."

“It must be the robbers from the inn. I told you they were up to no good.”

“Can you see them, Lukus?”

"It's 'way too dark. I can’t see anything. They could hide anywhere. They could be right there in the rocks along the cliff, for all I can tell. I think they’re rocks. Maybe they're pacing us through the woods, just off the road.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Run or hide. We’d better choose one right quick, 'cause I just heard something. We can make out the road by the gap in the trees.”

“Then let’s ride like the wind. They'll not have mounts even close to ours.”

At once three figures stepped into the roadway. 

"Lukus!" she cried, wheeling square about and frantically digging her heels into Mystique's flanks to charge back the way they'd come. Lukus tried to follow, but Starfire reared and bolted off the road and through the brush to throw him sprawling in the briars as two hooded figures rushed out of nowhere and grabbed Starfire's reins. Lukus scrambled to his feet and fell in time to be pounced on and rolled up in a blanket.

Rose was too far away by now to hear him over Mystique's pounding hooves, but she looked over her shoulder to see if he was behind her. "Lukus!" she cried. The moment she turned about, three hooded figures stepped into her way, spooking Mystique off the road to go crashing through a thicket while she hung onto her neck for dear life. As they raced under the limb of an oak, somebody dropped onto Mystique's back to grab her as she lost her grip. She gave out a throat shredding scream.

"Hush!" cried the somebody, clapping his hand over her mouth. "You'll scare lean air out of Lukus, and cac too, Princess!"

Directly, she was helped off Mystique by the one who had caught her and by two other hooded men who set to work at once, unwrapping Lukus. "Good for you!" she shouted. "You have us! Now what are you going to do to us? And just how did you know  Lukus's name?"

The three calmed the unicorns and stood quietly before them, faceless as wraiths.

"You're not from the inn," she said as they pushed back their hoods.    

The middle one smiled at her. 

“You’re Elves!” she gasped at their pointed ears. “But you don’t exist. You must be an enchantment.”

"Nope," said the middle one with a bow. "We're as real as you are. And enchantment would be beyond you, I'm afraid. I'm Danneth and these are my brothers, Strom and Jarund, and we most certainly mean you no harm in the least. In fact, we're here at your service.”

“Yea?” said Lukus. “And how is stamping on us and rolling us in the blackberry briars the same as serving us?”

“Yes, that was awkward,” said Danneth. “You have lots of energy. It took quite a bit to get you to hold still.”

“Just how many of you are there? Nine? Twelve?” said Rose. 

“We are three only,” said Danneth.

“Now you're playing us for fools,” she said.

“Not at all,” said Jerund. "We merely move quickly when we must."

“Rose, they don’t have to let us find out. It’s pointless,” said Lukus, turning to Danneth. “Though it would only be fair if you all at least told us what you stopped us for and just what you are.”

“But Rose saw at once that we are Elves,” said Danneth.

Danneth looked like his brothers to Rose, but where his hair was silvery, Strom’s was metallic golden and Jarund’s was iridescent and black as pitch, far blacker than any black hair she had seen in her life. “They have to be what they claim, Lukus," she said, turning to the Elves. "I'm convinced that you're Elves, but telling us that you're at our service is no explanation at all for your waylaying us.”

“You tried to flee right when we had to stop you for your safety,” said Danneth,
haring nods with his brothers.

“How's that?” said Rose.

"Oh fiddlesticks," said Lukus.

“We were about to show ourselves when you heard us,” said Danneth. “You'd have been in trouble right away. This road across the Jut of Niarg is perilously dangerous at night. It's not even safe in broad daylight. Folks usually get jumped by robbers miles closer to Sweetpea. You're much too far out, even for daylight. And after dark, trolls and werebeasts are certain to get you.”

“Elves are one thing," said Rose. "But trolls and werebeasts? Are you playing us for fools? And if you aren't, why should you help us when we're complete strangers and maybe dangerous?”

“Ahh, but Elves are much better at reading the human* heart than Humans* themselves,” said Danneth with a grin. “It behooves us, Princess Rose and Prince Lukus, to see you safely by the shortest route to the Enchanted Land.”

“You couldn't know any of this!" cried Rose. "You must read minds.”
                                   
“Maybe,” he said, “but you’ll want to come with us for your safety and to give us the time to answer what questions you still have.”

“Well,” she said, “your services do sound better as you speak. Could you take us by a shortcut to the Chokewood Forest?”

“Certainly not,” said Danneth. “Elves never go there. Would it not be wise for you to follow our example?”

“You must have your reasons, but I'm on a quest which can't possibly be completed without our going there. Lukus and I have no choice.”

“So it is indeed time,” said Danneth gravely.                                                                 

“Just what are you talking about?” said Rose.

“You'll know in time, Rose,” he said, gathering up Mystique’s reins and taking her by the hand as they started into the woods. As Lukus and Starfire fell into step beside them, the forest canopy blocked out the feeble moonlight, plunging them into complete blackness.