The last rays of sunlight danced across the ocean waters and cast deep shadows over Oriana Palace. Bustling down one of the dark and empty hallways, Nurse muttered to herself. Suitors, who needed them! Really all they did was get her Miss Princess all in a dither, complaining about her clothes (more than usual) and keeping secrets from her. Bother and nonsense, that’s what it was.
Nurse knocked on Princess Una’s heavy wooden door. No answer greeted her old ears, so she turned the knob and pushed the door in. Going briskly about the room, Nurse tidied up the lovely chambers which hardly needed it. The balcony door banged as a harsh sea breeze moved it.
“For Lume’s sake! Why can’t Miss Princess keep the doors and windows closed? It won’t be my fault if she catches her death of cold.”
Nurse jumped as a whiny voice sounded by her ear. The Princess’s blind, orange cat, Monster, sat grooming himself on top of a bureau. He flicked his tail at her and meowed again.
Impatiently, Nurse snatched at the impudent cat. Nimbly Monster dodged and hissed as he slipped out the balcony door, barely missing getting his tail smashed.
“Dragon-eaten feline!” Nurse muttered.
Perhaps all cats weren’t so bad, Nurse thought to herself as she paused, looking out the window at the raging sea beyond. She had once known a very clever cat who had managed to make a simple village maid fall in love.
Water was a wonderful thing; it kept one clean and cool. It also kept one alive. And it was beautiful.
Luna loved and longed for things that would delight her senses; like water that sparkled in the sun-light or meadow’s that waved golden and green in the wind. However not many things in her life seemed remarkable to her. The village, Forereach, where she lived in was a friendly enough place, but it was not the least bit glamorous or exciting. Luna and her older sister, Gretta, lived by themselves near to the town but didn’t concern themselves with the goings on except for market days.
Every morning she heard Gretta get up, start the fire and head for the river with the water buckets slung over her shoulders. And then Luna would sneak off into the forest in search wonders and playthings.
It wouldn’t be fair to call the sisters gypsies, for they were quiet, tame creatures, who would never think of robbing passers-by or putting on shows. But they did ramble around from town to town with no kin or friends to speak of. And Luna, the younger of the two, could be rather wild at times. But Gretta had the odd habit of being what her sister called sullen. However, Gretta would reply to her little sister that she had more sense than Luna ever would and that counted for far more than charm.
As the two sisters wandered from town to village they came upon the quaint little village by Goldstone River, not many leagues from Palace Oriana in Parvirum. The kind people there took pity on the girls and allowed them to stay in the abandoned shack at the river’s edge. There they stayed by the water and lived as the naiads of folk-lore; swimming and fishing and harvesting the wild fruits.
Usually Gretta hurried to fetched water, but on this bright, late spring day she wished to stay by the shaded water’s edge. Green and yellow light filtered down over the rivers cold water. Somewhere above her she heard a bird sing. She didn’t know which kind it was, for she had never bothered to learn their names and patterns; Luna could have told her but the other girl was nowhere in sight. It was a pretty song nonetheless; it almost sounded like words… almost.
A hubbub of shouts erupted from around a bend in the river. Rising from the soft grass, Gretta sauntered around the corner and was met by a shocking scene.
Luna was wading halfway to her waist in the freezing water. She was splashing about and struggling toward an object in the middle of the river. Behind her a boy had emerged from the forest foliage and was running toward the river bank. As he did so he shouted to Luna to stop.
Water slapped Luna in the face and dragged at her long skirts, despite this, she struggled on toward the bobbing sack in the middle of the stream. The burlap sack, which had caught on a downed branch, bobbed up and down with the streams current. As she plunged forward, Luna was partially aware of her sister’s voice mingled with an unfamiliar one yelling at her to stop.
“I must get it! I just know there are kittens inside and I won’t let them drown!” She snapped to herself.
Suddenly the whole world caved in on itself in an icy avalanche of blue-green water. The ground had disappeared from under the girl’s feet and she felt herself being dragged down by the sheer weight of her sodden skirts. Luna’s mouth opened in an involuntary scream but water raged into it before any sound could escape. Blindly she kicked out and flailed her arms but still she sank down, down, down.
A sharp pain lanced through Luna’s right wrist as fingers latched onto it. Then she felt a strong arm slip around her waist and the water began to speed past her. Breaking out into sunlight again, she choked and gagged for breath. A tender hand brushed the hair from her face, but even as she blinked water from her eyes she couldn’t see who her rescuer was for he had struck back out into the water and was swimming swiftly away.
“Oh Luna! I thought you’d gone and got yerself drowned!” Gretta’s motherly arms enfolded her sister like a warm blanket. They crouched together and softly wept as Luna shivered.
When Luna glanced up she saw a stranger walking toward her holding a burlap sack. He smiled and placed it at her feet. His golden-brown skin shone in the sunlight as water droplets dripped off his wet black hair.
Deftly, the boy loosed the bag and held it out to the girls.
“I thought you might be wanting this.” He said in a voice that smiled even more than his green eyes.
Reluctantly, Gretta let go of her sister and reached for the bag. He let her have it, but then he just stood there as if waiting for something.
“Come on Luna, we had better be going,” Gretta muttered to her sister. Luna started to protest, but the boy interrupted them.
“Hold on a minute,” The boy cried. “Won’t you let me have a look at ‘um? After all, I did save both them and your sister.”
Luna stood rather shakily to her feet and scooped up the bag. Walking over to him she sat down again and patted the grass beside her. The boy grinned and flopped down. Reluctant to be the last to see what the bag held, Gretta scurried over and sat down next to her sister and away from the stranger.
“Do you think their dead?” The boy asked and Gretta realized the bag must contain kittens some wretch had tried to drown.
“I’d rather think not,” Luna said in her soft sweet voice. She looked at the bag and her hands hesitated at the sacks opening. He smiled coaxingly at her and, placing his hands just above hers, opened the bag. As he slid his hand inside Gretta nudged her sister and Luna scooted back, away from the boy.
The first sorry kitten was very much dead and the sight of it made Luna sick. The second matted fur ball was almost enough to make even the stoic Gretta cry. She turned her head away. The boy took the last soggy kitten gently in his dark hands. It twitched.
“Hey, I think this little fellow is still alive, what hoe!” He chirruped. With tender fingers, he massaged the shaking form.
Gretta curiously watched the boy work life back into the kitten’s body and the water out. Her admiration lasted only long enough for her to be sure the creature would live. Then she stood and pulled Luna to her feet, reading to depart. Luna looked about ready to faint and she turned toward their home without a murmur.
“Wait now won’t you?” the boy called to them again. He held out the kitten in his hands. “I ain’t gonna keep this thing.”
“But you saved it.” Gretta called curtly over her shoulder. Luna seemed not to have heard and she walked farther on.
“Well of course I did, I’d be a monster if I sat by and let an innocent creature die. Besides I couldn’t save your sister and then let this little fellow die anyway when I knew I could save it. But,” he shrugged and grinned cheekily. “But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna keep it.”
Rolling her eyes Gretta cursed under her breath, “Dragons teeth! What in Lume’s name am I gonna do with it? I don’t even like cats! And Luna wouldn’t know how to take care of it even if it could tell her itself.”
A feeble “meow” broke the awkward silence.
“Oh fine!” Gretta threw up her hands. The boy beamed and proffered the fur ball. With barely another look at her he nodded curtly and strode off whistling as if nothing had ever happened although his clothes were still dripping wet.
“Oh bother,” Gretta murmured looking at the shaking kitten. “What am I gonna do with you and Luna?”
“What were you thinking, Luna?! You could have gotten killed! And for what: A puny little fur-ball?
Luna dodged her sister’s tirade as she always did and just laughed at her.
“He’s so tiny. I’m sure he won’t eat much.” She suggested, pounding up some nuts and putting them in a bowl with water that was heating over the small hearth. The shanty had been almost completely empty when they had found it except for the fire grate in one corner. This had been a curious thing to fix.
“Maybe so, but we need every penny we can get so that you can go to Dame Lilly’s school.”
“Oh yes, about that,” Luna said as she munched thoughtfully on a nut. “I was thinking maybe instead of trying to do something with my life maybe I’ll just become a wandering gypsy and play and sing for folks. I like singing and I’ve always wanted to travel.”
Gretta looked up sharply. “NO! You can’t. It’s not respectable for a girl your age. Besides what would I do without you?”
“I dunno. Maybe you could go learn how ta’ be a lady in waiting at Dame Lilly’s instead of me.” Luna said reflectively.
Fetching an old woven basket Gretta handed it to Luna and pushed her head first out the cottage door. “Don’t be absurd! Me work’en with royalty! Ha! Get along to the market and use what little sense you still have!”
Luna skipped down the grassy path picking flowers along the way and pinning them up into her hair. A few minutes later Gretta walked down the same path but she neither skipped nor picked flowers. Instead she listened to the bird’s song and tried to understand it.
“Beyond the final water falling,
The Song of Spheres recalling.
When at last those who have loved long must depart,
Won’t you return to me?”
Surely she was losing her mind! Birds can’t speak; but never mind now, the sun was shining and she was heading to her second favorite place, the market. In a moment she heard a pitiful, high-pitched meow behind her. Turning she saw the kitten trotting after her.
“Oh go away you nuisance.” Gretta hissed, “No! Stop following me! Fine. Fine, come along if you must. Now be quiet!”
The market was bright and festive. Tents, pavilions, and shops sprawled out across the dusty square. Everywhere people chatted and bartered, sold and bought. Peasant, merchant, and traveler all mingled together and their skins blended into a beautiful palate of creams, pinks, browns, and golds. Gretta thought she even momentarily spied a Faerie, but she blinked and the illusion was gone.
A man passed her with lovely golden-brown skin showing under his long black hair and open shirt front. His complexion reminded her of the boy she had met earlier. Briefly she wondered where he was and where he’d come from.
“Hey! Come back here you pest!” The kitten had gotten ahead of her and was scampering away into the crowd. Heavy boots tramped dangerously close to the little body and Gretta indecisively chewed her lip. Throwing up her hands, she awkwardly trundled after her sister’s cheeky pet.
Slipping around a burly beer-peddler Gretta saw Luna wondering around up ahead.
“Luna! Wait up a moment!” She panted. “Your pesky little kitten’s followed me here and run away. Why don’t you do something useful and look for him?”
Luna muttered something about the only pesky thing around was and trotted off.
It wasn’t until she reached the fire-breathers tent that Gretta caught sight of the kitten. Snatching it up, she berated it. “Don’t do that again you hear? You little pestilence! Oofph!” She ran smack-dab into a grinning golden faced, green eyed boy.
Dragon’s teeth! Why did it have to be him? Why couldn’t it have been one of the normal, mud chucking village boys she always had to fight away from her sister?
“Well hey ya! I know you.”
“Yes, um, oh.” Gretta bit her tongue when she realized the boy from the river was talking to the cat. He leaned forward and stroked the splotchy tabby’s head and tickled its chin.
“And how are you?” He queried turning his luminescent green eyes up to meet hers.
Gretta stiffened. “I be doin’ jist fine no thanks to you.”
He laughed, which confused her. “Glad to hear it. Say, have you named this little rascal?”
Without thinking she answered, “He’s Pest, I mean a pest, er yes just Pest I ‘spose.”
The boy nodded in satisfaction. “Clever name for a clever cat,” he said.
“He’s not very clever,” the solid girl countered. “He keeps running off from me.”
“Ah,” the boy tapped his nose, “and running to his rescuer.” He laughed; it was a tinkling, merry sound and almost made Gretta forget to be reasonable. But her sensible nature took over and she moved past the frivolous boy toward a colorful cheese and dairy tent.
Much to Gretta’s annoyance the boy followed her. “Haven’t ya got anything better to do than follow me around like a puppy?”
“Would you rather I run off like a kitten? Come ‘n, how ‘bout you show me around since I’m here?” He gave her a cajoling smile.
“Fine!” Gretta hoisted the squirming kitten into her apron pocket. “Well come along then...What’s yer name?”
“Ferdinand,” the gold skinned stranger said loftily. But then he winked and added childishly, “But you kin call me Fern.”
“Okay…Fern, this is a market, um yeah. Ah, I don’t know what else want me to say. I’m not good at this sort of thing.” Gretta absentmindedly rubbed the purring kitten.
“Ah well, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. When you travel as much as I do you see plenty of markets and bazaars.”
Gretta looked him up and down. Certainly he was from some faraway place; surely he had seen many wonderful and striking things.
“Where have you been?” She asked looking past him and poking around at the booths.
“Oh, all over. Most recently I was down at the edge of Goldstone Wood. Have you heard of it?” Fern asked.
“Right. Well it’s rather close to Palace Oriana so I...”
“Oriana! That’s where Luna wants to work some day!” Gretta babbled. Pest squirmed under her suddenly tight grip.
“Why? Why’d she want to work there?” Fern asked politely. He looked around the bustling market square in search of the pretty girl he’d rescued the day before. He couldn’t see her, but he felt she was near and his heart lightened.
“She’s gonna go to a school where they’ll teach her how to be a maid or nurse. All their students, well almost all, get hired to privileged families, but I think she could easily get a place at the Palace. She is very clever when she puts her mind to it.”
A new admiration rose in Fern’s mind for the peasant girl. Not unlike him, she was determined to change where the world had placed her, be it as it may that they had very different methods of going about it. The feeling he had gotten when he first laid eyes on her at the river returned. Warm, with a spark of understanding.
It’s time to move on now.
Dragon’s teeth! That blasted voice in his head again. It was a hot and painfully persistent voice. Ever since he had left his father’s presence the voice had encroached upon him, no long restrained by his father’s power.
“No, I don’t want to leave yet,” The boy hissed under his breathe.
“What was that?” Gretta asked looking oddly at him.
“Oh nothing,” lied Fern forcing a smile as his head began to pound.
Gretta shrugged and turned. “Okay. It’s getting late and I should go find my sister.”
Fern nodded, massaging his temples. The golden sun was reaching out to the horizon, its beams warming and burning all before it.
“Meet me here again…please.” Fern added hastily.
Shrugging again, Gretta ran off chasing Pest, who had leapt out of her pocket and was scurrying across the almost deserted market. Fern saw Luna then. She sat on top of the meeting house roof and was nibbling a pear. The sun caught wisps of her hair that floated about her face and made her look like an angel. When she turned her head down and saw him, a beautiful smile spread across her face and she waved. Scampering down the roof Luna jumped off and into an empty wagon beside the building. Then she ran to Fern and stopped just short of him. Her wide innocent eyes peeked up at him and she stared like a baby chick waiting for its mother to feed it.
“Well hiya again.” Fern grinned. “I think your sister’s looking for ya.”
“Oh is she?” Luna sounded disappointed. “I guess I had better go find her then. I heard you tell her your name’s Fern. That’s a mighty nice name.”
“Not half so nice as Luna.” Fern replied sincerely. His green eyes pierced her grey ones as he looked solemnly at her.
A sudden chilly breeze sprang up and Luna shivered. Her slight frame had little protection from the weather save her light dress and the wind penetrated it most mercifully. Without a thought for himself Fern shrugged of his seaman’s jacket and placed it around the girl’s shoulders. Then, before she could either thank him or refuse the gift, he turned and walked briskly away into the gathering darkness.
Fern had left his coat with Luna, but he had inadvertently taken her heart away with him.
The weeks following their first encounter passed sweetly for Fern, Luna, Gretta, and even Pest. Often the three new found friends met at the river or the weekly markets. Fern entertained the girls, (mostly Luna) with stories of his escapades and far-reaching adventures. In return they offered him what little food they could spare and Luna showed him many secret places she had discovered in the forest. And she also let him play with Pest, (who adored the boy).
Slowly Gretta began to trust the kind and open lad. And Luna let her love of her sister spill over and engulf the boy, too. Even Fern could ignore the hot voice long enough to enjoy the sweet and sour girls’ amusing company. He had never had any true friends in all his travels; he had been either a curiosity or a nuisance to people. But now, he knew these honest, simple girls would trust him and it was such a pleasant feeling that he thought he didn’t want to lose it for anything.
“My, it seems as if I’ve always lived here.” Fern said as he lay on his back gazing up into the cloudless blue sky.
“It’s only been four or so weeks.” Luna replied, without looking up from her mending. Fern rolled over and pushed himself up on to him elbows.
“Has it?” He inquired. His white teeth flashed as he smiled. “Have you been keeping track?”
Luna blushed. “No, not really, I just have a good sense of time. Gretta says it’s ‘cause I’m a born housekeeper and know how to get things done.”
“Hmm, Grettta has some strange idea’s.”
“No she doesn’t!” Luna thrust her chin in the air. “Well, maybe a few,” she added grinning back at the boy. “But never mind about us; I want to hear about you and how you can to be here.”
A shadow passed over Ferns face as he looked away from her. “Maybe another time, it’s not the kind of story for a bright day like today.”
“Do tell me,” Luna coxed, but glimpsing the frown on his face she quickly added, “But if you’d really rather not that’s fine.”
He turned his deep and suddenly strange, veiled eyes toward her and gave her the slightest smile. “Thank you.”
As Luna gazed into his eyes she felt as if he was trying to tell her without words about his past. She saw sorrow and longing, then a sudden flash of defiance. Jumping to his feet, Fern called out.
“Ah look! Here comes Gretta.”
Emerging from the forest fringe, Gretta came striding toward them, her arms swinging and slappig the grass away from herself as he plodded through the tallest patches.
“What in Time’s name do you to think yer doing? Running off and leaving me to do everything by myself! Luna, you ought to know better. Really Fern, I think yer ruining her!”
Luna and Fern laughed together, but they stopped quickly when they saw how cross Gretta was.
“Oh, come on Gretta, we were just having a little fun. Besides, I wasn’t doing nothing, I was mending!”
Gretta sniffed. “Oh yes? And what about him?” She pointed a finger at Fern. He swept off an imaginary hat and bowed so low to her that his face disappeared in the tall grass. When it reappeared he was grinning broadly.
“I, my lady, was entertaining this young lass with my rubbish and nonsense!”
“Rubbish and nonsense, rubbish and nonsense, the nerve!” Gretta muttered and flounced off.
“Come on my dear poet and chief mischief-maker, shall we go and do something useful for a change?” Luna said as she gathered her needle and threads.
Suddenly she felt Fern’s hand slip into hers. Startled she looked up and found herself looking into the gentlest eyes she had ever seen. Then one of Fern’s eyelids drooped in a wink and he drew her away with him in the direction Gretta had taken.
Somewhere behind them a wood thrush sang, but Luna was too preoccupied to heed its song.
The river’s song babbled in Fern’s ear and the sun danced over his closed eyes making patterns on his eyelids. Somewhere near him he could here Luna humming softly as she made a daisy-chain. Could it be just two months ago that he had meet her here for the first time?
Come to me.
The voice shattered Fern’s peaceful thoughts like a shoe stomping an unsuspecting ant.
“Oh, go away.” Fern muttered, throwing his arm over his head.
I’m waiting for you little prince.
The voice was hotter than ever. Fern’s chest heaved in an effort to block it out. Annoyed by the movement, Pest dug his claws into the boy’s chest.
“Owww!” Ill-temperedly Fern pulled the kitten off himself and tossed him some distance away.
“Is everything alright?” Luna looked so concerned with her brow all wrinkled up and her soft grey eyes wide. Not wanting to scare her, Fern decided to tell her a story to change the subject.
“Oh yes I’m fine. Say, did I ever tell you about Shippening?”
Luna laughed. “Only about a million times, Silly.” She sighed. “And about Southlands and those other places with such odd names I can’t remember them. And your friend…what was his name?”
“Oh, you must mean Fabian. Yes, he’s a good old sport.”
Luna sighed and her eyes glassed over as she stared unseeing into the distance. “I wish I could meet everyone you’ve talked so much about. And go to those places or anywhere other than here.”
“Really?” Sitting bolt upright Fern gazed at her, his eyes were alight and it was easy to tell he was planning something. “Tell you what, how ‘bout I take you there? We could leave tomorrow and see ever so many places on the way. I ‘spose Gretta could come with us if she wanted to.”
Up until he mentioned Gretta, Luna had looked thrilled. Then she shook her head and threw the rope of flowers away from her; it had broken in her excitement.
“No Fern. It’ll never work. Gretta wouldn’t let me go, besides it’s much too far for me to walk and where would we get any food?”
The fever in his mind raged and became over powering. The dragon’s voice cooed and screamed in turn, drawing the torn boy to him.
“Look, I’m going anyway, and you can come. Who cares what Gretta says? I would make sure you had all you needed and I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.” Earnestly the boy took her hands and stared into her eyes. “Luna, I…”
“Fern don’t go! Don’t go; I can’t follow you. Please don’t go!” Luna begged. Where the tears had come from she didn’t know, but there they were coursing down her face. When had she learned to love so fiercely? And why had she chosen to love him when she knew all along that he was a wonderer.
“But you can come with me Luna!” So he’d gone ahead and done it, Fern realized. He had fallen in love with the girl who could never understand what drove him away. No, he couldn’t do this to her. She was too good and innocent. She must never be touched by the Dragon as he had been so many years ago.
“You’re right, Luna. You can’t come. Stay here, you’re a smart girl. Go work in the Palace like Gretta say’s and forget about me. Just…just forget about me!” Dropping her hands he whirled and strode away without looking her in the face again.
“Fern! Fern! Where are you going?’
“What?” Gretta appeared out of nowhere, “But that’s leagues from here. You can’t go!”
Luna pushed Gretta aside and ran after Fern. She almost collided with him, but he heard her and turned around.
“Shhh, Luna, please don’t cry. I must go. I must be free from…from…this.” Fern said rubbing his head. He turned his green eyes on the girl’s honest face. She was pretty, but far better still, she was good and intelligent and innocent. And she was his friend.
“I’ll come back…sometime.”
“You can’t leave, Fern, you’re my only friend and I need you.”
The boy heard the sob in the girl’s voice, even though she tried to hide it. His heart tightened.
Leave her, you fool!
“I have to go, I have to, I have to! Forget it pal. Go to your school and Palace and forget about me. You don’t need me. And…and I don’t need you!” His teeth ground together and his eyes closed tightly to shut her out.
Then Fern turned and ran, his dark hair flying in his face and mingling with the moisture running down his burning cheeks.
Gretta watched him go. Anger boiled inside her and she rushed to her sister’s side. Throwing her strong arms around Luna, she held her as sobs racked the smaller girl’s body.
“What is wrong with him? Why won’t he let me help?” She gasped.
“He’s nothing but a dirty, lying and heart-stealing thief!” Gretta snapped, but instantly regretted it when she saw her sisters face. It had flushed a dark pink and a deep frown had fallen over her brow.
“No! No he isn’t!” Luna shouted pulling away. “I’ve seen it in his eyes. He said he’ll come back and I believe him!” Promptly she turned from Gretta. It seemed Gretta was losing both her friends in one fowl swing. She would not have it!
“Look, I’m sorry-“
“Sorry won’t make him come back, now will it!” Luna cried. Tears were back in her eyes, but they were angry ones this time. Grabbing her grass-stained shirts, the girl fled into her forest.
“Great glittering grass-snakes! What am I going to do with these children?” Gretta muttered resentfully to the empty fields and forest.
The colors in the trees and sky seemed to have faded since Fern had first seen them so many months ago. The road too appeared unfriendly to him as if were tripping him on purpose as he stumbled on his way out of the village. I must reach Shippening and then everything will be alright again. This impression kept popping up in the boys mind, but he had no idea where it came from.
As he had stalked off, Fern had snatched up his satchel which had been lying near him. In his state of mind he had not noticed how much heavier than normal it felt.
“Argh, this thing’s not worth carrying around. I think it’s gonna break my shoulder. Although,” He said to himself with a grin.” If it does I could have a wooden one put on and everyone down in Shippening would think me a real adventurer! Oh bother!”
He tripped again and lost his grip on the satchel. It went bouncing away and landed with a thud in some brambles. Then, to Fern’s great surprise and incredulity, it began to thrash about wildly. Always curious, the lad scattered over to it and began disentangling it from the thorns. With a quick flip of his wrist the bag jerked loose and a splotchy, multi colored fur-ball fell out. It glared up at Fern with a look reproof.
Fern grinned and laughed out loud with pleasure.
“Pest, my darling! Boy am I glad to see your fuzzy face.” Then his own face darkened. “Luna must not know you’re gone. You can’t stay with me, no, you ‘ave ta go back right now!”
Pest turned up his nose and began to lick his immaculate paw.
“Now don’t you try ‘in give me any cheek young fellow, I know what’s best fer ya.” The kitten turned to him with a look that clearly said, “Oh really?” in a most sarcastic cat fashion.
“Well you can’t come with me. I wouldn’t even like Luna do that and by Iubdan’s beard I won’t let anything happen to her yet! Not even the loss of her cat.”
He looked sadly down at the kitten; it stared unblinkingly up at him.
“No, even you can’t come with me; I must face my fears and failure alone.”
“But must you, really?”
The voice came from behind him and was soft and sad. Fern spun around and stared wide eyed at the figure before him. It was a young man, hardly much older than himself. But the look in his eyes told of wisdom far beyond his years. He was gazing keenly at Fern and had his arms crossed over his plain green tunic. His travelers garb was worse for wear, but he didn’t seem to mind for he stood with a princely bearing.
“Fabian! Wha-what are you doing here?” Fern’s mouth dropped open and a very unpleasant dryness filled his mouth.
The young man walked toward him, his sad expression never changing.
“To find you, my friend, what else? To try and warn you, and if not warn you then stop you.”
“Yes. If I must.” Fabian said in a level voice. His dark eyes flashed momentarily.
“You don’t understand! You never have. No one does!” Fern cried. “I chose to leave because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Do you think I want this stupid voice in my head always telling me to do things I know are wrong? I must be rid of it and there is only one way!”
“No!” Fabian grasped Ferns shoulders and shook him. “It’s you how never understood! We all tried to tell you over and over again! The dragon poison cannot be removed by you!”
“How would you know?” Fern spat, but he searched his former friends face; he had never know him to lie before, but people can change…
“Remember Ferdinand, I lived with the scourge of the dragons too. I may not have the poison in my blood, but I have seen other with it.”
“Yes? So have I!”
Fabian ignored him.
“-and I have seen what the Dragon does to men. Tell me, what has he promised you? Wealth? Power? Ha! Freedom? It is nothing but lies my brother! He can give you nothing but death! Death and slavery at his claws end. This cannot be what you want Ferdinand.”
Fern’s eyes stung and his throat felt as if someone where digging their fingernails into it. He dropped his gaze from Fabian’s piercing stare. Something in them reminded him of Luna’s. Was it their intensity or depth or purity?
“Well, what difference does it make? Did you just come here to tell me that I’m going to die?” He crocked.
Letting go of him, Fabian stepped back. His dark eyes swam and a single crystal drop slide down his golden-brwon cheek.
“Brother! I have come to tell you that you don’t have to die! The poison doesn’t have to conquer you!”
“If you are here to tell me to go back to my father’s, I won’t!” Fern snarled. His green eye’s had a sick yellow tint to them. The poison was seeping closer and closer toward his heart.
“No,” Fabian shook his head and sighed. “Although I wish you would. But listen for a moment; You can be heal completely outside of your father’s kingdom. I know one,” he said after a pause in which Fern remained stony in silence. “I know one who can heal you. But Fern,” He stared at him intensely.
Finally Fern looked up. Their eyes met. Fire and water. Calm and stormy.
“This is no quick fix. You won’t be able to return to that girl you have learn to love. Not until you are completely healed, otherwise who know what could happen to both of you.”
Fabain gazed intently at Fern once again.
“Are you willing to trust me once again, brother?”
Dame Lilly had instructed many girls, but few had been as calm, collected and efficient as the two sisters that came to her one frosty day in late fall. The eldest girl was solemn and behaved like a mother duck sometimes. The other, younger girl worked hard and managed complicated tasks with great skill for one so young. Despite this they both had their faults. The elder, Gretta, had a huge mistrust of anyone, especially boys. She chased the tailor’s boy away on numerous occasions and upset the Duchesses son most dreadfully when they visited the school.
The younger sister, Luna, was bubbly most of the time, but had fits of great melancholy and often disappeared at random and most inconvenient moments. Gretta apologized for her and said she wasn’t used to being cooped up in a house mopping floors and the like. As much as Dame Lilly felt sorry for them she still had her rules and they must be followed!
The whole school had been terrible upset when the two untamed girls had popped up on the spotless doorstep of: “Dame Lilly’s school for promising young ladies”. But since then there had been hardly a mishap, (Except the Duchesses son and the tailor’s boy and a few awkward scolding’s.)
“Gretta?” Said Luna one afternoon as she polished a poker set by the fire in Dame Lilly’s third sitting room. (She had three.)
“Hmmm?” Replied Gretta through a mouthful of rose stems she was shoving into a gilded vase.
“How long has it been?”
“How long has it been since what?”
“Oh, well…since I- I mean we-first met Fern?”
Gretta slapped the last rose in place and spun around to face her sisters back. “Whatever do you want to know for?” She snapped, sounding harsher than she meant to.
“Just-just because…” Luna kept her eyes on the shiny metal in front of her. “I was just thinking. What do you suppose ever happened to him?”
“Whatever it is I bet it’s no good. I mean it Luna!” Gretta shook her head. “When he came I thought he might be running away from something and now I’m sure. You can’t trust a man who won’t stay to fight his own battles.”
“Maybe he couldn’t stay.” Luna suggested faintly.
“Luna dear, I always knew you were loving, but I never saw how absolutely and rather ridiculously loyal you are, too. I admire that, I really do. Just don’t give your loyalty to someone who doesn’t deserve it alright? Next time I mean.” Gretta added hastily.
But Luna wasn’t listening. She was staring out the window at the sun which was breaking out from behind the clouds. It spilled its glorious golden light over the trees and pebble paths in the garden. Luna could just glimpse the cliff-tops beyond the forest line. When they had first arrived at the school she hadn’t realized how close it was to the ocean, hardly more than a brisk walk away.
“Let’s go look at the ocean shall we dear sister?” Luna said, standing suddenly. Startled by the unexpected request, Gretta followed her sister numbly out of the house. Halfway up to the cliff edge she stopped and almost stamped her foot.
“Wait now just a minute! What do you think we’re doing leaving our chores unattended like this? It ain’t fitting and dutiful I say.”
“Oh come on, I’ve just got this feeling that I must go see the ocean right now.” Luna wheedled. “Besides, it’ll only take a minute.”
“Your minute tends to look a lot like my hour.” Gretta muttered taking a step backwards.
“Nonsense! Please? I’m dying to see the ocean, just this one last time…”
Alarm bells exploded in Gretta’s head. “What do you mean ‘one last time’? We live here now. You could see the ocean any day you please!”
“Oh, haven’t you heard? We’re to be moved to the…” But Luna didn’t get to finish her sentence. A little streek of oregne, black and white fur was dashing up the path toward the ocean.
“Pest! He’s finally back! Oh, Pest!”
Luna ran pell-mell after her long-lost cat. But as she broke out into the barren cliff top she saw up ahead a scene that banished all thoughts out of her mind.
Farther up the slopping, rocky cliff-side, five men were struggling together. It appeared to be a four on one fight, but it was difficult to tell as they were all moving with such rapidity. However, four of them were garbed in fine clothes which had the look of royal guardsmen about them. The other one, who was struggling valiantly against them, was unmistakably Fern.
“Stop struggling, your lordship!” Luna heard one of the guards yell above the crashing of the surf.
“Come quiet-like and it will be better for you.”
“That’s right! Your father is mad enough as it is without you putting on a show like this, your highness!”
Ferns voice cut through the melee loud and clear. “I will not go back! Am I such a dog that my father must send mercenaries after me? Unhand me this instant or I shall be forced to use violence!”
Luna gasped. What where these stately ruffians doing to her Fern? Picking up her skirts and plucking up her courage, Luna prepared to fly into the fray.
A hand descended upon her shoulder. Whirling around Lune stared at her sister with flaming eyes.
“Not now Gretta! I must go to him. Can’t you see he needs our help?” Wrenching herself free, Luna sprinted toward the high peninsula on which the fight was happening. Gretta dashed after her, like a cat chasing a squirrel.
As they neared, to Luna’s horror she saw a weasel-ly looking guard draw a small and lethal looking stiletto and advance on Ferns unprotected back.
“Fern!” Luna shrieked. For a moment all the men’s attention shifted to her. All save one.
With a cruel upward cut the weasel-faced man drove the dagger up into Ferns ribcage. For a horrifying moment the world seemed to stand still for Luna. The waves beside her stopped their torrent. The wind ceased to howl. The sun stood still, trapped at the very edge of the horizon. And Fern gazed straight into her eyes as a look of pain spread across his beautiful face.
Then the world spun back into motion. Running, running as if the whole world was about to fall apart, Luna dashed toward Fern.
As soon as the other guards realized what had happened they spun to face the betrayer.
“Dog! Would you try to kill your own prince?”
“Yes! And I still shall!” The man reached back his arm for another thrust. Luna was not very tall yet, but she threw all her weight into the man. For a moment they tottered on the cliffs edge. The sea sent hungry wave leaping up at them. Then Fern, with what strength he could muster, launched himself at them. Luna felt herself about to topple over the edge and thrust out her arm to Fern, a silence scream on her tongue. But as Fern’s hand was about to grasp hers, Luna was flung away from the wave’s edge as blur of red hurtled past her in an exchange of momentum.
Luna turned her head just in time to see Fern dangle in midair as he desperately tried to reverse himself. She saw the weasel man falling, a scream plastered on his shocked face which was drowned out by the roaring water. And she saw the person who had saved her falling, falling, falling…
As Luna collapsed on the rocks she could barely hear the three separate splashes. Two for the two people in the whole world she loved the most; and one of the person who had caused their deaths.
There was still hope.
There is always hope, Luna told herself.
Circling around, she picked her way to the waters shore where the water lapped more gently and Lune hated it less. Wading out into the cold ocean she gazed across the dark expanse. The sun had finally set.
A glint of gold shone off the moon as it rose. Then nearer still, a red piece of fabric bobbed up over a wave crest. Could it be? Luna splashed forward, dashing the water from her eyes. Seizing the limp form, Luna hauled it with all her might to the beach and collapsed.
“Gretta?” She choked on the words as they spilled out her mouth. “Please, Gretta, wake up.” Tears did nothing to revive the still girl. She lay in Luna’s arms with hers eyes closed and her hair bobbing gently up and down in the water.
Then, the faintest flutter shook her eye-lids.
They opened and a soft smile hovered over Gretta’s cracked lips. Bruises were turning purple all over her battered body and a trickle of blood ran out of her mouth.
“Luna…is that you? I’d hoped you’d come. It’s awfully lonely out here without you.” Her words rose and fell in time with the surf about her. “Is it night? I hadn’t even noticed.” She parted her lips to say something more, but only a hushed sigh escaped them.
“Gretta don’t die, please! I need you. It’s all my fault. I should have been the one to fall. I shouldn’t have…” Luna let her head fall onto Gretta’s chest which no longer rose or fell even as the water pulled and tugged at it.
A void rent Luna’s heart and she felt it was too much for her.
When she looked up next, the girl saw a boy floating face up toward her.
No! Not him too!
When she reached Fern’s side she could tell he was still alive, but just barely. Blood streaked the water around him and his face was deathly pale. His ruddy golden-brown skin looked odd in the moonlight.
Throwing her arms around him, Luna wept from the bottom of her heart. He smiled up at her.
“Guess I lost my balance back up there. I lost it the first time I saw you, too. ‘Spose I’ve never quite stopped falling since.” He managed a wink, but the blood on his face threatened to keep his eyes closed.
“Fern look at me,” Luna cradled his face in her shaking hands, heedless of the blood that stained them. Suddenly she broke inside and an avalanche of tears wetted Fern’s face. He only smiled faintly and tried to place his hand over one of hers.
“I’m so sorry Luna. I should have told you everything from the beginning, but I-I was scared you wouldn’t want me. And then I thought that if I loved you that meant I had to leave.” He coughed and grimaced. Luna opened her mouth to speak, but he stopped her by putting a feeble hand over her lips.
“No, please let me finish. I am sorry I left and made such a mess of my return. But I am not sorry that I ever loved you. I still love you Luna. And I always will. Please don’t forget what it means to love. You have a big heart, dearest, and-and…” Another coughing fit seized him.
Luna tried to pull him up. “WE have to get you out of here.” She said.
“NO, no Luna forget about my-“
“I’ll never forget about you!” Luna sobbed, sounding harsh in her own ears.
“That’s not what I mean,” Fern chocked, but continued to stare at Luna as intently as his eyes would allow. They had begun to glaze over and Luna could feel him slipping away for her as she pulled him closer to herself.
“Luna, just remember that I-I…love…”Fern smiled and his eyes fluttered as Luna leaned closer and bent her head down to his.
“You…” The last word was so soft it was barely a breath on Luna’s cheek. Luna pressed her lips into Ferns forehead and let her tears wash his face clean.
A dark cloud drifted over the moon and the night went black as the waves washed the two limp forms out to sea. Luna stared after them wishing she could follow.
Somewhere inside of her a hard callous began to grow and from itself around her wounded heart. Perhaps this way, she thought, it might stop beating and cease the hurt.
The rain was cold as it mingled with Luna’s tears. The rings around her eyes were the color of poppies and Luna could feel the cold and sympatric gazes on her back as the village folk hurried passed.
It had been days since she had seen Dame Lilly or any of the girls at the school. She had just wondered away not seeing or caring where her feet took her.
Luna jumped slightly as a genlt hand touched her shoulder. She looked up into two dark, brown eyes set into a driping wet golden skin face.
“Miss Luna?” His voice was so kind and smooth it reminded Luna of the way water felt running over her hand.
“How do you know my name.”
His mouth turned up in a small smile. “We had a friend in common. I thought he would want me to take care of you somehow, if I could.”
Without anyotherword he helped her to her unsteady feet and lead her away into the rainy fog. The rain and her own tears made it impossible for Luna to tell where she was going, but see did not care. When the young man pulled her to a stop Luna stood still and was vaguely aware that he was now talking to someone standing opposite her under a tall hedge and gate.
“Here she is.” The young man said.
“I thought you said you was a housekeeper.” Said a skeptical voice from the mist.
“She is, but right now she is suffering from lack of food and mostly from, well…a broken h-“ His voice dipped down so low that Luna couldn’t hear him. Then he spoke more loudly. “My good sir, you will accept her into your serve in order that tis kingdom and that one from whence I come shall remain on good terms.”
“Er, yes sir. My king and queen will be most happy to take her in.”
The young man turned back to Luna and took one of her hands in his and kissed it softly. “Fare thee well, and may love find you once again.”
“I can never love again,” Luna whispered, but he had already disappeared into the darkness and shadow. And Luna let one last tear slip from her eyes. Then, it was as if a door shut upon her tear-ducts and they overflowed no more. And over her heart closed a darkness blacker even than the night she stood in.
Thus, Luna began her serve to King Fidel of Parumvir and his Queen.
The new Queen of Parumvir glided down the hallways of her splendid palace and bestowed sweet smiles on all she came across. She wondered and guessed at the thoughts behind the faces of her servants as she passed them. She had not been Queen long, but already she had won the love and loyalty of all her subjects, for she was kind and wise.
When Luna had come to the castle, the Queen had taken her under her wing. Luna could see that the Queen of Parumvir was wise; indeed perhaps as wise as the Faerie Queen Bebo of legend.
It might have been Luna’s devotion to duty that put her so prominently in the Queens’ service. In any case, she hardly was allowed to leave the Queens side whether it was for a walk in the gardens or waiting on her as she dressed or just keeping her company as the Queen did her embroidering.
Many evenings Luna and the Queen sat together by the roaring fire and the Queen embroidered while Luna listened to her wise counsel.
It was one of these evenings when the Queen called Luna into her chamber. Gently as always the Queen spoke to her maid. This time it was a rather startling revelation of her future plans.
“You may have noticed or heard the gossip, my dear Luna, that Parvumir will be receiving their first royal baby soon. Yes, that’s right dear.” The Queen’s eyes crinkled in a smile as she the saw the surprised look on her maid’s face. “And because you have served me so faithfully and well, I want you to be my baby’s nanny, their nurse.”
Luna gave a little start of shock. “For Lume’s sake, why? I beg your pardon! But Your Highness, I don’t think I could do that, care for a child I mean,” She looked down at her hands. “I’ve found it rather dreadful to love people.” She bit her lip. Oh, now she’d done it!
“Oh Luna, there are different kinds of love. My love for you and my love for my king are different. It’s not that they are less or more, they are different. I do not know what it is that has caused you to lose faith in the power of love, dear one, but I trust that you will learn to love again. Will you try now, for my sake?”
“Love seems a terrible waste of time to me,” Luna muttered trying to deny the dead and empty feeling inside.
“Nonsense my dear! You are not a waste of my time.” The Queen brushed Luna’s hair. “You may go now. I think my time has almost come and I need to rest. Think about what I’ve said,” Her voice drifted off and her eyes fluttered shut as sleep overwhelmed her over worked body.
When her time did come she gave birth to a darling, blonde, tiny girl. With a serene smile the Queen of Oriana Palace placed the cooing baby princess into Luna’s uncertain arms.
“Take her now Nurse, while I rest a bit more. See? My little Una loves you!”
The baby girl giggled and gurgled as Nurse gently rocked her. Her smile was like warm and brilliant sunshine as she gazed up at Luna. And as time went on, that sunny smile began to thaw Luna’s long forgotten, broken and frozen heart.
And she thought maybe, just maybe, she could learn to love again.
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