The Original Chapter One of "The Log."

Journey to Wizards' Keep began as "The Log." Sara began it after she finished reading "Lord of the Rings." She wrote a great deal of description about the land in which her fantasy would be set, but most of that detail had to be shortened or cut. Still, I thought our readers might enjoy seeing the very first, original chapter of our book. KC Cowan

 

Chapter I

By Sara Cole

    Many years ago in a land long since forgotten, there lived people who were highly intelligent and sophisticated. They understood the principles of math and science better than they are understood now, yet they preferred a simpler life than this knowledge could give them.

    Each man and woman did an honest day’s work and still had many leisure hours to spend with his or her family and friends. Social barriers were nearly non-existent. There were rulers, but they were just and kind. Occasionally a bad ruler would come to power, but the people could vote whether to keep a ruler or not, and at these times, a new king was chosen. Perhaps the only mistake this civilization ever made was to be too trusting. Unprecedented events were about to take place and their time of innocence was nearly at an end.

   In a corner of this land was a country called “The Valley of William Etté.” William Etté was the son of a great king in a nearby country, but he unfortunately had an identical twin brother named Marion Etté. When their father died, there was a dispute as to which brother should rule. William grew tired of the argument and conceded to let his brother become king, if his brother would allow him to take whichever subjects would like to leave with him, to organize a new country. His brother agreed.

    William Etté found a fertile valley, bordered on all sides by lush forests and mountains and decided this was where he and his subjects would put down roots. He was a king of good judgment and vision, and in the years to come the kingdom flourished.

   In this country there lived a beautiful dark-haired maiden named Irene, the Princess of Cabbage. Cabbage was a small kingdom east of the Valley, but Irene was sent to live with a shoemaker and his family as a young girl. The shoemaker was a good friend of her father, the King, and when he died, her brother became ruler at the age of seventeen. He thought it best that a young girl have a steady family, so he sent her to the shoemaker in The Valley.

    In this family was a girl her own age, known as Nan the Dancer. Although she was only ten, she had been studying dance since she was four and was already a favorite at the King’s court. Nan had flaming red, wavy hair and bright green eyes that seemed to be able to look into a person’s soul to see their innermost thoughts. She grew to be a great beauty and her hand had been asked for twenty times by her nineteenth birthday. Irene and Nan became the most faithful of friends and confided in one another exclusively. They procured many admiring glances whenever they went anywhere together and soon became the most sought-after maidens in the Valley of William Etté.

    Nan’s skill as a dancer attracted the attention of a Duchess named Gene the Ewe. The Duchess had a troupe of dancers who were famous near and far, and when Nan was invited to join them, she accepted eagerly. The Duchess was known as the “Ewe,” because of her resemblance to a sheep. She was rather elderly and balding, and she insisted on wearing a white bouffant wig with copious curls, and with her fair skin and bright brown eyes, she looked rather sheep-like.

      She was kind to Nan and made her a present of a gown of green velvet to match her eyes and a red under-skirt of red satin to match her hair. Nan lived in a large house with many other dancers. She learned much about the different dances of the time and excelled in all of them.

    During this time, Irene stayed in the Valley of William Etté and spent her days practicing singing and creating tapestries. She also enjoyed going for long walks in the forest outside the wall of the city. Her brother sent word that she could return to Cabbage whenever she wished and take her rightful position as Princess, but she preferred to stay with the people she had grown to love in the Valley. Her only regret was her friend, Nan, was so far away and her visits were too infrequent. Two years prior Irene had taken some rooms of her own in a tower, since she was old enough to live alone. From there she could see the mountains in the distance on one side, and could see the forest on the other. Her tapestries were pictures of the view she had from her windows.    

  One day, late in spring, she was working on a tapestry of the forest when someone rang the bell outside her rooms. When she opened the door, Nan was standing there.

   “Nan! You’ve come for a visit! Why didn’t you send word you were coming?” asked Irene.

     “I didn’t know myself until today,” replied Nan. “I’m not just here on a visit, I’m home to stay. I’ve decided I’ve learned all I can at Gene’s court and I miss home, so there was nothing stopping me from leaving. I’ve been riding since daylight.”

   “Are you sure you won’t want to go back? If you’d stayed there you could have become a famous dancer and traveled anywhere you pleased, I’m sure of it,” said Irene.

     “I might have,” said Nan. “But I can travel whenever I want to now, and it’s more important to me to be with the family and friends I love. The King said I have an open invitation to dance at his court and just think of how impressed he’ll be now that I’ve learned so much more about dancing."

     “You must be tired after your ride. Sit down and I’ll fix you some supper.”

  “Oh, no,” said Nan. “I’m really quite full of energy. Why don’t we go for a walk together in the forest like we used to? We can have a long talk and take supper with us.”

     “Well, if you’re sure you’re not tired, I’d like nothing better,” said Irene. “Oh, it’s so good to have you home! I’ve missed you greatly."

     “I have missed you, too!” replied Nan

    “If you don’t have anything else planned, you can move in here with me. There’s plenty of room, and the view is beautiful. It would be like it used to be when I lived with your family.”

     “I was hoping you would have me!” laughed Nan. “I already am having my things sent here from the court of Gene the Ewe. They should arrive tomorrow.”

    Irene packed a meal of bread, cheese and fruit and the two young women set out on foot for the forest. Many young, eligible men noted their passing as they walked with the basket of food between them, each with a hand on the handle. It was a perfect day for an outing. The air was mild and warm, and the sky, deep blue.

    They walked to the top of the hill, which was in the center of a clearing, deep in the forest. On the hill was a solitary apple tree, filled with pink blossoms. The tree was inhabited by a pair of small canary-like birds, which warbled sweetly while Irene and Nan sat eating and talking. They reminisced about their youth and told one another stories about the things they had been doing for the last few years when they were apart. They also made plans for things they would like to do together in the future.

    They were so busy talking that they quite forgot the time and didn’t realize it was twilight until the birds interrupted their conversation. The birds became very excited and sang loudly, hopping from branch to branch, flying a short distance away and then coming back to the tree. Their twittering and chirping became louder still and finally they took to the air together, circled the tree once and flew away, due east. Once they left, the forest seemed strangely quiet. There was no wind, and no other birds or animals of any kind could be heard. Nan and Irene both noticed this but didn’t say anything.

    “We’d better go back to the castle. It’s getting dark,” said Irene

   “Yes, I hadn’t noticed how late it was,” replied Nan.

    They half ran, half walked back to the castle, anxious to get out of the silent forest. They barely spoke and they made their way along the paths leading to the front gate. As they looked up through the trees to the west, they thought they could see smoke approaching, but since it was nearly dark, it was hard to tell if it was smoke or grey clouds.

    When they emerged from the forest, they saw that the castle was ready to do battle. The flags of the armies had been raised from the twin towers on either side of the gate and the drawbridge had been closed. Nan and Irene were able to see now that the smoke they had noticed earlier was coming from thousands of torches being carried by a massive army that stretched as far as they could see to the west. They ran to the drawbridge and stood in front of it.

    “Please, let us in!” they screamed. “It is Nan the Dancer and Irene, the Princess of Cabbage!”

    No one heard them; the armies were just inside the gate, listening to the general shout orders for the battle, which was soon to take place. Nan and Irene grabbed stones and sticks – anything they could get their hands on, and threw them at the drawbridge, hoping to make enough noise to attract someone’s attention. They looked toward the west and their efforts became even more frantic. The huge army was approaching quickly, some on horseback, some on foot. They would reach the castle within minutes.

   At last, someone saw them from the watchtower. “Please, lower the drawbridge! It is Nan and Irene,” the girls shouted. The lieutenant who spotted them was a young, tall, blond man only a few years older than they. He had grown up in a house across the road from them.    

    “We can’t let the drawbridge down. It is secured,” he shouted back, looking at them piteously.

      “Can you throw us a rope? We can scale the tower!” Nan said.

       “You might not make it, and even if you did, you’d probably die within the walls. We’re no match for this army. They’re too large. Run! Go to your brother in Cabbage, Irene. It’s your only chance. Warn your brother! Tell him about the army!”

      “But who are they?” asked Irene. “Where are they from?”

     “We don’t know,” replied the lieutenant. “They sent a message by carrier pigeon; all it said was: ‘Be ready to fight an army larger than any you have ever seen, this evening at dusk.’ Don’t waste time. Go now! Stick to the back roads!”

     “We can’t leave! My family!” cried Nan.

    “We must!” yelled Irene as she grabbed Nan’s arm. “Look!”

   The army was within half a mile of the city, close enough to see the generals and their separate battalions, and see the banners they carried. Nan and Irene ran back to the forest without looking back. They made their way around the south wall of the castle and up into the hills. Nan discarded the basket even though it had food in it they might need later. She threw it into the moat on the east side of the castle before they began scaling the craggy hills, which led to the mountains. Behind them they heard the eerie war chants of the massive army as it charged the castle. Screams of agony rose as the archers made their mark on both sides.

   They ran on, tearing their dresses on broken limbs, scratching their hands and faces on undergrowth in their path. It seemed as if they had been running for days when they reached the top of the hill some miles from the castle.

     “I can’t run anymore,” gasped Nan.

     “Nor can I,” Irene whispered back.

    From the top of the hill, the castle was in full view. It was hard to see anything in the dark, but they could hear a low thudding noise and could barely see a huge log being hoisted at the drawbridge by a hundred man. They had it on wheels, and were pushing against the gate again and again, trying to break it down. Four tall ladders had been pushed against the walls of the castle and the huge army was scaling them.

   The Valley of William Etté’s army was doing its best to fend off the seemingly endless number of soldiers, but it was obvious it was a useless attempt. Some soldiers scaling the tower at the southwest corner finally gained entrance to the castle. The young men of the army reserve, some, Nan’s brothers, sprang forward to fend off the intruders but the soldiers they were fighting were experienced warriors and after a few minutes they had destroyed the army reserve.  

    The enormous battering log finally sent the drawbridge crashing in, and the huge army poured inside the gates. Irene and Nan looked away as they heard the clang of steel against steel and the screams of men as they died. The sky lit up as the army set fire to homes, and all seems havoc. The screams! Would they never end? After three hours had passed, Nan and Irene, who were huddled together in a group of fir trees, heard no more screams. They only heard an occasional whoop from a member of the victorious army.

   Together, Nan and Irene went back to the top of the hill and looked down. The castle was charred and black in places, fires still burned in many buildings and there were bodies from both armies covering the streets. The only ones still standing seemed to be the cruel warriors, who were busy drinking wine from the castle’s store and picking the pockets of the dead, even of their own soldiers who had perished. The castle’s army had barely dented the huge number of soldiers they fought, although they had killed hundreds.

    Nan and Irene stood in silence watching the scene below, too angry to cry. The home they had loved so much was gone forever.

   “We must warn my brother,” said Irene, and the two started walking east, over the mountains towards Cabbage. It was midnight, but Nan and Irene knew they had to hurry, lest Cabbage be the army’s next victim.           

   They chose to follow a path too narrow and steep for the army to use. Shortly after they had started out, they came to a stream where they stopped to drink and attend to their scratched hands and faces. They tore pieces off their dresses and soaked it in the stream, since they had no way to transport water. As they sat next to the stream, they heard rustling in some nearby bushes. Thinking they might have been spotted and pursued by the soldiers from the huge army, they went for cover behind a dead log and found a fallen fir branch to cover themselves.

    The rustling continued for a few minutes and finally they heard someone burst through the bushes. They could hear him, or was it two, walking towards the stream. Whoever it was sounded huge because one could hear every step he took as his feet landed heavily on the ground. The footsteps stopped and the two women heard noisy slurping as he drank from the stream. Nan peered slowly over the log and let out a yelp of surprise.

      “It’s alright, it’s only a horse!” said Nan. Irene stood up, and there, only ten feet from them was a white stallion, wearing a coat of arms of the Valley’s finest regiment.

      “Whoa, boy, whoa,” said Nan, as she slowly walked towards him. “We won’t hurt you.” She tentatively took the reins and the horse reared up with his eyes rolling. He whinnied with fear, but Nan held tight to the reins and began stroking him. The horse gradually settled down and meanwhile, Irene found some tender grass for him to eat.

       “He must have run away during the fighting,” said Irene as she fed him.

       “He looks as scared as we are,” said Nan.

      “Do you think he’s calm enough to let us ride him?”

     “We’ll find out.” And with that, Nan mounted him and Irene quickly climbed on back behind her.

      By daybreak, Nan and Irene had almost reached the kingdom of Cabbage. The mountains were behind them and her brother’s province was only a few miles away at the river’s edge. As they neared the village, they could see the familiar houses and the landscape come into view and Irene realized just how much she had missed Cabbage in the past years. It would be interesting to see how well her brother had ruled as King. They raced toward the safety of the village at a gallop, although the horse was very tired. He would be fed, watered and rested as soon as they reached the palace.

      Nan pulled back on the reins, to stop the horse. There was something wrong.

       “Why did you stop, is there problem with the horse?” asked Irene.

       “No,” replied Nan. “I hope I’m wrong, but…look at the house on the right, and the one just behind it. Some of the others, too.”

      “No, not Cabbage, too!” exclaimed Irene. “They must have come here before they went to the valley. My brother!” 

      Nan kicked the horse gently and they started forward slowly. It looked as though the village was deserted. The streets were strewn with bodies of men, women and children. None of them even had weapons. It appeared that they had been attacked with no forewarning. Noting Irene’s reaction, Nan said, “Let’s leave their place. There’s nothing we can do.”

      “No, there is a chance my brother is still alive. Let’s go to the palace and look.”

      “But I don’t think…”

      “Please, let’s just look.”

     Nan kicked the horse and they galloped through the streets towards the palace. The two women tried not to look at the bodies lining the streets, but became increasingly sickened at the thought of so many innocent people being murdered.

     When they reached the palace, there was a brown Cabbagian horse tethered to the post of the front gate. It was the first live thing they had seen since entering the village. Its coat was rough and uncurried and every blade of grass within circumference of its tether was gone.

      “Maybe it is my brother’s horse. In fact, I’m sure it is; he always rode Cabbagians,” said Irene. “He’s probably inside the palace right now.”

     “I wouldn’t be too sure,” said Nan. “It looks as though he’s been abandoned. It’s obvious he hasn’t been cared for in days.

      “Maybe my brother is hurt and hasn’t been able to take care of him.” Irene jumped off the horse and ran through the gate and over the green lawn toward the modest forty-room palace.

       “Irene, wait!” Nan took the stallion through the gate and trotted him over the curved road, which led to the front entrance. The two reached the front door at the same time and Irene paused as Nan tied the animal to a tree. The house was deathly silent as Irene ran from room to room of the palace she knew as a child. She found no one on the main floor and ascended the stairway to her brother’s bedchamber, with Nan close behind. There was no one in the room, but the bed looked as if it has been slept in and the king’s crown was on the floor.

     Irene turned to Nan and said, “He’s here; I know it. I just remembered there is a secret panel behind the bed with a small room behind it. My father showed it to me once when I was small. He told me that if I were ever in any danger, to hide there and I would be safe. My brother is probably there now. All I have to do it push a lever under the bed and the panel between the bedposts will slide open.”  Irene stooped down and reached under the bed and pressed the lever. “Help me,” she said, “it’s stuck.”

     Nan crouched on the floor beside Irene and tried the lever, but it was too stiff. She grabbed a log from the fireplace and the two women pressed the log with their feet until the lever slowly moved forward. It clicked into position and the panel slid freely and from behind it came a huge bear of a man. Before Nan and Irene could speak he had grabbed them both by the arm.

      “Surprised my darlins’? I bet it weren’t me ye was lookin’ fer,” he bellowed in a gruff voice. “Well, whoever it was ye wanted, I’m sure you’ll agree I’m a much better prize, eh?”

     Nan struggled to get away and bit the beast’s wrist, but he only held her tighter.

      “Did ye think ye’d be leavin’ now? He laughed. “Naw, I’ll be pleased if ye would consent te’ stay a while. The general might look on me more kindly if I was te’ bring him two prisoners, especially ones as pretty as these be. Yeah, a grave mistake I made when I deserted the army, but I might be forgiven if ye two kind ladyes wouldst help me out a bit. The general’s really a nice man once ye git to know ‘im, as I know ye will!”

     Nan and Irene looked at each other in horror – what would happen to them now?

 

***

 

 

The Tale of Sir Richard and Dave, the Maiden of the Mist

Editor’s Note: Our book has two gay characters: Sir Richard and his partner, Demetrius Keats. Although they end up on opposite side of the war, their love for each other was an important storyline. However, at one point, I wrote a little story for Richard to become infatuated with a female.

Although it had to be cut for length, I wish I could have kept it in, because it showed a softer side of Sir Richard, who is a classic villain. Here is an abridged version of that storyline. Richard is on the hunt for Kay, Irene, Nan and Fitzgerald after they escape the Secret Valley.  KC Cowan

It was late afternoon when Richard and his men made camp. He sent a few soldiers to try and find some game for dinner, and decided to wash off the day’s grime in the small river nearby.

There was a perfect pool for bathing, so Richard quickly shed his clothes and dove in—it was deliciously cool and refreshing. He took some bark from a slippery elm tree and made a suitable lather with which to wash himself. Soon, Richard began to feel so good that he started to sing a bawdy tune in his deep, resonant voice. When he finished, he heard someone applauding in approval. He spun around and saw a young woman dressed in a gown of leaves. In her hair she wore a garland of ivy. Her build was average size and quite curvaceous and she gave off a definite aura of femininity. Her most striking feature was her beautiful skin, which seemed to glow a healthy pink. She stood surrounded by piles of gold. Richard stared at her in amazement as she smiled at him.

“Who…who are you?” Richard gasped.

“Dave the Waiter and Watcher of Time,” she replied in a musical voice.

“Dave?...’tis a lad’s name—and you be no lad, surely!” he said, noting her figure.

“My parents wished for a boy,” she replied simply. “When they got a girl instead, they decided to name me for a boy anyway.”

“Why do you call yourself the ‘Waiter and Watcher of Time?’ What does that mean?” Richard asked.

“Alas, I am under a spell of an evil Wizard, Merle of Lots. I am doomed to remain by these waters ‘till one comes along who can free me and receive the reward of my love and the gold you see here. So I wait and watch for that one, and mark time with weaving and song.”

“How can you be freed?” Richard asked, who found himself more and more interested in this bewitching lass.

Dave laughed merrily, but tears of sadness came to her eyes. “Think you I would be here still if I knew?” she said. “The only clue I have is a song the Wizard left with me.” And she began to sing:

“When one who loves another gives that love away,

And comes to me with an open heart,

That shall be my freedom day.”

“And has no one come to you with such a heart?” Richard asked.

“Many have tried,” she replied, tears now slipping down her rosy cheeks. “But their love has not been true. They only wished for the gold, not me, so instead they vanish into mist—as transparent as their love.” And she began to sing again, a sad lament of her life.

Richard felt himself moved to such pity, that he felt tears enter his own eyes. Half of him wanted to go to the girl and hold her, and the other half seemed to scorn his own feelings, and Demetrius came to his mind. And yet…this girl was so lovely…so pure and…Richard angrily shook himself. What was wrong with him? To have such feelings for a girl!

Dave finished her song and smiled at Richard. Slowly she began to fade away.

“Stop!” Richard cried. “Where are you going?”

“I am only permitted to appear for but a brief time each evening. Fare thee well…” the voice trailed off as she vanished in the mist. Richard stared at the spot where she had been and then so quickly disappeared. Had it all been a dream?  Suddenly, Richard was aware how cold the water felt, and he hurried out of the pool and into his clothes, all the while thinking of the mysterious maiden.

***

Sir Richard’s men were grumbling amongst themselves over dinner. Four days now they had stayed in this camp, doing nothing all day and all night. They were bored and eager to be back on the trail for Kay and her followers. In truth, most of the men knew and liked both Kay and Fitzgerald, but if the two were deemed to be traitors, then they deserved to die. Actually, many of the men would gladly have killed their own mothers, if only to relieve the tedium!

“Wot’s the matter wit’ Sir Richard, anyways?” one soldier grumbled. “He ain’t actin’ at all like ‘imself!”

“Aye,” said another. “Just keeping us here day after day. And forbidding us to go near that pool o’ water. Wot d’ya suppose is down there?”

“Don’t know. But I ain’t goin’ to try n’ find out. Not after what he did to poor ol’ Willard.”

The others nodded in sober agreement, remembering how Richard had sliced up a man who had gone to the pond. He had stuck the head on a lance as a warning to the others.

“He’s down there now, ain’t he?”

“Yeh—probably talkin’ to some mermaid.”

“Naw…wrong sex!” one man cried. The others laughed, and returned to their meals.

Meanwhile, down at the pond, Sir Richard, unaware of his men’s dissatisfaction, was engrossed in a conversation with the beautiful Dave. For the past four evenings he had come here and waited for the lovely lass to appear. And for the brief time they had together before she would vanish in the mist, they talked about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Never had Richard felt so close to a female before; he was at a lost to explain it.

“If only you could stay longer, Dave,” Richard sighed.

“You could remedy that, you know, Richard,” Dave smiled. “Of all the men who have come to seek my release, you are my favorite. I…I think I love you, Richard. And for the first time, I believe I truly understand the wizard’s poem. If you love me as I love you…then you need only confess it, and I shall be free.”

“But if my love for you is not absolute?” Richard asked.

“Then you would go the way of all the others,” Dave said. “But I am certain you must be the one for whom I have waited all these years. Will you say it? Oh, say you love me, Richard!”

“I…” Richard began. “Dave, I really do…” He stopped. Dave looked at him anxiously.

“Hurry, Richard. My time grows short. Say it!”

“I…I…I cannot!” Richard cried in dismay. “My heart is not empty, Dave, I love another. I’m…sorry,” he finished lamely.

Two tears slid down her face. “Alas for you, and alas for me, Sir Richard. I see in your face that you cannot be freed from this other love. And so shall I never be freed, I fear. Farewell, my love…my sweet love…” Dave’s voice faded along with her image.

Coward! Craven! Richard thought to himself. Afraid to love as…others love! He remained there by the pool for some time. Then, as if awakening from a spell, he shook himself, stood and ran up to the campsite.

“Prepare to break camp!” he shouted to the astonished men. “We leave at dawn!”A great roar of happiness went up from the men, and they eagerly set about their duties.

***

 

 

 

The History of Merle of Lots

Editor’s Note: Even though Nancy dropped out of writing fairly early, Sara and I always kept her in the loop, and sent her chapters, hoping she would manage to write again. While we waited, sometimes one of us would write what we came to refer to as an “Aside: a story, complete within itself, concerning the characters of The Log.”

This chapter was written by me, and was inspired by our high school choir director (although he was not evil—we loved him!) Although it got cut from the final version of “Journey to Wizards’ Keep” we managed to keep just one little bit of the wizard, Merle of Lots, in the book as the one who tries to lure Nan into the Chamber of Mirrors.

KC Cowan

,,,,,

The Story of Merle of Lots

When Irene and Nan met Kay of the Crystal Seas in the Secret Valley, they thought it was the first time they had seen each other. However, this was not so. For they had, in fact, met some four years previously in the Woods of Will’s son. They were but 12 years old.

At that time, Irene was living with Nan the Dancer’s family in the Valley of William Etté. The two girls used to journey to a small forest not far from their home, called the Woods of Will’s Son. Here, they would meet with others of their age to study with the learned Wizard, Merle of Lots. Merle taught them the mystical power of music, and all his students were very loyal to the old man. Often there were large groups of young people who attended these classes, and sometimes only a few, but Nan and Irene always enjoyed meeting others and learning the songs Merle taught them.

Although Nan and Irene tried to show up for every lesson, they could not attend as often as they would have liked, as Nan’s father had forbidden it. He would not explain why, only to say that he mistrusted the old wizard and thought it best that the girls not go. But the cobbler was also a busy man and unable to keep his eye on the spirited girls enough to know their daily movements about the town. Besides, he was a jolly, trusting soul and did not want to restrict the girls too much, lest they grow surly or rebellious. Indeed, aside from visiting Merle of Lots, he forbade them almost nothing.

So Nan and Irene found it easy enough to pack a picnic basket and tell the cobbler that they were merely going for a stroll. They didn’t like lying to Nan’s father, whom they both loved dearly, and yet, the draw to Merle’s Magic Circle of Sounds was more powerful than their desire to obey the cobbler. There was something about Merle’s manner that drew them again and again to Will’s Son’s Woods.

The wizard Merle often would teach the young people magical chants and songs by which they could render such evil beings like goblins and trolls helpless. In truth, none of the students had ever seen a goblin or a troll, but they enjoyed the melodic patterns and the idea they it could be used against such creatures.

Sometimes, Merle of Lots would only talk to them in a low, soothing voice, telling tales of past glories, dreams of the future and his philosophy of life. Often Nan and Irene found themselves drifting off during these times, floating half-in and half-out of their bodies, it seemed. When they awoke, Merle of Lots would be looking at them in a strange manner, and they would be ashamed for falling asleep. But he never said anything to them about it.

Of course, Nan and Irene made friends among the other young people. Most came from neighboring communities. Some of them would be in the group for a month or more and then suddenly stop coming. The girls wondered why, but it never seemed to bother the wizard, so they decided not to let it bother them, either. They were content to come and learn the chants and hear the tales of Merle of Lots.

One bright spring day Nan and Irene planned on making a visit to join in Merle’s Circle of Sounds once again. They had not been able to see him throughout most of the winter, for who takes picnics in the rain? And the Valley of William Etté was indeed famous for its rain.

As Nan and Irene sat at the breakfast table with Nan’s family, eating eggs and cheese and bread, they thought of the Circle of Sounds and their plan to go there, which they had decided upon the night before. Nan spoke:

“Father, dear, ‘tis such a lovely day—the first truly warm day of spring. Could not Irene and I leave our studies for a holiday and look for thimbleberries? I’m sure there would be some in the thickets in the woods.”

“My daughters,” he said, (for he felt they were both his daughters) “you have both studied long and hard this past winter and I am pleased with your work. You may indeed take a holiday. Especially if you find some thimble-berries, for a thimble-berry pie!” And he smacked his lips in thought of that treat for the cobbler had rather a sweet tooth.

The girls packed a basket of food and taking a spare basket for the berries, headed off in anticipation of a fun day.

“Nan, I wish I knew why your father doesn’t want us to visit the wizard. I do so hate lying to him,” Irene said as she swung the empty basket back and forth.

“So do I,” said Nan soberly. “But he won’t tell us why he dislikes the wizard, so what can we do? If only he would come to the Circle of Sounds and hear and see for himself!"

Irene nodded her head in agreement and exchanged baskets with Nan for the rest of the walk. When the girls got to the clearing where Merle of Lots held his lessons, they saw no one there.

“How odd! Today is the appointed day, is it not?” Nan asked, looking about her.

“It is, and yet no one is here, although it is already past the meridian and all should be present. Perhaps something happened to the old wizard over the winter,” mused Irene.

“That is possible, I suppose, for it has been many months since we have been here. How sad! But at least we have a lunch to share and thimble-berries galore to pick—look!” Nan gestured at the bushes about them, heavily laden with the ripest thimbleberries they had ever seen.

“And so early, too! I really didn’t think we’d find any at all. Let’s pick them now and then enjoy some with our lunch!”

The girls put down their lunch and began to pick the berries. They talked and sang while they worked and soon their basket was overflowing with the juicy fruits.

“Nan, I don’t remember there being any thimble-berry bushes here before, do you?” asked Irene as she ate yet another handful.

“No, I don’t…I wonder how they got here? Perhaps they grew during the winter.”

“Bushes of any kind grow during the spring, silly, not the winter!” Irene smiled. “Well, ‘tis most strange.”

I put the bushes here to please you my ladies,” said a strong voice behind them.

“It’s the wizard!” cried Nan with delight.

“Mi’Lord, we were worried about you!” Irene said. “Why do you not hold class today?”

“But I shall hold class today—for the two most talented ladies in all of William Etté’s Valley,” said Merle with a flourish as he sat down between the two girls. “I have a special song to teach you.” He took out a thin, wooden reed and began to play a haunting melody upon it.

Nan and Irene began to get drowsy. They didn’t want to sleep, yet the music was so lovely, and the sun was so warm upon their backs. The last thing Irene saw (or thought she saw) before falling asleep was the thimbleberry bushes melting away.

How strange. Merle of Lots is surely a powerful wizard.

***

Nan awoke suddenly, aware that she was cold. She felt about her for the blanket on her bed, but her hand came into contact with rough wood. There was a creaking noise in her ears and she soon realized that she was in a wagon of some sort, and that night had fallen. Carefully, she looked about her. Irene lay beside her, still asleep. A man and a woman sat in the front of the wagon, which was being drawn by a poor excuse for a horse. Above her through the trees, Nan could see the stars. Nan carefully raised her head to see other wagons and caravans. With a sick horror, she realized what had become of them. They had been sold to a band of gypsies—the worst possible fate that could befall a girl.

Nan moved slowly; her wrists were tied together and lashed to the wagon, but her legs were free. Carefully she stretched her leg over to Irene and gave her a nudge. Irene moaned and stirred slightly. The woman looked back and Nan shut her eyes quickly. She heard some mumbling between the two people up front and then silence except for the creaking of the wheels and the wheezing of the horse.

Dear heavens! What will become of us? What will my father think?

 Nan shut her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill out and finally fell asleep.

When Nan awoke again, the caravan had stopped and the sun was high overhead.  Nan quickly looked over to Irene, who was now also awake. The fear in her eyes told Nan that she, too, realized their predicament. Nan noticed that she was no longer tied to the wagon and she sat up.

“Oh, Irene! What is going to happen to us? We must get away from here!” whispered Nan.           

“There is no escape—we are watched every minute and the gypsies greatly outnumber us,” answered Irene in a low voice. “I don’t know what we can do!”

A dirty gypsy girl brought some bread and cheese to the wagon. She smiled at them shyly. Nan tried to engage the girl in conversation, but the child only giggled and ran away.

“Ugh! This bread is moldy!” Irene threw it down in disgust.

“Well, I guess they figure they won’t be keeping us for long…look over there.” Nan pointed to a group of men huddled around a fire talking loudly. Every now and then, one of them would look over at the girls and grin.

“They do everything but smack their lips!” said Nan, tearfully. “Irene, we’ve got to get away from here!”

“Not yet. We’ll have to wait until dark; we’ll stand a better chance then.”

“What if they sell us before then?” asked Nan. “What if we’re separated?”

“I don’t know, Nan, I don’t know,” said Irene, reaching out and holding her friend’s hand.

Nan and Irene sat in the wagon for hours. The gypsies kept a close watch, but generally ignored them. Then, a boy came running into camp yelling something. The elders seemed very excited and started shouting orders. Everyone began to rush around the camp and two women came over to fetch Nan and Irene. They took them to a small tent.

“Now what?” said Irene.

“Perhaps that boy spotted someone in the woods,” said Nan. “Maybe it’s someone sent out to find us! Oh, Irene, we’ve got to make a break for it!”

But there wasn’t time. Two other women brought in hot water and helped the other two gypsies strip Nan and Irene. The two girls struggled and screamed, but the women were too strong for them. They forced them into the tubs of hot water and motioned them to wash themselves.

“As if we were—why we’re cleaner than they are!” fumed Irene.

Nan nodded tearfully. The girls finished washing and then dressed in the flimsy garments that the women gave them. They protested, but the women didn’t understand and only laughed, so the two girls gave up and reluctantly put on the clothing. Nan and Irene were both embarrassed by the immodesty of the garments. Irene’s was a coffee-colored skirt that was pulled up high on one side of the hip, exposing her fine white leg. A cream-colored, short-sleeved blouse so loose around the neckline that she threatened to expose her, completed the outfit. Nan was given a black skirt fashioned the same as Irene’s and a dark green blouse. The women tied ribbons around the girls’ necks and put bracelets on their arms. Then the women pulled out the band holding back Irene’s hair and undid Nan’s braids to let the hair fall freely. Irene and Nan looked at each other.

“Why, we don’t even look like ourselves!” said Nan in astonishment. “You look more like a gypsy than a princess, Irene.”

“So you do, Nan. Why did they do this?”

“My guess is that they want to pass us off as gypsies. They might have trouble selling us if it were known you are of noble birth. Oh, Irene, I’m so scared!”

There was a shout from outside and in response the women took firm holds on Nan and Irene and dragged them outside. They saw a large circle of men standing around a small platform. So that was what the boy had seen in the woods—not their rescuers at all, but men come to bid for them. The girls started to struggle harder, much to the amusement of the men. They were pulled onto the platform and released. Immediately, the men formed a tight ring around them, eyeing them greedily. Escape was impossible. For what seemed an eternity, the men examined the girls—poking, feeling, as they inspected their hair, eyes and even teeth!  Nan was slapped when she bit one of the men, and the other men laughed loudly. There was nothing for the girls to do but stand there, totally humiliated, as the men continued their inspection.

Finally, they seemed satisfied that they had had a good enough look and the bidding began—first for Irene, then Nan. The two girls couldn’t understand what was being said, but it was obvious that the bidding was fierce. Irene was finally handed down to a short, fat man with a bulbous nose and thick mustache. She began to cry as she was led to him. Nan prayed that she might be sold to the same man; at least then, they could stay together. But he seemed content with only Irene and did not even bid the second round. Nan was sold to a stocky man, young and not bad looking, but with a stench that made Nan want to faint.

At the end of the bidding, the women brought out wine and musicians began to play. The gypsies started to dance wildly around the fire. Their new owners took Nan and Irene away. Irene called out encouragement to Nan, but she had a sinking feeling that they would never see each other again.

Nan was dragged along a stony path to a waiting caravan in a clearing some distance from the rest of the tribe. Nan immediately discerned the man’s intentions and her horror grew. She knew she must do something quickly. Eyeing the path, she saw something that gave her an idea. She pretended to stumble and cried out in pain. She crouched low, moaning and rubbing her ankle. The man let go of her arm and bent down to her. In a flash, Nan grabbed a large rock and smashed it against the side of his head. He gave a short cry and fell to the ground. Nan looked around and saw that they were far enough from the dancing that her act had gone unseen. She dragged the man into the bushes as best she could and then set off in search of Irene.

Irene kicked and screamed all the way to a waiting wagon, where a plump woman got out and began to argue with the man. She seemed very angry that the man had bought Irene. The man seemed to be pointing out Irene’s virtues, but the woman was not to be appeased. Finally, he slapped her and shouting a few final comments, left to go back to the wine and dancing. The woman spat angry words at his back as she got up, then she turned to Irene. Irene was afraid that the women was going to hit her and cowered, but the woman only grabbed Irene’s arm and pulled her over to the other side of the wagon. A girl sat quietly stirring a pot of broth by the fire.

By her light hair and skin, Irene could see that the girl, who was about her own age, was not a gypsy. The woman spoke to the girl, who nodded and gave the stick to Irene, motioning her to keep stirring. The woman went over to the wagon and began to search for something. At last she found what she was looking for and brought it back to the fire. Irene almost screamed when she saw what it was—a small branding iron! Irene started to jump up, but the other girl grasped her firmly by the arm and pulled her back down. The woman stuck the iron into the glowing coals of the coals and went over to the wagon again. Irene covered her face and began to weep silently. Over her weeping she heard the girl next to her speak softly.

“Your friend waits beyond in the bushes. When the old hag returns, I will throw the hot soup at her and you will have time to run. Be quick.”

Irene gasped and looked at the girl who continued to stare placidly into the fire. Her blouse had slipped over one shoulder and Irene saw that she had been branded. She started to speak, but the old woman was returning. After a moment, the woman spoke to the girl by the fire and reached for the branding iron. The girl nodded silently and took the pot of steaming broth off the fire. Just as she started to set it down, she turned suddenly and flung it in the face of the gypsy. Irene wasted not a second, but scrambled away and towards Nan, who was now standing and shouting to her. She grabbed Nan’s hand and they began to race through the woods.

The woman’s screams brought the men running from the revelry. She cried out her story and the men set off in pursuit of the two girls. Nan and Irene thought they had a good head start, but already they heard footsteps behind them.

“Turn left at the boulder!” It was the girl—she had fled as well. As Nan and Irene turned the corner she caught up with them. “To the cave, hurry!” She passed them and led the way to a small cave partially hidden by hanging ivy. “Take my hand—quickly!”  Irene and Nan grabbed onto her and let her lead them through the dark passageway. Finally, she stopped, let go of the girls’ hands and began to grope for something. In the darkness, Irene and Nan heard the sound of two stones clicking together, and then suddenly there was light, and the girl stood there holding a crudely made torch.

“Can you see now? Follow me and be very quiet.”

“But—who…” began Nan.

“Shh! I must be able to hear if they are following,” said the girl and started to move down the tunnel. Nan and Irene quickly followed. After about an hour of walking, they heard the sound of running water. The tunnel opened up to a large cavern—a  lake lay before them and a small stream ran into one side.

“It’s safe to speak now. I don’t think we were followed. We were lucky.”

“Who are you?” asked Nan

“It is not important. We must follow the edge of the lake. Then another tunnel will lead us to the outside. Come.” She set off again.

“How did you know about this tunnel?” asked Irene.

“We have camped in these woods often, and I recently stumbled onto the cave while hunting. I had planned to try and escape tonight anyway, so I decided I might as well take you with me,” she said.

Nan asked many more questions, but the girl only answered with a shrug or a mumble. Finally, Nan gave up and fell silent. When they reached the outside, both girls almost cried with relief.

“It will soon be dawn. We have walked half the night. Why do you not both sleep now? Tomorrow, we will find your home,” said the mysterious girl. Nan and Irene were too tired to argue. They collapsed down upon the grass and fell asleep in each other’s arms almost at once.

***

The aroma of cooking meat awakened Nan and Irene. The girl was tending to pieces of rabbit on sticks, which she held over a small fire.

“Come and eat now. You must be hungry,” she said, offering two sticks of meat.

“Where did you get this?” asked Irene.

“I made a snare and caught him this morning. Not big, but better than nothing.”

“It’s delicious!” Irene chewed enthusiastically. “Where did you learn to hunt?”

“Eat,” said the girl. “Don’t talk.”

Nan and Irene looked at their rescuer. She was dressed as a gypsy, with long blondish hair that hung in loose curls about her somewhat dirty face. She was pretty, with a pert nose, dimples and bright eyes, but in need of a bath and new clothes. When they had finished eating, the girl finally spoke.

“Where is your home? We must figure out how to get you there quickly. It is not safe in the Woods of Will’s Son. Especially if word has reached the wizard, Merle of Lots, that you have escaped.”

“Merle of Lots?” exclaimed Nan.

“Was it he who sold us?” asked Irene.

“Yes, he does it often. It is how I was sold,” the girl scowled. “You’ll recall he never charges for his lessons. But he makes a tidy profit selling a student now and then to the gypsies. Now, where is your home?”

“In the Valley of William Etté,” said Irene.

“Then we are in luck. We can be there by nightfall if we hurry.”  She kicked dirt over the fire and started down a path to the woods. Nan and Irene found it hard to keep up with the girl’s pace and they asked often for rests. The girl would grant but a few, and pace nervously the while, looking about her carefully.

Just as nightfall was approaching, the three came to a rise that overlooked the valley.

“Now, I know where we are, Nan!” cried Irene with delight. “Come on, let’s run!”

“Wait!” said Nan and turned to their savior, “We are greatly in your debt. Will you not come to my family’s home and stay with us? My father would want to reward you properly.”

“Thank you, no. I am anxious to find a new place for myself.”

“But where will you go?” asked Irene. 

“I have always wanted to see what lies beyond the Hooded Mountains. I think I will go there. I can take care of myself.” The girl paused briefly. “Now, you’d best go.” And she turned and strode away.

“Wait! We don’t even know your name!”

“Kay!” she called back, as she ran swiftly into the woods.

“What did she say?” asked Nan. 

“I’m not sure,” said Irene. “I wish she had come with us.”

“So do I,” Nan said. “But let’s get home, Irene—I want to be home!” The two girls ran down the hill into the Valley and to the safety of their waiting friends and family.

 ***