The day was bright and sunny as Jennifer stood under a large oak in the royal garden kicking at the dirt. A cloud of dust hovered around her knees but she didn't care for her erratic thoughts swirled around Xanadis and Carolyn.
How time flies . God it doesn't seem like two years have passed since I arrived here. Jennifer smiled ruefully as she thought about the new life she'd embarked on in Xanadis. It was incredibly strange at first, but in the past six months things have fallen into place and it feels amazingly like home. She poised her toe behind a small rock and kicked it hard. The only thing missing is someone to share my joy of the place. Admittedly, she had her grandfather who was wonderful and they shared many happy moments together. But, it isn't the same. As much as she loved him there was a nagging ache deep inside her heart that had nothing to do with homesickness and everything to do with - Carolyn.
The strange thing about my relationship with Carolyn is that from the first moment...well almost the first, we struck up a bond that felt like it was centuries old. She shrugged and sent another pebble flying. Perhaps it is. Her eyes scanned her surroundings and she smiled. I've seen enough around here to think that the Gods and their ways really do exist. They say that some entities if fortunate enough travel through time together. Mercie calls them old souls them and now I'm beginning to believe that is true. From the stories she heard and things she witnessed over the last two years she wished with all her heart that she had asked Carolyn to stay. At least then, Carolyn would have known that I would miss her. Her thoughts then strayed to the morass of events the day they departed their different ways...
After Larsen ensured that Berdlukare was safely with the apothecary he surveyed the scene within the city walls. The Royal Guard, along with the remaining Berserkers, seemed to have everything under control as they rounded up the last of the invaders. In one corner he saw Jennifer and Mark Finch huddled together. His brow knotted as he approached the pair.
He saw the blood covering both Jennifer and the older man and asked, "Are you hurt?"
"He wants to know if we are hurt," Mark told his granddaughter.
"You have to go to the gate my friends are there and probably are in trouble,' she said as her agitation escalated.
Larsen looked at the horrified look in Jennifer's eyes and frowned. Something must be the matter. He looked at Mark and asked, "What is the matter with her?"
Mark patted his granddaughter's arm and sighed. "My granddaughter's friends...she is concerned for their safety."
"I will go and check on them."
Mark smiled at his granddaughter. "He said he will go and check on them and bring them back or see them safely through the gate."
"I'm going too!"
"She wants to go with you," he told Larsen.
" NO!" was the man's reply. He called out to several Berserkers before leaping on his horse. Then, Larsen and a half dozen other warriors rode away towards the gate
" They are in grave danger I know it! Damn why didn't I go after them when this all started?" She smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand. "Things were happening too fast. Damn it they better be safe or I'll never forgive myself!" Jennifer exclaimed as she started after Larsen.
Mark grabbed her arm. "You will stay here and let him do what he does best. You will only get yourself in trouble if you follow him and I think we have had enough excitement for one day don't you?"
Jennifer sighed. Who would have ever thought when we first met Larsen he would be our ally...or even a friend. She shrugged. He saved our lives and for that I will be eternally grateful. "You're right," she said reluctantly. "But if he isn't back in two hours I am going after him."
Mark shook his head and smiled. Stubborn as ever.
For over an hour Jennifer waited anxiously for Larsen's return. Her heart banged hard in her chest when she saw the puffs of dust following an approaching rider. Once the man dismounted she immediately assaulted him with questions when she saw he was alone. "Are they okay?"
"They must have gone through the gate," Larsen said to Mark. "We took care of the rest of our enemies and your friends were not with them."
Jennifer's eyes darted between her grandfather and Larsen as she waited for the translation. I really need to learn this language. When the warrior finished she looked expectantly at her grandfather. "Well, what did he say?"
"They apparently went through the gate."
Jennifer felt relief course through her body followed by a deep sadness. "I'm glad," she said as tears welled in her eyes. "They are safe and that is all that matters." Her words were hollow – Carolyn was gone.
Jennifer sat on a low wall beside the garden in the royal courtyard where she often went to think. With the death of the Queen and the two heirs to the throne, Mercie, in the absence of a successor, she took up the reigns. Things had happened quickly after that and before I knew it, I was an integral part of Lady Fulla's council. Thorleif Spake, the first councillor to the Queen, broke down and was unable to help bring the chaos around them under control. I suspect I was in the right place at the right time when Mercie realized she had no one she could trust. She sighed deeply. Carolyn would have been better suited to helping Mercie rule in those early days. There was no time for Jennifer to wallow in self-pity for she helped where she could and over time, the rawness of Carolyn's leaving lessened. "Each time I think of you Carolyn a sharp pain pierces my heart," she said softly. "I do miss you."
" Mgni the Queen wishes to speak with you," Keeper Henrickson said.
Damn he sneaks up on me all the time! How does he do that? She jumped wondering if he overheard her. "I'll be right there. Has there been any recent activity at the gate Erik?" Jennifer always asked the man the same question and always received the same answer.
" I'm sorry Mgni, no." Henrickson, who had a soft spot for the small woman, shrugged. I know the new Queen and many in the royal house including me will be deeply unhappy if anything happens to her.
"Thanks," she lamented. "Where is the Queen, Erik?" Jennifer asked quietly.
The man saw the pained expression. Mgni will speak of it if she wishes. He was now the leader of the Assembly of Warriors, but remained less political than those that had gone before him - his path was as a warrior not a politician. "In the rose garden Mgni." He smiled warmly then left her to attend to his own duties.
" Hmm the rose garden it is her favourite thinking place," Jennifer said with a smile as she stood. The Queen and I have that in common...a mutual thinking place – a garden. A few minutes later Jennifer arrived in the private garden and saw the Queen who was not alone. Now there's a surprise. She grinned. Not that I expected her to be alone particularly in this place.
"My Queen, how may I help you?" Jennifer bowed slightly as she addressed the woman.
The Queen stood up and gave the petite woman a warm glance. "Enough of the bowing Mgni you know it is not expected of you. I need... no we," her eyes turned to the person at her side, "need, you to help us arrange a festival." The look filled with devotion and love that emitted from the Queen's eyes was unmistakable.
" A festival...okay I can do that. I've read all the manuscripts about the traditional festivals and we're not due one for another month...so...what is the festival?"
Laugher echoed loudly in the garden as the Queen shook her head. "Mgni it is a festival to celebrate my betrothal to the Lady Mercie."
Jennifer couldn't help but scream her pleasure and hugged the grinning Mercie. Impulsively she turned to the bulky body of Queen Berdlukare and embraced her too. At first the Queen tensed at the show of affection, but a look from Mercie had her tolerating the body squeeze by the tiny woman.
Berdlukare pulled away from the hug. "Enough Mgni, we now know you are happy for us." Taking a step closer to Mercie she wrapped her arm around the smaller shoulders. "We want this festival to be in two weeks. Can you do that?" the Queen asked.
Jennifer bemusedly nodded her affirmation. "I'll get right to it." Jennifer winked at Mercie and began to leave before she turned and said, "Oh and congratulations."
Now that's what I call good news! Her feet carried her rapidly towards the kitchen where she would find the cook and start preparations for a celebration of happiness.True love ways are responsible she thought as she recalled the troubling period after the insurrection was over.
Berdlukare had hovered between this world and the other side for several weeks and many thought, except for Mercie, that the leader of the Berserkers would follow her fellow warriors to Valhalla . For her part, Mercie watched vigilantly over her warrior. They said that it had been the blind faith of love that brought the warrior from the brink of death. One such night, a virulent fever claimed the warrior, and as she thrashed around in her bed, the apothecary sent for Mercie. It would have been foolish to do otherwise as the young woman clearly thought much of the brave woman as her hours at her bedside proved. Jennifer who had been with Mercie at the time saw the pinched defeated look cross her new friend's face. As she placed a hand on Mercie's shoulder she quietly said, "If you do not mind the company I'll happily sit with you in the infirmary."
Mercie drew strength from Jennifer's simple request as she nodded and they both left for the bedside of the warrior.
On arrival, the grave face of the apothecary whispered to Mercie as her eyes dimmed at the turn of events. Surely, she was not going to lose another she loved. Especially one she had never had the opportunity to speak the words her love too, it wasn't fair!
Jennifer watched Mercie's tears fall unchecked as she listened to the physician and wondered what he was saying; whatever it was didn't appear to be good news. At that moment Mercie moved to Berdlukare's bedside and knelt on the straw covered floor, her hand taking the nearest thrashing one in her own and holding it steady. For a few seconds the giant warrior appeared to settle but then she moved rapidly in the bed again and Mercie's low sob galvanised Jennifer into action. She walked over to the apothecary and asked what the prognosis was. His assertion was that the fever that had caught the warrior in its grasp would probably be the end, as Berdlukare's strength was now at its lowest ebb. Dredging all her knowledge of her first aid classes, she'd taken reluctantly as part of the office set up at the paper she tried to recall what the best treatment for a fever was. They didn't have the luxury of drugs...wait a minute they did at least she did. The medical kit they'd had with them might still be in the bag that she's never really looked at since arriving here. Maybe she could help. Slipping out of the building, she returned to the cottage and searched for the item. With a sense of relief, she found the kit and opened it up, in amongst the bandages and other items was a vial of tablets-Ibuprofen. With a speed she didn't know she possessed she returned to the infirmary and ignoring the look of interest on the apothecary's face moved to Berdlukare's bedside.
Mercie looked up a quizzical expression in her eyes, "do you trust me Mercie?"
The woman gave her a weak smile, "with my life Mgni. With your modern ways can you help her?"
Jennifer held out the tablets and with a slight frown, she opened up the vial and placed two Ibuprofen in the palm of her hand. "It might be too little too late but if you're willing to try it. In my world this drug has been known to reduce fevers."
The apothecary came over at that moment his manner disapproving. "My lady you do not know if this will kill the warrior quicker."
Mercie held the final decision she knew that as she scanned the demeanours of both her new friend a stranger and one of her own. "Mgni, I will give the drug to Berdlukare. It is not right that if something happens you will be punished for it. Many would believe you poisoned her. They will not think the same of me." She held out her hand and Jennifer reluctantly gave her the drugs, instructing her on how to administer the medicine with water.
Then it was waiting game. Over the next twelve hours, they gave the warrior three lots of medication. Finally, as the moon appeared in the darkening sky her movements decreased. Until she lay still and silent, the moaning and mumbled words now gone and she appeared to be at peace with the world around her.
Mercie in desperation looked at Jennifer and the apothecary. The latter giving her a smile of reassurance as he checked the warrior, "she is sleeping peacefully my lady. Her fever is abating."
Tears of joy ran down Mercie's face as she moved from her crouched position and hugged Jennifer warmly. "Thank you Mgni, thank you for my warrior's life."
Jennifer felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment but she got over it as she felt the happiness and relief wash over her. "no thanks necessary Mercie' I was glad I could help. I'll leave you to be alone for a while but I'll return soon with food, you look like you need it."
Mercie hugged her again and grinned, "thank you for both of us." She turned away and this time sat on the side of the bed and clasped Berdlukare's hand to her chest. She kissed the strong knuckles and repeatedly whispered her thanks to Odin for allowing her love to live.
Jennifer turned away but not before, she heard something that made her own loss of Carolyn's departure ebb for a few moments.
" I love you dearly my beloved warrior and when you awake I shall tell you so and not be afraid of my feelings anymore. Life is far too short not to say those words-I love you and will to the end of time." Mercie's words floated towards her.
What astonished Jennifer the most was the deep voice that replied and she just caught before being out of earshot.
" You have nothing to fear my Mercie for I love you too. For you I have fought the wrath of Odin and not taken my place in Valhalla this day. There, has been, only you for a very long time." Berdlukare's voice was hoarse through lack of use but filled with the depth of her own love for Mercie.
As Jennifer left, she knew that at least one relationship was going to end happily.
It hadn't been long after Berdlukare's shift into recovery mode before the people were whispering that Berdlukare should rule the land. She was after all the next in line. However, others would have happily allowed Mercie to rule. Tradition needed preserving and Berdlukare's ancestors were part of the original crew that arrived in Xanadis. It was clear to those close to the couple, knew Berdlukare took up the role of Queen, only if she could have Mercie at her side. The more traditionalist populace had frowned upon the union, but eventually it was agreed, and they had ruled together from that day forward.
Jennifer opened the door to the royal kitchen and spied the chief cook busily preparing the evening meal. "Freya, we have a party to plan," she announced.
+ + +
Mercie gave the woman they had named affectionately Mgni who was contemplating the stars above her a long look. As always, Mercie wondered, not for the first time, about their strong alliance. In all the people, I could have looked too for guidance when we had lost so much it was this stranger I turned to. My choice has not disappointed me...Mgni is perfect. She has no secret agenda or special concern for any fraction of their population. As each new piece of news about her loved ones tragic ends threatened the fabric of Mercie's sanity Jennifer was there with a shoulder to cry on. Mgni simply did what she thought was right when my own strength ebbed and flowed out of control.
After the funeral of the warriors who had lost their lives, including her brother, and that of her beloved Queen, Mercie didn't know if she had the strength to take any more blows. The strife that had suddenly overwhelmed their land departed as quickly as it materialized and for that she was thankful. Berdlukare was my only hope for retaining my reason that there could be a future. She slowly approached the woman. She who stands only a foot away was instrumental in helping my beloved warrior's painful and slow recovery. Mercie smiled warmly at her friend's diverted profile. Her knowledge from the outside about basic medical skills was Berdlukare's saviour. However, Mgni would have none of the praise. Once things had righted themselves as best they could, I saw the sadness buried deep in my friend's eyes. Perhaps one day she will let me help her.
"You stand here each evening taking in the sky Mgni, what do you wish for?"
Jennifer turned in surprise. "You startled me Mercie." She smiled at her friend and continued, "I'm not wishing, merely thankful that all is peaceful." As with all occasions since she arrived in the new land she chose as a home, Jennifer felt her back stiffen and her guard go up. "Is there something you need?"
" Please, sit with me." Mercie smiled warmly, took Jennifer's arm and led her to a small wall low enough for them to sit comfortably on. Below them was the rose garden, which made a peaceful backdrop for contemplation. "Your adept handling of the celebration for the Queen and I is greatly appreciated. Thank you for making it easy."
" Is there anything else I can do to help?" Jennifer asked pleased by the praise. She heard the tinkle of gentle laughter she always associated with Mercie and saw a rueful glance.
" Well there is one thing actually...," she said sheepishly. "Both the Queen and I wondered if you had anyone special you wanted to bring to the festival?"
Jennifer considered that for a few seconds then responded with a smile. "My grandfather...although I figured you would invite him personally." Jennifer sighed and looked up at the stars again. I wish I could say Carolyn's name. That would be some feat sending an invite to a wedding from here to Carolyn's home and expect her to arrive. It isn't, as if there is a bus, train or airplane she can take.
Mercie nodded in affirmation. "As a member of our council of elders your grandfather is naturally invited. No, I thought that perhaps after being here two years you may have become attached to someone... romantically."
" There isn't anyone. Besides, when do I have the time to think about romance? I'm too busy struggling to pick up your language. It was never one of my strong points in school." Jennifer shrugged and a faint smile passed her lips as she thought about Carolyn again. "Carolyn on the other hand would have mastered it in a week," she unconsciously whispered.
Mercie heard the words she suspected were not for her and was even more convinced that Mgni was troubled about something or perhaps someone. "You miss your friends, who went back through the gate, don't you?"
For a few seconds Jennifer wondered how to answer. "At first I did, but time makes it easier."
Calculating the words she chose, Mercie retorted, "I forget the man's name was he special to you?"
" Richard? No!" Jennifer said creasing her brow. "No, we were friends. In fact, I'd only met him a month or so before we arrived because he was Carolyn's best friend. He's a great guy, but ...we were not romantically involved."
" I see, and this Carolyn or as my beloved calls her, Hrafn. What of her Mgni how well did you know her?" Mercie waited for the response hoping she had not stepped too heavily on her friend's feet.
Jennifer felt the tears sting her eyes as she considered the question, just how well do I know Carolyn? "About the same really, we met a few weeks before we arrived here at a party given by my parents...our parents are friends from way back." A little smile crept around her lips as she recalled their first acrimonious meeting. "We struck up a friendship and she helped me find my way here. I'd be hard pressed to name a more intelligent person than Carolyn."
Mercie smiled knowingly when she heard Mgni's praise of her friend and the way the woman's name flowed with gentleness from her lips. Ah so this is the problem. "My beloved rightly called your friend her true name long ago. Hrafn means the raven and in our lore, it stands for intelligence and knowledge. Do you know what the name, that my love gave you at that first meeting long ago means?"
" My Grandfather said it meant strength," Jennifer replied. She never did understand why anyone would consider her strong. My build isn't exactly what the word strength brings to mind. The giant warriors around here are strong not me. It had long been her contention that they must put something in the water to grow such massive warriors.
Mercie nodded. "That would be a good word to use. You're name is for one born extremely strong at birth. I think my love was wrong...not that I would tell her such." Mercie chuckled softly. "You would have been better named Megin for you have personal force, which is distinct from physical power or strength. Yes, when we are alone I will call you Megin."
Jennifer laughed. "I get confused with one name now I have three!"
" It may not be prudent of me to ask, but were you ever romantically involved with Hrafn?"
Jennifer's eyes popped open wide as she touched her chest. "Me? Oh my goodness no! Carolyn is just a friend."
The wistful tone at the word friend did not evade Mercie. She gave her friend a strange glance before gently squeezing her arm. For a few minutes they sat in quiet reflection until Mercie offered Jennifer a small piece of wisdom to take or not. "We have several Gods we worship as you are now aware Megin. One of those is the Goddess Lofn. I think you should perhaps one day offer her a prayer and share your innermost feelings with her. You may be surprised at how fruitful it can be...I know I was."
Jennifer took in a deep breath and enquired, "Lofn is the goddess of what exactly?" Well I'm certainly having a lesson in Norse tradition today.
Mercie's cheeks went slightly pink as she averted her gaze. "Why, she is the goddess of forbidden love and of passionate love affairs," she replied bashfully.
Jennifer felt her mouth open, then close, then open again. Her breath seemed to catch at the back of her throat making it difficult to speak. Finally spluttering out, "You think I have a secret love?" she spluttered out. "I don't understand...I can't believe that you had a forbidden love?" He eyes widened. "Does Berdlukare know?"
Mercie turned her gaze back to Jennifer with eyes filled with the warmth of her love for the woman who was now Queen. "Berdlukare knows now, she was my forbidden love for a long time. I prayed to Lofn many times for guidance. If your prayers are answered she removes obstacles from the path of lovers."
As the words sunk in Jennifer thought, perhaps Mercie isn't wrong and I do have a forbidden love. Maybe forbidden is the wrong term mine is totally out of reach. "I'm glad everything worked out. Did Queen Ragnhild know you loved Berdlukare?"
The mention of the old Queen's name still caused Mercie to feel the sense of loss she had tried to subdue. Even my brother's memory isn't as painful though I loved him very much. Will I ever not feel this way? "She did not. I debated long on how to tell her but she was wise and I'm sure that one day she would have seen the signs herself and told me directly...if she had lived."
" Would she have approved? Is that why you called it forbidden?" Jennifer asked fascinated by the new information. It sheds light onto why there was still an element of dissention in some of the populace. My Grandfather thinks it will pass over when the people get used to the Queen and Mercie ruling together but I'm not so sure. Bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes and I can't see the devoted traditionalists liking what's happening with their Queen.
After a few moments of silence Mercie remarked, "I honestly don't know if my Queen would have approved. At the end of the day I could only follow my heart and that is what you must do Megin - when the time is right you must do the same."
Jennifer pondered the words. "I guess I'll be single for your celebration Mercie, I'm sorry."
"Then it shall be up to me to find you a suitable escort for my marriage to the Queen. It would not be seemly to have you alone. I believe even your grandfather has plans to take someone."
Jennifer turned astonished eyes to Mercie. "Who? How do you know and how is it that I don't?" The two women laughed at Jennifer's jumbled words as they settled into an amicable discussion of just about everything except the one true problem in Jennifer's life - Carolyn.
+ + +
With the disappearance of Jennifer Finch, Stacey Randall's life had been one roller coaster after another in the past year and a half. The paper insisted that she continue with the Miss Molly comic strip reasoning that they needed to maintain continuity until Jennifer's return. When it became evident that she would not be returning, Stacey was so engrossed in the strips creation that the publishers petitioned Jennifer's parents to allow them to continue with Miss Molly. Eventually the deal they worked out allowed Stacey to take over the copyright and become sole owner of the rights to Miss Molly. With the proviso of a hardback novel of Jennifer's original stories produced in her, honour a year after her disappearance. Eventually the paper changed hands and when Stacey balked at the new direction they wanted the comic to go she took Miss Molly and left. No way was she going to compromise Jennifer's original concept.
She looked at her bulging two drawer file cabinet with paper peeking out of the closed drawers. "Guess it is now or never," she said as she pulled open the top drawer. She felt a little tinkle of sadness for she really hated to throw anything out especially all the files she had kept since college. My life has taken on a completely new meaning in the last three months. A new position, a new love... I am grateful for the change in my life. "Time to make room for the new by getting rid of the old," she said with a sigh as she pulled out a file.
An hour later as she took the last file out she applauded her efforts for almost everything was in a bin for shredding. I'll inspect the contents once more to make sure nothing of significance is in there...I'd hate to shred something important. When she opened the second drawer she shook her head. Where did all this junk come from? She frowned when she saw a package, addressed to her stuffed in the back of the drawer.
" This is odd." She picked it up and inspected it closely trying to figure out what it was. It looked and felt like a book of some kind. Carefully opening the brown wrapping paper she slid out the book and looked at the title, Waterfalls, Rainbows and Secrets . When she turned the book over a piece of paper fluttered from the inside cover. "What the hell..." she said as she bent down and immediately recognised the handwriting. "Jenn," she whispered as she felt her heart flutter with the dull sadness of recollection. Her hand trembled as she held the message while teardrops fell unchecked. Jennifer was such a vivacious person and I had the biggest crush on her. What a tragedy for her family and all the rest of us that loved her. She swiped a hand across her cheeks and sniffed as she tried to read Jennifer's words.
I know I can rely on you to do this for me in the event something happens to me and I can't do it myself. Please return this book to the second hand bookseller on the enclosed business card. He'll be expecting the book back even if you forget it for a while. There aren't any charges or anything like that to worry about, simply give, or send it to him and he'll understand. By the way, I don't know if I ever told you how great an assistant you are.
Stacey held the note and read it over again then looked at the attached business card. "That's just a few blocks away." A sudden thought made her shudder. Did she know she wasn't going to make it back? She looked at the note again. The note indicates that she knew something, which means...She frowned. Stop that! It's ridiculous to think like that! No one knows if something like death is going to come unexpectedly. Her eyes widened with a realization that she couldn't quite recall. Didn't she say something about a curse when she gave it to me back then... darn I wish I could remember?
" For all you did for me I at least owe you that I honour your last wish." Without looking further at the volume in her hands, Stacey replaced the book and the note in the brown wrapping before walking over to the phone with the card in her hand. When she heard ringing she smiled. I hope you are happy up there in heaven Jennifer.
" Hi my name is Stacey Randal I used to work with a woman named Jennifer Finch and she left me a book...