Dragonjuls` Storybook
Waterfalls, Rainbows and Secrets
JM Dragon
Part 16
© 2006 by J M Dragon
e-mail:  jmdragon
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Like a wounded, caged animal Mercie paced around the royal bedroom agitated and unapproachable. Berdlukare watched her consort wondering what she should or should not do. I’m not good at sensitive chats and I’m not certain she’d appreciate my intervention. When the Queen couldn’t stand it any longer, she took a deep breath and approached her lover.

“Sit with me Mercie and tell me what is troubling you?” she said placing what she thought was a comforting arm around Mercie’s shoulders.

Mercie shoved the arm away and increased her pace. “Nothing is troubling me! How can it since I know we will be together through our lifetimes.”

Berdlukare stepped in front of the pacing woman like a wall preventing Mercie from moving past her. “ENOUGH!” she commanded.

Mercie, with wide unbelieving eyes, looked up at the towering, ominous Berdlukare. The Queen’s ferocious tone stilled her pacing and with a slight tremble said, “Yes, my Queen.”

The Queen’s face softened as she wrapped her arms gently around her consort and held the restless body until it relented. She kissed the top of Mercie’s head and whispered, “Please tell me what the problem is.”

“I love you so much I don’t want to lose you or your love,” Mercie cried as tears flooded her cheeks.

Berdlukare pulled Mercie further into the safe shelter of her strong, loving arms. “It will never happen. I have loved you from afar for too long to allow what we have to leave us now. Don’t you know that I would rather die than see that happen my love.” The Queen tilted Mercie’s chin so that their eyes locked and the smaller woman could see the truth before she took a smaller hand and placed it over her heart. “It beats for only you.”

Mercie leaned into her lover and her tears saturated the Queen’s tunic. “As mine beats for you, always.”

Berdlukare easily picked Mercie up, moved to a large oversized chair and sat down. She cradled her consort and softly stoked her hair in an effort to soothe her troubles. “Perhaps if you tell me what you recall as a child when you first met Olrun it will ease your worry,” she said softly.

Mercie gulped back her tears and in a whisper began to tell her story. “How did you know? Ah yes nothing escapes you does it my love.” Berdlukare smiled warmly her head inclined slightly at the observation. “Edmond and I were playing hide and seek in the fringes of the forest. Bored with the game, I walked further into the trees and Edmond protested but followed me.” The thought of her brother caused more tears to fall and she felt her love murmur words of comfort. Slowly regaining her composure she continued, “Eventually we happened upon the clearing where Olrun lives. We were tired, thirsty and wanted to go home but the place drew us in like a spell. There was a bird perched on the roof top - a raven.” She lifted her gaze slightly and gave her lover a weak smile. “I was five and remembered that detail clearly. Anyway,” she said wiping away a tear, “it swooped down and made a terrible sound. I was frightened of it so I swatted it away.” Her eyes widened. “I remember screaming that I didn’t mean to kill it and Edmond kneeling beside the bird picked it up. After he examined the bird, he smiled at me and told me don’t worry it will be ok once it regains its bearings. All of a sudden, the door to the cottage opened and Olrun came out and I remember thinking that her eyes were burning fire. She spoke words to Edmond that I did not understand and he protectively drew me closer. In my childish eyes, she was a witch and that frightened me.” Liquid flowed from her eyes. “How was I to know the bird was a pet…I was only a small child!” Mercie leaned into Berdlukare and whispered, “All I remember is that she said I would bring pain and tragedy to the Queen.” She lifted her head and looked squarely at her lover. “I have always felt those words keenly and did everything I could to stop that fate. Now…now I’m not so sure that can be done.” She shook her head. “Perhaps it is you my Queen that she meant I would cause such agony to - I could not bear it if that were so.”

Berdlukare jaw clenched as she listened. Olrun will explain to me why she frightened Mercie and Edmond so. “You were but a child Mercie perhaps you misunderstood what Olrun said to you.”

“No! No, how could I…she as much as repeated the same words today! Perhaps I am evil inside and need to journey with the others to bring me a measure of peace. If I can prove that I want the best for Xanadis that might change my fate.” Mercie turned in the strong loving hold and with her eyes pleaded for the opportunity.

Berdlukare felt the seriousness of Mercie’s words. I do not want you to go my love but if I keep you here…perhaps that is wrong too. “I do not want you to go, but if you insist on taking this action Larsen must travel with you.”

Mercie smiled slightly. Berdlukare will give me anything even if it means she sacrifices something to do so - sending Larsen will do just that. She heard Olrun’s words that Larsen needed to stay by the Queen’s side. I cannot jeopardise my love for my desire to change fate. She placed a finger to the Queen’s lips. “No my love, Larsen must stay and defend you. The others cannot have gone more than a short distance and if I hurry I will catch up with them.”

Berdlukare sighed heavily, she cannot travel alone I will not permit it. “Take one of the berserkers my love I will feel better knowing you are protected.”

Mercie shook her head, “I must do this alone. Will you allow me to follow my destiny as you will surely follow yours? Please do not order me to stay for I will have to disobey. Permit me the free will to do what I believe is right just as I would you as my partner in this life.”

The words were hard to swallow but Berdlukare heard them and understood their relevance. As Queen I can order her to stay, but she would perhaps disobey me and I would have to assert my authority. That would cause us both pain and in the end create distrust in our love. She sighed in appeasement. There is only one thing I can do. “I will accede to your choice Mercie, but promise me one thing.”

“Anything, “Mercie smiled tenderly as she stroked a finger down the strained expression on her Queen’s face, knowing that she battle with her need to protect what she loved most.

“Come back to me.”

Those words echoed in Mercie’s ears long after she left the town to catch up with the others.

+ + +

Jennifer walked beside Mist as they led the small group of travelers towards the depths of the forest. The warrior had barely spoken a few words and those were only when asked for a comment. She puzzles me. I’ve never seen her around the town and she certainly doesn’t live in the warrior quarters in the town. Taking a deep breath, she quietly said, “Mist, if you don’t mind my asking, where do you come from?”

The warrior glanced at the small stocky woman who was matching her stride. Not many can do that. “It is of no consequence Mgni.”

Jennifer scratched the side of her head as she wondered if she should ask the question again in a different way. “True I guess. I haven’t seen you around the town and I train with the warriors most days…I don’t recall seeing you there.”

The warrior remained silent and Jennifer realised she was losing the battle. Just then Mist unexpectedly said, “I defend where it all began Mgni.”

Where it all began? Didn’t it all begin in the river area near the town ? “Oh I thought that this area was the beginning?”

“No,” Mist replied coldly and stepped up her pace taking her several strides away.

Guess that ends that riveting conversation. Jennifer watched the retreating warrior as Olrun’s voice dragged her out of her thoughts.

“If you wish to know something Mgni it may be wiser to ask me.” Olrun grinned wickedly as she walked away matching the footsteps of the warrior.

Carolyn stopped beside Jennifer with an amused smirk. “You look annoyed, wouldn’t she talk to you?”

Jennifer was peeved. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips before saying, “I asked her where she was from. Do you know the answer she gave me?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.” A wry smile creased Carolyn’s lips. Well that trait is still alive and kicking. She always was quickly upset over other people’s reactions.

“You’re teasing me aren’t you? I can see it in your face.”

Carolyn grinned. “Yeah, but Jenn you wind up so easily. One day it’s going to get you in trouble. You should be more like me and assess the facts and think before you react.”

A heavy sigh exploded from Jennifer as she glared at her friend. “Yeah and if everyone was like you we’d all be slaves probably.”

“What do you mean by that?” Carolyn asked perplexed.

“I don’t mean anything by that! It’s a fact if everyone sat back and thought things through indefinitely without taking action unscrupulous people feed on that kind of apathy…they devour the rest of us.” Jennifer pointed out as her eyes drifted to the warrior who was now well ahead of them.

Carolyn was astounded that Jennifer thought of her in that way. Am I apathetic in my actions? I know I don’t react as impulsively as she does, but that doesn’t mean I sit on my ass and do nothing! Bristling at the comment, she stomped off in the direction of Olrun throwing a comment over her shoulder as she walked away. “If you think like that don’t bother asking me my opinion in the future.”

Jennifer gave Carolyn’s back a startled expression. What did I say this time? I didn’t mean she was like that! Crap, another mess I’ve managed to create! She started to sprint after Carolyn and apologise, but heard the sound of a horse galloping in the distance and turned. At the same moment, Mist stopped in her tracks and held up her hand. She must have bionic ears Jennifer thought.

Mist herded everyone behind a thicket and with a finger to her lips motioned for quiet. From their undetected secure position, they huddled until the rider passed them by.

Jennifer was quicker than Mist and rushed from behind the thicket and called out, “Mercie, what are you doing out here?”

Mercie heard the question from a familiar voice, slowed the horse to a stop, in a swift movement dismounted and turned to her friend a wide smile. “I’m here to join you.” Her eyes wandered to Olrun, “If you’ll accept my help.”

Jennifer had impulsively walked to her friend nodding assent while Mist and Carolyn watched for the old woman’s reaction.

“Now we are finally complete, the quest begins in earnest from now,” the Haliarunos said.

“Thank you Olrun.” Mercie bowed her head slightly in respect. She turned to Jennifer and smiled. “My friend I want to offer you an apology for my behaviour yesterday…you did not deserve it.”

Jennifer grinned as she placed a hand on her friend’s arm. “No apologies necessary. We haven’t had an adventure for ages and it looks like this is one we’ll be telling our grandchildren.”

The innocuous statement made Carolyn feel a pain that pierced her heart. If Jenn is thinking about children in the future that puts my feelings and hopes in the fire pit. I was a fool to think anything else, especially now I know what she really thinks of me.Thank god I never made a complete fool of myself and admit I love her. With the recent comment and the earlier remark still smarting, she decided to walk up front with Mist. Neither of us wants to speak right now…sounds like a match made in heaven.

+ + +

Queen Berdlukare watched in distress as Mercie left the town walls. If the old crone is right and Mercie will cause the ‘Queen’ distress then in my mind this is the only way. How can I live without her by my side for she is my light. Her steps took her away from the royal chamber window to the tapestry on the wall. She took in every thread intricately woven into the fabric while its ancient voice rang in her ears. When her eyes reached the end of the storyline’s journey where the final portrait depicted three figures holding up swords towards the saviour of Xanadis, she shook her head. What does all this mean? Surely, the runes read so long ago have changed after all this time. Why is everything suddenly going in the wrong direction?

Her thoughts heavily laden with her need to put Mercie first above her role as Queen had her slamming the door of the royal chamber. She would find Larsen and they would go after Mercie and the others and solve this puzzle for the last time.

If my Mercie places herself in danger than so be it, but she shall not go alone into the wilderness. I will protect her and the rest of the people of Xanadis as trained to do with my sword .

Her steps increased in speed as she headed to Larsen’s living quarters. I will find you Mercie.

+ + +

Jennifer watched Carolyn’s averted profile pensively. I screwed up big time I know, but surely she doesn’t take that kind of observation seriously…it was meant to be hypothetical. Richard used to say she never bears malice and moves on quickly but it doesn’t look like that now. Her eyes moved to the others around the makeshift camp. From all intents and purposes they hadn’t planned to be away long, Carolyn and I haven’t brought a change of clothing and it doesn’t look like anyone else has either. I wonder where we are going. Maybe I can get an answer to that simple question. “Olrun exactly where are you taking us?”

The old woman gave Jennifer a strange look that was a mixture of amusement and censure. “To the beginning of course.”

The beginning? Wait a minute, isn’t that something similar to what Mist said? A flicker of a frown crossed her forehead and before she could reply, Carolyn who had been on the other side of Olrun, jumped in.

“The beginning Olrun? Can you please explain that a little more for those of us who don’t have the knowledge of all of your history?”

Jennifer gave Carolyn a grateful smile, but her friend simply ignored it. Ok two can play at that game. She sighed. I don’t want to play a game Carolyn I want us to…oh give up she’s not interested that’s as plain as the nose on my face now.

“The beginning is where it all started…where the echo of the rainbow still remains.” The old woman bit into the bread and cheese she was eating and munched away happily - the explanation was sufficient.

The echo of the rainbow, hmm now, that’s an interesting way of putting it, Carolyn thought as she pulled at her lower lip. “Surely we’re going in the wrong direction, shouldn’t we be heading for the gate?”

A cackle of laughter filled the silent air around them. “No Hrafn, the gate is the entrance for strangers. The beginning is where the rainbow showed our ancestors the way.”

“Well I’m confused!” Jennifer announced and felt stupid as Carolyn caught her gaze and gave her an irritated glance. Ok, looks like from her perspective I can’t do anything right. Maybe If I give her a winning smile, she attempted to lock gazes with Carolyn but her friend had averted her profile and missed the overture.

Mercie interceded at that point and quietly remarked. “In the beginning our ancestors were caught in a storm and a rainbow was followed to the lake inlet. There is a small town, called Muspell, at the edge of the lake beside the mountainside and the outside world. Is that where we are headed Olrun?”

The old crone gave Mercie a smile exposing her rotting teeth. “Yes my lady, we allow no one but the chosen to enter Muspell.” She grasped her walking stick to aid her in standing then announced, “We must move on for it will take us many hours yet to reach the beginning.”

Many hours huh, and here was I thinking this was going to be a great adventure…stupid, stupid, stupid me. Jennifer watched as Carolyn stood up and Mist followed her instantly. Anyone would think they are joined at the hip or something. Jennifer thought as a pang of jealously washed over her.

Within five minutes, the troupe had gathered all their belongings and walked further into the dense forest. Carolyn noticed the deeper they went the more tense the warrior at her side became. I wonder what has her spooked. Unconsciously she threw a look over her shoulder to make sure Jenn was ok. A slight smile creased her lips as she saw her friend striding confidently next to Mercie. At least Jenn can take care of herself with that sword she carries. Her safety is all that matters to me.

+ + +

Olrun, carefully considering what her next action must be, paused as the others walked ahead. If only they understood as I do. Only Mist knows more and she is under an oath of secrecy as the sisterhood of Haliarunos demands of their protectors. When she saw one of the party stop she smiled. Ah, she has noticed I stopped…I wondered when she would.

“Are you well Olrun?” The quiet question drifted in the breeze that fluttered around them in the forest.

The old woman smiled slowly and walked forward. “Yes Mgni, thank you for your concern. May I ask the same of you? I’ve noticed you have been pensive for the last few hours.”

“I’m fine, just not used to walking so far.” Jennifer grinned slightly. I actually like the old witch. I wonder why she stopped dead in her tracks.

Olrun knew her reply was untrue for it was in her eyes and the eyes never lie. “I thought all warriors would handle something as simple as a jaunt in the woods.”

Jennifer flicked her eyebrow upwards at the word warrior. Am I a warrior? Not really, but I suppose it looks that way with my gear and the fact that I train with the warriors almost everyday. Wouldn’t they be surprised at my old job if they saw me now? She chuckled silently. They’d think I’d taken my cartoon characters to heart. “I’m not technically a warrior Olrun, although you might call me a wannabe.” The description of herself brought a smirk to her face.

The old woman ran aged experienced eyes over the well-muscled young woman. She wore the minimal serviceable clothing of a warrior along with weapons that hung from a belt that held the tunic she wore together. “I think you do not give yourself true credit Mgni. One day soon you will reach your potential and I think you will then understand your true worth in Xanadis.”

Jennifer shook her head at the observation. Haven’t I already reached my potential…what else can I do other than what I do already. Carolyn is the brilliant adaptive one around here. She shook her head. Hell, I can’t even speak the language properly. Self-disgust that her friend had mastered the language much better than she had filled her mind. “I figured I’d already reached my limits Olrun.” She shrugged. “Well, except for this little adventure.”

“Oh Mgni you will understand soon enough. The fate of the last of the Haliarunos will balance in your hands.” She reached out a hand and patted the young woman’s arm. “Come we must catch up with the others I can smell that we are getting closer to our goal.”

Jennifer watched blankly as the old woman left her standing there. She mentally went over the old woman’s words. The fate of the last of the Haliarunos will balance in my hands. Isn’t Olrun the last? God, the longer I stay in this place the more and more complicated it gets. Jennifer picked up her pace and dashed to catch up with the others. When she reached Mercie who looked none too happy, she asked, “Hey are you ok Mercie?”

Mercie turned to stare at her friend and contorted her face. “Hmm I wish I had stayed home with the Queen. I have been too lazy in the past weeks my friend and this walking is taking its toll.”

Jennifer laughed and placed her arm inside that of her friend’s. “You could always ride. No one would blame you.”

Mercie’s eyebrows arched at the comment. “And have everyone think that I cannot take it because I am too soft. How could I do such a thing? My Queen would be upset if I showed such fatigue when the others look disgustingly energetic.”

“Oh I’m sure our Queen would never be upset with you Mercie.” She saw the blush rise in the cheeks of her friend and winked. “Olrun just told me we are close or at least that’s what I think she said.”

“Thank goodness for that! Did she impart any other news? I should have known we would end up in Muspell.” Mercie quietly spoke as they walked behind the others at a slightly slower pace.

“Muspell I haven’t heard of that. I’ve seen some of the smaller villages scattered around…I guess I just haven’t done any research.” Jennifer mentally checked herself. What an idiot. I’ve been here two years and don’t know much more than the first day they allowed me to stay here.

Mercie grinned at her friend and gently squeezed at the arm that held hers firm as they walked. “Muspell is not talked of Mgni. It is the residence of the protectors of the sisterhood of the Haliarunos. The order is shrouded in secrecy, has been that way from the beginning. The town is the stronghold of the protectors and they have watched over the entrance to your old world from the beginning and will remain true to their task until the day Xanadis no longer needs them. It is a superior honour to be a protector Mgni. They only chose a few and from those only the ones close to the soul of the Haliarunous they protect are accepted. It will be interesting to see what it is like for I have never been there.”

Jennifer scratched the back of her head as she pondered the words. If Olrun is correct then I’m going to become one of the protectors, but how and why? Certainly, they can find a more competent defender. That soul business is a bit worrying though. When they heard Carolyn shout and point to the sky, they diverted their eyes to the direction of Carolyn’s finger and gapped at the sight above their heads.

A rainbow cascaded its spectrum of colours above their heads and lightening glittered bouncing off the edges unsuccessfully trying to penetrate its depths. The sky was spectacularly alight with the elements of nature seemingly battling each other.

Jennifer withdrew from Mercie and made her way to Carolyn side. “Isn’t that impossible?” she said in awe.

Carolyn gave her friend a glassy eyed look initially before she excitedly replied, “Yeah it is, I’ve never seen anything like this or thought it could happen.”

Mist stopped and said, “That is not the only facet. Come when we cross the ridge you will see the town and what it means to be a part of Muspell.”

With eyes, still flicking upwards, the others followed the warrior and stopped when they reached the ridge. Their attention then turned to the tiny village below that consisted of little more than ten houses. In the middle of what appeared to be the town’s market place was a larger more ornate building. Metal structures placed around the town like a protective field had sparks glinting off them. Above them, the rainbow still maintained its light in the darkness of the night with its ending seemingly disappearing into the mountainside. A cascading waterfall, which looked at least a hundred feet in the air, completed the picture.

Truly, a sight making you hold your breath in wonder. The first to speak was Carolyn whose words seemed to echo all around them. “This is incredible, unique…impossible! Now I know why I want to stay here.”

Jennifer, at Carolyn’s side felt her heart crushed for the words pierced and wounded her mortally. There was I thinking she came back for me. I am such a fool…what an idiot. “Yeah you could spend your whole life researching this Carolyn and be extremely happy. Wouldn’t you? Nothing else would matter.” Her silent thoughts supplied the rest - or anybody.

Only Mercie and Carolyn heard the softly spoken words. Mercie, knowing that the rash words spoken by Hrafn hurt her friend, instinctively placed a comforting arm around her. “It will all work out Mgni. Trust in Lofn.”

Carolyn, startled at Jennifer’s words, turned around to face her only to feel a stab of jealousy lunge into her chest when she saw Mercie with her arm around Jenn whispering in her ear. I’ve said the wrong thing again and now it looks like I have no chance to retrieve the situation, crap, what shall I reply now. “Maybe, maybe not, time will tell.”

After Olrun spoke quickly to Mist the warrior disappeared over the ridge. “I have sent Mist to open the perimeter for us. We must enter the perimeter of Muspell together or someone could get hurt. Let us carry on I think we all need some rest and a meal after our journey.”

Without a word, the others followed the old woman over the ridge towards the town called Muspell.

+ + +

Queen Berdlukare followed the tracks to the edge of the forest and stopped her mount. The tracks clearly revealed that a party had recently entered the forest along with a single fresher set of hoof prints. She glared at Larsen and snarled for he was directly responsible for the delay that caused them to be several hours behind her consort. Protocol dictated that the Queen never left the palace without an escort and Larsen insisted that they adhere to that policy. An intense argument ensued until the Queen relented when Larsen said, “You must understand that you bear a responsibility to your people now and not just your own person or consort. It is my responsibility to keep you safe.” Her anger over the situation lifted for a split second as she scanned the two berserkers flanking her in a protective stance. She filled with a sense of pride since the two were the best of the warriors in the royal compound. Only death will prevent them from keeping me safe.

She sighed deeply as the words of Hrafn, the latest stranger to their land, floated into her mind. The statement had been a simple declaration of faith. Xanadis is as if a droplet in time hung precariously in the air as the second hand attempts to dislodge the moment and move on. There can never be another place like it again. That’s why we need to treasure it, and we will, on pain of death, defend its being and that of its ‘just’ ruler . Her eyes penetrated deep into the forest. Am I a just ruler? How can I measure myself except against another of my kind? There hasn’t been a warrior ruling the kingdom since the early days of the second King Halfdan. Her face became a fierce scowl as she tried to dredge up her limited information of the son of the first King of Xanadis. I know of the history, but I know little of the man himself or his ways.

Larsen returned from his cursory inspection of the path ahead and immediately noticed the Queen’s glare and dropped his eyes for a moment. I’m responsible for holding my Queen up in this journey, but I will not be responsible for anything happening to another of our sovereigns. His glance turned to the riders flanking the Queen who acknowledged his silent question that all was well before he moved his mount closer to the Queen. “My Queen, it appears safe for us to venture further into the forest.”

Berdlukare stared coldly at the man for a second. It is not his fault Mercie sought this path. Her gaze softened as she replied, “Except for Mercie they are on foot so we should catch up with them within the hour.” Her glance flicked over Larsen’s tight jaw indicting he wanted to say something else. “You do not approve this action?”

Larsen directed his gaze to the Queen as their eyes through the visors looked like markers on a map. “It is not for me to say my Queen. I will obey whatever orders you chose to give.”

“You may speak your mind,” Berdlukare wanting to know his views on venturing forward.

“My Queen, the forest still remains a fortress for our enemies. The stragglers of Hjort’s army still reside in there waiting for the moment they can take us on again,” Larsen said solemnly.

Berdlukare’s belly laugh bounced off the trees and spooked their horses. Once the warriors calmed their horses, they looked at their Queen in puzzlement. With a shake of her head she placed, a hand on the hilt of Larsen’s mount. “You are the leader of the Berserkers, we have two of the finest warriors at my side and I am more than competent in combat. Yet, you say we should fear the bandits that might roam this forest. It is ridiculous to think such a thing.”

Larsen glanced around at the other warriors and saw the twinkle of amusement in their eyes. Ah, they think I’m a fool and she is right. Everything she said is true, but it only takes one arrow to take her down. As good, as she is I do not think she can catch flying arrows out the air. He nodded slightly and said, “Ridiculous…yes my Queen. We should then proceed and find your consort and the others.”

The horses moved into the depths of the forest as they set of on their journey. Larsen rode behind the Queen as one warrior led the way and the other remained her side. Larsen watched as the Queen rode forward thinking I’ll take the arrow aimed at my Queen’s back if that is what it takes.

As they ventured further on their journey to reach Mercie and the others the ominous darkness of the forest enveloped them along with the danger it might pose to the Queen.

+ + +

Mist approached the perimeter of Muspell and alerted the warrior who was guarding the entrance to the boundary. The warrior, clothed completely in black, gave a cold fierce glance in her direction. The lightening bouncing off the shields surrounding the border created a natural defence of the small town and briefly illuminated the adjoining area. When Mist recognised the warrior, she smiled and held up her arm to show the silver arm bracer that indicated her purpose.

In precise movements, the warrior moved one of the shields from its location and the perimeter dissolved before their eyes. As Mist moved forward, the warrior greeted her with a friendly wave.

“Sigrun it is good to see you,” Mist held out her arm as the warrior came forward to take it.

“All is as it was when you left Mist. We are glad you are back…was your trip successful…did you bring them?” the warrior asked as she welcomed back one of the sisterhood.

Mist flashed her grey eyes around the small town that she had long ago pledged to defend with her honour and life. Not even the Queen could take them away from their lifelong bond to the beginning of all that was Xanadis. “Yes, Olrun is here as she indicated in her message to us a week ago.”

Sigrun smiled slightly. “And, the others?”

“As always you are inquisitive Sigrun. Yes, yes they are all here just as Olrun in her message indicated they would be.” Mist glanced over to the ridge and saw her four fellow travellers coming into view. “They will be tired for we have journeyed from the royal palace with little rest. I will wait for them and reconnect the perimeter. Have a meal brought for them and a place for them to refresh themselves.”

Sigrun grinned and nodded. “Shall I wake our sisters?”

Mist turned her attention to the approaching party before she spoke. “Olrun will advise us of that when the time is right. For now, they will need nourishment.”

“Goll will be happy for it has been too long since Olrun has visited. She loves to cook her specialties for the Haliarunos, even more so with the special visitors she brings.” Sigrun turned away from Mist and quickly walked towards the large building at the centre of the small town.

Mist stood quietly waiting for the others to join her with her eyes looking towards the sky and its magical display in the heavens. The display began when Heidi created the town of Muspell and the natural defence against the storms that threatened to destroy Xanadis. They say she summoned the beauty of the rainbow, the power of lightening and the great mountain’s strength to prevent evil from invading their lands. Now the mountain has shifted and is opening to the outside world to us for the first time since the beginning. She dragged herself out of her thoughts of the place she called home as Olrun’s voice attracted her attention.

“Mist is everything ready?” The old woman asked as she walked towards the warrior.

“Yes, Sigrun is making the arrangements for refreshments and a bath. Do you want the sisters to wake and be presented?”

Carolyn listened intently even though the light show above her head seemed to hold her complete attention. The sisters…hmm, I wonder who they are.It is also interesting that Mist defers to Olrun as she would the Queen. God, this place is fascinating. I bet I could spend the rest of my life finding things new around this place. “I’d give anything for a bath and change of clothes,” she said to no one in particular. “I wish I had known we weren’t going to be back in town tonight…I’d have brought a change of clothes with me.”

Mist turned her head towards the woman named Hrafn. She isn’t as inquisitive as I had expected, she seems almost withdrawn, but that could be Mgni’s fault. If the runes are to turn to our favour, they cannot be so critical of each other. “Do not worry Hrafn, all your needs will be taken care of.”

Jennifer and Mercie finally arrived inside the town’s courtyard, and Mist moved the shield back into position immediately so that the natural defence of the town resumed.

“This is remarkable Olrun.” Mercie proclaimed as she rested against the flanks of her mare. “The fables we heard as children do not do it justice.”

Startled at her words, both Jennifer and Carolyn’s gazes fell on the Queen’s consort in surprise. “You’ve only fables, why?” Carolyn enquired quietly.

Mercie quirked them a wry smile as she glanced at Olrun who smiled one of her best smiles showing off her rotting teeth. “All will be explained after we have eaten,” the Haliarunos said. “Come we do not have much time.”

As they followed Olrun, Jennifer frowned. Then she felt her heart race as Carolyn sidestepped and came alongside her. “Hi, thought you weren’t talking with me,” she said trying to sound flippant.

Carolyn shrugged. “That’s never going to happen Jenn…don’t you know that. I didn’t come all this…oh never mind,” she said in frustration. Now is not the time to discuss this. “Anyway, what do you make of this place…Muspell? Have you heard of it in your time here?”

Jennifer felt her heart jump when she realized that whatever had gone on before wasn’t relevant. Carolyn can’t do any wrong in my eyes…well, at least not for any length of time. “I’ve never heard of the place and to be honest, I doubt that Poppy has either. What do you make of it all Carolyn?” Her friend’s name rolled off her tongue with pleasure. “It’s a paradox isn’t it…the rainbow and lightening together?”

Carolyn considered the question for a moment and then replied, “Yes, as it manifests here. Do you know anything at all about the sisters? Have you ever heard that term used before?”

“Never,” she said. “We could ask Mercie, she might know more. Let’s wait for her to finish stabling her horse then we can try to find out what she knows.” Jennifer replied with a shrug. “If you want to that is.”

Carolyn cleared her throat slightly. “Sure that’s fine.” She eyed her friend. “I don’t know exactly how to ask this…but do you trust her Jenn?”

Jennifer glanced at her friend who was following a black-cloaked figure to a building at the far side of the main courtyard. “With my life, why do you ask?”

Carolyn shook her head and sighed heavily. “No reason.” For a moment, she and Jenn locked eyes. “God, can you smell that? It smells marvellous…almost as good as Freya’s cooking.”

Jennifer grinned - the aroma enticing. Suddenly it dawned on her what Carolyn said and she creased her brow in question. “I didn’t realise you’d sampled Freya’s cooking?”

Carolyn grinned as she scratched the back of her neck, “Yeah last night in the library she brought me a meal. It was wonderful. Your grandfather is a lucky man she seems nice.”

Before Jennifer could reply, Olrun opened the ornate oak door with little effort and waved them inside the main building in the centre of Muspell. “This is the great hall of the sisterhood of the Haliarunos. Welcome Hrafn and Mgni.”

Both of the women, unaware what was to happen or their roles gave each other a puzzled glance before walking inside the building.

+ + +

Mercie stabled her mare and felt the day’s emotions wash over her. I have gone from being ready to accept anything, open minded to suspicious, into thinking as Hjort did - strangers are wrong for our land. My love does not understand that I only do it to protect her. My friend Mgni, what of her? She loves Hrafn…how can I not understand that? Why don’t I feel happy she has found the right person to make her life complete? Here in the place where everything began, I must find out who I am and where my allegiance lies. I know that I trust Mgni, Olrun scares me. Mist is a protector of the Haliarunos, which makes her very dangerous. Hrafn was too glib with her reply to my Queen’s question of why she should remain. Only one who has been in Xanadis since birth would give such an answer - I do not trust her.

Her hand wiped down the flank of her mare and she smiled as her thoughts drifted to her love. “I love you my Queen and I will always, even if that means eventually protecting you from me - if that is to be our fate then so be it.”

The words seemed to echo in the stable where the only animal there was hers. “I wish you were here by my side my love. If you were here, I know that everything would work out. With only Mgni at my side and distracted by another, I’m not so sure.” Her thoughts ran melancholy, may, Odin speed your journey through this life with love and honour.

A slight movement caught Mercie’s attention as she glanced into the darkness. “Is anyone here?”

No voice answered but she heard the shuffle of what she could only assume to be feet. “I am Mercie Fulla. Please, I offer you no harm.”

An ominous silence filled the stable until straw began to lift from the ground and swirl in slow motion around her. Before she knew it, a tornado of straw and dirt engulfed her making escape from the phenomenon impossible.

Frightened, Mercie gasped as the air appeared to diminish around her. “Please, what is it that you want?”

There was absolute silence until in the distance came a whisper that seemed to deplete the air around her. “You,” the voice hissed. “I have waited a long time for you.”

Mercie struggled against the unseen force to reach the door but could not. The air around her sucked away and she gasped for breath as she tried to reach out to a shimmering figure floating above her. Finally, the lack of air caused her lungs to collapse and she lost consciousness.

+ + +

Carolyn, rooted at a spot just inside the doorway of the largest building in town, softly gasped in awe as her eyes glanced around the hall much as the lightening bounced of the rainbow. If the town of Xanadis was a shock to my system, then Muspell grinds that into the dirt.

Jennifer stood agape as she surveyed the hall filled with ornate benches on either side of the room and a marble floor that held an emblem at least fifty foot square etched with what looked like gold. At first, she thought the emblem had intertwining vines but after closer inspection, she realized swords created the letter H with S intertwined on either side. I wonder what that means. Then her attention turned to lit torches until her eyes drew to a banquet table at the foot of the marble emblem. The table wasn’t what surprised her, but the fact that ahead of them five figures sat motionless as they approached. Damn, they sure look like wax figures. Jennifer turned to Carolyn who was standing by her side, with a puzzled look on her face.

Carolyn found herself distracted for a moment by Jennifer before her inquisitive mind took over. “What do you make of this Jenn?” A bright smile flashed across her astonished features.

For Jennifer, the question made her feel happy. She said my name and that makes me glad…how inane is that? I must be in love. Jenn returned the smile. “Not sure, but if anyone can explain it I know you can,” she whispered. Olrun stood for a moment at their table.

Jennifer’s simple statement made a glow work its way through Carolyn. Well if she thinks I can then I will…just for her. “Olrun are they real?” Carolyn asked pointing to the figures at the head of the table. She also noticed that there were three chairs empty.

The old woman did not reply immediately. She smiled slowly, placed her cane on the table and swivelled to look at the two women who were standing close enough to touch but didn’t. Body language is an interesting tool if you know how to use it and I do. There may be time for their love if we hurry. “Welcome Hrafn, Mgni to the home of the sisterhood of the Haliarunos,” her hand waved towards the motionless figures. “These are the protectors of the sisterhood and sleep when not needed.”

No that’s impossible! Carolyn had worked out every angle in the place over the month she had been here. From the micro-climate that created the opposite weather patterns to the outside world to the fact that life was extended at least double what was expected in her world. They look dead how can they only be sleeping?

Jennifer saw the clenching and unclenching of Carolyn’s jaw. She is so cute when she does that. Her mind is on overload with questions and she was trying to figure out which one to ask first…just like a kid in a candy store. She realized that Carolyn was having a hard time getting her mind around the figures and their significance and asked, “Sleeping, as in they’ll wake up later?”

The old woman laughed and shook her head before glancing at the five figures. “No, Mgni. The protectors sleep for many years when not needed. Each originally assigned to protect their Haliarunos, and once the Haliarunos is no more, the protector sleeps and will wake only if needed to protect Muspell.

Jennifer raised an eyebrow. Ok I’ve wanted to ask this since she made that strange comment earlier about protecting the last of the Haliarunos. “Are you the last of the Haliarunos?”

The old woman gave her a serious expression that cleared as quickly as it arrived. “All will be revealed once we have eaten and cleaned up. We cannot waste any more time for it has returned and we will need all our wits to defeat it so we can allow the saviour to do her work. Come, Goll will have a feast for us.” She waved to a bench on the far side of the right wall. As she did, the door opened and a slim woman with a warm friendly face and the most beautiful golden hair entered with a large plate with appetising aroma’s coming from it.

Carolyn looked at Jennifer and smiled when she saw that the food had captured her friend’s attention. I’m not sure if I‘m hungry for food or knowledge right now, but I might get more answers if I join them. “Sounds good. Come on Jenn, you know how your belly protests if you don’t eat regularly.”

Jennifer heard the teasing words and she felt light inside. This is better than being at loggerheads. “And, you know that how oh intelligent one? Can you read my mind?” she flippantly replied.

Carolyn grinned and placed a hand on her friend’s back and the warmth instantly seemed to burn her flesh but it felt too good to remove. “The mind no, the eyes and that rumble in the tummy,” playfully tapping Jennifer’s stomach as she settled on the bench next to her friend.

The gestures was pure instinct from her friend but for Jennifer it sends bolts of fire through her belly and all ports south, damn but I love you Carolyn, one day, one day soon. Then tasted a couple of the offered items and felt like she was in food heaven. This is the best food I’ve tasted since I arrived two years ago. She couldn’t stop herself from automatically looking at the immobile figures every so often. When she looked in the direction of the door she frowned. “Mercie certainly is taking her time in the stable. I wonder if she could have gotten lost,” she said absently before her eyes feasted on the food. She shrugged before selecting another delightful morsel.

Olrun heard the remark and shifted uncomfortably in her seat grateful that Jennifer didn’t seem to notice. On the other hand, Carolyn was aware of the old woman’s movement and stared directly at her in question.

There’s definitely something wrong I just don’t know what it is . She looked around and noticed that someone else was missing. “What happened to Mist?”

Olrun knew time was running out for her and everything she held dear to her life’s work. I did not fool Hrafn as I did Mgni, but that won’t last long for she too will soon know something is wrong. Do I explain it as I know it, or allow them only what they need to know? She inhaled deeply then said, “I need to tell you why you are here, why specifically you are here.”

Jennifer was chewing on a large mouthful and almost choked when she heard the strong emphasis on the word you. Finally, she spluttered, “What do you mean specifically by you?”

Carolyn, who always thought there was a secret agenda, remained silent. It had all been too…trite. “Go on Olrun,” she said. Without thinking, she reached under the bench and she placed a comforting hand on Jennifer’s thigh. Inwardly she smiled when her gesture was accepted. Not only did it make her feel good, but it seemed to stop Jennifer’s agitation too.

Jennifer was considering going in search of Mercie when she felt the pressure of Carolyn’s hand rest on her thigh. The contact seemed to make the fabric of her leggings burn on her skin and calm her inner turmoil. She cocked her head and looked at Carolyn who didn’t return her gaze, but continued her intense concentration on the old woman. I wonder if you know what you do to me Carolyn. God I can’t wait to show you.

Olrun’s eyes diverted from the two women when the door opened and Mist strode towards them before taking a stance at the back of the old woman. She placed her powerful arms across her chest in a defensive motion at the ready for any occurrence. Olrun turned slightly and smiled up at Mist who rewarded her with a quick glint of warmth from her disapproving eyes directed at the two women opposite the old woman

“You were saying Olrun?” Carolyn persisted.

A lost look filled the Haliarunos’ eyes before she smiled slightly and began her tale. “To understand, you must know what only the sisterhood and the protectors know about what happened in the beginning. Sometimes it is like it never happened, but now…now we know for sure that it did and that it is about to destroy Xanadis from within if we do not stop it.” Her grimace had Mist shuffle her feet in what appeared to be empathy for the old woman’s turmoil.

“Please go on Olrun. The sooner we know the facts the sooner we can solve the problem,” Carolyn stated practically.

As practical as ever, Carolyn. Jennifer felt a grin tug at her lips. Am I ever glad of that right now, and that you’re here with me when it seems there is trouble.

“In the beginning, Heidi the Haliarunos who arrived with the ancestors gave the new King not only the faith of the runes to remain successfully in this place, but she gave him her heart too. The King loved her deeply and she made the decision to give up the runes and her sisterhood to become his wife. She bore him a son and daughter and they, along with the kingdom, prospered with happiness. King Halfdan tragically drowned during a search for the opening of the lake to the sea. Heidi was devastated and though she ruled in sorrow, she never was the same woman. When she relinquished the throne to her son a fierce warrior, she left Xanadis…at least the main town and moved here where she created Muspell. Her creation proved to be her downfall when she attempted to bring the magic of the world of gods to interact with the new land. It was her hope that would be the way she could be reunited with King Halfdan who she was sure resided in the great hall of Valhalla with Odin.” Olrun paused in her story and stared at the two strangers. They are here to help us. Will they understand enough to give their lives if that is what it takes?

Jennifer said, “Love can do strange things to you. I take it that creating this place was a monument to her love.”

Olrun shook her head. “No Mgni, I wish it were that simple.”

Carolyn felt the light bulb go off. “She created the phenomenon above Muspell didn’t she? And now, something is wrong and it will threaten the rest of the land?”

Olrun’s eyes sparkled at Carolyn. She is indeed worthy of her name. “Yes, in a way she did Hrafn, but she angered Odin and in particular Ran, who did not want to give up the King.”

“Who is Ran?” Jennifer asked cautiously.

“Ran is the goddess of the drowned Mgni. Heidi was not strong enough to win back her love and Ran cast… what you might call a spell on Xanadis. The future of our land would be safe if we abide by our traditions and the love of the line of Halfdan never depreciates. If that failed so too would, Xanadis…all that is will be no more.” Jennifer and Carolyn saw a sad look cross the old woman’s face. “Heidi gave her life to Idun the goddess of immortality if she could share eternity with her love. Idun agreed, but Ran did not and had Loki play a trick on her at her deathbed by sending her soul into the heavens as a rainbow. Ragnhild, who was Heidi’s daughter and trained to take over from her mother, asked the gods for help. Balder heard her cries and he, with Odin’s permission, allowed Heidi and Halfdan to be together.”

“Well that’s settled then they ended up together right?” Jennifer’s voice drifted into the silence when Olrun took a deep breath pausing in her story.

Olrun felt drained from the telling of the story so long held only within the confines of the sisterhood. It is the time and the place to share our secret. “Yes in a way they were. Idun collected the soul of King Halfdan and permitted him to become lightening so that they could be together. However, the prophecy for the future was that the Halfdan line must always be secure in the love that they chose. Queen Ragnhild’s love was not, she chose unwisely and her true soul mate became forsaken to her. When that happened, the previously happy rainbow and lightening who spent their time in the heavens together in harmony found their attraction too much to bear. Since that fateful time they have tried to be together. That is what you see in the sky over Muspell. Soon they will be together but when that happens the sea will devour the land of Xanadis and Ran will have her revenge.”

Olrun picked up a piece of fruit and ate it while she waited for someone to say something. This story is too ridiculous to give it any credence. What does the old woman think Jenn and I can do, wage war on the superstition of the Gods? Carolyn looked at Jennifer who was shaking her head. She looks cute when she’s perplexed. Mentally she shrugged off the thought and sighed heavily. “Olrun, I know you believe all this and I’m sure at one time there was a basis for the original story. You can’t really expect Jennifer and I to agree with you…frankly it sounds like one giant fairy story.”

Jennifer frowned. Carolyn hasn’t been here long enough to understand that the old traditions are as sacred to the people of Xanadis just as any other of the religious writings people believe in. “Carolyn, it’s not that simple.”

Carolyn gave Jennifer an exasperated glance. “You believe this?” Unbelievable! Has she been brainwashed.

“Well not exactly but they do and …”

Olrun intercede as she waved Mist over to the immobile figures at the table. “I did not expect you to believe Hrafn. In fact, it is better if you do not. Mist is going to wake the protectors for it is now time.”

Jennifer and Carolyn watched in fascination as Mist placed a hand on each of the figures temples. Moments after she did, movement in the form of stretching and yawning greeted them.

“ I don’t believe any of this! What’s really going on here?” Carolyn demanded. I’ve had it with their party tricks and I want answers now! Her eyes pierced the old woman. They’d better be good or I’ll think like Richard and this is all a set up and the light show outside are merely lasers.

Jennifer clutched at Carolyn’s arm before she could stand up and approach the figures. She leaned in and whispered in her ear, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Angry at the preposterous goings on around her, she flashed Jenn a harsh look as she stood up. “You can read my mind now? Jenn, you can take in all this horseshit if you want but I’m out of here.” Her eyes travelled to Olrun who didn’t appear to be concerned at her angry mood. “Let’s go find Mercie or is she part of the scam too?”

As she spoke, the protectors stood before her like an impenetrable wall. Nevertheless, Carolyn stood her ground. Crap, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

Jennifer shook her head. Obviously, she doesn’t know how easily they could take her head off. In a swift movement, Jennifer stood in front of Carolyn and held up a hand. “Hey, look we don’t want any trouble. Mist, call them off.” Her fingers itched over the scabbard of the blade on her hip.

A chuckle came from the old woman who smiled approvingly at Jennifer. “Mgni it is as I said, the fate of the last of the Haliarunos will balance in your hands. The sisterhood of protectors will do you no harm Mgni for you are one of them.” She then turned to Carolyn. “Hrafn, as you are having difficulty with this, I must ask you allow me to show you one more thing before you judge us as charlatans.”

Carolyn rolled her eyes. If it hadn’t been for Jenn’s defence of me…again, I might be lying on the ground with a bloody nose or worse. I could get used to her protecting me. I wonder if she’s interested in forever. Probably just my overworked brain making up stuff, but it’s a wonderful thought. “I’m having trouble with all this its true but …I trust my friend and she appears to trust you so…ok.”

Jennifer, still dumbstruck by the reference that she was one of these ethereal figures, looked at them. They seemed to be as alive as Mist except their eyes that were a black orb with a slither of light in the middle, blankly stared ahead. It reminds me of a cat’s eye…this place never fails to astound me. She looked at Carolyn and sighed. She’s having trouble with this because she thinks it’s a sham. If I hadn’t lived here as long as I have I think I’d agree with her. She creased her brow in worry. Something is wrong. Mercie’s absence isn’t normal and I need to find out where she is. The Queen will rip this place apart if anything happens to her. A warm glow settled over her as she caught Carolyn’s eyes filled with trust staring at her. Yep we’ll find out what’s going on here together.

“Mist, have the protectors take their positions at the shields…we may need them,” Olrun instructed. The warrior nodded and spoke in a dialect that Jennifer had never heard before. Well, it’s not like I’m the most fluent person around.

When they entered a small building a few minutes later Jennifer’s eyes searched the area. “Isn’t this the stable?”

Olrun nodded and as she opened the door, they immediately felt a static charge of electricity as sparks flashed around the area.

Jennifer sprang forward to help her friend. “What’s going on? Is Mercie ok… is she inside?”

Olrun placed a deceptively strong hand on her arm and held her back. “No Mgni, you cannot help her yet.” She pointed to the shimmering figure of Mercie held high in a stasis like position in what appeared to be a bubble. Unmoving Mercie appeared listless or... “Is she dead?”

“No, no, not yet. She is Xanadis’ saviour Mgni and evil forces of the gods are trying to make her join them. If they do she will be lost forever as will Xanadis and all who live here,” Olrun solemnly replied.

Carolyn looked at the kinetic energy radiating around the woman and bit her lip in concentration. Damn this doesn’t look like a sham maybe it is true after all, but that’s who I am or was. There isn’t any logical reason for any of this but we’re here and this is happening “What do we have to do to save Mercie, Olrun?”

A brief smile flitted across the old woman’s face. At last, she understands. “You must embrace your ancestry Hrafn and finish what Ragnhild began.”

“How do I do that?” Carolyn didn’t question the ancestry part only the act itself.

Jennifer, for her part, was confused. Ancestry? Who is she related to? Ok what hasn’t she told me? Damn! “I must be missing something here.”

Olrun smiled. “I will leave you for a few moments there are arrangements to be made.

They both watched the old women leave them and they looked again at the unearthly figure of Mercie hanging in the air.

“I’m confused…want to tell me what’s going on? You’ve gone from sceptical and almost getting in trouble to believing everything Olrun is saying, what gives?” Jennifer asked with astonishment written on her face making Carolyn smile.

“She gives. Your friend is in some kind of corporeal entity and though I’m still unsure exactly what’s happening, I guess I think some if it is real.” Carolyn gave her a wry smile.

“Ok, but that doesn’t explain the ancestry part. What was all that about? Don’t tell me you’re part of the royal lineage,” Jennifer retorted with a chuckle.

Carolyn pushed back the hair that had fallen over her eyes. “When I was back in Railston I did some research while I was waiting for the book to turn up and …”

“And?” Jennifer knew whatever Carolyn was going to say would blow her away by the sheepish look she saw in her friend’s eyes. How can it be more astonishing than what is happening now she thought with a slight smile.

I didn’t believe it at first…who the hell can trace their roots that far back but they,” she flicked her fingers towards the other women in the room, “seem to think so too.” She shrugged self-consciously as she waited for Jennifer to reply

Jennifer, too dumbstruck to say anything just stared at her friend.

“Hey it isn’t that bad is it?” Carolyn asked quietly.

Jennifer shook herself out of her stupor and widened her eyes as a thought struck her, is Carolyn the true Queen? “No, no. Look how can this mean anything…I mean all this is crazy right?”

“It sure is. I guess all we can do now is wait to find out what Olrun has planned for us. Don’t you think our first priority is to save your friend? After all, I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell the Queen would you?”

The blood drained from Jennifer’s face. Berdlukare will kill everything in sight including us if we can’t fix this. “Let’s see what Olrun’s plan is.” She gave Carolyn a worried look. “I think the sooner the better don’t you?”

Carolyn didn’t have time to answer as Olrun’s aged figure with the warrior Mist at her side began to close the gap between them. “Are you both ready?”

Jennifer gave the old woman a puzzled look. “Does it involve me too?”

With a shake of her graying hair, Olrun smiled slowly. “Oh yes Mgni it involves you.”

“I guess that means I’m going to be your protector…right?” Jennifer gave Olrun a wry smile.

Carolyn watched as she listened to the conversation. That’s the second time she’s mentioned being a protector. All along, I’ve been thinking she is my protector and now I’m going to have to share. “I thought you just protected me Jenn.” Carolyn grinned good-naturedly.

There was silence for a few seconds as Jennifer, unsure of what to say, could only shrug.

Olrun spoke again. “That is true Hrafn she does.”

Perplexed, Jennifer stared at Olrun. “But I thought you said I was going to protect the last of the Haliarunos?”

“I did. The fate of the last of the Haliarunos will balance in your hands Mgni.” Olrun turned slightly to Mist who withdrew a sword with an ornate hilt and handed it to Jennifer. She then produced two equally ornate arm bracers and with a brief nod offered them.

Jennifer took the items in silence and gave Carolyn a mystified look. Getting a straight answer is nearly impossible. She watched as Olrun handed Carolyn a small pouch. This should be good I wonder what Carolyn gets. I didn’t realise it was Christmas.

Carolyn, with an inquisitive expression on her face, accepted the pouch and peered inside. She removed an ornately fashioned key that had the same pattern as the sword and the bracers. “Am I supposed to understand where this belongs?”

Before Olrun replied, she motioned to the other protectors who circled Carolyn and began chanting softly. Try as she may Carolyn couldn’t decipher the words for they were almost inaudible. At least they don’t appear to be threatening.

“It belongs to the last of the Haliarunos, and finally we can return to the beginning and right what is wrong with our world for the last time.”

The words seemed to echo of the walls. Jennifer, with her mouth agape, switched her attention from her items to the key given to Carolyn. She is speechless…I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

“Carolyn is the last of the Haliarunos?” Jennifer said in shock. Hell this is like an episode from my cartoon. Am I really living this or will I end up back home in my apartment after a long dream because it sure feels like that right now.

Bemused, Carolyn stared at Jennifer and then whispered, “If I’m the last of the line and you’re my protector does that mean you’re stuck with me forever?”

Before Jennifer could reply, Olrun said, “Until the end of time Hrafn.” The old woman nodded. “However, we need to first continue our journey and this time it is only you and I Hrafn. Mgni, you must stay here and protect Mercie. When the time is right and Hrafn needs your protection you will know. If you bring the three warriors to the right place at the right time all will be well in our world.”

Carolyn recoiled from the thought of not having Jennifer at her side. “And, if she fails?”

Complete silence was her reply.

+ + +

As the Queen and her guard travelled further into the forest, they fought two skirmishes before an all out battle ensued. The three warriors and the Queen toiled relentlessly to drive back the enemy and eventually it looked as though they had the upper hand. Larsen heard the distinctive sound of a bow pulling taught, the sting of an arrow making contact with the bowstring followed by a whoosh. The Queen, still engrossed in a hand-to-hand combat with one warrior, found herself pushed aggressively away from the combatant by the leader of the Berserkers. When the Queen stood up, she saw the prone body of Larsen with an arrow full in the chest.

With a bloodcurdling scream of anger and pain, Berdlukare used all her prowess to attack all the warriors in her line of sight. Then, as their enemy retreated to re-group, the warriors selected by Larsen quickly found a secure area to allow them to assess Larsen’s wounds and take a much-needed break.

Ignoring the help from the warriors, Berdlukare pulled Larsen into her arms and smoothed back the hair from his forehead as she assessed his wounds. It should have been me! She shook her head, closed her eyes and sighed for she had seen the wounds before. There is no hope. He had taken the shot meant for her and now, as he lay dying, she felt the full responsibility of her position. Bitterness settled around like a shroud as she wondered what the people would say if they knew, the only reason she took the throne was so Mercie would be by her side. I would have remained the leader of the Berserkers and sworn allegiance to whomever the council appointed - that is how it should be, not this, no not this!

Larsen looked up into her eyes with a pain-filled smile crinkling the corners of his lips. “It is as Olrun predicated my Queen. I’m afraid it is now up to you.”

Berdlukare’s expression softened slightly. “Speak not of this for we will get you home and you will be fighting fit before you can see the next full moon.”

Larsen swallowed hard and felt his throat fill with liquid before he coughed blood spraying it over his tunic and that of the Queen’s. “I will see you in the halls of Valhalla my Queen. May Odin watch over you…” His eyes flickered and he coughed once more as his breathing became laboured and shallow.

Berdlukare placed her cold lips on his forehead before whispering, “Odin is with you my friend. I salute you and will ensure you are given a true Viking burial.”

With one final gurgle, Larsen closed his eyes for the last time. The Queen held him for several more minutes before she placed him on the hard ground under an outcropping of leaves to hide his body. She stood and motioned to her personal guard. “Which way did Olrun travel?”

“There my Queen,” the taller of the warriors said as he pointed to a distant ridge.

That will take at least another hour. Berdlukare sucked in a deep breath. “Have you found our horses?”

The warrior shook his head and diverted his eyes to the ground “No, my Queen.” When the Queen growled both warriors trembled slightly as they awaited orders.

Berdlukare glanced over to the location of Larsen’s body with a grim expression before her eyes surveyed the area. “Have you seen any of our enemies?”

“No, they seemed to have gone. Probably to get reinforcements,” the other warrior said confidently.

“Then we shall continue on foot.” She turned towards the ridge stepping forward to begin the journey.

The taller of the warriors bravely said, “My Queen shouldn’t we go back and collect reinforcements and destroy our enemies.”

We should that is true, we should. My Mercie is out there and she is in danger…I can feel it. Nothing will stand in my way of finding her and keeping her safe . “Now is not the time for that!” she barked. “We will continue our journey is that clear?” Her cold, dark eyes fixed on each of the warriors. “Larsen will not have died in vain,” she added with a quick glance in the fallen warrior’s direction.

The warrior’s stood tall at attention out of fear and respect. The smaller of the two stepped forward and said, “We will not abandon you my Queen we are here to serve you to death if that is what it takes.”

Berdlukare nodded. “Then so be it. We shall venture further I believe this forest ends at the borders of the forbidden Muspell.”

One of the warriors remarked, “If Muspell is over the ridge my Queen, how shall we defend you? It is said that no one but the chosen are allowed within its perimeter.”

The Queen gave the two warriors a feral grin. “I am the Queen and it is I that decides who goes where. Come, time is passing us by.”

They began walking quickly towards the ridge with purpose. The night was closing in and that would provide them with enough cover to pass through the rest of the forest undetected…or so they thought. They looked to the darkening sky with lightening dazzling in the distance where they were to journey.

With a heavy heart, Berdlukare wondered if she was already too late to help her beloved. Oh my Mercie. I will be there soon. Please hold on for me I will not desert you, my sword will be your saviour she thought as lightening crashed around them.

To be continued...

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