Magical Maps and Brilliant Beasts!

Chapter 1

Copyright © 2014 by Joshua Brann Thornbrugh all rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


For my mom and my sister



One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others. - Lewis Carroll

The Labyrinth Garden


Moonlight struck the hedgerows and bathed them in an otherworldly hue. The labyrinth garden that appeared so ordinary only hours before was now an alien landscape both unfamiliar and uncooperative. Alexander was becoming frantic. Where could Hanna be? She had a knack for rushing off and getting the both of them in trouble. He was sure their Uncle Charles would be furious if he knew she left the house after dark and even more furious when he discovered she had taken the map.


“Hanna," Alexander pleaded, his voice a muffled scream. He wanted to yell out at the top of his lungs, but was afraid he would arouse their uncle. "Where are you? You're going to get us sent away if Uncle Charles finds out!”


Alexander's pleas were met with silence, the eerie nighttime sort of silence that isn't really silence at all, but a disturbing cacophony of crickets, howls and rustling. His heart thrummed wildly under his shirt. He felt as though he could pass out at any moment. He pushed forward through the maze looking for signs of his sister. A quick left here, a right, a dead end, backtrack, another left and into a long stretch. Fog swept down over the high walls of the hedgerows and onto the path, making it difficult for Alexander to see very far ahead.


He heard a noise from the house. Was it a door? Had his calling awakened his uncle? He quickened his pace until he was in a dead run. The fog was getting thicker and the labyrinth walls blocked most of the moonlight. He broke into a run, each footfall kicking up tiny showers of gravel from the path.


Wham! Thwump! He ran headlong into a hedgerow. He screamed reflexively, and then covered his mouth with both hands. The hedges were prickly. They stung his cheeks and exposed arms with a myriad of tiny cuts. The icy nighttime air chilled the beads of sweat running down his forehead and onto his face. He pressed his palms into his eyes and stood motionlessly. Where was his crazy sister? He made a mental note to punch her square in the shoulder when he found her.


Another noise from the house roused him out of his daze. He blinked the tears and sweat out of his eyes and strained to see the path. Fog and darkness lay to the left, but a faint blue light emanated from the path to his right. He felt his way along the hedgerow to the right, picking up his pace cautiously. The light became perceptibly brighter as he neared a bend in the path. He stepped out into a small seating area. This was the place his uncle would often sit and read while Alexander and Hanna ran through the labyrinth. Now he had a better idea of where he was. Just beyond these tall hedges was the tangling forest that backed up to their uncle's estate and continued on to the county line. Just a few more paces and one more turn and he would be at the labyrinth's exit.


Alexander walked carefully through the arched trellis that marked the exit of the labyrinth. He could see the source of the light through the trees and over a rise. The gnarled trees were limned in electric blue light. The wind pushed the limbs back and forth, making the trees look as though they were marionettes in a maniacal play.


"Hanna!" He called, louder this time now that he was farther from the house. He scanned the forest on either side of the light looking for signs of movement. He knew his sister's curiosity would've driven her up the hill to discover the mystery of the blue light.

He dove headlong into the forest, and bolted up the hill, determined to find his sister and get her back to the house before anyone was the wiser. He felt slightly emboldened now since he could see just a little bit more of his surroundings. The light was not particularly bright, but it seemed to radiate, suggesting a pathway between the trees. Twigs and branches flailed at his arms, but he pushed on, approaching the rise. He leaned forward using his momentum to carry himself up the small incline and onto the top.


He stopped abruptly at the crest; his arms fell limply to his sides. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. It was just as it had appeared in his dreams, only more vivid, more beautiful, and strangely terrifying all at once.


* * *

The white stone arch towered above him and pulsed with a blue glow that seemed to emanate from the strange carvings inscribed in its face. They looked like hieroglyphics to Alexander, but at the same time he felt like he had seen them before, had even once known what they meant. But that would be impossible. Wouldn't it?


"Alexander! Hanna!" came cries from inside the labyrinth garden.


Great! Now their uncle knew they were outside. Alexander decided to press on and find Hanna. At least if he found her first, he might be able to hide the map and replace it in his uncle's study later.


The air within the arch wavered, and for a split second, Alexander thought the stars looked different within its frame. He heard more shouting erupting from the labyrinth. The trees and brush were thick on either side of the arch, so his best bet was to go straight through and down the back of the hill to continue his search for Hanna.


He stepped into the arch and immediately felt a tug on his body. All of the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. A gust of warm, moist air assaulted his face. He lost his footing and fell hard to the ground. When he looked behind him, the arch wasn't glowing anymore and the forest had vanished. Something very bad was happening here, and he had an eerie feeling that it wasn't going to get better anytime soon.


Alexander picked himself up off the ground and brushed a layer of dust from his shirt and jeans. Until now, he had forgotten he was still wearing his pajama top. He had slipped on the jeans and tennis shoes hastily when he set out looking for Hanna, and had neglected to put on a jacket. At least the air here was fairly warm. And where was here exactly?


He turned slowly in a wide arc and surveyed the scene around him. The stone arch here, although white, was not glowing like its counterpart back home. As impossible as it seemed, that must be what this arch was, the other end of some kind of strange portal. This arch also seemed to be in a greater state of disrepair. There were brambles growing all around it, and the hieroglyphic-like symbols could only be made out by the light of the very full, pale violet moon that hung in the sky above the hilltop.


This arch stood in the center of a grassy hilltop looking down onto gently sloping meadows below. It was dark, but the light of the moon seemed to be reflecting off of the ground. It was as if the vegetation was luminescent. The entire meadow took on the pale violet hue of the moon. He thought he could make out a road just beyond the meadow, but since he had no known landmarks by which to gauge distances, he couldn't really be sure how far away it was at all.


Alexander peered back through the arch. The air seemed still, and the view looked just as it did everywhere else. He wondered if he could walk back through. Maybe it would be best to go back and get Uncle Charles. Sure, his uncle would be upset, but he had no idea where he was, and he was beginning to become frightened. And if he was frightened, he could only imagine how his little sister was feeling. Hanna acted fearless, but this was a lot to handle for a boy of fourteen, let alone an eight-year-old girl.


He stepped back up to the arch and placed a hand on one of the stone pillars. It was smooth and colder than he would have imagined. He thought he felt the tiniest of sparks when he touched it, but the arch sat silent and dim. He took a deep breath and jumped through the arch with his eyes closed. When he opened them again he was standing just a few feet from his original position on the other side of the arch; the same sky above him; the same hilltop under his feet. Nothing happened. Had the connection been lost? Would his uncle be able to find him? He looked around frantically. If his sister had come through the arch, where would she have gone?


As if in answer to his unspoken question, the moonlight danced across a structure halfway down the hillside. It was a small dome shaped building that appeared to be made of the same stone as the arch. There was a door set in the center framed by thick slabs of smooth stone. There were no windows apparent from the front, so it was impossible to tell if anyone was inside. He didn't see any light coming from beneath the door, so he approached cautiously. As he walked down the slope, he noticed that some of the luminescent material of the grass was rubbing off and onto the soles and toes of his shoes. When he was within a few yards of the door, he could see that there were stone steps leading up to the entrance.


His heart raced. There on the steps in front of him was a smattering of dusty purple footprints. More specifically, they were shoe prints, the same kind of prints that Hanna's tiny sneakers made. There weren't a lot of them, but they were definitely hers. He knew because of the little star pattern in the center. She had been here and from the looks of it had even gone inside. The tall, green wooden doors were slightly ajar. He peered through the narrow gap but still saw no light from inside. He couldn't see any handles on the doors, so he wedged his hand into the gap and pulled one of the doors towards him. The door glided open almost effortlessly. In fact, it opened so quickly that he scarcely had time to step out of the way and avoid a nasty bump to the head.


"Hello?" said Alexander, "Is anyone there?" Silence. "Hello? I don't want any trouble. I'm just looking for my little sister." Again, silence.


The moonlight that crept through the door illuminated a circular chamber with a smooth stone floor and some sort of altar at its center. Alexander ventured a few cautious steps forward and gave his eyes a moment to adjust. Once he was completely inside he realized that there was another source of light. At the top of the dome, perhaps twenty feet from the floor and directly above the altar, was a small hole. Through the hole, a pale beam of moonlight drifted down and atop the altar.


His eyes adjusted even more, and he was at last able to make out more details of the interior. The ceiling of the dome seemed to be a relief carving of constellations. He thought he even recognized one or two of the formations, but he couldn't be sure. The walls of the chamber were lined with hieroglyphics similar to those he had seen on the arches, only there were many more here. The altar at the center of the chamber was itself a dome that mirrored the dimensions of the building that contained it. The altar also seemed to be cut from the same smooth white stone as the rest of the structure, only there were several grooves running from its apex and down to the floor. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that those lines continued and spiraled outwards across the floor and up the chamber walls.


Aside from the altar, there seemed to be no other furnishings in the chamber. His sister may have come in here, but she was definitely not here any longer. He approached the altar to get a better look at the carvings on its surface. When he got closer, his ears popped and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.


SLAM!


Alexander turned quickly, and then backed himself firmly against the altar.


"Hello? Who's there?" The blood thrummed loudly in his ears and his palms slipped against the smooth surface of the stone.


The door opened again with a swoosh, and then slammed closed just as quickly. It was only the wind. He turned his attention back to the altar. The stone was warmer than it had been before, and the carvings had a more distinctive presence, as though he was looking at them under a magnifying glass. For the first time, he noticed that the carving on the top of the altar was in the shape of an outstretched hand. It reminded him of those goofy drawings of turkeys that he had always had to do in school, before they went to live with Uncle Charles in Sweden.


He couldn't resist. He splayed out his fingers and put his right hand down into the impression on top of the altar. Again he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His hand was sucked flat against the stone as though he had put it over the top of a vacuum. He tried to pull it back, but it wouldn't budge. He began to panic. The harder he pulled, the tighter the seal became. He leaned back thinking that his body weight might pull him free, but again nothing happened.


"Help! Please help!" he shouted.


A burning sensation radiated from his palm, and he could see blood seeping out around the sides of his hand. The air seemed to explode. His ears rang loudly and in a flash, the entire chamber was bathed in a brilliant blue light that erupted from the altar and through his hand. It shot upward through the hole in the chamber and beyond into the night sky as far as the eye could see. The blue light radiated from beneath his hand and mingled with his blood. It ran down the grooves in the altar and across the floor. He watched in wild-eyed horror as his blood pulsed through the neon blue streams of light and pushed its way up the grooves in the walls.


What's happening? How can this be? He struggled again against the altar, but to no avail. The blue light continued its gravity-defying dance and crept up the grooves and into the intricate carvings in the walls. As the blood and light filled each symbol, a corresponding constellation above pulsed into existence. This continued all around the chamber, until all of the symbols were illuminated. The ringing in his ears was replaced by a gentle, melodic hum. He could feel pressure building beneath his hand. Waves of energy pulsated out of the altar and through his trapped hand. With each beat of his heart, the intensity grew until finally he was propelled backwards and away from the altar. He landed on his backside with his arms stretched out behind him.


He sat there on the floor with his mouth gaped wide. The beam of blue light had expanded and was now wider than the opening in the ceiling. The illuminated constellations seemed to be moving. Alexander shook his head and blinked his eyes. The room spun furiously. He struggled to stay upright. He felt like he was running the wrong way on a merry-go-round. His vision fuzzed, and he remembered thinking that the stone floor was colder than it had any right to be, just before he blacked out.

Chapter 2

Elad


Alexander came to with a start and looked around the stone chamber. The grooves in the walls and floor showed no trace of the strange blue light, and the intricate carvings were lifeless and dull. He looked down at the palm of his hand and was surprised not by what he saw, but by what he didn’t see. There wasn’t a mark on it. No puncture mark, no traces of blood, nothing. Had he dreamed the whole thing? Impossible. It had all seemed so real.

“Hello? Can anyone hear me?” His voice rang hollow in the chamber.

How long have I been asleep? He realized for the first time that the chamber was noticeably brighter than it had been when he first entered. He looked up at the ceiling and saw sunshine peeking through the skylight. No beacon of neon blue now, just the golden rays of dawn. It must be morning. That means Hanna has been alone all night. I’ve got to find her.

Without thinking, he jumped to his feet. His head swam and his stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s dinner with Uncle Charles, and that had been rather early. There hadn’t even been time for dessert because he had noticed the map missing from their uncle’s study, and had gone in search of Hanna. She must be starving. She had barely touched her dinner, probably too excited about the curious map Uncle Charles had shown them. There certainly was something very curious indeed about the old map. Alexander couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but he almost felt as though the map belonged to him. No, that wasn’t right either. It was more a feeling of being linked to it, but none of it made much sense to Alexander.

The chamber door creaked and groaned as he pushed it open. The sky was awash in a sea of gold. It was brilliant and radiant, but not harsh. His eyes adjusted immediately and he stepped outside onto the slope. Now the vegetation seemed to reflect the coppery tones of the morning sky. He scanned the top of the slope and saw that the stone arch was still there, but the brambles appeared to be gone. He raced up the hillside to get a better look.

Once on the hilltop, the difference was apparent. The white stone of the arch was gleaming as though it had been polished to a high sheen. The strange symbols carved in the face were pulsating lightly in the now familiar neon blue hue. It wasn’t the same vivid color he remembered from last night, but it was definitely pulsating. Did this mean the arch was activated and he could return home? Should he step through and see if he could find Uncle Charles? But what if he couldn’t get back? He couldn’t take the chance.

Alexander scanned the meadow below for any sign of his sister. His eyes swept back and forth until finally they came to rest on something that looked out of place. Just at the base of the slope and at the edge of a field of tall vegetation, he saw it. It had to be hers he thought. He’d recognize that fuzzy pink bathrobe anywhere. He darted down the slope, feeling lighter here, as though at any moment he could propel himself up and into the air. In no time he was standing in front of the little robe. His heart raced. Now he knew which way his sister had gone. The taller vegetation directly beyond the robe was bent and pushed aside. She had come this way. She must have lost the robe in her haste. Maybe she had seen someone on the road from the hilltop and raced towards them for help.

He scooped up his sister’s fuzzy, pink robe and dashed into the field. The tall, billowy, lavender stalks reminded him of enormous cat tails. Not the kind of cattails one would expect to see on the edge of a pond, but actual cat tails. They were fluffy and striped and tickled his face and hands as he ran through them. They gave way easily and swayed back into position as he passed. He broke into a furious pace. There was no time to waste. Hanna has been on her own for far too long he thought.

He ran faster and harder than he had ever been able to back home. He felt elated. After a few more seconds the vegetation thinned out. Not far ahead he saw the road, or at least that’s what it looked like to him. He decided he would look for Hanna’s footprints on the road, and then run as fast as his legs would take him in her direction. Once he found her, they would travel back to the arch as quickly as possible and jump back through. Uncle Charles would probably be so relieved that he’d forget to be mad, at least that’s what Alexander hoped.

A few more strides, and Alexander’s feet thudded softly onto a dusty roadway. The blood was pumping so loudly through his ears that he never heard the wagon coming until it was right on top of him.

“Aaaaaahhhhhhh!” he screamed, as he shielded his face and dropped to his knees.

“Whoa!” came a booming voice.

Alexander closed his eyes tight and cowered on the ground. He could hear scraping and grinding, and he felt the earth beneath him shake. A gust of air whooshed by, and showered him with debris. He opened his eyes sheepishly and ventured a peek through his fingers.

“Whoa! Whoa! Easy girl. That’s it,” said a man on a cart on the other side of the road. The man was pulling hard on reigns harnessed to a very large dappled horse. He spoke in gentle tones, reassuring the agitated beast.

Alexander stood up and dusted off his jeans. He could see deep grooves in the soft soil of the road where the cart had narrowly missed him. He was looking dumbfounded at the ground when the man addressed him.

“You there! Boy!” he shouted. “Are you daft, boy?” The man sat sideways on the cart’s seat and held the reigns tightly.

“What?” Alexander looked up at the man. He could feel his bottom lip trembling.

“I said, are you daft boy? You nearly killed us both darting out of the field in that fashion.” The man seemed to see the fright in Alexander’s face and brought his tone down a degree.

“I’m sorry sir,” said Alexander as he nervously tugged on the sleeve of his pajama top. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. It’s just that my sister is missing and—“

“Where are your parents?” The man laid the reigns aside and stepped down off of the cart. Alexander stepped backwards instinctively.

“I don’t have any parents. I mean, my parents died last year. I live with my Uncle Charles on his estate.” Alexander brought his sister’s robe up between himself and the man. “I’ve found my sister’s robe in the field so I know she came this way.”

“Don’t fret, boy,” said the man, “I didn’t mean to frighten you. You just gave me and my beast a start, that’s all. My name is Elad, what is yours?”

“I’m Alexander and my sister’s name is Hanna.” Alexander let the robe fall to his side. “Have you seen a little girl on this road? She’s real small and has brown hair. She’s only eight years old.” Tears welled up in his eyes.

“Calm yourself, son.” The big man placed a strong hand on Alexander’s shoulder. “I haven’t seen trace of your sister, but if she’s on this road I’m sure we’ll find her.”

Alexander looked up into Elad’s warm brown eyes. “Do you really think so?”

“With certainty my boy,” chuckled Elad. He tousled Alexander’s hair and pointed down the road. Alexander looked at the spot Elad indicated. “You see? Those look like the footprints of a little one to me.”

A warmth flowed over Alexander’s body, and a smile came to his face. “Where does this road lead?”

“It leads to Välstand, the city of prosperity,” said Elad with a wave of his hand. “Jump up on my cart and we’ll be there in less than a day.”

“Thank you sir.”

“Think nothing of it, Alexander. I was headed to the markets anyway and from the look of you, you won’t be much of a burden.” Elad laughed and clapped Alexander on the back, nearly causing him to lose his balance. With seemingly little effort, The burly man lifted him into the cart.

“Tell me Alexander, before we get underway to Välstand, why is your uncle not with you on your search for your sister?” Elad placed a large calloused hand on the side of the cart.

“I was hoping to find her before our uncle was aware she was gone.”

Elad hefted his considerable weight up onto the cart. Alexander felt the narrow wooden bench rise and fall as Elad situated himself.

“I see. Is he a cruel lord?” Elad grabbed the reins and gave them a quick snap. The horse snorted in response and jerked the cart back onto the road.

“Lord?” Alexander gave Elad a puzzled look.

“The master of an estate is generally a lord, is he not?”

Alexander craned his neck to look up at Elad. “Well, I suppose, but my uncle is just an ordinary—“

Alexander fell silent.

“What is it Alexander?”

“I can…understand you.” He had only just noticed that neither he nor Elad was speaking English.

“Well of course my boy,” said Elad, “you speak the mother tongue, as do I.” He let out a little chuckle and gave Alexander a sideways glance.

“But I’ve never heard it before in my life, or spoken it for that matter.” He looked to Elad as though he expected to find the answer written on his face.

“You seem to speak it with much mastery. Where did you say your uncle’s estate is?” Elad gave the reigns another snap and clucked his tongue. The horse quickened its pace, pushing Alexander back into the bench.

“It’s in Läkvik, in the countryside.” Alexander looked away from Elad, out at the rolling meadows that passed their cart. A patchwork quilt of strangely colored, cultivated fields stretched out as far as he could see.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of Läkvik. How many days journey is it from here?”

Alexander wasn’t certain what to tell Elad. Would he think he was crazy if he told him he had come through the arch from another world? He was alone in this strange place and he needed all the help he could get. He needed someone who knew the land to help him find his sister. He looked back up at Elad and cleared his throat.

“I came through the white arch on the hilltop.” Alexander wasn’t prepared for the bellowing laughter that erupted from Elad. Even the horse let out a succession of snorts.

“I’m sorry my boy.” Elad clapped Alexander on the back and let a few more chuckles escape. “That’s a fine jest, but pray tell me where your home lies.”

“I’m not kidding! I really came through the arch after my sister.”

Elad pulled back hard on the reigns. The cart shuddered to a stop, sending little clouds of dust billowing up from under the wheels. If Elad had not put his arm across Alexander’s chest, he would have flown from the cart.

“That’s impossible! No one has been able to travel through the King’s gates since Lord Galen drove Övrigmark’s ruling family out of the land. And that was ages ago.”

“Who is Lord Galen?”

Elad leaned closer to Alexander, staring directly into his eyes. Alexander moved backward as far as he could, without falling off the bench, and swallowed hard.

“You really don’t know, do you my boy?” Elad straightened back up and snapped the reigns. Once again the cart lurched forward and continued along the road.

“No sir, I’m afraid I don’t. I just came here last night. I don’t know anything about this strange place except that my little sister is here, and I must find her.” Alexander wrung his hands.

“I believe you boy, but I wouldn’t go telling your tale to just anybody.”

Alexander looked up at Elad. “Why not? Won’t anyone else believe me?”

“That’s just the problem. They may indeed believe you, and then you’d be in a world of trouble.”

“What do you mean?” Alexander pulled at his collar and fidgeted with the buttons on his pajama top.

“This was once a free land before Lord Galen brought his army through Kungens Dörr, a gate much like the one you came through, and overwhelmed the ruling family. Galen’s troops then swept across the land, pillaging peaceful towns, and imposing hefty taxes on the trade cities. He is indeed a cruel Lord.” Elad shook his head and looked down at the ground.

“But what does any of that have to do with me and my sister? Why would I be in trouble?”

“If you did indeed come through one of the gates, then Lord Galen will certainly want to find you. You see, as the ruling family fled, they did something to the gates so that Lord Galen could not follow, and whatever they did closed all of the gates.” Elad looked back at Alexander with concern.

“I still don’t get it. Why would Lord Galen want to find me?”

“I would suspect he’ll want to know how you managed to travel through a gate that, as legend tells, hasn’t worked since well before my time.”

“I don’t know how I did it. I just stepped through it and the next thing I knew I was in this place. I’ll just tell him that if he asks.”

“You’ll do no such thing, boy. You’ll stick close to me and keep your mouth shut while we look for that sister of yours. Lord Galen and his men are not to be trifled with, if you know what’s good for you.” Elad glanced down at Alexander and nodded his head.

“If Lord Galen is so cruel, then why would you risk helping me?”

“I’d do anything to spite him. I’ve broken my back for years in the fields to provide for my family, and because of Lord Galen I’m forced to bring a tribute to the King’s governor in Välstand. The fields which were once my father’s, I now have to lease from the King.” Elad turned away from Alexander and spat on the ground.

“How will we find my sister?”

“I hope that we find her before we get to Välstand. How long ago did she come here, and is she dressed as oddly as you?” Elad eyed Alexander’s pajama top.

Alexander nodded. “She came through a day ago, but I passed out in the stone building next to the arch, and just woke up this morning.”

“She may still be on this road. Let’s just pray that none of the King’s troops have been this way.”

“Why? What would they do to her?” Alexander looked up at Elad, but he was just shaking his head.


Chapter 3



A Dream



Alexander decided not to ask his question again. In truth, he didn’t really want to think of what might have happened to his sister. It was just too terrifying. He tried to push those thoughts out of his head, and focus on the journey ahead.

The sun now hung higher in the sky, and a gentle breeze blew the strange fields of ‘cat tails’ like waves in the ocean.

“Elad?”

“Yes?” Elad kept his eyes on the road, but cocked his head towards Alexander.

“What are those strange striped things in the field?”

“You mean the rand?”

“I guess,” said Alexander, “they look like giant cat tails.”

Elad gave a slight chuckle. “I suppose they do. They’re a fine grain stalk that we use to make much of our breads in these lands. In fact, I’ve got a load of rand in back that I plan to take to market.”

Upon the mention of food, Alexander’s stomach protested. Elad dug into his thick, leathery vest, and pulled out a small canvas pouch. He handed it to Alexander.

“What is it?”

“It’s dried fruit and meat. A couple of pieces should tide you until we can get a proper meal.”

Alexander opened the pouch and looked inside. What he assumed to be the fruit, looked a little like the dates he remembered eating as a child with his grandmother. The meat reminded him of jerky; only it was a deep crimson color. He twisted up his face.

“Go ahead boy. You’ll like it. I promise.” Elad gave him a pat on the back as if to convince him that it was okay.

Alexander took a piece of the fruit, and chanced a cautious nibble. The insides of his cheeks pinched, and his mouth watered. It really had been awhile since he had eaten, and the warm and spicy flavor was a little overwhelming.

Elad gave another chuckle. “Just give it a second. It gets better.”

Sure enough, the initial punch gave way to a buttery cinnamon flavor. He plopped the rest of the piece into his mouth, and dug out another.

“Try some of the meat too. You’ll need your strength. It will probably be nightfall before we see the spires of Välstand.”

Alexander popped the other piece of fruit in his mouth, and then pulled out a stringy piece of the crimson meat. He was so hungry that he didn’t even bother to ask what kind of meat it was. He took a bite, and was surprised at its tenderness. Despite what adults had always told him about strange meat, it tasted nothing like chicken. In fact, if he had to say what it tasted most like, he would have said lamb.

“Mmmmm.” His stomach gave a few more gurgles then calmed down. He held the pouch up to Elad. The big man reached in and pulled out a few pieces, and motioned for Alexander to keep the rest.

Alexander looked out over the meadows and the tall stalks of rand. In the distance he could make out tall, lavender mountains with frosted peaks. He was amazed at the beauty around him. If it hadn’t been for his situation he would have been laughing and running through the fields. But as it was, his thoughts returned to his sister and where she might be. Has she found a friend as I have? Has she eaten? Is she hurt?

Elad’s deep voice aroused him from his troubled thoughts. “Don’t worry yourself Alexander. We’ll find her.”

Alexander gave him a nod. He couldn’t say anything for fear of choking up. Elad seemed to sense this, and kept on talking.

“The people of this region are kind and gentle. The chances that a local found her are really quite good, and I’m certain they would take her to Välstand.”

“Mmmhmm,” replied Alexander. He kept his gaze fixed out over the meadows away from Elad.

“As soon as we get there, I’ll ask around in the market after her. I have a few friends there who will gladly offer their help, but the first thing we’ll have to do is get you out of those ridiculous garments and into something more suitable.”

Alexander looked up at Elad sharply. The big man’s wide smile quickly put him at ease. Elad slapped him on the back again, and let out another of his infectious bellows of laughter. Alexander couldn’t help it. Despite the situation, he found himself laughing right along with him.

Maybe everything will be all right after all. He looked again out over the meadows. The gentle rolling of the cart was hypnotic. He felt warm, and his eyelids began to droop. His head nodded forward a couple of times, and each time he jerked it back. It was only midday, but he felt so tired.

“Don’t fight it boy. Try and get some rest. You’ve had a rough time as of late, and besides, I’ve made this journey on my own a hundred times without the benefit of company.”

Alexander nodded at Elad, and leaned back in the seat. He closed his eyes. He could still see the golden light of day through his eyelids, but that didn’t stop him from drifting off to sleep.

* * *

He was back in the hedged labyrinth on his uncle’s estate. Only this time it was daylight, and he could hear giggling. It was floating on the air as though it was being played on one of his uncle’s old phonographs.

“Hanna!” The giggling was ahead of him. He ran down the path, Hanna’s laughter guiding his movements. The path bent to the left, and deposited him onto another long, narrow stretch. Her laugher was musical, heart-warming.

There she was at the end of the path. She smiled at him and waved. Her little pink robe whipped in the breeze, and her laughter came to him as through a funnel. And in an instant she turned and disappeared into the hedgerow.

“Hanna! Stop!” He tried to run after her, but it was like running in a swimming pool. The faster he ran, the slower he seemed to go.

After ages, he rounded the corner and saw her once again. But now the labyrinth was gone, and he was chasing her up the hill through the trees. He could see the white arch on the hilltop. It was glowing brilliantly. It pulsed in time to the beat of his heart. Thrum. Thrum. Thrum.

“Hanna, you mustn’t go through! Uncle Charles will be furious! Please stop!”

For a moment he thought that he had gotten through to her. Then without a word she jumped through the arch. He could see her tumbling through space, past planets and stars. He followed her through, and fell with her. They tumbled and tumbled. A shooting star darted past them and lit up the surface of a glassy orb. He could feel the pull of gravity as he approached its icy surface.

“Zander! Help me!” The whimsical look on Hanna’s face had been replaced by one of sheer terror.

He reached out for her, but only grabbed empty air.

“Zander, Zander! Don’t let me fall!” Tears streamed from her, and became tiny particles of ice that pelted his face.

“Hanna!”

He felt a shift in his trajectory, and fought frantically to stay on course. He clawed wildly at the air, but the distance between them became farther and farther. He fell to the glassy planet and watched Hanna become smaller and smaller, until she was but a tiny twinkle in the infinite sky.

“Alexander!” bellowed Elad.

Alexander awoke with a start, nearly falling off the bench. The cart was stopped, and pulled to the side of the road. The dappled horse chewed methodically on the weedy sprouts along the edge.

“Sorry to wake you my boy, but you seemed to be having some troubled dreams.” Elad was digging around in the back of the cart, looking intently for something.

“Why have we stopped? Is everything okay?” Alexander looked back at Elad, who had just pulled a piece of green cloth from underneath a tarp. It took a second for Elad to acknowledge his questions.

“What’s that? Oh, yes, everything is fine. We just need to cover up that silly blouse of yours before we get into Välstand.” Elad held up the green cloth between his outstretched arms. “This should do.”

“What is that?” Elad ignored him, and produced a small bit of cord from beneath the tarp. Alexander watched as Elad took a small knife out of his belt, and used it to cut a couple of holes in two of the corners of the cloth.

“That should do the trick.” He draped the cloth over Alexander’s shoulders, and threaded the cord through the holes. He pulled the cord taught, and tied the ends in a bow. “Not the best looking cloak, but not the worst by far.” Elad stepped back to admire his handiwork.

“A cloak?” asked Alexander dubiously.

“Like I said my boy, not the best, but it will at least serve to draw attention away from those strange clothes you’re wearing.” Elad gave Alexander one more long look, and then hefted himself back onto the cart. In a few short seconds they were underway again.

“How much longer until we’re there?”

Elad gave him a sideways glance.

“Soon enough Alexander. Soon enough.” Elad’s tone reminded him of his father’s when they took long road trips across the country.

“Do you have any children Elad?”

“I had a son, but he came down with the sickness a few years ago.” Elad blinked his eyes several times, and looked away. “Filip would have been a little older than you I suspect. You remind me of him. He was a good boy.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Elad looked down at Alexander and smiled.

“I’m okay my boy.” Elad tousled Alexander’s hair with his big hand. “Those we love are always in our hearts.”

Alexander nodded, and did his best to put his hair back in place. “Can I ask you another question?”

“You certainly may.”

“What is the sickness?” Alexander fidgeted with the cord at his neck.

“Most would tell you that it started as a curse that Lord Galen brought to the land when he drove the ruling family out long ago.” Elad shifted in his seat, and gently guided the horse and cart around a bend in the road.

“A curse?”

“I don’t really believe it myself either my boy, but our land has suffered more than just the harsh rule of a cruel lord.”

“I don’t understand.” Alexander turned himself to face Elad, and looked up into his eyes. “How has this place suffered?”

“Well, you would have had to have been around before Lord Galen came with his mighty army, and his magical weapons.” Alexander’s ears perked up at the suggestion of magical weapons, but Elad didn’t let him get a word in. “The ruling family had a special bond with this place, and when they left, some of the spirit of this land went with them. I don’t know the proper way to put it. Somehow the colors in the meadows aren’t as vibrant, and the stars don’t shine like they used to. I know it sounds strange, but nothing is the same.”

“So what does that have to do with the sickness?”

Elad cleared his throat, and shifted again in his seat. “I don’t really know the answer to that either. Some said that the land became sick, and then the water, and then the people. I nearly lost my wife Rakel as well.”

“You have a wife?”

Elad laughed. “Don’t sound so surprised my boy. I wasn’t always this shape you know.”

Alexander’s face reddened. “I didn’t mean to—“

“No harm. No harm at all.” Elad’s smile stretched across his broad face. “I think Rakel would take a liking to you quickly.”

Alexander reddened again, but this time he returned Elad’s smile.

The two sat in silence for a time as the cart ambled down the dusty path. Alexander looked out across the marvelous landscape. He wondered how beautiful it must have been before the sickness. What had Lord Galen and his army done to this place?

“Elad, you mentioned something about magical weapons. What did you mean by that? Were they guns?”

Elad gave him a strange look. “Guns?”

“Yeah, you know, pistols. They can fire bullets.” Elad stared blankly at Alexander. “Never mind. What did these weapons look like?”

“They’re shiny like silver, and they fit in a holster like a hunting knife. I’ve never seen one used myself, but I’ve heard that fire erupts from them.”

“Lasers,” said Alexander to himself.

“What was that?” asked Elad.

“Oh nothing. Do all of Lord Galen’s men have these weapons?”

“Most of them, but they rarely use them now.”

“Why not?”

“I suppose there is no need after the speed with which they took the land.” Elad swept his arm out across the field. Alexander was more confused than ever about this strange place. The technology was obviously similar to that of medieval times back on Earth, but what about the strange workings in the stone chamber? Was it magic?

“What kind of weapons did the ruling family have?”

“They had the sabers and bows that served the land for many years. They also had the elementals, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.” Elad hung his head.

“The elementals?” Alexander scratched his head. “What are the elementals?”

“They were of the blood line of the ruling family, and tied to the land. It is said that they could command the oceans and the winds.” Elad looked back down at Alexander. “The day of the final battle they were said to have darkened the skies, and set the oceans to boiling, but even they were no match for the evil that came.”

“What about—“

“Enough talk of times past my boy,” Interrupted Elad. “We are fast approaching Välstand, and we must prepare our story. I will present you to anyone that asks as my nephew, and you will not speak unless absolutely necessary.”

“But—“

“I’m afraid I have to insist.” Elad held up his hand. “It’s for your own safety. I’ll have to check in with the Governor’s office when we arrive which means our cart will be examined by Lord Galen’s soldiers. We don’t want to arouse any suspicion. We’ll never find your sister if we’re detained by the constabulary.”

Alexander nodded, and placed his head in his hands. He could feel Elad patting him on the back.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you Alexander. We just need to stay alert until we can catch your sister’s trail again.” Alexander felt the cart begin to slow. The horses hoof beats came softer to his ears. “We’re nearly there, Alexander. Look, it’s the spires of Välstand.”

Alexander looked up. It was like something out of one of the old fairy tale books in Uncle Charles’ library.


Chapter 4



Välstand




Välstand’s emerald spires swept gracefully towards the sky. The most impressive of these structures flanked an expansive gatehouse with white stone walls. The drawbridge was down; its massive wooden planks spanned what looked like a moat. A wrought iron portcullis was raised to the midpoint of the gate, yet there was still enough clearance for large carts to pass beneath with ease. Alexander caught glimpses of the buildings within. Brilliant crimson, emerald and sapphire awnings hung above wooden doorways, and the streets were bustling with activity. Even from this distance the murmurs of the marketplace came to their ears. Alexander couldn’t help himself, he grinned from ear to ear. It was more than he could have ever imagined.

“I guess I’ll have to tell the guards that this is your first trip to Välstand,” said Elad. A smile played across his face. He pulled back on the reins and brought the cart to a crawl.

“Why is that?” Alexander looked up at Elad.

“With those wide eyes and that goofy grin, you’ll give us away for sure.”

“Sorry.” Alexander hung his head. He could feel the warmth in his cheeks.

“No need to be sorry my boy. Just remember not to speak, and when I check in at the guard house do not leave the cart.” Elad gave him a serious look.

“Yes sir.”

Elad guided the cart onto the drawbridge. Hoof beats played out a staccato rhythm on the weathered wooden planks. Alexander leaned over the cart to look at the moat as they passed over. The water was murky and brackish and interspersed with patches of foam. An odor of sulfur assaulted him, causing him to sit back upright. Elad grinned, but said nothing.

The cart came to rest behind a gilded coach pulled by a team of silver horses. Alexander thought someone important must be inside, because when one of the guards came up beside it, a gloved hand appeared from the window and waved him away. The guard snapped to attention and saluted. After the coach moved through the gate, the guard turned his attention to Elad, and motioned for him to bring the cart forward. Elad nodded, and shook the reins, easing the cart forward until the guard held up his hand.

“What is your business here?” demanded the guard.

The sun reflected mercilessly off of his silver helmet and breastplate. Through watery eyes, Alexander thought the emerald green breeches gave him the look of a conquistador, at least the ones he’d seen in history books.

“I have twenty bushels of rand to sell in the market.” Elad lifted the tarp for the guard, but he paid no attention to the gesture.

“Your name?”

“I am Elad of Trefloder. I’ve done business here before many times, sir.”

The guard gave him a sharp look, but made no comment. He pulled a small leather bound book from a satchel at his waist, and leafed through its pages.

“And the boy?” The guard nodded towards Alexander.

“He’s my nephew, Alexander. This is his first time to the market. My brother asked me to bring him along.” Elad leaned in towards the guard, and cupped a hand to his mouth. “He’s a little slow sir. Doesn’t talk much, if you know what I mean.”

“I see.” The guard smirked at Alexander, and waved them forward. “Go check in with the Quartermaster.”

Elad nodded at the guard, and shook the reins again. The cart creaked forward across the remaining span of the drawbridge and under the gate. Elad smiled and winked at Alexander and gave him a playful nudge.

“Sorry, it was the best story I could come up with.”

“It’s okay. Who’s the Quartermaster?”

“He’s the man in charge of all of the goods that come into the market.”

“Why can’t you just go to the market and sell your crops?”

“Because then Lord Galen wouldn’t get his cut, now would he?” Elad gave Alexander a knowing nudge on the shoulder. “Now remember, keep quiet, and stay next to the cart while I check in with the Quartermaster.”

Alexander nodded, and looked around the market as they made their way through the crowded cobbled streets towards a line of carts queued up in front of a small building with a single open window. Despite the many colorful awnings hanging above the storefronts, the white stone inside the walls of the city were dingy and worn. In fact, most of the structures were a little more rundown than Alexander would have expected in a place that Elad referred to as the city of prosperity.

“Wait here while I see the Quartermaster.” Elad brought the cart to a stop, and stepped down. He pulled on a wooden post that Alexander assumed to be the brake, and locked it into place. He gave Alexander a quick glance, and then made his way towards the Quartermaster’s station.

The station seemed like an afterthought to Alexander. It sat directly between and a little ways behind a large fountain and a neat line of narrow shops. The fountain looked to be the center of a square that preceded a larger square beyond the station. The outer wall of the fountain was the same dingy white stone that dominated the buildings and walls here. In its center was a dry three-tiered fountain that sprang up from a shallow pool of murky water. This water appeared to be cleaner than the water in the moat, but not by much. Alexander was shocked to see old women and little children dipping buckets into the fountain, and carting the water away. He hoped they didn’t use it for drinking.

He watched as an old bent over woman struggled with a large wooden bucket. He leaned with her in sympathy as she staggered to and fro. She winced with every step, and her frail, bony arms pulled taught against the weight of the bucket. Right before she reached the edge of the fountain, her foot caught one of the cobblestones in the square, and she stumbled. She caught herself on the wall of the fountain, but the bucket fell on its side and began rolling away from her. Without a second thought, Alexander jumped off the cart, and ran over to help her.

“Let me help you ma’am.” Alexander stopped the bucket with his foot, and picked it up.

“Thank you dear boy.” She smiled revealing a row of crooked teeth. Her breathing was labored, and she leaned heavily on the fountain.

“No problem.” He motioned towards the water. “Can I fill it up for you?”

She gave him another warm smile. “That would be lovely dear, and maybe you would be so nice as to help me carry it to my shop.”

“Certainly.” He returned her smile, and hefted the bucket up over the edge of the fountain. As he leaned over the side, he caught his pajama sleeve on the rough stone, and scraped his exposed forearm. The gash wasn’t deep, but it trickled a thin warm line of blood down his elbow, onto the stone, and into the fountain. The water rippled, then roiled, and then it began to boil, or at least that’s what he thought, right before he dropped the bucket into the fountain.

He was vaguely aware of the old woman screaming in the background, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of the fountain. The water had risen, and was changing color from a murky, milky hue to a shimmering blue. The ground trembled beneath his feet, and he thought he heard gurgling. In an instant, water erupted from the top of the fountain, and cascaded down the tiers. After a few moments the water calmed, and the fountain settled into a gentle flow. He could see the growing ring of people reflected in the water. He turned slowly and regarded the gathering crowd. The streets that were bustling with activity only a moment ago were now eerily quiet. Men and women, boys and girls, all shared the same expression.

“The boy is a lost prince of the family!” said the old woman. She was crouched on her knees looking back at the crowd.

Murmurs of ‘lost prince’ and ‘returned’ washed through the crowd like gentle waves lapping at a distant shore. One by one the townspeople fell to their knees. Mothers and fathers pulled their children down to the ground. The old woman grabbed his hand and kissed it. Alexander stepped backward, but found himself backed up against the fountain wall.

“I’m afraid you all have me confused with someone else.” Alexander put up his hands as if to keep the crowd at bay. Blood dripped from his elbow and hit the cobbled street. Some of the townspeople closest to him gasped, and pointed at the ground. Alexander looked down to the tiny pool of blood that was now filling the grooves between the cobblestones. His eyes grew wide. Every place that his blood touched seemed to become more vibrant. It was as if everything became a little more real. The effect continued to radiate outward. Each drop caused the ground to ripple, and then come back into even sharper focus.

Now the people looked at him with something like reverence. “The family has returned for us!” came a voice from the back of the crowd.

Alexander stared, dumbfounded. So much for keeping quiet and out of sight.

The clanging of metal caught his attention. Shouts erupted from somewhere behind him. He turned just in time to see two armor-clad soldiers running towards him. Elad trailed behind them waving his arms frantically. He was shouting something, but Alexander couldn’t make out the words. The first of the soldiers arrived at Alexander’s side. He cowered reflexively as the man grabbed his arm, and jerked him upright.
“What is the meaning of this?” The man seemed to grind his teeth with each word.

“I was just trying to-”

“Trying to what? Start a riot? That’s an offense against the Crown, boy!” The soldier held Alexander’s arm tight, and looked back over his shoulder.

Alexander chanced a slight lean forward to see around the soldier. Just beyond the fountain, the other soldier had stopped Elad, and was holding him back. Both men were shouting furiously. Elad was certainly the larger man, but the soldier wasn’t giving up any ground.

“He’s just a child!” came Elad’s booming voice above the din. For his efforts the soldier punched him hard in the gut, and Elad doubled over and fell to the ground.

“Leave him alone!” Alexander shouted. He pulled hard against the soldier’s grip, struggling to get free. The soldier cuffed him against the back of the head. Alexander slumped down to his knees and his vision blurred.

Angry shouts arose from the crowd. Men and women advanced slowly on the two soldiers. Through his tears, Alexander could see the soldiers backing against each other, an ever-growing crowd encircling them. He looked up at the soldier still holding his arm. The man had a wild-eyed look. His head jerked back and forth, and he shouted desperate warnings at the crowd. They kept advancing.

The soldier dropped Alexander’s arm, and pulled at the holster on his belt. “Stand down or so help me I’ll kill the lot of you!”

“Release the prince!” shouted the old woman. She stood up and reached for Alexander’s arm.

Alexander tried to warn her, but he was too late. The soldier released the latch on the holster, and drew out the shiny silver pistol within. Alexander watched with terror as the man pressed a jeweled button above the handle. The tip of the weapon glowed white-hot, and a brilliant ray of light burst outward. The woman’s face contorted in confusion and pain. She fell to her knees as an ever-widening hole grew in her stomach. The soldier kicked her over backwards with his boot, and fired several more shots into the crowd.

“Stop it! You’re killing them!” The ground seemed to shake with Alexander’s screams.

“Get back you dogs!” barked the soldier. “That was merely a warning! Gather your dead and clear the square else you suffer the same fate.” He grabbed Alexander by the arm, and spit on the old woman.

“Where are you taking me?” Alexander squirmed against the soldier’s grip again.

“You’re a matter for the governor, boy!” The soldier scowled at him, and yanked him away from the fountain.

Alexander looked back at the crowd. They were kneeling down next to the dead and wounded. Several of the children looked up as he passed. Their stares pierced through him. What have I done? Why didn’t I listen to Elad and stay in the cart?

As they reached the spot where Elad lay on the ground, Alexander could see another group of soldiers approaching. Elad groaned, but the other soldier kept him pinned to the ground. One of the men gave an order, and the group came to a halt in front of them.

“What’s going on here, Kay?” The way he addressed the soldier made Alexander think he must have been an officer. Besides a slightly different breastplate, his armor appeared identical to the soldier’s.

“This boy was inciting a riot and-”

“And you decided to discharge your side arm into an unarmed crowd!” The officer was inches from the soldier. He looked down on him, waiting impatiently for an answer.

“Sir, the crowd was advancing. We were outnumbered.” The soldier appeared flustered. He loosened his grip on Alexander’s arm.

“You were outnumbered by villagers you idiot! That’s what your saber is for! You know the governor’s orders regarding your side arm.” The officer’s face was growing redder by the second. The soldier flinched with each word.

“They were advancing too quickly, I had no choice-”

“Our sidearms have a limited charge. They are to be used only in the most extreme circumstance. If you are not skilled enough with your saber to beat back the likes of these mongrels, then you have no place in my command! Surrender your side arm to me.”

The soldier turned the pistol around and handed it to the officer. The officer inspected it, and placed it in a pouch on his belt.

“Help Grindel get that man out of the street and back to the guard house for questioning.” The officer pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head.

“What of the boy?” asked the soldier. He pulled upwards on Alexander’s arm.

“I’ll take the boy to the governor, now get out of my sight!” The officer put a hand on Alexander’s shoulder and pushed him past Elad. “The rest of you men, disperse that crowd, and for the sake of the heavens, keep your side arms holstered!”

“What about Elad, sir?” Alexander turned to look back at his friend. The officer grabbed his shoulder and pushed him forward.

“He’s no longer your concern, boy. You should be more concerned about yourself. The governor doesn’t look kindly on instigators in his fair city.”


Chapter 5



Of The Blood




The officer pushed Alexander towards the guardhouse without another word. Alexander tried to look back to see how Elad was doing, but only received a harder grip on his shoulder for his troubles. The door to the guardhouse opened before they got there. A soldier within held the door open and stood at attention.

“At ease soldier,” said the officer as he guided Alexander inside. The soldier relaxed a bit and closed the door behind them.

The interior of the guardhouse was dim, with only a little light filtering in through the narrow window next to the door. The walls were plain wooden slats; their only adornment a small cabinet opposite the door and a few lanterns. A plump little man sat behind a desk in the corner hurriedly sorting through a stack of disorganized paper. Alexander thought he must be some kind of a clerk. He wore grimy brown dungarees and a thick, buttoned shirt, which might have once been white. A pungent odor hung in the small space; Alexander thought the clerk must have been responsible for that.

“Gregor!” bellowed the officer. The plump little man nearly fell off of his stool.

“Yes sir?” The man faced the officer, but kept his eyes low to the ground.

“Quit fiddling with those papers, and get this malcontent into a cell!” He pushed Alexander towards the little man. Alexander fell to his knees. The little man gave him a quick glance then turned his attention back to the officer.

“What is to be the charge, sir?” He turned sideways, still looking in the officer’s direction, and reached for his papers and a quill.

“For now, inciting a riot. There may be more charges after I’ve had a chance to speak to the governor.” The officer grabbed Alexander by the nape of the neck and pulled him back up on his feet. “You’re going to spend the night in a cell. I’ll be damned if I’m going to disturb the Governor with this business so soon after his return. Now I have to see to the other one.” With that he turned on his heels and marched towards the door. The soldier struggled to come to attention and open the door before the officer crossed the room.

“You must have caused quite a stir to make him so mad.”

Alexander turned back to face the little man who was now busy scribbling away on a fresh parchment.

“I just tried to help an old woman and–”

“Don’t waste your time pleading your case to me boy. I just put ’em in a cell and do the paperwork.”

Alexander rubbed cautiously at the back of his neck and watched the strange little man finish his paperwork. He seemed to take more pride in his penmanship than his appearance. Of course Alexander also realized that he must look like a complete mess himself. His arm had stopped bleeding, but there was still a trail of dried blood that ran from his elbow down to the palm of his hand. Some had even dripped onto the front of his pajama top, and with all of the falling to the ground, the knees of his pants were quite filthy. He wished that all of this was a terrible dream, and that he would wake up soon back at his uncle’s estate none the worse for wear.

“Soldier, take this boy down below to the last cell at the end of the first hall.” The little man opened the cabinet on the wall and selected a rusted key from a row of pegs. He turned, and handed it to the soldier and motioned him away like a child.

“Don’t get yourself in a state, Gregor.” The soldier chuckled and winked at Alexander.

Alexander didn’t really know what to think, so he just smiled weakly back at the soldier.

“Hurry up! They’ll be bringing the other one in soon, and you had better be back to assist me.” The little man turned his back on them and climbed back onto his stool.

“Come on lad, we had better get you into your cell, or I’ll have hell to pay.”

Alexander wasn’t quite sure, but he thought he detected a sarcastic tone in the man’s voice.

The soldier walked over to the corner of the room and pulled up on a large wrought iron ring in the floor. It looked like an old cellar door to Alexander. Its rusty hinges protested as the soldier pushed the door up against the wall. He took a lantern down from a hook and started down the steps. Just before he vanished beneath the floor, he turned back towards Alexander.

“Come on lad, don’t make this any more difficult than it already is.”

Something in his eyes seemed to say that everything would be okay. Alexander willed himself forward.

“That’s it lad.”

“How long will I have to stay down here?” Alexander could feel his words catching in his throat.

“I’m sure you’ll see the Governor first thing in the morning. Whatever happened out there was the most excitement this place has seen in a while, and he’ll want to know all of the details.” The soldier held the lantern out in front of them as they descended. The flickering orange light illuminated the rough stone walls and cast long shadows like flailing arms down the stairs.

“What are they going to do with me?” With each step he took, Alexander felt like he was straying farther from any hope of ever finding his sister.

“It’s hard to say, but if you really did awaken the old fountain, I would guess that Lord Galen will want to speak to you.”

“I didn’t awaken anything, I was just trying to help that old woman.” Alexander could feel warm tears welling up and spilling down his cheeks. “Why did they have to kill her?”

“It’s not my place to question, lad. You best dry those tears, and think about what you’re going to say to the Governor tomorrow.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and the soldier guided Alexander through an open archway to his right. The tiny guardhouse above belied the expanse of the chamber below. Before they rounded the corner, Alexander caught a glimpse of a long hallway with many doors. Just how many people were locked up down here he wondered.

“You’re going to be on the end.” The soldier kept a hand on Alexander’s shoulder. “Here we are. Just let me get it unlocked, and we’ll get you settled in.”

Alexander heard the rattling of the key in the lock and the mechanism giving with a deep clank.

He could feel the blood leaving his face and his legs going wobbly. The room seemed to grow dimmer than it already was. Through blurred vision he peered into the cramped cell. There was a wooden bench against the far wall and a small bucket in the corner. The soldier turned back towards Alexander.

“Easy there lad. You’d better sit down before you faint.” The soldier put an arm around Alexander and guided him to the bench. Alexander collapsed onto it, his head bumping the wall. “I know this must seem terrifying to one as young as yourself, but don’t fret. I’ll come back and bring you some fresh water and a blanket as soon as I’m able.”

A weak thank you was all Alexander could manage. The soldier patted him on the shoulder and smiled unconvincingly.

“I’m not supposed to do this, but since I’ll be on watch tonight, you can keep the lantern with you.” He set it down next to the bench. “I’ll be back before you know it lad.”

Alexander nodded and watched as the soldier shut and locked the cell door behind him. He could hear his footsteps echoing on the stone as he made his way back upstairs. The door above slammed shut just before he passed out.


***

“Alexander! Alexander!” came a familiar voice arousing him from his deep slumber. He opened his eyes to hazy darkness.

“Elad?” Alexander propped himself up on his elbows. He noticed that he was now covered with a thick blanket and the lantern was glowing dimly on the floor next to the bench. His eyes slowly adjusted to his surroundings. He could make out the bars of his cell, but saw no activity from the cell across the hall.

“Alexander, are you alright, my boy?” Elad’s voice seemed to come from the cell next to his. He detected something strained in Elad’s voice.

“I’m okay I guess.” Alexander sat upright and pushed his blanket off. His vision swam slightly before him, then came back into focus. “Are you okay Elad? You don’t sound too good.”

Elad let out a little chuckle followed by a fit of sharp coughing. “I’ll be fine. It’ll take more than these boys have to put old Elad down.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.” Alexander stood up and tested his balance. He crossed the small cell and pressed himself to the bars in an attempt to see into Elad’s cell. He stuck his arm through the bars and reached out blindly. “I only wanted to help that poor old woman, and I just ended up getting her killed.”

“Nonsense boy! Those bastards are responsible for her end.”

Alexander felt Elad’s firm hand grasp his through the bars. “By the heavens above I swear my service to you young prince. I won’t let you meet the same fate.” He squeezed Alexander’s hand as if in assurance of his pledge.

“Thank you for being such a good friend Elad, but I’m no prince.” The faint outlines of the corridor came into sharper focus as Alexander’s eyes continued to adjust to the dim light.

Elad squeezed Alexander’s hand once more, then released his grip. “I wouldn’t have believed it myself a day ago, but after what I saw at the fountain…well, only someone of the blood could affect the land like that.”

“Of the blood?”

“The legends speak of the ruling family being tied to the land.” Elad’s voice became hurried, more excited. “It’s in your blood, my boy. The life of this land flows through your veins. That means there is hope for us all once again.”

“How can that be? I’m just a boy from the United States…Earth. Even my parents are from there.” Alexander shook his head even though Elad couldn’t see him.

“How do you know where your parents are from?”

“They told me–”

“Aha! They told you.” Elad’s voice came to a crescendo. “Do you think they might not have told you the truth in order to protect you?”

“Protect me from what?”

“The forces that drove out the ruling family.” Elad’s excited tone was interrupted by a sputtering cough. “Maybe they were not only driven out, but also hunted.”

Alexander drew back away from the bars. How could that possibly be true? His parents had grown up in Illinois, and had met in high school. They went to college together.

“I saw pictures of them when they were children,” protested Alexander.

“Pictures?”

“Yes, pict…never mind.” Alexander turned and leaned against the bars.

“I’m not calling you or your parents liars, my boy. I just know what I witnessed. Only those of the blood could do what you did.”

“I just don’t understand any of it Elad. Why me? I’m just a boy.”

Alexander sighed, crossing his arms.

“Don’t fret.” Alexander heard the concern in Elad’s tone. “It’s been a rough day for you. Why don’t you rest for a while longer, and I’ll try to think of a way out of here.”

“Okay. Thanks Elad.”

“You’re welcome. That guard told me that he left you some fresh water, and some bread. He seems a better man than the others.”

Alexander went back to the bench, and just as Elad said, there was a tray on top of a bucket. A small loaf of bread, and a wooden cup of water were set out. He sniffed at the water, and took a cautious sip. It was cool and refreshing. It felt a little thicker than the water he was used to, but it brought quick relief to his parched throat. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. In no time at all he had drained half the cup.

“Elad, would you like some of this bread?” Alexander tore the loaf in half. The outside was tough, but the middle gave way easily, offering up gentle wafts of nutty goodness.

“You eat up, my boy. You’ll need your strength, besides, the guard was nice enough to give me a bit of bread as well.”

Alexander sat back down on the bench. He dug into the loaf like a ravenous beast. His stomach answered with satisfied rumbles and growls, and when he was done, he washed it all down with the remaining water, and laid down. He pulled the blanket back over himself. He wondered where Hanna was. Was she warm? Had she eaten? Had she been able to sleep?


***

Alexander awoke to the sound of his cell door opening. The soldier who had brought him to his cell last night was back. He carried a large bucket and a brush. He also had a small bundle tucked under his arm.

“I brought you some hot water and a brush to get cleaned up with.” The soldier set the bucket next to Alexander and handed him the brush. He placed the small parcel on the bench. “There are some fresh clothes in the package for you to change into. They should fit you fairly well.”

Alexander sat up and stared at the soldier. “Thanks…hey, what’s your name?”

“Sorry we weren’t properly introduced.” The soldier smiled, thrusting his hand out towards Alexander. “I’m Nicholas, lackey to the King’s army.” His tone suggested he was kidding about his title, but Alexander took his hand and returned a warm handshake.

“I’m Alexander, nobody of importance.” Nicholas’ demeanor was infectious and despite the situation, Alexander found himself bantering with the soldier.

“I respectfully disagree, Alexander.” Nicholas straightened back up and raised a hand in a gesture that Alexander thought was a little less than serious. “You have been summoned to the Governor’s palace this very day.”

“Summoned? That makes it sound like I have a choice.” Alexander poked at the parcel of clothing.

“You are a quick wit, Alexander, which is why I like you so much.” Nicholas knelt down and placed a hand on Alexander’s shoulder. “I’d advise you to keep your tongue when addressing the Governor though. He can be a generous man when it is to his advantage, but he can also be mercilessly cruel if it serves his purposes.” Nicholas must have seen the change of expression on Alexander’s face because he added, “Don’t worry, just answer his questions politely, and I think you’ll come out okay. I don’t think he honestly believes that you incited a riot.”

“Thanks, Nicholas.” Alexander looked back up. “How is Elad?”

“Who?” Nicholas gave Alexander a blank look.

“Elad. He’s in the cell next to mine.” Alexander gestured towards the wall.

“Oh yes, Elad. A fine fellow if there ever was one. He’s already at the Governor’s palace.”

“Will he be okay? He was only trying to help a lost boy. I don’t want him to get into any trouble.” Alexander chewed on his lower lip.

“He seems like a smart man. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.” Nicholas stood and gave Alexander a pat on the shoulder. “Now get washed up and into those new clothes before I get into trouble.” Nicholas turned to leave.

“Nicholas?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” he said without turning. “Just shout out when you’re finished, and we’ll head to the palace.”

“Okay.”

Alexander didn’t really feel comfortable removing all of his clothing even though nobody was watching. He stripped off his pajama top, and slipped off his shoes. He leaned over the bucket and used his hands to cup the water over his head. The warmth was a welcome feeling. He didn’t have any soap, but he did his best to tousle his hair and get all of the filth out. He dipped the brush into the water and went to work scrubbing all of the ‘nooks and crannys’ just as his mother had taught him when he was a little boy. It was hard for him to believe she was dead. They had only just gone to live with uncle Charles after the state released them to his care. Before that they had spent the better part of a year in foster care. Alexander scrubbed harder and harder until his skin was bright red. The water from his wet hair ran down his face and mingled with the newly fallen tears.

“I’ll get her back momma, I swear.” He wiped the tears from his eyes. “I’ll bring little Hanna home.”