The Blossoms

A Legendary Adventure Written by Em and Kat

Chapter 1: Astloch Manor

Linden and Hazel regretted deeply their father’s folly.  What man in his right mind would name his daughters after plants?  Of course their father had been hoping for sons, and surely he was not in his right mind, but honestly, Sir Jonathan, why give your children distress?  The sisters’ brother Ranulf hadn’t escaped Jonathan Ashdown’s bad taste – not a soul in the manor was there who appreciated his coarse sounding name, much like his personality.  Peasants remarked that Ashdown must have been drunk and dreaming that he was a horse to pronounce such a hideous Christian name on his infant son.  As a matter of fact, Hazel reflected, Jonathan probably was drunk and dreaming.  After all, that was his typical state.

No matter how much they detested their names, it was not to be changed. They were old family names, so they were very special to Sir Jonathan, it mattered not the sound.

This story begins, not with names of course, but with the bearers of the names. Linden had her mother’s lovely face, deep blue eyes, and long eyelashes. She was slightly shorter than the rest of the family, and she had ravishing nut brown hair, that cascaded down her slim back in ripples. She was called “Linden the Gentle” by those that knew her. She was quiet mannered and polite. When she was a girl, she dreamed of a remarkable adventure that she hoped to have one day with her sister, which of course, she knew was just a dream. For in this time, the only thing in life for a woman would be marriage.

Her younger sister, Hazel, was her best friend in the world. Hazel was stunningly gorgeous, ravishingly radiant, blindingly beautiful. Her hair was raven black, and fell softly down her back, perfectly straight, unlike her sister. She had more of her father’s complexion and hair; meaning her eyes were blue green, and she had deep dimples. She was often a jokester, though when it was necessary, she was extremely polite. She was loved by all because of her lively way about her; many townspeople called her “Hazel with the laughing eyes.”

As for Ranulf, well…  Behind his back the fierce young man was called “the snarling horse” because of his quick tendency to pounce upon any who teased his awful name.  Linden feared that Ranulf would never let go of his pugnacious ways.

Now as for their youngest sister, Posy (or as they called her, Nosy Posy), she was quite possibly one of the most aggravating creatures ever to walk the earth.  Often, Posy, aged ten,  would scribble what she claimed were words, and then read off mean sentences mocking her siblings and people around town. She was not called anything by the townspeople; simply because they could not think of anything kind to call her.  

One morning, Hazel and Linden strolled through the travelling manor’s fair.  It came and went between various peasantry towns, and today the duo was lucky enough to have the fair at their countryside home.  It was a welcome retreat from their father’s bellows.  

The warm air was suddenly pierced by the cries of, “Stop!  Cutpurse!  Come back, I say!”  

The most handsome man Hazel had ever seen in her short life came rushing past, angrily pursuing a small, ragged peasant boy who was missing his two front teeth.  

Hazel recognized the boy as feisty little Luc, the son of a sickly peasant woman.  Their cottage was the leakiest out of all the serfs.  Luc needed that money, and there was no way that I would help the velvet-clothed fellow, however handsome he might be. Well, Luc is a thief… Meredith was unsure if she wanted to stay firm in her noble opinions. She didn’t know whether she would be tempted to tell the gentleman Luc’s direction –

Suddenly, the man was standing right in front of her, clutching his heaving chest, and looking at Hazel. “Why hello, good lady.  A cutpurse has purloined my goods.  Have you seen him?” The handsome man’s voice was deep and smooth, like a melted chocolate fountain gently flowing.  His straight red hair was a firey and distinctive tint.  Hardly anyone in the shire had hair of that shade.

“Good sir,” Hazel replied, her heart pounding. “I -” Suddenly the young Luc rushed past them, shouting insults at the handsome gentleman.

“Dog in velvet! Why do you stop? Are you really as slow as the River Styx when Hercules fell into its waters?”  Luc called in his Normandy accent.

“Fair lady, never mind.” The man shrugged, and took off after the sly Luc, also shouting insults as he ran.  Passersby chuckled at the occurrence.  No one liked the man’s superior attitude anyway. However, Hazel’s heart sank a bit as the man ran away.

Linden wandered away from a juggler and noticed Hazel’s dreamy eyes. “What’s wrong, dear sister?” She asked concernedly.

Hazel shook her head passionately. “Nothing. It does not matter. Father would never allow one of us to love a serf. He would be positively ashamed.”

Linden gazed suspiciously at her sister. “Alright then. We’ve been to hundreds of these fairs, let us return home.” After one last look in the direction of the handsome gentleman, Hazel turned in the direction of Astloch Manor and the girls slowly sauntered back home.  

Astloch Manor was strategically placed upon a cliff over the rippling waters of Lake Guinevere. It was placed here for the reason that the family; in their younger years had desired to remain alone.  However, unconsciously a village had formed around it, therefore Sir Jonathan had become the leader.

It was a lopsided manor, very uninviting from the outside, and the atmosphere was the same on the inside.  Worm eaten rafters held a thatched ceiling as wide as the spreading oaks of Astloch once were. Thick planks were spread over aged sawhorses.  Upon one of these tables Sir Jonathan Ashdown was sleeping heavily. His snores were like to shake the rafters from their position and crumble the great timber paneled hall to shattered shingles.  Hazel reckoned their musty father fit in the musty building.  “Linden, let’s go surprise father…I’ll bet we’ll startle him into Sunday!  I plan to run in and frighten him out of his wits!”  Hazel whispered into her sister’s waiting ear.  

However, they never received the chance to startle their father, for at that moment, the snoring stopped. The girls stood stock still in the hallway, listening. They heard nothing, but a few seconds later, their father exited the hall and went into the bedroom, where the girls were standing.

“Oh, my blossoms.  It is good – achoo – that I did not have to send for you.  I came to tell you – achoo – that I have found most suitable husbands for you.  Your mother agrees that a wedding in a few months would be excellent.  After, all, you girls are 15 and 17, approaching old maidhood!  You  created your trousseaus last years, after all.”

The possible pranksters stood stock-still. Their countenances were gradually filling with pure horror, a look their imbecile father never seemed to notice.

“Will Green is a most proper and wealthy fellow, young, charming, with hair of a peculiar fiery shade of red.  A good match for Linden, I think, and a good dowry for me.”

As her obese father chuckled, Hazel realized that this description fit the velvet-clothed man at the fair! So he’s not a serf! she thought.

“Gad Hornworthy is about forty, but offered me a considerable dowry for a young wife.  His previous wife, Anne by the Ford, died when Gad’s manor floor collapsed out from under her.  She left two children – I think their names were Agnes and Michael?  I told Gad that Hazel was very young, and would be just the girl for him.”

Finally, Linden found her voice.  “But Father! I simply refuse to allow my 15 year old sister to marry a man nearly three times her own age.”  she protested anxiously.  

Sir Jonathan chortled. “Well, I’m afraid the dowry is simply too good to miss my dears! We will have a double wedding down by the ford in two weeks I think – achoo! Well, then don’t just stand there! They will be here later today, and I would think you would want good things for your father, eh? Hehe. Try to make yourselves look like ladies a wealthy lord would want to marry.” Their father had turned his attention to his breakfast, so the dismal sisters left the kitchen in shock.  

“Linden.  I wish this were a dream. How may we escape?”

“Although I must admit that from your description the red-haired fairgoer was handsome, he seemed to have no sense of compassion for Luc!  Sure, Luc was sinning awfully, but did you hear the unspeakable curses velvet-cloak, I mean Will Green, hurled in the boy’s direction?”

“Perhaps he didn’t know the boys circumstances!  But, he sounds closer to my age than yours.  Can’t father see that through red and rage-filled face of his?”

Ranulf the snarling horse entered the room just then.  He noted his sisters’ horrified state.  “Did the old lord tell you of his decision?  I was there when Will and the fat guy with warts came to the manor.  You were visiting Aunt Catherine’s manor during Saint Crispin’s Day.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” The girls chimed in unison.

“I declare, you’re as wretched as our father!”  Hazel added, infuriated.

Ranulf shook his mangy head.  “Really, children, you’re too kind.  You compliment me beyond my humble soul’s comprehension.”

Hazel delivered her brother a kick in the shins and rushed outside. Linden quickly ran after her.

She found Hazel sitting on a bench in the garden. Hazel was wholeheartedly sobbing into her lilac colored silk apron. “Oh Hazel. I’m so sorry.”

Hazel quickly responded. “It’s alright. I believe you’ll be happy, so I’m glad of that. I don’t believe I shall ever be happy again. sniff. Honestly, one wouldn’t think our father has a real soul inside his overweight body. He will be the death of me, I’ll swear to it!” Hazel looked down on her lap and began to cry again.

“Honestly, it really is a bad thing for both of us!” Linden replied. “What if Will turns out to be the most horribly tempered man, and Gad turns out to be a sweetheart? Look, if it really bothers you, I’ll ask father if I could marry Gad instead of you, he may consent to that at least.”

“No! I could not ask such a favor of you. You shall be a light in my sorry life, as long as I know that you are safe. Now come dear sister, let us dress up for our deaths.”

Chapter 2: Coals in the Privy

Later that evening, Sir Will along with Sir Gad arrived at Astloch Manor, in their best clothing, looking as sharp as they possibly could. Meanwhile, the Ashdown sisters looked positively ravishing, in their exquisite silk gowns, which their father had bought them from France. Their corsets tied as tight as they could go, and their hair in the most uncomfortable position, they as gracefully as they could came down the stairs.

Will started when he recognized the lovely girl he had spoken to at the fair.  He moved toward Hazel.

“My betrothed, it is good to see your flawless face once more.”  Will sounded like he would add more to this speech when Jonathan Ashdown called to the handsome man,

“Excuse my boldness, but the…other girl – achoo – Linden, is who you will marry.”

Gad, who really did have a bad case of warts as Ranulf had mentioned, moved towards Hazel, who allowed her mouth to hang open in a most unladylike way.  

Her father drew her aside.  “Hazel, dear.  Impress your future husband, not frighten him!”  An idea dawned upon our mischievous girl.

“Hazel, Jonathan tells me that you sew quite well.”

“Yes, I do, I embroidered some very stunning pictures of the handsome peasant boy down the road.” (a lie).

“Hazel, I have heard that your cooking is superb and outsurpasses all.”

“Truly!  My pig manure porridge is most divine!”

Gad reached for her hand, uncomfortably.

“Oh, careful!  The doctor told me to not touch anyone – my flinsysitis might spread!”  (this disease did not exist).

Linden was tittering behind her hand by now.

“Hazel, your father tells me that you have quite a sweet character.”

“Has my father not told you the time I threw coals into the privy, then!  Why, they smelled most horrid and burned for absolute days!”

Gad muttered that he had left something in the stable.  The sound of galloping hooves could be heard leaving the driveway.  Will appeared relieved that Hazel was not his betrothed, but his eyes twinkled suppressedly behind their stern glance. Sir Jonathan looked as though he could have strangled Hazel.  Knowing Sir Jonathan, he probably would have.

“Hazel,” he said with fake sympathy. “Please come talk to me; let’s leave these two alone.” Hazel caught Linden’s eye as she walked towards the kitchen looking sorry for herself.

“Well, Linden.” Will spoke awkwardly. “Would you like to take a walk around the garden?” He looked nervous that Linden may be like his sister.

“Of course, Sir Will.” Linden answered politely. Will escorted the uncomfortable Linden out the door, and they began to stroll around the flower garden. The roses and daisies seemed to beam at them.

“Your sister seems to be an entertaining young woman,” Will began. “I had a younger sister somewhat similar to her. She never failed to make me smile. I reckon she wasn’t happy being betrothed to that Gad character, was she?” He looked thoughtfully at Linden.

“Well, she’s my best friend, so don’t say anything against her or I’ll have to say I threw coals in the privy!” They both laughed at this statement, Will’s laughter sounding false and harsh, Linden’s high clear voice ringing true.

“I wouldn’t say anything against her, other than the fact that she tries to help desperate criminals!” Said Will.  How had he changed so quickly from a laughing young man to a cruel miser.

Linden looked at him curiously.

“What are you talking about? If you’re talking about Luc, I consider that completely unrelated! She was simply trying to help a poor family in our community.” Linden looked at him with stone cold eyes.

“Really? Then why was he yelling ridiculous curses at his elder and benefactor! I let him have the loaf of bread, after a good flogging!” Linden opened her mouth in disbelief.

“Well, my dear, I greatly value your opinions.  What is your opinion of  “that Gad character?””  she said, Hazel’s ways coming to her mind.

“Why, he’s a most undesirable suitor, very ugly, cruel, and stupid.”

“Well then, Sir Will, that is my opinion of you!”

“Why I’ll punish you the way I punished that peasant scab!  That is, when I have the right to.  For now, I will tell your father to treat you the way you deserve!  You wretch! Just as bad as your sister you are!”

At this crucial moment Luc, who had came up quietly behind him, delivered a kick in Will’s velvet-seated pants.  At his howl, Luc began to toss insults in the direction of the wicked suitor, and Linden was able to escape back to the house. Unfortunately, Will soon caught up with her, despite Luc’s attempts.

He rushed inside the house and quickly shouted to Jonathan Ashdown, “I’m looking forward to our marriage!” And with that, he turned around, mounted his bay horse, and galloped away. Linden was simply ready to cry.

Meanwhile, during this whole escapade, Hazel was being mentally flogged by her horrid father.

“Now I won’t get the dowry! You little wretch! Never thinking of anyone but yourself! I’ll get you I will! Hopefully I can still arrange the marriage. You should take a page out of your sister’s book.” howled the old man.

Suddenly both arguers heard Will’s cry of “I’m looking forward to our marriage!”  The cry was put forth in a much politer tone than the one he had used with Linden.

“See Hazel, your sister listens to instructions and has simply enchanted her betrothed, yes? Well, see that you act like her when you see Sir Gad again, and don’t say a word, understand?” Sir Jonathan shook his fist menacingly at her, with a devilish look about his eyes. However, Hazel, unlike her father, had heard the tinge of anger in the suitor’s seemingly excellent words.

As soon as the unbetrothed Hazel had exited the kitchen, she ran into the open arms of Linden, who had realized that there really was no better option; this was the end of their happiness.

 

Chapter 3: There

The fair and the suitors had occurred two days before.  Yet still, each dawning found the two sisters in mourning, as they had when their Uncle Jethro had died.  To cheer the sisters up, their mother suggested that they visit town and “do whatever you usually do while you can, while you’re unmarried.”  Distraught, and armed with a few coins, the two hopeless girls wandered aimlessly among the tangled streets of Astloch.  “Produce!  Fresh and sweet!”  “Buy my sweet fish!”  “Hemp-d rope, strong as tar!”  A few peasants and merchants hawked their wares. “Fortunes, my ladies!  Other worlds thou wilt see!”  Another peasant hawked loudly.

Hazel pulled her more sensible sister over to the doorway.  Linden expected another filthy peasant, in need of bread money, but instead, she looked into the clean and smooth face of a young man about her age.  A strong, tall man slipped into the shadows of the doorway behind the teenaged boy. Although the fortune teller wore the garb of a peasant, there was something in his manner which suggested regal bearing.  

“Come.  I see that you are upset.  Such fine women as you should not be troubled because of an unwanted betrothal.”  

Linden started. How could he have guessed?  Could the young peasant man with the mellifluous voice read her mind?  And the way he had said “fine women,” that wasn’t just flattery, the man said it with conviction, as though he knew what she herself did not know.  The fortune teller smiled, his smooth pale face creasing into thousands of tiny wrinkles and making his young face appear not old, but well aged and wise. How could a sun washed peasant have such a pale face?  Linden questioned inwardly once again.  

“Now, where shall I begin?”  As he spoke, the girls instinctively drew closer into the building.  “You would like a better suitor, someone who understands your true worth, unlike your father.”  The girls did not hear the tall young man shut the door behind them.  The young peasant boy – or was he a man, with his wisdom? – continued, “You want to live somewhere far away from your drunken father – for he is drunk right now, am I correct?”

Both girls nodded, hypnotized.

“You would like to see another world, I fancy.”  

The two sisters fancied they could see the glimmer of a distant land in his beautiful eyes.  

“A world – almost perfect, for you are not perfect yourselves.”

The girls wondered if the creases behind this man’s eyes were truly becoming flowing rivers in a land far, far away.  

“A land where the king is fair and just! – I fancy his sons wish your hands in marriage, the hands of such fine ladies as yourselves.”

Linden and Hazel contemplated whether or not the speaking man’s hands had worn that many rings when the had entered the house.

“A land full of gardens, fragrant blossoms fill the air -”  the man stopped suddenly, his beautiful, strong eyes meant both and one set of eyes seemingly at the same time. “Would you want to go to that land?”

“Yes!” said the girls, completely overwhelmed in the glory of their trance, “Take me there, oh please!”  

Seamlessly, as the girls would later say, they were there.  But what was there?  Oh, the beauties can barely be described.  It was perfect, it was future, it was fantasy now and joys past.

The girls returned to Astloch in an instant, still imagining the far away land the fortuneteller had told them of. A just king!

***

The two months passed.  The only hope for the sisters was the hope within the fortune teller’s descriptions of a faraway land.  One of their forlorn wishes was that they would be drowned in the sparkling torrents of the volminous waters of Lake Guinevere.

During the two months that had passed, Sir Gad had returned to the manor, saying that he would not accept Hazel, due to her interesting taste in pranks and soup. Unfortunately, another suitor had come to call, Sir Frankland, one as pugnacious as Will, and as ugly as Gad. He was not 40 years old, however, but he was 24. He agreed to marry Hazel for an even higher dowry price!

It was the night before the sisters’ wedding. Linden and Hazel, in the manor garden, forlornly gazed at the full moon, which was shining brightly upon the frolicking waves. It seemed almost as if the lake was sparkling of its own powers.  

“Linden,” Hazel whispered quietly, her face nearly expressionless. “Do you remember that far away, perfect place the fortune teller told us of?” Linden smiled gently.

“Of course. How could I forget? It was as if he could see into our very souls!” The sisters giggled.

“I think we should draw that world, as a reminder of the way things could be.” Hazel said, her eyes dancing in the moonlight. “You know, we’ll never have another moment to dream of it, after tomorrow’s horrors are complete.”

Linden smiled mischievously. “You’re right, dear sister. We shall imagine this world, the way things could be.” They got started immediately. The rushed through the evening garden, outside, and scurried around to find different colored berries in order to make paints for the glorious picture.

All throughout the long night, the sisters worked tirelessly in order to produce the world in which they hoped to someday live.  Their home made paints depicted a fantastic paradise, wrought by a hungry and hopeful heart.

The skies were a flawless blue, with fluffy white clouds that would never turn gray. The sparkling waters of the lake frolicked happily, with what seemed to be smiles rolling in towards the shore. The palace, oh! The palace! The lovely turrets looked out upon the sparkling seas, and the colors of the land, aquamarine and white, painted the bricks with an ecstatic joy, the flags dangling gracefully from the many turrets. Gardens of roses, daisies and ferns surrounded the entire castle, much like the gardens in which Linden and Hazel stood at that very moment.  The still, wide Lake Guinevere placily rippled at their feet.   

“Oh Linden!  If I could have but one wish, it would be to go here, in our peaceful blue land!”

Almost immediately, Hazel seemed to hear the mellifluous fortune teller’s voice roll through her head, saying sweetly, “You have but one wish.  Are you sure, lord’s daughter?”  

“Yes!” Hazel ecstatically replied, without thinking that she was talking to a voice in her head.  With a shimmer of raindrops, the waters of the lake parted and Hazel and Linden were there.

 

Chapter 4- Whitney in Clarc

 

It was the best and most wonderful moment the Ashdown sisters would ever experience in their lives. The sisters couldn’t believe what their eyes showed them, and thought it must be a dream! They were standing on a bottom step, part of a set of stairs leading up to the palace, and as they looked around them, they could hear the lapping waves, and the flowers dancing in the breeze. The palace was a jolly looking place, not at all similar to the lonely dungeons one may read of in a story book. Climbing flowers covered every inch of the lower walls, so to make the palace appear as though it was made by fairies. The land was perfect.

Linden and Hazel decided to advance to the palace. Hearts pounding, they hastened up the steps with excitement. Who lived in this castle? Was it the “just king” the fortune teller had spoke of? Thoughts poured through the sisters heads as they rushed up the cobblestone steps. Before they reached the top, a tall figure, reminiscent of the fortune teller’s assistant, opened the grand oak doors into a marvelous entryway. The girls decided it may be polite to curtsy, and promptly did so.

After they past this wonderful revelation, they wandered, unguided, through the showy entrance hall. The walls seemed to be made of pure gold, but were so covered in family portraits, that one may hardly tell. The men in the paintings all seemed so incredibly jolly, that the sisters could hardly help smiling. The painted royalty were very well dressed, quite similar to the more expensive finery of their actual world. Suddenly, at the end of the hall, another servant opened another large set of doors. “The king and his sons will see you now.” the servant said, in a deep and monotone voice which betrayed a jolly secret. Linden and Hazel quickly walked down the hallway, trying to brush the dirt off of their dresses, for they were going to see the king!

As they entered the throne room, both took a gasp. The throne room was vast, and beautiful. The multitude of colors used amazed both of the sisters.

“It was enchanted by our most famous seer, Seer Galahad. He enchanted it so that each person who entered it would see the most impressive throne room their own mind could perceive, so of course, I could win over everyone.”   The speaker chuckled.  A short stubby man, sitting on a cushy looking throne, in the center of the back wall. He had a long grey beard; nearly down to his waist, and his hair was shaved short, but still retained a natural chestnut hue. He was quite chubby; and looked old, nearing his seventies.

Beside him however, sat his two sons, or so they assumed. They looked similar to the king in countenance, but not stature. They both looked young, around their twenties. One of them was tall, and had a young face, but a bit of peach fuzz growing upon his stately chin. The other; the fortuneteller! He had the same kind, pale face, but his skin had earned some sun since their last visit.

“I thought you would stop by today,” the fortune teller/prince said, with a knowing smile, “Before – the event – tomorrow, I knew you would come.  No later than that.”

Linden and Hazel just smiled.  How the man knew of their planned wedding the next day did not matter to them.  They were blissfully content in the gorgeous room.  The second young man nodded at the girls in their faded gowns.

“Here in Clarc, we invite the hopeless, yet imaginative from your land to the joy and peace of our land.  The reason you must be imaginative…in the eyes of some, we do not exist.  Take, for example, your revered Fat Father of Astloch’s opinion of all things fantastic.”

The girls stared at the tall Prince, shocked.

“Oh, how do we know your pet name for him?  Here in Clarc, we know every thought of those in Astloch, about, and above.  Although we have the ability to see the thoughts of all, we take care to avoid anything impure.  In no way must our kingdom be tainted by mental thoughts becoming actions of evil!”

The king raised his hands to quiet his son.  “Camentas, thank you.  As I was about to continue, before my sons Albert and Camentas interrupted: now that you, my dear Linden and Hazel, are residents of Clarc, you may view the minds of those in the world below.  You may move between Astloch and Clarc occasionally.”

Linden replied, “But why us?” she asked confusedly. “We may be what you’re looking for, but I’m sure there are others in Astloch who are imaginative like us.”

“Well, you were in a bit of a bind, I must say. There are others, but we only invite one person a year. You were this year’s choice, though we could not choose which one of you. Therefore, we decided to bring both of you into our land.” The king cleared his throat. “Well ladies, there will be a ball this evening; you must be exhausted.” As much as the sisters hated to admit it, they were tired. They had stayed up all night to create the lovely image, and then they had gone into a different world! They wanted to find out more, but they could barely hold their eyes open.

“What about the wedding?” Hazel asked, suddenly frightened. “Will we be able to escape it? What will happen?”

“You will be here in the city of Whitney, in the country of Clarc, thriving with us. The wedding will be canceled, and of course every peasant and freeman in the protection of the manor will be searching for you. Your father will be dreadfully angry.” he chortled. “Now, if you’re sure that you shall stay here for the day, you may take a nap and then get ready for the annual welcome ball. Four handmaidens rushed into the magical throne room and escorted the sisters through the halls.

As they walked, Linden said to Hazel, “What did you see in the enchanted throne room?” she smiled mischievously.

“Oh Linden, it was marvelous! The walls were made of solid gold, and there were crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, large tapestries depicting flower fields, and large windows with the sun pouring in! Oh! It was wonderful!” Hazel said with glee.

“I saw a wonderful white church type of room. With the sun pouring through yellow stained glass windows. It was as if the room could read my thoughts! I was thinking of the wonderful palace of the king, in Astloch. It was beautiful!” The sisters giggled together as they entered a wide bedroom. The handmaidens told them to sleep. The last thing they remembered was their heads slowly lowering to fluffy pillows, and then seeing the sunlight flow in, from the wonderful sky of Clarc.

 

Chapter 5: Rollicking

Close to three hours later, the girls were gently awakened by a young woman, around fourteen years old; she informed them they should get ready for the ball, for it would be taking place quite soon. The sisters rushed out of bed and walked over to a closet. They slowly opened it, wondering if the king had provided them with beautiful ball gowns. The king had! Linden selected from the clothing a pale yellow gown of airy silk, small yellow rosebuds running along the trim, and with a flattering shoulder neckline. The older sister appeared simply ravishing, with a small tiara gently perching upon her curly, long nut brown hair.

Hazel chose a dress as pale green as the underside of a dew spangled leaf, and silver along the neckline. She did not wear a tiara, but prefered to pick some lovely daisies for a crown, which looked simply enchanting.

Within an hour, the sisters had left their room for the ball, which was occurring in the throne room.

“Out of all the beautiful people in Astloch, the king picked us?  Why, we’re some of the poorest lord’s daughter’s in our land, not worthy enough to be daughters-in-law of the king.  And what could motivate the king, Albert, and Camentas to select us to enjoy their beautiful kingdom?”

“Linden, dear.  Your practicality was always so helpful when I got carried away in my plans.  But what use is practicality now when we are living in the world of our dreams!  Come now, let us walk through these marbled halls with peace in our hearts.”

“Marbled?  Why, can’t you tell that the floors are plated with gold?”

“Suit yourself, sister dear!” Hazel said, laughing, “This land is ever so different than our world. What I see in this enchanted palace will differ from the vision of the  king himself!  In this way, everyone will feel comfortable when they visit His Majesty.  Why!  I wonder what Luc would think of us, if he could imagine us all bedazzled in finery!”  Hazel turned the corner, and the humming noise of polite conversation combined with beautiful music rushed up to greet her.  They must be nearing the ballroom – “Linden!  I – I fancy that Luc would think us unspeakably royal!  Truly, it does seem as though his very thoughts are lighting upon my mind!”

“Remember, we can view the inner thoughts of all in Astloch.  Now, let us see the wondrous folk of this grand palace.”  said the elder, smiling gently.

The doors opened, seemingly without assistance, for the sisters, and the girls’ overwhelming, billowing joy can scarcely be described.  The people were clothed with the hues the colors of vivid tones of gemstones.  Long, scarlet drapes framed the pristine white walls.  Huge, perfectly unblemished glass windows stretched from ceiling to floor – ten feet at least, and neither sister had seen so much as an unscratched window pane in her life!  The floor was of marble, clearer than crystal, and sheets of gold leaf had been carefully embossed upon the enormous expanse that was the wall. Scattered about the room, the lucky attendees were spread about in small groups wearing gorgeous gowns and splendid suits the equal of those of the Ashdown sisters.  The king was enthroned in all his glory at one end of the hall, but would get up now and then when the musicians began their rollicking songs, to merrily dance with his wife.  Ahh, the queen!  Far more beautiful than any mortal, Seraphina danced with a flourish; yet to the surprise of the two new guests, not one visitor appeared envious. Prince Albert, the younger prince, at the ripe age of 21, walked up to the awestruck two, bowing with a smile. Suddenly, the king began to speak.  

“Dear newly arrived guests, I know that you wonder why no one covets the stunning display about.  In truth, after twenty-four hours in our country, guests – for all you see have been called from the kingdoms below to thrive within our sacred city – will scarce remember their painful memories.  Such sad events shall become as things of the past.  Soon, you both will know but faintly those hazy trials of the mortal world.”  The wonderful king then declaimed, “Guests! We have with us two new sisters, from Astloch. Fair Lady Linden and Fair Lady Hazel!”  The king pointed out the two girls, who blushed and waved at the kind folk applauding them.

“Would you like to dance, Lady Hazel?” Prince Albert advanced and shyly held out his hand to the flattered sister. Hazel humbly accepted it.

“Of course, Prince Albert.” Hazel gracefully curtsied. As she curtsied, the taller prince, Camentas, who was 23, walked over and offered Linden his hand for a dance. The two couples slowly ambled onto the marvelous dance floor, and began to dance as the audience held its breath. As the beautiful cello played along with the violins, the young couples waltzed.

Hazel simply stared into the deep eyes of Prince Albert; thoughts running through her mind, her heart pounding out of her chest. Prince Albert was simply wonderful. His blond hair went down to his broad shoulders, and his big blue sea-like eyes looked as if he was staring into the depths of her soul. For the first time in her life, Hazel did not stumble as she danced, a blessing for which Hazel was immensely grateful for. It seemed that Prince Albert truly cared about people, instead of just living to impress an audience.

Meanwhile, Linden observed the features of Prince Camentas, who looked quite like his mother. His eyes were deeply hazel, and his hair was a lovely dark brown, cut shorter than his brother’s. After the dance, Linden quietly chatted with Prince Camentas, who was taller, older, jollier, and thinner than Albert, the younger, more serious prince.

“This throne room looks wonderful! What does it look like for you?” Linden asked curiously.

“Well,” Camentas chuckled. “Father let down the enchantment for tonight like he does yearly, so everyone sees the same thing tonight.” Linden smiled at the ground. “You look lovely.” the prince said quietly. The shorter sister blushed profusely.

“Thank you, Prince Camentas.”

“Oh please!” the prince said quickly. “Please call me Cam. Everyone does. Everyone who knows me anyhow.”

“Very well, Prince Cam.” Linden smiled, her cheeks flushed.

“So, can you tell me about your family?”  Prince Cam asked, trying to make friendly conversation.   

“Well,” Linden’s face contorted. “My mother always seemed to be in the solar, stitching a seemingly endless, and very detailed, sampler.  And Nosy Posy, my little baby sister…umm…she always seemed to be scribbling what she said were words on foolscap, but they were naught more than doodles.  Funny, now, but I can scarce remember why we called the dear girl “nosy.”  

Cam continued listening.  “How about your father?  Did you have any brothers?”

“And my father, Jonathan Ashdown, ahem, urm, eh.  I can’t seem to remember anything about him…I do remember that he had fallen asleep on the table in our hall…But why, I wonder?  Anyways, I had a brother, Ranulf the – the – snarling horse.  Why was he called that?  I can’t say…  Oh well, Hazel and I went to the fair once. We met a man all dressed in velvet.  He did something…”

Prince Cam artfully turned the conversation, well knowing what Linden was undergoing – the absence of evil in the kingdom had blurred a great deal of Linden’s unhappy memories.  “Well, Miss Linden, enjoy your evening. If you need anything, do not hesitate to ask.” Prince Cam reached for her small, dainty hand, and pressed a kiss onto it. He bowed and slowly walked away, his eyes looking as if they’d rather stay. Linden stared after him, slightly disappointed. Instead, she looked around for Hazel, who was laughing; looking jolly while dancing with Prince Albert. Linden was glad her sister was so joyful.

As the time wore on, the dancing continued, and Linden danced with multiple different townsfolk. She saw more of Prince Cam, who she noticed did not dance with anyone else. Hazel, however continued to dance with Albert throughout the entire night.

At the end of the evening Hazel was still smiling merrily, with her flower crown falling out of her hair as she bid the cheery Albert goodnight. She walked over to the tired but smiling Linden.

“Oh Linden! Wasn’t that just jolly?”

“Of course, Hazel.  You seemed to be having a rollicking good time there with Prince Albert.  I, on the other hand…Among others, I danced with the treasures of the kingdom, a farmer, a knight,and the grandfather of a noble attending, Isaiah I think his name was.  I danced with Prince Cam last.  The strange thing is, I can’t seem to remember any of our life before this place!”

“Do you WISH you could?”  Hazel scarce knew the consequences of this fatal question.  

“Why, I do! Of course I wish that I could regain my memory of my family!”

They were back in the blink of an eye.  Not just back in Astloch, remembering their crude manorial hall, Sir Jonathan, Nosy Posy, Ranulf the snarling horse, the wicked Sir Will, and the displeasing Sirs Gad and Frankland.  Life, after being in a kingdom as perfect as heaven itself, could not have seemed any worse at that moment for the two sisters.

 

Chapter 6Back home

The girls, remembering everything, quickly ducked behind the rows of tapestries, which, come to think of it, their father had probably purchased with their dowry money right after the girls had “visited” Clarc.  The cloths were strung between the chimney and the wall, dividing the hall from the solar, and had not been there a few days ago. The sisters had missed their wedding day, and were most likely being earnestly searched for. Surely my father will have thought we have ran away!  No doubt townsfolk are being questioned at this very moment. Linden thought.  She dearly regretted making her careless wish in the ballroom of Clarc.

“Hazel, what should we do?  Turn ourselves in? Try to get back there?”  Linden murmured, lifting the corner of Hazel’s tapestry, which was floor length and stitched with tiny scarlet shapes.  Just then, Linden heard the thud of the manor door opening, and shrank back into her tapestry, which only reached her bare ankles and was a sheeny white work of snow falling upon a manger scene.  Voices began to speak.

“Will, you’re a good man.  I’m sure you and Sir Frankland have searched Astloch thoroughly  for your stubborn brides.”

“We did, Jonathan, and mourn that our weddings could not have began sooner.  Ho!  What’s this?”

Delicate Linden nearly fainted with horror when her tapestry was snatched away from her!  Will’s unshaved face and bleary eyes stared at the unfortunate eavesdropper, and his beery breath steamed upon her face. His red, dull eyes looked daggers at the cowering girl.  Linden could tell from her experience with Sir Jonathan, her father, that Will had probably been drinking.

“It is good to see you at last, my betrothed.”  the man finally spit out at her.  Jonathan leaned casually back against one of the tables near the fireplace, a sneer spreading across his broad red face, rendered stupid via too much alcohol.

“Where is the soon to be Lady Frankland, your sister?” Will spoke cruelly.

All the while, Sir Jonathan did nothing except smile villainously, his arms crossed in perfect causality.

“I – I don’t know, Will.” Linden perjured, her pale, cracked lips trembling.  Why did her tapestry have to be shorter than Hazel’s?  Why couldn’t they have been both floor length? Nevertheless, Linden would not reveal her sister’s location.  Perhaps Hazel could yet go back to Clarc, even if Linden was miserably captive!

Suddenly, she spotted her sister’s feet disappear from under the neighboring tapestry. Will heard a slight whoosh, and as he was observing Hazel’s, the longer tapestry, Linden also disappeared into Clarc without the drunkard’s notice. As she did so however, she heard screamed curses come from Will’s beer stained mouth.

***

Back in Clarc, both of the girls were simply sobbing. They had remembered all about their family, and the horrors within Astloch – and they were sure that they would never forget.  No doubt Will and Sir Jonathan, being drunk would consider the experience a hallucination, but nevertheless Linden and Hazel were worried of the possible consequences of their escapade.

Hazel, in order to repel her feelings, took a stroll around the castle garden, while Linden remembered Cam’s promise of if she needed anything, to simply ask him. She ambled into the throne room, which looked as impressive as ever.  

“Back again?”  said a familiar voice, “I wondered if you knew what powers wishes held.  I assume that someone in Clarc guessed of your plight and wished you back.”  

Linden turned and beheld Prince Albert in all his wonder.  

“We never knew, Your Highness, of the power which wishes hold in this kingdom.”

“Of course,” he said kindly, “Only we immortals know. Is there something you need?”

“Yes, in fact. May I see your brother?” Linden asked hopefully.

“Of course, he’s visiting the library, but I will quickly fetch. him.” Albert hurried out of the room. I hope this is not too desperate. Albert quickly returned with Camendas and started reading a book in the corner.

“Linden. Is there something you need? I heard about your narrow escape.” Cam found her with her hands folded behind her back, deep in thought.

“Oh! Yes. I simply need to know how to see the thoughts of someone below, Sir Will Green?” she questioned nervously. “You said if I ever needed anything, to come to you.” Camendas nodded.

“Of course. The thought room is just down the hall-”

Suddenly, a horn broke forth its warning song, and Prince Albert stood, gasping.  

“Oh dear! Evil has entered the kingdom! If it is not dispelled within the course of forty-eight hours, Clarc will be no more, and it’s inhabitants will never again be able to gaze upon it’s lovely seas!”

The queen and Hazel came running in, the king close behind.  Already townsfolk were streaming from the city gates to the castle, arming themselves with magic implements which seemed to hurl themselves from the air to the powerful citizens. Linden was terrified that Clarc would be destroyed, namely because she would be returned to the fate of marrying a man she didn’t love and who also did not love her.

“Father!” Cam shouted over the roar of the entering crowd.. “Get the townsfolk down in the hall, we need to talk!”

“SILENCE!” the king bellowed, which had an incredible power to make everyone in the room be quiet. All the townspeople were breathing heavily, their hearts pounding. “I need to meet with our new inhabitants, my wife, and my sons. This is a great emergency. If we do not fix it in an orderly fashion, Clarc could be gone, very soon.  Now, let us go to the Hall of Decisions” The king’s countenance appeared to be indelibly imprinted with a grave look.

Quickly, the townspeople rushed out of the large, rarely used throne room, into the even larger hall where the girls had danced in gorgeous gowns just a short time ago. As soon as the townsfolk exited, the great oak doors closed with a bang. A table rose from the center of the room, and all the occupants of Clarc sat down, the king at the end. He began to speak, with a dismal tone.

“Well. As you all know, or have been told, the blast of the horn indicates that a great evil has entered into Clarc. Of course, we are informed immediately of the person or thing. However, there seems to be an issue with communication, for we do not know what is plaguing us now.” The radiant queen attempted to muffle a loud gasp,  as tears streamed down her face. “That was quite my reaction as well my dear.” the king said quietly, looking down. Horror and disappointment was evident upon all the faces in the hall.

“But your majesty,” Hazel said, her terrified, yet hopeful countenance looking upon that of the king.  “Is there not anything that we can do?”

“There is something. That would require the deepest measure, and I would prefer not to go to such extremes. For by using that method, Clarc, myself,” he paused, looking at his wife. “And my wife would all be destroyed.” He heaved a sigh of pain. “Of course, it would save everyone else, for they were either invited, or they weren’t involved in the making.”

“Father.” Cam suddenly spoke, horror alighting his face. “But would you and mother be ruined? Surely there is something else we can do, if we do not defeat this villain?”

“Well, my son. I imagined this world containing the perfect queen; I invented it you see. Once I figured out how to get here, I married her, and we had you two. We couldn’t keep it only to our family, so we started finding others. The world is bound to us, my child.” Linden saw small tears fall down the noble prince’s face.

A brawny man came running up from behind Albert, to begin commanding the citizens of Clarc to put on their armor and ready their weapons.  Among the inventory, citizens strapped on books with golden crosses painted upon their covers and values such as compassion, strength, love, healing, and bravery.  The valiant man, panting, motioned towards the prepared citizens behind him.

“Good king, I along with the Seer Simon, have discovered the cause of our troubles.  A wicked and abominable man has come to our kingdom to steal two of our newest citizens!  He comes from Astloch, below us, and has followed Linden and Hazel Ashdown here through his own corrupt consult of witchcraftery!”

The crowd gasped.

“What is the name of this foul persona, and where does he lie?”

“Sir Will Green, a stoney-hearted man, and he marches here with no companion except for a staff of feeble iron.  He claims in his fierce mind that the Princes’ soon-to-be-betrothed,” A collective gasp went up from the crowd.  “Are in right a belonging of his and another man.  It was easy for a simple seer to read a below-worldling of Astloch’s thoughts.”  

“How should we defeat this Will character, Seer Galahad? Can you help?”  the king waited for the wise man’s advice anxiously, along with the rest of the battle ready crowd within the hall.  

“My advice, oh king, is that you would allow us seers and citizens to take care of this problem. We are able to twist his mind to forget Clarc and how to get into it. However, we have no power to banish evil thoughts inside an evil mind.”

“But can you dispel him forever from our fair country?”

“Yes, my liege, but that could possibly prevent the entrance and exit of any born on the world below.  Meaning, that Linden and Hazel could never return to Astloch, and that those with imaginations in their kingdom could never come to Clarc.  What do you wish, my children?”

The seer turned his piercing eyes directly to the sisters, who drew closer to the royal family.  

Linden answered boldly with Hazel’s consent.  “Seer Galahad, I think that I have no right to wish.  I always confuse things terribly when I wish.”

“Well, all right then. My king, what is your wish?”

The king looked at his wife. “Make him forget everything he saw, and dispel him just this time.” He turned towards the sisters sternly. “If you go back again, do not make any more mistakes.”

Both nodded, sorrowfully. They felt horrible for inflicting Sir Will upon the people of Clarc. After gathering an army of Clarc’s citizens, the two brave seers left the castle quickly. The crowd marched off in search of the threat to their kingdom boldly, without a tear.  Soon, all heard a second trumpet blast, which indicated that the evil had been vanquished.  Many cheers rang out, and great was the joy of inhabitants both old and new!  The people of Clarc felt as though they were invincible.

Back in Astloch, however, the stunned Sir Will Green stood plotting in the hall of his run-down estate.  He had summoned a servant to bring him a spellbook.  Sir Will had seen the glorious castle through greedy eyes – and coveted it.  His plan was to find a peasant well-read in black magic and ask him to send him to that paradisical land he had visited.  If Sir Will was able to conquer that wealthy nation, the treasures would belong to him and he would be king!

What Sir Will did not know, however, was that the presence of a corrupt heart in Clarc for too long would disrupt the magic – and that as the foundations of Clarc would crumble, so would those of the real world – Astloch.

 

Chapter 7: The Beast of Fire Encounters a Budding Romance

Both girls had decided to stay in Clarc as long as they could. Staying in Clarc was a decent excuse to not go back to Will and Frankland, as a bonus, the sisters’ residing there also protected Clarc from possible entrance of villains. (By their mistakes anyhow.) The townspeople’s frenzied excitement over the entrance of evil had died down, and the sisters finally experienced normal life in Clarc.

The citizens were hardworking and content, there were never fights or squabbles, (although the occasional eye rolling did occur).  All seemed happy to be able to do their part in Clarc’s daily life. The merchants happily sold their goods, craftsmen tinkered with a passion, bakers merrily baked their bread, handmaidens cheerily embroidered and chatted…Life in Clarc was enchantingly perfect.  Over the course of a fortnight, the sisters got to know the princes quite well, Linden with Cam, and Hazel with Albert.

Hazel and Albert’s relationship grew quickly; for Hazel admired Albert’s serious and wise ways, they intrigued her. Albert felt the same concerning Hazel. She fascinated him, because of her liveliness and sincere beauty. She livened up his life, in fact, the peaceful, content castle had changed quite a bit from the time she had arrived. The servants now sang joyously as they worked, on account of Hazel’s lively voice. Hazel and Albert often talked for hours in the large library. Laughter could be heard, spilling like sunshine through the large doors.

Camendas saw Linden every day, and they regularly strolled in the garden, talking for long lengths of time. Their parting had gone from a simple goodbye to an affectionate embrace. Each shared with one another  portions of their lives; Cam shared about growing up inside the perfect Clarc, his troubles, and his loneliness with only his wise brother for a friend, although Albert was really a good chap. Linden shared about her betrothal to Will, her horrid, drunken father, her trying brother, selfish mother, and nosy younger sister, Posy. The lovers discussed many things of importance to them, revealing the utmost depths of their souls, often galloping through the city of Whitney in Clarc as well, wandering the valleys on horseback, looking up at the picturesque mountains and waterfalls while prancing upon their noble steeds; and pointing out the unique wildlife that included small elves and some pixies. They often stayed out all day, leaving their beloved countryside only after they had watched the sun set over the high mountains behind the great Palace of Whitney.

Days went by and both couples were beginning to feel something toward one another; one may say they were beginning to fall in love.

***

Meanwhile, in Astloch, the sisters’ prospects were going downhill. Sir Will Green was plotting against those in Clarc, memorizing magic spells to assist him in entering the kingdom, so that he could bring the two runaways back.  The malicious Sir Will, upon following the sisters through the portal to paradise and being sent away in disgrace from the very gate of the palace, resolved to gather all the strength through magic that he could find, and bring Clarc down from its grand heights to his own low reign. Through the consulting of various peasants in Astloch, Will realized that he could say a single spell, and be transported, for a high price in the wealth of Astloch, to Clarc.

***

Camendas was prepared to propose to Linden.  He had consulted King Kilian and Queen Seraphina, and when he received their blessing, he ecstatically proposed to his beloved. Of course, the proposal took place in one of their cherished valleys, where Cam had gently lifted Linden from the saddle, and taken her to a small rock directly in front of a gorgeous waterfall. There he had humbly asked Linden to be his, and she had tearfully laughed, and of course, accepted. Cam was very protective of Linden, as if Sir Will would pop up at any moment and steal her away from him. Although Albert and Hazel shared a deeper and more developed relationship than Cam and Linden; whom had quite a sincere relationship, the wise and thoughtful Albert had yet to propose. Patiently, Hazel awaited the words which she knew were soon to come, content to grow closer to her dearest as time flew by.

During those peaceful days among the kingdom, in which the weather was always spring and the people almost always cheery and loving, King Kilian showed his sons and their accompaniers mementos of his life before Clarc.  King Kilian showed them the painting in which he had drawn his dream kingdom and dream wife, Seraphina.  He explained that one night he had stolen away from his peasant hut and magically entered the perfect land to live forever distanced from Astloch’s woes. Kilian also graciously showed a charm created by Seer Simon which bound the kingdom together, as long as evil did not enter the hearts of its two wise and kind rulers.  One day, as King Kilian and Queen Seraphina were showing their sons the kingdom’s treasures, and teaching them the politics of Clarc, the horn blew. It was the second time a call of danger had sounded in Clarc, but a different call.  The townsfolk rushed up and assembled for battle for the second time in Clarc’s history.  

Seer Galahad powerfully declaimed, “A dragon is terrorizing our kingdom.  Great destruction could follow its beating wings.  The dragon would be safer than an evil usurper would be to Clarc, such as that awful usurper, Sir Will, yet is more difficult to expel, as we have no magic which could defeat this beast.  Instead, we shall have to use our weapons to fight this monstrous creature.”

The townsfolk courageously shouted and went out to search for the fire-breathing dragon.  A centaur and an embarrassed looking friendly giant also joined the people Clarc in their search. What the folk did not know, however, was that Will Green of Astloch hid behind the dragon’s beating wings.

As the people of Clarc searched, the king and his sons leading, they sang heartily.  Cam and Albert, who had been warned profusely by their mother not to injure themselves, followed behind.  Albert had spent a long time in the palace library before leaving, presumably studying, but more likely talking to Hazel.  Also,  before leaving the palace, Linden had given a gentle kiss on the forehead to Cam as a form of protection.   

The warriors had been gone only three hours when the sisters decided they wanted to do more than wait for their handsome knights to rescue them from their distress. They decided they would go look for the dragon themselves, no matter the danger! They desired to show their prince’s they were more than simple weak maidens! As they journeyed to the dragon’s cave, they chatted excitedly.

“What will Cam say when he sees that his beloved killed the horrid dragon?” Hazel said, laughing.  

“I’m sure I can’t guess! Look, Hazel!  A cave up by that piney hill!”

The girls had reached the summit of the large hill. They gazed across the large valley where the great cave lay.  Strangely, a dim, fiery glow emanated from the cavern. In her heart of hearts, Linden was not as excited as she hoped to seem.  

Inwardly, a gnawing fear sliced into Linden’s soul. “Hazel – perhaps we shouldn’t have come.”

“Linden, you shouldn’t worry so much. We will be fine, and if not, I’m sure our prince’s will rescue us.”

“But what if the king and queen are killed by the dragon, back at the palace?” Linden didn’t look away from the cave.

Hazel sighed.  “Linden-”

“I’m serious!” Linden looked as if tears were about to flow down her countenance. “Clarc will be destroyed by that beast! Do you – do you think Albert and Cam be able to get out?”

A large creature – a dragon – stalked up the summit towards the two explorers.  Hazel shouted, scrambling down the hill and tugging her sister after her.  

“I knew you’d come. You defiant ninnies!” A large pair of claws closed around both girls waists, and they were lifted from the ground.  Dragons couldn’t talk, could they?  Hazel wondered, her shocked mind working slowly.  Linden’s response cleared her muddled brain.

“Sir Will! What is the reason for this?” Linden cried out in agony, as the great, fire breathing beast’s claws were squeezing her waist!

“I paid to marry you, scab! I shouldn’t have, that was a mistake, but I did. Your father purchased those tapestries as soon as I gave him an advance in the dowry.  So I have to get my reward – you two are my reward!” He laughed sneeringly. Hazel was struggling against the dragon’s claws, which had pierced her back in multiple places, close to tears.

The dragon lifted them into the air, as Will Green jumped on the creature’s massive back. The shouting Linden, Hazel, and Sir Will flew away, the freezing wind whipping their faces, soaring through the dark towards the glowing cave.

Chapter 8: The Miraculous Defeat

Hazel coughed.  She flipped to her side and coughed some more.  Dust hung thick as mud in the air, so thick that Hazel could scarcely see her sister.

Wait!  Where was Linden?  Hazel groaned from the pain of the wounds the dragon had inflicted upon her back, as she stood.  She assumed that she was in the cave the dragon had flown into.  So much for slaying the dragon. Hazel thought ruefully.  She laughed, or rather coughed bitterly.  Her once elegant gown was streaked with dust and stains.  “Lin -” Hazel stopped short.  Where were Linden and Will and the dragon?  Had they all fallen from the dragon’s back?  Had the great creature deposited them in hope of an evening snack?  Hazel felt her way around the cavern.  To the left of her former resting place stood a great stalagmite the width of a palace turret, to the right a great mass of rocks.  Hazel delicately nudged what felt like a warm mound of clay, about the length of two strides from the stalagmite.  When she walked forward, she crashed into – oomph! – part of the caverns massive stone walls!  Backwards from the stalagmite, Hazel splashed her way through a shallow creek and stumbled over another warm clay mound!  

Shockingly, this ordinary clay mound could talk!  The mound mumbled in a muffled tone, “Wul! Go awumph!”  

“Linden!  How good to see you!” Hazel cried.  

Linden made a shushing noise from where she sat, leaning painfully against the cave wall.  The dragon had injured her too, as was evident from her grimaces.

“Linden – there is a creek nearby.  If necessary we may wash our wounds there,  My dear sister, I thought that you were a mound of clay, like the other one I found!”

“Hazel, that other mound might just be another person!  Please lead the way.”  Came Linden’s sensible reply through the darkness.

Hazel guided Linden across the subterranean creek and around the mass of pebbles, zigzagging on and off course until she glimpsed a dim ray of light, which she had not seen before.  By its gleam she beheld a body in a dusty cloak, wrapped in a shroud of grey wool.  The body appeared to be sleeping deeply.  Hazel had two thoughts at this moment.  The first was, “Light!  This means we might be able to escape outside!”  The second thought which crossed Hazel’s mind was, “Why would Sir Will be trapped in the cave with us?”  For the man sleeping deeply on the cavern’s floor was Sir Will!

Linden had also noticed this, and with uncommon ferocity growled, “Is the creek deep enough for a man to drown?”  Hazel glared in her sister’s direction.

“We will find a way to keep Sir Will in one place.” she said.  Quizzically, Hazel glanced at the dim ray of light.  Crevices in the cavern wall created a makeshift, 12-foot-high stairwell leading towards the distant ray.  

“Once Will is secured, we can climb the crevices and escape!” Hazel cried, then paused. “Do you think that the dragon double-crossed Will and left him here?”

“Hopefully he wasn’t planning on eating all three of us humans!”  Linden replied to her sister’s question, nervousness sounding just slightly through an attempt at humor.  “My pain where the dragon squashed me is beginning to subside,”  Linden added, displaying several multicolored bruises spangled up her side.  As if an afterthought, Linden said,  “Do you think your back could handle a little heavy lifting?”

Hazel replied that her back was getting used to the slight discomfort in walking, and the duo set about finding large stones, and using them to build two short pillars above the sleeper, who slept as though drugged.  Linden found a large stone slab, and laid it above her pillars, forming a bench-like structure over the malicious man’s legs.  As there were stones in abundance in the dragon’s cave, Hazel had no difficulty hauling the cool granite rocks over to Linden, who built more and more low, bench-like structures over the sleeper. At one point, Hazel lifted an especially smooth brick. When she saw it in the ray of light, a yellow sparkle surprised the girl.  No granite, no marble – this brick was the dragon’s gold!  Hazel shrugged and handed the brick to Linden, who gasped.  

“And I thought I found something to show you!” Linden said.  Upon laying the heavy golden brick reverently in a crevice, Linden handed Hazel a leather flask.  Hazel sniffed, and promptly lost her balance.  

“Could the dragon really have drugged Sir Will?”  Hazel said, frowning.  “That’s dangerous stuff – or maybe just ale.  Also, when will the dragon return? We have much bigger problems than the drunk petty lord under yonder.”

Linden finished her stone prison, constructed of the huge, thin, slabs of rock.  Will’s muffled snores could be heard coming through a gap in the stonework.  Stepping back to admire it, she grinned with satisfaction.  “Well, Hazel.  Let’s try climbing out of this lair.  Remember, the dragon found some way to get us here, so if that opening letting light in is our hope, it must be quite enormous!  If we are not able to climb out, we must find a way to secure ourselves from that feathered fiend, the dragon.”  

Hazel nodded solemnly.  “If necessary, we shall fight that battle to the last.”

Linden began to hoist her sister in the direction of that precious ray of light, hoping that the sun would not set before the duo reached the top of the cavern cliff. As they struggled up the first footholds, Hazel’s back once again began to sting terribly. “Aah!” she cried softly, dropping back into the cavern.

“What’s the matter?” Linden said fearfully.

“Nothing…I mean, well, it’s my back. That cursed dragon dug his claws into me when he was flying us here.”

“Does it sting badly?” Linden asked tenderly touching her sister’s back. She had forgotten about Hazel’s numerous cuts and welts.  The injuries were shallow, and had already scabbed over, but there were a great abundance of them. “Would you like me to put some water on it?”

“Thank you sister, but we really should be going! When we get back to the palace, I can have it cleaned wonderfully. Wait – do you recall Sir Will controlling the dragon, when he rode on its back?  Sir Will had control of that monster, which could mean that the dragon won’t eat us! Or him.”  Hazel added their imprisoned captor as an afterthought.

Linden looked at her sister proudly. “Hazel, you are a genius! I do recall that incident. However, you really should wet those cuts in the stream.  If your explanation is true, that means the flask proves that Sir Will was merely drunk with victory.  The dragon, who did not drug the man, must have left to pick another fight.”

“A good thought, Linden.  But, sister, you do worry too much. If it makes you happy, I shall clean my wounds off a bit.” Hazel walked over towards the small stream and cupped her dirty hands into the clear water. As she began to splash herself, a sudden thought came to her: “Did the dragon hurt you?”

Linden put her arms around her waist, her face strained. “Just squeezed a bit, that’s all. Still a bit sore. Shouldn’t Cam and Albert find us soon? They were coming to find the dragon  who was disrupting the kingdom, and I imagine that one of the seers figured out where this cave is. Perhaps they will rescue us, for we’re damsels in distress, are we not?” Both giggled.

Dirt ran down Hazel’s back as she poured the water down onto the cuts.

“We are damsels, but we are most certainly are not in distress. We’re simply noble girls, with a slight problem on our hands.”

Quite on cue, they heard a loud roar, coming from up above. Both looked up to see the source of the sound, which they knew the cause of their “slight problem” – the dreaded dragon!

Down flew the monstrous beast, claws outstretched, from that far off tunnel of light above.  Linden and Hazel simultaneously shrieked, at the same time covering their screams.  Hazel, standing directly below the creviced wall near the snoring Sir Will’s tomb-like prison, shrieked with horror as the dragon scooped her up in his talons.  The beating of his wondrous wings stirred the stale air of the cave, whipping up dust into the wailing Hazel’s face.  The whirlwind of filth awoke the drunk Sir Will, who began beating on the walls of his stone coffin.  Linden, still screaming her sister’s name during all this chaos, knelt beside the stone monument around Sir Will, using it as a shield between her and the rotating dragon.  Fire shot from its charred lips, flames crackled across the smoke-stained walls of the cave.  But Hazel was strangely quiet!

The dragon suddenly swooped downwards, huge wings like canvas sails, billowing with an unnatural snap and crack, as though open sea air and not muddy cave dust blew through the dark cavern.  A loud breaking noise overpowered Linden’s eardrums, and she felt as though her ears would burst.  The dragon made one final swoop, a sickening crash, and Linden, high up in the air and clutching the speeding dragon’s back, saw sunlight flooding through a space which the roof of the cave had formerly occupied!  Suction from the dragon’s beating wings had caused the thin covering of earth above the cavern to crumble.  Three feet of grass over hundreds of feet of land came tumbling down upon the cave’s floor, muddying the subterranean spring and covering the ground far below her, all occurring as the two sisters experienced the exhilarating feeling of life in the clouds.  Linden now realized, from her sky perch, why Hazel had not cried out.  On the dragon’s lilting back, swaying high above Clarc’s remote forests, rode Cam and Albert!  Linden caught Cam’s eye, and he gave her a fearful, but relieved grin. They flew through the beautiful clouds, for the day was nearly at an end, and the sun was setting. The sky flamed with beautiful shades of orange, red, and pink. It was peaceful, serene.

The four landed atop another hill, across the way from the cave they had been trapped in. Upon disembarking from and thanking the dragon, Hazel hurried over to where Albert had tumbled.  Hazel was ragged, but well, and she met Albert with a dusty, slightly bloody hug. Linden gently squeezed her sister and ran to greet Cam, who picked her up and swung her in circles joyously. The two people, tall and short, ambled into the woods, while the first couple remained behind, with a sheepish, beautiful dragon.  Albert, astonishingly, was the first to speak.  

“So why are you out here, my darling?” Albert said, taking Hazel’s hand into his.

“Why, I wanted to show you and your brother that I and my sister are more than simple, weak, maidens!” Hazel answered quickly, her beautiful eyes flaming.

“Well, I certainly know you are not simple, in fact you’re quite complex!” And you have lived a life with that dreadful father of yours. You are not weak. I would never think that you were less, my beautiful, sincere, strong Hazel Ashdown.” Hazel smiled.

“So how, my prince, how did you find out where the dragon had taken us?” she inquired.  

Albert smiled at her. He had trimmed his blond hair as part of preparing for battle, and it spiked up a little in a charming way.  Albert’s blue, almost silver, eyes sparkled with merriment and intelligence.  “Why, the dragon came and told us himself!” he exclaimed mischievously.  

“Why, I thought the dragon was on the side of Sir Will, the wicked man who tried to destroy our fair kingdom!”  Hazel said, craftily sliding the word “our” into her sentence.

“Will tricked Jerubbaal, the dragon, here, claiming that you, my dear one, were the marauder, and that the towns had been taken over by you two sinful folk of Astloch.”  Albert laughed, and his face crinkled into a charming expression as he did so. “The dragon obliged to his rider’s wishes, and consequently ruined several of our villages in Clarc.  Thankfully, Seers Galahad and Simon have used their enchantments to restore the city as it was before.  Our two seers have also wrought an even stronger magic over our city, to protect it from further invaders.  I trust that these events have not led you to wish to return home? It could be done for you, if you needed it, although I would miss you terribly.”  

“Oh Albert, I would never want to leave you!  Back home, Linden and I were constantly subjected to hate of all kinds.  Here, I can be in love with you forever!”

Albert continued to sweetly converse with his beloved, as Hazel smiled, blissfully assauged by her dream fiance’s loving words.

Cam and a blushing Linden emerged from the woods, Linden gripping his hand as though it was the one key to her safety. They were still chatting quietly.

The dragon, backing away from the hill as quietly as he could, was suddenly startled by a hurrying Linden, coming to give its talon a hug before he left.  “Jerubbaal, you must know we are forever grateful that you saved us.  Even though you endangered us in the first place, you will always be renowned and praised in Clarc.”  

Cam walked up behind her.  “Yes, Jerubbaal, you will always be welcome to land at my palace.”  the prince proclaimed, and with those words, the majestic dragon lifted into the air, pounded his strong wings, and flew off into the sunset. Cam lifted his arm around Linden’s shoulders, and she laid her head gently on his shoulder, her hair knotted and messy. “Well,” he said looking at Linden, and then at the joyous Hazel and Albert. “Shall we return home?”

Chapter 9: Jeweled Days come to Pass

The four returned to trumpets and fanfares of all kinds.  The citizens of Clarc thronged the streets, rejoicing at their favorite royals’ return.  A week passed by on the heels of a hind, the princes and their beloveds growing closer every day. (Cam had gone to the point where he nearly never let go of Linden’s hand, but, of course, she did not mind.) Only a few events in this peaceful land shall be mentioned – Cam married Linden in the great, jewel-encrusted hall, with Hazel and Albert looking on and imagining their own wedding in the future.  Prince Albert was standing next to his brother at the altar, Hazel next to Linden as the couple said their vows. Oh! Linden! She was the most beautiful she had ever looked in her life, mostly on account of her joyful and smiling countenance. Her gown had a long, flowing silk train sweeping behind her; her hair parted and curled, the gown itself simple, but elegant. Opposite her, Camendas looked dashing, his hair trimmed and styled by Linden herself. His large, strong hands tenderly held Linden’s delicate ones. When the two had finished making their promises, they sweetly kissed, and all of Clarc cheered.

Later, during the reception, Albert clearly announced before all the inhabitants of Clarc, “Citizens, Hazel and I have asked the newlyweds if we may make an announcement.”

The crowd stilled, chatter ceased in anticipation of their prince’s words, while Hazel looked about her in confusion, but excitement.

“With you as my witness, I now propose to the darling of my life, Hazel Ashdown!”  Kneeling humbly, Prince Albert proposed to Hazel, who joyfully accepted.  At the end of the week, the third wonderful event since Linden and Hazel arrived in Clarc happened.

The next week, after the wedding excitement had calmed down, King Kilian called his family together, and declaimed, “Linden and Hazel, my lovely daughters, Seer Simon has told me that your mother is dying back in Astloch.  She, along with Ranulf, Sir Jonathan, and your sister, have caught deadly ill.  Only loyal Luc cares for them. It is up to you to return and save a single citizen of Astloch from certain death by disease.  You will do this by bringing them to Clarc.  Mind you, only transport creative souls who may benefit our kingdom.”

Cam responded boldly, “I suppose that my Linden could save her family, but they were always cruel to you, were they not, my darling?” Cam directed his face toward Linden, who was leaning on him fondly.

If possible, Linden now leaned closer than ever to Cam. “Of course my father was cruel. But knowing now that those of my family in Astloch may die, well, I simply cannot sit back and let come what may! We must rescue whomever we can.” She turned towards Hazel. “I am sure that you agree.  Are you ready?”

“Oh, whoah!” Albert exclaimed suddenly. “We will certainly not let our joys leave us, will we Cam?”

“Of course not!” He said, gripping Linden’s hand tighter. She blushed.

“We’ll only be gone a short time, and then we’ll be back!” Hazel said laughingly, but her laugh grew more serious.

“No.” Cam replied firmly. “We almost lost you with Sir Will and his kidnapping plans. Albert and I can’t risk that again.”

With firm determination, the couples, one married and one soon to be, consulted Seer Simon on sending them to Astloch.  Seer Simon’s brow furrowed when he heard of their dilemma.  

“My children, I understand your wish.  But, my dear princes, ever since you brought your dream wives to Clarc, the realm has been in jeopardy.  I want you to make wise choices – and remember, only one Astloch resident may be brought back before I stitch the magic of Clarc shut once again.”  Seer Simon paused, then continued,  “All this traveling from Astloch to Clarc had created a strain on the charm and King Kilian’s painting.  Who would you like to bring here to benefit from our wonderful land?”

“Luc!” Hazel blurted at the same time as Linden shouted,

“Posy!”

“Their mother would have wisdom.” stated Cam wisely.

“Their brother.” Everyone, silenced, looked at the serious Albert. “I have often seen the thoughts of young Ranulf. He is not evil, or wicked; just lonely and dismal. He has a creative mind, and I think he would be perfect here in Clarc.” Linden and Hazel caught each other’s gaze.

“Albert, dear,” Hazel said, lightly touching Albert’s arm, her long red gown swishing gently as she spoke. “My brother was cruel, but perhaps you’re right. You do know best!”

Linden smiled gently, still leaning upon her beloved husband.

“Perhaps we should go get them.” Cam suddenly suggested, looking at his brother.

“Yes, most certainly.” Albert said quickly, grabbing his sword hilt.

“But boys, you don’t even know Ranulf.” Hazel said, a little startled.

Seer Simon responded almost immediately. “In the past moment, as it is night in Astloch, I have caused your brother to see Clarc in his dreams – he even dreamt of Prince Cam’s wedding to Linden!”

Linden looked at Simon doubtfully.

Seer Simon reassured her puzzled glance. “Trust me, he feels as if he knows our prince’s quite well. Besides, your brother will more likely believe it if the natives come.”

“All right then, but go quickly, and if he refuses, don’t waste your time.” the reluctant Hazel admitted at last.

Cam leaned over and kissed Linden on the cheek, and Linden smiled gently.

Albert had Hazel assist him with his mounting his steed, and once this task was complete, he picked her up with his strong arms, and lovingly kissed her. This was their first kiss; a bit surprising for Hazel, but nevertheless, she liked it.

As soon as their goodbyes were spoken, both the princes mounted noble steeds, and rode off, Hazel and Linden lovingly and trustfully looking on.  Before their princes had gone ten feet, they disappeared.

***

About a week later, the day came when the two royals returned with an awestruck Ranulf, a joyous day in Clarc. Ranulf arrived, and soon he became an incredible architect, and he designed a new palace for both of the couples. The old palace in Whitney was used as a school for all that desired to learn, with Seer Simon and Seer Galahad tutoring the future Seers of Clarc.

Years passed, and those in Clarc continued in their happiness. Seer Simon discovered how to tie the life of Clarc into the land itself; therefore, if in the unlikely case that every inch of the physical land was destroyed, Clarc’s inhabitants would be transported simultaneously to Astloch.

Linden and Cam moved out into the country and ruled over that area, which was called Shearling. It was sparsely populated, but the people were hardworking and kind, and they loved their king and queen. All rejoiced when their beautiful queen gave birth to royal twins: the adorable Prince Cam II and also to the lovely Princess Elle.  Later, the couple was blessed with another daughter, Princess Tia. They grew up to be happy children, with parents that never neglected them, as Linden had known from the start of the damage which parental hatred could cause.

Hazel and Albert stayed in the city of Whitney-in-Clarc.  They married soon after Albert and Cam returned from Astloch.  Their wedding was a beautiful one, with Hazel clothed in a glimmering gown flowing smoothly down over her shoulders and pooling in a shimmering white train upon the marble floors.  Albert’s seriousness disappeared for once, as he was joking and laughing, overjoyed to have his beloved bride at last.  Flowers strewed the aisle, happy citizens filled the gardens outside the palace, where Hazel and Albert’s wedding was held.  New friends of Hazel’s from Clarc congratulated her, sharing advice on marriage. It was the most wonderful day of Hazel’s life, and she and Albert’s marriage was a happy one.  

Later, King Killian and Queen Seraphina stepped down from the throne, to live peacefully, except for the lively events occurring in their family! After Hazel had a lovely daughter and bustling son, the couple’s happiness was complete.  Princess Miri and the little Prince Samuel loved hearing the story of Hazel and Linden’s rescue from Astloch, and Cam and Albert’s adventures with Jerubbaal.  The youngest royals couldn’t imagine a better life than their own.  To top of the royal families satisfaction, Seer Galahad, growing more aged, bestowed a blessing upon all goodhearted inhabitants of Clarc – after Seer Galahad’s death, all Clarc’s inhabitants would be given eternal youth for as long as they lived!  In this way, Albert never lost his beautiful, intelligent blue eyes and sharp mind, and Hazel continually held the beauty of her prime all her days. King Killian and Queen Seraphina also looked slightly younger, but still wise and aged. They immensely enjoyed going around Clarc visiting their grandchildren, which of course they spoiled very much.

Miri was very good friends with Elle, and into their teenage years, they much resembled Linden and Hazel, which the happy mothers frequently discussed.  They chatted, and spent their time at each other’s palaces, bringing along many friends from Clarc’s middle class, (for there were no peasants in Clarc) to royally dine and, occasionally, mildly gossip!  

Prince Samuel grew up to be as wise as his father Albert and as handsome as both his father and his uncle!  He was quite chivalrous towards his sister and cousins, and when he reached courting age would solemnly treat his beloved friend, Lili, as a confidant and equal.

Ranulf married a lovely woman of Clarc, Sarai of Shearling, and they parented six robust and tumbling children in quick succession.  Ranulf declared that he did miss his little sister Posy, and deeply regretted leaving her behind with a bullying father who would no doubt abuse her and marry her off to some dumb creature, an illiterate and drunken beggar, perhaps…  Thankfully, Seer Simon showed the struggling young man what Posy’s life back in Astloch really had become.  Posy’s father had met his end in the plague, and her mother assumed Linden, Hazel, and Ranulf had ran off.  Therefore, her mother, now Lady of Astloch Manor, devoted her time to dancing and flirting with various loud nobles, leaving Posy to do whatever she wanted.  Posy married Luc, unbeknownst to her mother, and shocked the Lady of Astloch a month after the wedding by mentioning that she had married a peasant in a faraway village.  Posy’s mother disowned her, which is what Posy had wanted, and Posy moved off to live in a sunny thatched cottage with the noble Luc, away from drunken suitors and flirty Ladies of Astloch, parenting a brood of eleven children – some her own, others taken in out of warmhearted pity.  Posy always prided herself in having married the crush of her two older sisters.  Also, Posy’s talkative, (although sufficiently less nosy), heart imagined that she must have a better husband than the runaway Linden, or Hazel.  Posy would never have guessed that both Linden and Hazel had married a prince!   A second common statement of Posy was that the Ashdown’s horrible parenting resulted in all of their children’s running away!

Back in Astloch, an event the whole royal family was careful to do was have their meals in the evening at each other’s palaces.  The Ashdown sisters knew that they did not want to continue silent meals festering with family abuse and neglect.  The Clarc royals always had a large meal together, sometimes held at Cam and Linden’s castle in Shearling, sometimes at Albert and Hazel’s palace in Whitney, but frequently at Kilian and Seraphina’s great manor in the center of Clarc.  All in Clarc, from the merchants to the handmaidens, were invited.  The former King Killian and Queen Seraphina, and the newer rulers: the radiant Queen Hazel, the intelligent and handsome King Albert, the charming Princess Miri, and the chivalrous Prince Samuel dined with great cheer. The sturdy Ranulf, his hearty wife Sarai, and their rambunctious and enjoyable children attended, along with the strong King Cam, gorgeous Queen Linden, and adorable Princess Elle, Prince Cam, and Princess Tia.  It was jolly fun, and the family grew closer every time. The children played in unison, all danced, and the adults graciously and joyously talked and mingled among each other.  Most important of all, the townsfolk never grew jealous of the royal family, because they felt that all in Clarc, through these meals and fellowship, were united as one kingdom.

***  

Although many have heard these three little words time and time again, the renowned in Astloch, Linden and Hazel lived with the people they loved; those that loved them, happily ever after.

 

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