The young, fiery-haired woman cradled the infant in her delicate arms. Her sapphire eyes shone with happiness as her husband slowly leaned over her left shoulder to get a better look at the child.
“She looks just like you, Coignice.”
The woman brushed her red hair away from her face and looked into the emerald-tinted eyes of her beloved.
“No, Cedric. She looks far more like you, don’t you think?”
“Still, I think you should name her, Coignice.”
“Oh, I never knew what to name a baby…perhaps something from my linguistic roots…something to match her fair skin, her diminutive little eyes…a name that sounds strong and brave, yet gentle and beautiful to another.”
“Well, what shall it be?”
The daughter of Coignice and Cedric of Kolyma grew rapidly, as was expected, and was very soon running around their seaside abode, up and down stairs, sometimes knocking things over, and the only way to settle her down was to give her something to read or teach her the lessons of being a woman.
“Mother, why do I have to do this?” she asked one day when she was six years of age.
“My dear Valanice,” replied Coignice, “Walk straighter, lest that book fall off your head.”
“You didn’t answer me. Why must I walk this way, balancing a book on my head? I’m not a princess or anything.”
“There’s always a possibility,” said her mother with a ghost of a grin. “We girls must always learn the proper ways to act. After all, would you like to wind up as that nasty old witch Hagatha, Valanice?”
Valanice giggled abruptly, nearly letting the book slide from atop her auburn pate. She quickly readjusted it and continued walking in a straight line to the end of the room, which was walled on one side by continuous windows, giving her and her mother a beautiful, panoramic view of the cool, shimmering ocean.
“Excellent, my daughter,” said Coignice, clapping her hands and rising to her feet. “Now you may read the book you so nobly carried, as I promised you.”
Valanice took the slim tome from the top of her head and lay down on a silk cushion, facing the infinite blue sea. She opened the book and began reading eagerly. Nothing, it seemed, could tear Coignice’s daughter away from a book. Unless it was better than the one she already had, which wasn’t very likely. Little Valanice loved all books, and was always ready to digest new knowledge of the ages, whether it was Shakespeare or sorcery, Plato or praying techniques. You named it, she read it.
Coignice and Cedric were very pleased with their child’s “bookworm demeanor,” but aside from reading, they also encouraged her to do other things as well.
“Genevieve, honestly, do you think you’ll ever be stranded on an uncharted isle sometime?”
“I don’t think so! My Daddy hardly ever goes on ships, and when he does, he is seasick all the way!”
“Eww! That’s not a good thing for someone like your dad!”
“Why is that, Val?”
“Well, he’s a basket-maker, for crying out loud! A basket-maker who doesn’t like sea-travel is like…”
“…A bird that doesn’t like flying?” said another voice. Valanice and Genevieve turned their heads and saw a girl dressed in brown, with a sprig of rosemary tied into her hair. She was shoeless and skinny, wearing a gaudy, pink shawl around her bony shoulders.
“Amaranth! C’mere, you wanna talk about being marooned?”
“Come on, Val,” said Genevieve, tossing her fair, yellow hair and narrowing her mahogany eyes. “Don’t invite witch-girlie Amaranth over here! Remember what happened last time?”
“Don’t be so uncivil, Genny. Come on, Amaranth! Over here! Don’t worry, it’s safe, no demons!”
The two girls laughed quietly amongst themselves. The third girl walked across the sandy beach to the sea-sculpted gray rock that the other two were sitting on. She climbed up until she could find a flat spot, and then sat down, straightening her ragged dress.
“Genevieve was just telling me that a friend of her dad’s got shipwrecked on an island,” explained Valanice. “He made himself a boat out of driftwood, but he couldn’t go anywhere with it ‘cause it had no sail!”
“Yeah,” continued Genevieve, “He was half-dead when he was discovered by some sailors. He died shortly after he got back home. Too bad.”
“Yeah,” said Amaranth, hugging her knobby legs and gazing towards the horizon. “Too bad he didn’t have a sail. You don’t often find those on beaches. Just clamshells and cowries, that’s all.”
“No, it’s not!” said Genevieve, “Sometimes those messages in bottles wash up on the beach, you know, if someone is in help, they toss a bottle with something in it overboard?”
“Yes…” said Valanice, her curiosity perked.
“I got an idea! No one ever finds sails on the beach, do they?”
“And the chances of finding a message in a bottle are a lot better, right?”
“So, what if we give the next sailor who gets shipwrecked on an island a favor?”
“What do you mean, Gen?”
“Let’s stuff some kind of big sheet in a bottle, then throw it out to sea! We might be doing someone a big help!”
“Yeah, that does sound like fun!” cried Valanice, “But, where are we going to find a bottle, Gen?”
“Oh, we’re in luck! My Daddy was drinking something last night and he left the bottle by the front door! I’ll get it!”
Genevieve rose to her feet, hopped off the large stone, and took off southward, down the glistening beach, her hair shining even brighter than the sand.
“It is an interesting idea,” said Amaranth, who had been silent through most of the conversation.
“Yes, isn’t it?” replied Valanice. “But what about the cloth?”
“I have one here,” said Amaranth, taking the pink shawl from around her neck and folding it in half. “It was my aunt’s. I wear it to keep the evil intentions out and welcome the workers of white magic to enter my psyche.”
“Woah, Ammie, you shouldn’t be mentioning any of that stuff to the monks at the monastery, or you’ll be in trouble up to your wisdom bumps,” said Valanice, pointing to her companion’s raven-black head. “Take my word for it.”
“I do not tell them what they do not want, Valanice.” replied Amaranth, slightly hurt. “They cannot see into me, not in this lifetime, not ever.”
“I’m back!” called a familiar voice. Golden-headed Genevieve came skipping back to her friends’ meeting stone, brandishing a large, wide-necked glass bottle. “Here it is!” she exclaimed. “And you’ve got a cloth too!” she said, noticing Amaranth’s shawl. “Yikes, Ammie, you’re no fashion expert, I’ll say that much. Well, give it to me.”
Amaranth handed the ratty pink shawl to Genevieve, who stuffed it into the bottle, not without a good deal of help from Valanice, whose slender fingers made the job much easier. After the stuffing, the two girls rose to their feet. Valanice unfortunately ripped her skirt in the process.
“Oh, rats! My mother’s going to be furious this time!”
“Well,” said Genevieve cheerfully, “Better in your dress than this sail!”
The two laughed for a moment, then flung the heavy bottle into the surf. However, the bottle was so heavy that it sank almost immediately.
“I thought that would happen,” snapped Amaranth unsympathetically. “That shawl is so coarse and so thick, it might as well be a washrag. Well, King Neptune’s not gonna be very happy ‘bout you two tossing stuff into his ocean.”
“You believe in that stuff?” cried Genevieve. “I thought that was just a fairy tale!”
“Look around you, Genevieve,” said Amaranth. “It’s hard to tell what IS a fairy tale and what ISN’T. Especially around here.”
“Yeah,” agreed Valanice.
Coignice nervously looked skyward. The young, white-barked palm tree swayed slightly in the sea breeze, making her fear the worse for her daughter, who was shinnying up the trunk, nearing the leafy fronds at the top.
“Valanice, be careful up in that tree! I don’t want you to fall and break something!”
“Mother, just keep asking me the questions! Climbing trees helps me concentrate!”
“All right, dear, just don’t make that dress any worse off than it is!”
“Too late, Mother!” Coignice sighed and opened the thick volume she had in her lap, leafing through the pages until she found what she was looking for. She looked up at her daughter again.
“Valanice, who is Apollo’s sister?”
“Artemis!” yelled Valanice, climbing farther up.
“Good, and what is Artemis’ Roman name?”
“Diana, Mother. Ask me a tough one next time!”
“Okay, Valanice.” Brushing back her hair, she leafed through the book for a few more pages. “Who is the most powerful Greek god?”
“Valanice, I’m surprised that you said that! Hades is the god of the Underworld, of death and destruction! Why did you think he was the most powerful of the gods? He doesn’t even live with the rest of them.”
Not seeming to be remorseful about her mother’s response, Valanice replied, “Mom, isn’t death a powerful subject? I mean, we can’t even mention it without feeling uneasy. And when someone close dies, we almost feel like dying ourselves, huh?”
“I guess so, my daughter, but Zeus is the most powerful of the gods, remember?”
“I do now,” said Valanice, plucking some fibrous strands from the fronds that shaded her head. “But why should someone in charge of thunder be considered the most powerful? I mean, what is so great about thunder?”
“You have a good point there, Valanice, but that’s the way the ancient Greeks saw things, my dear. They did many things that we are unfamiliar with.”
“You mean like crowning someone with a ring of laurel leaves when they did something brave?” asked Valanice, gathering more of the frond strands and starting to climb down the palm tree. “The Greeks invented that, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Well, then,” said Valanice, sliding down the last few feet of trunk and jumping to the ground, “This is for you!” she revealed a woven ring of palm leaf strands, just large enough to fit over someone’s head.
Coignice’s mouth spread into a smile as she took the crown of leaves from her daughter and placed it atop her wild, red locks.
“Now you’re a Greek hero, Mother!”
“Heroine, Valanice. It’s beautiful, dear. I love it.” She embraced her young daughter tightly. “But not as much as I love you, of course.”
Valanice smiled, her serpentine eyes gleaming with satisfaction. Her mother smiled as well, then took another book and a box of pens and ink from behind her and laid them before Valanice.
“All right, my little tree jockey. Let’s work on your arithmetic, shall we?”
Time seemed to pass too quickly in the realm of Kolyma. Already, little Valanice had turned ten, her ears were pierced, and she began to ruin fewer dresses every week. Her mother’s lessons and her father’s encouragement were turning her into a girl just as fine as a well-trained princess in another country.
Despite her maturity, Valanice always kept well away from the cave of the witch that her parents called Hagatha, even more so when she heard that the old hag had burned a nearby hermit’s hut to the ground and ate his remains, picking her teeth with the bones. Valanice’s friend Genevieve passed the story by as another rumor, but judging by Amaranth’s cold, penetrating eyes, Valanice was certain that it was true.
“Yes,” explained her father, Cedric as they walked together one afternoon, “That ugly old Hagatha’d probably eat you if you got within twenty feet of that foul-smelling cave of hers. But believe me, she’s not half as ugly as an old bag I ran into in my homeland once. So many warts you couldn’t make out her skin, and with a nose that stuck way out here and came about down to her chin.” He made an outline with his finger.
“Daddy! That’s awful!” squealed Valanice.
“Isn’t it though? And her chin stuck out so far that it almost touched her nose! And her hair was so frazzled and thick that…”
“Daddy, please stop. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Okay. How about that young cockatrice that I ran into one night? It’s a good thing it couldn’t see me, eye contact with them is deadly, you know.”
“So’s their breath,” reminded Valanice. “Hope you didn’t breathe in too deeply.”
“I didn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be here, silly girl! It wouldn’t leave me alone, so I tried running, but it just kept on following! I could hear its little scales rattling and it’s rooster’s head squawking. I spun around to kick it, hoping to get rid of it, but it bit off the big toe on my left foot!, Boy, of all the pain and suffering…”
“Dad, that cockatrice didn’t bite off your toe.”
“Why not, Valanice? You trying to call my bluff?”
“I saw you take off your boots last night. You’ve got all your toes on BOTH feet, Dad, so don’t start your tall tales unless you have evidence!”
“Oh, Valanice, you’re too smart!” chuckled Cedric, ruffling his daughter’s thick hair playfully. Suddenly something caused him to stop. Valanice looked over her shoulder, towards the direction her father was looking. A fat, stocking-capped dwarf was leering at the two of them from behind a nearby pine tree.
Cedric looked into his daughter’s frightened face. “Run, Valanice. Towards the mountains. He’ll give up after a short time, trust me.”
Valanice didn’t hesitate. She sprinted eastward as fast as her long dress would allow her, clearing rocks and stumbling once of twice, her father by her side. The dwarf gave a good chase, but before Cedric and his daughter were a stone’s throw from the steep, stony mountains that marked Kolyma’s eastern border, the fat little man gave up, turned around, and walked back the way he came on his stubby legs, muttering to himself.
The two exhausted humans leaned against the steep rock wall, panting and laughing at the same time. “They aren’t…that dangerous…Valanice,” panted Cedric, “But if…you’re carrying…something valuable…you’d better move fast, or that obese little nuisance will be all over…you.”
“I know what you mean, Daddy,” said Valanice, who by this time had caught her breath. “I was walking through here on the way to the monastery a few weeks ago, and that little guy jumped me and pinned me to the ground! When he couldn’t find any treasure or jewelry on me, he just stomped off.”
“You hardly have anything valuable to call your own, my little princess,” said Cedric. “That’s why I think I should give you this.”
He pulled a small, tiger’s-eye amulet from around his neck and placed it in Valanice’s hands. “This belonged to my father before he was slain in a war,” Cedric explained. “He said that the owner of the amulet, whenever he or she was in trouble, would only need to say the word that is inscribed on the back.”
Valanice turned the amulet over and read the writing on the stone. “Home? What does it mean, Daddy?”
“It means that whenever you wish to return here, you say what is written there. I’ve never tried it myself, since I’ve never gone far from my Kolyma, but perhaps it will be of use to you. Just don’t let that dwarf get it.” Valanice carefully slipped the amulet over her neck and concealed the precious stone in the collar of her dress.
“Just run as fast as you can,” continued Cedric, “And he always gives up sooner or later. It’s the same thing with most mythical beasts. Why, did I ever tell you about the Dragon of the Mists that I fought when I was a prince?”
“About ten times.”
“Oh well. Never hurts to reminisce. Anyway, this lizard was so big…so enormous that…well, you see this slab of rock here, Valanice? See how high it goes?”
Valanice looked from the spot where her father pointed and followed the huge rock with her eyes, straight up until it stopped. “I suppose the dragon was as tall as that mountain.”
“No, of course not, Valanice. This rock is almost as big as one of his legs!”
Valanice’s eyes widened in false amusement as she stared at the gigantic rock. “Wow. Incredible.”
“I’m not boring you, am I, Valanice?”
Valanice voiced a fake yawn behind her hand. “No, why?”
“That’s it. Come here, you little leprechaun.” Valanice shrieked with delight as her father chased after her, along the bottom of the cliffs. They splashed through shallow ponds and raced through fields of flowers, eventually arriving home again, as the sun sank into the ocean, creating fires even brighter than Coignice’s hair. Another day had passed.
It was night. The stars formed pinprick points across the deathly black sky, reflecting off all of the sapphire lakes that dotted the land of Kolyma. But one lake did not reflect the distant stars. A dull, grayish, sludgy lake surrounding an island, which was home to an eerie, dilapidated castle.
Amaranth sat by the lake’s barren shore, waiting. Her thin black hair dropped down her back like a frozen waterfall. Her slender figure was sharply outlined by her ragged, dark dress. She turned her sharp, pale face to the south. Two teenage girls crept out of the bushes, bundled in several layers of clothing, one with hair like the sun, one with a thick mane of mahogany tumbling down her shoulders. They were both noticeably nervous and anxious, unlike the dark girl that sat waiting by the putrid lake, never blinking.
“Come, you two,” she whispered. “The moon will soon reach its zenith. Come on.”
The two others crept out of the shelter of the trees, slowly tiptoeing to the edge of the lake, where they uneasily sat down.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” quavered the brown-haired girl. “Are you positive, Amaranth? There aren’t any vampires, are they?”
“Of course I’m sure, Val,” replied Amaranth. “And if you’re still skittish, take this.” She reached into a small sack by her side and flung a small head of garlic into Valanice’s lap.
“Where did you get this?” asked Valanice. “You didn’t steal it, did you?”
“Let’s not get into that now,” whispered Amaranth. “Are you ready, Gen?”
“I guess so,” breathed Genevieve, her teeth chattering.
“Good. Who wants to be first?”
Valanice moved forward.
“Excellent. Let me see your palm, Valanice.” Discreetly rubbing her amulet with one hand, Valanice extended the other one to Amaranth. “Ah, good. Let me see now…” Amaranth ran her claw-like fingers over Valanice’s palm, commenting every now and then. “Hmmm…you have a very distinctive life line, that’s good…A strong heartline, that means you think from your heart more than your head…Beautiful fingers, Valanice, you’re intelligent and have an aesthetic nature…”
“Do you think she’s going to get married?” asked Genevieve, her excitement mounting. Amaranth examined Valanice’s palm closely, then replied, “I cannot tell for certain. Her line of fate branches from her lifeline…that may mean that something disastrous might happen in her future. But further up the line…yes, I see a mark…a circle. Those are rare, and I believe they stand for good fortune, Valanice. Be cautious.”
“What else do you see, Amaranth?”
“Hmmm…I see one clear line of marriage…that means that you will probably be wed in your lifetime…and one…no, two child lines.”
Genevieve snickered and put a hand to her mouth. “Does that mean that I will have two children after I’m married?” asked Valanice.
“With luck, yes,” replied Amaranth. “Now, Genevieve. It’s your turn.”
Genevieve scooted forward. Amaranth lit a candle and set it on the cold ground, then moved her eagle’s nose closer to Genevieve’s hand until she almost touched it.
“Am I gonna get married?” Genevieve asked. “Please say no!”
Amaranth smirked and continued her palm-reading. “I’m afraid you will get married, Genevieve. Several times.”
Valanice giggled and Genevieve groaned in embarrassment. “And your heartline…goodness, it looks like a cast-iron chain! That means that you, Genevieve, are a flirt.”
Valanice squealed even more and nearly collapsed with laughter, while Genevieve stared at her hand dumbly. “But your headline is straight, that’s good. You will live well, Genevieve.”
“Sure she will!” cried Valanice, still convulsing with laughter.
“That’s enough, Val,” snapped Amaranth. “Now, Gen, would you like to choose from the cards?”
“All right,” muttered Genevieve. “If the results have a better outlook than my hand.” Amaranth produced a small stack of playing cards and instructed Genevieve to choose five, which she did. Amaranth laid the other cards aside and examined the cards that Genevieve had selected.
“Hmmm…a nine of hearts…that means that your dreams of love will come true…a two of clubs…that means that you will be successful…the queen of diamonds, yep, that’s you, Genny…oh, a four of hearts and a king of spades…you will have quite a love-life, Genevieve. Just as I thought.”
Valanice looked at the cards with curiosity. “Is it my turn now?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Amaranth, putting the cards back in the deck. “Come closer.”
“Why didn’t you ask her if she wanted to choose the cards earlier?” asked Genevieve.
“She wasn’t ready,” replied Amaranth. “Now choose five cards, Valanice.”
Valanice did so, and handed them to Amaranth as Genevieve had. “Your future does not look as simple as Genny’s, Val. Hmmm…a ten of spades…not good…could mean trouble, same with this three of hearts…jack of clubs, that means a reliable friend, and…hmmm. That’s odd. A five of diamonds. Good fortune, prosperity, a happy family…and a king of clubs…a generous, honest, dark-haired man…you will travel to faraway places, and experience many unnatural phenomena. You will loose much, but it will all come back to you in the end. Hmmm…”
“Sounds like you’ve got an exciting life ahead of you, Val,” said Genevieve. “I’m sorry that mine might not be as exciting. Hey, Ammie! Why don’t you draw some cards and predict your OWN future?”
“I cannot do that,” explained Amaranth. “The reader cannot be the seeker as well.”
“Then what about your hand?” asked Valanice. “What does it say?”
Amaranth spread her bony left hand and gazed at it with an air of sadness. “My dear Valanice,” she sighed, “To tell you the truth, my hands are so callused from hauling wood that I can’t read it at all.”
Like many activities of her youth, Valanice quickly forgot that strange night with Amaranth and Genevieve. She decided that Amaranth was merely an eccentric, troubled teenager, and was merely trying to find some people to reveal herself to.
Valanice had second thoughts about this, however. Several long years later, just before her seventeenth birthday, a visiting prince from a faraway kingdom wooed Genevieve and sailed off with her. Valanice was surprised, but Amaranth was not. Very little surprised the lank, dark-haired youth who had no home to call her own.
The home that Genevieve and her parents had lived in was now vacant, but it wasn’t for long. An elderly couple visiting Kolyma decided to move in, so that they could rest after their long, sea journey. However, the whole country was shocked when the house was unexpectedly burned, leaving nothing but a few pieces of wood and the brick foundation. The bodies of the two people were nowhere to be found.
“It’s that wretched Hagatha,” growled Amaranth as she and Valanice stood among the smoldering ruins. “She couldn’t resist this opportunity. She can’t eat young folks anymore, what few teeth she has left couldn’t even begin to work on their firm flesh. When those old ones moved in, she couldn’t let her chance to chew on some nice, soft, lean muscles slip past.”
“Amaranth, however do you know all this?” cried Valanice in horror.
“I know,” Amaranth replied. “That witch has been getting pretty vicious lately. I’ve seen her stalking around the countryside, smacking her gums like a starving pig. Something isn’t right. People have been moving out of their houses like fledgling birds, and then that Hagatha burns ‘em down. It’s like she’s angry about something.”
“She’s always angry,” sighed Valanice.
“She’s also jealous,” said Amaranth, squeezing a small pimple on her nose. “Of everything and everyone more beautiful than her. In fact, the owner of that old antique shop claimed that Hagatha stole her pet nightingale to keep her company in her cave. Either that or to see it suffer. I hope that bird gets returned to its rightful owner, Valanice.”
“I just hope I don’t get involved in her wrath,” said Valanice, running a delicate hand through her braided brown locks.
Valanice never wanted to get involved in anything dangerous, either to her or her parents. Unfortunately, that was not how Fate seemed to see her. The events that followed were some of the most frightening of the young woman’s life, and she would not easily forget them.
One afternoon, outside the beautiful beach house, Coignice ran to Valanice’s side, trembling with fear. The wrinkles around her blue eyes seemed even deeper than they were, and her hands shook as she clasped her daughter’s.
“Valanice, it’s that wicked Hagatha. She wants you for her own.”
Valanice started in horror, cowering like a frightened deer. “What do you mean, Mother?”
“Not to eat, if that’s what you’re thinking. She’s jealous of you, my dear Valanice! You are so lovely, she’s jealous of you!”
What Coignice said was true as rain is wet. Valanice was indeed the fairest maiden in Kolyma. Amaranth, the only other girl her age was lanky, not slender, bony, not beautiful, and her black hair was often knotted and snarled. Even her pointed face was often splattered with blemishes and pimples, making her seem like a young version of the awful Hagatha. It was no wonder that the witch was envious.
“But why me? Why?”
“I don’t know why, it’s just her evil nature. She’s trying to break your hearts, Valanice. She’ll kill us if we don’t give you up! What shall we do?” She broke down, sobbing, be her daughter’s side. Valanice gazed at her mother with a look of fear, confusion, mournfulness and compassion. Hearing the noises, Cedric raced outside to see what was the matter. He had also heard what the witch demanded, and was very close to crying himself.
“Coignice! Hagatha is coming! We must do something fast! Valanice, my treasure…I can’t tell you how sorry we are. Please understand…”
“Yes, Father. I understand.”
“You are the bravest woman I’ll ever know,” quavered Cedric, tears coming to his eyes. “But we must move quickly, before…”
Suddenly, a green, clawed, warty hand seized Valanice’s wrist. She shrieked and snapped her head around. It was the creature which she had least wanted to think of, let alone see. It was the creature who had probably envied her since the moment she was born. It was the one thing which threatened to separate her from her beloved mother and father. It was Hagatha.
Valanice tried to wrench her arm from Hagatha’s grip, but it was to no avail. The witch had an iron grip and grinned as she watched her captive struggle in vain.
“I am taking the maiden now,” gurgled Hagatha, grinning broadly at Coignice ad Cedric, who stood frozen where they stood. “Do not attempt to stop me. You got all that you wanted, now it is time for me to get what I want. Good-bye, spineless mortals.”
Hagatha turned and walked away, almost dragging Valanice behind her. The poor young girl still screamed and fought to free herself, but realizing that she was hopelessly trapped, she looked back at her parents, and with tears in her blue-green eyes, mouthed a “good-bye” as best as she could.
The heartbroken couple still stood there after their child and the ancient hag were out of sight. Suddenly, a ragged, bony young girl leaped out from behind a rock, where she had been hiding the whole time.
“Noble parents,” she proclaimed, “I am Amaranth, the homeless misfit that roams your land. I have been your daughter’s companion since our childhood, and I am not about to just sit here and watch her be dragged off. I am just as powerful as Hagatha, maybe even more so. I cannot say that I will succeed, but I will do my best to save your Valanice. Farewell.”
The young witch spun on her heel and shot down the beach, turning left and racing into the woods. Coignice and Cedric waved good-bye to the strange youth, but they knew in their hearts that they would never see their daughter again.
Hagatha did not move fast through the woods, but not slow enough to let Valanice stop every few feet. From what Valanice could determine, they were heading towards the mountains. But what lay there? Nothing, she recalled. Absolutely nothing.
They were only ten feet away from the base of the cliffs when a familiar sound caught Valanice’s attention. She turned her head and saw a pale-skinned, raven-haired girl, running as fast as a hare, her eyes fixed on Hagatha intently.
“Amaranth! Don’t!” screamed Valanice. Before the words had reached her companion’s ears, the old witch that still held her arm raised her other arm in a fierce arc. There was a deafening crash and a flash of light that numbed every one of the senses. When her sight returned, Valanice saw that where fertile grass had once been was now a deep crevice which branched from one cliff base to another, forming a deadly barrier between Amaranth and her.
“That’s right, you interfering little white witch!” snarled Hagatha, spitting a wad of phlegm on the ground. Amaranth barely stopped in time, inches away from the crevice. She looked down, then looked up at Valanice and the hag that held her arm.
“Do not try to interfere again,” growled Hagatha, “Unless you wish to spend the rest of your life wishing you were dead! Of course…you can’t exactly stop us, can you?!?”
The witch screeched with laughter. As Valanice still struggled to free herself, Hagatha drew a large, vertical ellipse in the air with a long, clawed, finger. The shape shimmered, then filled with swirling colors and illusions of light. “Shall we?” she asked Valanice. Again, she cackled wickedly and pulled the poor young maiden into the swirling portal. As soon as they were on the other side, the portal sealed itself back up. Then there was nothing.
Amaranth still stood on the edge of the crevice, her anger boiling in her veins. She gritted her teeth and glared maliciously across the chasm. She wasn’t beaten yet.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the portal, Valanice and Hagatha shimmered into existence on an incredible island surrounded by pink oceans and magenta skies. The sand was blue, the soil was golden, and strange, grotesque trees and shrubs sprouted up everywhere. Valanice was so tangled up in her emotions that she couldn’t even notice where they were. She didn’t even notice her father’s tiger’s-eye amulet as it slipped out of her dress and dangled below her neck.
“I hope you like it here, my dearie,” croaked Hagatha. “Because this is where you’ll spend your life until you are just as old, winzied and ugly as I am, my pretty.” She raised her clawed hand again and the ground before them contorted and shook. A fantastic tower, constructed of crystal, sprouted from the ground like a tree, shooting straight up into the sky. When it finally stopped growing, Hagatha turned to Valanice and grinned a wide, nearly toothless grin.
“This is your home now, my little sweetmeat.” She crooned. Then she noticed the stone amulet that dangled from Valanice’s throat.
“What’s this?” she cringed, tearing the precious amulet from Valanice’s neck and examining it with her squinty eyes. “You were thinking of escaping with this, weren’t you, you little minx! Well, like I said, this tower is your home, and you will never see that foul Kolyma again!” She flung it across the beach, where it landed in the soft earth. Valanice cried out in pain and sorrow. The last connection to her mother and father had been taken from her.
Hagatha dragged the weeping maiden to the door of the tower. Opening the door, the witch led Valanice up the steep, spiraling staircase, which was occasionally sided by a small, arched window. Valanice’s thoughts tore at her. She knew her parents were lying weakly in the sand, crying and breathing their last. And her house…that would be burned down, just like all the others, leaving no trace. No trace at all. But these thoughts didn’t seem to matter. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
They had nearly reached the top of the tower when a shout from the stairs below caused both of them to glance downwards. It was Amaranth! She was stomping up the stairs, her eyes burning red, her mouth contorted into a demonic snarl.
“How did you get here, you nosy little fool?” screeched Hagatha.
“I spun a bridge over the chasm,” said Amaranth, coolly but firmly. “Then I opened a portal near the point you opened yours. It led me to a different part of this land, but I knew you two were nearby. So I whistled for a fish to come to my aid, and one did, a lovely golden one, and it carried me to this isle. So, you know what I’ve come for, witch. Let Val go. I mean it.”
“You have come in vain, you homeless little meddling brat!” Hagatha hissed. Amaranth lunged at the witch, trying to loosen her grip, but Hagatha saw the move ahead of time. She stuck Amaranth across her face with all her might. Immediately, the color began to fade from her cheeks. He eyes grew glazed and sightless, and she fell backwards, showing no resistance at all. She tumbled down the stairs, her tumbles echoing down the tower, painfully resonating in Valanice’s ears until they abruptly stopped at the base of the tall tower.
“Never did like little girls,” muttered Hagatha. “Always so tough and imprudent. I’ll take care of her after you. Well, just to make sure no one tries to enter…” Again, she waved her arm, and a huge, ravenous lion materialized at her side, drooling hungrily. Valanice trembled in fear and sadness. She couldn’t look at the stairs without trembling even more. There was no way out now.
Hagatha unbarred the door and escorted her captive into a barren room, with a balcony that looked out over the island and several windows. “You will stay here, Valanice,” croaked the old hag, narrowing her beady eyes. “Of course, you won’t try to escape, for there is no way.”
Valanice sank to the floor and continued to cry softly. “I’ve been thinking,” the witch said, “Judging by your late friend’s actions, someone will want to free you sometime. I think I’ll let whoever that is a ‘way’ to you, my pretty.” She laughed again, in a scheming tone. “Yes, that bridge that Amaranth made across the chasm. I’m sure it’s not very stable. I doubt anyone would dare to cross it. Anyone in his right mind, that is. And I’ll make…not one…not two…yes, THREE doors leading to the portal. I’ll scatter the keys to each of them throughout the kingdom, and whoever wants to open the doors will have to find the keys…one by one. If that seeker is still alive, he will have to find a way across the great ocean like that Amaranth did, and if not…why, he’ll be stranded! Oh, I DO love fresh meat, especially when it’s seasoned with the sweet breath of the sea…”
Valanice was still crying, not listening to Hagatha’s plotting. The witch gave her a kick with her wrinkled foot and continued:
“I’ll bring you all you need to survive up here. Not all at once, just once every month. But that’s all I’ll give you until you’ve grown too old to remember your own name! Remember, child, you can’t have light without darkness. Good-bye.”
Hagatha left the small room, barring the door behind her. The lion glanced at her, showing to hostility or anger at all. She paused, then put her oversized ear to the door and heard just what she expected to hear: Valanice’s mournful, heart-wrenching cries, intermingled with her screams for help.
Hagatha grinned and gave a shriek of delight, vanishing in a cloud of smoke. The lion casually yawned and went back to sleep, his chains rattling slightly.
Meanwhile, in the realm of Kolyma, all was chaos and turmoil. At the Monastery of the Blessed Wilbury, a brown-robed monk kneeled in prayer at the altar, mourning the death of Coignice and Cedric, who died of heartbreak two days after Valanice was taken from her home. Their house was now a pile of ashes. In a few days, nothing would be there. The monk prayed that young Valanice would be rescued soon, for his grief was almost too much for him to bear. He caressed the silver cross that hung from his neck, and whispered, “Valanice, have faith, for someone will help you soon, my child.” Then shaking his head with tears in his eyes, the monk resumed his prayers.
Valanice lay on the stone floor of her room, studying the cracks in the crystal stone. She did not remember how long she had been imprisoned, nor how much longer she would have to be imprisoned. Suddenly, she remembered Amaranth’s words on that night so long ago:
“…A ten of spades…not good…could mean trouble, same with this three of hearts…” But there was more, Valanice told herself. Remember.
“A jack of clubs, that means a reliable friend, and. a five of diamonds. Good fortune, prosperity, a happy family…and a king of clubs…a generous, honest, dark-haired man…you will travel to faraway places, and experience many unnatural phenomena. You will loose much, but it will all come back to you in the end.”
“Amaranth, I hope you’re right,” said Valanice out loud. “And whoever this dark-haired man is, please let him help me remember. Remember what it means to love someone…like the way I loved you and Mother. I pray that your predictions were true.”
She rose to her feet and walked to the balcony on bare feet, her sea-green dress reminding her of the ocean of her homeland. She leaned gently on the balcony, letting the tears fall from her eyes, many feet down until they hit the sand. Despite her sadness, she sensed that deep within her, there was a light. She knew that eventually, someone would some for her. Someone she would give her life to. Someone who would open her eyes and give her back all she lost. Someone who would show her enchantment and adventure.
“He has to come,” Valanice whispered into the wind. She wasn’t positive, but she was almost certain that she heard Amaranth’s voice reply: