Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Shea / Minerva Webworks LLC
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Lisa Shea
Book design by Lisa Shea
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Ava curled her fingers into tight fists. She called out in fury, “Get away from her, you bully!” She launched head-first into Dominik, even though the boy was as wide as an ox.
He staggered back, his cruel grip on little Pia’s arm flying loose.
Pia went racing toward the stone one-room schoolhouse, her blonde braids flying behind her in a tornado of motion. “Frauline Brunner! Frauline Brunner!”
Ava wasn’t going to wait for help to arrive. The skittish schoolmistress had proven quite incapable of controlling the village’s rougher boys, especially Dominik who was sixteen and bigger than many of the adults in the valley. Ava was a full two years younger than him, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.
She launched again.
He went down this time, overwhelmed by her rage, and she straddled his chest, pummeling at any body part which came within reach. Her long, red hair whirled circles above her head. Around her she could hear the shouts and cries of her fellow class-mates, but of course none came to her aid. Nobody else was impetuous enough to take on Dominik. Not with his reputation for clinging to grudges with the power of a Munich Wrestler.
She didn’t care.
Frau Brunner’s voice carried shrill and high over the meadow. “Aveline! You stop that this instant!”
Ava’s fist slammed down, hitting Dominik’s shoulder with a satisfying thunk.
She was lifted bodily in the air by two of the other boys, apparently under the direction of a shaking finger. Her breath came in long draws as she re-found her feet and looked down at herself.
Her mother was going to be furious.
Her dark blue dress, often smudged with dirt, now sported several large tears and a giant brown splotch.
Frau Brunner pointed to the stone building. “Inside! Now! You are going to stand in the corner until you see some sense!”
Ava’s voice burst out of her. “But Dominik started it! He was picking on Pia!”
Pia nodded her little head in confirmation, bless the girl.
Frau Brunner’s mouth turned down. “You are not to question me. I have a different punishment for Dominik. He will go to my house and fix that leaky roof.”
Red blossomed in Ava’s vision. She had to stand stationary, going mad with boredom, while Dominik got to build things? Was that fair?
She opened her mouth –
Frau Brunner pointed a finger. “One more word and you’ll be standing in that corner all day tomorrow, as well.”
Ava sullenly closed her mouth.
Dominik smirked at her before walking leisurely down the hill toward the cluster of houses which was the village proper.
Ava’s shoulders slumped as she followed Frau Brunner back into the room. The wood timber floor was neatly swept and ten long benches were spaced out in two columns.
Frau Brunner didn’t need to point, but she did anyway.
Ava sighed as she took up her habitual spot in the corner, staring into the center crack. She knew every inch of that crack. Every sound the floor made as it groaned beneath her shifting feet. Every twist in the grain of wood –
Frau Brunner stated to the class, “All right, then. For the afternoon we’ll be studying the genealogy of our royal family.”
Ava nearly collapsed in despair. Of all the topics she hated the most, this one was near the top. Who cared who the second-cousin-once-removed of the third prince was? There was a real world out there. One with brisk ponds to swim in and sun-dappled hills to climb. With soaring hawks to chase and crimson apples to eat.
She clenched her fists in frustration –
To her surprise, she realized that her muscles flexed when she did so.
She clenched one fist, then the other.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Her eyes lit up with delight. What else could she do?
She put her two palms together in front of her chest, carefully shielding them from Frau Brunner’s view. With her left she pushed while she resisted the motion with her right. Then reverse.
Immense satisfaction poured through her. She was disobeying Frau Brunner and the silly schoolteacher didn’t even know it!
The day streamed by as Ava invented an entire regimen of fun activities. It was certainly more interesting than that boring monologue Frau Brunner was giving.
At last the sun touched the tops of the craggy mountains and Frau Brunner waved her hands. “That’s all for today, class.”
The room burst into a chaos of running feet and laughter. Ava turned –
Frau Brunner stood glowering at her. “And you, young lady. I want you to stop fighting with Dominik!”
“You tell him to stop being a bully, then,” retorted Ava. She strode past the teacher and out into the streaming sunshine.
She looked around the open meadow, breathing in the air of freedom. Her eyes drifted over to the stream, to where her home lay next to her father’s blacksmith shop. She could almost hear the hammer-rings of the forge where her father and three older brothers worked. Her mother was undoubtedly in the house with the baby, Marie, which left Ava free for the entire afternoon.
Her eyes swiveled, as they often did, to the towering mountains. To the tumbling-down keep which she knew sat deep within its rocky face.
Today was the day.
For the fortieth time Ava resisted the urge to glance behind her as she made her way up the thin, twisting path. If her father and brothers knew where she was she’d be punished for a year. Maybe more. She’d heard countless tales about how dangerous the trail to the keep was. About the swaying rope bridge over a chasm of doom. About the insane witch who lurked in the shadows of the abandoned stone tower.
Every new story only made her crave the adventure even more strongly.
There was a beautiful billowing of cerulean edelweiss to the right and she almost stopped to pick some for her mother. She made herself resist. This shade didn’t grow anywhere near the village and undoubtedly she would be asked where she’d found it.
For a year.
She kept at the narrowing goat trail, her leather boots finding good purchase in the rocky soil. Behind her the valley shrunk smaller and smaller, the houses melding together into little clumps of timber and rock. She still couldn’t quite see the keep from where she was. Perhaps once she made it around this outcropping …
She pulled up, her mouth falling open.
It was real.
Somehow, despite all the stories, despite all the dreams and plans, she hadn’t quite thought it was up here. Maybe the tales had just been a way for her parents to keep the children spellbound during the long, hard winters. But there it was, right before her, and it took her breath away.
The thin trail twisted its way around large boulders and scraggly trees until it reached the start of a rope bridge. Trees on either side anchored the ropes, and the cross-struts looked as if they were fashioned out of decaying wood. A waist-high lattice of rope kept the person crossing from falling sideways into a deep crevice.
The trail forked at the bridge, going either across the bridge or to the right. She could see now that the right path led to the mountain itself, to where the crevice dug into the rock face. Perhaps agile mountain goats could move across that trail, skirting the edge of the crevice, but it seemed clear that no human could.
The paths rejoined at the far side of the bridge and then led, nearly straight, to the keep proper.
She soaked in the sight.
An outer wall circled the keep, a full ten feet tall, made of stone. At the wall’s center was a large pair of wooden doors which sat open. The hinges had all but failed. Within the walls sat a stone keep a full three stories high. Windows with diamond-shaped muntined glass shone in the sun.
Ava’s heart beat strong against her ribs and she picked up her pace.
She had to go in and explore!
She went around the boulders, past the scraggly trees, and at last she reached the start of the bridge. It creaked mournfully in the wind as it swayed. She held onto the right-hand rope and peered down.
Her stomach lifted to her mouth.
She had never seen a depth so dark or shard-filled. A fall in there would surely shred a person to pieces.
Her eyes rose again to the keep, and her resolve hardened.
She could do it.
She stretched her left hand out to take a hold of the other rope.
She drew in a deep breath.
She carefully placed her foot on the first wooden strut.
The bridge creaked … groaned …
The strut held.
She breathed again.
See, this wasn’t that bad!
She took the second step. She was now off of solid ground and wholly on the bridge.
It swayed with her motion, but it held beneath her.
Another step. Another pause. The far end drew near with each new step and her trust in the bridge grew. By the time she drew closer to the other side she was practically walking at a normal pace. Still, when she finally reached it, that grassy ground felt quite good and solid beneath her feet!
She lifted her eyes to the keep.
She could see that this had once been a road of sorts, straight and true, but time had eaten away at it. Saplings were pushing their way through in various places and surely those were baby rabbits poking their tiny faces out of the bristling brush?
Normally Ava would have spent hours cajoling the tiny animals to trust her but today she was on a mission. And the sun was continuing its golden path across the deep blue of the sky.
She headed forward.
The decay of the keep and its walls became even more apparent as she approached. There were weeds and vines sprouting out of the wall in a variety of locations. She was surprised the gate’s two main doors stayed upright, given the worn state of the hinges. When she reached them she was careful to stay clear of the heavy wood as she moved through the open center.
She looked around.
There, to the right, would have been the stables, but the wood and thatch had long since caved in. Perhaps that had been a bakery further on, and she was sure that pile of rubble had been a blacksmith’s forge.
It clearly had been long decades since that anvil rang out with the sound of a hammer.
A scurrying hedgehog ran off into some shadowy nook.
She carefully stepped into the open courtyard, looking around. Most of it was dirt but at one time there had been a plaza of sorts at its center, marked off with squared-off rocks. Within the square was a circle, perhaps six feet in diameter, now just rocky dirt. She wondered what had once been there. A pedestal? A statue of whatever Lord had owned this place?
Her feet moved forward.
There were five wide steps up to the main door. It was sturdily shut. A large, black, iron knocker sat at its center.
Ava’s heart began hammering against her ribs.
What if someone was home?
She shook away the thought. She was no child, to think such things could be true! Clearly her father had spun wild tales about the keep to ensure her and her brothers remained far from its dangers. Nobody had lived here in centuries. The layers of grime on the steps and the pitiful state of the front gates made that clear.
If she was lucky, the front door would simply be unlocked and she could explore the derelict building at will. If the door was locked, well, maybe there’d be a window she could get to and enter that way.
After spending so much time and effort to get here, she certainly wasn’t going to go away without taking a look!
She eyed the door knocker.
There was no harm in knocking. Just to be polite.
She reached up and took the iron in her hand. It was smooth to the touch, as if in its lifetime it had seen heavy use.
Certainly not in recent years.
She gave it a sharp rap.
Then, for form’s sake, she gave it two more.
The hedgehog peered out from its cave, sensed no threat, and waddled its way over to a small yellow plant. It must have found it tasty, because it plunked down there and started snuffling in contentment.
Ava smiled. There. She’d done her due diligence. Now she just had to press the door open –
With a soul-searing creak the door slowly swung open before her.
Ava was rooted in place. The saner part of her brain, speaking in a voice which sounded suspiciously like her mother’s, ordered her to run. To flee. To get across that rickety bridge to safety.
She clenched her fists, standing fast.
She couldn’t run! Not after everything she went through to get here!
There was a shape in the darkness –
Ava blinked, and she realized that an old, wrinkled crone stood before her. The woman had to be a hundred at least. Her pale face was lined with more seams than the family’s plot of turnips. Her gray-white hair was in one long braid down to her waist. She wore a simple gray dress belted around her middle.
The woman’s voice croaked out of her. “Well, hello there.”
Ava’s throat had gone dry. It took her several tries to get out, “Hello.”
The woman’s gray eyes crinkled in amusement. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Aveline, although most people call me Ava.”
“I am pleased to meet you, young Ava. My name is Magdalena. Would you like to come in?”
Again dual emotions warred within Ava’s breast. Her mother’s voice was becoming more strident, saying no, no, no –
“Yes,” agreed Ava. “Thank you.”
Magdalena stepped to the side, sweeping a hand.
Ava’s eyes were wide as she looked around. No story of her father’s could ever properly bring this place to life.
The foyer they stood in had a spiral stone staircase going up to the right. Cobwebs hung off of every angle and beam. A small, gray mouse meandered complacently along the timber floor to its hole. Ahead of her, the building opened up into a great room. A large fireplace, cold, was on the right wall. A long table stretched down the room’s length. Its surface was bare and coated with a thick layer of dust. Benches were tucked beneath it.
Magdalena motioned with a claw-like hand. “Come, come, everything’s in the back.”
Tension mounted along Ava’s spine as she followed the woman. Was she going to be stuffed into an oven and cooked? Chopped up and baked into a pie? The many stories she’d been told over the years all bubbled up in her mind, coalescing, boiling –
They stepped through the arch at the back of the room.
Ava let out a relieved breath.
It was actually pretty cozy, at least compared with the falling-apart state of the rest of the structure. Clearly this had been the food preparation room for the keep. A sturdy butcher-block table stood at its center with a pair of stools alongside it. A black kettle hung over the fire, along with a large matching pot with a lid. Something wonderfully fragrant was bubbling within.
Magdalena moved over to a wooden shelf, drawing down two simple but clean pottery bowls. “Would you like some soup? You must be hungry after your long walk.”
Ava blinked. “How did you know I had a long walk?”
Magdalena chuckled. “There is nobody at all living nearby, child. Clearly you must have come up from one of the villages down in the valley.”
Ava blushed. Here she had already decided that the woman was some sort of a witch or fortune-teller. Clearly she was just a simple woman trying to live out her remaining years. Maybe she’d been a servant at the keep and had been abandoned when the rest of the family went to … to wherever it is that they’d gone.
Magdalena put one bowl on the table and took the other to the pot. She lifted the lid and scooped the bowl within. The fragrance was mouth-watering. Chicken … rosemary … sage …
Ava’s stomach rumbled. Surely the woman wasn’t about to poison her. She said, “Yes, please. I’d like some soup.”
Magdalena put the bowl in front of Ava and found a spoon in a drawer. In a moment she was sitting alongside Ava with her own bowl and spoon.
Ava took a sip.
She asked, “Were you the family cook? Back before the place was abandoned?”
Magdalena’s eyes twinkled. “A cook? Oh, no, no. Gracious me.”
Ava’s brow creased. “Well, then, what are you?”
Magdalena took another sip of her soup. “I am many things, my child. But I suppose now you could call me a healer.”
Ava’s eyes lit up. “Really? And what can you –”
A large rock sailed through the window in a starburst of glass and wood.
Ava leapt to her feet in panic, wildly looking around.
The rock lay there on the wood floor, placid and unmoving.
Magdalena continued to sip at her soup.
Ava’s voice rose up out of her. “What in the world was that?”
Magdalena gave a soft smile. “It’s some of the local boys. They think they’re brave by throwing rocks at a defenseless keep.”
Suddenly Ava knew exactly which boy was leading this attack.
She ran to the window, avoiding the larger shards of glass on the floor. She peered out –
Dominik was there, two of his friends huddled behind him. Dominik’s face shone red as he told them, “See, nothing happened! And I bet if I tried that I could smash –”
Ava’s shriek rose high. “You’ll pay for that!”
The three boys turned as white as a field of daisies, and then they were racing as if the Giant of Tyrol himself were after them.
Ava ran for the back door. “I’ll get them!”
She flung it open.
A whirlwind of dust and cackles blinded her, and she dropped to her knees, her arms tightly wrapped around her head.
Had the witch set a tornado to attack her?
At last the maelstrom settled down and she dared to open her eyes.
A mangy herd of chickens, in colors from deepest black to palest red, settled back down around her. They returned to pecking contently at the dirt, ferreting out small bugs or wriggling worms.
The boys were nowhere to be seen.
Ava’s shoulders slumped, and she stepped back to the keep, closing the door behind her.
Magdalena patted the stool. “Come, Ava, have a seat. The boys don’t know any better. They are young yet.”
“They should know better,” growled Ava. “And they smashed your window.” She pointed at the hole. “If you let them smash them all, that’ll let in the rain and the snow. We need to stop them.”
Magdalena gave a soft sigh. “I’m afraid I’m just not as spry as I once was. They’ve got fresh legs and strong hearts.”
“I’ll help keep you safe,” announced Ava rashly, before she gave it any thought. “You’re living all alone up here. You deserve to have someone to help you.”
Magdalena shook her head. “I can’t let you do that, dear girl. Surely you have many other things to do with your time. You have friends you’d rather be playing at dolls with.”
Ava’s face flared red. “That’s all the other girls want to do,” she muttered. “And I am just not interested! I’d rather be up here, exploring the keep. Seeing what lies behind every door.” Her heart beat faster. “If I helped you scare off the boys, would you let me explore your home?”
Magdalena chuckled. “Of course I would, my sweet. But it’s just a keep. Nothing more than an old, fading tower.”
Ava’s gaze sparkled with anticipation. Surely it was a treasure chest of adventure. And who knew what lay behind every new turn?
Magdalena finished her bowl and then took up Ava’s empty bowl. “Well, then, you’d better run along home, Ava. You’ve got a long walk back down to the valley. But if you ever need anything, or wish to visit again, you are welcome. It was lovely to meet you.”
“Thank you so much, Magdalena. It was nice to meet you, too.” Somehow it seemed proper for Ava to drop a curtsey. Then she turned and skipped her way to the front door. It took both hands to pull it open. When she stepped through and closed it behind her it made a satisfying thunk.
She looked up at that iron knocker and pride swelled in her heart.
She had done it!
She had faced the keep, and she had come out alive!
She turned and looked down the long path to the bridge, and the narrow twisting trail leading back down into the valley.
One thought rang in her mind.
Tomorrow she would return.
And then the true adventure would begin.
Ava jolted awake in bed, looking frantically around in the darkness.
The attic looked as it always had. Across the way her three brothers laid side by side, snoring to shake the rafters. Rain pummeled the roof, resonating throughout the wooden-and-stone structure.
Bright light flared outside, bringing daytime to the world.
Immediately came the crash of thunder, shaking the foundations.
Her brothers slept on.
Her mother’s voice came up from below, tremulous and tense. “Oh, my darling, whatever are we going to do?”
Fear clutched at Ava’s heart. She’d never heard her mother sound like that before.
She carefully crept over to the stairs, peering down.
Her mother and father were sitting together on the floor near the fire, the baby Marie nestled in her mother’s arms. The flickering light cast deep shadows in the parents’ worried faces.
Marie gave a deep, hollow cough.
Ava’s mother caressed Marie’s face. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Her cough is getting worse. And nothing the priest says to do is helping at all. Now he just keeps telling me to pray.”
Her father held her mother’s hand. “Maybe Marie is allergic to something.”
Her mother shook her head. “As soon as the baby started to get sick I’ve been very careful. No new foods. I double check everything I cook to make sure it’s unblemished. I just don’t know what it could be.”
Marie shook with a long, hacking cough.
Ava’s stomach twisted.
She hadn’t realized the baby had gotten so bad. She’d been so preoccupied exploring the mountains and sulking over Dominik’s behavior that she’d completely missed the pain within her own family.
Suddenly, a thought glowed within her mind.
Magdalena was a healer.
Her father’s voice was low. “What if little Marie doesn’t make it through the night?”
Her mother began to sob.
Ava’s determination forged into steel.
She would get help.
Ava had no trouble sneaking out the attic window or shimmying down onto the low roof of the barn. She’d done it plenty of other times to go fishing in the moonlight or chasing after bats. But this time there was a tense urgency to her motions.
Her little sister was in serious danger.
Ava knew deep in her heart that the Healer Magdalena could save Marie.
Not a soul stirred in the dense, rain-drenched darkness as she ran along the river. Nobody called out as she crossed the long meadow which led to the foot of the mountains.
She slowed her pace as she worked her way up the slope. The mud had gotten slick in places and she didn’t want to fall and hurt herself. Not when little Marie depended on her. The branches tugged at her dress, and her boots were soaked, but still she struggled up, up, always up.
Over the fallen maple, around the outcropping –
Ava’s heart leapt into her throat.
The chasm seemed five times as wide as when she crossed it in the bright daylight. The rocks below seemed crueler, sharper, as if they were fangs waiting to sink into her tender flesh.
She brought the image of her innocent little sister to mind and focused on it. She forced everything else to fade.
She put her hands on the two rope struts. They felt heavy and water-laden beneath her grasp. The bridge was now groaning with the weight of the rain which had soaked into every piece of it.
She put her foot on the first strut.
It felt soft beneath her foot. Squishy, even. As if the ancient wood had soaked up the water like a sponge.
She carefully put her full weight on it …
She let out her breath. Holding tightly to both ropes, she eased her other foot forward, fully committing herself to the bridge. The next strut seemed even spongier, but it stayed whole beneath her weight.
The rain thundered down around her, the lightning crashed in her ears, and yet she forcefully reined in her usual impetuous spirit. She made herself go slowly, cautiously, across that groaning bridge. Because she knew, if she fell, that her little sister would be lost.
She could not let that happen.
Her fingers were cramped because of the cold, her leather boots slipped on the slick wood, and still she stepped, one foot at a time, one moment at a time, along the interminable length. The daggered rocks in the ebony chasm below her seemed to reach up in menace. Her arms and legs ached. And still she stepped … stepped …
There, the last few planks were within reach. She only had to cross those and she would reach the safety of the far side. It seemed almost a sandy shore of security after a long month on a wave-tossed ocean.
Her pace quickened –
There was a lurch.
A horrific snap.
The bridge gave way.
With all her might, Ava flung herself at the rope dangling along the grassy edge. Her fingers slipped, slid –
They held firm as the rest of the bridge clattered noisily into the depths.
She slammed hard against the rain-soaked wall of earth, but her fingers refused to let go. Her momentum settled down. She clung there, weary beyond all belief, her feet pointing down, down, down into the chasm.
She looked up.
The rain pounded her face. She was a good ten feet below the edge of the cliff. A few feet below her and the rope vanished in a mass of frayed ends. This short length was all she had.
She seated her right hand as firmly as she could on the slick rope. She carefully sought out footholds. And then she reached up with her left hand –
Her fingers slipped down.
Frantically she grabbed back at the rope with her left hand, stacking her two fists on top of each other. She clung –
The sliding stopped.
Now she was even further down her lifeline.
Her heart hammered against her ribs. If she tried to reach up again she might go right off the end of the rope and down into oblivion. There were no good ledges to stand on. No way to dry her hands. Her body was only getting more soaked and weak with every passing moment.
She was alone.
Tears filled her eyes, mingling with the downpour. If she didn’t make it out of this chasm, how would her baby sister be saved? If only she hadn’t raced at the end. If only she’d taken her time, stayed patient, and walked cautiously on those last few treads. But now all was lost. There was only the tiniest of chances that Magdalena could possibly hear any cries for help.
Fire burned in Ava’s eyes.
She would seek out even that tiniest of chances.
She filled her lungs and bellowed out into the cold, dark night –
The call echoed in the chasm, taunting her, and she shouted again, again, her lungs parching despite the waterfall of water around her. She shouted until the hoarse pain of it ripped her throat raw. And still she shouted – shouted –
A glimmer of light shone from above.
A lantern was held out into the deluge.
A face creased with lines eased out of the darkness, with eyes as gray as the distant seas.
“Hold tight,” Magdalena said. “I’m here.”
It was all Ava could do to put breath behind her words. “I’m stuck! I can’t climb up!”
“Just hold on,” soothed Magdalena. “I’ll get you up.”
She vanished into the darkness.
Ava considered the woman’s frail form and shook her head. Surely there was no way that –
The rope moved up an inch.
Ava nearly let go in surprise, then clamped down even tighter.
The rope moved again. Just an inch, but it was rising up.
Ava willed herself to be lighter. To be a feather in the wind. To be the tiniest blossom of edelweiss … drifting … drifting …
Slowly, inexorably, she lifted up away from those jagged teeth of rocks. She drew nearer, nearer, and then at last up and over the lip of the cliff. Onto the soft, wonderful, fragrant, soul-soothing grass.
Magdalena came up and tucked one arm underneath Ava. “Come on, young lady. Let us get you inside and dry.”
Magdalena was much stronger than she appeared, for she helped Ava to her feet as if Ava were a mere toddler of two.
The thought of a young child brought Marie’s plight back into sharp focus. Ava croaked out, “Marie is sick! She’s coughing and wheezing. She might not last the night!”
“We’ll take care of Marie soon enough,” promised Magdalena. “First we will get you inside. That is how we make progress. One step at a time.”
Normally Ava would have been racing to the keep, screaming her fears, pushing, pushing … but she was beyond exhausted. She allowed Magdalena to set the pace. To walk them, one step at a time, toward the large, open gates. Across the deserted courtyard. In through the large door and across the hollow, empty great room.
The fire was burning merrily beneath the kettle and Ava gratefully sank to her feet before it. Magdalena moved into a far room and in a moment she returned with a dress. “This should fit you, I think. Give it a try.”
She turned her back and began gathering up bowls and spoons.
Ava quickly stripped out of her soaking wet clothes, draping them over a chair. Then she drew on the fresh dress.
It fit perfectly and the dark blue color was just the shade she loved.
Magdalena came over to fill both bowls of soup. Once again they were sitting side by side in the quiet room, although this time it was lit by flickering candles and the warm fire. The rain crashed in steady rhythm outside.
Ava’s strength returned to her as she ate the fragrant soup, and at last she put down the empty bowl. She looked up at Magdalena. “Do you really think you can help my sister?”
Magdalena nodded. “I know that together we can.”
Ava’s brow creased. “But I don’t know anything about healing. I only seem to know about getting hurt.”
Magdalena drew to her feet and took up a candle in an iron holder. “Come with me.”
She walked back out into the great room and Ava followed along behind. Magdalena stopped at a wooden door opposite the large fireplace. She laid a hand on its face for a moment and then pressed it open.
Ava stepped through.
It was a study of some sort. A large desk lay to the right, with a chair behind it, neat and clean as if the owner had just stepped out. On the remaining walls were tall shelves stacked with bottles, jars, scrolls, and other objects which were hard to make out in the dark.
Ava turned in a circle. “What is this place?”
Magdalena’s voice was hoarser than usual. “This belonged to the … the owner of this keep.” She moved over to a shelf and ran her finger along the fist-sized jars as if searching. Then she nodded and took one down. It held some sort of a poultice of green goo.
“This is what you will need,” Magdalena instructed. “Rub this on your sister’s chest three times a day. It will cure her of her illness.”
Ava skipped forward with joy, taking it up in both hands. “Oh I will, I will! I promise! Now I just have to –”
Realization hit her.
The bridge was out.
She was trapped.
Despair soaked through Ava. She had the cure in her hands. The cure which could save her innocent little sister.
And she could not make it home.
She looked up at Magdalena. “What can I do? I need to bring this to Marie!”
Magdalena’s gray eyes were serious. “There is a way, young Ava. But it requires a decision of great responsibility. Do you feel you are up to that?”
Ava eagerly nodded her head. “Whatever it takes, I will do it.”
Magdalena held her gaze. “I believe you would, Ava. You are that loyal to your sister and to your family.”
She turned. “Come with me.”
Ava followed her out of the study and back into the main room. There, Magdalena moved forward to the great fireplace. She knelt before it with the candle and touched the flame into several places of the pile of logs. In short order the fireplace had warmed into steady life.
Magdalena stood and put the candle on the wooden mantle. Then she took down a square box. It was perhaps a hand’s length on each side and a few inches high. There was some sort of design inlaid on its cover.
Magdalena turned and moved to the table. She laid the box on its surface. She gave one last look to Ava – and then lifted the lid.
Ava’s mouth hung open.
Laid in a circle on a bed of black velvet were twelve silver pendants, each with a matching chain coiled up beneath it. They were made with exquisite detail and each sported a gemstone. The first was a ram –
Magdalena took up the ram and then closed down the lid. She turned to face Ava and dangled the pendant in the air before Ava.
Magdalena’s voice was low. “Do you know what this symbolizes?”
Ava nodded. “That is a ram head – the sign of Aries. I can see the symbol of Aries interlaced in the ram’s wool. I was born on April fifth, so exactly in the center of the Aries timeline.” She gave a low laugh. “My mother always said that I was as perfectly Aries as one could get.”
“And so you are,” agreed Magdalena. “Some people are partially one sign and partially another. A mix, as it were. But you, my child, you are special. Your blood runs strong with the Aries power.”
She nudged her head at the fireplace. “Your symbol is fire. The fire of creation. The fire of destruction.”
Ava’s voice was hoarse. “The fire of my father’s forge.” She had always felt comforted there, but never quite understood why.
Magdalena ran a finger along the pendant. “Your stone is the unbreakable diamond. The stone forged in heat and able to withstand anything. You are the strength of the foundation.”
Magdalena’s eyes moved from the pendant to Ava. “If I give you this pendant, you will have access to great power. It will be up to you to use it wisely. You will be tempted to draw from it at a whim. But you must remember to resist. To only turn to it when all other recourse is gone.”
Ava nodded. “I promise.”
Magdalena moved to stand in front of the fire, and Ava mirrored her pose. Magdalena held the pendant in the air. “Repeat after me. I vow to use my ability in order to help others. I will only use it when all other hope is gone.”
Ava reverently echoed the words.
Magdalena leaned forward and clasped the pendant around Ava’s neck. When she stepped back her eyes were glistening. “Put the pendant beneath the dress,” she advised Ava. “That is for you and for you alone.”
Ava nodded and did as instructed.
Magdalena smiled. “Now, go. Go to your little sister. She needs you.”
Ava didn’t need a second prodding. Her heart lifted with joy. Surely the ceremony had just repaired the bridge so she could return home!
She clutched the jar tightly in her hands and ran to the front door. In a moment she had slipped through and was on the long path back to the bridge. She raced … raced …
She skidded to a stop.
She stared, aghast, doubt flooding her.
The bridge was still out.
Ava blinked against the pounding rain, willing the scene to change. She pressed one hand against the pendant beneath her dress. Her voice rose high. “Bridge! Make me a Bridge!”
The ropes remained slack, dangling down into black darkness.
She staggered to her knees, staring into the abyss.
Everything was lost.
Her little sister would die.
She raised her head and looked up into the night sky. “Please,” she pleaded. “I need help.”
A golden shimmer billowed out of the night sky, streaming through the clouds and curtain of rain. It created a circle on the grass alongside her and the dancing motes coalesced … solidified …
A glowing ram stood before her.
He was absolutely beautiful, with dense wool in a luminescent golden hue. His curled horns were spirals of turquoise blue fading to lavender. His eyes, large and wise, were soft gray.
He nodded in greeting to her. “Welcome, young Ava. I am here at your call.”
Ava’s mouth fell open, and her hand went again to the pendant at her breast. “You? You came to me?”
“I will always come to you, when you need me,” he assured her. “Now climb onto my back and I will see you safely to your little sister.”
Ava climbed up onto the sturdy back and tucked the jar into her dress. Then she twined both hands into his thick, golden fur. “I’m ready.”
“Hold on,” he advised her.
He turned left and began carefully down the path which edged the chasm.
Ava’s stomach lifted into her mouth. She had hoped he would simply bound over the vast chasm and continue on the main path. But clearly the ram had other ideas. He was going to take the treacherous path along the edge of the cliff.
She pressed herself close to his warm body.
She would have to trust him.
His voice rose to her as he placed hoof after hoof along the twisted rocks. “Do you know my story?”
She shook her head. “I only know that my symbol is a ram.”
He took in a breath and began.
“Long, long ago, long before your grandparent’s grandparents were born, there was a queen who loved her son and daughter with all her heart. But her king was a fickle man. He put her aside and took up with a younger woman. That younger woman was not content to simply win the love of the king. She also wanted to do away with the two innocent children.”
Ava paled. “That’s awful!”
The ram nodded. He was at the cliff wall now and began slowly, carefully, finding his path along its face.
His voice echoed in the dark. “The stepmother convinced the king that the children must die, to forestall a deadly famine. Their mother realized what was about to happen and she called for me to protect them.”
Ava wrapped her arms more tightly around the ram. “But what could you do, if the king and his soldiers were set on killing the children?”
His voice was low. “I would do whatever it took to keep them safe. For I loved them dearly.”
His voice took on a chuckle. “And I am no ordinary sheep, as you might have guessed. I was sired by the god Poseidon. My mother was Theophane, grand-daughter of the sun-god. So I have both the water and the sun in my blood.”
Ava looked in awe at the creature beneath her.
He was the son of gods!
“I managed to escape the castle with the two children on my back. I carried them, much as I am carrying you now. Sadly, the girl fell off during our long voyage, but the boy survived and was saved. My task complete, he held onto my wool as a treasured memento and allowed me to return to my home in the sky.”
His voice took on a gentleness. “Just as you are now home.”
Ava looked up in surprise.
She was home.
Ava burst through the front door of her home, clutching at the jar of poultice.
Her parents looked up in surprise, then confusion. Her mother said, “But I thought you were upstairs, asleep!”
Ava tumbled to her knees at her mother’s side. “That doesn’t matter,” she insisted. She drew out the jar. “Here. I need to rub this on Marie’s chest. It will make her better.”
Her father’s eyes creased in concern. “Where did you get that?”
Little Marie gave a long, shuddering cough. Her breath was coming in fragile wheezes.
Ava unscrewed the lid and delved her fingers into the green goo. “This will cure her,” she stated again, brooking no argument.
She reached forward and gently rubbed the poultice on her little sister.
The small child shuddered.
She reached up toward Ava.
She breathed in deeply –
A smile came to Marie’s delicate lips. She breathed out, then in again, deeper this time, as if savoring the aroma.
Her tiny body relaxed back against her mother. Her breathing moved in and out, slowly, growing with strength with each passing breath. The rattle of the cough eased and faded.
Her mother stared at Ava in delighted shock. “How did you do that?”
“A healer I met on my travels gave that to me. We need to apply it three times a day.”
“Of course, of course,” agreed her mother, looking down at the baby. “I can’t believe it! It’s a miracle!”
Ava pressed up to her feet and went to the door, which still stood open. She looked beyond for any sign of Aries.
He was gone.
Ava blinked her eyes open in confusion. Streaming sunshine danced across the attic. Clearly it was well past morning.
She staggered her way downstairs. Her mother was humming a song, while little Marie rested quietly in her cradle.
Ava walked over. “Mother, why didn’t you wake me for school?”
Her mother waved a hand. “With what you were able to do last night you deserved to sleep in. Here, I’ve made your favorite. Scrambled eggs with fresh dill.” She put the plate down on the table.
Ava ate with relish, for she found she was starving. When she was finished she looked up at her mother. “I need to go thank the healer.”
Her mother’s eyes lit up. “Maybe we should all go!”
Ava paled. “No! I mean, ummm, she’s quite shy. I think she’d prefer it if only I went. You know how healers can be sometimes. I wouldn’t want to upset her, with all she’s done for us.”
Ava’s mother nodded in understanding. “Of course,” she agreed. “If you feel that is best. Please pass along the heartfelt thanks from our entire family. If there is anything she needs, anything at all, she has but to ask.”
Ava thought of the doors of the front gate, with how they sagged on the ancient hinges. “Perhaps I could get some items from father?”
“If you think the healer could use the items, then absolutely. He will give you anything you need.”
In short order Ava had gathered up a set of large hinges and put them in a bag over her shoulder. Then she set out for the mountains.
The trek across the meadow and up the slope was becoming familiar to her. The little stand of edelweiss; the fallen maple. At last she came to the fork in the road.
The bridge was still out.
Her hand went to the pendant …
She shook her head. Magdalena had made it clear that Ava could not simply use the pendant willy-nilly any time she hit a challenge. Crossing the trail in the pouring rain last night was a matter of life or death – she had to reach her sister in time.
But today she had all the time in the world.
She tied the bag securely around her shoulders, turned right, and began.
The path was narrow, but whatever animals had made it had worn it hard over the years. As long as she was attentive to where she placed her hands and feet her progress was steady. She knew better than to race ahead. She took her time, ensuring each step was secure before looking ahead to the next.
At last she reached the other side. She looked back in satisfaction.
She had done it!
She took the long, straight road to the keep’s gates and smiled as she took in those sagging hinges. Then she crossed the courtyard and went to the front door.
Her knock had barely finished echoing before the door drew open. “Welcome back, my girl,” greeted Magdalena. “No need for you to knock any more. Just come and go as you please. I take it your sister is feeling better?”
“Much better, and it is all due to your poultice. You saved her life.”
“We saved her life,” gently corrected Magdalena. “If you had not brought it back to her in time, then all the poultice in the world couldn’t have helped her.
Ava put down the bag. “I’ve brought you some new hinges for the gate. I thought we could get those fixed up.”
Magdalena waved a hand. “In time, in time. But right now I need you to chop thin slabs of firewood. Lots and lots of firewood.”
Ava opened her mouth to question why – and then closed it again.
Magdalena had saved her little sister.
If Magdalena now wanted a pile of firewood to reach the moon, Ava would gladly make it happen.
She walked out into the courtyard and dug through the remnants of the forge until she found a grinding wheel. An old axe lay up against one wall. She sat down with both and in a short while she had a serviceable edge on the tool.
Then she got to work.
She chopped and stacked. Chopped and stacked. Magdalena brought out some water for her to drink, then vanished into the keep again. Ava didn’t mind. She would make a pile of wood which covered the courtyard. Which stretched to the very chasm itself. Which –
She blinked in surprise.
There was someone on the other side of the chasm.
Ava put down her axe and ran on flying feet toward the chasm. She drew up as she got close.
There, on the opposite side, was a young girl about her age. The girl wore a flowing blue dress with no sleeves. Her short, golden hair billowed in curls which ended just at her shoulders. Ava had never seen a girl with hair that short. In her village all the girls wore their hair long.
Ava called across, “Who are you?”
“I’m Theresa,” answered the girl, staring down in curiosity at the remnants of rope.
“The bridge went out,” explained Ava.
“I can see that,” chuckled the girl. She dug into a grey sack at her side and brought out a sturdy coil of rope. She went to the tree on the left and carefully tied the start of the rope to the base of the tree. Then she returned to the edge of the chasm. “Ready?”
Ava’s brow creased. “Ready for what?”
The girl took in a deep breath. Then she began to whirl, the rope held out and high, building up momentum. At last she flung it out.
The rope flew … flew … uncoiling … and Ava reached out her hands. She grabbed at the last set of loops and caught it.
Theresa pointed. “Tie it to that tree over there.”
Ava went as instructed and set it into place with a sturdy knot.
Theresa tugged at it to test it and nodded in satisfaction. Then she dug into the bag again.
Another coil of rope. A tie to the second tree’s base and another flinging into the air. A second baseline set.
Theresa called, “And now for the top ropes.” She brought out a pair of thinner coils.
Ava had the pattern down now. It seemed easier to catch the flying coils; easier to tie them securely into place. She wondered what Theresa would produce next.
Theresa began laying down coils of even smaller rope. Apparently these would be used to create the lattice on the sides of the bridge and to hold the struts into place.
Ava looked around the area where Theresa stood. Had the girl somehow managed to bring along all the wooden struts as well?
Theresa barely looked up. “Well, come on then.”
Ava blinked at her in confusion. “Come on, what?”
“Start throwing over the wood.”
Ava stared at her, not understanding …
She ran back toward the keep.
When she returned, Theresa had tied a rope to one tree and secured it to her waist as a safety measure. She had started a lattice on each side of the bridge.
She looked up at Ava. “I’m ready for the first strut.”
Ava picked up a piece which was rectangular and flat. She looked across the chasm, drew back her arm, flung –
The wood hit the far wall and fell into the depths.
Frustration billowed in Ava. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean –”
“It’s all right,” calmed Theresa. “You have more. Just try again. Remember, these first few will be the hardest to get to me. As I keep building the bridge I’ll get closer and closer to you. So it’ll get easier. You only need to throw a few this far.”
Theresa’s words eased the fire from Ava’s mood and she nodded.
Theresa added, “Try whirling. I find it helps.”
Ava selected out another piece. She studied the distance to the other side. Then she whirled – whirled – released –
The wood flew in a beautiful arc up, across, and landed near Theresa.
Theresa smiled. “That’s perfect! I’ll start with this one. Send a few more over as you can.”
The afternoon drifted on. Ava missed with some struts, but enough others landed that Theresa had a steady supply. The golden-haired girl developed a steady rhythm. First she would lattice the left, lattice the right, and then weave in a step.
Lattice, lattice, step.
Inch by inch, step by step, the bridge moved forward, extending over the chasm. Ava was impressed with how methodically Theresa worked. With her intense focus on the job before her. With how steady and solid her hands were.
The sun was sinking low in the sky when at last Ava was able to hand Theresa the final step to weave into place. Then she offered a hand and Theresa stepped onto the bank beside her.
Ava grinned. “It’s nice to meet you in person, Theresa.”
Theresa nodded. “Likewise. Now, might you tell me why I’ve been summoned here?”
Ava’s brow creased. “Summoned? By who?”
There was a movement behind them and Magdalena was there, her long, silvery braid shining in the late afternoon sun.
“Welcome, Theresa. I am Magdalena.” She looked out over the sturdy bridge. “You girls have done well today. Very well, indeed. Come, you must be hungry. Let us have some soup and see what we can discover.”
Theresa nodded, her golden curls bouncing. “I would like that very much.” She looked to Ava and smiled. “You were a wonderful help with the bridge. I think we shall become fast friends.”
Ava beamed with joy.
She had a friend.
Thank you for reading Aries – An Adventurous Tale of Mythology and Folklore! The next book in this series will be written soon.
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Half of all of the author’s proceeds from this series benefit battered women’s shelters.
Ava was in trouble again. This time it was for pummeling Dominik, that bully, when he was harassing sweet little Pia. Why did the teacher always blame Ava for everything that went wrong? The moment Ava was free from that one-room schoolhouse she headed for the mountains. An adventure was just what she needed. And it was about time to learn if that tumbled-down keep high in the craggy cliffs was really as scary as the stories made it seem. A twisting path, some blossoms of edelweiss, and a rickety, swaying rope bridge - but at last the crumbling tower was in front of her. She would knock on the door just for politeness sake. And then she would head inside the abandoned building to explore. Except ... The door was pulled open ... * * * Aries - an Adventure of Mythology and Folklore is the first book in the Zodiac Maidens of Melk Short Stories series. These short stories are about 50 pages each and feature heroines who represent each astrological sign. They are set in a fantasy world based on medieval Austria. All of the Zodiac Maidens of Melk series contain no violence, no swearing, and no intimacy, so they are suitable for teens and up. You can read the books one-by-one as they are released or you can wait for the boxed set to be published once the series is complete with twelve books. Some people like to binge-read all at once. Others like to read as I write and offer feedback to guide the storyline. It's your choice! A portion of all proceeds benefits battered women's shelters.