THE BATTLE FOR CRIMLIA
“Hannah! Breakfast!” The shrill screech of Ms. Maplewood’s voice
pierced Hannah Wilkins’ eardrums. Sighing, she flopped onto
her stomach. The bed springs creaked under her weight.
She burrowed further down into the warm cocoon of sheets.
“Hannah! Did you hear me, young lady?” Ms. Maplewood’s shrill voice
rose two more octaves. “The school bus’ll be here in ten
Hannah jerked the bedclothes away. Her bare feet hit the
carpeted floor with a muffled thud. “I’m coming, all right?”
Going to her dresser, Hannah groped in the top drawer for a pair of
socks. She selected a pair and felt inside them. When
her fingers encountered the bundles of stitches sewn into the socks,
she began counting. Three sets of stitches. Red, she
thought, Perfect. Red was Hannah’s favorite color.
After Hannah had finished dressing, she went to the corner beside
the door. Taking a slender, long white object from it’s place,
she trudged down the stairs.
“Well, you took your time!” Ms. Maplewood fumed, “You’re oatmeal’s
“Yuk! Why’re we always having oatmeal?”
“Because we are! Now eat up.”
Hannah jabbed her spoon into the thickening mess. Slowly, she
stirred the gloppy concoction round and round the bowl. She
smelt coffee and heard the trickle of liquid being poured into Ms.
“Your mom’s working late tonight. What would you like for
Hannah thrust a spoonful of oatmeal into her mouth. She chewed
and grimaced in disgust. Mom was working late. So what
else is new, she thought savagely. “Spaghetti’s fine.” She
“We had that last night.”
“Well, we had oatmeal yesterday!” Hannah shot back.
Ms. Maplewood sighed. “I’m really trying, you know!” she
shouted. “You could try and meet me halfway.”
Hannah glared. She drank her milk and pushed the oatmeal bowl
From outside, a horn blasted. Hannah rose and took the long
white object from the corner in the kitchen. Swinging it at an
arc in front of her, she trudged toward the door. “Have a good
day.” Ms. Maplewood called, “and remember your eye appointment after
school. I’ll be outside to get you when the bell rings.”
Hannah didn’t bother to reply. Why bother with the
appointment? What was the use? She trudged out the door and
walked toward the roaring motor of the school bus.
“Hey there, Han!” Mr. Peterson called jovially. His deep, rich
voice echoed over the roaring motor. “Your seat’s empty
“Thanks.” Hannah said. She lumbered up the bus steps, the
object in her hand touching each step as she climbed.
“That cane comes in handy, huh?” Mr. Peterson asked.
“It’s all right.” Hannah admitted. Until she’d received the
cane in the mail two weeks ago, she’d had to rely on the guidance of
others. She still shuddered at the embarrassing thought.
Hannah settled herself into the seat directly facing Mr. Peterson.
She would have preferred a back seat, but by law she was required to
As the bus pulled away from the house, Hannah heard the chatter of
students. Of course, none of the talking concerned her.
The students hadn’t included her in their conversations ever since
After fifteen minutes, the bus lurched as it turned into a gravel
driveway. The brakes screeched as Mr. Peterson pulled to a
Hannah heard the clomp swoosh! Sound of a leg brace scraping along
the gravel. Oh, no! she thought in panic, Not Brandon!
But already, Mr. Peterson’s voice was ringing out. “Hey there,
Brand! Long time no see! Your mom doin’ all right?”
“Sure, Mr. P! Where should I sit?”
“You’re seat’s still got a free spot. Come on up.”
Hannah heard Brandon Pringle’s leg brace clomping on the steps and
knew it would take him a few minutes to get on board. She
thought of making her way to a seat further back, but she knew
Brandon had probably already seen her.
Brandon finally made it onto the bus. He plopped down in the
seat beside Hannah. “Hey there, Hannah! What’s shakin?”
“Nothing.” She snapped.
“You gotta cane, huh? Can you use it for a weapon, too? It’d be good
“Knock it off!”
“Hey, lighten up. I know what you’re goin’ through. You
ever think of that?”
“Yeah, right. Like you know.”
Brandon sighed. “How’s things in Mr. Muhler’s class?”
“Fine. We finished Hatchet. Now we’re reading Roll of
Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
“I’ve read them. Hatchet was the bomb!”
“I like Roll of Thunder the best. T.J.’s my favorite.”
“Yeah, he thinks he’s so cute, though.”
Hannah nodded. How could she explain that the character T.J.
didn’t know where he belonged, Like her.
“Hey, Brand! You through talkin’ to fatso yet?” The voice was
nasally and male. Hannah caught a whiff of Wriggley Spearmint
Gum. Gross Gordon Hamilton! He was Brandon’s friend, and he
always sat two seats from the front with Georgia Stafford.
Hannah heard Georgia’s snicker over the motor.
Brandon fidgeted nervously. “How’re you, Gordon?”
“Fine. I feel sorry for you having to sit with her, though!”
At that moment, Hannah heard a piercing screech followed by an
earsplitting boom. “It’s a deer!” Mr. Peterson shouted.
The bus rocked crazily. The smell of rubber and the stench of
smoke made her cough. Kids screamed. Hannah felt a
strong hand grip her arm. Then she felt a tremendous jarring
sensation. In an instant, she was lifted from her seat as the
bus shook and shuttered. Her head cracked against the window,
and she knew no more.
Golden sunlight fell in honey yellow warmth. Krystar, a burly
man in a camel-hair suit, stood at the edge of Pridar River.
Cupping a hand over his mouth, he cried: “Turn from the fold of
Salak, the False Reflecter!”
Reaching into a leather pouch attached to a belt, he removed a
leathery-looking object. He popped the object into his mouth
and chewed with relish.
“Ugh! That’s disgusting! You just ate a grasshopper!”
Krystar spun around. A young boy, looking dazed, stared at him
in disbelief. “That’s right, young man!” his voice boomed,
“You want one? I’ve just procured a batch of the best wild honey
around! Nothing like it for improving the taste!”
Krystar surveyed the speaker closely. “You’re certainly
strange, my friend. What a peculiar object you have on your
leg. Are you quite well?”
“Yeah, I’m just, um—I was in a car accident last year. I just
had an operation, but I still have to wear the brace.”
“Car accident? Brace? I do not understand.”
Brandon shrugged. “I, um, I don’t understand either.
Where am I?”
“Where are you? You’re at the River Pridar.”
“The River Pridar. In Crimlia.”
“Crimlia? You are nuts! I’m out’ve here.”
Brandon turned to walk away. Then he turned back. “Have
you seen a girl around here. She’s kinda big, and she’s
carrying a cane.”
Krystar’s face was a mask of total bewilderment. “I don’t know
what you’re referring to, but I think you’d better stay with me for
the time being. If I can’t interest you in my food, could I
get you some willow tea? Best thing in the world for building
Krystar turned toward Pridar. He took a clay pot from the
ground and filled it with water. “If you’ll gather some
sticks, we’ll see about fixing that tea.”
Brandon decided he’d better play along. He turned and began to
scan the ground.
Suddenly, he heard approaching footsteps. He straightened, and
saw Krystar rushing forward. His face was aglow with
excitement. “It’s you!” he cried jovially, “The Imperial One!”
“And your cousin, remember?” A young man approached. He was
dressed in a simple robe of homespun brown cloth. His hands
bore numerous callouses. His every movement seemed to convey a
purpose. He was not handsome, but Brandon was awed by his
authoritative air. The man’s voice was gentle, but loud enough
that there was no possibility of misunderstanding his words.
“It’s great to see you, Krystar! You still eating those
Krystar laughed. “They’re good! Besides, they’re the easiest
things to find out here. How’s Aunt Marigold?”
“She’s well. Marshall’s with her now.”
“Is he speaking to you yet?”
A cloud passed over the young man’s face. “No, but he’s with
mother. That’s the important thing.”
“But he’s your brother!” Krystar’s face became angry. “If you
can’t depend on family, then—“
“Even if my family disowns me, I have a job to do.”
“Of course you do! I’m glad you came to see me first.”
“I need you to do something for me.”
Krystar looked surprised. “You mean—“
“But—you should be the one who—“
“No. It is important that I obey my father in all things.”
Krystar nodded. “Come.”
He led the man to the River Pridar. Stooping down, he used his
hands to reach into the mud on the riverbank. He withdrew an
oval-shaped mirror. “Do you pledge to turn away from Salak’s
The young man nodded. Krystar held the mud-encaked mirror
before the man’s face. “Look into the Mirror of Cleansing, and
follow me.” He instructed.
The man stared into the mirror. Krystar waded into the
waste-deep water, and the man followed.
Krystar took hold of the man’s
shoulders. He was about to plunge the man underneath the
flowing water when he gasped. “The mirror!”
His eyes straining with curiosity, Brandon inched close enough to
look. The oval-shaped glass, once mud-caked and grimy, was
sparkling clean! It shown with a dazzling brilliance that was
The young man smiled. “Proceed, Krystar.” He murmured.
Krystar swallowed in amazement. “I now purify you from your
wrongdoing.” Gently, he lowered the young man’s head under the
water. The mirror also was dunked into the crystal pool.
When the young man rose from the water, his hair dripping and the
mirror clutched in his hand, his face was aglow with purpose and
“Thank you, my cousin and friend.” He handed the mirror back.
Instantly, a dazzling light pierced the sun-filled sky overhead.
Brandon covered his eyes. A rumbling voice reverberated around
them. “My son! Well done! I am exceedingly proud!”
“Oh, Jamal! You are ready for your mission!” Krystar cried in
ecstasy. He patted Jamal on the shoulder. “I still hope
you’ll come around.”
Jamal laughed. “Sure, but why not go back to Nunmal? Aunt
Eliza’s really been missing you.”
“I’ll go back soon, but—“
Suddenly, Krystar turned to Brandon. “I’m sorry, lad! Where
are my manners? This is the Imperial One!”
Brandon was dumbfounded. “What’re you talking about?”
“This is my cousin Jamal. Go with him.”
Jamal turned his shining face on Brandon. “Hello, my friend.
You’re a long way from home!” His eyes twinkled.
“Um, yeah, you could say that! Look, straighten this guy out, will
you? He says we’re somewhere called Crimlia. I’m looking for a
girl. The bus—“
“No need to explain, Brandon.” The
voice was gentle. “I cannot stay here long. I must go to
“What?!” Krystar roared, “You’re going to that—“
“I’m going to see Lucinda. I must.”
“Look! You guys are insane!” Brandon’s patience had reached a
breaking point. “I need some answers here, and I need them
Jamal smiled. “Stay here with Krystar, and he’ll explain
everything to you. If you desire to come with me later, I’ll
come back by to collect you. Right now, I must go. You
cannot come to the palace yet. You’d be in danger.” Without
another word, Jamal threw his arms around Krystar’s neck. Then
he hurried away.
“Well, Brandon is it? How about that tea now?”
Brandon began searching along the ground for some sticks. It
wasn’t until he’d collected enough to build a fire that a thought
slapped him upside his head. “Krystar! How’d that man know my
The room was dark and cool. On the walls, jeweled tapestries
shone with many colors: crimson, topaz, aquamarine, and peach.
In the center of the room on a golden throne, a slender woman sat
ensconced among plush cushions. Her heart-shaped face was
framed by billowing strawberry blond locks. Ice blue eyes
shone from the alabaster pallor of her skin. Her face was
devoid of expression, and it barely ever registered emotion of any
The woman wore a crimson dress of the
finest silk. It was covered in every imaginable jewel: ruby,
Emerald, jasper, diamond, and dozens of other precious stones.
On a table before her sat the remains of a lavish meal: a rare
T-Bone steak, crabmeat, a dish of creamed cauliflower, green beans
and squash, and a slab of chocolate cake.
The woman held up a commanding hand, and a man in the corner looked
up inquiringly. “Bring me my mirror!”
The man nodded and withdrew. The woman leaned back with a
In a moment, he returned. “Here is your mirror, my queen.”
“You may leave now.” The man placed a large cherrywood-framed mirror
on a pearl-encrusted stand before his mistress. Then he left.
The queen leant forward. The mirror was made of imported
venetian glass. On the cherrywood frame, small pictures of
flowers and blooming trees swayed in a lifelike breeze. In the
center of the frame, the picture that held prideful place was a
carving of a rose. The rose dwarfed all the other carvings.
It’s petals opened wide as if spreading its perfume throughout
the room. Only if you looked closely could you distinguish the
small carving out of cherrywood that emerged from the center of the
rose. The carving was of a scarlet serpent coiled as if to
Running a crimson-nailled hand through her hair, the queen stared
into the mirror. She revolved the beautiful object and stared
in rapture at her breathtaking image.
Suddenly, the throne room door crashed open. “Queen Salak! The
guards have found a girl wandering about the palace grounds!” A
black-cloaked man yelled.
Salak looked up from her perusal. She fixed a steely gaze upon
the man. “Aufeld. What is that to me? Do what you like
“Your Majesty, you might want to see this girl! She wears
strange garments and carries a peculiar object.”
“Ah, a foreigner, eh? As I said, she’s no concern of mine.”
“She’s blind, my queen!” Aufeld cried desperately.
Salak sucked in her breath. Her left hand convulsed as it
slapped the arm of her throne. “It can’t be!”
“I thought it best to come to you right away. Remember the
Salak bit her lip so hard flecks of blood appeared on the
marble-sculpted skin. “Bring her to me.” She whispered in icy
“And Aufeld!” The man turned back. “If you’re lying to me—“
She let her scarlet tongue pass over her blood-flecked lips.
Aufeld swallowed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
When the throne room door closed, Salak rose. She began to
pace like an enraged lion. “You’re wasting your time!” she
shouted into thin air.
She returned to her mirror and gazed fixedly into its depths.
Her own face shown crystal clear. A twisted smile suffused her
pale features. I’ll win, notwithstanding, she thought darkly.
Then Salak rotated her mirror. “Show me Jamal.” She murmured.
The glass clouded, and she peered transfixed at her enemy. He
was moving determinedly forward, purpose driven and refusing to look
back. Yes, she thought, Keep coming closer, my friend.
The throne room door opened, and Aufeld propelled a young girl
forward. The girl was struggling in his iron grip. “Let
me go!“ she screeched. The girl wore a red, short-sleeved
shirt and blue pants woven from a coarse-looking material.
“Let me go or I’ll call the police!”
“Stop squirming you little wench!” Aufeld roared.
“Aufeld.” Salak’s voice crooned gently, “There’s no need to alarm
our guest. Release her.”
“But, Your Highness—“
“Do as I say.” Salak whispered.
Growling deep in his throat, the man complied. He thrust
Hannah toward the throne after roughly throwing the cane at her.
The cane clattered to the floor. Hannah stumbled.
“Where am I? Somebody help me!” Hannah shouted. She feverishly
groped for her cane.
A hand brushed hers as the cane was handed back. “Is this what
you’re looking for, my dear?” Salak’s voice was gentle and
bell-like. Although the voice was soft, it held a tone of
“Thank you.” Hannah managed to whisper. “Where am I?”
“You’re in Plenty Palace in the Land of Crimlia. Are you from
Normdal or Priam, our neighboring countries? What is your name?”
“I’m Hannah Wilkins. I’m from Tennessee.”
“Tennessee? What land is that?” the woman asked sharply.
“It’s in the United States. This must be England. Your
“England? You are a strange child. How did you acquire that
large swelling on your head?”
“I don’t know!” Hannah cried in frustration.
“Aufeld! Take this child to the infirmary. Have Louise doctor
that bump on her head and get some food inside her. Then bring
her back to me.”
Aufeld nodded. “Come, child.” He said gruffly.
“You’re not grabbing me this time!” Hannah snapped.
Salak laughed a bubbling laugh. “Of course not, my dear! You
may use the peculiar apparatus you brought with you.”
“It’s called a cane.” Hannah informed her. Then she turned to
follow her guide.
When the throne room door had closed, the queen turned back to her
mirror. “Reveal to me all the information about Hannah
Wilkins.” She instructed. The mirror shimmered, and Salak
leaned forward to peer at images of the girl’s life. She
smiled in satisfaction. Everything would work out to her
“Now, are you refreshed, Brandon?” Krystar called.
“Yes, sir. Thanks.” Brandon admitted. “I hate to say it, but
those grasshoppers weren’t bad.”
Krystar laughed. “What’d I tell you? Now you might want to get
some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Ah! Many people will come! They always do. They want to be
“I realize that this Queen Salak or Lucinda must be mean, but I
still don’t understand what she’s done, and why does she have two
“Ah! Now that is a long story! You’ll find all this out in time, my
friend. But for now, let me show you—“
Krystar pulled up the sleeve of his woolen robe. Brandon
hobbled forward in order to look. He gasped. On the
man’s arm, faded but clearly visible, was a tattoo. The tattoo
was scarlet in color. It showed a scarlet serpent who was
attacking a newborn lamb. The serpent’s red fangs were
embedded in the lamb’s hind hoof.
“Whoa! What is it?” Brandon swallowed.
“The Mark of Allegiance. All of us must wear one. Our
first memory as infant’s is the searing heat of the iron.”
“You mean, the queen—“
“Yes, lad. It’s the Birthing Ceremony. The Mark of
Allegiance stays with us all our lives.”
“You mean, she watches little babies being branded like cows?”
An image of his grandfather’s farm flashed through Brandon’s mind.
He remembered the day he’d held a struggling calf while Grandpa Nick
touched the hot iron to the calf’s back. The calf had let out
an ear-piercing scream that still haunted Brandon’s mind.
“That she does, lad. It’s her favorite ceremony. Unless
you count the Union one, of course.”
Krystar cleared his throat. “Some things are better left
unknown. How old are you, Brandon?”
“I’m thirteen. Why?”
Krystar fidgeted nervously. We’ll have to keep you with me for
a while. Jamal was right.”
“Wait a minute.” Brandon said, “Jamal’s sleeves were pulled up when
you went into the water. I didn’t see a Mark of Allegiance on
Krystar’s face lit up like a newly lit candle. “You wouldn’t,
lad. The iron had no effect on him!”
“It’s true, the Imperial Lord be praised! My mother, Eliza
recounts the story every chance she gets! Thirty times that
iron touched his skin, but it didn’t do any good. Salak would
have administered it even more times, but I think she saw it was
“Thirty times?” Brandon cried out in
wonder. “But his arm would have fallen off! He probably would
have needed skin grafts!”
“Skin grafts? Once again, you use odd
words! I’ll never understand you. His arm was not burned.
Do you remember the Mirror of Cleansing? It’s filth was washed away
before it touched the water! Don’t you see?”
Brandon opened his mouth to say
something, when an echoing tramp of footsteps were heard.
“Could someone be coming at this time of the night?” Krystar
Two large men dressed in purple and scarlet suits emerged from a
clump of trees. “Krystar Ernest! Son of Zumril and Eliza
Ernest! I hereby summon you to the Palace of Herman Zonderman in the
Province of Sumril! You’re under arrest!” One of the men shouted.
“On what charge?” Krystar asked calmly.
The other man scoffed. “You know!” he sneered, “No one taunts
Herman and Hermia and gets away with it!”
“I merely told the truth. Salak rules over Herman and his
wife. She sent you, didn’t she?”
The other man laughed. “She may have, but that’s not the
point. You’re coming regardless of who sent us.” He grabbed
Krystar’s arms and twisted them behind his back. The other man
wound ropes around the silent captive.
“Brandon, young lad!” Krystar called, “Run toward the North! Run
toward Jamal! The Imperial Lord protect you!”
“Wait!” Brandon cried out, “I can’t walk very fast! I don’t—“
“Crippled lamb will vanquish wicked lioness!” Krystar shouted as he
was dragged away.
Brandon stared into space for a moment. I’ll wake up in a
minute, he thought desperately. I have to. Then he began
hobbling forward, his stomach laden with fear.
“And what do you expect me to do I’d like to know?” Aufeld snapped.
“Armand, he just walked in here! I couldn’t stop him!”
Armand, a thin man with a weak chin, grunted. “It’ll be your
head she has, not mine!”
What can we do? That baker’s son is mad, I tell you!”
“I don’t know what Crimlia’s coming too. People showing up out
of nowhere! By the way, how’s that girl you brought in?”
“She’s eating right now. Louise’s with her.” He trembled.
“Her Majesty was furious when I told her of the girl’s arrival.
I’ve never seen a person’s face grow so deathly pale. What can
Armand was silent. After a moment, he quoted softly: “Blind
girl and crippled boy will bring an end to Evil’s story.
Baker’s son will prepare Freedom’s Bread in his purifying oven”.
Aufeld groaned. “You and your riddles, Armand!”
“You’ve heard those blasted Imperialites! Every time they’re brought
here they sing that song.”
Aufeld turned away. “I’d better see about the girl.
Queen Salak wanted to see her after she’d eaten.”
He left the room and trudged down the carpeted hallway.
Dazzling tapestries and jeweled figurines were visible on every wall
and ivory table. Birdcages sat in every available aperture.
Music of a piercing sweetness underlyed with heart wrenching sadness
came from the cages. Starlings, mockingbirds, goldfinches, and
other brightly colored birds trilled their notes upon the silent
Aufeld stopped at one cage and looked in at a robin redbreast.
The bird sat on its perch, it’s sightless eyes glazed and its wings
clipped. Several times, the bird flapped its wings feebly.
In another cage, a daring sparrow
flew from his perch only to crash against the bars of his prison.
The sparrow crumpled into a heap and sang piteously.
Aufeld turned away from the pitiful sight and hurried to the door of
the infirmary. As on every door in the palace, a carving of a
scarlet rose shone brightly. Aufeld trudged through the door
and went to a table in the corner of the room.
Hannah sat alone, an untouched plate of bread, cheese and apples
before her. “You’re supposed to have eaten!” he snapped.
“I wanna know where I am, and I wanna know now!”
“That’s not up to me to tell you, wench! Now eat up or I’ll have to
make you. Her Majesty wants you to have strength.”
“But why? Look, I hafta get home!”
“Where is home? Were you being truthful to Queen Salak?”
“Salak? What kind of name is that, anyway?”
“Her real name’s Lucinda, but you address her simply as Your
Majesty. Now eat!”
Hannah glared. “That woman who you left me with didn’t make
“Louise is too soft with the young ones. I’m telling you to
eat at once!”
Hannah picked up a slice of apple. As she was about to take a
bite, she heard the tap-tap sounds of steps approaching from another
“Well, you’re back, are ya!” the high-pitched voice of Louise
screeched. She was a gaunt, hawk-nosed woman with a washed-out
expression. Aufeld often wondered if she ever smiled.
“Yes, and I need to speak with you.” Aufeld and Louise left the
Sighing with relief, Hannah thrust apple slices into her blue jeans
pocket. She listened closely to make sure that the voices were
Then, grasping her cane, she grabbed the plate of bread and cheese
and tiptoed as quietly as she could out the door. It was easy
for her to find the door, because she could hear, as she had ever
since entering this strange building, the sound of birds singing.
Groping along the wall and swinging her cane, Hannah shuffled
forward toward the sad music. Her cane touched the bottom of a
cage, and Hannah stopped walking. “You’re locked up, too.” She
Holding out the plate of bread and cheese, she gingerly broke off a
piece and stuck it through the bars. The bird within let out a
surprised cheep. “Enjoy.” Hannah whispered.
She turned to walk toward the next cage.
Suddenly, she felt her body being jerked forward, but she felt no
hand grab her. The plate she held fell from her hand and
shattered on the legs of the next cage.
“What’s the matter, my dear?” the bell-like voice echoed around her.
“Was the food not to your liking? And look, hoarding precious fruit!
We can’t allow that, now can we?” The voice was not angry but
playful in tone as if the speaker was a cat glorying in the capture
of a mouse.
“Where are you?” Hannah cried out in panic.
“Why, I’m in my throne room, of course. I’ve been waiting for
you to come back to me. I have a job for you.”
“I need to get home!” Hannah cried in panic. All dignity
vanished as she began to sob hysterically.
“There, now. You’re groveling!” The queen’s voice was amused.
“I’ll help you, but you must help me, first.”
“H-Help you?” Hannah stammered.
“Why, yes. You’ll be quite safe here. I just need you to
open your heart to me. I think I know someone who can help you
regain your sight.”
“What’s wrong with you people!” Hannah screamed. “I’m never
going to see again! Leave me alone!”
“Ah, you can’t see because you were in an accident in those curious
contraptions you call cars. Is that right?”
Hannah swallowed. “Yes.” She whispered, “How did you know?”
“I see more than you think. Your mother was driving your
fifth-grade class to an amusement park. She hit a tree.
You hit your head, and a boy, Brandon, suffered a spinal injury,
Tears flowed unchecked from Hannah’s eyes. “Yes.” She said.
“Your father left shortly after the accident, correct?”
Hannah swallowed. “Yes.
”I can introduce you to someone who
can help you. Your mother would no longer have to work to pay
doctor’s bills. She could be home when you finished school,
and she could wake you up in the morning. Come, help me by
letting me help you.”
Hannah hesitated for a moment. “What can I do?”
“Just lean forward. I’ll transport you to my throne room and
give you something special to build up your strength. The food
I offer is more substantial than apples and bread. Tomorrow,
I’ll show you the person who can help you.”
Hannah hesitated for only a moment more. A vision of her
mother invaded her mind. Mom cried at night. Hannah had
heard her often. She nodded, and leant forward. She held
out her arms.
Something like a caressing breeze lifted her off the ground.
She felt as if she was floating on a cloud.
After a few moments, she felt herself being lowered onto a soft
couch. A bowl filled with a fragrant soup was placed into her
“Lamb’s broth,” Salak’s voice intoned. “Drink it all, and then
sleep. Things will look better in the morning.”
Hannah placed the bowl to her lips and began to pour the liquid down
her throat. The broth was sweet and spicy at once, pungent
with onions and garlic. After a few ladylike sips, Hannah
began guzzling hungrily. She’d never tasted anything with so
After the broth, Salak proffered a heart-shaped box. “Trifles
of Inertia. They’re pure heaven. Try one.”
Hannah reached forward to grab a morsel, but her hands were too
heavy. Her eyes felt weighted down.
“Do you want me to feed you?” Salak asked kindly.
In her dazed stupor, Hannah managed to nod her head. She felt
round, chocolate-covered morsels being gently placed in her mouth.
Hannah gasped at the sweetness of the taste: orange creams,
marzipan, and hazelnut chocolates were pushed down her throat so
rapidly she couldn’t distinguish one taste from another.
However, she relished the pure ecstasy of the sweet mixture.
In a few moments, Hannah became so dazed she could no longer think.
She fell back onto the silken couch. Her final thought was of
Brandon stumbled forward in the darkness. Owls hooted from
nearby trees, and his limbs were heavy and sluggish. Sighing,
he approached a cherry tree and leant against its rough bark.
Two days had passed since Krystar had been arrested. In those
days, Brandon had walked steadily in the direction he’d seen Jamal
walk. He was still at a loss as to what to do. Even if
he found Jamal, what could he tell him?
Well, at least he hadn’t gone hungry! As Krystar had left,
he’d managed to throw his pouch to the ground. The pouch held
grasshoppers, willow bark, and some berries. Not the most
appetizing meals, but Brandon was managing.
Brandon picked a few cherries off the tree and placed them in the
pouch. He was about to go forward again, when he heard a
rumbling peal of thunder. Great! Just great! He thought
Brandon began struggling forward. His leg was beginning to
cramp, and he felt lightheaded.
After a few moments, large drops of rain began to pelt his skin.
He struggled onward, knowing that he couldn’t seek shelter under the
trees. Jagged bolts of lightning sliced through the sky.
“You! Boy! What’re you doing out here?” A rumbling voice echoed
Brandon jumped and strained his eyes looking for the speaker.
Soon, he saw a muscular woman silhouetted in the entrance of a hut.
She wore a black homespun robe. “What this world’s comin’ to,
I don’t know! My Mendel’s asleep in there, but I heard the most
peculiar noise! You best come in here for the night!”
“But, I need to find—“
“My stars, boy! Ya won’t get far in this weather! Besides, with that
strange thing on your leg, I’m surprised ya made it this far.
Now come on in with ya!”
Brandon followed the large woman into the small hut. “Ya look
a mite pecked! I got some bread and apples. Will that do ya?”
Brandon’s stomach growled. Bread! He thought. His mouth
“Sit yourself down, then. Name’s Ursula, by the way! Ursula
“Brandon Pringle.” He said, plunking himself down on a wooden bench.
The room was filled with makeshift tools and fishing equipment.
Ursula noticed Brandon looking. “River Pridar’s ‘bout a day’s
walk from here. Mendel goes fishing whenever he gets a chance.
With these blasted taxes, we have to eat what we can get.”
“They go up every month. Soon we’ll all starve.” Ursula
placed two slices of bread and an apple in front of her guest.
“The bread’s the best you’ll find anywhere. Baked by Jamal
“Jamal?” Brandon spoke sharply. “That’s who I’m looking for.”
“You don’t say! What for?”
Brandon opened his mouth, but Ursula spoke first. “Ah! You
want your leg fixed, is that it?”
“That’s right. He can fix anything! I’ve seen him heal a
paralyzed woman with me own eyes”
Brandon didn’t say anything. He was too stunned to speak.
Instead, he bit into a slice of bread. His eyes opened wide in
astonishment. The bread was crusty and spicy on the outside,
and silky and sweet inside. He’d never tasted anything so
Ursula smiled. “He’s a regular wizard when he cooks! You
should try his pastries! But, now he’s left home for something else;
said he had to tell others that freedom was near! Can you
imagine? He could be rich, but no! His brother Marshall was plenty
mad, I can tell ya!”
Brandon was half listening to Ursula’s prattle. A feeling of
euphoria and peace flooded through him. He felt comforted and
“I haven’t felt so good in a while.” He said.
“Ah! You feel it, too?”
“Yeah. Where’s that feeling coming from.”
“Anything that man touches is blessed. I don’t understand it
any more than you do. Noone understands Jamal completely.
Noone ever has.”
“I heard his mother’s name is Marigold. Where does she live?”
“Oh, not too far from here. She’s quite a woman. I’ve known
her since she was a young girl, and the hardships she’s been
“What do you mean?”
“When she was nearly fourteen, people found out she was gonna have a
baby! Phew! The scandal!”
“Who was the father?”
“She claims The Imperial Lord is Jamal’s father! Poor Joakim was
plenty surprised, I can tell ya!”
“Joakim was the baker. He was engaged to Marigold, and he
considered breaking it off.”
“Well, you’re not gonna believe it, but he claimed that Marigold was
telling the truth; said he had some sort of dream! Queen Salak was
plenty mad, I can tell ya! Here Marigold was of age, and she hadn’t
attended the Union Ceremony!”
“I heard about that. What exactly is it?”
“My stars, child! You don’t wanna know!”
Brandon was silent for a moment. He bit into an apple slice as
he thought: Is she trustworthy?
Finally, he spoke. “I met Jamal’s cousin, Krystar, at Pridar
River. He’s been taken.”
Ursula turned white, but her face didn’t register surprise. “I
knew he would, sooner or later! He’s always speaking against Herman
and Hermia! Did he think they’d let it slide?”
“What’s he say about them?”
“Well, um, it’s complicated. King Herman of Sumril has married
Hermia, his brother’s wife. Philip is still alive, and Krystar
says that Herman and Hermia are “servants of the False Reflector.”
He claims that King Herman has committed a sin.”
“Well, anyway, I hafta find Jamal. Maybe Jamal can do
Ursula’s face hardened. “Jamal and Krystar should have stayed
at their homes and done their jobs! They’ve caused no end of trouble
“Ursula!” A rumbling voice erupted in the darkness. “You talk
so freely! Hold your tongue!”
A huge man suddenly rose up from a cot in the corner. His
shaggy beard fell to his chest, and he wore a black robe.
“Young man!” he thundered, “We’re simple folk, here. How do I
know where you’re from?”
“Ah, lay off him, Mendel! The poor lad’s plumb worn out!” Ursula
snapped, “Get on back to bed with ya!”
Mendel grunted and stood up. “Since you’re up blabbing
secrets, ya might as well give me some bread!” he grumbled.
“All right!” Ursula cut a thick slab and Mendel plopped down beside
Brandon. The bench creaked ominously. “Well, young one?
So you know Krystar, do ya?”
“Yes, sir, and Jamal, too. They’re different, but they seem
“Nice?” Mendel grunted. He was stuffing great bites of bread
into his mouth, and his grumpy demeanor was disappearing. He
still spoke brusquely, but his face had softened. “Nice is one
thing they’re not! They’re honest and uncompromising. They are
the instruments of Love itself. Nice doesn’t have anything to
do with it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mendel smiled for the first time. “Jamal’s the Imperial Lord’s
instrument. He doesn’t care about popularity. Krystar’s
always been outspoken, and he wants people to follow his cousin.”
“What do they plan to do?”
Mendel grinned. “Vanquish Salak, of course! The Imperial Lord
“And you tell me to hold my tongue?” Ursula scoffed.
“How’d Salak get to be ruler, anyway? Nobody I’ve met here seems to
“Plenty of people like what she offers. As to her right to
rule, The Imperial Lord had no choice.”
Ursula and Mendel looked at one another. Finally, Mendel
sighed. “I’ll tell you, boy. But first, I must look at
your left arm.”
Brandon guessed the reason, and he rolled up his sleeve.
Mendel smiled when he saw the clear flesh. “Very good, lad.”
Holding up his own left arm, Mendel instructed Brandon to look.
The Mark of Allegiance was faded but still visible. Mendel
nodded to Ursula, who showed her own arm.
“But, both of you have the mark.” Brandon pointed out in confusion.
“It’s all in how you look at things.” Ursula said. She pointed
to her forehead. Mendel bent forward and pointed to his as
Brandon peered closely. A rectangular picture could be seen of
an old-fashioned brick oven, the kind used at Boy Scout camp when
cooking over an open flame.
Brandon was totally bewildered. “An oven?” he cried.
“What does that mean?”
“The price of true freedom is tremendous pain.” Mendel said softly.
“So, you mean this picture was branded onto your foreheads with the
Ursula smiled. “Oh no, lad! We’re Imperialites. Our Lord
does not inflict suffering.”
“Someone is coming who must suffer for us.” Mendel explained.
Then he turned to Ursula. “Anymore bread, my dear? This
story’ll take awhile.”
“He’s here?” Salak’s face, usually pale, glowed crimson with
“Yes, my queen.” Aufeld said. “He’s in the dungeon as you
Salak smiled. “The girl is asleep in Room 500 upstairs.
I’ll collect her tomorrow.”
She rose from her throne, her silk dress billowing around her.
At the door, she turned back: “Aufeld?”
“On no account am I to be disturbed!”
Aufeld nodded as his queen withdrew.
Strolling leisurely, Salak made her way past numerous doors and
passages. As she passed the birdcages, she paused to sneer at
the captive birds. “Did he cry when he saw you?” she asked a
mockingbird. The bird’s only answer was a chirp of fright.
Salak laughed and continued on her way.
In a dank cell, Jamal lay huddled on
the cold floor. His lips moved in silent conversation. Often,
he stared at his calloused hands. Father, be with me.
Give me strength, he prayed.
“So, you did come.” A familiar voice rang out. “Welcome.”
Jamal looked up into the leering face of his foe. “You knew I
would come.” He stated matter-of-factly.
Salak leant forward. She peered into the window of Jamal’s
cell. “I thought your loving father would spare you from this
part of the journey. After all, you’ll meet me again soon
enough.” She grinned.
“Go ahead and do what you came to do.” Jamal said sharply.
Salak’s face clouded. “I can’t do what I’d like to.” She
snarled, “not yet, anyway!”
Then Salak’s face softened. She turned to a table behind her
where an array of pastries, breads, and cakes were sitting on a
jeweled platter. The cakes were covered in frostings of
brilliant colors: pink, violet, red, and yellow. Salak
selected a particularly large cake covered in rainbow sprinkles and
pink frosting. She sank brilliant white teeth into the
confection. Raspberry jam oozed from between her teeth and
covered her lips. Her scarlet tongue licked the syrupy jam
away. It was like watching a carnivore devour a choice piece
of raw meat.
“You must be hungry. Have you eaten today?” she asked
tauntingly. She grabbed another cake and crammed it into her
“No.” Jamal said tonelessly. He turned away.
“Ah! That’s right! You’re fasting. A shame, really.” She
gestured to the platter of sweets. “They’ll just go to waste
if you don’t indulge.”
Jamal didn’t answer.
Salak smiled. She reached into a pocket of her dress and
withdrew a flat stone. “On the other hand,” she said musingly,
“you’re the Imperial Lord’s Son aren’t you?” Her words dripped with
sarcasm. “Why, you could easily change this stone into a whole
roomful of pastries. Think of those who serve you! They’d
definitely follow someone with such talent and power!”
Jamal stared at the stone Salak clutched in her hand. “It is
written: People do not live on merely food. They are nourished
by The Imperial Lord’s wisdom.”
Salak smiled knowingly and shrugged. “Very well.” She said.
“I’ll just leave this stone with you, shall I? And the pastries,
too. Surely there can be no harm in satisfying hunger.”
Salak turned away as if to leave. Then she turned back.
“By the way, I have a reliable source that informs me your cousin is
languishing in King Herman’s prison. What a shame! If you
weren’t so stubborn, you could be free to deliver him, but I’m
afraid you must remain where you are for the time being. I’ll
see you tomorrow.” She grinned.
Jamal listened to the retreating footsteps. Just as they were
about to fade away, he called: “Salak?”
The queen of Crimlia turned. “Do you ever miss being in my
“The name’s Lucinda!” the queen snapped, “and no. I serve no
one but myself!”
As she stamped away, Salak’s lip trembled. The nerve of him,
she thought savagely.
In her throne room, she snatched her mirror. Peering inside,
she demanded: “Show me Peace Glen!”
The mirror clouded, then an image of a magnificent garden filled
with fruit trees, flowers, lush meadows, and pristine waterfalls
appeared. Two magnificent winged creatures stood guard at the
glen’s entrance. They held flaming swords.
Salak stared at the glorious vision as memories invaded her mind.
She remembered the day the Imperial Lord, along with his son, had
created her, a being more beautiful than any ever made before: an
Eaglia princess. Eaglia’s are message bearers and worshippers
of the Imperial Lord. They are shapeshifters and have the
ability to fly when necessary. Lucinda was the most beautiful
eaglia of all.
Lucinda sang in jubilation with all
of his creation as the Imperial Lord and his son made mankind.
“Humans are made as a mirror reflection of our inner being! They
will provide us with the gift of worship and care for our creation.
The first man will be named Adamant, and the first woman will be
“Lucinda, Gift Giver and Bearer of Brilliance, I entrust these
humans to you. Teach them the art of music and craftsmanship.
Show them how to work the ground.”
And she did just that. After some time, she began to wonder:
Why should only The Imperial Lord and his son be worshipped? Aren’t
I just as important as them? After all, I have a responsibility to
care for the man and woman. Shouldn’t I be revered in return?
Don’t I deserve to be noticed?
In the center of Peace Glen, there grew a rosebush. “You may
enjoy any flower but the ones from that bush.” The Imperial Lord had
instructed Adamant and Evelina, “On the day you inhale the perfume
from the Roses of Revelation, you will die.”
One morning, when Peace Glen was awash in pearly-bright dew, Lucinda
approached the woman. Evelina sat by a crystal pool and
gathered honeysuckle flowers.
Lucinda and Evelina loved to
converse. They would laugh and enjoy each other’s company all
the time. They discussed music and beauty. Lucinda wore
a dress of apricot-colored silk covered in jewels. “Evelina!
You’re looking quite well today! Tell me, where’s Adamant?”
“He’s gone to gather some grapes. Oh, Lucinda! The garden’s so
beautiful today! Aren’t we blessed?”
Lucinda laughed in delight. “Of course, but tell me.
There’s a rumor circulating among the Eaglia’s. Did the
Imperial Lord really say you mustn’t look at any flower in Peace
Glen, nor inhale their perfume? That seems such a strange rule! I
mean, the flowers are breathtakingly beautiful!”
Evelina laughed in disbelief. “That’s a good joke,
Lucinda! Where did you get your information? Of course we can
enjoy the flowers.” Then she hesitated. “There is one rosebush
in the center of Peace Glen. The Imperial Lord did say we must
not inhale the perfume from the Rose of Revelation, nor should we
touch it, or we would die.”
Salak smiled to herself as she recalled the memory. The dumb
cow hadn’t even gotten his commandment right! The plan would work
She sat down beside Evelina, her exquisite dress fluttering as she
did so. “Hmmm. You know I respect the Imperial Lord as
much as you do, but he’s wrong about that rosebush.”
“Wrong? What are you talking—“
“Oh! Pleas don’t misunderstand me. Maybe he’s just jealous.”
“Jealous? What is that?”
“It simply means that he wants all the power. You see,
Evelina, you shall surely not die if you inhale the perfume from
Evelina gasped. “How do you know?”
“Because I’ve smelled it myself. The Imperial Lord knows that
when you breathe in the rose’s fragrance, you’ll become like him.
You’ll know all things, both the things that are good, and the
things that are evil.”
“What is evil?”
Lucinda did not enlighten her. She changed the subject and
discussed opera and other kinds of music. As she talked,
Evelina slipped away.
Salak quivered in delight as she’d remembered transforming into a
serpent for the first time: the joy of stretching and coiling! In
this form, she could observe people without being noticed.
She watched in delight as Evelina stood before the brilliant
rosebush. In her serpent form,, she wound around the woman’s
legs. “Be wise and grow in knowledge,” she crooned.
Evelina laughed in delight. “Oh, Lucinda! How beautiful you
look! I love to watch you change into other creatures! Now change
into a butterfly! They’re my favorite!”
Evelina then turned back to the
rosebush. She stared at the rose a few minutes longer.
What would it be like to be like the Imperial Lord?
At long last, she leaned forward and inhaled the intoxicating
perfume of the Rose of Revelation.
Salak remembered the look of euphoria that briefly passed over the
woman’s face. In that moment, she struck with her serpent
fangs, piercing the white skin of Evelina’s leg.
The woman cried out in sudden horror as the realization of her
action hit her. She stared in fright at the scarlet snake and
then began to sob. Lucinda cast one look of triumph onto her
former friend, and slithered away into dewy grass.
Now she recalled how she’d watched Evelina plead with Adamant to
join her. “I’ve done wrong, but I can’t bear to be left alone!
He’ll banish me from Peace Glen. I will be alone!”
Husband and wife had cried and clung to one another. After a
while, the man had followed his wife’s example.
Now the queen remembered being hurled into nothingness.
“You’re name is now Salak, Deformer and Poisoner!” the Imperial
Lord’s voice thundered. She’d landed in a parched desert,
isolated and empty.
“You can’t banish me!” she’d fumed, “I have a right of ownership!”
“Yes, you do, my fair princess.” His voice, choked with sobs, echoed
in the darkness. “but not forever. I will cause
hostility to form between you and the woman. A pure deliverer
will arise from her seed who will crush you into powder under his
feet. Though you crush him for a time, he will rise again to
“We’ll see.” She smiled with contempt. “With the regulations
I’ll enforce, your precious seed will be corrupted and defiled!”
The Imperial Lord had not bothered to answer. His voice had
In her winged form, Salak flew to Crimlia, the borderland of Peace
Glen where Adamant and Evelina now lived. She established her
rule over Evelina and Adamant, forcing them to wear the Mark of
Allegiance. The Mark passed from generation to generation.
Salak also enforced the Union Ceremony.
Now, she leaned back with a smile of satisfaction. Jamal was
in her dungeon. All would be well by and by.
“So you see, lad.” Mendel boomed, “Salak must rule until the
Brandon nodded although he was still a little confused. His
head was reeling with all the information he’d learned.
“But what can I do? Why am I here?” he murmured to himself.
“It is a mystery, lad.” Ursula said, “Strange things are happening
all the time around here.”
“You can come with me tomorrow, if you like, young Brandon.” Mendel
said. “I have to go to the market in Nunmal to sell
vegetables. Not that there’s much to sell! On the way back,
we’ll stop at Marigold’s house.”
“You’re welcome to stay here for the night.” Ursula said.
Brandon nodded his thanks, and Ursula rose to fetch a blanket.
“I’m afraid that bench is the only place for sleeping.” She called.
“No problem.” Brandon said. “Thanks for the food.”
The next morning dawned bright with sunlight. After Brandon
and Mendel had eaten one small slice of bread apiece, they left the
Mendel loaded six burlap sacks of vegetables onto a makeshift cart.
“Times were I’ve taken twenty sacks to market.” He grouched, “You
can sit in the cart if you like, lad. It’s a long walk to
Brandon shook his head. “We’ll take turns. How’s that?”
Mendel shrugged. “That’s up to you, lad. Just don’t tire
The two companions set out. Brandon pushed the cart for a
while, but quickly realized that his leg was not yet strong enough
to handle the heavy strain of the load. It wasn’t long before
Mendel had to take over.
When the sun reached the center of the sky, Mendel and Brandon
entered a village square. The noise was deafening as enormous
crowds rushed in every direction.
“Whoa! What a place!” Brandon peered at men, women, and children who
carried armloads of packages. The people jostled each other in
their frenzied activity. Vendors called from booths packed
high with food, tools, and other merchandise. Brandon’s eyes
strayed to their cart with the pitiful supplies of vegetables.
Mendel frowned. “This is the marketplace of self-absorption.”
He murmured, “Look at the crowd closely.”
Brandon did so, and saw that the people were not looking at one
another. They acknowledged no one. Brandon noticed a
woman approach a spice merchant. Wordlessly, she pointed to a
package of dill. The man in the booth barked: “Proof before
purchase!” The woman held out her left arm. Brandon gasped in
astonishment. Although he’d seen The Mark of Allegiance three
times before, he’d never seen it shine with such lividness! The
scarlet serpent stood out in blinding brilliance, dwarfing the
picture of the suffering lamb.
The man nodded and the woman handed him a few copper coins.
The man gave her the package of dill. She slipped away as
quickly as she had come.
“Let’s find a place to set out our
produce.” Mendel said.
Brandon’s stomach growled. “Can’t we find some food first?” He
gestured toward a soup vendor’s booth from which the tantalizing
aromas of onions, tomatoes, and garlic wafted. He thought how
wonderful a plate of his mother’s spaghetti would be right now.
Mendel snorted. “Here? No, lad. We can’t. Ursula’s
packed us some food.”
Brandon sighed. “Why can’t we buy food?”
“Why do you think?” Mendel snapped. Then his voice softened,
“Did the woman you saw with the spice merchant not give you a clue?”
Brandon frowned. “But you have the mark.“
Mendel sighed in impatience. “It’s useless to me. I wear
a different mark, now, and the queen knows.”
“If the Mark of Allegiance is useless, why is it still on your arm?”
“To remind me of where I’ve come from. Now, do you want
Brandon nodded, and he and Mendel shared a meal of apples and bread.
One good thing about this place is I’ll lose weight, Brandon thought
After eating, Mendel pushed the cart to a remote location.
Brandon was about to ask why, but he thought better of it.
He helped Mendel arrange small stacks of vegetables. They
looked drab when compared with the brightly colored produce of the
For hours, it seemed that no one would come. At last, a small
group of thin, pale children appeared. They were dressed in
plain robes, and their faces were penched with fatigue. The
hopelessness in their eyes made Brandon wince.
“Hello there, Abigail.” Mendel said pleasantly, “What do you need
“Some corn and beans.” A brown-haired girl murmured.
Mendel handed her some vegetables. Abigail handed Mendel a
“Tell your mother that I plan to have some bread to give away next
time I come. Some of Jamal’s bread.”
Abigail’s eyes lit up and the other children gasped in delight.
“Jamal’s bread? Really?” they cried.
“That’s right. Now, whose next?”
Soon, the small stacks of vegetables had dwindled away, and the
children had left with lighter spirits.
Mendel frowned as he looked at the small handful of coins he
clutched. “Are you ready, lad?”
Brandon was more than ready. They left the market and rode
deeper into the village of Nunmal.
“Marigold lives on Trimland Hill. It’s not too far from here.”
Soon, Mendel stopped the cart before a hut that was almost identical
to his own. The only difference was an extra room attached to
Mendel noticed Brandon looking at the extra room. “That is
A slender woman in a white robe rushed out of the hut.
“Mendel! You’ve come!” the woman cried in delight. She had
shoulder-length red hair and hazel eyes. Brandon could see
that she was beautiful, but her face was careworn. She looked
“Hello, Marigold.” Mendel said. “I have someone for you to
meet. This is Brandon.”
Marigold stared in wonder at Brandon. “It’s you!” she cried in
ecstasy, “you’ve come!”
Brandon’s face turned red with embarrassment. “What do you—“
“Oh, I didn’t mean to confuse you. I’ll tell you later.
Come on in and refresh yourselves.”
“Rise and shine.” A familiar voice called.
Hannah groaned. She sat up shakily. Her head throbbed.
“W-Where am I?” she whispered through chapped lips. Her voice
could barely be heard.
“You’re safe here. I’ve brought you some breakfast. You
have a job to do today, and you need your strength.” The disembodied
voice faded away, and Hannah heard the clunk of a breakfast tray hit
a table on her right side. The familiar smell of pancakes,
bacon, and maple syrup filled the air. Hannah’s stomach
rumbled. Odd. She hadn’t felt hungry until the tray
Feverishly, she groped until she found the tray. She grabbed a
forkful of syrup-drenched pancakes and took a bite. Syrup and
butter oozed thickly over her tongue. She took a large bite of
crunchy bacon. I don’t understand this place, she thought, but
this food’s better than oatmeal!
After she had eaten, she rose shakily
and used her cane to explore the room. There wasn’t much to
discover. A wardrobe was in the corner, and a table and chair
stood before it.
Suddenly, the bedroom door opened with a bang. The swishing
sound of a silk dress accompanied hurried footsteps. “Ah.
You’ve finished eating. Excellent.” The queen said, “How do
you feel this morning?”
Hannah turned toward the voice. “Sick.” She admitted.
“That’s understandable. That bump on your head is quite
startling. You will probably have to remain here for several
more days. Now, are you ready to hear your task?”
Hannah plopped down on the bed. She didn’t feel like doing
anything, but she knew that protesting would get her nowhere.
“Yes.” She said.
“You must take a tray of food to my dungeon. There’s a man
there who is a prisoner. He is the person I told you about.”
Hannah felt her heart begin a rapid tumult. She felt
anticipation fill her soul. “All right.” She said.
“Good. Come along with me.”
Hannah took her cane and followed the queen out of the room.
All around her, she heard the chirping of birds. The floor of
the palace was carpeted in some soft material. The soothing
scent of lavender filled the air.
“We’ll stop by the scullery to get the tray.” Salak said.
Focusing on the rustling of the queen’s silk gown, Hannah followed
close behind. There were so many twists and turns down
multiple corridors that she began to feel dizzy.
After what seemed like forever, the pair turned left. Hannah
heard the sounds of clattering dishes and a cacophony of voices
talking all at once.
Queen Salak’s dress rustled as she swept into the tumultuous
scullery. Hannah followed close behind. The chatter
“Griselda? Is the tray prepared?” Salak demanded.
A small voice, barely above a whisper, spoke. “Yes, my queen.”
Hannah could smell pancakes and bacon.
Salak picked up the tray and handed it to Hannah. “Now, the
door to the dungeon is on your right. There are five steps
that lead downstairs. I’ll watch to make sure you reach the
Hannah nodded. Carefully, she used her cane to locate the
first step. She clutched the tray and inched her way down the
steps. The steps were steeper than she’d anticipated, and
several times, she nearly stumbled.
Hannah became aware of the utter stillness the further down she
descended. The only sound was the occasional drip, drip of
At last, she reached the bottom. Sighing with relief, she
inched forward. There was a wall on her right, and she stayed
close to it as she tiptoed. Her feet made hollow shuffling
sounds that echoed on the marble floor, and her cane scraped
loudly along. If the man she was seeking had been asleep,
she’d probably woken him up by now.
After five minutes, the wall curved to the right. Hannah
turned and continued her slow progress. The silence was
Suddenly, her cane clanged against a metal door. Hannah cried
out in fear. Feverishly, she began to grope along the wall
with the back of the hand that held the cane. She felt a
doorknob and a small pane of glass. Then she found a small
wooden table. Thank goodness! She plopped down the tray.
The sound of movement made her jump and she nearly dropped her cane.
“Hello.” A deep voice said. The voice was gentle, and she
noticed it was weak.
“Um, I, uh, brought your breakfast.” She managed to say.
“She knows I will not eat. It’s useless.” The man answered.
“How are you, Hannah?”
Hannah suddenly felt lightheaded. She leaned against the wall
for support. “What’s going on here?” she demanded, “how do you
know my name?”
The man didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “What did she send
you here to ask of me?”
Hannah hesitated. Then she decided to tell the truth.
“She says you can help me.”
The man didn’t speak. Hannah waited for a long moment. A
lump rose in her throat.
“She says you can—“ Hannah swallowed. “She says—“
“Do you believe I can restore your sight?” the man asked gently.
Tears filled Hannah’s eyes. “No.” she finally admitted.
“The doctors say it’s hopeless.”
The man nodded in understanding. Whom do you blame for the
The question was so unexpected that Hannah was taken aback.
She could not speak.
“You do not have to answer me if you do not want too.” The man said.
“I will not force you to receive my help. Just know I will be
here if you ever want to talk.”
Hannah stood by the cell door shaking with pain. She felt
exposed and frightened.
“You have done your job. Now you may leave if you wish.
If you decide to come again, my name is Jamal.”
Hannah began to run away. In the silence, she suddenly heard
wracking sobs issuing from Jamal’s cell. Surprisingly, it
wasn’t pity that rose within her, but anger. She turned back
toward the sound of weeping. “I blame God, that’s who!” she
shouted. Then she stumbled away.
“Salak!” Jamal screamed, “leave me in peace!” A shadow detached
itself from the opposite wall of the dungeon and slithered across
the floor. The scarlet serpent coiled herself around the metel
grating of the door. Her bulbous, yellow eyes glittered with
“You see?” she hissed, “she hates you! She’ll serve me now. I
must say I’m disappointed. Why not use your father’s power to
heal her? Prove you’re the Imperial Lord’s Son!”
“You know why. It was underhanded and cruel to toy with her
emotions! She’s vulnerable. It is written: “You shall not test
the Imperial Lord’s power for your own purposes.”
Salak laughed. “What do I care about vulnerability? I’ll see
you again tomorrow.” Changing back into her human form, she
glided away into the darkness.
In the hallway, Hannah stood still as a statue. Anger washed
through her as she thought about the strange man. Why did he
have to ask such personal questions? She remembered the diagnosis of
Doctor Franklin and her mother’s wails of pain.
Footsteps approached. “Well done, my dear.” The musical voice
of Salak rang out. “I gather the man could not heal you?”
“He said he would not.” Hannah said. She did not feel like
going into details.
“He is a strange person. He helps only certain people.
Others he leaves to languish in their pain. Now, since you
must remain here for a while, I will assign a task for you.”
“What?” Hannah asked.
“You will work in the scullery alongside Griselda. She has
been in my service for six years, and she will help you. You
will be responsible for washing dishes, churning butter, and baking
“But I need to get home right away!”
Salak smiled. “All in good time. The scullery is the
next door on your right. Go in and begin work.”
Sighing, Hannah entered the bustling room. The clattering of
pots and pans could be heard over many voices. “Um, I was told
to report here.” She called.
A hand touched her shoulder. “Hello, miss. I’m Griselda
Perkins. Her Majesty told me to instruct you.”
“Yes, thanks.” Hannah said. “What do I do?”
“Take my hand.”
“It’s better if I take your arm just above the elbow.” Hannah said.
Griselda chuckled timidly. “Um, why?”
“That way you can walk ahead of me, and I can follow.”
“You’re different. I’ve never met anyone without sight.
Babies with birth defects are killed. What happened?”
Hannah shuddered, but she thought she’d better not ask what Griselda
meant. She didn’t want to know. Quickly changing the
subject, she asked: “How did you come here, and how old are you?”
“I’m sixteen summers. I came here like you did.”
“Of course, miss. The way we all come here.”
“I was riding to school on the bus and somehow found myself here.”
“Bus? What is a bus?”
Hannah sighed in exasperation. “A bus helps you get to places
faster. It’s quicker than walking.”
“Oh! A carriage.”
“Something like that.”
“I came here in a carriage, too. So did Madeleine.”
“Hold your tongue, Gris!” a harsh voice shouted.
“Ah! Lighten up, Madeleine. She’s a new worker. She’s
supposed to bake bread and wash dishes.”
“Ha! She gets the easy work, of course!” Madeleine snapped.
“Don’t mind her.” Griselda whispered. “She’s mad because she
hasn’t attended the Union Ceremony yet. And she’s already
“Then why’s she here?”
“Because her family sold her to the queen for money.” Griselda
whispered. “With the taxes going up, many families sell their
Hannah felt bile rise in her throat.
“Have you attended the ceremony yet?” Hannah asked.
“Oh my, yes! I was thirteen.”
“You got married when you were thirteen?”
“Married? No, of course not.” Griselda sounded horrified at the
prospect. “I’ll not marry. My job is scullery maid.”
“If you aren’t married, then what is the Union Ceremony?” Hannah
“You know. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? How old are you?”
Griselda nodded. “And your moon phase?”
For a moment, Hannah was taken aback. Then she put two and two
together. “That’s none of your business!” she snapped.
“I beg your pardon.” Griselda said. “It’s not mine, but Her
Majesty will find out. She always does.”
Hannah felt icy fingers creep up her back. “The Union Ceremony
“Of course it is.” Griselda said. “Everyone of us go through
it. It’s a fact of life.”
“That’s barbaric! Why don’t you try to escape?”
“Sshhhh!” Griselda hissed. “Someone’ll hear you! Anyway, where
would we go? Here we get good food and are taken care of. All
who pledge allegiance to the queen are safe.”
“Not like the Imperialites.”
“Troublemakers.” Madeleine said. “They spread false rumors
about our queen.”
Griselda cleared her throat nervously. “Now come. I must
show you what to do.”
She led Hannah toward the back of the scullery. She stopped
before a large wooden trough. “There is bread dough here.
You must knead the dough for thirty minutes before each baking.”
She handed Hannah a round instrument
with a rotating handle and sharp, metal blade. “Her Majesty
often likes cornbread as well. You must grind the kernels into
a fine powder before they can be used. This process takes two
hours.” Hannah winced.
“To the right of the kneading trough is the butter churn.
We’ll bring both the corn and cream to you whenever they are
Hannah’s head was swimming with all the instructions, but Griselda
was not finished. “Then, of course, you will be required to
wash dishes. We’ll bring you soap and water when it is time.
Now, you may start kneading the dough.”
Hannah stood in front of the trough. Slowly, she plunged her
hands into the squishy mass and gasped. Her hands sank down
into the cold mixture. The dough rose up to her elbows.
“How much bread does the queen eat?” she cried.
“Her appetite is insatiable.” Griselda said.
Steeling herself, Hannah began to heave the heavy, doughy mass from
the trough. Before two minutes had passed, her arms were tingling
with fatigue. She had a feeling it was going to be a long day.
Brandon sighed with contentment. Sitting at Marigold’s plain
wooden table, he swallowed the last mouthful of vegetable broth.
“Thanks so much, m’am.” He said. “The broth was delicious.”
“I’m glad you’re pleased, young Brandon.” Marigold said in delight.
“You’re like my Jamal. Vegetable broth is his favorite as
Beside Brandon, a slender young man snorted. “He likes
everything, mother. He’s a pig!”
“Mind your manners, Marshall!” Marigold cried. “He’s doing his
job. There’s no reason to resent him.”
Brandon listened to the exchange between mother and son. He
was unsure if Marshall was jealous of his brother or concerned for
On his left side, Mendel rose to his feet. “Thank ya for the
pick-me-up, Marigold.” He said quickly. “I suppose we’d better
be getting back.”
Marigold stood, too. “Come on out to the bakeshop with us,
young Brandon.” She said, “I must speak to you.”
Brandon rose and trudged out of the hut. “It’s so quiet back
here, now.” Marigold murmured, “and the absence of smells! It’s
At the back of the hut, Marigold, Brandon, and Mendel entered the
tiny building. Mendel had to duck to fit inside.
Inside the building, a wooden table crowded with various cooking
utensils, cups, rolling pins, and bags of ingredients sat.
“Jamal’s talent for baking is unsurpassed in Crimlia.” Marigold
explained. “It wasn’t often we could obtain cream for éclairs,
but whenever we could, they would melt in the mouth!”
“I’ve tried his bread,” Brandon informed her, “There’s something
different about it that I can’t explain.”
“You do not have to explain to me, child. The difference is
that he puts himself into his baking.”
Brandon did not say anything. After a moment, Marigold spoke.
“I am glad you did not spare me, but you told me the truth about
where he is. I am not surprised.”
“But why?” Brandon asked.
“Because his father instructed him to go to Salak’s palace. He
is always obedient. He and his father are of one mind and one
“Who is his father?”
“The Imperial Lord.” Marigold said simply.
“But I do not understand. How could—“
“Nothing is impossible for him. My Moon Phase had just come
upon me for the first time. I was fearful because I knew I
would be taken by force to Salak’s palace.”
“For the Union Ceremony? You would be married to Joakim?”
Marigold laughed bitterly. “Salak does not condone marriage.
We Imperialites only marry in secret. No, lad. I was to
be taken to the palace to be forced.”
Brandon’s stomach somersaulted. “She watches while this
“Yes, lad.” It was Mendel who spoke. “Boys are taken when they
are twelve, and girls are closely monitored to determine when the
time is right.”
“That’s disgusting! Why can’t she be stopped.”
“The time is drawing near when she will be.” Marigold said.
“When my Moon Phase came, an Eaglia, one of the Imperial Lord’s
messengers, came to me. He said I had been chosen to bear the
Imperial Lord’s son, but it was up to me to make the decision.”
“What was it like?”
“Beyond description. I was shrouded in brilliant light.
It was like being enveloped by Love itself. Soon, Salak’s
soldiers arrived to take me to the palace. During the
ceremony, you are given a punch made from the juice of Aquaberries.
The punch prevents pregnancy. I refused to drink, but Salak
pried open my mouth and poured the liquid down my throat.
Immediately, I became sick. She knew something was wrong.”
“She forced me to stand before a beautiful mirror, and it was as if
she peered into my very soul! I was so frightened! Her livid face
still haunts me to this day. She made me stay imprisoned in
her dungeon; forcing me to drink awful-tasting potions, but they
would not stay down. I remained there for a month receiving
nourishment from Eaglia’s. They brought me broth and bread.
After a month, the same Eaglia who’d delivered the message to me led
me away from Salak’s prison.”
“And you and Joakim were married?”
“That’s right. In my parents house in the dead of night.
Brandon’s head was reeling. “People have to have babies
eventually. What does the queen do?”
“Of course, she cannot prevent
pregnancy all the time. Harem women are allowed two births,
then they are forced to work in the palace all the rest of their
lives. When a baby is born, Salak always knows. The
babies in the palace harem are branded and trained to be her
workers. Babies of Imperialite parents are taken by force and
branded, but she is not allowed to keep them. The branding of
those babies is pure spite on her part.”
Anger filled Brandon’s heart.
“If the Imperial Lord is so powerful, why doesn’t he destroy Salak?”
“People in Crimlia still desire her.
She promises them pleasure and wisdom. She will not leave
because people do not want her too. The Imperial Lord will
force no one to love him if they choose not too.”
“What about Jamal and Krystar? Did
they attend the ceremony?”
“No. Salak could not locate
Marigold nodded. “I hid them in this bakeshop. Joakim
was also an excellent carpenter. Look.”
She walked to a wooden plank situated
on the ground. Stooping, she raised it and pointed. A
gaping hole was visible.
“When Jamal was four, Joakim built
this hideout. Jamal was always being harassed by Salak’s
soldiers when he played outside. Once, he was bitten by a
snake! Joakim said if there was ever any trouble to use the passage
under the plank. When the time came, I prayed that the boys
would be protected, and the soldiers never discovered the hiding
Brandon was silent for a moment.
He considered all the things he’d learned about this strange land
and its malevolent ruler. He thought of Jamal’s kindness.
At last, he said, “What can I do to help? I know I was brought here
for a reason.”
Marigold nodded. “This mission is up to you, lad.” Groping
among the array of plain baking implements, she brought forth a
glittering, jeweled bowl made of delicate porcelain. “Take
this bowl to Jamal. An Eaglia brought it to me yesterday.
She said, “A boy with a leg brace will come to you. Entrust
the bowl to him”.
Brandon hesitated. “But Jamal himself told me that I would be
in danger if I went to the palace.”
“This assignment will be dangerous, lad.” Marigold said. Her
voice was filled with concern. “The time for safety is at an
Brandon remembered the look of compassion in Jamal’s eyes. He
thought of Jamal’s flashes of humor with Krystar. He
remembered Jamal’s love. “All right.” He said. Reaching
out a hand, he clasped the brilliant bowl with trembling fingers.
Marigold smiled. “Now, Mendel. Let’s get you some bread
for market day next week.”
“You’re taking a long time with that corn.” Griselda observed.
Hannah, her hands bruised and swollen, slowly rotated the metal
handle on the grinding machine. The sharp, steel blade
screeched as it crushed corn kernels. So much corn! Hannah had
burned her hands on the stones of the baking hearth. She’d cut
her fingers while learning how to use the grinder. Her hands
had splinters from the wooden handle of the butter churn.
Three weeks had passed since she’d begun work in the scullery.
Hannah despaired of ever being free.
At night, she’d fall into bed, her whole body aching from lifting
masses of bread dough from the gigantic trough. Salak would
come to her with lamb’s broth and Trifles of Inertia. She
would eat greedily, then fall into a heavy sleep.
During the day, Hannah’s mind would be preoccupied with the endless
work. At night, she would be so tired she could not think.
“Will you be done soon?” Griselda demanded.
“I hope so.” Hannah snapped.
“Well, hurry up. Salak wants you to take a breakfast tray down
to the dungeon.”
Oh, no! Hannah had almost forgotten the strange man. Would Jamal
still be there? Angrily, she rotated the handle of the
grinder. Her head ached from the constant screeching.
At long last, she set the grinder aside. She stamped over to
where Madeleine was loading plates onto a tray.
“Here.” Madeleine snapped. “Hurry up! There’s lots of dishes
Gasping at the weight of the tray, Hannah struggled through the herd
of girls. Some stirred pots of fragrant sauces. Others
chopped vegetables and prepared meats. After her time in the
scullery, she’d grown accustomed to the different smells and the
constant activity. Queen Salak must have requested chicken for
her lunch. The sharp odor of chicken fat filled the room.
Slowly, Hannah used her cane to locate the door to the dungeon.
She couldn’t imagine what Jamal had to eat today. The tray was
much heavier than the last time. She did notice the familiar
smell of oatmeal. To her surprise, Hannah felt her mouth
water. How long had it been since she’d tasted oatmeal?
In the dungeon, the air was freezing cold. Hannah shivered.
The drip-drip sound of water could be clearly heard. Besides
this sound, the dungeon was silent.
She groped along the wall until she found the corner where she
turned right. Her cane touched the doorjamb of Jamal’s cell.
Groping for the table, she placed the tray upon it.
“I’ve brought your breakfast.” She murmured.
Movement within the cell was slower than before. She heard
labored breathing. “Hello, Hannah.” The familiar voice
whispered. Hannah was startled at how weak and hoarse the
“Hello.” She said. “I think you have oatmeal today.” Why was
she wasting her time talking to him?
“I see.” He said.”I will not eat.”
“But you sound so weak.” Hannah protested, “Why won’t you eat?”
“I am nourished by something more substantial, the communion with my
father.” He said simply, “Besides, I will not give her the
Hannah hesitated. “Can I get you anything at all?”
“Some water would be nice.” He said. His voice held the trace
of a smile. “I see you have been working hard. Do you
have time to think?”
Anger rose to the surface. “You’re too nosy!” Hannah snapped.
It unnerved her that this man always seemed to know what she was
Jamal laughed feebly. “You do not have to answer me. That
water would hit the spot.”
In spite of herself, Hannah smiled. “I’ll be right back.”
As the girl’s footsteps faded away, Jamal leaned forward to peer at
the loaded breakfast tray. Oatmeal thick with milk and
cinnamon sat in prideful place in the center surrounded by eggs,
bacon, sweet rolls, and toast. His stomach growled.
“Salak?” he called, “Come out!”
A rustling sound preceeded Salak’s appearance. She’d changed
from her serpent to her human form. Jamal looked the woman in
the eye. “Show me what you want me to see.” He whispered.
Salak grinned. “Don’t you want to eat first? I’m afraid this
sight might put you off your food.”
“For the past three weeks, you’ve brought dancing girls from the
harem to perform for me. You’ve shown me my mother pining away
in your hated looking glass. You forced Hannah to come before
me again. Do what you came to do today.”
Salak’s nostrils flared. “I’ll show you when I’m good and
ready!” she snarled, “What I should do is force-feed you this food!
Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see you vomit!” Pure
Hatred shot from her eyes.
“You would force me to eat like you forced my mother to drink?”
Salak sucked in her breath. With a flourish, she brought from
behind her back a silver platter with a cloth-covered object.
“Herman and Hermia are wonderful tools.” She gloated in triumph, “as
is that sniveling Sally, Hermia’s daughter. Behold, fool, the
condition of those who defy me!” She ripped the cloth away.
There, in grisly pride, sat Krystar’s head.
Those upstairs in the scullery heard an earsplitting cry of pain.
The cry pierced through to the very marrow of their bones.
Hannah, who had been filling a cup with water, froze in shock.
Back in the dungeon, Salak’s laughter rang out sharply. It was
a terrifying sound: brittle and sharp like chips of ice.
“Would a loving father allow such cruel treatment to occur?” she
cried in exultation, “Renounce him, Jamal! Hate him!”
Jamal, his voice choked, managed to say: “It is written: “Those who
pursue truth will be persecuted. Happy are they.”
“Persecuted?” Salak guffawed. “You’ll be persecuted, all
right. I salivate as I think of the day I shall have you at my
Jamal did not respond. Suddenly, footsteps rushed down the
stairs. “Go.” He said to the queen, “You wouldn’t want those
who trust in you to see how you really are.”
Salak had already changed into her serpent form. She slithered
into the shadows as Hannah appeared with the water.
“Here.” She called. “Are you all right?”
Jamal took the cup of water she held out. “I will leave this
place soon.” He said.
Hannah nodded. “What did you do, anyway?”
“I came of my own free will. Tell me, Hannah? What do you
Hannah hesitated. Should she talk to this man? Finally, she
said, “I love to play music. I played the flute in the band at
my old school, but I don’t take lessons anymore.”
Jamal nodded. “I know. You’re talented, you know.
I love to sing and play songs, too. In my bakeshop, I always
sang as I worked.”
“Do you bake a lot?”
“Yes. I bake pastries. I have a sweettooth.” His eyes
twinkled, and Hannah heard a hint of a smile in his voice. “I
also bake the Bread of Freedom.”
“What?” Hannah asked.
“The Bread of Freedom. Anyone who partakes will live.”
Hannah frowned. “I better get back to the scullery. I
have to wash dishes.”
“Yes.” Jamal said, “I understand. Thank you for the water.”
Hannah turned and began to walk away. “Hannah?” Jamal called.
She turned around. “Brandon is well.”
Hannah shivered. She walked away into the darkness.
In the cell, Jamal put the cup of water to his lips.
Instantly, the clear liquid reeked. He tasted vinegar on his
tongue. Laughter filled the air. “See you tomorrow,
Jamal.” Salak’s voice hissed.
Jamal sighed. How much longer, Father? He thought desperately.
Then, he reached into the pocket of his robe. He withdrew a
piece of cherrywood and a carving knife. Images of Krystar
filled his brain. With tears flowing unchecked from his eyes,
he set to work.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this, lad?” Mendel’s voice had lost
its harshness. Over the past three weeks, he’d grown
increasingly fond of the visitor at his home.
Brandon looked up from where he was piling vegetables into bags.
“Yes, I’m positive. I’ve been to the market with you and seen
those kids. Jamal’s bread changes them from scared and sad to
happy. He is doing a good work.”
“Yes, lad. He is.” Ursula called. She was wrapping up
some food for Brandon to take with him. “I’m afraid it’s the
usual. What I wouldn’t give for some cheese! I’ve almost
forgotten what it tastes like.”
Brandon nodded. “Or some cheese pizza with pepperoni!”
“I’ll never understand ya, boy!” Ursula laughed. She handed
Brandon the paper-wrapped bundle of bread and apples.
“Thanks for being so kind to me.” Brandon said. “I’ve loved
spending time with you.”
“Don’t mention it.” Mendel said gruffly. “Here. I’ll
take ya as far as Nunmal. The palace is two more towns from
“Will Marigold be all right?”
“Why, of course. She’s gone to stay with Eliza for a while to
comfort her. Marigold’s been persecuted by that hussy queen
since the day she turned thirteen! She’s had to be stronger than
anybody I know.”
“I still can’t believe it!” Ursula exclaimed angrily.
“Whatever will become of us? Now we make children do our dirty
Brandon thought about the last time he and Mendel had visited
Marigold. She’d come out of the hut, her eyes swollen and
barely able to walk. A message had come from the palace,
written in scarlet letters on heavy parchment:
My Dear Marigold:
I regret to inform you of the death of your nephew, Krystar Ernest.
He was executed yesterday at the bidding of King Herman. I
received the word from Gretchen Smithe, scullery maid at King
Herman’s palace. I thought it best to inform you of this news
before you heard it from some unscrupulous source. My prayers
go out to you.
LONG LIVE THE IMPERIAL LORD.
The letter had been unsigned, but Marigold had seemed to know who
the sender was. She’d found out that Hermia had prompted her
own eleven-year-old daughter, Sally, to ask for the head of Krystar
after she’d sung for a drunken King Herman at his birthday
celebration. Of course, Hermia had been prompted to do this by
Salak, who had promised that Sally would be paired with a boy from a
noble family during the Union Ceremony.
“How did you find this out?” Brandon had asked.
Marigold’s face clouded. “From this. It arrived a day
after the anonymous letter came.” Going over to a table, she’d taken
a piece of parchment into her hands.
On the parchment, a picture of a young girl holding a blood-drenched
head on a platter had been sketched in garish shades of brown, pink,
and red. Underneath the picture, musical notes had been drawn,
and a crude message had been scrawled: “I hear Sally is having
nightmares now. What do you think? Can the Imperial Lord
really love his followers? Give my regards to Eliza!”
Brandon had felt lightheaded, and nauseous. If anything, this
childish taunting by Queen Salak made him even more determined to
Now, he and Mendel mounted the cart. They rode along in
silence for most of the trip. Brandon clutched the beautiful
bowl that Marigold had given him. He still wondered what was
so special about a porcelain bowl. He simply could not
On the outskirts of Nunmal, Mendel stopped the cart. “I’ll be
praying for ya, Brandon.” He said. “The Imperial Lord go with
“Thanks again.” Brandon said.
“Here something for ya.” Mendel took some parchment from his pocket.
On the parchment, a crude map was drawn. “You follow this map,
and it’ll lead ya right to the palace. Ya sure ya don’t want
me to go with ya?”
“Don’t be silly, Mendel.” Brandon said. “You can’t abandon
Mendel nodded. “You’re right there, lad.”
Suddenly, without warning, he reached out and gave Brandon a hug.
“Thanks.” He murmured. Clutching the bowl, map, and food, he
set out on his journey.
Brandon was surprised that he didn’t feel as tired as when he’d
first arrived in Crimlia. The three weeks working with Mendel
in the vegetable garden had strengthened him more than he realized.
The air smelled strongly of honeysuckle. A light breeze played
with Brandon’s hair.
Studying the map carefully, Brandon walked slowly along the dirt
“There he is! Grab him!” several harsh voices cried at once.
Brandon had only just a moment to wonder who the voices were talking
about, when he was jerked savagely from behind. Figures
appeared from nowhere. They lunged and pummeled his back and
sides. “Hand it over! In the name of Her Majesty, Queen
Lucinda, Empress of Crimlia!”
Hands poked and prodded him. One hand snatched his leg that
was encased in the brace. Brandon bellowed in pain.
“Here it is, Armand!” a deep voice rumbled. “I’ve found it!”
“Good! What about him, then?”
“She didn’t say. Take him with us?”
From in the distance, Brandon, his mind whirling, could barely make
out two approaching figures. “No!” the deep voice said, “We’ll
leave him here as an example. She just wanted the bowl!”
Without warning, several pairs of boots and large fists kicked and
gouged Brandon’s flesh. He screamed and tried to fight.
His bad leg was wrenched so badly he was scared it had been
There was a flurry of movement out of the corner of his eye, a sound
of clashing metal, and an ear-splitting scream. Then, a boot
slammed into Brandon’s forehead, and he knew no more.
Hannah tiptoed stealthily down the dungeon stairs. Her
progress was much quicker now that she was not carrying a tray.
It was late afternoon, and she felt some strange feeling surge
Hannah’s heart was pounding. A week had passed since the
second time she’d brought breakfast to Jamal. For some
unexplained reason, she’d felt compelled to check on him. I
must be going crazy, she thought in disgust.
The drudgery in the scullery continued day after day. Hannah
knew that if she ever got home again, she’d never want another slice
Her thoughts made her stop short. If? She would get home! She
Starting to walk again, she found the corner where she turned to the
right. She reached Jamal’s cell. “Hello.” She called.
“Hello, Hannah.” This time, the voice was barely audible.
Hannah felt fear grip her insides like a vise.
“What’s wrong?” she asked harshly.
“I am just tired, that is all.” Jamal murmured. “You are
looking stronger than before. Are you well?”
“I’m all right. Do you want anything?”
“No, but thank you. The time is drawing near for me to go.”
“Go? Go where?”
“Different places in Crimlia. Tell me, do you have time to
Hannah hesitated. “I’m pretty busy,” she admitted. “I
have a lot to do in the scullery.”
“What about at night?”
“I do all right!” Hannah snapped. “Have you always been so
Jamal laughed. “Yes.” He admitted, “I like to get to know
people. For instance, I have a feeling you shouldn’t be here.
Your coming proves you’re sneaky.”
Hannah blushed. “Yeah.” She admitted, “a little.”
“Well, it was kind of you to come.” His voice was fading more and
more. “I must sleep, now, but before I do, I have something to
Hannah felt her cheeks grow red. “What do you mean?”
Without saying a word, Jamal passed an object through the crack
under the door. Hannah heard the sound of wood hitting the
dungeon floor and bent down. She groped until she discovered a
thin, smooth instrument of some sort. She picked it up and
explored it with her fingers.
The instrument was made of smooth wood that had holes carved into
its body. A rectangular mouthpiece was carved into the top.
The instrument felt like a recorder.
“Thanks.” She managed to say, “What is it?”
“It’s a Longolia. You play it like you would a flute.”
“You mean to say you carve things, and you didn’t make a key to get
you out of here?” Hannah said incredulously.
“I told you I chose to come here. Try to play the Longolia.
I want to make sure it works.”
Tentatively, Hannah placed the instrument to her lips. She
blew softly, and the sweetest note she’d ever heard issued forth.
She stopped playing and just stood, dumbfounded.
“Do you know any songs?” Jamal asked.
“Y-Yeah.” Hannah stammered. Slowly, she began to play “From
This Moment,” one of her favorites. The Longolia’s music
soared around the dungeon, light and sweeter than birdsong.
After that song was finished, Jamal clapped in appreciation, but
Hannah did not hear him. She launched into “Wade into the
Water,” a song the elementary school band had played a year before
the accident. As she played, her spirits felt lighter than
they had in days.
“Well done.” Jamal said happily. A little strength had
returned to his voice.
“Th-Thank you.” Hannah managed to say, “But why—“
“It helped pass the time, and it will help you to have something
other than scullery work to think about. By the way, have you
had anymore Trifles of Inertia?”
Hannah jumped. No. She hadn’t had any in over a week.
Salak had stopped coming to her. Hannah remembered how she
often lay awake at night, longing for the rich, satisfying sweets.
Now, strangely, she didn’t think of them with as much longing as
before. She shook her head.
I better be getting back to work. I just wanted to see how you
were.” She said.
“Thank you, Hannah. The gift of your visit fills me with joy!”
Hannah turned away. Then she turned back. “Thanks again
for the-the—Longolia. It’s beautiful!” Then, without another
word, she walked away.
Jamal sank back onto the floor. Thank you, Father, he
“You’ve got it?” Salak barked.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Aufeld said.
“Give it to me!”
Aufeld held out the beautiful porcelain bowl. It glittered
among all the jewels in the throne room, shining with a brilliance
that overshadowed all the finery that surrounded it.
Salak’s lips curved in a smile terrifying to behold.
“Excellent.” She hissed. “Well done.” She ran a crimson
hand through her flowing hair. “You will be rewarded.” She
smiled again. “And the boy?”
“He has been beaten beyond
Salak laughed. “You may leave
Aufeld fidgeted nervously. “Um, my queen—“
“Well? What is it?”
“Yes? What about him?”
“He is dead, Your Majesty. Some Imperialite zealots—“
“Is he?” Salak asked. Her voice was so composed that Aufeld’s
mouth opened in astonishment. “Leave me, Aufeld. I’ll
send for you later, so you can claim your reward.”
Aufeld eyed the queen with open anticipation. Then he left the
Shaking with mirth, Salak leaned back into the plush cushions of her
throne. She held the bowl in front of her, admiring its every
angle. It’s mine, she thought gleefully, All mine.
Then she turned to her mirror. After admiring her own
reflection for five minutes, she rotated the glass. “Show me
Jamal.” She intoned.
The glass darkened. Salak waited. No picture appeared.
What was going on?
“Show me!” Salak snarled. “I want to see him!”
Still the mirror remained clouded. Salak rose angrily and
stormed from the room. She clutched the bowl in her hands.
Down the dungeon steps she stormed! Her nostrils were flared in
At Jamal’s cell, she stopped and glared inside. “Hiding from
me was not part of the bargain!” she raged.
“I did not hide from you. Your own pride blinded you.
You can’t see anything that does not benefit yor plans.”
“Spare me the lecture!” she hissed. “Something has been going
on! What is it?”
Jamal smiled. “Don’t you have something to show me?”
Salak frowned. Then she laughed. “Very well. Now’s
as good a time as any.”
With a flourish, she held out the porcelain bowl. “Ta Dah!”
she sang out.
Jamal flinched. “The boy, Salak! What have you done to him?”
“Oh, he’s a little sore, but he’ll be fine.” Her eyes glittered.
“Observe, your Lordship.”
Before Jamal’s eyes, the porcelain bowl began to fill itself with
gold coins. Streams of coins appeared out of thin air and
plopped into the bowl. The bowl grew so full of coins that
even Salak staggered slightly under its weight. Finally, she
snapped her fingers and the flow of money stopped. Jamal saw
that the bowl was only half full.
“See Jamal? The Bowl of Abundance! Anything you desire will appear.”
She snapped her fingers again.
Instantly, a breathtaking sight materialized. Women, men, and
children flocked to Jamal’s side. They held out their hands
imploringly as if seeking assistance. Salak gestured to the
“Look. With this money, you will have access to every kingdom
in Crimlia! You can help all the people you want! People will cater
to your every need. I know. People come to me all the
time. Men come for pleasure. I can bring women to you.
You’ll want for nothing.”
Salak’s breathing was labored with excitement. Jamal, too, was
breathing hard. She could see that his heart was pounding.
“All this will be yours,” she whispered, “if you will only open your
heart to me. Come. Bow down to me, and have riches
beyond your wildest imagination! Why must you always do things your
father’s way? Break free of his tyranny as I did!”
For a moment, Jamal hesitated. Salak proffered an open box of
the Trifles of Inertia. The intoxicating aroma of chocolate
filled the room. “Partake of what I offer and be free.”
Jamal’s hand stretched toward the box. Every fiber of his
being ached for the power that was offered him. Then, his head
suddenly rose up. “Begone, Salak! Great Deceiver! It is
written: “Worship only the Imperial Lord! Serve him exclusively!”
Surprisingly, Salak was not perturbed. “You’re strong, Jamal.”
She whispered, “But I’ll see you again very soon. Enjoy your
freedom, because it will be short-lived.” She laughed and turned to
As she turned away, a deafening flurry of wings resounded.
Startled, she turned back.
Jamal lay crumpled on the cell floor. He was shaking with
fatigue. Five Eaglia’s brilliant to behold, hovered around
him. They gently lifted him to a sitting position. Salak
bit her lip in disbelief.
“Well done, my lord.” One of the Eaglia’s was saying. Others
were handing Jamal plates of meat, bread, broth, and cakes.
“Eat and be strengthened.” The Eaglia’s chorused.
A fleeting memory of Salak’s own service as an Eaglia invaded her
mind. Blinking rapidly, she turned from the hated sight and
“I think he’s comin round now.” A gravelly voice rumbled.
Brandon’s head was throbbing. He tasted blood in his mouth.
Groaning, he sat up slowly. His head began to spin crazily.
“It’s all right.” The gravelly voice intoned. “You’d best lie
down, now. You’ve got a nasty bump on your head.”
“W-Where am I?” Brandon croaked.
“In me home, lad. There’s no cause for worry. They’re
“Those good-for-nothing followers of Salak! I’d’ve killed all of ‘em
if I’d had a chance!”
Despite his pounding head, Brandon sat up again. “You killed
“Aye. That fat pig who had hold of your leg. Ya
wouldn’t’ve gotten free otherwise. He’s not the first one I’ve
finished off! Now lie back. Lydia’s getting’ ya some broth.”
Brandon obeyed. “You’re askin’ for trouble for us all,
Samenal.” A second male voice said. “She might send someone
here any moment.”
“Hope she does, Barson!” Samenal said defiantly. “I’d kill her
in a minute!”
Barsun snorted. “Ya wouldn’t have a chance.”
A thin woman tiptoed into the room. “He’s awake, I see.” She
“Yes, m’dear.” Simbal said.
“Hello, lad. Glad to see you’re in the land of the livin.”
Lydia said cheerfully. “Here’s some vegetable broth.
Sorry it’s all we have.”
“Thanks.” Brandon mumbled. Samenal helped prop a cushion
behind Brandon’s back. Brandon sipped the broth
appreciatively. “How long have I been here.”
“Four days.” Lydia said. “I’ve been feedin’ ya broth when
you’ve been awake long enough. I thought ya might not make it.
Praise the Imperial Lord that ya’ll be all right.”
“Lad, I’m Samenal and this is me wife Lydia. This worrywart
beside me is me brother-in-law, Barsun. And who might ya be?”
“Well, Brandon. Welcome. We don’t have much, but ya can
have what we do.”
“Where is this place?”
“Nunmal. Not too far from where ya was ambushed.”
In a flash, the struggle with the bandits slammed into Brandon’s
“I can’t take much more of this.” He said aloud.
“Nor can we, lad. Pray that the Deliverer’ll come soon.” Lydia
“He’s here already.” Brandon blurted.
Samenal laughed heartily. “And who might ya be referrin’ too,
“The baker, Jamal.”
Lydia gasped. Barsun fidgeted nervously. Samenal glared.
“Wherever did ya get such a notion, lad?” he barked.
“I saw him, I’ve heard the stories about people he’s healed, and
I’ve tasted his bread. Not only that, but I’ve gotten to know
“Ya say a lot, lad. He doesn’t heal everybody.” Samenal’s
voice was sharp with bitterness, “as you should know.” He pointed to
“Samenal, for goodness sake, hold your tongue!” Barsun snarled.
“I only say what’s true! What about Priscilla? Andrew? Dan?”
“Sam.” Lydia said gently. “He was only five then.”
“The Deliverer heals everyone. Anyway, why would a deliverer
come in the form of a baker?”
Brandon looked closely into Samenal’s face. “I don’t know
everything about him.” He admitted. “I just know he’ll free
“You all?” Lydia inquired. “What about you?”
Brandon blushed. “I was supposed to help him, and I failed.”
A small smile returned to Samenal’s lips. “Don’t worry about
that, lad. That’s me job.”
Lydia glared at her husband. “You’re not goin’ to that palace!
Especially not to pick up a blasted bowl!”
“It’s the principle of the thing, m’dear! They’ve could’ve stolen a
napkin, and I’d still wanna take it back. Those barbarians have
gotta be taught a lesson!”
Brandon’s head began to reel again. He lay back down and
listened to the low talking around him. Soon, he drifted off
into a deep sleep.
Before the dawn broke, Brandon was awake. The vegetable broth
had invigorated him, and he felt ready to look for Jamal.
Slowly, he heaved himself to his feet. On a small table, he
discovered the crude map that Mendel had drawn. His bad leg
still cramped, but he gritted his teeth and tiptoed from the house.
He would not allow someone to steal and risk being killed because of
his mistake. The only thing he could think to do was find
Outside, the air was heavy and pressed down on Brandon’s head.
He slowly walked along. He was aware that everything was
By the middle of the morning, Brandon’s leg was aching. He
found an oak tree and sat beneath it.
After a few moments, he felt ready to move along.
After another half hour of walking, Brandon looked closely at the
map. He saw that Mendel had included a sketch of Trimland Hill
and Marigold’s hut. If I go there, maybe she can tell me if
he’s still at the palace.
Marigold’s hut looked the same, but the atmosphere was different.
There was a festive feeling in the air. Brandon was surprised
by the change.
As he drew nearer to the hut, his nostrils were assailed by a
delicious fragrance: vanilla, sugar, and eggs, the kind of smell he
remembered from his grandmother’s house when she baked birthday
Excitement filled Brandon’s soul. He felt like running, but
decided against it.
Suddenly, he heard a joyful cry. “Brandon!”
Brandon fell into the arms of Marigold. “Thank the Imperial
Lord you’re safe! I was beside myself!”
“This place seems different.” Brandon said.
Marigold’s smile broadened. “It is! Jamal is home for a day or
Brandon’s heart leapt. He followed Marigold into the bakery.
The delicious smells grew stronger.
“Jamal! He’s come!” Marigold beamed.
Jamal straightened up from the hearth where he had been watching a
cake pan. His face was tired, but his smile was broad, and
happiness poured from him like a fountain of water.
“It’s great to see you again, Brandon!”
Brandon smiled sheepishly. “I’m afraid I—“
Jamal nodded, and his smile did not fade. “It wasn’t your
fault. Everything will work out.” For a moment, his smile
wavered. Then he gestured toward the hearth. “How does
the cake look, mother?”
Marigold beamed. “Fit for a princess! Although,” her eyes
twinkled, “I’m not sure Prissy Patricia would agree with me!” Mother
and son burst out laughing.
“Prissy Priscilla?” Brandon asked in bewilderment.
“Ah yes. This is her wedding cake.” Jamal explained.
“Her wedding’s tonight in the town of Camrill. She’ll be
married in her father’s home. You’re welcome to come.”
Marigold nodded. “Please do, Brandon. We’d love to have
“Sure.” Brandon said. “Thanks.”
Patricia’s father’s house was a hut identical to all the others
Brandon had seen. Despite the close quarters, a large crowd
had gathered. Brandon noticed that the majority of the party
goers were simply dressed. However, he saw a few men who were
dressed in expensive-looking robes. Their heads were held high
as they swept by the humbler-looking groups. Brandon didn’t
know why, but he felt uncomfortable around them.
“Marigold? Who are those people?” he asked.
She frowned slightly. “They’re
the overseers of the Imperialites. It’s rumored that they
serve Salak in secret.”
The wedding guests chatted and
gestured toward a table with a modest but delicious-looking meal
upon it. In the center of the table in the place of honor was
Jamal’s wedding cake.
The wedding itself was more interesting than any that Brandon had
ever attended. During the ceremony, the bride and groom drank
wine from the same cup. They also performed an intricate dance
with their legs bound together with twine. They had to dance
in perfect harmony, or they would fall.
After the wedding ceremony, the reception began. Music was
played by live musicians, and the people danced joyfully.
Brandon noticed that Jamal was an excellent dancer. The baker
danced, laughed heartily, and ate food with relish. Jamal
seemed to be having more fun than anyone else. At one point,
he left the party, but he soon returned.
In the midst of the reception, Brandon noticed frenzied whispering
going on between Patricia’s father and some friends. “What
shall we do? I don’t have anymore.”
“Couldn’t you use something else instead?”
Patricia’s father snorted. “Of course not! It’s traditional!
What can we do?”
Brandon noticed Marigold making her way toward the group.
“What is wrong, Horace?” she asked. “Can I help?”
“Not unless you have a cow to loan me! Rachel’s not producing milk,
and I’m out!”
Marigold looked concerned. “Wait a moment, Horace. I’ll
be right back.”
Seething with curiosity, Brandon followed Marigold to the
refreshment table. Jamal was handing a young woman a cup of
wine. The woman wore a revealing gown, and waist-length blond
hair billowed around her.
Marigold touched Jamal on the shoulder and he turned. “Jamal,
they have no milk. Rachel is not producing anymore.”
“Mother, this is Angela. She was outside, and I invited her
Marigold noticed the woman for the first time. Her cheeks grew
red, but she extended her hand. “Welcome.” She said warmly.
“There’s plenty of food and drink. Please help yourself.”
Angela turned a shocked face onto the older woman. “Are you
mocking me?” she snapped.
Jamal touched Angela’s hand. “No. You are here as my guest.
Eat your fill.” He turned back to his mother. “About the milk.
Why do you come to me? The time has not yet arrived.”
Marigold nodded. Then she turned away. “Brandon?” she
whispered. “If he calls for you, please do whatever he asks.”
Then she walked away.
Brandon turned to follow her, when a large man with a square jaw
pushed past him and stamped toward the refreshment table. He
wore one of the expensive-looking robes.
The man looked past Jamal, who was handing a slice of wedding cake
to a little girl, to Angela, who was eating a slice of bread and
cheese. “Who let you in here?” he thundered.
Angela pointed at Jamal. Then she winked at the large man and
continued eating the bread.
“You’re not welcome here!” the man snarled. “This is a
wedding, a pure ceremony. You’re contaminating Horace’s
A large crowd of celebrators began to surge around the table.
The room had gone deathly silent. Even the musicians were no
“Mind your own business!” Brandon blurted before he could stop
“Who are you?” the man snapped. “Show some respect to your
elders, boy? Anyway, you don’t belong here, either!”
Jamal’s voice, sharp and authoritative, cut through the gasps of the
crowd. “Parker. Both Brandon and Angela are my guests.
They have every right to be here.”
Parker glared. “You’re an upstart, baker! These intruders were
not issued invitations! Besides, the woman is a--”
“They were. By myself.”
“What’s all this? What’s this?” The resonant voice of Horace filled
the room. “Come, guests! Dance! Eat! Drink! It’s a party!”
The crowd quickly dispersed. Parker glared venomously at
Jamal, smiled weakly at Horace, then slid back into the crowd.
“Almost time for the Fertility Rite,
folks!” Horace called. As he passed Brandon, the boy noticed a
worried frown crease the father’s brow.
“Brandon?” Jamal called.
Brandon trudged toward the refreshment table. “What is it?” he
Jamal gestured to the corner of the room. “Please fill those
five water jars over there. The well is out in the back.”
Brandon nodded. He shuffled to the corner and lifted an
earthenware jar. The jar was heavy and wide-brimmed.
“I’ll have to make several trips.” Brandon called.
Jamal nodded, and Brandon trudged outside.
Slowly, he tiptoed to the well and attached the rope to the neck of
the jar. Thank goodness I had practice doing this at Mendel’s,
he thought with relief.
The rope went slack, and Brandon pulled the jar to the surface.
It was filled with water and was very heavy.
He staggered back toward Horace’s dwelling.
“That young, impertinent freak!” a voice rang out in the darkness.
Brandon nearly dropped the jar. “Who does he think he is?”
“Be patient, my friend.” A gentler, male voice crooned. “You
lash out too hastily.”
“Annis, it’s unbearable! I’ve known that insufferable baker for
years. He’s always contradicting me! I’m an official in the
Imperial Lord’s service! I deserve respect! That woman,” he spat out
the word with contempt, “does not belong here.”
“As I say, patience. He won’t be popular long. These
people come and go. People will lose interest in him.”
Brandon hurried as fast as he could back inside. He filled the
other jars, and carried them one by one to Jamal.
“Jamal! Two men outside—“
Jamal nodded but showed no concern. “Please take some water to
Horace and have him taste it.” He handed Brandon a cup filled to the
Brandon was totally dumbfounded, but he shrugged.
Horace was talking in a hushed voice to some friends. Brandon
approached him nervously. “Uh, sir?”
“Yes? Yes? What is it, boy?” Horace asked impatiently.
“Uh, Jamal wanted you to taste this.”
Horace took the cup. “Water? What on earth for?”
Horace put the cup to his lips. Before he took a drink,
Brandon saw the clear water turn yellow. He gasped.
Horace sipped from the cup. He sputtered and nearly dropped
it. “What is—“ he gulped.
Brandon saw that the water had turned into milk, and not just any
milk. The milk was thick, and yellow cream floated on top.
Brandon thought about cow’s milk on Grandpa Nick’s farm. The
thicker the cream, the richer and more delicious the milk! His mouth
began to water.
“What’s going on?” Horace squeaked.
Horace’s friends’ stared at him in fascination. “I guess the
problem is solved.” One of them said.
Horace grinned. “I suppose so. Well! What’re we waiting
He clapped his hands. “The Fertility Rite will begin!
Everyone, join me in drinking a tost of milk to my lovely daughter,
Patricia! Milk represents production and fertility. May the
Imperial Lord open her womb, and may she and her husband live a long
and prosperous life! May we all see better days in the future when
the bonds of tyranny are broken!”
All the crowd gathered at the refreshment table. They helped
themselves to cups of rich, pure milk.
Brandon tentatively sipped from his cup. His eyes opened in
fascination. The milk was cold and sweet. He’d never
tasted anything so creamy and refreshing.
“So, Horace!” a guest called jovially. “You’ve been holding
out on us! Where does that cow of yours graze? I’ve never tasted
anything like this!”
Horace smiled. “The Imperial Lord has blessed us all!” he
Brandon scanned the crowd for Jamal, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Outside, Jamal and Angela stood. Angela’s face was flushed.
She held out a hand and gently caressed Jamal’s cheek.
“What can I offer you in return for your hospitality?” she
whispered. “My services will be free, of course.”
Jamal shook his head. “Nothing. I only give you the
option of leaving Salak’s service. Come and follow me.”
Angela looked surprised. Then, without another word, she
Jamal stared after her for a moment. Then, he turned and
walked back into the celebration. Behind his back, a scarlet
serpent slithered away into the darkness.
Plenty Palace was filled with the hurried sounds of scurrying feet
and shouts. Hannah, who was washing dishes, felt an
unexplained dread invaded her mind.
Jamal had been gone a month. Hannah did not know why, but she
felt abandoned and lost. The days stretched ahead of her in a
neverending stream. Everytime she tried to search for a way
out of the palace, a scullery worker would discover her.
Hannah’s hands were bruised beyond recognition. Her arms
constantly ached from kneading troughs of heavy, unyielding bread
dough. Her back and feet ached, and she had begun crying
herself to sleep at night.
The only time Hannah felt comforted was when she had an opportunity
to play the Longolia that Jamal had given her. She’d
remembered many solos she’d played in the school band, and she’d
even memorized some of the songs the scullery workers sang.
Griselda was particularly fond of singing, and Hannah had begun
joining in. The singing made the work go faster. Of
course, when the queen was nearby, they never sang. Singing
Comfort flowed into every part of Hannah’s body when she placed the
wooden instrument to her lips. The longolia played notes of
such purity that Hannah felt strength surge within her.
Queen Salak had not come to Hannah for weeks. Hannah did not
know what to think of this. Often, a longing for the sweet
Trifles of Inertia came over her in an intoxicating wave. At
those times, it was all she could do to focus on her work.
However, when she played the Longolia, the desire for the sweets
“Hannah?” Griselda’s voice rang out, “Her Majesty wishes to see
Hannah jumped and nearly dropped a crystal goblet. Swallowing
hard, she turned to face Griselda. “Why?”
“I don’t know, do I?” Griselda’s voice was sharp. “She just
asked for you.”
Hannah placed the goblet on a shelf. “All right.” She sighed.
“I’ll take you to the throne room.” Griselda said.
Hannah took her cane, and followed Griselda down the twisting
hallways. The birds in their cages continued to sing
Without warning, Griselda grasped Hannah’s arm and pushed her into
an alcove beside a cage. “No matter what she does to you,
don’t give her the Longolia!” she whispered fiercely.
Hannah opened her mouth in amazement. “How do you—“
“I just know!” Griselda said impatiently, “I think someone else
knows, too. You must keep that instrument! It’s your only
Hannah nodded. Then, she followed Griselda to the throne room.
Griselda opened the door, and ushered Hannah inside.
“Ah! My newest scullery maid! Welcome!” Salak seemed delighted to
see her. Hannah’s nervousness began to ebb.
“Come forward, Hannah.” The queen instructed.
Hannah approached the sound of the
musical voice. She started to bow, but Salak detained her.
“No need for formalities. Sit down in this chair.”
Hesitantly, Hannah obeyed.
“I apologize for not coming to see you in so long, but I have been
busy with affairs of state. Is your work going well?”
Hannah nodded. “I’m just tired.” She admitted.
“That’s understandable. Soon the work will be routine.
Now, would you like something while we talk?”
Hannah’s mouth began to water like mad. She knew what the
Salak smiled knowingly. “Of course you would like them.” She
whispered. “Here.” She placed a single piece of candy into
Hannah popped the sweet into her mouth. Dark chocolate,
marshmallows, and vanilla custard exploded onto her tongue in an
indescribable flavor. Hannah gasped in wonder.
“Is it good?” Salak’s voice held a broad smile.
Hannah didn’t bother answering. She was too overcome with the
rich taste to speak. She felt giddy.
“You make exquisite bread.” Salak said, “And you’re not a slacker.
I am proud to have you in my service.”
Hannah felt herself blushing because of the praise. She longed
for another trifle, preferably a whole box.
“Would you like some more?” Salak asked.
“Yes! Yes, please!” Hannah blurted. She realized she sounded
like a childish idiot, but she couldn’t stop herself. “It’s
been so long!”
“Yes, of course. You may have all you want, after you give me
The final words hit Hannah like a slap. Her ears rang, and she
felt confused. “L-Longolia?” she stammered.
“Yes, you fool! You went to see Jamal without my knowing, didn’t
you?” Salak’s voice was icy. Hannah shivered. She knew
that lying would be useless.
“I was just—He seemed so—“
“Seemed is the correct word! He seeks to destroy you. I am
trying to help you. If you give me the Longolia, you’ll be
safe from his influence!”
Hannah swallowed. “I won’t!” she managed to say.
A stinging blow on her left cheek made Hannah’s head spin. She
tried to stand, but felt Salak’s hard hand slam into her other
“You’re mine! You’ll do as I say!” the queen hissed. “It’s not
in your room! Where is it?”
Hannah’s head was throbbing and her ears were ringing. She
knew very well that the Longolia was in her room. It was
hidden under some underclothing. Why couldn’t the queen find
“Where is it?” Salak’s voice had lost all its composure. She
was screaming now.
Suddenly, courage surged into Hannah’s heart. “You’ll never
find it!” she cried defiantly.
“Very well.” Salak’s voice was smooth as silk. “We’ll see how
long you dare to defy me!” Her hand shot forward, and she
hauled Hannah to her feet. “Stand over here, fool!”
She jerked the helpless girl toward her mirror and positioned her in
front of it. She stared with bloodshot eyes into Hannah’s
Hannah tried to run, but found that her feet would not budge.
“You’ve reached your Moon Phase!”
Salak chortled, “This will be easier than I thought! Aufeld!”
As if on cue, the throne room door opened with a boom.
Reverberating footsteps echoed on the floor. “Your Majesty?”
“This girl has reached her Moon Phase.” The words hung like poison
in the air. “The Union Ceremony is tomorrow night, but I think
we need not wait till then, do you?”
All dignity forgotten, Hannah began to scream.
“Your Majesty?” Aufeld was saying. “I—“
“Do it, slave!” Salak bellowed.
Salak turned to the trapped girl. “Come Aufeld. You
serve me. Do as I say.”
Hannah felt masculine hands grip her shoulders. Above her own
pounding heart,, she heard shrill laughter.
Above the maniacal laughter, a
thunderous flapping of wings was heard. A bloodcurdling scream
was followed by a popping sound. “Queen Salak! My leg! My
leg!” Aufeld bellowed.
Salak was ranting in an incoherent bable. Hannah felt someone
grab hold of her arm and drag her away from the room.
“Come. This way.” The voice was deep and resonant.
Hannah’s head was spinning. “I’ll take you with me.”
“W-Who are you?” she squeaked.
“Brimral. No talking now. Here. This will help you
rest.” A fragrant cup was placed to Hannah’s lips. A gentle
hand held the back of her neck as warm, creamy liquid was poured
down her throat.
Gradually, Hannah’s jumbled brain relaxed. She sank into a
In the throne room Salak’s mind whirled with anger. She sat
quivering. Aufeld lay limp and lifeless at her feet.
When the Eaglia had appeared out of nowhere, Salak had had the
presence of mind to change into her serpent form. Of course,
she’d bitten Aufeld, sending her lethal poison through his body.
It served him right for failing her. Now the girl was gone!
Peering in her mirror, she saw the Eaglia carrying the sleeping
Hannah through Crimlia to Marigold’s hut. Seething, Salak sent
her left hand through the glass of the mirror, causing a shower of
sparks to fill the room. The glass, instead of falling to the
floor in shards, disintegrated into a black powder that hovered in
Salak smiled in glee. “Go.” She intoned. “Fill all of
Crimlia! Infect the Imperialites. Reak havoc as in the days of old!”
She waved her hand, and the powder glittered as it flowed from the
From the palace hallway, Salak heard a shriek, a gurgling cry, and a
She rose and stepped onto the threshold of the room. Griselda
lay at an odd angle, her eyes glazed. She writhed in pain.
On her forehead, the imprint of the Imperial Lord’s Mark shone.
“Traitor!” Salak fumed. Holding out her hand, she pointed an
accusing finger at the writhing girl. Instantly, a starling
fluttered into the air. Salak grabbed the struggling bird and
clawed a crimson-colored nail through its eyes. The bird
cheeped in pain. Salak flung the helpless creature to the
ground. “One can never have enough trophies.” She gloated.
Griselda would be the first in a long line of new trophies to add to
her collection. Salak had infected Crimlia with the Senual
Plague when Jamal was a little boy of five. Numerous people
had died including Marigold’s husband, Joakim. Of course,
Jamal hadn’t been infected! Curse him! Now, even more people would
pay for their defiance!
Smiling in satisfaction, Salak glided back into her throne room.
It would soon be time for her to locate Jamal and see what he was up
She approached her throne. Her shattered mirror had healed
itself. Clear, translucent glass shone brightly, reflecting
it’s creator’s distorted face. The mirror waited, ready to
show its mistress whatever she wished.
Peering fixedly into the glass, she intoned some words. Soon,
Madeleine entered the throne room. “Yes, Your Majesty?” she
“Hannah has been taken. You are a loyal servant, and I need
your help.” She smiled. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Brandon, please bring me some cloths.” Marigold’s voice was thin
Brandon hurried to obey. His head was pounding, and he felt
Marigold’s hut was jammed with people. Most of them lay, some
unconscious, others writheing in pain. The smell of sickness
was thick upon the air.
Brandon handed Marigold the cloths. She began swabbing burning
Brandon and a few other people, Jamal included, brought bowls of
broth and slices of bread to those who were awake.
Since the Senual Plague had begun a month ago, people were coming to
Marigold’s hut in increasing numbers. The hut was now a
quarantine establishment. Brandon was surprised that he hadn’t
“Lad?” The familiar voice of Mendel, now weakened, called from a cot
in the corner. He and Ursula had arrived only that morning.
Usually, one who was infected had little hope of survival, but with
Jamal staying at the hut, many people had found strength to come to
him. Jamal circulated around the room,touching each person and
speaking healing to all who asked for it.
“Yes, Mendel?” Brandon asked.
“The young lass is in the bakery kneading the dough. Do you
think she would like some soup?”
Brandon smiled to himself. It was so like Mendel to think of
others before himself.
“I’ll go and see, Mendel.”
Brandon thought back to a month previously. He had gone
outside for some water and discovered Hannah lying asleep by Jamal’s
bakery. Relief had flooded through him at the sight of her.
After Hannah had awakened, Jamal had gone to her. Brandon
wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew Hannah had tasted Jamal’s
bread. The change in her was unbelievable! Since she’d
arrived, Hannah had worked tirelessly. It was almost as if she
feared to stop performing tasks. She’d asked Jamal if she
could help with the bread preparation. Of course, he’d given
Now, Brandon hurried to the back of the hut. He carried a cup
of broth. “Hannah? Are you all right?”
Hannah stood at Jamal’s workbench. She busily rotated her
hands in the dough, massaging it repeatedly. A look of wonder
filled her face.
“I’m fine, Brandon.” She said. “Have more people come?”
“Yes. The people I told you about who rescued me from Salak’s
attackers. Samenal, Lydia, and Barson. They came an hour
ago. Look, I brought you some soup.”
“Thanks.” Gratefully, Hannah sank down onto a stool. She
guzzled the soup greedily. “I wanna go home, Brandon.” She
Brandon didn’t answer. Instead, he touched Hannah’s shoulder.
He knew she didn’t want him to say anything. She just wanted
“Feel this dough, Brandon.” She said.
Bewildered, Brandon ran his fingers along the mass of bread dough.
The dough was smooth and translucent. Golden light seemed to
flow from it.
“Pick it up.” Hannah instructed.
Brandon lifted the dough. It was light as a feather. He
sat it back down on the bench. “What did you want me to do
that, for?” he asked.
Hannah gasped as if she were trying not to cry. “When I worked
in the scullery, the bread dough was heavy. It hurt my arms to
lift it. This dough is easy to shape. It’s light.
I don’t feel like I’m working at all.”
“But you are.” Brandon pointed out. “We need your help.
The bread gives people strength.”
“I don’t belong here.” Hannah stated simply. “How can we get
Brandon shook his head. “I don’t know.” He admitted. “I
think we were sent here for some reason.”
Hannah nodded. “Me, too. I just wish I knew what it
was.” She thought about the Longolia that Jamal had given her.
She missed playing it, but she couldn’t understand why it bothered
her so much.
“I don’t care what you say, Jamal!” a harsh voice outside the bakery
snapped. Brandon recognized the voice of Marshall.
“You’re going to get us into trouble! I heard Parker in the
marketplace yesterday. He claims you are impure because you
touch those who are infected with the plague.”
“I’m going to the banquet at Annis’
tonight.” Jamal said calmly. “I’m sure they’ll ask me about it
“Please, Jamal! Think of us! You’re giving our family a bad name!”
“My mission is more important than my
name. I must go check on the bread.”
“You’re impossible!” Marshall stamped
Jamal entered the bakery. His
face wore a crestfallen expression. “Excellent work, Hannah
and Brandon.” Jamal said.
“Is everyone all right?” she asked.
“Oh, yes. Most of them are asleep. I just came to check
on you. I’m off to the house of Annis.
Brandon remembered the conversation
between Parker and Annis the night of Patricia’s wedding. “Why
are you going there?” he asked.
“Because I’ve been invited for dinner. I’ll be back before
nightfall. If anyone comes seeking me, please tell them where
Both Brandon and Hannah nodded. Then Jamal left the bakery.
“Something strange is going on.” Brandon said. “Annis doesn’t
like Jamal. Why would he invite him for dinner?”
Hannah shrugged. “I better get back to work.” She said.
“We’ve worked all day.” Brandon said. “I don’t like the sound
of this dinner invitation.” He knitted his brow in deep thought.
“Well, then, let’s follow him.” Hannah said.
“What?” Brandon asked.
“Let’s go with him. We’ll be there if anything happens.”
Brandon thought for a moment, then he nodded.
The streets of Crimlia thronged with people. Brandon and
Hannah found it easy to blend into the crowds. They followed
Jamal as he strolled along. Often, he waved and shouted a
cheerful greeting to a passerby.
Many people flocked to him. Some of them were pale from the
sickness of the Senual Plague. Others had twisted legs, blind
eyes, and any number of illnesses.
Brandon watched in fascination as the people pled for healing.
Jamal honored all of the requests. Brandon described these
wondrous signs to Hannah.
Hannah reached down and touched Brandon’s bad leg. “Have you
thought of asking him for help?” she asked.
“Yes.” Brandon admitted. “I just haven’t had the nerve.”
Hannah nodded in understanding. “He asked me once if I
believed he could heal me. I said no. Now, I’m not
“I know he could.” Brandon said, “I just don’t know what people
would say when we got back home!”
For the first time in weeks, Hannah laughed aloud.
Suddenly, Jamal stopped walking. A young woman had rushed up
to him. She wore a lavish robe. Her face was flushed,
and her eyes were red. “Baker!” she cried, “My little girl!
She’s been struck with the Senual Plague! I’ve heard of the wonders
that you can do! Please come and help her!”
“You, Jumria?” a scathing voice called. “You’re not one of us.
You rob us all! Leave us in peace!”
Brandon recognized the deep voice of Parker. In spite of
himself, he shuddered.
Jamal ignored Parker’s outburst. “I was sent only to the
Imperialites.” He said simply.
Jumria nodded. “But she is only twelve. She doesn’t
deserve to die.”
“It is not right to take the cakes from the king’s children and give
them to the peasant’s dogs.” Jamal said.
Hannah gasped. “What’s he doing?” she asked.
Brandon too was thunderstruck. Many of the people in the crowd
were nodding in agreement with Jamal’s words.
“What you say is true.” Jumria said, “But even the peasant’s dogs
are given tidbits from a kind king’s table.”
Jamal beamed. He patted the woman’s shoulder. “You have
great faith. Go on your way. Your daughter is now well.”
The woman’s face shone with relief and thanksgiving. “You are
the Deliverer!” she cried in ecstasy, “The one the prophecies tell
about! I have been in Salak’s service for years, but now I know what
a fool I was!”
“Hold your tongue, woman!” Parker cried. “You dare to utter
blasphemous words? Our Deliverer will be a conquering king! He’s
only a baker!”
Jumria did not respond to the outburst. She simply walked
Jamal continued walking with Brandon and Hannah following close
behind. “What did Parker mean when he said that Jumria robbed
us all?” Brandon wondered aloud.
“She’s a tax collector.” Hannah explained. “She had dinner at
the palace lots of times. I remember her because she always
requested goats’ milk cheese with her bread.”
“Look. I think we’re here.”
Jamal had stopped before an impressive-looking dwelling.
Marble pillars supported a lavish home made of brick. Brandon
noticed that Parker had also stopped before the mansion.
“Well, baker. I see we’re both invited.” He said haughtily.
Pushing past Jamal, he knocked loudly on the door. Quickly,
Brandon and Hannah ducked behind one of the pillars.
A slim young maid opened the door. “Take me in to Annis.”
Parker said grandly.
“Of course. This way, sir.” The maid said.
“How are you today?” Jamal asked the maid politely as he began to
follow them inside. The maid held up her hand. “I’m
sorry, sir. Were you invited to the meal? I’m not authorized—“
“Thank you, Amy.” A jovial voice called. “He was invited, as a
matter of fact.” Brandon recognized the voice of Annis. Now,
it had a slightly condescending note as it addressed Jamal.
“Come in, baker!”
The door closed behind the group. “What do we do now?” Hannah
“One of us should probably go inside.” Brandon said.
“I can’t.” Hannah said. “My cane’ll make too much noise.”
Brandon nodded. “Stay down here.” He said. “I’ll go
inside just to check. Then I’ll come back out.”
Brandon tiptoed up to the large doors. He tried the knob.
To his surprise, the door opened.
Brandon crept down a large, marble-floored hallway. His feet
echoed on the floor, and he tried to walk softly.
The murmur of voices led him to a lavish banquet hall. Richly
dressed men sat around a large table. Jamal looked plain and
unimpressive among the richly appareled men. The rich smells
of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and wine filled the
air. Brandon’s mouth began to water.
“So, baker?” Annis was asking, “You maintain that it’s lawful to
associate with those contaminated with the Senual Plague? Doesn’t
that view go against our laws? I understand your mother has opened a
quarantine hut. Have you both gone through the required
“My mother opens her home to anyone who is in need.” Jamal said.
“The chicken is delicious!”
“And I understand you have both a blind girl and a crippled boy
staying with you who are not of our race? Doesn’t our laws forbid
“The law says nothing of the kind!” Jamal said sharply. “Open
your homes to your neighbors who require help.” He quoted.
“Exactly.” Parker said. “Our neighbors. Clearly, the boy
and girl are not Imperialites. Their foreigners.”
Jamal did not answer. Brandon’s face was flushed with anger.
It was all he could do not to confront these loudmouths!
Suddenly, a familiar figure rushed past him. Brandon had only
a moment to register a revealing gown and blond hair. Angela!
The woman hurried into the banquet hall. Brandon heard Annis
issue a muffled curse. The guests gasped in shock when they
saw the woman. “Amy!” he bellowed. “Whose responsible
for letting this baggage in?”
Amy, who was passing a platter of smoked fish and a bowl of
horseradish sauce around the table, said, “No one knocked, sir.
I swear they didn’t.”
Brandon crept closer to the banquet hall. He peered around the
door. Angela knelt at Jamal’s feet. In her hand, she
clutched a small bottle. Her blond hair touched the floor, and
tears flowed from her eyes. They fell In cascades onto the
dusty, calloused feet of the baker. Her body shook with
Slowly, she unscrewed the cap from her bottle. She gently
poured something onto Jamal’s feet. A sweet, overpowering
fragrance filled the house.
Angela’s tears were still flowing unchecked onto Jamal’s feet.
She hurriedly began to wipe them away with her hair.
Finally, the sobbing ceased, and silence filled the hall.
Brandon saw Annis rise angrily. “Well, intruder, since you’ve
made a complete fool of yourself,” he snarled, “You can leave now.”
Then Annis turned to Parker and whispered in his ear.
Straining to hear, Brandon caught the words: “If this man was whom
he claims, he’d know very well what trash this woman is! A sinner of
the vilest kind!”
“Annis. I have something to tell you.” Jamal said.
Annis turned. His face wore a fake smile. “Yes? Tell
me.” He said.
“There were two men who owed money to a king. One owed fifty
shekels of silver and the other owed 500. Neither of the men
could pay, and the king had compassion on them. The debts were
cancelled. Tell me, which person will love the king more?”
Annis cleared his throat. Both he and Parker fidgeted
nervously. “Um, I—I suppose the man who owed the most.” Annis
Jamal nodded. “You have answered correctly.” He said.
Then he turned to Angela, who still huddled on the floor.
Her eyes stared defiantly at Annis and Parker, then she gazed
fixedly at Jamal. She seemed to be steeling herself for the
embarrassment to come. “Do you see this woman? I came to your
house for a meal. You talk constantly about the law, but you
did not observe it yourself. You gave me no water to wash the
dust of the road from my feet, but this woman washed my feet with
her own tears. You did nothing, but this woman gave her most
valuable possession to express her love for me.”
Annis glared. “Be that as it may, baker, this is a private
banquet. She was not invited.”
Ignoring Annis’ words, Jamal smiled at Angela. “Daughter.
Your sins are forgiven you. Go in peace.”
“What?!” Parker roared. “You dare presume that you can forgive
Jamal continued to observe Angela. “You are forgiven.” He
repeated. “Go, and leave Salak’s service.”
“Blasphemer!” Annis raged. He brought his fist down on the
table and upset the bowl of horseradish.
Amy quickly entered to clean up, but Jamal shook his head.
Calmly, he used his own napkin to mop up the spill. “If any of
you men have no sin on your conscience, throw her out and perform
the usual penalty of stoning.” He said.
The guests sat absolutely still. Their eyes strayed to Angela,
then to each other. Brandon suddenly realized that all the men
knew Angela very well.
Rising to their feet, they shot looks of pure venom at Jamal and
swept from the room.
“Thank you.” Angela whispered.
“I do not condemn you, Angela.” Jamal said. “Go, and sin no
Slowly, Angela rose and left the room. Jamal finished cleaning
up the spilled horseradish. Then he walked out into the hall.
“Brandon?” he called. “You can come out now.” His eyes
Startled, Brandon stood. Jamal grinned at him. “You took
a risk, Brandon.” He said. “Come on. Let’s get back to
mother’s hut! I’m still hungry, aren’t you?”
Brandon smiled sheepishly. “It wasn’t much of a meal for you,
was it?” he asked.
Jamal laughed. “Those meals never are. The leaders of
the Imperialites have become poisoned with their own pride.
They’ve contracted a worser illness than Senual Plague. They
have Salak’s Disease. I’ve dealt with their contempt since I
was old enough to talk.”
Brandon followed Jamal outside. “Hannah’s waiting for us.” He
The moon was shining brightly, and the air was fragrant and slightly
cool. “We’re ready to go, Hannah.” Brandon called.
There was no answer except the singing of crickets.
Dread suddenly slammed into Brandon’s stomach. “Hannah?” he
called. “Where are you?”
Jamal began to search along the ground. He looked behind the
pillars of Annis’ dwelling. His face became stoney.
“Come, Brandon.” He said softly. “We must go.”
“What? What is it?” Brandon cried.
“She’s been taken to Plenty Palace once again. The time has
“Come? Come for what?”
Jamal did not answer. Instead,
he gestured to the ground behind the pillars.
A scarlet snake skin, grotesque and
empty, lay shining in the moonlight.
Surprisingly, it was not this grisly sight that struck terror into
Brandon’s heart. It was the object that lay beside it.
Hannah’s cane, abandoned and bent, lay in the dewy grass.
Squaring his shoulders, Brandon faced Jamal. “What do we do?”
“We go to get her.” Jamal said simply.
“I want her to hurt!” Salak’s voice rumbled. She sat on her
throne and glared at Madeleine. “Do you understand me? Inflict
severe pain on her! No leniency will be tolerated!”
Madeleine nodded. Her face was empty of any expression.
She looked weary of the whole world. “Your Majesty? What
should I do to her?”
“Force her to prepare the special bread.” Salak grinned savagely.
Her voice was no longer loud, but it was icy. “Stand over her
the whole time. Beat her if necessary. Fifty loaves must
be made. When she is finished, take her back to the dungeon.
She is forbidden to eat.”
Madeleine nodded. “Your Majesty? I haven’t been paid yet for
telling you about the baker’s dinner invitation with the Imperialite
official. I thought our agreement was--”
Salak glared. “You’ll receive your reward when I say you will!
Now, get out!”
Trembling, Madeleine scurried from the throne room.
On the threshold, she saw two distinguished-looking men. Of
course, they didn’t acknowledge her.
Annis and Parker stormed into the room. “That insufferable
lout, Jamal!” Parker raged. “He must die! You promised us—“
Salak rose. She fixed a steely gaze on both men. “Have
you forgotten who you’re addressing?” she hissed. “I’m ruler
of Crimlia! You answer to me!”
Parker stepped back, and Annis hastened to explain. “Forgive
our ill conduct, Your Majesty. It’s just that this uppity
baker is causing trouble for our people. He stirs up the
crowds. They no longer listen to us.”
“Well, of course he does.” Salak said reasonably. “He’s a
troublemaker, after all. What do you want me to do?”
“Help us make an example of him.” Annis said. “Like you
promised when we entered your service. You promised us
prestige and wealth. Well, you’ve provided that, of course.
“You want the baker to die, is that it?” Salak asked calmly.
Parker shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Um,
well, you see, for the good of the people—“
Salak laughed. “Don’t be coy, Parker. I know you too
well.” She lightly caressed his hand. “The desire is nothing
to be ashamed of. Only those who do not desire it are fools.
I have not forgotten my promise. You will continue to be the
rulers of the Imperialite nation. The baker will be taken care
Annis and Parker smiled with relief. “Thank you, my queen.
Forgive our intrusion.” Annis said. “Come, Parker.”
The two men strolled toward the door.
“Oh, you two?” Salak called playfully.
The men turned around.
“The baker will be taken care of tomorrow at noon. Come and
bring the other rulers of the law. You wouldn’t want to miss
the show, would you? You have a vital part to play.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
When the men had gone, Salak smiled in euphoric rapture.
Fools! All of them were gullible fools! From the most insignificant
scullery maid to the highest ranking Imperialite official.
They all were her tools to manipulate and use. She especially
loved using the Imperialite rulers. They were her best
Once again, she congratulated herself on taking Hannah captive.
The girl would never escape, and soon Jamal would be at her mercy.
“Get moving you oaf!” Madeleine screeched.
Feeling dazed and dizzy, Hannah staggered into the scullery.
Without her cane, she was totally lost. She groped along the
right-hand wall as Madeleine pushed her from behind.
“Don’t push so hard!” Hannah cried. “I can’t walk very fast.
I feel sick.”
“I don’t care how you feel!” Madeleine screeched. “You have a
job to do.”
Madeleine positioned Hannah in front of the kneading trough.
Hannah gasped. A putrid smell rose from the trough.
“What is that?” she asked.
“It’s bread dough. You must knead it for an hour.”
“A whole hour?”
Madeleine slapped her face with such suddenness that Hannah didn’t
even cry out. “Yes, an hour! Now, get going!”
Sighing, Hannah placed her hands into the trough. As she
remembered from her month in the scullery, the bread dough was
extremely heavy. For a moment, she thought about the dough in
Jamal’s bakery: its lightness, the ease of kneading, and its
The dough in the trough clung to her
hands in sticky clumps. It contained sharp kernels of some
strange grain that gouged her knuckles.
As Hannah worked, she became aware of a burning sensation in her
hands. She’d never experienced anything like it.
After a few moments, she stopped kneading. She was about to
take her hands from the trough, when Madeleine slapped her once
again. “Keep working.” She snarled.
“What’s with you?” Hannah asked.
“I’ll slap you again!”
Hannah hurredly began her neverending task. Her hands felt raw
and weak. The smell from the trough made her even more queasy
than she already was. She didn’t know what on earth was
happening, but she knew she’d never taste this bread. She
couldn’t imagine what kind it was.
At long last, she finished kneading and was instructed to shape the
bread into loaves. Usually, this task was very easy, but this
dough wouldn’t cooperate. It kept breaking apart everytime she
tried to shape it.
“Problem?” Madeleine mocked.
“No.” Hannah snapped.
At last, fifty loaves were placed on the scullery table.
Hannah was so exhausted, she didn’t even protest when she was led to
the dungeon. She would gladly eat a slice of that bread so
that she could have some energy.
“You’ll stay in here until tomorrow.” Madeleine said.
Hannah was shoved into the same cell Jamal had occupied. She
crumpled to the ground and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
At Marigold’s hut, Brandon stood beside Mendel’s cot. “How are
you and Ursula?” he asked.
“Much better, lad.” Mendel reassured him.
“Look, Hannah has been taken. Jamal and I are going to try and
get her. I just wanted to—“
Mendel rose shakily to his feet. “Say no more, Brandon.
I’m coming, too.”
“And I.” Ursula said.
“No.” Brandon said. “You’re still sick.”
“No arguments.” Ursula said. “Were Jamal goes, we go.”
“Us too.” Barsun said. He, Lydia, and Samenal had also risen
from their cots.
Brandon nodded to them all.
“I’ll go tell Jamal. We’ll be heading out in a few minutes.”
In the bakery, Jamal and Marigold were holding each other. “My
son, not yet. Please.” Her voice was choked with sobs.
“I can’t lose you.”
Jamal did not answer. Tears flowed from his own eyes, and he
clung to his mother.
“I remember when you were four years old.” Marigold said. “You
were playing beside this very shop when a snake bit you on the hand.
How you cried! But I held you and said I would always be there
to protect you.” Her face crumpled.
“But everything was all right, wasn’t it.” Jamal sought to bring
comfort to the woman who had given him so much.
Marigold smiled. “Salak had no effect on you. Even as a
serpent, her venom did not work.”
“Her time has come, mother. I must go.” He broke down
suddenly, and she cradled the tall man in her arms.
Movement at the bakery entrance alerted them both. Marshall
stood awkwardly, his face red. He held out a tentative hand
toward his half-brother. “I don’t approve of what you’re
doing,” he said simply, “if you’d stayed at home and earned a
living, we’d all be safe. I know I’m always complaining, but
you’re my brother. I love you even if you are exasperating.
the Imperial Lord go with you.”
Jamal smiled through his tears. “I’ve left some honeycakes for
you. You always did eat them all before I even got one!” He
laughed. The familiar twinkle shone briefly in his eyes.
“Please look after mother.” He said.
Outside, a small group gathered. Brandon stood in front,
Mendel and Ursula were next, and Barson, Samenal, and Lydia were
last. “They all wanted to come.” Brandon explained.
Jamal nodded. “Thank you.” He said.
Barson looked at Jamal’s face. “For years, I was bitter
because Lydia and I lost our three children to the Senual Plague.
When you started performing miracles of healing as a young man, I
was resentful. I thought you should have saved my children.
Now, I’ve seen you heal so many with the plague. No one can do
all that you do except he come from the Imperial Lord. You are
the true Deliverer.”
Brandon squared his shoulders.
Fear gripped his stomach, but he began walking toward the perilous
journey ahead. The others followed close behind.
The stars shone brightly in the clear sky. Brandon and the
others walked doggedly along, their feet rustling in the grass.
“ We’ll stop here for the night.” Jamal said.
Everyone nodded gratefully. They were in a wooded area with
many trees and plants.
Jamal opened a paper-wrapped bundle and began passing out bread and
apples. He did not take a seat until everyone was served.
“I would have been glad to serve the meal,” Ursula pointed out.
Jamal smiled at her. “No. I came to be a servant.
Now, let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
The group was silent as they ate the modest meal. When they’d
finished, Jamal brought forth a flask and one more slice of bread.
Breaking the bread into small pieces, he passed them around.
“This bread is my body, which I give so everyone who chooses to do
so can be free. When you eat this bread, think of me.”
Brandon was totally bewildered, and it looked as if the others in
the group were as well. However, they obeyed Jamal’s
After the bread was finished, Jamal took the flask and poured wine
into a cup. Slowly, he passed the cup to each person.
“Drink.” he instructed, “This cup is a symbol of my blood that will
be spilled. When you partake of this cup, remember me.”
As before, Jamal’s followers obeyed his words.
Brandon noticed that Jamal’s face was haggared and strained.
As Jamal raised the cup to his lips, his hands were shaking.
“Shouldn’t we all get some rest?” Brandon asked.
Jamal rose shakily to his feet. “Yes,” he said. “Of
Then, nodding to Mendel, Barson, and Samenal, he gestured to a grove
of cherry trees several yards away. “Will you three come
with me, please?” he requested.
The men stood up and followed Jamal into the grove. Brandon
heard Jamal instructing them: “Stay here and keep watch. Pray.
I am going to do the same.”
Brandon began helping Ursula and Lydia to clear away the meal
wrappings. “I don’t know what is the matter with him tonight.”
“Yes.” Lydia pointed out, “He’s looking quite pale. I hope
he’s not becoming infected with the plague.”
Brandon shuddered. A desire to check on Jamal surged through
Quickly, he darted into the grove of cherry trees. To his
surprise, he found Samenal, Mendel, and Barson huddled on the
ground. They were fast asleep. Of course, Brandon wasn’t
surprised. All of them had walked a long way.
Where was Jamal? Brandon tiptoed further into the trees.
Suddenly, he heard guttural sobbing. “Papa, if there’s any
other way, please take this burden from me! Please don’t make me eat
Salak’s bread! Yet, not what I will, but what you will I’ll do.”
Brandon’s heart began to pound. That was Jamal’s voice! What
on earth was he talking about?
Jamal began stumbling toward the three men who were asleep.
Brandon saw him gaze at them with compassion and sadness.
“Couldn’t you have watched for a little while?” he asked them.
Wake up! Pray that you’ll be safe.”
Then, Jamal walked back into the grove. Brandon heard his sobs
grow even more uncontrolled.
Without stopping to think, he burst into the grove and stood before
Brandon’s stomach convulsed. Jamal sprawled on the ground, his
eyes bloodshot and his body shaking. “Jamal!” Brandon cried.
Jamal raised his head. “Thank you for your concern, Brandon,
but you must leave this clearing. It’s not safe.”
“Why? What’s the mat—“
Out of the darkness, a crimson shape materialized. Brandon
just had a second to realize that the shape was a snake, when a
piercing pain shot through his left hand. The serpent’s fangs
had pierced his skin!
Brandon screamed. His vision became foggy. “Salak!” a
voice roared. “Leave him be! I’m coming willingly.”
The queen, dressed in the same apricot-colored, jewel-encrusted gown
she’d worn on the day she’d seduced Evelina, now stood before Jamal.
“You’re such a fool.” She whispered. “It’s my day, now.
I’ll do what I please and hurt whomever I please.”
She grabbed Jamal’s arm and propelled him forward. Her eyes
glowed crimson with triumph.
As Jamal was led from the grove, he bestowed a piercing look upon
Brandon’s face. Then, he disappeared from view.
Brandon blinked. His vision was slowly returning! What was
Before his eyes, the fang marks were disappearing! Strength was
seeping back into his limbs!
Tears filled Brandon’s eyes. Even while Jamal was being led
away, he’d healed him.
Struggling to his feet, Brandon rushed toward Mendel and the others.
“Come on!” he cried, “It’s an emergency! Queen Salak has captured
Jamal! We have to go after them!”
“All right! Wake up!” Madeleine’s voice echoed in the damp, cold
dungeon. “We’ll have lots of guests today. Get moving!”
Shaking with weakness, Hannah struggled to sit up. “Please.”
She croaked, “Could I have some—“
“Shut up! We’ve got things to make!”
Stumbling, Hannah allowed herself to be pushed up the dungeon
stairs. The thought of making even more bread filled her with
In the scullery, the other girls were busy. Hannah could smell
pies and cakes baking. Her stomach growled
Madeleine shoved her up against the butter churn. “There’ll be
a feast today.” She said. “You’ll churn five different batches
Hannah cringed. Her arms were too heavy to lift. She
knew that Madeleine was standing over her. “Get moving.”
The morning dragged by at a snail’s pace. The cream took
forever to thicken, and Hannah was starving!
After what seemed like an eternity, Madeleine wrenched the churn
handle from her grasp. “That’s all for today.” She snapped.
“Come on. The show’s about to start.”
“An execution of a troublemaker. Her Majesty wanted all of us
to be there.”
Hannah would have gladly chosen to stay in the dungeon. At
least there she could have gotten some sleep! But now, she was
pushed outside into overpowering sunlight. Hannah stumbled
backward. Her head began to ache.
“Come on, ox.” Madeleine grouched.
Hannah stumbled along until they reached the front of the palace.
Deafening chatter filled the air. Hannah could smell the pies
and cakes that were baked earlier in the day. She also smelled
roasted meats and wines. People rushed by her, jostling her as
they passed. The mood seemed to be a festive one.
“Her Majesty always provides the best feasts on execution days!”
Hannah heard a woman tell someone. “I wonder how long this
execution will take?”
As the people surged around her, Hannah became aware that Madeleine
was no longer holding her shoulders. Had she left her alone?
Panic surged through Hannah. She hated being with Madeleine,
but she didn’t have her cane. She was totally alone.
A hand grabbed Hannah’s arm, and she screamed. “Sssh!” a
familiar voice hissed, “You wanna get us killed?”
“Brandon!” Hannah cried. “What—“
“Never mind how I got here! We hafta stop this! Mendel,
Barson, and Samenal saw the crowd and got scared. They ran
away! I don’t know where Ursula and—“
Suddenly, silence fell on the crowd. “All kneel before Her
Royal Majesty, Queen Lucinda!” a reverberating voice echoed around
Hannah could hear people shuffling and falling to their knees.
Biting her lip, she stood straight and tall. She felt
Brandon’s hand grasp hers.
“You five!” The echoing voice thundered, “Show some respect for your
Five? Hannah wondered. Feeling suddenly braver, she shouted
defiantly, “She’s not our queen!”
Gasps echoed around the courtyard.
Brandon saw the soldier who had given the order fidget nervously.
He looked to where Queen Salak lay on a jeweled litter carried by
five men. She was breathtakingly beautiful, but Brandon felt
only sickness as he stared at her stony face.
The soldier leant forward and whispered to the queen. She
looked at Brandon with shock and hatred, then her eyes turned to
Hannah. Contempt shone from them. “Never mind, Bovril.”
She said. “There are more important things to tend to.”
“Yes, my queen.” Bovril said.
“My loyal subjects!” Salak called, “Today you will witness the
downfall of one of the worst evildoers in our land. He spreads
lies and contaminates what we hold dear. A sniveling baker who
has little regard for those around him.”
“That’s a lie!” Hannah blurted. Shocked at her daring, she
continued, “He’s healed people of their injuries and provided food
to those who could not afford it.”
“Silence!” Salak bellowed, “He claims that seeking pleasure is evil!
I have built a society upon freedom and liberty! Everyone can
fulfill any appetites they may have. There is no shame in
that. He refuses to conform to the rules of our society.”
Murmurs of consternation filled the courtyard. A familiar
voice spoke up from the crowd. “He talks of uprising against
our Queen!” Parker called. “He claims to be a Deliverer.”
“He claims to be the only person who provides true freedom.” Annis’
voice rang out. “I ask all of you, what do we lack? Are we not
all well provided for? Those of us who pledge allegiance to the
queen are protected.”
“Yeah, and everyone else is killed!” Brandon called. “What
kind of ruler is that?”
Salak’s face was crimson with rage. “Bring those two infidels
to me! And bring the prisoner’s mother, too.”
Two men from the watching crowd grabbed Brandon and Hannah.
They pushed them to the litter. Brandon’s eyes opened in
surprise. Ursula and Lydia were bringing Marigold to the front
of the crowd. Lydia and Ursula looked straight into the crazed
eyes of the queen. “We’ll not leave her.” Ursula said.
Salak glared at them all. She
leant forward and whispered, “You’ll be the first people to witness
the baker’s downfall.” She gloated. “Of course, you’ll die
afterwards. How does it feel, Marigold?” She bestowed a look
of hatred on the stricken mother. “Bring the prisoner out!”
A clanking of chains followed this command. Jamal, his body
bent and bloody, was pushed into the center of the crowd.
“He’s received the required 100 lashes, Your Majesty.” Bovril said.
Salak grinned. “Well, Jamal? You are charged with inciting
rebellion and blasphemy. The required punishment is death.
Do you have anything to say before your sentence is carried out?”
Her voice was filled with mockery.
Jamal’s eyes surveyed the large crowd. Many people were eating
and chatting. They did not look at him.
“Father, please forgive them.” Jamal’s voice was soft, but it echoed
around the courtyard. “They are all being used.”
Salak grinned at him. “Is that all you have to say?”
“Verry well, then. Let the execution commence. Bring out the
Bread of Scorn!”
Standing beside Brandon, Hannah clutched his hand. “What can
we do?” she whispered desperately.
“I don’t know.” Brandon admitted.
Brandon watched as a teenage girl brought a large platter of bread
and placed it into Salak’s hands.
“Well done, Madeleine.” The queen touched the girl’s arm.
Beside him, Hannah gasped. “Acording to law, each person must
come forward and feed the prisoner.” Salak said. “Form a line
The people quickly finished their meals. Then, like an
assembly line at a factory, they all approached the platter of
bread. Each person took a slice and hurried toward Jamal.
Each person began shoving the slices
of bread into his mouth.
Jamal accepted each piece and chewed with determination.
As Jamal chewed, Brandon noticed that his body was starting to
convulse. At one point, he swallowed a slice of bread and
groaned with pain.
Soon, the scene turned nightmarish. The people came at Jamal
from every direction. He would barely have one slice
swallowed, when another would be shoved into his mouth.
Soon, the convulsions were followed by screams. The baker fell
to the ground, the chains cutting into his limbs. Still, the
bread kept coming.
“STOP!” Brandon screamed, “PLEASE!”
Salak raised a hand. “The rebellious ones haven’t had their
turn yet. Move aside so they can reach the platter.” Her eyes
“NO!” Hannah screamed as she was jerked forward by a soldier.
Salak laughed at her. “What are you complaining about, slave?”
she mocked. “You made this bread, after all. Don’t you
think it tastes good?”
The fist of shock slammed into Hannah’s heart. The soldier
forced her to grab a slice of bread. As Hannah held the coarse
slice, she became aware of the putrid smell that she’d noticed
yesterday. Shaking with horror, she tried to throw the slice
to the ground, but she was pushed forward to the writheing figure.
“FEED HIM!” Salak raged.
Hannah, her eyes streaming, placed her slice of bread into the open
mouth. Once again, Jamal began to chew. “I’m sorry.
I’m sorry.” Hannah choked on her words.
Behind her, Brandon was pushed forward. He placed his slice in
Jamal’s mouth, and then he fell to the ground.
Hannah heard the final group of spectators surge forward and give
their grisly offerings. Jamal was still screaming. He
sounded like a wounded animal. She’d never heard anything so
From his position on the ground, Brandon watched the helpless
victim. Blood and bile were issuing from his mouth. In
horror, Brandon watched as sores sprouted onto the baker’s face,
arms, and legs. Jamal coughed and gagged.
An eerie silence had come over the courtyard. The people
stared down at the suffering baker in wonder. Brandon realized
that a thick fog had descended. The sun had completely
disappeared, and it was still daytime.
“My Father! My Father!” Jamal wailed, “Why have you left me?”
Brandon saw the queen descend from her litter. Her face was
aglow with triumph. She stood before Jamal and stared down at
him. “He’s left you because you’re weak.” She hissed. “I
offered you prestige and wealth. You could have had
everything! But, no, you fool! Now, I’ll have my revenge! That bread
ate into your very soul. Its acid corrodes your very flesh!”
She sent a stream of spittle onto his sore-covered face. Jamal
winced with pain, and she laughed. Her laughter was like the
howl of a ravenous wolf. “Now, who is victorious! I’ve crushed
you, and Crimlia’s mine forever!”
Salak threw back her head and shouted defiantly into the air.
“What can you do now, my Lord? I’ve crushed your son! I’ve made you
cry a second time! My joy knows no bounds!”
Once again, she stared in triumph at her weakened enemy.
“Goodbye, Jamal!” With that, she shoved the final slice of the Bread
of Scorn into the baker’s mouth.
Jamal swallowed the final piece of bread. A guttural wail
filled the courtyard. Brandon heard several people cry out.
He looked and saw Marigold sitting by her son. Lydia and
Ursula sat with her.
Suddenly, Jamal raised his head. He appeared to muster some
strength as he bestowed upon the queen a piercing stare. Then
he surveyed all the gathered crowd. “It is accomplished.” He
Then, he crumpled to the ground and lay still.
“The upstart is dead!” Salak gloated. Several people cheered.
“Now, come into the palace. We will all drink a victory toast
to the crushing of rebellion.” Then the queen turned to Jamal’s
corpse. “Throw the body on the garbage heap.”
“My queen!” Parker made his way to the front of the crowd. “We
must make sure that he is indeed dead.”
Salak smiled at him. “You do the honors, Parker.”
Parker grinned with relish. He drew a gleaming knife from the
belt he wore around his waist. With a vicious thrust, he
pierced Jamal’s left side. A stream of blood and water gushed
It was at this point that Hannah crumpled to the ground. She
knew no more.
From his prostrate position, Brandon saw Salak raise a hand.
“Bovril? Take the five troublemakers and place them in the dungeon.
They are to be given no food. There execution will occur two
days from now. Madeleine?”
The girl who’d brought out the bread came to stand before the queen.
She was shaking.
Her face wearing a smile of contempt, Salak threw a handful of
silver coins at Madeleine’s feet. “Your reward, my dear.” She
mocked. “Now, go prepare another batch of The Bread of Scorn.
It is just what these rebellious people need.”
Madeleine looked at the defeated baker. Without warning, she
Bovril and some other soldiers surrounded Brandon, Hannah, and the
three women. “One of you, carry the girl.” Bovril ordered.
He forced Brandon to his feet.
All of them were led into the dank dungeon. After they were
all five shoved into a cell, they fell to the ground. They
looked at each other with eyes that were empty: empty of joy, and
empty of hope. From upstairs, they could hear laughter and the
sounds of merry feasting.
Outside, stillness prevailed. Birds did not sing, and the
thick fog still enveloped the land. The whole world seemed to
From out of a clump of rosebushes that skirted the edge of the
courtyard, two women emerged. One was richly dressed, and the
other wore plain clothes.
“We can’t leave him there.” The richly dressed woman made her way to
the manacled corpse.
“No.” The other woman whispered. “What can we do?”
“I am well off. I have a mausoleum I can place him in on my
property. It’s the least I can do for him. He healed my
daughter of the plague.” The woman broke down as she looked at the
“He healed my soul.” The other woman whispered. “I’ve brought
some spices. Help me.”
Silently, they began to minister to their savior.
By the next morning, the thick fog still had not lifted. In
the dungeon, the five prisoners were cramped and weak. Hannah,
who had revived soon after being locked up, was the weakest one of
all. She hadn’t eaten in three days.
“I don’t know why I’m complaining.” She managed to whisper.
“He didn’t eat for over a month.”
“Was that when he came to the palace the first time?” Brandon asked.
Hannah nodded. “It’s my fault he came back.” Her face crumpled
Brandon squared his shoulders. “We hafta find a way to get out
of here.” He said.
“What’s the use?” Ursula said. “We’ll be under this harpy
queen’s rule forever! And my Mendel—“ her voice choked.
Out of the darkness, stealthy footsteps were heard. Instantly,
the prisoners stiffened.
“Leave us be!” Lydia called. “We’ve done nothing.”
“Sssh.” A small, thin voice cautioned. “Be quiet.”
“Madeleine?” Hannah blurted in shock. “What’re you—“
“Just wait.” Madeleine’s voice was thin with fatigue and sadness.
The prisoners listened in shock as they heard a key being fitted
into the cell door. In a moment, the door opened.
“Now, get out.” Madeleine ordered, “and run.”
“Madeleine? You—“ Hannah began.
Madeleine began to sob. “I’ve ruined my life!” she cried.
“I’m fifteen, and I still haven't experienced my Moon Phase.
Her Majesty said she’d keep me safe and pay me money if I worked for
her as a spy. I was always jealous of the other girls, and I
wanted to be noticed. Please let me do something right for a
The group rushed from the cell. They didn’t know where they
were going, but they were relieved to be free.
As Hannah walked by their rescuer, she felt something being thrust
into her hand; a familiar, wooden instrument! “Take it.” Madeleine
whispered. “When Griselda disappeared, I went through her
things and found this. I’d seen her take it from your room
earlier and I—“ She shuddered. Please take it.”
Joy filled Hannah’s heart. The Longolia! Jamal’s gift to her!
“Thank you.” She whispered. “Come with us. We’ll go to
Marigold’s hut and try to figure something out.”
“No.” Madeleine spoke flatly. “I don’t deserve to come with
“I didn’t deserve to have a good friend like Jamal,” Hannah pointed
out. “Please come.”
Madeleine shook her head. The group looked at her sadly.
Then they left the dungeon.
Madeleine entered the prison cell and closed the door behind her.
The morning was damp, and the thick fog still hovered over the land.
Angela, clutching a package of myrrh, hurried onto Jumria’s
property. She approached the mausoleum, and stopped dead.
The door stood wide open! Swallowing convulsively, she peered into
the room. Nothing was there except the chains that had
shackled the body. They were broken!
A deafening fluttering of wings made
her gasp. Looking up, Angela saw two strange creatures
descending from the sky. They wore snow white robes.
“You seek the Deliverer, the one who was executed.” One of the
Eaglia’s called. “He is not here! He is alive! Go tell Jumria,
then the both of you find Mendel, Barson, and Samenal. Gather
together in the cherry tree grove, and there you will be told what
Her eyes bright with wonder, Angela
hurried toward Jumria’s house.
In the palace hallway, the blinded
birds in the cages were continuing their incessant singing.
The pitiful music struck sadness into Hannah’s heart. She
remembered her first day in the palace when she’d attempted to feed
the birds and had been caught.
As the group filed past the cages, Hannah suddenly no longer cared
what anyone thought of her. She didn’t care that the queen
would hear the music. She only wanted to bring some light into
the tortured and captive birds lives. She placed the Longolia
to her lips and began to play with all her might. The music
that emanated from the instrument was piercingly sweet.
“Hanna, what’re you—“ Brandon began.
Hannah didn’t stop playing to answer. She played a song she’d
learnt by listening to Griselda: a lilting melody that was joyful
and hauntingly sad all at once.
As Hannah played, she became aware that Marigold, Lydia, and Ursula
were singing: “Tyranny has chained our land with poison and pain! A
Deliverer has come to cleanse every stain! Give the Imperial Lord
eternal glory! Blind girl and crippled boy will put an end to
Evil’s story. Baker’s son will prepare Freedom’s Bread in his
Suddenly, Hannah noticed that the birds were silent. She
stopped playing and listened closely. It was astonishing how
quiet the palace hall had become.
Brandon suddenly gasped. “Ursula! Lydia! Marigold! Look!”
Peering within the cages, the women cried out in wonder.
Before their eyes, the bird’s wings were expanding! The
clipped feathers that prevented flight were growing back.
“Keep playing, Hannah!” Brandon cried.
Hannah didn’t stop to think. She simply obeyed.
Brandon watched in shock as the birds’ eyes began to glow. All
of the birds began chirping in delight! They frantically flapped
With a rending crack, all of the cages splintered into fragments.
The birds flew in torrents from the wreckage of the cages!
Hannah stopped playing. “What’s happening?” she screamed above
the cacophony of joyous birdsong.
“You’ve freed them! Well done!” A reverberating, familiar voice
echoed around the palace hallway.
“Jamal?!” Hannah cried. She suddenly felt queasy. I’m
hallucinating, she thought.
But no. Brandon and the women were crying out in joy.
Hannah felt a calloused hand touch her shoulder. Above her
pounding heart, she still heard the joyful music of the birds.
“But, I saw Queen Salak kill you! Are you a ghost?” she asked.
Jamal laughed. “Touch my hand.” He instructed.
Hannah did so. It was solid. She suddenly was overcome
with unsurpassable joy.
Brandon stared in shock at the baker. The man’s face, arms,
and legs still bore the numerous sores that had erupted while he ate
the Bread of Scorn. His side still bore the wound inflicted by
Parker. “You’re alive!” Brandon stated the obvious in a choked
Jamal threw back his head and laughed a laugh of pure pleasure.
“I am indeed! Salak overlooked one essential thing in her plot to
conquer Crimlia. When a willing but innocent victim eats the
Bread of Scorn, he is poisoned temporarily, but then the bread works
against itself. He must die, but the bread provides its own
antidote to the poison.”
“My son!” Marigold rushed to the baker. For a moment, mother
and son clung together in rapture.
Then Jamal looked at the birds. They had flocked around him.
Some perched on his shoulders, and others hovered in the air.
He reached into the folds of his plain white robe. He withdrew
a loaf of bread. The loaf shone with a dazzling golden light.
Gingerly, Jamal broke the loaf into pieces. He gently fed each
bird a morsel.
“Hannah?” he said. “Can you begin playing again, please?”
Hannah started playing the same song. An earsplitting crash
made her jump.
“Hannah!” Brandon cried. “All the figurines are breaking! The
tapestries are crumbling into dust!”
Then, before all of them, the birds began to transform into people.
Men, women, and children stood before Jamal. They bowed to him
and shouted praises of thanksgiving.
“Hannah! You’re all right!” Griselda’s voice rang out among the
Hannah was too overcome with
happiness to speak.
“Now, come!” Jamal called, “We must
all go to the throne room! We have one more thing to tend too.”
As the whole company surged down the hallway, Brandon spotted a
familiar object lying among the wreckage. The dazzling
porcelain bowl! It glimmered with a brilliant light! Brandon reached
out and snatched the bowl.
“Jamal!” he cried.
Jamal turned and beamed. “Well done, my faithful servant.” He
said. He gently took the bowl and held it against his body.
Before the groups eyes, the bowl began to be filled with innumerable
loaves of bread! The golden loaves surged into the bowl with
lightning speed. “Freedom’s bread.” Jamal said simply.
When the bowl was filled to the brim, Jamal turned to Ursula and
Lydia. “I entrust this bread to you. Go and collect your
husbands. You’ll find them in the grove of cherry trees where
we stopped the other night. Tell them not to fear.”
Without a word, Ursula took the bowl, and she and Lydia hurried
away. Then the large group ran toward the battle that lay
“Show me the prisoners!” Salak thundered. She paced before her
mirror. The beautiful glass was cloudy once again. “What
are you up to?” she shouted into thin air. “You’re wasting
your time! I’ve won!”
Feverishly, she continued to gaze into the looking glass. Even
her own reflection was not clear! Why?
With a deafening bang, the throne room door burst open.
Bovril, his face flushed crimson, ran into the room. “My
Queen! Your bird cages! Your tapestries and—“
As he spoke, the ornaments on the marble-topped tables in the throne
room shattered into fragments.
“CALL ALL THE SOLDIERS!” Salak raged. Her nostrils were white
with indignation, and her eyes were dilated in fear. ”SEARCH
THE PALACE FOR THESE VERMIN! KILL ALL WHOM YOU FIND!”
As Bovril left the room, he was toppled by a large group of people
storming in. At the head of the group, he saw the familiar
form of the baker! Bovril saw his queen lift her face to Jamal’s.
It was chalk white and wore an expression of pure terror and
amazement. However, he also saw defiance smoldering within her
“NOOO!” she screamed, “YOU CAN’T—“
“You are Queen of Crimlia no longer.” Jamal said calmly. “Look
at those you imprisoned, Salak! Even now, your strength is
dwindling! You can no longer feed upon their lives!”
In a flash, the queen changed into her serpent form. She
lunged forward to ensnare Jamal in her scarlet coils.
Instantly, Jamal’s human form disappeared. He became a
The lamb and the serpent met in a blinding flash of scarlet skin and
white wool. They wrestled fiercely, Salak repeatedly
attempting to sink her crimson fangs into the soft wool of Jamal’s
leg. Jamal’s hind hoofs pinned the serpent’s neck to the
ground. With a mighty thrust, his front hoofs crushed the
The serpent’s body cart-whipped in a spasm of agony, and the forked
tail slammed into the mirror!
Sparks shot into the air.
Before the astonished eyes of the onlookers, Salak changed into a
magnificent winged creature: her original Eaglia form! Her head bore
a seeping wound. Even so, she glared at Jamal, who had changed
back to his human form. “I deserve to be worshipped.” Salak
said. “I am the most beautiful of all!”
Jamal propelled the Eaglia toward the shattered mirror.
“Look.” He ordered.
Salak peered feverishly into the intact fragment of glass. The
glass revealed: absolutely nothing. A black hole, a void of
unimaginable hugeness, was all that the crushed Eaglia could see.
Her eyes glinting, Salak turned back to Jamal. “Why?” she
demanded. “Why couldn’t I see them being changed? Why?!”
“Because you’re blind to all that’s good.” With that, the Imperial
Lord’s son pushed the queen toward the mirror. The Eaglia
collided with the shattered frame. Instantly, she was sucked
into the empty void. The last that could be seen of her were
her eyes: they shone with fear and an unrepentant defiance.
“Now, let us go.” Jamal said. As the assembly left the throne
room, the palace of Plenty began to shake. When the group
emerged into the sunlit day, the palace began disintegrating.
“Let us go to the cherry tree grove.” Jamal said.
The black fog had lifted. Brilliant sunlight and a gentle
breeze fell upon the group of followers as they stood in the grove
of cherry trees. Along with the liberated prisoners, Marshall,
Mendel, Samenal, Barson, Angela, Jumria and her little girl gathered
around the baker.
“All of you have done well.” Jamal said. “I must leave you
now, for I have other countries to protect, but I will return in
time and take you to a prepared place so that you may live with me
forever. Since Salak is gone, I appoint a new king and queen
to rule.” He pointed to Mendel and Ursula.
Mendel’s face crumpled. “You trust me, my Lord? But I deserted
Jamal nodded. “A new day has dawned. I instruct all of
you to go throughout Crimlia. Offer Freedom’s Bread to every
person whom you encounter. Those who accept the bread accept
me, for I am the bread.”
He turned to Lydia who held the overflowing bowl of loaves.
“This bowl will never be empty, and the bread will never grow
stale.” He said.
Then, Jamal gestured to Hannah and Brandon. “Please come with
me.” He said.
The two teenagers followed the Deliverer of Crimlia further into the
grove of trees. Brandon recognized the spot as the place where
Jamal had prayed a few nights earlier. “Both of you did well.”
He said. “Are you now ready to return to your world?”
Hannah’s face fell. “I feel at home here now. Will we
ever see you again?”
Jamal’s eyes twinkled. “You can count on it. But don’t
look for me in Crimlia. Look for me in your own world. I
think you’ll find that I’m always close by even if my name is
“Do you remember when you asked me if I believed you could restore
my sight?” Hannah asked.
“I do believe.” Hannah said. “But, I don’t want you too.
I can see something much better now.”
This fact was true. She saw that she’d been bitter for months,
and that she’d made herself and those around her miserable.
Brandon was nodding in agreement with Hannah’s words.
“Will everyone here be all right?” Brandon asked. “Is Salak
really gone for good?”
Jamal frowned slightly. “She is gone from Crimlia,” he said,
“But, be on your guard. Although she may not appear in the
form you met in Crimlia, she is already in your world. Her
spirit travels from world to world, seeking to destroy them all.”
Hannah nodded in understanding.
“Now, I will send you home.” Jamal said. “Thank you both for
He reached out a hand and gave Hannah
a wooden object. Hannah’s hands explored it. “A cane!”
she cried. Relief flowed through her. Now she didn’t
feel lost! “Thanks!”
Jamal’s eyes twinkled. “I haven’t forgotten you, Brandon.” He
handed Brandon a wooden crutch. Brandon stared at the tool.
“Thanks, but I can walk without—“
Jamal looked at him with piercing eyes. “Your noble action on
the bus caused you pain.” He said.
Brandon suddenly remembered the deer that had smashed into the bus.
He remembered the blinding pain in his bad leg. “Thanks.” He
repeated. Then he turned to Hannah. “When we get home,
and we’re back to normal, do you wanna maybe go to the movies or
Hannah grinned. “Sure.” She said.
Jamal raised his hand and touched
Hannah and Brandon’s shoulders. The world tilted, and
blackness engulfed them.
“Hannah? Hannah. Are you all right?” A familiar voice pierced
Dazed, Hannah tried to sit up. “No, hon. Lie still,
Hannah nodded. Her head ached. “Ms. Maplewood?” she
“That’s right. You’re in Mercy Hospital. You have a mild
concussion, but you’ll be fine. You’re mom will be here in a
“The bus—“ Hannah began. “The other kids! Mr. Peterson!
“Calm down, now. Everyone’s all right. Brand’s leg’s
broken, but he’ll be fine. The bus is totaled, of course.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a jerk.” Hannah blurted.
“Hey, you’ve gone through something no one should have to endure.”
Ms. Maplewood said. A surprised note was in her voice.
“Just lie down now and get some sleep.”
“When Mom comes in, I’m going to talk to her about taking music
lessons again.” Hannah said. She couldn’t seem to stop the
flow of words that gushed from her. It was as if a fountain in
her soul had been released.
“It’ll be nice to hear music in the house again.” Ms. Maplewood
said. “Since you seem to be in good spirits, do you want
“A Coke would be good.”
“Sure. I’ll be right back.”
The housekeeper headed for the door. Before she reached it,
she turned back. “Your cane’s by the bed if you need to get
up.” She said. “It looks different, somehow, and when they
brought you to the hospital, you had something clutched in your
hand. They could barely pry it from your fingers! It looked
like some sort of instrument.”
The door closed softly behind the housekeeper.
Hannah’s heart began to pound. It wasn’t a dream! “Thanks,
Jamal.” She whispered. Then, she closed her eyes and fell into
a deep sleep.