The Ancient Realm
The River Duchess
The moon was full and the forest stood still in the windless night. Fireflies danced all around River Duchess Merced as she stood on a jagged cliff, just above the waterfall. Each drop of water cascading over the falls seemed to absorb the moon's light, allowing the pool at the bottom to shimmer in the darkness. She seemed to linger for a moment, toes curled over the edge of the cliff. Then she suddenly raised her arms over her head and dove headfirst out into the night sky.
As she soared down three hundred feet through the air, death should have awaited her at the bottom. But she sliced through the churning water beneath the waterfall and swam strongly to the cave that lay behind it. Practiced hands pressed a small, fresh-water pearl set into the stone wall and it gave way, revealing a tunnel with rushing water. Smiling, Merced dove into the water, riding down, further and further, until she dropped twenty feet into a still pool in a cavernous, dome-shaped room.
As she left the water, she paused to look around her. Merced had been here many times, but the room never ceased to amaze her. Golden light from hundreds of candles lit the room. Half of the room was made up of the small pool she had landed in, and the other half held the Ancient Realm's library, where the history of Nature was stored. Lined with natural rock shelves, the walls were filled with hundreds of books. A great round table of petrified wood stood in front of the shelves, and surrounding the table were eight chairs for the eight River Dukes and Duchesses who had once shared the power of the rivers and the charge of the ancient records. Whenever she came here, Merced was reminded by the empty chairs of her missing brothers and sisters. Every bone in her body wanted to sit down and cry for the loss of the other seven—but she couldn't. Grief took time, a luxury no one had in the current battle.
A whispering echoed from the shelves. Merced lifted a golden pen from a hollow in the center of the table and followed the sound until she found the leather-bound book that had spoken to her. She flipped to a page titled "Pacific Sea Guardians" and at the end of a list of names she wrote, Agnes Adelaide Fordyce. The paper absorbed the golden ink. Her mission, as the Guardian of the rivers, and the sole surviving River Duchess, was fulfilled.
Agnes of Blue Rocks Harbour
It was another boring Friday afternoon as I stood on the end of the pier. I watched the light shimmering on the water and day-dreamed, like I often did, of things being different. That I was older than eleven years old and big enough to beat my brothers at sports, that my chores were already magically finished every day when I came home from school. Not that my life was all that bad. My family lived in Nova Scotia in a small village called Blue Rocks Harbour, where most of the people made a living from fishing, like my Dad. We owned our own pier, right on the edge of town, which was pretty nice—but sometimes it was so quiet it felt like we were the only ones who lived around here. In front of me, the Atlantic Ocean stretched out for as long as you could see.
Night was coming. The sun was setting behind our house, which was right at the start of the pier, and you could no longer hear the waves crashing on the beach. Normally, Dad's big fishing boat was tied up here, but right now the only thing at the end of the pier was a pile of empty fish-bait buckets that smelled like dead fish. My one last chore for the night was to carry all these buckets back to the house, which I was barely strong enough to do. It drove me nuts that my older twin brothers didn't have to do this chore with me. They always got to do their chores together because they were twins. They did have more chores than I did, but I had to do all my chores alone.
I piled all the buckets on top of each other and decided for the first time I was not going to make two trips. But now that I was walking with all of them in my arms, and I was barely able to see where I was going, I regretted my one trip idea. And then . . . crash! Buckets rolled everywhere, and I was left in a heap with little bits of fish bait covering my overalls and flannel shirt. My feet were all tangled up in the rope that had tripped me.
"Who left this rope out?" I growled. Dad had a strict rule about keeping the pier clear of all gear.
"Ah Aggie, I'm sorry." It was Frank, a fisherman who had been my Grandfather's best friend. He'd known my Dad since he was a little boy. Frank was as old and weathered as the pier itself, but he hobbled toward me from his fishing boat as fast as he could and tried to help me catch a couple of the loose rolling buckets. "I was unloading my boat," he said, "and I didn't think anyone would be out here."
"It's okay." I tried to brush off the fish bait before the smell stuck to me.
"What are you doing out here so late?" Frank asked. "Why aren't you playing a late game of soccer on the beach with your brothers?"
I looked down past the pier and over to the beach where my brothers, Otis and Odin, were running around with Bobby, the only other kid who lived within walking distance of our home.
"As soon as I get these buckets back to the house, I'll be playing too."
"Ah chores. Don't your brothers have chores to finish too?"
"Well, they finished theirs before school."
"Ah Aggie, you should never leave your chores till the end of the day. They always seem worse when you have to do them at night, especially on a Friday night."
I frowned. This was what Nanny always said to me too. But it was a little easier to swallow coming from Frank.
"I wanted to see Dad off this morning, so I helped him get his boat ready, and I didn't have time," I explained. "And for some reason Nanny doesn't count that as a chore." I sighed. "I'm always stuck hauling these smelly fish-bait buckets."
"Ah that Nanny, she keeps you on your toes. It's good for you."
I didn't understand how smelly chores could be good for me. But any time we weren't doing chores was time wasted in Nanny's mind. I started collecting my buckets. I was still going to try to do it in one trip so I could play soccer before it was too dark to see the ball.
After clearing away the ropes, Frank sat down on a wooden stump at the end of the pier, took a small knife out of his pocket, and began to whittle a piece of driftwood. I loved to watch him make turtle and fish shapes out of the wood.
"Why are you back early?" I asked.
"I'm too old to be racing storms."
I felt a pang of fear when I suddenly remembered why Dad had to leave this morning. Normally, Dad didn't work on the weekends, when my brothers and I were home from school. But there was a storm coming up from the south, hugging the shoreline, so Dad had to leave early to beat the storm.
"Ah, don't worry, Agnes," Frank said. "Your father left in plenty of time. He's already so far out at sea, he'll have clear waters the whole time."
I nodded. Frank was right. Besides, Dad was the best fisherman around. Everyone always said that he knew these waters better than anyone. I waved good-bye to Frank, lifted up my buckets, and continued walking down the pier toward our wooden home. I smiled at the sight of candlelight shining through the windows and smoke piping up the chimney from our wood-burning stove.
We'd lived here for as long as I could remember, but Dad said when Mom was alive we lived somewhere else. I was only a little baby when my Mom died. Then Dad moved us out here so after his long days at sea he could get home to my brothers and me as fast as possible. Apart from everything smelling like fish, and nobody my age to play with, I loved living at the pier.
I made it to the house with my arms still attached. Because I had dropped the buckets, I didn't have to hose them out for as long as I normally did. Dad would be mad I left fish bait on the docks, but by the time he was home on Sunday the seagulls would have eaten it all up.
I ran down the steep stairs to the beach, where the boys were playing. There was just enough light to enjoy one last game of soccer. Otis saw me first.
"Look—Agnieska is done with her chores and thinks we are going to let her join the game!"
"Don't call me 'Agnieska'!" I shouted back. It was bad enough my name was Agnes, but if it could get worse, Agnieska was it. My full name was Agnes (NOT Agnieska) Adelaide Fordyce. I asked my Dad if I could be called Adelaide instead of Agnes, but he wouldn't hear of it. He told me that my Mom picked out my name and he couldn't imagine calling me anything else.
Otis kicked the ball to Odin, who passed it back to Otis. I could tell they were trying to keep the ball away from me. "Come on! Let me play. You know I'm better than Bobby and I make four so you'll have even teams."
"Alright, you're with Odin," Otis said. Bobby opened his mouth to say something but Otis gave him a look to be quiet. Otis was the leader of all the kids we knew, and everyone did what he said.
"High five, Agnes! We'll take these two down." Odin held up his hand for me to slap it and I jumped up to reach it. Otis, Odin, and I all looked exactly the same, with curly blonde hair and dark brown eyes. But when it came to our height, the twins were giants compared to me.
Otis started out with the ball. He dodged Odin and then me. He passed the ball to Bobby, and Bobby kicked it into the old fishing nets we used instead of a real net. Goal! Bobby jumped up and down as if he'd just scored at a World Cup soccer match. I shook my head in disgust. Otis had done all the work.
"It's alright," said Odin, as he came jogging up behind me. "We'll get it back. Otis won't be able to do all the work for Bobby the whole game."
Odin started out with the ball. He easily dodged Bobby and then passed me the ball. I ran it down the field. Otis charged at me. I got nervous and passed it back to Odin. Otis changed course and ran straight at Odin, who kicked it right through Otis's legs up to me. I took a chance and kicked it— and scored!
"Nice playing, Agnes! You set that whole play up."
I was excited to have scored, but there was no time for celebrating. The play had already started again.
Otis let Bobby start out with the ball. Odin yelled at me to go after Bobby so he could cover Otis. I charged Bobby and easily stole the ball back!
"Foul!" Bobby yelled out. He was rolling on the ground, acting like I'd kicked him or something.
"I stole the ball fair and square," I said, looking at Otis, pleading for him to agree with me.
"Stop whining, Agnieska!" said Otis, and Odin started laughing.
It wasn't fair! They were taking Bobby's side, like they always did. I kicked the ball down the beach as hard as I could and started to walk toward the house.
"Agnes, come over here please!"
It was Frank. He was calling to me from his seat on the pier.
Frank's sea-weathered face smiled at me as I came closer.
"Why do you always play with those boys?" Frank asked. "They aren't very nice to you."
"Who else am I going to play with?" I asked. "There are no other kids around." I wiped my sweaty face with my sleeve.
Frank sighed. "It's a big world out there," he said, pointing across the ocean, all orange now with the sunset. "And someday you'll go there and meet new people, and make new friends."
I smiled at the thought of it, and Frank chuckled.
"Ah, there's that smile." Frank beamed. "The same smile your mother had."
I never got tired of hearing Frank say that. Without realizing it, I touched the necklace I had on. It was a thin gold necklace with a circular charm attached that seemed to change colors from amber to red and every shade in between. It was the only thing I had that belonged to my mother. I never took it off.
"You look just like her," he continued. "Except that you dress like your brothers."
Everybody always wanted me to wear a dress—I shuddered at the thought!
"Dinner!" Nanny yelled from our kitchen window. And as Nanny yelled, I didn't even think—I just reacted.
As I started running, I heard Frank yell, "Good luck!" Every night, when our Nanny called us in for supper, my brothers and I would race back to the house. Tonight my starting position was just a little closer to the house and I was sure I was out in front.
I sprinted as fast as I could for the steep wooden stairs that led up to our front door, then raced up the steps. I didn't even hear my brothers behind me, but I didn't dare turn around to look. The second it took to check could cost me the race. The old door was inches from my fingertips . . . for once I was going to win!
"I win!" I screamed as I touched the door. I turned around to see how close my brothers were and instantly my stomach churned in pure misery. They were walking away from the house, not even looking at me.
"Agnes, the win doesn't count. We weren't racing!" Otis yelled back. "We're spending the night at Bobby's. Have fun being home alone with Nanny." Otis and Odin whispered something I couldn't hear and started laughing at me. Bobby even joined in and snickered. I sat there all alone on the front doorstep. I'd lost again.
"Essen!" It was Nanny again, yelling in German for JUST me to come in.
"I heard you the first time," I grumbled as I came in the front door.
"Abwaschen—wash up!" Nanny said. "I won't have you at the dinner table with such a dirty face and hands." I grumbled again. No one was here, so what did it matter if I had sand between my fingers and dirt on my face? But there was no point in arguing. Nanny was strict and liked things clean and in order.
She had been with our family for years, since Dad hired her to watch my brothers and me when he was out at sea, which was a lot. Nanny was tall, and old, and had a stern face that broke into a hundred wrinkles on the rare occasions when she smiled. In her spare time she knitted. She always said knitting was an acceptable hobby, even though it wasn't work, because you were making something useful. However, I would never wear any of the clothes she knitted. They all looked like shawls or really large sweaters in different shades of pink. She once tried to teach me how to knit, but it was a disaster. I knitted the yarn into a ball of knots. Nanny didn't even try to undo the knots. She just threw the mess away, muttering in German, like she always did.
I hurriedly washed my hands, took the plate of food Nanny had made up for me, and sat down at the table. "Nanny, why didn't you tell me Otis and Odin were spending the night at a friend's house?"
"Because you vould have complained all day!" I didn't respond. Nanny was right. It would have definitely ruined my day if I knew my brothers weren't going to be home, especially when my Dad was out at sea.
"Nanny, can I watch some TV tonight?" Normally we weren't allowed to watch TV, but since the boys weren't home, I was hoping she might take pity on me.
"You vill have to ask your babysitter."
"WHAT!" I whipped around and stared at Nanny. I couldn't believe what I just heard.
"Agnes," Nanny said as she looked down her long nose at me, "you know it's Friday night, and I have my knitting club to attend." I had completely forgotten. Normally Dad was never at sea on Friday night. And even if he was at sea, the twins were old enough to stay at home with me for a few hours.
"Who's the sitter?" I asked, gritting my teeth, prepared for only bad news.
"She's new. You don't know her." Nanny was putting on her coat, so I guessed the new sitter would be there soon. I groaned—she was sure to be awful. Whenever I had to have a sitter, Nanny went out of her way to find the girliest girl in town to balance out all the time I spent with my brothers. "I think you are going to like this one," Nanny said. She had heard me groan and was trying to cheer me up. "She is a deep-sea diver."
"Sure." I didn't even listen to her. I walked away and plopped down on the couch. The doorbell rang.
"Agnes, you vant to answer the door?"
"No!" I buried my head into a pillow. I knew I was being a brat. But I felt like I deserved a bratty minute. Everyone else was out having fun, and I was stuck with a sitter and a disgusting plate of liver and brussels sprouts. Could things possibly get any worse?
©Sarah Leith Bahn