“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” ― Winston Churchill
She knew Auramont was in that general direction from Canton. Using the old, updated map Papa had tossed into her bag, she found her way through Blackburn forest, just south of the Darrenfell Moor, through the Plains of Chauma to the Trui’Quirre Mountains, the path through which she had to negotiate carefully. It skirted the edge of the Praeceps and at the bottom rested a series of razor sharp rocks with which she did not want to become too familiar. The Praeceps were the steepest cliffs in Naeo’Gaea and provided the only way to pass through the mountains. The Trui’Quirre, or the Three Peaks, were so high, it was impossible to reach the top and survive. On the other side of the mountains, lay Auramont and Branbury was located to the east of Mount Vaassa which was an ancient mountain, the oldest in the chain. Of course, many of the names on the map that she had were written in the language of old, which was spoken before the beginning of the New Millennium. She could hardly imagine what life must have been like for those who survived the era before it, living mostly underground to escape the chill of a winter that had lasted for eons. She remembered Papa’s bedtime stories by the fireside and his instruction in Angaulic, the language spoken by those who lived during the Ice Age. He taught her everything he knew, except the story of her past.
Chalice was also very beautiful, which made it difficult for the boys to spar with her. She had fair skin and a smooth oval face that was caressed by long, golden, butternut curls. They folded down the sides of her cheeks and framed her red rosebud mouth, button nose, and large sapphire eyes that were decorated with long dark eyelashes. She wore an ocean-blue riding habit that was split in the skirt for straddling a horse and laced with a wavy pattern down the sides. It was comfortable and snug in the bosom and waist, but flared out at the bottom. What held in her body heat, though, was her darkly tanned, hooded, riding cloak that she had made out of lambskin. It was resilient and leathery on the outside for protection, and soft and furry on the inside for warmth. On the ring finger of her right hand, she donned a golden ring with a rare, long-cut, ice-blue diamond set in the heart of it. She was told that it had once belonged to her mother. On her riding dress, just below her left shoulder, hung a sapphire broach given to her by her grandmother, Naelli. However much she valued these gemstones from her mother and grandmother, her favored possession was the golden pendant around her neck that she kept close to her skin, under her garments. It held a golden amulet that Papa had had crafted by Elijah, Créone’s master smith who lived on the outskirts of Canton.
The amulet was a circle that contained three lines meeting in the center and ending on the perimeter, not quite equidistant from one another, so that they formed what looked like a Y enclosed in the circle. The amulet was special, not only because it was a gift from Papa, whom she loved dearly, but also because it was the exact shape of a distinct and unique birthmark on her right shoulder. At one time she had been doubtful that she was born with the mark because it was so unusual, but Papa had sworn that she was. He called it her lucky charm. Chalice was just shy of her eighteenth birthday, and he had been preparing something special for her. She suspected that the surprise was not of material gifts, though, but of the knowledge that she longed for her whole ife, the knowledge of her family. All she had ever known about herself, from the earliest she could remember, was that she was Chalice Pandretti, granddaughter to Sebastian and NaelliPandretti, who ran the Inn and Winery on Canton Run. Of her past and the existence of the rest of her family, she knew nothing. She had always wondered if maybe she had been an unwanted child. It was something that haunted her constantly. When she asked Papa about it, he said that she wasn’t old enough to know, that she must not ask further, and then he remained silent. For the celebration of her eighteenth birthday, he gave subtle hints that he would break that silence but it was too late. The village had been attacked and she had had to flee before the King’s men reached the inn. Now she despaired that she would never know.
What leapt out of the hole was the last thing she expected. Half her height, a small, brown, furry creature, wearing a light brown, hooded cloak and carrying a small rucksack, brandished a tree branch at her and growled malignantly. It was chubby and had a small mouth with tiny teeth, a small, dark button nose to match tiny, dark button eyes, and fluffy, rounded ears that stuck out from the top of its oversized head. It reminded her of a teddy bear that she had cuddled at night when she was a child. Her lips quivered as she fought a crazy desire to laugh but she knew the expression shown on her face anyway. It was really like a small, forest animal attempting to scare her with a stick. It registered the look on her face, paused, and growled again, this time raising its arms as if to appear larger than it was.
Chalice looked up toward the moonbow and spotted a shooting star that streaked across the dark sky, disappearing over the falls. “Did you see that?”
“Make a wish,” he said.
“You make a wish.”
He smiled at her knowingly. “I already have.”
“What was it?”
He winked. “I can’t tell you or it won’t come true.”
“Tell me!” she pestered him. “You can’t leave it at that!”
“Good night, Chalice,” he said quietly.
“You’re not telling me. Alright, well, whatever. Good night,” she replied sassily
“Did you ask him why he hangs out in the trees and studies people the way he does?”
“Uh … well, no,” Jeremiah said. “I didn’t want to ask him that. In my opinion, if he wants to stalk people, that’s his business. He may be strange but he is definitely helpful.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” She laughed.