The Hole in the Sky
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Morning mist swirled around Queen Rhiana as she rode her mare through the ancient limba forest. She stopped for a moment, losing herself in the harmonies of their tree-songs, but the ache in her heart drove her on. She urged her horse forward, deeper and deeper into the forest, until the trail abruptly ended in a mass of prickly bushes beneath the towering trees. She dismounted her horse and circled the trees, looking for the cottage, but found nothing. She searched again and again until, dizzy with despair, she crumpled to her knees, too spent even to cry.

Minutes passed as dampness seeped into Rhiana's clothes. She shivered, chilled to the bone, but was unable to turn back and face the emptiness in her heart.


"Greetings, my queen." A woman's voice spoke, muffled.

Startled, Queen Rhiana bolted upright and turned in a tight circle, searching for the woman. "Who speaks to me?"

A thick wall of vines parted and a cloaked figure stepped forward out of the shadows.

"Please allow me to introduce myself," the woman continued. "I am Zella, from the ancient tribe of Zaren."

A crow cawed three times in the dense branches above.

"But — how? Forgive me. I am Queen Rhiana, wife of King Muraten."

"It is a great honor, Queen Rhiana, for you to grace my home with your presence." Zella bowed and continued, "Last night I foresaw that you would be visiting."

A voice deep inside Rhiana cried, "Turn! Run away, run away!" But the queen had heard rumors of the seer's power. Surely finding her was a sign that she had been right to come.

"Thank you, Zella," the queen said softly. "Please, I..." she hesitated and then, with tears bursting from her eyes, implored, "I need your help."

"Yes, my queen. I have seen your river of tears. I will try to help," Zella answered, almost kindly. "But you must pay," she added, "and there are no guarantees."

"I understand," Rhiana sighed, lifting the basket she carried over her arm. "I brought gifts for you."

"Then, please, come inside."

Zella held the vines to one side revealing an open door. Dim lamplight flickered from two windows within a wall of ivy. It took Rhiana a moment to make out the roof and sides of the small cottage built close to a massive tree. Vines hung like curtains from overhanging branches. They crept and clung to the trunk and the entire building.

Queen Rhiana entered and breathed deeply, willing her tears to stop. Inside, lush carpets covered the floor and velvet cushions surrounded a low table, where light from a silver lamp danced and swayed, its every motion reflected on the surface of a crystal ball. Zella pulled back her cloak and her golden hair shimmered in the light. Rhiana had expected to find a shriveled old woman, but to her surprise the seer was beautiful, with dark glimmering eyes and high cheekbones, full lips and ivory skin.

Eager now for the seer's help, Queen Rhiana reached into her basket.

"I brought these for you in payment," she said hurriedly, pulling items from the basket in handfuls, "The finest silks, sweet treats and a beautiful diamond." Rhiana carefully handed the jewel to Zella. The seer held the jewel to the light and admired its fiery sparkle. After a moment, the hint of a smile passed across her face.

"Thank you, Rhiana," she said. "It is beautiful. We will see if it is enough."

Zella placed the diamond on a table laden with offerings. Rhiana dared hope that Zella would help, but she had heard that the seer expected a surprisingly large bag of wheat from a farmer. What would she require from a queen? Rhiana's hand trembled as she pushed the red curls of her hair from her face.

"Please, my queen, sit — sit. I will look into my ball and see if there is anything I can do for you."

Sitting in a cross-legged position, Rhiana glanced down and noticed her white silk nightdress, spattered brown and green from riding through the forest, and she flushed with embarrassment. What had she been thinking, leaving the castle barefoot, still dressed in her nightclothes? She desperately hoped that she hadn't brought shame on her husband, the King. Lost in grief since her baby's stillborn birth, Rhiana often forgot to dress or eat, and sometimes found herself wandering from place to place without really knowing where she was going or how she had arrived. Rhiana searched for some sign of judgment from Zella — a smirk or a look of pity — but the seer simply stared deep into the violet crystal ball that seemed to float before her.

Zella released her thoughts, allowing them to drift like a rudderless sailboat. Gazing inside the crystal, she saw a translucent sack hanging from the branch of a tall tree. Mystified by the vision, she frowned.

"What is it? What do you see?" Rhiana asked overcome with anxiety.

Zella raised her hand, motioning for silence, and continued to float through her vision. Time contracted inside the crystal ball. Months became fleeting seconds. One moment, the sack wafted weightless in the breeze and the next the contents blossomed, causing the sack to expand and jiggle like a balloon full of water. Breath by breath the sack swelled larger and heavier, until the branch from which it hung bent close to the stream below. Finally, the cocoon dipped into the moving waters and melted away, leaving behind a baby cradled on a large leaf. An infant girl with hair the color of persimmons opened her bright blue eyes and smiled. One eye filled the crystal ball, blinked, and then, like a popping bubble, the vision disappeared. Zella looked up at Rhiana's hair and blue eyes — the same eyes she had just seen in the crystal ball — and realized the baby now sat before her as a grown woman. It was Queen Rhiana.

After remaining silent for a few moments, slowly waking back into the realm where Queen Rhiana sat before her, Zella shook her head.

"You are a stranger here. I am afraid that what you want is impossible. You were not born from a human. You are not human. You cannot give birth to a human."

Rhiana's hands gripped the table. She shook her head. "I am human now. You simply must help me." Accustomed to being treasured by her husband, the king of the land, and to being obeyed, words tumbled from Rhiana's mouth. "You must look again. I was once a Butterfly Woman, but I made my choice when I married the king. My midwife has told me my body is now human and I have everything I need to carry a human child. You must find a solution."

The seer looked down, shrouding her irritation in a mask of humility. Queen Rhiana's tone had burned away the sympathy Zella felt only moments before. Zella took orders from no one, not even the queen. Still, she bowed her head. "As you wish — I will look again. Still, there is no guarantee."

A familiar image recurred — Zella's own future daughter, a girl with light blonde hair, stood to marry a handsome prince, the beloved son of the Rugu king. He was destined to be a cruel and violent man. Zella ached for the girl, the daughter that she would one day carry in her belly. Then a new image appeared in the ball — two girls giggled, holding hands. One was older, with brilliant red hair, while the other was younger and blonde. The seer recognized the blonde child as her own. In the vision, Queen Rhiana called out for her daughter, and the red-haired child turned. Zella's eyes darted from the crystal ball, and for a brief moment she stared hard into Rhiana's. Could it be? She paused. Yes, of course. This was perfect.

Feeling naked, as if Zella knew all of her darkest secrets, Rhiana pleaded.

"Please, Zella, what do you see?"

"If I am to help you, it will cost you no less than everything."

"I, I can bring more jewels — or..."

A note of humility returned to Queen Rhiana's voice, but Zella felt no empathy for the queen. It was Zella's daughter who, more than anyone, truly needed her compassion and protection.

"Thank you, Your Highness," she said coldly. "Your diamond is indeed beautiful, but I am afraid there is something else that I require — something far more precious."

"I ... I," the queen stammered, "What is it?"

"In one year I will carry a baby girl in my womb. I see that her destiny is to marry the prince of the Rugu tribe. If you offer your first-born to wed him in my daughter's place, then and only then can I change your future and the future of the House of Muraten."

Although dizzy from the stifling heat and the smoke of incense wafting through the air, Queen Rhiana lost none of her wit. Her throat tightened as she whispered, "Why is it you do not want your daughter to marry this man?"

"Please do not be afraid for your daughter," Zella smiled. "A different boy is better for my child. We are commoners and do not know the ways of royalty. I have seen again and again the Rugu king building an army and defeating your husband in battle. If you marry your first-born to the Rugu prince, your world could have peace, and you will have time for many babies. Do you understand?"

"But how could I promise my daughter to the Rugu prince? The Rugus are my husband's mortal enemies — How could I begin to convince Muraten?"

"My queen, just think of the opportunity before you. You can have a child and you can bring peace to your people with this promise. If you accept my offer, I will help you. Otherwise, there is nothing I can do for you."

"Can you show me the man whom my daughter would marry?"

"Yes." Zella lifted the crystal and placed it on the flat of her palm. "Look inside the ball."

Within the violet crystal, a smiling young boy with raven hair and pale green eyes threw an apple up and down in the air.

"Is that the Rugu prince?" Rhiana asked, charmed.


Zella covered the crystal with her other hand and placed it on its wooden stand before Queen Rhiana looked farther — before she had time to witness the cruel images of the future filling the ball.

Rhiana watched the shadow of a frown cross the seer's face. "What ... what is it that you see now, Zella?"

"Nothing that concerns you. Many images dance through my ball. The dear boy is the one who would marry your daughter."

"You can see my daughter?" Rhiana grew excited, wanting a glimpse for herself.

"Not now, but yes — she has appeared in my ball. She is a beautiful red-haired girl, like you."

"Oh, please let me see her!" Rhiana implored, excitement bursting in her heart. "Let me see my baby."

Zella peered inside the ball and shook her head. "I am afraid she is not to be seen at this time, but I have seen her and she is beautiful. Have you a name for your child?"

Rhiana imagined the laughing face of her future child. "Yes," she said without hesitating. "Her name will be Gwenilda, like my mother. What about your child, Zella?" she asked a little shyly.

"My girl will be named after my grandmamma. Her name will be Zarenda." Both women smiled at each other in a moment of shared anticipation.

Aching to hold her baby, Rhiana had but one choice. She agreed to Zella's conditions.

"It shall be done," Rhiana said, bowing her head.

"Very well, then," Zella said brusquely. "I have medicine to help you conceive. You must cook these herbs and, on the night the moon is full, you will make an offering. Plant a sapling under the light of the moon. Drink one cup for yourself and pour the remainder on the tree."

Zella walked to a corner of the room lined with jars of herbs and spices. Opening jar after jar, she selected certain herbs and dried insects, piling them on a sheet of light blue paper. Folding it with practiced hands, Zella fashioned a small envelope and tied it tightly closed with a red silk ribbon.

Rhiana stood and bowed. Accepting the package, she held it to her breast.

"Please, please let me have a healthy baby," she whispered. The musty smell of dried herbs suddenly made her feel ill.

"Does the king know you are here?" Zella asked abruptly.

"No, no, he must not know," Rhiana implored.

"You are correct." The seer's voice was suddenly cold. "This matter is private, my queen. Remember our sacred agreement — you are bound by your word. Do you promise?"

Rhiana looked down. Inside, her heart was tormented with doubt and worry but, more than anything, she wanted a baby. "I promise," she whispered.

"Understand this, then. If your girl does not marry the Rugu prince, you will bring a curse on the King's family. It will be the beginning of the end. The curse will not be broken until King Grule's descendants secure a red-haired girl from the House of Muraten."

Clutching the blue envelope in her hand, Queen Rhiana nodded and hurried from Zella's cottage.

Zella watched Queen Rhiana's back disappear into the forest.

"Krakaw, Krakaw!"

She cried, deep in her throat. A huge crow flew into her home.

"Write a letter to the Rugu king," she commanded. Zella, who was unable to read or write, lay out parchment and a bottle of ink for the bird.

Krakaw writes a letterKrakaw took great pride in his penmanship. He dipped his claw into the ink and formed each letter into a work of art.

Dear King Grule,

I have some information that could greatly increase your power
in this land. It concerns King Muraten's Queen, Rhiana.
If you
would like to learn more,
please send a bag of gold.

To a prosperous future,

Krakaw added his own postscript.

P.S. Make sure no harm comes to my crow.
"I promise much gold, Krakaw, and..." the seer hesitated, then held up Rhiana's diamond in the lamplight, watching it sparkle. "When Rhiana's daughter marries the Rugu prince, this diamond will be yours."

Excitement filled Krakaw's breast. He puffed up his feathers, crowing "Caw! I promise to help you."

"This is the most important job of all. It will make us rich, and it will protect my daughter. I am tying the letter to your leg. Will you still be able to fly like this?" Zella asked.

"Caw, caw," Krakaw replied affirmatively.

She opened the door and motioned with her hand.

Krakaw pumped his wings, exiting and then flying higher. His black feathers flashed blue in the sunlight high above the trees. A strong offshore wind and the motion of Krakaw's wings carried him swiftly toward King Grule's castle to the northwest. Almost weightless in the strong breeze, Krakaw drew his limbs close to his body, careful not to drop the letter into the blue-green forest far below.

The Hole in the Sky by Barbara A. Mahler :: Sea Turtle Publishing © 2009 - all rights reserved
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