Chapter 1: The Steadfast Lady

 

A tall, red-headed boy smiled as he ran across the beach. Following the gentle slope of the sand down to the water, he turned and glanced over his shoulder. A few seagulls loitered among the piles of seaweed that had washed ashore, feasting on a cloud of insects that clung to the long, brownish-green strands. He saw nothing else. Then, laughing, he kicked off his shoes and plunged into the surf. A few seconds later, his head emerged from the small, choppy waves. Wiping the saltwater from his eyes, he squinted and looked back at the shore. His smile faded, replaced by a puzzled expression. The gulls were still there, but he had been expecting something else. Still treading water, he looked up and down the coast where the cliffs, sheer and white, bordered the narrow beach. His eyes finally settled on his home—a castle that rested on the edge of a precipice hundreds of feet above him. The name of the castle was Ballan á Moor, and it meant “crown of spears” in the giants’ tongue, for it was they who had helped to build it so many years ago.

 

Suddenly, a long, dark shadow fell across his face. He turned to see a dragon rising from the waves, the water streaming from the beast’s green scales. The boy screamed and dove back beneath the water, trying desperately to escape. But it was too late. The dragon reached down with one of his great claws and plucked the boy from the ocean while beating his wings rapidly before rising high into the air. An instant later he dove, flying low over the beach, clutching the boy to his chest.

 

At the same moment, the boy’s sister emerged from the tree line that bordered the beach a short distance away, shielding her eyes to avoid the sun’s glare. Her long, dark hair, which contrasted sharply with her creamy skin, had been tangled and knotted by the strong sea breeze. However, she didn’t pay any attention to how she looked. She was much more interested in climbing trees, swimming, horseback riding, and reading every book she could get her hands on. She wore a white dress embroidered with red flowers and green trees. It was a dress made for a princess though some might doubt her pedigree if they looked closely at her hands, which were hard and calloused from physical labor.

 

As she watched the dragon and her brother race above the water, she shook her head. Then, putting her hands to her mouth, she shouted. “Just what do you two think you’re doing?”

 

As soon as she had spoken, the dragon wheeled about sharply, his wings grazing the water as he sped toward her. The girl simply watched, arms folded, as the beast checked his speed and landed a few yards away from her in the sand before setting the boy down gently.

 

Still trying to catch his breath, the boy looked up at the dragon, amazed. “How did you reach the sea before I did, Kindle?”

 

Kindle’s eyes were laughing as he spoke. “I was waiting in the water before you cleared the trees,” he explained. “Don’t you know that I can breathe underwater?”

 

The boy shook his head in admiration but the girl was not amused. “Hide and seek is a fine game,” she said, annoyed. “You realize, however, you shouldn’t be flying unless absolutely necessary, Kindle. Your wing is not yet fully healed.”

 

The dragon smiled gently. “It is kind of you to worry, Gwendolyn, but I grow stronger every day.”

 

“Come on, Gwen,” said the boy, shaking the water and sand from his hair. “How will he know if the wing’s healed if he doesn’t have the chance to use it?”

 

Gwendolyn looked at him suspiciously. “Especially if you fly with him—is that it, Aethelred?”

 

Aethelred smiled and bowed. He knew his sister couldn’t remain upset at him for long. “I’m happy to do my part,” he said sarcastically. He looked at the dragon and they both began to laugh.

 

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you are,” she said with a half-smile before turning and walking toward the cliffs. “However, I didn’t come here to lecture you. Father wants a word with us at the shipyard.”

 

“What about?” he asked.

 

“He wouldn’t say, but I suspect the ship will be finished soon,” she replied. “You haven’t forgotten his promise, have you?”

 

Aethelred whooped in joy. “We finally get to sail north—to the Moaning Isles!”

 

***

 

The island kingdom of Valmar where Gwendolyn and Aethelred lived was a wonderful place, full of wild forests, sandy beaches, and snow-capped mountains. Until recently, however, it had also been a very troubled place. You see, for the previous twelve years, a tyrant named Sköll, the leader of Merovia, Valmar’s neighbor to the south, had conquered and ruled the island from afar. A combination of bravery, wit, and a bit of luck, however, had helped the children to defeat Sköll and reclaim their independence. But that was not all. Thanks to a renewed friendship between the Valmarians and the Western Giants, Gwendolyn and Aethelred had also helped to vanquish the trolls that had plagued the island for centuries. Perhaps most important, the children’s father, King Argus, had defeated an evil dragon named Destiny, which had threatened to destroy everything just when they had regained their freedom. (You can read about it in the book called Gwendolyn and the Seeds of Destiny.)

 

With Sköll’s death almost a year ago, their parents had reclaimed their place as the true and rightful rulers of Valmar. While so much responsibility can sometimes weigh on the minds of those in positions of authority, Argus and Thelda now seemed reborn. Where the king had once been brooding and withdrawn under Sköll’s rule, he was now jovial and energetic. He seldom slept more than a few hours before happily plunging back into some important task that needed his attention. He was determined to help his people recover from the nightmare of Merovian rule. Thelda, too, looked younger and happier than the children had ever known her to be. She worked to establish places of healing throughout Ballan á Moor for the many villagers wounded by Destiny’s attack.

 

Argus and Thelda were not alone, however, in their sense of urgency. Though their enemies had been defeated, the people of Valmar knew that there was still much to be done before winter. The crops needed to be harvested and many of the houses and barns in the village required repair. Everyone including Gwendolyn and Aethelred worked hard clearing debris, gathering crops, tending livestock, repairing wells, and a hundred other things necessary to survive before the snow fell and the rivers turned to ice.

 

The children walked slowly up the beach with Kindle, enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon. They had already been through so much together. However, such adventures had done nothing to quench the children’s desire for more excitement. Quite the opposite, in fact. It seemed to awaken in them a longing to explore more of the world—and they knew their chance would come. Their father had promised them that when the time was right they would be allowed to accompany him northward to the Moaning Isles to restore trading ties. Now that time was finally drawing near. However, Kindle would not be coming with them. Instead, he would be staying behind so that his wing could heal completely by the time they returned.

 

“How does your wing feel today, Kindle?” asked Gwendolyn, stroking the dragon’s shoulder as they walked along the beach toward the shipyard.

 

“I feel almost no pain,” said the dragon. “Soon, I will be ready to take you high into the clouds as I once did.” Gwendolyn remembered grasping tightly to his thick, armor-like scales as he soared through the sky. Though she didn’t like to admit it to herself, she was as impatient as Aethelred was for Kindle to heal.

 

Aethelred looked up at the dragon expectantly. “Me, too?”

 

“You, too,” smiled Kindle.

 

As they continued up the beach, a tall figure covered by cloak and hood approached from the opposite direction. When he drew closer, however, he pulled back his hood, revealing a long, beak-like nose, a thick white beard, and bright blue eyes obscured by spectacles. The children recognized their tutor instantly.

 

“Polonius!” shouted Aethelred, running forward to meet him.

 

In addition to helping the children with their studies, Polonius had also been appointed ambassador to the Western Giants. This was fitting since he was a quarter-giant himself. When he wasn’t teaching, Polonius was busy working with the king’s stonemasons to restore the ancient, underground highway that connected Ballan á Moor with Grimstad, the home of the Western Giants. Known as the Low Road, the highway had been built long ago to help men and giants trade goods while avoiding trolls and other evil things that lurked above ground. But this road was not a single corridor. It was a network of tunnels that could cause one to easily lose his way if he were unfamiliar with the markings and symbols that helped to orient travelers. Using Polonius’s knowledge, the stonemasons were now improving and expanding the ancient road so that the people of Valmar could still trade with the giants during the cold, winter months, when the snow and ice made the mountain roads impassable.

 

“Is the ship finished yet?” Aethelred inquired, gazing up at his tutor.

 

“You’ll have to see for yourself,” replied Polonius. “However, I think you’ll be pleased with the progress they’ve made.” Then the large man paused, noticing for the first time that the boy was damp from head to toe. “I see you’ve been swimming.”

 

Aethelred nodded. “I needed a break from working in the village. Last week, they had me carrying timber and gathering strawberries. This week, I was milking cows and raking out the horse stables.” He looked at his calloused hands. “I just had to be rid of the smell. What good is being a prince if I have to work like a peasant?”

 

The large man frowned. “What good is it, you ask? I suppose it’s no good if it teaches you nothing.”

 

“I know, I know,” said Aethelred wearily, as if he had had this conversation before. “I must lead by example.”

 

“Leadership is about more than leading by example, Aethelred,” cautioned Polonius. “A leader must also know what he’s asking his subjects to do—whether it involves taking up a sword and following him into battle or doing the dull but necessary tasks that our survival requires. A king who understands that—and is willing to share in his people’s toil—will not only have their respect, but their love as well.”

 

Aethelred looked down as he considered his tutor’s words. “I suppose you’re right,” he mumbled, a bit embarrassed.

 

“You suppose?” snorted Polonius. “Well, I suppose that will have to do for now. I must hurry back to the castle.”

 

“Did you see our father?” Gwendolyn asked. “Is he still at the shipyard?”

 

“Yes,” said Polonius. “I just spoke with the king. Now that the work on the ship is almost finished, I’ve convinced him that the skills of his carpenters are needed urgently beneath Ballan á Moor. Many of the beams that support the tunnels in the Low Road could use attention.”

 

“How much time will it take to repair the damage?” asked Kindle, remembering how the trolls had burrowed underneath the foundation as they’d attempted to invade the castle.

 

“It’s hard to say,” said Polonius. “We need to fill in much of the earth that those wicked creatures carried away before we can repair the structural supports. They did great mischief looking for you when you were still in seed form, Kindle.” Then Polonius’s eyes brightened and he reached into his cloak. “That reminds me. The trolls seemed to have accidently uncovered a mosaic that lay concealed behind a layer of earth in one of the walls of the catacombs. It is made of jewels but I don’t recognize its origin.” He produced a blue stone and held it up to the light. “This one was loose in the wall. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to examine it.”

 

Gwendolyn held out her hand. “May I see it?”

 

“Of course,” said Polonius, giving her the jewel.

 

It was the size of a large marble, and reflected the sun’s rays with a strange, blue light. “It’s so smooth, like it’s been polished,” she said, admiring its beauty. “Did you say there are more?”

 

“Yes,” said Polonius. “The mosaic is made up of several hundred jewels, but it is still obscured by earth in some places. I will inspect it later. For now, why don’t you keep the stone? Winter will not wait. I must finish the repairs soon or your father will not be pleased with me.”

 

“Perhaps I could be of some service?” said Kindle, hopefully. “I am feeling much stronger these days, you know, and I would feel more useful if you’d at least allow me to help you carry building materials to the castle.”

 

Polonius smiled. “If you really think you’re strength has returned, Kindle, and that it wouldn’t hinder your recovery, we could certainly use your help.”

 

“As you said, winter will not wait,” said the dragon, looking down on the old man. “Why don’t I go with you now?” Then he turned to the children and smiled. “I will see you both back at the castle. Perhaps there, Aethelred, you can find a better hiding place than the sea?”

 

***

 

King Argus was confident that enough progress had been made in the last year so that he could now travel to the Moaning Isles. His aim was to bring back much needed supplies such as salt and cooking oil before winter made the water too treacherous to cross. In his heart, however, he longed to return to the sea.

 

Unfortunately, there was a problem. Under Sköll’s rule, the king and his people had been forbidden to maintain a navy. Simply put, they had no ship large enough to cross the North Sea safely. With Sköll defeated, King Argus knew he needed to rebuild Valmar’s fleet. To accomplish this, he turned to his brother, Wulfric.

 

Wulfric welcomed the chance to put his pirate days behind him, and become a respectable sailor again. In just six months, he and his men, with the help of many of the island’s carpenters, tar-melters, blacksmiths, and shipwrights, had built a beautiful ship.

 

The hull was constructed from sturdy oak, while the masts were made from pine trees, which were softer, and provided greater flexibility when the wind blew hard on the sails. The ship had three masts: the main (or center) mast, the mizzen (or rear) mast, and the foremast in the front of the ship. Wulfric and his crew had even devised rigging and spars that allowed them to sail the ship using a much smaller crew since so many of Valmar’s people were still needed at home. But the glory of this ship was in its sails. Wulfric had designed it to use as many as twenty-one, which would allow it to outrun almost any other vessel in the water.

 

As the children finally approached the shipyard on the beach they marveled at the ship’s size and the excellence of its craftsmanship. It sat on several large, smooth logs that allowed the laborers to work on it from all angles. Other beams were attached to both sides of the ship and driven into the ground to keep it balanced. Tar-melters caulked between the wooden joints of the hull while the carpenters and engineers inspected the rudder. Then they noticed an artisan carving the masthead, which was fashioned after the likeness of a crowned mermaid. The figure peered out from just below the bowsprit with an unwavering stare.

 

“That sort of looks like you, Gwen,” teased Aethelred, pointing up at the stern-looking figure affixed to the front of the ship. “Without the crown, of course.”

 

“What do you mean?” she asked, scowling at her brother. “She looks nothing like me.”

 

“See what I mean?” he joked. “You’re both so serious.”

 

Gwendolyn looked at the carved figure thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps she’s not smiling because she is a mermaid who will never be allowed to touch the water,” she replied a little sadly. “That is a cruel punishment indeed.”

 

“Let us hope so.” The children turned and saw Uncle Wulfric. He was a tall, muscular man, with deep blue eyes, and a closely shaven black beard and mustache. He loved the children dearly, especially their courageous spirits. “If the masthead were to go into the water, the ship would be sinking, and then everyone would be wearing her grave expression, though that would be the least of their worries,” he said.

 

“I doubt she will sink, uncle,” declared Aethelred proudly. “I have never seen a more impressive ship.”

 

Wulfric laughed. “Aethelred, you’ve never seen a true Valmarian warship at all thanks to Sköll. But I take your meaning.” He clapped the boy on the back. “We will build more just like her by year’s end. Soon, Valmar will have a navy once again worthy of our people.”

 

“When will the ship be ready?” wondered Aethelred, surveying the vessel’s quality, and hoping for a chance to walk the deck.

 

“She is nearly ready now,” said Wulfric proudly. “Her tar will be dry by tonight. Then all we need to do is roll her into the water at high tide with Kindle’s help. Her hull is sturdy and her masts are supple. She’ll be a steadfast lady for years to come.”

 

“What will be the ship’s name?” asked Gwendolyn. “I thought all ships had names.”

 

“Indeed they do!” said Wulfric. “Her name will be painted across the top of the bow, as is our custom. I have not, however, thought of it yet.” Then he twisted his moustache and looked down at Gwendolyn. “Would you like to name her?”

 

Gwendolyn’s eyes widened. “Do you mean it?”

 

Wulfric looked solemn. “I would never joke about such a thing,” he said firmly. “Naming a ship is serious business. Her name must be worthy of respect. However, it should also reflect the elegance and grace of her build.”

 

“Why do you refer to ships as feminine, uncle?” asked Aethelred.

 

Wulfric smiled. “Because they require a lot of paint and maintenance—just like women!”

 

Aethelred and Wulfric chuckled as Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. Boys could be so immature sometimes.

 

“Uncle!” she objected. “I thought you said naming a ship was a serious business?”

 

“Forgive me, princess,” said Wulfric, clearing his throat. “I couldn’t help myself.”

 

Gwendolyn closed her eyes for a moment and raised her chin. “Then if you have no more jokes to share with us, I believe I have come up with just the right name.”

 

“What?” cried her uncle, incredulous. He looked at Aethelred and then back at his niece. “Already?”

 

“Yes,” she declared. “You actually gave me the idea.”

 

Wulfric raised his eyebrows. “Well then?”

 

Gwendolyn looked up at the ship. “I think we should call her the Steadfast Lady.”

 

Wulfric’s smile faded as he grew serious. “The Steadfast Lady. . . .” He tugged at his lip, contemplating her suggestion. Then, after a few moments, he nodded. “It’s perfect.” He shouted up at the artisan working on the mermaid. “You there! Alwyn! When you’re finished, we have decided to name the ship the Steadfast Lady. See to it that the name is added along the bow.”

 

“Aye, sir,” smiled Alwyn. “The Steadfast Lady it is.”

 

Aethelred looked from the ship to his uncle. “It’s a shame you will not have the honor of sailing her on her maiden voyage,” he said, disappointed.

 

“I would love to sail her,” admitted Wulfric, scratching his beard. “Don’t forget, however, that unlike your father, I have spent the last three years sailing the seas. It’s his turn now.”

 

Over Wulfric’s shoulder, the children saw their father approaching. Argus, too, was tall and strong—though he was not as young nor as fair as Wulfric. His beard and mustache contained equal parts of black and grey, revealing the toll that the crown had taken upon him as king. While his mind was still quick and his sword arm strong, he was more cautious than his brother when making a decision. Most important to the children, however, their father had learned to smile again.

 

Argus put his finger to his lips and sneaked up on his brother as Wulfric continued to address the children. “No, I cannot begrudge Argus this short trip to the Moaning Isles,” continued their uncle merrily, unaware of the king’s approach. “Besides, I’ll be in charge while he’s gone. Perhaps I’ll even sit on his throne.” The children giggled as they watched their father cock an eyebrow. “Do you think your father would mind?” asked Wulfric, still oblivious to the king’s presence.

 

“Not at all, brother!” boomed Argus, causing Wulfric to jump. “Just make sure you don’t fall asleep on it!” Gwendolyn and Aethelred burst out laughing, along with their uncle.

 

Their father grinned ruefully. “I sat on that throne for too many years when I should have been working to secure the well-being of my people,” he said. “A king should be on his feet.” He looked back at the ship and put a hand on Wulfric’s shoulder. “I’ve just inspected her. You and your men have done a masterful job in such a short amount of time. My thanks to you all.”

 

“It has been our pleasure your majesty,” Wulfric replied, bowing. “Valmar will soon have a proper navy once again.”

 

“And you shall be its admiral!” added the king. “For I know the last thing you desire is to sit on a throne.” He breathed the salty air and looked out to sea. “Will she be ready by high tide tomorrow morning?”

 

Wulfric smiled as he looked from Argus to the children. “Indeed, she shall.”

 

Aethelred could hardly contain his excitement. “You mean we leave tomorrow?”

 

“Yes,” replied Argus. “Unless you think we should wait until spring?”

 

“No!” shouted both children. “Tomorrow!”

 

“Very well,” he said, gazing out at the ocean’s vast horizon. “Tomorrow we set sail. It is time for you both to learn that the world is a big place.”

 

***