Fifteenth-century A.D., Yorkford, six years ago
Princess Juliana ran through the great hall, footsteps echoing off the high ceiling of the massive stone castle. She sped, her heart pumping, pulling up her dress as she climbed each step of the long, winding staircase. When Juliana arrived at the doorway of the great chamber, she stopped, placed her hand over her mouth, and gasped at the sight of the thin woman collapsed on the bed. Queen Lucinda was the most elegant queen Yorkford had ever seen, with a rosy complexion and a spirited laugh. But on this day in the king and queen’s chamber of the royal castle, Lucinda lay, face pale and sunken as she gazed at her twelve-year-old daughter through glassy eyes.
How could this be? Juliana struggled to grasp the sudden turn her mother’s health had taken. Just two days ago, Queen Lucinda had hosted a gallant affair before five hundred guests in the great room of the castle, celebrating her husband King Matthew’s thirty-fifth birthday. She captured stares of admiration when she entered the room draped in a luxurious silk lavender gown with sparkling crystals, and a gold crown with glistening diamonds atop her long auburn curls. But now she lay in her bed, struggling to breathe.
Juliana’s hazel green eyes filled with tears as she walked toward her. She sat on a wooden chair next to her mother’s canopied bed and picked up her limp hand, alarmed at the thinness. “Mother, speak to me.”
Lucinda took a deep breath. “I don’t have much time, dear daughter,” she whispered, her voice hoarse.
“Mother, I wish you would not speak in such a manner. You can’t leave me.” A lump swelled in Juliana’s throat. As the only child of Queen Lucinda and King Matthew, Juliana’s life revolved around her parents.
Lucinda’s eyes darted the darkened room. They were alone in the great chamber. Heavy royal-blue drapes covered the window as the trickling of a gentle fire emitted a soft glow. “Juliana, please listen. I… I must tell you about… our people.”
Juliana tilted her head, brows furrowed. “Our people?”
“It’s a secret I had to keep for sixteen years. Your grandparents were not my natural parents. They took me in when I was twelve years old after my parents… died in an attack. Your father never knew.” Lucinda coughed.
Juliana reached for the metal water pitcher and cup on a table next to Lucinda’s bed. “Here, Mother, drink this.”
Lucinda lifted herself gingerly and, with trembling hands, took a sip of water and handed the cup to Juliana. She lay back and gazed at her daughter. “Our people were massacred.”
“What?” The cup slipped through Juliana’s hands, soaking her blue linen dress. As she patted her dress with a kerchief, she stared at her mother with wide eyes. “Mother, what are you saying?”
Lucinda reached for Juliana’s hand and squeezed it. “We come from a long line of magical people… from a town called Maiden Hills.”
“We received a gift of supernatural powers. No one outside of our town knew until one of our own betrayed us.”
“Mother, what kind of powers? Who betrayed you?”
“Please go to my bureau… bring my jewelry box.”
Juliana stared at her mother, frozen, trying to unscramble her mother’s words, hoping they would make sense, but they hadn’t. Time was waning. She hurried to the large oak bureau, and with both hands, lifted the bulky gold box and placed it on the table next to her mother’s bed.
“Search for a small black bag.”
Juliana lifted the lid and gazed at shimmering family heirlooms of necklaces, pendants, and rings. She stirred the jewels and found buried among them a small black cloth bag. Juliana gave the bag to her mother. “Is this the one?”
“It is.” With clumsy fingers, Lucinda opened the bag and took out a golden locket with a black center and three overlapping gold circles. She unlatched the pendant and removed two small oval-shaped gemstones, one black with golden tones, and the other one green with black waves.
“These are our enchanted gemstones, given to me by my mother, Lady Victoria.” A tear came down Lucinda’s face. She dabbed her eye and continued. “We must activate them… to harness the magic within.” She took a deep breath. “They are very powerful.”
Juliana took the stones, held them in her hand, and examined them. They were smooth and cool, the size of her thumbnail. They radiated a faint, pulsating light. “How do they work?”
“The black and gold stone gives us the ability to move objects anywhere within our sight without touching them, we move them with our minds.” She paused and gave a weak smile. “The green stone allows us to communicate with animals, and they will help us if we ask them. You need not fear them, for even the most ferocious animal will be at your command.”
“So, if I wear the locket with the stones, I can do magic?” Juliana could not believe what she was asking.
“No… you must activate them. There are spells to recite.”
Spells? Juliana wondered if she should encourage her mother to continue with the story. That’s all it was—a story—right? It sounded much like a tale her mother often told her when she was a child before bedtime, but those days were long gone. Is she telling a story now, or is she telling the truth? It seemed absurd, but Juliana could see that behind her mother’s almost lifeless eyes, she believed what she was saying. “What are the spells?”
Lucinda struggled to get the words out. “They’re in the book… you must find it.”
Juliana lifted her eyebrows. “A… a book of spells?”
“It’s called The Book of Secrets. It contains the spells to activate the stones.”
“Mother, where is this book?”
“I hid it in the castle, below… in the dungeon. A loose block on the wall. I hid the book behind it… about my eye level.” She paused again, building up the resolve to continue. “I carved a small ‘x’ on the block, in the corner. Find it, Juliana, read it, and guard it. Let no one see it.”
“Of course, Mother.” Juliana held on to her mother’s hand as a tear trickled down her cheek. Why is she telling me this? Is this the last conversation I will have with my mother? “Please try to rest. Speak no more,” her voice cracked. “I wish for you to get well.” Juliana’s insides trembled as she had never seen her mother so frail and ill. At twenty-eight years old, Lucinda was a tower of strength for her family, but with a sweet gentleness that everyone adored. Juliana did not want to believe her mother was slipping away from her.
“I must tell you everything. There is also a third stone, a deep-red gemstone, the rarest of all.” Lucinda went on, “Once you activate it, you can create an impenetrable shield that will… protect those around you.” Lucinda sighed. “My father, Lord Gavin, had the stone, but he was attacked and… killed.” Tears filled her eyes.
“My mother had a bad feeling that something was to happen at my brother Josef’s wedding and told me to go to Cedarville. On my way there… I saw my father on his horse.” She took a breath. “I was about to call out his name when two knights from Yorkford came out from behind the trees and… stabbed him in the back. I hid in a small cave.”
Juliana silenced her gasp.
Lucinda shut her eyes, and tears slid down the side of her face. She took a shallow breath and continued. “After they left, I ran toward my father, and… he was dead. The locket with the gemstones he wore around his neck was gone.”
Juliana took her kerchief and blotted her mother’s tears.
“I could not make out the killer’s face, but he rode a black horse with white stripes on its hind legs.”
“What did you do after that?”
“I kept running toward Cedarville, and when I looked back, the town was in flames.” The tears continued to flow. “I’m sorry, dear… this is very difficult.”
Juliana stroked her mother’s hair, her forehead burning from the fever. “It’s all right, Mother.” Juliana took her kerchief and poured water onto it. She squeezed the excess and placed it on her mother’s forehead.
“I took a carriage ride to Westmore and went to the castle to seek asylum, and that’s where I met Duchess Agnes. She kindly took me in and told everyone I was her daughter.” Smiling weakly, she added, “I later met your father, and we fell in love.”
Juliana took her mother’s hand. “You said the knights that killed your father were from Yorkford. Did Father order the attack?”
Lucinda shook her head. “No, your father told me that a knight from his army wanted to prove his prowess and took it upon himself to… massacre the people.”
Juliana sat back. “Forgive me, Mother, but this is an unbelievable story.”
“Alas, it is true, Juliana.”
“Mother, people who practice magic get sentenced to death. This can’t be who you are.”
“It’s who we are.” Her eyes widened. “But our powers are not evil. People wanted to kill us because they feared us. We were bestowed with magical powers to protect the kingdom from evil forces. The massacre was a prophecy that came true. There is another prophecy in The Book of Secrets you must know. There is danger ahead.” Lucinda’s breath was quick and shallow.
“Mother, please save your strength.”
Queen Lucinda clutched her daughter’s hand. “Please, dear daughter, let no one see you with the stones. Find the book… recite the spells… and you will have magical powers. You must be prepared for what is to come. You must help save our people.” She stared into her daughter’s eyes and in a whisper, said, “Juliana, please give me your word you will do this.”
“Please!” Lucinda tightened her hold on Juliana’s hand.
The anguish on her mother’s face ripped through Juliana’s heart. She squeezed the tears from her eyes and fought to release the words, “Of course, Mother,” her lips trembled, “you have my word.”
“Find Simon… do not lose that fighter spirit in you.” Lucinda closed her eyes and took a breath.
“Who’s Simon?” The queen lay motionless, the faint hissing of her breathing stopped. “Mother? Mother?” Dread, cold and dark, crept into Juliana’s heart. She placed her head on her mother’s chest and sobbed.
Hundreds of people from all over Yorkford and neighboring villages came to pay their final respects at the wake of Queen Lucinda Allington. Juliana thanked them and politely smiled as she sat in front of the closed casket adorned with fresh flowers, most of them lilies, her mother’s favorite.
She wanted to be strong, but inside, her heart ached. The Allingtons were known for their strength. Ten generations of Allingtons ruled the Kingdom of Yorkford, and they kept their heads held high, no matter what happened, and a lot happened. They suffered many tragedies, but through it all, they never shed a tear in public. It was those early deaths that made Juliana an only child and left King Matthew without a male heir. Lucinda lost two young boys in two years due to illnesses. Juliana was just a child, but she remembered the dignified way her parents handled the deaths.
Juliana turned to her father seated next to her and gave him a faint smile. He smiled back—eyes dry but red. He put his arm around her, and she found comfort on his shoulder. He, too, needed comforting, for Matthew loved his wife dearly.
Lucinda’s words echoed in Juliana’s mind, “Give me your word you will do this.” Her hand curled into a fist. How could her mother make her promise to do something she had no intention of doing? What was she to do, search for a book in the dungeon that was not there? The dungeon was a cold and scary place, not fitting for a princess. Besides, magic was illegal and a product of evil forces. If true, she wanted no part of it. But was it true? Her mother conveyed too many details to result from delirium.
Juliana closed her eyes and shook her head. No, it wasn’t true! Her mother had suffered damage to her brain caused by the infection, and her mind concocted a fanciful story—that was it! It’s best not to mention this to anyone. It’s best not to think about it, she told herself. No one would know her mother had gone mad on her final day as she succumbed to her illness.
Bishop Dalton spoke a few words to her father, King Matthew, then stood in front of Juliana with knees bent to meet her eyes. “My child,” he said, “take comfort in knowing that your mother is with the Lord in the Afterlife, for she was a fine lady.”
Juliana sniffed. “I wish to be with her.”
“The Lord calls us when our mission in this life is complete. Follow the righteous path as your mother did, and when it is time, you shall see her again. Do not stray, for the price of immorality and wickedness is worse than death.”
Juliana nodded. “I understand.” The bishop was right—her mother was righteous. She didn’t come from a town of magical people. She would not think of it. Juliana resolved to put the last conversation with her mother out of her mind and follow the right path, for she would not allow anything to stand in the way of seeing her mother again.
“God be with you, child.” The bishop kissed her forehead and left to comfort another mourner.
After the wake, Juliana ascended the stairs to the second floor and turned toward her bedchamber. She put her hand on her chest and felt the bump of the locket underneath her dress. She held back tears, envisioning her mother’s face during her final moments. Juliana breathed deeply, then removed the gold chain from around her neck, opened the locket, and stared at the pulsating stones. They are curious, but they’re not magical, she thought. She closed the pendant and inserted it in the small black bag. Juliana reached for the bottom drawer of her wardrobe and buried the black bag among her old clothes. There they remained.
That is, until six years later when she discovered her mother spoke the truth, and the danger her mother warned her about was real, and it began to unfold.