Gwendolyn tried to turn her head away from the man’s stench even as she attempted to free herself from the his grip. A solid blow to the back of her neck stopped her struggles. She was barely aware of the horse galloping beneath her as all went dark.
The clap of thunder shook the rafters as a sheet of rain and sleet rapped against the shuttered window. Gwendolyn sat straight up in bed feeling odd not to be laid over a saddle bouncing across the desert. Her bed robes were sweat soaked and her hair was plastered to her forehead. She looked around the familiar room and spotted Clottild tending the fire.
“That was a loud one, wasn’t it dear? I’m sorry the storm woke you; I was letting you sleep in. There will be no taking the sheep out today.”
“Is it morning?” Gwendolyn asked groggily.
“It’s well past dawn, but it’s as light as its going to get until this storm passes,” the old woman answered.
Gwen swung her legs over the side of the bed and was suddenly gripped with a stabbing pain in her abdomen.
Seeing her discomfort, the old woman asked, “Are you alright dear?”
“Yes,” Gwen answered, “Just a bit of a belly ache. I didn’t sleep well.”
Walking over to the bed the old woman placed a hand to the girl’s forehead. “You’re as clammy as a fish. Lay back down,” she instructed her. Raising the girl’s robe, the old woman rested a hand on her abdomen. She counted the rise and fall of her breaths, and then gently probed with the tips of her fingers. The girl’s muscles were tight, but pliable, not hard like they would be if it had been something more serious. “Did that hurt?” She asked.
“Not really,” Gwen answered.
“It’s probably nothing,” the old woman told her. “You want a dose of fish oil? It might make you feel better.”
“No,” Gwen grimaced. “I just didn’t sleep well.”
“You fell asleep fast enough.” The old woman said. “Maybe it was just the meat. It’s not good to go to sleep so soon after an unaccustomed heavy meal.”
The way Clottild looked at her made Gwen wonder if the women guessed that it was more than a slice of mutton that had disturbed her sleep. The dream had seemed so real. Gwen swore she could still feel the remnants of the blow to the back of her neck.
“But then again, after what we talked about last night I’m not surprised you’re feeling poorly. I’m sorry little one. I’m sorry it couldn’t have waited until you were older, or not at all even. But there are things Fate controls, and are not of our will. You of all people finding the Cup is a sure sign. And to ignore such things can be perilous.”
Her dream had almost pushed the revelations of the previous night out of her mind. But now she was reminded of her family’s horrible fate. There was something else about last night, something Clottild had started to tell her. “You started to tell me of my great-grandmother, about an order of Sisters. And about the golden cup,” she added.
“Yes. Yes I did. If you feel like it come over by the fire and I’ll heat you some breakfast. It’s a dark day and this is dark talk. And there is no sense facing it on an empty stomach.”
Gwen could get nothing else out of the old women until she had boiled a cup of last night’s broth topped off with an egg and a slice of toast. As her breakfast cooled a little Clottild retrieved the old bag from the dresser and emptied its contents on the table.
Clottild set the tome aside and picked up the quilted blanket. “This is the blanket you were wrapped in when you were thrust into my arms all those many nights ago.”
Tied to a corner of the blanket Gwen noticed a sliver ring.
The old woman untied the ring and handed it to the girl. “That is your father’s ring that he gave to your mother the day they were married. She tied it to your blanket with her own sweet fingers the night she died.”
Gwen held the ring up to the light from the fire. It was larger than her thumb.
“Your mother wore it around her neck on a golden necklace.”
The ring was set with a polished black stone that looked very much akin to the rock chips sometimes found around the black standing stones up in the hills. Inlaid in the stone was a silver dragon.
Gwen closed her fist around the ring and held it to her chest. She then reached for the blanket and smoothed the cool silk against her cheek before fingering the fine gold and silver needlework. She was not used to such fineries.
With knotted fingers the old woman then opened a small leather bag letting seven gold coins spill out on the table. “When your great-grandmother gave me this it contained ten coins. I’ve managed to get us by on just three, careful to sell them out of the district through third parties.” Clottild slid the coins over to Gwendolyn.
“No, I couldn’t,” she replied.
“Nonsense child, this is your inheritance. Your great-grandmother entrusted me with it and I’ve tried to be frugal. But now that you are coming into your own, it’s yours.”
Gwen lightly touched one of the coins. “What’s that?” She asked, nodding towards the old book.
“This dear, is the real treasure. This is your great-grandmother’s book. It’s contains history, legends, charms, and wondrous and magical stories. Your great-grandmother would read a little every week to Estelle and me. I dare say my mother didn’t approve, but your grandmother and I loved it.” Clottild laid the book on the table in front of Gwen and carefully turned the pages.
On one of the pages Gwen saw a most remarkable drawing. It was faded, but she could tell it had been richly and ornately illustrated at one time. It was a chalice; in fact it looked exactly like the one she had found. Around the cup wove an intricate vine, the stem of which might have been a deep red at one time. The leaves were delicate and chalk green. It was a grape vine she noticed, the fruit was deep purple.
But what really caught her eye was the figure standing next to the cup with head bowed and arms out stretched. It was a young woman, barefoot in a white gown. She had long yellow hair and a sword was belted low around her waist. She looked asleep, Gwen thought, or maybe she was floating. Anyway, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Gwen touched the drawing of the woman and then the cup. “This looks the same as our cup. Is it?” She asked.
“Yes dear, I’m afraid that’s why I acted so peculiar yesterday. The cup in this drawing is called the cup of life. I remember it because this whole book really is dedicated to it and its history.
When your great-grandmother would tell us stories about the ancient order of Sisters, of whom she was the last. It was always with sadness. For over a thousand years the Sisters had been charged with guarding the cup, for it was believed that a time would come when the world would fall under darkness. What this darkness was no one knew", she said. "All she knew was that somehow the cup would be needed. But that’s not all; the Sisters were just caretakers or stewards so to speak. The cup was supposed to belong to a great warrior who would appear when the time of the Chalice was at hand. But alas, in some calamity of history the cup was lost. The Sisters dwindled until only your great-grandmother was left.
She was the last to take the vow, she told us that her line was unbroken back to the beginning, but then she would laugh and say it was all just an old woman’s old religion. And none of it really mattered anymore. Maybe that was why she never insisted that your grandmother or mother took the vow. She seemed to think it important that your grandmother and then your mother learn the tenets. But up until the time we were attacked, I think she had lost her faith. But there was some power in her. I saw it with my own eyes the night they brought your grandfather’s body back to the castle. Estelle was shock and her pain greatly affected me, but your great-grandmother became deathly silent, she summoned a horse and a small contingent of guards and left the castle. When she returned the next morning the men carried ten severed heads in baskets. The captain, an old friend of my father’s, was pale. The only thing he would say was that about midnight they rode up on a small encampment of barbarian swordsmen. He said your great-grandmother crashed head long into the middle of them. What happened next was never real clear and was never spoke about again, as far as I know.
“Can I look at the book?” Gwen asked.
“Of course dear, it’s in old Latin, but you know enough and I will help you.”
Gwen pulled the book to her and moved the candle closer. She gingerly turned the pages looking over the text and illustrations. “Where should I start,” she asked.
“At the beginning,” the old woman suggested. And as the storm raged outside, Gwen begin her journey down an irrevocable path.