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Ancient Ruins
1998 by Matthew J. Drollinger

5. Giselle

Gillian's generosity and hospitality were beyond question. While Valeria had been pondering how she was going to pay the Tristram laundress when all her money was presumably still in her cabin on the barge, Gillian quietly paid for the service out of her own pocket. Valeria had tried to thank her, but her voice still wasn't cooperating. Gillian just shrugged and smiled as if this was the way she treated all guests in her charge.

Valeria wasn't entirely sure what to make of the girl. In Riparia, she'd always gotten her way with people partly due to her status as Lord Halla's daughter, but mostly because everyone in the valley knew the grief she was capable of raining down on them if they crossed her. As far as Valeria knew, Gillian remained uninformed of both of these aspects of her guest's personal background. True, she had somehow known that Valeria was on her way to the Sisters of the Sightless Eye and, if she knew that, there was no reason she shouldn't know that she was dealing with the heir to Riparia. However, most people who dealt with Valeria back home did so as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then made themselves scarce. Gillian seemed genuinely interested in cultivating some kind of friendship. Part of Valeria wondered what the girl really wanted from her, but the truth was Gillian seemed utterly guileless.

After they'd left Valeria's clothes with the laundress and been advised that they could pick them up when they were dry later in the afternoon, Gillian took Valeria back to the little cottage that she shared with her grandmother.

"This won't take long," Gillian told her. "I just need to make sure she's eaten her breakfast and taken her medicine."

The inside of the cottage was humble, but tidy. Gillian had taken a great deal of care to make what she had look as nice as possible. "Grandmother?" called Gillian softly.

"I'm awake," came the reply from through the bedroom door. The voice reminded Valeria of dry leaves.

"Come on," said Gillian, heading into the bedroom. "I'll introduce you." She missed Valeria's indifferent shrug.

"Who is this?" asked Gillian's grandmother, spying Valeria. "An unpolished Sapphire?"

"This is Val," said Gillian. "Val, this is my grandmother, Giselle."

Giselle's appearance only reinforced Valeria's initial impression of dry leaves. Her wrinkled skin was leathery brown from a lifetime of journeys and her wispy hair reminded Valeria of frost. She seemed to be the personification of autumn passing into winter.

Gillian went to her grandmother's bedside and observed that the old woman might have taken one or two bites of her breakfast.

"Grandmother," she scolded gently, "you must eat more."

"I was playing chess with the Devil," replied Giselle, her eyes going glassy.

White Castle falls to the Red King! Checkmate! Checkmate! Checkmate!" She was standing in her bed and shrieking.


"The Red Queen and Black Queen move to take the White Bishop. White Bishop to Black Bishop. Black Bishop to White King..." whispered Giselle.

"Grandmother?" repeated Gillian, shaking her gently this time.

Giselle continued, seemingly oblivious to her granddaughter's presence. "White King to Black King. White Pawns fall to the Black King. White Knight slays the Black King. White Knights to Black Knights. Black Pawns, Black Bishops and Black Knights gather 'round the Red King. White Castle falls to the Red King! White Castle falls to the Red King! Checkmate! Checkmate! Checkmate!" She was standing in her bed and shrieking.

"Grandmother! Grandmother!" shouted Gillian, trying to restrain her. She turned to Valeria, her eyes full of panic. "Oh, please," she pleaded. "Go get Pepin! Tell him Grandmother's having one of her spells. Pepin's hut is the first one on the right when you get to the Town Square. Please hurry!"

"Checkmate! Checkmate!" howled Giselle.

Valeria nodded and rushed out of the cottage.

Pepin was standing in front of his hut watching the workers building the stage for the official opening of Caravan. All around the square, merchants were setting up their booths for business.

Valeria tried to call to him, but no sound came out. She grabbed him by the sleeve and turned him to face her. She willed herself to speak with all her might.

"What's that you say? Gillian's fallen into the well?" asked Pepin, misunderstanding the raspy squeaks and whispers.

"No, you massive boob of the stars," Valeria wanted to say. "Gillian's grandmother is having one of her spells!" Instead she just pointed urgently in the direction of Gillian's cottage.

Now Pepin could hear Giselle's cries of "checkmate" over the noise of the square. "Oh my goodness!" he cried. He grabbed a pouch full of herbs and potions from a table just inside his door and hurried to the cottage. Valeria followed.

By the time they reached the cottage, Giselle's cries were loud enough to attract curious looks from passersby. Pepin rushed into the cottage and made directly for the bedroom. He ushered Gillian out and shut the door behind him.

Gillian and Valeria stood side-by-side in the living room. Gillian stared tensely at the closed door, as if trying to will herself to see through it. Valeria shifted her weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable and not quite sure what to do. She supposed she could just leave. She could go back to the barge and retrieve the trunks containing her clothes and money. It didn't seem quite right leaving Gillian without knowing that her grandmother was going to be okay. Also, wandering around a strange city with no voice was a little more intimidating than Valeria cared to admit.

The cries from the bedroom died down quickly and, after a few minutes, Pepin came out. He wore a damp cloth tied over his mouth and nose and a powerful sour-smelling incense permeated the room. Both Gillian and Valeria sneezed. Pepin closed the bedroom door and took off his mask.

"She'll sleep for a few hours," he told them. "The incense will dehydrate her, however, so make absolutely certain that she drinks a lot of water when she awakens. A little fruit juice will be helpful in restoring some sugars too."

"Oh dear," said Gillian. Her face showed both relief that her grandmother was all right and worry over how having to care for her for the afternoon would affect her other obligations. "Mr. and Mrs. Ogden are expecting me to wait tables this afternoon. Val, could you...?"

Valeria backed away, shaking her head furiously. Granted, she was beginning to think that Gillian was a fine person for a commoner, and was even getting to like her. But there was no way in hell Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla was going to serve drinks to anyone. She stumbled over a footstool and nearly fell.

"No, of course not," realized Gillian. "I've been so wrapped up in my own worries that I forgot you can't speak."

Pepin stared at his shoes for a moment, and then hurried out citing some pressing business back at his hut.

"Perhaps Nova can fill in for me," said Gillian. She went to a desk in the corner, found a charcoal stick and some paper, and wrote a quick note. "May I ask a favor, Val?" asked Gillian as she finished her note.

Gillian was going to ask whether Valeria gave her permission or not, so she just shrugged. "Could you take this message to my friend, Nova? She lives with her father just down the road."

It sounded simple enough. Valeria accepted the note and pointed at the desk behind Gillian.

"What?" asked Gillian. Then she saw that her guest was pointing at the charcoal stick and sheaf of paper. "Oh, of course!" laughed Gillian. "That would be a useful thing for you to have. Go ahead and take as much as you want."

Valeria took most of the paper and two charcoal sticks. She was on her way out the front door when she hesitated. She wrote something on the top sheet of paper, using the doorjamb as a desk. She tore the sheet in half and held up the half she had written on so Gillian could read it.

It said, "Thank you."

Originally published to August 11, 1999.


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Tales of The and all the stories and text contained herein are 1999 - 2004 by Steven Dong.
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