Ace and the Flaming Tail

Ace has no idea that picking a bright purple handkerchief would send him to the adventure of his life.

But will he be able to defeat a gigantic eagle, conquer ape warriors, outsmart an evil Prince while saving Princess Juliana and her kingdom in time?

Chapter 01 Chapter 02 Chapter 03 Chapter 04 Chapter 05 Chapter 06 Chapter 07 Chapter 08 Chapter 09 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12

Chapter Four

Ace leapt for the balcony and didn't even have time to think before he jumped off and hoped for the best. A moment ago, Ace might have thought that he wouldn't be crazy enough to jump off a second story balcony. But now, it seemed much more prudent to jump than to wait around and see if a room full of shouting rebels would be less perilous. He sincerely doubted it would.

He heard the princess before he saw her, as he was falling through the air. Princess Juliana had been ready, waiting for him just in view of the library balcony behind a hedge and perched on Chocolate's faithful back. When Ace had appeared on the balcony, wildly waving the book in his hands, Juliana and Chocolate had surged forward, running at full speed toward the ground beneath the balcony where Ace stood.

She knew they would very likely be seen, and most likely by someone on her horrible cousin's side. But she couldn't worry about that. All she could think about was keeping Ace and the book safe.

Juliana and Chocolate reached the spot just beneath the library balcony with perfect timing, so that Ace landed with a thud not on the stone courtyard, but on Chocolate's ample backside. The horse winced, and Juliana reached out with one hand to grab onto Ace, ensuring that he didn't bounce off onto the stones. With her other hand, she urged Chocolate on.

"Go, girl, go!" she said.

And Chocolate went. Ace had never ridden a horse, and now he was flying faster than he'd ever dreamed possible, with one hand clinging onto Princess Juliana for dear life, and the other holding desperately onto the green book. Chocolate cantered toward the palace gates, where Tad the stable boy stood holding them open.

Men shouted from the library balcony, and one even tried to jump down after them, but without a horse to break his fall, the overeager rebel ended up writhing in pain on the hard stone courtyard.

Chocolate was just soaring through the palace gates as men burst out the front of the palace doors and sprinted for the stables, but the horses were still out being exercised and Ace knew the men would be sorely disappointed when they reached the empty stables.

They were beyond the palace gates now, and Ace felt exhilarated, the wind running through his hair, the princess urging Chocolate on like an expert horsewoman. They galloped through the open fields that surrounded the castle.

When Ace felt sure they were far enough away that they couldn't be followed, he looked back. A few horses were just bursting out of the palace gates, but they had an enormous head start and Chocolate was a very speedy horse.

"Where are we going?" Ace called over Princess Juliana's shoulder.

"We'll just keep riding until we can lose them," she called back. "Then we'll find a place to stop and examine the book."

The rebels were persistent, continuing to follow even though they didn't have a chance of catching up. Ace figured the rebels were just biding their time until Chocolate got tired. Princess Juliana must have figured the same thing, and she wasn't going to wait for that to happen. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she jerked on the reins and Chocolate made a hard right turn. Ace almost fell off when she did.

"Sorry!" Juliana called. "There might be a couple more crazy turns like that."

They had headed into a more heavily wooded area with a well-worn path, but the princess didn't stick to the path. She urged her faithful horse into the trees. She knew them well; she'd been riding Chocolate through these trees since childhood, whenever she could escape her father's watchful eye. As she got older, Tad would cover for her and tell anyone who asked that the princess was circling the palace walls while she and Chocolate ran through the woods.

"Do you see anyone?" she called to Ace.

He looked carefully in the direction they'd come from, but saw no sign of the rebels on horseback. "Not yet."

"Okay!" she called back, but she rode on. They rode hard for another twenty minutes or so, here and there taking a strange and unexpected turn, just in case they were being followed. Finally, Princess Juliana slowed Chocolate to a stop near a trickling stream. She hopped off and helped Ace down, and Chocolate immediately headed for the stream to take a well deserved drink.

"Can I see the book?"

Ace's fingers were so tightly wrapped around the book he wasn't sure he could pry them off. But he managed and handed it over. Princess Juliana smiled and stroked the cover fondly, just like the Royal Librarian had. "It really is a good book," she said.

"Never mind that," Ace said. "Does it have the map?"

The princess flipped through the pages of the book carefully, as with the library book, and then upon finding nothing, she searched again with somewhat less care. She peeled back the inside covers in the front and back, as Ace had before, and still they found nothing.

She sank to her knees in the grass beside the stream. "I don't understand. We can't possibly search every single copy of this book there is. We're running out of time to save the kingdom, to save my father."

As the princess hung her head, tears dripping down her cheeks, Chocolate drew near and nuzzled her head toward the princess. Even that did no good. Ace took the worthless book from the princess' hands and looked through it himself. There was nothing there. But just as he was about to toss it in the stream, something caught Ace's eye.

Just inside the back cover was a small paragraph with information about the author of the book, one Winifred Wilkins. According to the information given, Miss Wilkins lived in Blackhall, which happened to be the closest village to where Ace and the princess were currently sitting.

"I think we should go to Blackhall," Ace said slowly.

"Why on earth would we do that?" the princess sniffled.

"To visit Winifred Wilkins. The author." Princess Juliana looked up as Ace went on. "Maybe she knows something about the map, if it's tied to her book somehow. It says here that she lives in Blackhall."

"That's good thinking, Ace, except that The Horse, the Key, and the Golden Blanket is a really old book. I doubt Winifred Wilkins is even still alive."

"But Blackhall's just a couple minutes away, by horseback. We don't lose anything by trying. And we don't have any better ideas, do we?"

Princess Juliana's tears welled up again at the hopelessness of their prospects. "No, we don't!"

"Hey," Ace said. "I didn't mean it like that. Have no fear, Ace is here. We're going to figure this out. Now hop on up and let Chocolate take us to Blackhall."

Galloping beside the stream and through another copse of trees to the small village of Blackhall was enough to clear Princess Juliana's head. By the time she slowed Chocolate down to a walk, she was feeling much better.

"Excuse me," Ace called out to a boy selling flowers at the side of the road near Blackhall's main square. "Do you know where Winifred Wilkins lives?"

The boy gave easy directions and they were soon trotting down a sunny country road lined with enormous sunflowers. "This looks like a cheery place," Princess Juliana said, her spirits rising. "Maybe she will be able to help us after all."

But when they reached the last house on the lane, as the boy had told them, they saw a completely dilapidated little cabin with peeling paint and an enormous hole in the roof. Someone was up on the roof, trying to patch the hole.

Princess Juliana climbed down off of the horse and tied Chocolate up to a nearby post as Ace drew closer to the house.

"Excuse me," he called up to the person on the roof, who he could now see was a rather elderly lady. "Excuse me, does Winifred Wilkins live here?"

"That's me, dear," she said, holding her hand up to her face to shade herself from the sun as she squinted at them.

"We wondered if we might be able to talk to you," Ace called.

"I'm really quite busy, dear," she said. "It's supposed to rain tonight, and I'd really rather not spend one more night sleeping underneath an umbrella."

"We're very sorry to bother you," Princess Juliana said, coming up next to Ace and purposefully pulling down her head scarf. It was a risk, but she highly doubted that this old woman patching her worn roof would be a rebel on the side of Prince Victor. "We won't need but a minute."

The woman squinted toward them again and then gasped. "Why, you're Princess Juliana!"

"Yes, ma'am," the princess said, practically bowing to the woman.

"Oh my, I'm so sorry. Excuse my rudeness!" The woman kept muttering apologies as she carefully edged herself to the side of the roof and climbed down a rickety ladder as Ace held it steady. "Please, do come in," she said, ushering them inside the little cabin as soon as her feet were firmly on the ground.

Inside, the cabin seemed in worse repair than it had from the outside. Sunlight streamed in through gaps in the walls, the faucets dripped, and Winifred's attempts at patching the hole in the roof seemed like they might have just made it worse. Looking around, Ace thought that the only thing that kept the whole building standing were the stacks and stacks of books.

"Now, what can I do for you?" she said, clearing books off the only two chairs in the place.

The princess explained the best she could that they were seeking a very important map that seemed likely to be hidden inside a copy of The Horse, the Key, and the Golden Blanket, and did she know anything about that?

"I certainly don't," the woman said. "Like everyone else, I'm a great fan of my grandmother's book, but when she died I'm afraid her secrets died with her."

"Wait, you're not the author?" Ace asked. "Winifred Wilkins?"

"I am Winifred Wilkins, yes, but my grandmother was the original Winifred Wilkins. The one who wrote the book you're after. She never said anything to me about a map, but that doesn't mean there wasn't one around here somewhere."

Ace and Princess Juliana looked around the dilapidated cabin crammed with perhaps more books than even the Royal Library and their hearts sank.

But then, to their surprise, Winifred stood up, walked directly to a stack of books near the fireplace, and pulled a slim green volume from the middle. It looked exactly like the one from the Royal Library, but older. "This," she said, holding the book out to Princess Juliana, "is the first copy ever printed of The Horse, the Key, and the Golden Blanket."

With great care, Princess Juliana flipped through the yellowed pages. She reached the end of the book with a heavy heart, but then Ace said, "Hey, look!" He grabbed the book and examined the inside back cover. One corner of the lining was peeled up, and Ace didn't hesitate to rip it back.

"What are you doing?" Winifred gasped. "That is a first edition, a family heirloom! Give me that!"

But Ace had found what he was looking for. Triumphantly, he pulled a folded up piece of parchment from beneath the back lining of the book. He unfolded it to see a map.

Winifred didn't care what he'd found. She lunged toward Ace, horrified by the destruction of her family's property and she was going to get the book out of Ace's hands if it was the last thing she did. But Princess Juliana jumped between Winifred and Ace.

"Ma'am," she said, her head slightly bowed. "I am so sorry for the destruction of your property. But this map is crucially important to the life of the king, the security of the country, and quite possibly the world. If you would be so kind as to let us leave here with the map and the book, you will be richly rewarded. My father will set you up with a beautiful new home, or fix this one - whichever you prefer. You could come work in the Royal Library or live on a yacht in the harbor. Your heart's desire will be yours if you will only allow us to have that map."

Winifred opened her mouth to speak but then snapped it shut again. She looked around her dilapidated house and finally nodded. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry I even hesitated. Of course, if the king's life is at stake. It's just that it's such a special book. But please, take it."

She followed them out of the cabin and into the yard where Chocolate stood waiting patiently. "How did you know it would be here?" she asked. "I never even knew."

"The head reference librarian at the city's public library only told us to find the book," Princess Juliana said. "We didn't know which copy. Finding you was a stroke of genius on Ace's part."

Winifred nodded. "That makes sense about the reference librarian. Ever since I was a child, whoever was head reference librarian at the time has always traveled out to visit us and asked to look at that book. I never understood why. I just thought a lot of people were particularly fond of it. I supposed they were checking up on this map."

"I suppose so," Princess Juliana said. "Anyway, thank you very much. We'll need some time to get things sorted out, but then, Miss Wilkins, you have my word that you will be handsomely rewarded for your generosity."

Winifred Wilkins smiled and headed to her ladder, to return to work on fixing the roof. "All right, then. Good luck!"

Princess Juliana and Ace untied Chocolate and climbed onto his back.

"Where to now?" Ace asked.

"I'm not sure. Can I see the map?"

Ace handed it forward to the princess, who unfolded it and examined it closely as Ace peered over her shoulder.

"Oh dear," she said. "It looks like this Protector person is on a very remote island. How are we ever going to reach him? And anyway, we don't even have the ring or the necklace. Maybe we shouldn't bother trying to get there at all. This whole thing is pointless."

"No it's not!" Ace cried. "Your cousin may have the ring and the necklace, but he doesn't know where the Protector is. And if the Protector's job is really to protect the kingdom, then maybe he'll listen when we explain what's happened so far. Maybe he'll help us. We have to at least try."

"Okay. But even if you're right about all that, how are we supposed to get out to some remote island? A few days ago, I could have stepped onto any one of the boats in the harbor and they would have taken me where I wanted to go. But my cousin's control is spreading. The waterfront's bound to be crawling with his people, and they'll all be looking for me."

"Have no fear, Ace is here," he said with a grin. "We're smarter than that awful Prince Victor. Just head for the waterfront. I'll tell you the plan when we get there."

- End of Chapter Four -