"So you saw him, Isa, my love." Her blood red nails stroked the neck of the black falcon. "How could my plague have missed such a misbegotten cur?"
She set the bird on a perch of twisted iron. The bells jingled on Isa's leather jesses. Then the woman paced the chamber, the hem of her red silk dress rustling across the flagstones. Stopping at the window, she pushed back the leaded casements. Isa fluffed her feathers as the crisp mountain air flowed in. Snow still whitened the peaks around the castle. The woman gazed down through the falling flakes to where the tower met the mountain. Embedded in the rock face was a small circular window, barred with a crosshatch of iron.
"You distracted me. That's why this boy lives. May you rot in there forever!" The word, forever, echoed back to mock her. "Better yet--."
She drew a black wand from the pocket of her gown and pointed it at the grate. A ribbon of ice-green magic zigzagged through its slats. The man's wail haunted the mountains.
"He'll remember that for hours to come."
A guard on the parapet paused a moment in his marching. Instantly, her magic struck him down.
Isa bated and giving a strident cry swooped out through the window to feast upon man-flesh.
"Why do I need guards when my magic can protect me?" she asked herself.
The woman slipped the wand back into her pocket. At a charcoal brazier in the centre of the room, she warmed her hands.
This boy intrigued her. Blonde, crippled, half-blind blue eyes was how Isa described him. He should have died. The plague had wiped out a whole generation. Peasants mourning the loss of their children had not questioned the new laws she imposed. Of course, no one knew it was she who ruled Nynamarg. No, they thought their king, Ehren-Gayle, had won the war. Well, truth be told, he had, but it was her magic that allowed her to become the true ruler of this land. Little did the people know their monarch rotted in his own dungeon. Terran-Gayle's great, great grandson, Ehren-Gayle, was little more than a shadow of a king.
Her plague magic had been strong, so why did this boy live? She gazed at her black crystal, glittering in the torchlight. She glided over to the iron tripod upon which the jagged piece of rock sat and caressed the stone.
Her fingers were untouched by age and decorated with a single band of gold -- a wedding ring that had never been hers. As she clenched her fist, her nails pierced her flesh. She licked the trickle of blood, savouring the metallic taste. One day she would kill the man in the dungeon whose ring she wore and his blood would be hers to enjoy.
"Ah, my dear, Amanita, you do look ravishing," she said, seeing her reflection in the black crystal. She had cast this youthful spell fifty years ago and still did not tire of seeing it -- perfectly arched brows, ivory skin, eyes the colour of coal, lips of crimson. The collar of her dress formed a red fan behind her blue-black hair, untouched by gray.
"Who would believe such beauty? No ordinary man lives to tell of such a thing. Sad, really." She gave a soft laugh. "Now, I must see this lucky lad for myself."
The crystal cleared to reveal a gangly peasant boy slurping down a bowl of stew. A tattered tunic, too small for him, covered his spindly body. His hair was caked with mud and he wore a leather band across one eye.
He was, like others in the kingdom, downtrodden. Amanita smiled. The weary do not revolt. Those without food think of nothing else. This was how she had maintained fifteen years of peace. She had easily quashed the few who questioned her power. They, like the man in her dungeon, had withered away or died painful deaths. It had been a fun fifteen years. Now, the monks grew weaker by the day and it wouldn't be long before she would defeat them. With the Menghi out of the way, this wretched country would surrender to her. No more would the nobility cower in their manor houses protected by Menghi spells. No, they would be dead. Their peasants would become her slaves, fodder for her army. If the people of Nynamarg thought they had it bad now, just wait. Soon, she would have the power to do as she wished. Then the fun would really begin.
As she gazed into the dark stone, an elderly man came into view, ladling thin stew into the boy's bowl.
"Frederich," Amanita hissed. "You live!"
Was there more to this scene than she knew?
"Bretta," Amanita called as she descended the tower's polished stone steps.
An elderly rotund woman hobbled onto the landing. She had been a duck once and still waddled like one. White hair escaped her cowl, a black wimple hid the wrinkles of her neck.
"What does m'lady wish?"
"My Book, Bretta. Bring it into my workroom. I need information and I need it now. My crystal showed me a boy of fourteen with Frederich."
"But I thought...?"
"Quick! Bring me my book!"
Bretta bustled into the bedroom as the witch entered the opposite room. The maid returned bearing a stout text bound in red leather. Gold filigree laced its face, silver bands edged it. Amanita kissed the red lion-shaped boss set in its cover as she had done a thousand times.
"Leave me, Bretta. I will want supper when I'm done. And no more of that stew."
"Yes, m'lady. Me thinks Cook has a pig a-roastin' for the garrison. Would you care for that?"
"Make sure it's hot."
"Oh, I almost forgot, m'lady, Boris sent you a message." Bretta shivered a little. Boris was a small troll, but scary nonetheless. He had survived the Borgran War and had stayed loyal to Amanita. He kept an eye on things when Isa could not.
"He says to tell you King Martane's rattling his sabre again."
"Gulder's Gap. He attacked your fort there. Boris said they've all been spelled, they have. Turned into piles of bones what can talk. He said it were the weirdest thing. The moaning drove him crazy."
Amanita clenched her fists. Damn her brother! How she wished she had the power to destroy him! What she needed was Terran-Gayle's sceptre but could she find it? The bloody thing was hidden somewhere in the castle. Once it was hers, Martane could kiss his life goodbye.
She sighed. Now she'd have to deal with her garrison. The last thing she wanted was a trip to Gulder's Gap, but only she could undo Martane's spells. Why did he vex her so? Of course, if he knew who really ruled Nynamarg, he would have wrenched control of this land from her long ago. Only the sceptre prevented him from attacking. He thought Ehren-Gayle controlled its magic. How wrong he was!
As Bretta scurried off to the kitchen, Amanita set the leather book on her worktable.
Seventy-five years ago, her teacher, Imma, had given her the book and began her training after Martane had exiled Amanita from Hammaria. How she had hated her brother then! Well, that hadn't changed. How bent she was on revenge, though. Her attack on his tutor had failed. Martane was a wizard, after all, and had fought the likes of Terran-Gayle's grandson, Devlin-Gayle. By exiling her, Martane had forced Princess Amanita to find Imma.
She could still hear the old woman harping on about the importance of her Book of Shadows.
"Not only does it hold all the spells you will ever cast, Amanita, dear, it also holds your history and knowledge. It can form your thinking and enhance your spells. Never underestimate its power and guard it carefully."
Little did the old sorceress know that one day her student would have power beyond any witch. Amanita touched the ruby boss with the tip of her wand and the book fell open. As she scanned its parchment pages, the writing danced before her. Letters shuffled to the tune of silent music.
"Why does this escapee from my plague live to wander the Witching Woods?" Amanita asked, then blew across the page. Words formed, a sentence grew.
A Langovin spell protected him until he reached the age of fourteen.
"I've never heard of such a thing."
A whisper sighed across the page.
Ancient magic holds many mysteries. This spell is old. Modern magic cannot undo it.
"Who cast this spell and why?"
The letters twirled until a vortex surged across the parchment. Faster and faster they flowed, tumbling over one another until they became a mass of black in the centre of the book. Then a few words crept onto the page as if afraid of what they had to say.
Witch unknown. Boy is a Gayle. Raised by the queen's handmaid in the village of Kali.
Amanita gasped. How could this be? The only Gayle she knew languished in her dungeon! She had made it so. She rose from her stool and began pacing. The workroom was bare except for the table, stool, and a hearth bracketed by two iron candelabras. A huge cauldron stood beside the fire.
"A witch wielding ancient magic cast a spell to protect this boy. This Gayle. But Ehren-Gayle's only child died." She glanced back at her book.
He lives. Remember the prophecy.
Amanita shivered. How could she forget? The plague had been meant to quash Imma's prediction.
"One day, a Gayle will thwart your evil ways," the sorceress with the violet eyes had said upon learning of Amanita's ambitions.
Amanita had sent Warwick to deal with the baby prince, the queen, and her handmaid. The servant escaped. The mother and babe died. She had countered the prophecy or so she thought. A week later, her Book of Shadows unveiled the truth. The baby had survived. Livid, she sent the plague to ravish the land. This time the boy disappeared from the pages of her book.
There was a knock on the door. Bretta arrived with the supper tray.
"It's piping hot, m'lady. See the steam a-rising from it. Cook had made some mashed tubers so I put a dollop on your plate, too."
Amanita nodded as Bretta hurried over to light the fire. The chill of evening had set in.
"Did your book tell you about the boy?" the maid asked as she laid a bed of straw on the hearth.
"He's a Gayle. An ancient magic spell protected him until he turned fourteen so my magic could not see him."
"You don't know the magic of the Old Ones, Princess Amanita?" Bretta sounded shocked.
Amanita flicked her hand and the woman crumpled to the floor. Pain etched her wrinkled face. She would soon learn to keep quiet about such things.
"I'm sorry, m'lady, I didn't know. Honest. I thought you knew everything. Please stop."
Amanita ignored her as she sat down and began cutting the succulent pork Bretta had brought her. Why had this appeared tonight and not on any other night over the past week? Surely the servants knew what the 'king' liked to eat, and stew had quickly become her least favourite meal. She glanced at her maid and waved her hand again. Bretta cried out. Tears stained her wrinkled cheeks.
"Please." It was all she could say as she curled up beside the hearth, whimpering.
Amanita smiled and took another bite of her pork. The cook would be the first to die for serving her less than a king's rightful due. How she loved watching the horror on people's faces as they passed into the Land Beyond. Of course, no one knew it was Amanita who sent them to the chopping block. Still, the thunk of the axe was a very satisfying sound. So was the wailing of the loved ones.
Amanita sighed. Bretta was not the cook so she would live. The princess released her grip. As Bretta scrambled to her feet and brushed off her gown, Amanita sipped her wine. Her maid was really the least of her worries.
"So you have a plan for this lad?" Bretta asked, recovering her composure and pretending nothing had happened. She fed some split wood into the smoldering straw until it blazed.
"He must die, of course. It was his destiny to do so the day he was born. Ehren-Gayle must be the last of the Gayle bloodline. I have no wish for his son to challenge my reign now or in the future. The boy was supposed to succumb to the plague. He is with Frederich but that monk's magic cannot protect him."
"Frederich's a wily one, m'lady. He's thwarted you before. How will you defeat him this time?"
"I won't. I'll be busy dealing with those men in Gulder's Gap. Besides, I have no wish for Frederich or anyone else to know I walk the halls of this castle as their king. No, what I need is a simple spell and a simple man to carry it." Amanita slipped the gold ring from her finger. "Summon Captain Marko while I work this magic. He is the one for this task."
As Bretta shuffled away, Amanita returned to her Book of Shadows. She found the page she sought and laid the ring upon it. Lining one wall of the room were four shelves of multi-coloured crystal vials. She chose one and dusted its red powder over the ring. The incantation was simple. It had to be; otherwise, Frederich would detect it.
Amanita laughed. She would have her revenge on that old monk. It had taken fifteen years, but it would be so worth the wait.
She licked her lips. Victory tasted sweet.
An hour later, Amanita sat in a plump chair beside the fire in her bedchamber watching Bretta place the real king's ice-blue tunic on her bed. She was tired. The ring spell hadn't taken much of her energy, but she had gazed again into her black crystal. What she saw there worked well with her plans. Frederich and the boy packed for a journey. Amanita guessed it was to Rattanburg Abbey.
She gazed at the ring nestled on the palm of her hand. She smiled. Captain Marko never suspected that his king, Ehren-Gayle, no longer ruled Nynamarg. Her magic clouded his eyes but he was no fool. She must persuade him to give the enchanted ring to the boy. Any story would do but perhaps the truth was best. After all, Ehren-Gayle and his captain had been close friends before the queen died. A chance to find the 'dead' prince might appeal to the man.
Her Ehen-Gayle was not the man he was at the end of the Borgran War and yet, Captain Marko stayed true to their friendship.
"Marko must find that cripple," Amanita said softly as the firelight glinted on the ring.
"Then what, m'lady?" Bretta asked as she set slippers of gold next to the bed.
"With this ring on his finger, the lad will abandon Frederich. He will do anything Marko tells him to do and go where the captain leads. The fool will bring him to me."
"That bumbling monk will be powerless. He won't know the ring is spelled and he'd never suspect the magic is of my making. After all, I disappeared from this kingdom fifteen years ago. Only old women mutter my name when children are too wild. Who listens to them, the fools? No, Frederich has forgotten me. That pathetic cripple will be here before you know it, Bretta. Marko will not fail."
Bretta shook out the king's royal blue cloak with its gold brocade. "I hates the way this spell tires you, m'lady. Changing into a man cain't be easy. Why don't I just give Marko the ring?"
"Only I can convince him this is the right thing to do. He will call my plan kidnapping so I must tell him it is in the boy's best interest to come to the castle. He must believe this cripple is the prince. The king does need an heir, after all." She chuckled as she lifted an amber vial from the table next to her. Taking a deep breath, she emptied its liquid into her mouth. She hated its bitter taste and suppressed an urge to gag. She swallowed, then lay back against the cushions of the chair. Her stomach churned. She closed her eyes and let the magic work.
"Dress me," she said to her maid a few minutes later.
Bretta slipped the king's embroidered tunic over her head. Already a beard grew upon Amanita's chin and her shoulders began to broaden.
"The road to the Abbey is long and the boy limps." Amanita's hands became wider and her red nails vanished. "The captain will have no trouble reaching the prince before the monks get their claws into the lad."
"And what if he don't?"
"Then Marko'll learn the meaning of the word 'pain'." Amanita laughed. Now that was the kind of magic she loved working.
She slid the ring into a small velvet sac tied to her sword belt. The weapon rested against her thigh and despite the protective spells woven throughout the castle, it gave her comfort. The sword had been Ehren-Gayle's and it always reminded her of what might have been.
As Amanita strode through the labyrinth of halls to the throne room, those who served her scattered. She was not a beloved king. If Ehren-Gayle only knew what he had become. She smiled as she entered the empty throne room. Sitting on the ornate throne of gold, cushioned in red velvet, she gazed down the great hall. Terran-Gayle, the first king of the castle, had created the spectacular room with fluted columns and lush tapestries. Four hearths heated it, although Amanita refused to light them. No one lounged next to them anyway. Over the years, her policies had driven away Ehren-Gayle's court and that suited her just fine.
She knew that beyond the throne room's oak doors, Captain Marko paced the antechamber. He could wait a little longer. Her spell was not yet complete and there was no way to rush it. She relaxed, slumping into the cushions of the throne. She closed her eyes. Slowly her legs lengthened and her feet grew wide. Ehren-Gayle was tall so creating extra body mass was the most difficult part of the spell. It took more energy than Amanita would admit to Bretta.
When she knew she had become the king, she called the captain to enter. Marko, his sword resting on his left thigh, strode in and knelt on the red carpet before her. He had been young when King Ehren-Gayle had named him Captain. He still had the body of a warrior, broad shoulders and muscular arms, but now gray hairs flecked his black beard and a white streak parted the hair he had drawn back with a leather thong at the nape of his neck. His brown eyes lacked sparkle.
Good, Amanita thought, you grow weak in spirit. This makes my life so much easier.
"I am sending you on a journey, Captain Marko," Amanita said. "You must go south to Sigwald and bring me a young boy who travels the North-South Road. He is on a pilgrimage to Rattanburg Abbey."
She saw the questioning look in his eyes.
"He is no ordinary boy, Captain. He is my son."
Marko's jaw dropped. He swallowed hard, then said, "But sire, you know your son is dead. He died a long time ago. Surely, you haven't forgotten?"
"Obviously he did not die, Marko. My spies tell me he survived. Sadly, his mother did not." Amanita squeezed a tear from her eye. "We all assumed the babe had also perished. But, by some miracle, he lives. I want him back here at the castle."
"Yes, of course, Your Majesty. How will I know him from others who travel the road?"
"My son limps, Captain. His foot was crushed in the fall that killed his mother." Amanita loved seeing Marko wince every time she mentioned the queen's death. He had adored the queen and his king too much. "He has a leather patch across one eye. Not the perfection I would have wanted in a prince of my blood, but I did marry a peasant girl."
"You loved her, sire." Marko lowered his gaze. Amanita almost smiled at his pain.
"She died and left me alone, Marko. I still suffer while she enjoys the wonders of the Land Beyond. But, enough of this. I want you to find this son of mine. Take your squire. Jarvis, is it?" Marko nodded. "Yes, take him. An archer will be good protection for the boy. The prince travels with an old man and will not know he is of royal blood. I doubt he'd believe you if you told him, so don't bother. I'll convince him when he gets here. Give the boy this ring." Amanita handed the captain the velvet sac. "Once he puts it on, he will return to the castle with you. It is a ring of friendship. I don't care what you do with the old man. Kill him if you like."
Marko started to say something but thought better of it.
"This ring's magic binds the wearer to the bearer," said the princess. "Once he slips it on, my son will want to be with you. He will forget the crazy ideas the old man has told him and embrace his birth-rite. Our people will rejoice to know someone will rule after I am gone."
She could see he did not really believe the boy was Ehren-Gayle's son, but he would not disobey the king's orders.
"You must befriend the boy, Marko. Otherwise, the magic won't work," she added.
"I shall do as you bid, sire."
"Good. I knew I could trust you. You leave tomorrow."
Marko carefully pocketed the sac with the ring. He had a healthy fear of magic and with good reason. The Borgran War had scarred him. Amanita smiled to herself. It was her magic that had done the scarring.
"Oh and the boy must not reach Rattanburg Abbey, Marko. As you well know, the monks and I have had a falling out. I don't want them influencing him."
Captain Marko bowed then strode out. Amanita smiled. He would swear to all that King Ehren-Gayle ruled this land. How wrong he would be.
Amanita glanced at her reflection in one of the polished mirrors beside the throne. Somehow the red beard and grizzled auburn hair of the king suited her black eyes. If Ehren-Gayle saw her, he would see himself. Almost. The spell could not change eye colour.
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