Posts Tagged ‘gothic’

The land of Susiname lies the south. It takes a strong minded adventurer to wander along the silver coastlines. To delve further into the deep forests Is a quest not for the faint of heart.

It was a land of monsters. Giants, trolls and other monsters of the unspeakable variety roamed deep inland.

Susiname was also a kingdom of great division. King Desmond died. It is told that he faced the great Malwock Beast in protection of his kingdom but the beast had the better. With it’s poison the king was turned to stone. A monument was erected in his memory at the gate of the Genya Estate (home of the Susiname royalty). Some say it is merely a monument. Other’s believe that it is the petrified king himself who lies beneath.

The kingdom erupted into a civil war. A new king could not be chosen. Desmond’s daughter, Asana, was but a child of six. Blood was shed but before a full scale war was declared among the Dukes, King Roman of Navaria, a powerful neighbouring kingdom to the North and King Benjamin of Elgany, another powerful neighbour stepped in and brought peace to the troubled land.

Control of Susiname was given to those who owned the respective lands within the kingdom. It kept peace for a time. Beneath the glorious sun kissed surface, beneath the noses of the powerful benefactors, lay a horrific injustice. The Counts were unsatisfied with their gains. They wanted more. They needed labour to toil their lands and the labour was expensive. A trade began in human lives. Sold into slavery were those who had nowhere else to go, those deemed lower in caste and those who had no means of paying their debts.

Susiname had its monsters, but for each new child born into slavery there was a desire to escape into the unknown, no matter what they would be up against.

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Another dead and the town had gathered. Set deep in the Mendelov Woods the village of Caster was hidden from the wider world. The timid people had presumed themselves safe until recently when bodies began to be found, torn apart as though from wild animals.

A bear or a wolf,” a recently widowed woman cried, clutching onto her children. “What ever it was it ripped poor Frank to pieces.”

The town mayor raised his hands to try to calm them. They were frightened. They hadn’t seen anything like it before. Frank Islay was the most recent but it had been happening more and more lately. Frank had been found close to the village entrance. He had been torn limb from limb. His eyeballs were ripped from his skull and what remained of his face was shredded beyond recognition. Only a lvoing note from his wife that he carried in his pocket had identified him.

It was no bear!” one of the village elders called. “I’ve read about this kind of thing. It used to happen all the time. It is some kind of monster.”

The town erupted into a frenzy.

We’ll have no talk of monsters,” said the mayor sternly. “There are no monsters in these parts,” he grumbled. His twinkling blue eyes met the gaze of his grandchildren. He didn’t want them to be frightened.

There are monsters. I have seen them!”

The gathering acknowledged as a stranger amongst them. He had been with them ever since the killings began. He had sat quietly in the tavern every evening before retiring to the small room he rented. No one had conversed with him. Strangers were always welcome in Caster but since he didn’t seem willing to share they left him be. Now they turned to him as though he had answers to life itself.

My name is Edgar Scholtz,” he announced. “I have seen attacks like these before.”

Edgar had a captive audience so he continued.

They prey on the evil amongst us. The liars, cheats and thieves.

The widow sobbed. “My Frank was none of those things,” she protested. He was a good man.”

Edgar thought about it for a few moments.

None of us are without misdeeds to our names. A stern word at the dinner table could be enough to invoke the wrath of this creature.”

The mayor himself was now intrigued. “You say you have faced these monsters before?”

Edgar nodded. He smiled just enough to be charming but not so much to seem as though he wasn’t taking the situation seriously.

They are of an ancient magic that is the blackest ever found. They are drawn from pure souls and sent in search of sinners like hounds on the blood trail,” Edgar explained.

The crowd gave a collective gasp. They considered themselves good people but there were misdeeds they had committed. If we take a closer look, haven’t we all?

The creature you face is called a Hangram and I will stop them.”

Are you ready to face the Hangram?

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There were no features on the image, just the outline of a woman’s frame. Black and white except for the prominent red rose that the silhouette held in her hand. Helena had only been a maid at Castle Kroestov, in the snow covered land of Navaria, but a few weeks so she was still acquainting herself with the many paintings that graced the walls.

The silhouette didn’t look towards the artist. Instead she offered a delicate profile with a soft outlined nose, long elegant neck and slender, statuesque frame. She reminded Helena of the old queen – Francesca. Having been dead many years Helena had only seen her in pictures but the resemblance to the silhouette was incredible. A title beneath the mahogany frame read ‘Dust and Devotion’. No artist laid claim to the work.

Helena smiled. Never before coming to Castle Kroestov had she been surrounded by so much beauty. She reached out and graced the intricate pattern carved in the frame before wiping it with her dusting cloth. She then drew her finger softly over the head of the silhouette and down the face. She felt a sharp pain fire from her fingertips to her head. In her mind’s eye she saw Francesca. She was on horseback, her long flowing black hair caught in the wind. Her blue eyes raged with anger but her lips held a serene smile. The scene appeared to be set on the outskirts of a village, at the very edge of the forest. Francesca was surrounded by adoring villagers but a man was before her who didn’t share their admiration. A thick rope was tied around his neck. His hands and feet were bound and the ropes were harnessed to three horses. He said nothing but his eyes were leaking emotion.

Declare your dedication to me,” spat Francesca. “Or be returned to the dust of the earth.”

The prisoner shook his head. “I will never devote myself to a witch.”

Francesca removed herself from her horse. She pushed into the crowd and drew a little girl from amongst them.

Eleanor!?” gasped the prisoner, recognising his daughter.

Francesca gripped the girl close to her side with one hand and wove the long fingers of the other through the girl’s fair hair. “Daddy thinks he is above the rules I have set forth,” said Francesca to the girl. “Isn’t that rather naughty?”

Eleanor nodded her head in agreement.

Do you think I should have him torn apart for such defiance?”

This time the child did not answer. She stared at her father with a torrent stupefaction only a child unschooled in the cruelty of the world could muster. “I don’t want my daddy to die!” she sobbed.

Francesca tightened the fingers that were in the girls hair and pulled at it. “What did you say?” she asked with a severe snarl.

The little girl began to cry. She tried to pull away but Francesca’s grip was too strong. The tearing at her hair was a numb pain compared to seeing her father captive.

You will watch the horses tear your father to pieces and then you will be next.” Francesca looked behind to her people. “Pistol!” she barked the order. One stepped forward without hesitation, placing a pistol in the hand Francesca had freed. She thrust it towards the little girl. “Horses don’t like the sound of gunshot. It frightens them and when they are frightened they run with all their might. You can pull the trigger.”

Annabelle, Francesca’s closest friend, had been standing close by watching the scene unfold. Becoming frustrated she snatched the gun and fired it into the air. The horses that the prisoner was tied to screamed. They reared and dashed in opposite directions. The prisoner was dragged across the rocky floor briefly before his body was torn. Francesca’s supporters held her horse as tightly as they could so he wouldn’t run too.

Francesca threw the little girl to the ground, sobbing in horror at what she had just bore witness to. Francesca’s lip curled as she stared at Annabelle. Annabelle could feel her breath struggle to gather in her chest. “How dare you interfere like that,” said Francesca. “I was amusing myself.”

Annabelle could feel a tight grip from inside her chest. Her heart pushed against it as best it could. “That man was never going to change his mind. We were wasting a beautiful morning,” she gasped.

Francesca’s nose crinkled. The pain in Annabelle’s chest seared. Blood began to pool in her mouth. “One way or another he was ending this day a corpse. You still have the daughter. She is ready for a lifetime of torment,” Annabelle managed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Francesca looked at the Eleanor still sobbing on the ground. She laughed and released her hold on Annabelle. The little girl was dragged onto her feet by an invisible force that Francesca summoned. Her face was awash with tears. “I’m going to take you to a new home,” Francesca warned the little girl with venom. “Perhaps I will eat you slowly. One little bit of flesh at a time.” She pushed Eleanor back into the arms of Annabelle. “Bring her with us,” ordered Francesca. She turned her gaze to Annabelle and spat, “I’m not done with you yet!” She climbed back onto her horse. Her followers lingered behind as they made their way back home.

Annabelle pushed Eleanor in front of her. “Move!” she barked.

Helena stumbled back from the silhouette. She couldn’t decipher whether the scene she had relayed in her mind had been real or if the gloomy castle was causing her to imagine things. She stumbled from the dream. She looked at the silhouette again. It was serene, silent. Black and white except the blood red rose. The silhouette had quite a tale to tell…

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It has been done. I have left it all behind. The last sight I had of my kin was of them burning, begging for it to be ended. Still pleading with me to stay with them. It was disgusting.

My lover still claimed me to be the one for him. I removed the heart from his chest. The blood was still warm as I devoured it. So great was my fury that they tried to stop me and greater was my horror at what the love of the king had made me see.

Tessa, the eternal child, was the last to speak. A curse she warned me of. That was laughable. Her power could never match mine for I was queen and only an immense power could keep them in check. I possessed that immense power. She quipped about a plague that would follow me to my new home and a tragedy that would befall all those who crossed my path.

She said my new husband would be driven insane by the images of what I had done. My misdeeds would forever flood his fragile mind. She said that food would spoil rotten in my mouth, my skin would burn at the touch of silk and any children produced from my marriage would suffer from cradle until they begged for death.

She doesn’t frighten me. She will be forever in the form of a child because of the power I hold over her.

My home has been reduced to ashes in my wake. The evil of its people forever banished.

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Also on this site:

Whispers in the Woods (A Red Snow Fairy tale)

The Unwanted Throne (A Red Snow Tale)

The Tower (A Red Snow Tale)

The gulls cried and the waves crashed. The island kingdom of Alnwick had been consumed by two weeks of mourning. King Robert had passed and now his eldest son Malcolm was the rightful ruler. Malcolm was preparing to abdicate his throne. His birthright was a burden he had never wanted. In the cover of darkness he would depart to the East to live in quiet simplicity with Mae Ling, the woman who had stolen his heart.

Malcolm was strong and kind. He had all the attributes of a great king but since he wasn’t fully committed to his duty he felt the task lay better with his younger brother, Edmond. Edmond was equally as kind but he was but a boy of sixteen and not ready to rule a kingdom.

Malcolm looked out onto the sea. The salty air washed across his face.

Are you sure about this?” asked Edmond.

Malcolm lay a gentle hand on his brother’s shoulder. “The throne of Alnwick should only be occupied by a ruler who is wholehearted. My mind is constantly driving me elsewhere. I can think of no one better for our people than you, little brother.”

Edmond had always looked upon Malcolm with admiration but his decision to abandon his people was difficult to understand.

If you leave you can never come back,” Edmond reminded him.

Malcolm offered a smile, filled with warmth but lacking in intensity. “I leave today because I never wish to come back.”

Edmond opened his arms, wrapped them around his brother and embraced him. He lowered his voice and whispered in his ear. “You are a coward. You are running away from your responsibility and I will never forgive you. The moment you leave these shores you become an enemy of this real and as its king I will bring you to call.”

Malcolm stepped back, pushing Edmond away from him. He seemed a little shaken at first but then he laughed. “Save some of that fire in your belly for your council. You are going to need every last drop of it.”

Mae Ling approached them. “We have to go,” she urged. Her long emerald robes trailed in the soft white sand. A boat lay in wait for them.

Malcolm embraced his brother again. “Forget your childish tantrums,” he said. “If this is to be our last, we will not part in such a way.”

Edmond’s shoulders depressed. He clasped his hands together in front of him. “I’m sorry. I’m just upset.”

Malcolm sighed. “You will be king. You apologise to no one,” he said. “Learn that and you will be a greater king than I would ever have been.”

Will you not change your mind?” asked the younger.

The time for that is gone. For us this is goodbye.”

Mae Ling kissed Edmond on both cheeks. She took Malcolm’s hand and they crossed the beach to their waiting vessel.

Edmond returned alone to Eccleshall to face his people and accept his new place as king.

***

When Eccleshall was alerted the abdication of Malcolm, the mother of the princes – Jane – wept herself dry of tears.

I have buried a husband and today I lose a son,” she had said to her youngest, clutching his hand gently. She had aged rapidly in a short space of time. Deep lines had formed around her eyes which leaked despair. Her copper coloured hair had dulled.

You still have me mother,” Edmond kissed her hand. “You will always have me.”

The Queen Regent took a sharp intake of breath. She caressed her cheek. “You are a darling boy Edmond,” she said. “ Alnwick needs you.”

The Royal Council of Alnwick brought together noblemen from all round the island to the capital city of Harborough where Eccleshall lay. Not crowned yet, Edmond had chosen not to occupy his father’s throne but instead sat on a high backed wooden chair next to it.

The behaviour of Prince Malcolm is disgraceful,” uttered Lord Miley, a very stern man from the upper shores. He took no notice of Edmond. Edmond sat quietly and allowed the Lords to conduct their conversation.

We need to make this change as quickly and as smoothly as we can,” stated Lord Pilrick of the lower coast.

Lord Miley rang his hands in frustration. “What will the people say when it isn’t Malcolm occupying the throne?”

An argument erupted. Edmond stood. The Lords were too busy bickering over something they had already agreed they couldn’t change.

If I may,” Edmond called over them.

Lord Pilrick rubbed his ample stomach and bowed low. “Of course, his Highness must have his say.”

The Lords of the council stared at at them. Most of them had known him as a baby in his mother’s arms. He was an adorable, fair haired prince who they enjoyed seeing playing in the yards of Eccleshall and learning the princely traits but they would never see him as more than that. He was much beloved but none of the Lords took Edmond seriously as a king. Now that he had their attention Edmond had forgotten what he had wanted to say, if he had had anything to say at all.

I’ll do my best,” he muttered and sat back down.

Lord Miley said, “Of course you will.” His condescending tones where as good as a roll of his eyes. He was disgruntled that the little boy would play king whilst the adults attempted to conduct the true business of Alnwick.

Edmond had watched his father conduct the council before. Robert would never have allowed them to rattle on they way they were. Edmond knew he was failing before he had even been given the crown. He cursed Malcolm for his selfishness. He cursed his brother for even thinking he deserved to leave. Mostly, he cursed Malcolm for not taking him with him.

A heavy bell chimed alerting the council to a visitor. It was only with that the Lords silenced. An Alnwickian guard pushed open the door. He stood tall, stared straight ahead and bellowed, “His Grace, Justus Vosoloo, Royal Council of Navaria!”

In stepped a man with a looming presence. His fingers were laced in gold and his towering, muscular frame was clothed in the finest of red and black fabrics. His strong, square jaw was set in bemusement.

Alnwick welcomes Your Grace,” began Lord Miley, “But I must say, your timing doesn’t serve you well.”

Justus removed a golden handkerchief and wiped his forehead. The warmth of Alnwick bathed his soft, black skin in the dew of perspiration. “King Roman of Navaria has requested my presence here. He received word from Prince Malcolm that he no longer wished to be king of this great realm. He was instead leaving the duty to Prince Edmond.”

Lord Pilrick’s brow had knotted in a severe frown. “With respect, Your Grace, but what business is that of Navaria?”

None,” replied Justus. “My king just wished me to offer respect to His Highness. He was concerned that in the bounds of great knowledge of this council his little cousin may find himself overwhelmed. I’m here to observe and offer advice if called upon, nothing more.”

Lord Miley grunted. “This is a very difficult time for Alnwick. We do not need some foreign devil making it worse.”

Justus raised his voice slightly. His resonating tones danced around the walls of the hall. “I beg to differ, My Lord,” he answered. “This situation will only be difficult it you allow it to be. Of course I can only go by what I hear but I’m sure Prince Edmond will make a fine king.”

Justus crossed his arms over his chest, observing closely. Edmond stared at a portrait of his father that hung on the wall. It had been created early in his reign. Robert was a pillar of masculine strength. He was broad shouldered, strong armed and with a full beard. Edmond pushed himself to be something of the man his father was.

I want to speak to Justus,” he cried out. The Lords slipped into stunned silence once again. “Get out!” he called.

The looked at each other for approval before finally granting the prince his request. When they were alone Edmond gasped, the pressure from the council lifting from his chest.

I can’t do this,” he admitted.

Justus pulled him from the wooden chair and onto his feet. “Of course you can,” he said. “It’s in your blood.” He pushed Edmond onto the throne. “Don’t let them bully you.”

I still can’t believe what Malcolm has done,” Edmond stated.

Justus took the wooden seat. “Sometimes we take a path different from the one others think we should. A lot of responsibility has fallen on you but I’m here to help, Your Highness, or should I say, Your Majesty.”

***

The Alnwickian Lords did what they could to keep Justus at bay. His powerful presence at Edmond’s side had made things difficult for them.

With Malcolm gone they would have Edmond as a suitable figurehead on the throne. He would smile and wave at the people whilst they made the true decisions. Justus was encouraging Edmond to have more opinions of his own which was dangerous.

Edmond had been summoned to the hall. He tried carrying an air of superiority but it only resulted In his shoulders hunching. He tried to keep strong eye contact but every time he was addressed he would tremble. As a prince he had had no fear. He had given public addresses and he had held the crowd to his opinion but as a king it was more difficult, more real.

He noticed that Justus was absent. “Where is His Grace?” he asked. Some of the Lords looked up but none of them answered.

His Majesty would like to take a walk,” said Lord Miley.

Edmond had not made any such request, “Would I?”

Of course,” Lord Miley insisted. “It’s such a nice day and we would love to hear your thoughts on the future of Alnwick.”

Edmond was flattered. He was making progress with his council. Their true intentions were not apparent to him.

If he can form opinions, let him form ours,” Lord Pilrick had said earlier that morning.

They pulled the boy away from his Navarian guard dog. They were confident that by the end of the day they could have Edmond dismiss Justus and have him sent back across shore where he belonged.

As they were heading towards the gardens a young girl tried to push through. “Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” she cried, waving a note above her head. “I must give this to you,” she insisted.

Edmond felt a sharp tug on his arm. He was dragged away from the girl. “Who was she?” he asked.

Lord Miley and Lord Pilrick shared a stare.

She’s no one, Your Majesty,” said Miley.

Pilrick dismissed it as though it were of no consequence. “Just a silly girl, nothing to be concerned about.”

The reign of the puppet boy king began. Edmond never forgot the girl. She wasn’t seen around the castle and he worried that he would never learn the urgent message she carried until the of her return when the kingdom of Alnwick would erupt into war.

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The door creaked. The lock clicked. She took a seat at the finely carved oak table. It was a dusty old room in the farthest side of the castle. The narrow window would have offered a far reaching view of the sea if it weren’t obscured by stained glass. The sea roared against the rocks below as the wind raged a violent war through the early evening. The glow of a single candle was all that illuminated the oval study.

She reached below the table and from inside a wicker basket she drew a viper. The creature hissed at her but she had no fear. She spread its body along the table at full length. From the inside of her cloak she drew a dagger. Clutching it in one hand she severed its head with the other. She put the head to her lips and rested it there for a while before splaying her tongue and swallowing it. When she felt the chewed remains nestle in her stomach. She leaned her head back.

On this night, cold and dreary,

I will not lie hungry and weary.

Let them hear every word of my call.

Those who stand against me, in pain shall fall.”

Her incantation was disturbed by the shuffle of a child. Her eyes sprang open. In the corner was a heap of purple silk. She climbed to her feet and pulled the silk away revealing a cage, large enough to hold the biggest brute of a dog. Sat in the middle was a boy who had seen no more than eight summers. He clutched his knees to his chest and whimpered.

You’re disturbing me!” she snapped.

The little boy dared not meet her striking blue eyes. “I want to go home,” he sobbed.

She smiled. She clutched the bars of his cage. “The only way you are going home little boy is as chopped up pieces in a box. Would you really put your mother through that? Now shut up before I silence you completely.

She spat on the boy. The skin on his face where the sputum landed burned. He pushed himself as far away from her as he could but his efforts were fruitless. There was no safety to be found.

A knock at the door stopped her from moving any further. She rolled her eyes impatiently and threw the silk back over the cage.

Come in,” she ushered the visitor. The impatience was telling in her voice.

Her most trusted maid pushed the door aside.

Your kingdom awaits, Your Majesty.”

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Once upon a time, in a land far from where I write to you, existed two kingdoms headed by two great rulers. The kingdoms of Elgany and Navaria bordered on each other. Elgany, a kingdom of wealth and culture lay to the temperate south. The kingdom of Navaria, a land of harsh landscape and strong people lay to the cold north.

King Roman of Navaria and King Benjamin of Elgany were the closest of allies and the greatest of friends. Benjamin’s queen, Manon, was the sister in law to Roman’s cousin which made them relations of sorts. In all of their years as friends King Roman’s family had never hosted Benjamin at their home, Castle Kroestov. Benjamin rarely left Mardaux Palace in Elgany so it came as something of a surprise when Roman received a letter from him stating that his arrival in Navaria was imminent.

So what is the king like?” Roman’s wife, Francesca, had asked having never met Benjamin.

Roman smiled as he considered the thousand adjectives that would befit his friend. Burly, friendly, loud, excitable; all of them would not suffice. Benjamin had an overwhelming presence. He treated all as though they were his family. His visit made for an unexpected delight.

Roman waited in the entrance of Castle Kroestov as the convoy of golden carriages carrying the pale blue and yellow flags of Elgany drew nearer. The Navarian king was accompanied by his two sons, James the elder and Edward the younger. Both of them were in the throws of early adolescence. The king’s only daughter, Charlotte, waited at her father’s side. She was unsure of what to expect.

The Navarian guards – dressed in the black and red of their own flag – opened the doors to allow entry for their regal visitors. In a parade of noise and commotion, King Benjamin came bounding in. His large smile wide and bright. He abstained from respectful bows to his fellow king and instead gripped Roman in a tight embrace. Behind Benjamin marched a very pretty queen with long golden hair. Her neck was completely covered in glittering pearls. Her fingers were laced with diamonds. She wore a gown of rich purple with emeralds sown into the bodice. Queen Manon was a great deal younger than her husband. She was a youthful woman who shone radiant amongst the finery. Four girls ushered in behind their mother in order of height. Behind them a nanny carried Ben’s only son, the infant Prince Julian.

You brought the whole family!” Roman cheered. “I’m so happy to see you all.”

Manon gave a polite curtsey to the Navarian king. Her daughters followed suit.

Benjamin approached Edward and tousled his ebony curls. “Your sons are grown now Roman. What strong young men they are.” He drew a small sickle bladed dagger from the pocket of his black travelling cloak. The handle was studded with diamonds. He handed it to the young prince.

Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Edward in receipt to the gift. His eyes were drawn to the beautiful weapon.

Ben, you shouldn’t have,” Roman interceded.

Nonsense! Every well bred boy in Elgany has one, Eddy should too,” said Benjamin. He smiled at Edward before turning his attention to James. “And you must be James.” This time he shook the boy’s hand with reserved respect. “Future ruler of this wonderful land.” He drew a golden seal with the emblem of Elgany etched on it from his other pocket. “This jewel has never left the confines of Mardaux. Keep it safe.”

James shook his head. “Your Majesty is too generous. I cannot accept this.”

Benjamin shrugged his shoulders. “Of course you can. It is mine to gift as I please. Perhaps when you are king you will remember this and look to Elgany with kindness. Long may the friendship between our two kingdoms continue.”

Before any more objections could be made, Benjamin lifted Princess Charlotte into his arms. A little girl of fewer years than her brothers, Charlotte giggled as she was spun around like a ragdoll and placed on Benjamin’s shoulders. “I have always had a keen eye for precious things and I think I may have found the most precious of them all!”

Roman laughed, “My little princess is not for sale.”

Pity,” was Benjamin’s retort. He leaned forward still carrying the child on his shoulders he kissed Francesca on both cheeks. “My belle, introductions are not necessary for you. Roman speaks of you so often I feel I know you as well as I would my own sister.”

Francesca curtseyed. “I could say very much the same. It is a pleasure to have you here with us.”

Roman drew Benjamin aside. He lowered his voice to a more solemn tone. “I am pleased that you have come to visit us but I must ask, is there another purpose?”

Benjamin’s large brown eyes clouded with solemnity much unlike him. He drew Charlotte from his shoulders and down his back. “We should speak alone.” He addressed the child, “Charlotte, my Madeleine would very much like to meet you. Will you show her around?”

At the king’s request, Charlotte made to introduce herself to the Elganite princesses.

So what is wrong?” Roman asked.

What I have to tell you is of grave importance,” Benjamin began. “My kingdom is in danger.”

***

As Roman and Benjamin drew away to talk alone, Manon left her ladies in waiting behind and was escorted by Francesca to a study. It was a cerebral room, filled with polished mahogany furniture and shelves filled with books. A fire was lit. The cold snow and icy winds outside contrasted the cosy warmth of the study. It was a room that Francesca kept exclusively for her own use. Even the servants of the castle dared not to enter.

You have a beautiful home, Your Majesty,” Manon commented with politeness.

It’s draughty and very grey but it is home. Not as lovely as Mardaux I hear.”

Manon smiled coyly. “My husband enjoys the finer things.”

Francesca poured them a glass of deep red wine each in crystal goblets. Like al of her children, she had raven hair and a pale complexion. She was a striking woman with the brightest blue eyes.

You like the finer things too from what I see hanging around your neck,” Francesca commented, handing a glass to the Elganite queen.

Manon clasped the glass in both hands. She shied away from eye contact with Francesca. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to speak to you alone.”

Francesca seated herself on the sofa opposite. She lay one arm over the back, the other holding her wine. “Really?” she enquired. “Might I ask why?”

Manon took a deep breath. “There is talk, rumours of what you are capable of.” Francesca narrowed her gaze. She already knew what Manon referred to but she wanted to draw it from her like venom from a snake bite. “They say you are a witch of tremendous power.”

Francesca betrayed no emotion. “The say a lot of things,” she answered.

My little boy, Julien, is a sick infant. Benjamin has hopes of him succeeding him one day but I fear he won’t see his next birthday.”

Isn’t that what doctors are for?” Francesca dismissed.

We’ve had the best doctors that money can buy. It is no use. Please, Your Majesty, if the rumours are true you can help my little Prince Julien.”

Francesca darted a glance at the door before leaning forward. “My twin, who is no longer with us, was also named Julien. He would not have liked to see any suffering in his name sake. I will help your little boy but there is something you have to do.”

Anything! I am at your mercy. No price is too great.”

Francesca raised her hand to hush her. “Firstly, calm yourself down. I can’t have anyone overhear what I am about to do. Secondly, my husband can know nothing of this. He would worry that his people wouldn’t look too kindly on witchcraft, no matter its intention.”

Manon breathed a sigh of relief. “I am eternally in your debt. Your Majesty is too kind.”

Francesca shook her head. “Hold your applause,” she said. “There is a great penalty attached to giving life, even to one so small. It can’t be conjured from nowhere. It has to be taken from something.”

Manon wiped the tear that was forming in the corner of her eye. “I’ll pay with my own life.”

Francesca stood. She went to a cabinet by the window in an almost gliding step. From a drawer she removed a straw figure in the crude shape of a person. “I can see to it that your little boy never falls to ill health. It can’t come from a parent because that is where the life springs.”

Manon’s upset was beginning to grow. “What can I do?”

Francesca clasped the poppet tightly in her right hand. “If your baby boy means so much to you, choose one of your daughters to be replaced.”

***

Princess Madeleine of Elgany, the youngest of Benjamin’s daughters was making a game of hiding and seeking with Princess Charlotte of Navaria. Charlotte had the advantage of knowing Castle Kroestov as home so she hid and Madeleine went in search of her. Madeleine’s excitement for the game grew when she wandered into the kitchens and found Charlotte stowed away underneath one of the counters. Charlotte cried out and ran, almost knocking the chef onto his backside. Madeleine chased after her, both girls alight with laughter.

The Elgany princess lost her Navarian counterpart somewhere along the third floor so she was searching from room to room. Her heart beating a little faster with the thrill and anticipation of the game. One of the doors lay ajar. Madeleine assumed Charlotte had hid in there so she boldly charged inside. She almost crashed into a man larger in presence than her father. He wore a military uniform but not like that of the guards at the entrance of the castle. He was an officer.

And who might you be?” he asked. His grin stretching in maliciousness from ear to ear. His mouth filled with pearly white teeth.

Madeleine hesitated. She stepped back towards the doorway. “I’m looking for Her Highness, Princess Charlotte.”

The officer bore down on her like the jaws of a great monster. “Little girls shouldn’t be in here,” he said. His voice was husky but polite with underlying tones of danger.

Madeleine’s eyes were drawn to a table behind him. Spread across it was a map of Navaria with red pins in ever widening circles around Castle Kroestov. The officer noticed her gaze and challenged it. Still smiling his dark eyes blazed like a fierce forest predator. The sheepskin fur forming part of his uniform seeming much too soft for such a marauding creature.

Drenisov?” barked the little Princess Charlotte.

The officer – Drenisov – looked past Madeleine to the Navarian princess and offered her a most congenial bow. “Your Highness, this young lady appeared to be lost. I was merely directing her onto the proper path.” He gracefully moved back towards the table and folded the map away.

This young lady is Her Highness, Princess Madeleine. She is also my friend. You will show her the proper respect.” Charlotte took Madeleine’s hand and pulled her away. Drenisov watched them with a growl until they were out of the line of view before closing the door and locking it.

***

Benjamin paced the room. Roman watched his restlessness from an armchair by the fire. At the Navarian king’s request they had been left alone.

There are whispers of my people overthrowing me. They no longer believe in my right as a ruler granted to me from the Lords above,” Benjamin was explaining.

How can you be so certain?” Roman asked.

Benjamin shook his head. “My life has been in danger for some time. I can’t even trust my own people. They are looking for my head.”

I never thought I would see the day where a rebellion would rise in Elgany.” King Roman was flabbergasted. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Benjamin affixed his usual light air again. “My Minister, Antoinie Lubek, has been a tremendous help. He is keeping the people appeased until we can find the source of this upset.”

Navaria will always be your friend and ally,” Roman assured him.

Benjamin gripped his arm. “I don’t fear for myself. As a King my life has always been forfeit to a higher purpose. It is my young boy Julien that warrants my concern. Should anything happen to me they will make an example of him as heir to my throne. They will tear him apart or worse, they will make him a puppet to their whims.” Roman listened to his friends concerns with silent horror. “The reason I came here – aside from seeing your lovely home – was to ask you a personal favour.”

Roman urged him to continue. “Should there be an uprising in Elgany, will you provide safe passage and refuge for Julien?”

Of course,” said Roman immediately without having to give any thought to the matter.

I don’t ask you this as a king and ally. I ask you this as a friend and a father.”

Roman had already decided. He too had a strong paternal instinct. Roman’s first dedication was to his children. This was a bond that he and Benjamin shared. “Of course I will assure that Julien is safe here but what about you? What about your girls?”

Benjamin itched his nose like he did most often when he was feeling nervous. “Nothing is certain yet. I just want to be cautious. I have to return to Elgany. If there is to be a revolution then my leaving will only fan the flames. My girls will be safe enough. Manon can take them as far as Hagen Moor if she needs to and they will not be disturbed. They will be of no consequence to the rebels. However, they will bay for Julien’s blood and so I need to know he will be somewhere he can be protected until he is old enough to return to Elgany and resume his throne.”

You needn’t fear. For as long as I live your family will always be kept safe…”

***

Princess Marie, the eldest of King Benjamin’s children, had taken quite a shine to Prince James of Navaria. She had watched as he finished talking with his young brother and began to make his way to the third floor. She followed him in the hope of being able to elicit a conversation. Marie was blossoming into a beautiful young woman. As an Elganite of noble birth she took great pride in her appearance. She was dressed often in pale blue as it matched the soft tone of her eyes and lemon because it highlighted the warmth of her golden tresses. She watched as James made his way along a long corridor on the third floor engrossed in his own thoughts. He quickly turned, having forgotten something and made his way back towards her. Marie turned to the painting on the wall at her side. She focused on the artists attention to detail and the brush strokes that had been given so much thought. She couldn’t really be sure of what she was looking at because she felt James close beside her. Her heart began to beat a little faster.

Are you lost?” James asked politely.

Marie turned to him, hoping she seemed nonchalant. “I was just admiring this painting. There is so much beautiful art work around the castle. It must be thrilling to be able to look upon it every day.”

James too looked at the painting. It was an image of Castle Kroestov painted generations previous to theirs. “Well as thrilling as it can be looking at a picture of a the castle every day whilst in that castle everyday …” Marie shied away. James laughed. “I’m sure Mardaux Palace must be brimming with art work.”

It is but the art there seems so … superficial. When there is so much of it, it begins to become less special. What you have here is genuine.”

Prince James had a handsome smile. He had the finely sculpted features of his mother and the charm of his father. His raven hair was thick and well presented. He was not overly indulged in jewels or finery. His simple refinement echoed the strength of his people. “I’m very glad you like it. You are Princess Marie aren’t you?”

Marie offered a polite curtsey. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said.

James took her hand and kissed it. “The pleasure is all mine I assure you.” Marie bowed her head and smiled coyly. “It is getting a little stuffy in here. I was going to walk in the gardens for a little while. Would you like to join me?”

Marie became giddy. “I would love to.”

The snow had ceased. The sun sat high in the sky as James and Marie made their way through the well tended gardens of Castle Kroestov. They saw little snow in the South so Marie was enjoying the glittering sparkle that lay across the deep red of the rose bushes.

They were discussing matters that brought them far from their regal parentage.

I enjoy sailing,” Marie was explaining. “I have my own little boat which I take up and down the Chessy River.”

James was intrigued. He had heard much of the Elganite way of life but had never witnessed it first hand. “I was on a boat once when I was a small child. The rocking motions made me sick the entire time. I have never been back on one since. My little sister, Charlotte, loves boats. So what is your boat’s name?”

Promise you won’t laugh?”

James raised his hands. “I promise…”

Alice,” Marie admitted.

James shrugged his shoulders. “That’s a fine name for a boat.”

Marie explained, “I had an invisible friend as a child. We went on all sorts of adventures. The boat is named after her.”

James chuckled. “Now that is just adorable.”

Marie laughed too. She slapped James’ arm playfully. “I warned you it was silly.”

James shook his head. “Not at all. I’m sure Alice is the finest vessel in all of Elgany.”

As they made their way to the furtherest end of the gardens they passed a large crooked tree. It was old and withered. Amidst the winter splendour the crooked tree stood brazenly against the beauty. It was not inviting, it was not life giving. The withered hands of the branches reached out like it threatened to throttle passers by.

Marie began to feel dizzy. James noticed her steps lurch so he gripped her arm. “I’m feeling a little faint,” she said.

Do you want to sit down?” James asked with genuine concern.

No I will be fine. It will pass.”

Marie’s delicate frame became a dead weight. With a sudden pull she slipped from James’ grasp and tumbled at the foot of the crooked tree. Blood spilled from her mouth onto the fresh white snow. She was gone. The doctors claimed her heart had failed her as though it had been crushed under a vice-like grip. Francesca watched from the window as attendants and a distraught king and queen saw to their daughter.

Fear, panic and horror would quickly spread and the two great kingdoms of Navaria and Elgany would fall to ruins.

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