Once upon a time there were two young men of
vastly different backgrounds: William, a royal prince of the realm and Alexi, a
gypsy boy. These two young men formed a friendship and bond that withstood every
trial, even death. This is their story.
* * * * * * * * * *
It happen that one day, on his sixteenth birthday, Prince William was out hunting in the deep woods that covered the mountainside near his castle. He had out ridden the courtiers and only his favourite hound had kept pace with him.
The woods had grown increasingly thick so that the sunlight was barely able to penetrate the gloom, colouring the afternoon with a false twilight. The forest floor was carpeted with a deep layer of leaves that swallowed every sound. No breeze stirred, even the chirping of the birds and the whir of insects was silenced and had it not been for his horse and faithful hound, the prince would have felt as if he were the last creature on earth.
He reined his steed to a halt and took account of his surroundings. He looked behind him and realized that he could no longer see the path by which he'd come; he looked before and saw no path by which he could leave. It was as if the forest had silently closed around him as he rode and now waited, but for what, the prince did not know.
Although he was a young man and prone to that certain recklessness that comes with youth, he was not a stupid one. Something of great import was about to occur, he could feel it in his bones; he could smell it in the air.
His hound looked at him with troubled eyes and his horse whinnied nervously. He slipped gracefully from his mount and patted his dog and calmed his faithful steed and waited. The air became very still as if the forest held its breath and then, suddenly, a breath of air whispered softly across the young prince's face.
He closed his eyes; the air smelled of roses and cinnamon, bread fresh from the oven and amber from the market, incense from the church and whiskey from the tavern; home and adventure, holiness and sin all bundled together in one gentle exhalation.
Prince William inhaled deeply and felt his lungs expand and his blood begin to sing. He laughed giddily and threw up his arms, spinning round and round until he had no choice but to collapse to the ground where the deep carpet of leaves cushioned his fall.
He lay on the earth, panting slightly, but smiling still, catching his breath until his faithful hound snuffled him and lightly licked his face. He opened his eyes slowly, just a slit at first and saw a single star, the first of the evening glowing above him. He leapt nimbly to his feet and brushed himself off. The pathway out of the forest was clearly before him so he mounted his patient horse and whistled to his hound and headed home, whistling as he rode.
He came to the edge of the forest and before him stood a ring of brightly painted wagons gathered around a cheerful fire. He could make out brightly dressed men and women moving to and fro with children darting about between them like dragonflies.
As he rode into the encampment he was slowly encircled in a silent ring of dark haired, dark eyed individuals. One man came forward and held his horse as he dismounted.
"I was hunting in the forest and became lost. I thought perchance that I might ask for water for my horse, my dog and myself before I continued my journey."
An old man, older then any the prince had ever seen before stepped forward and stared deeply into the prince's blue eyes. "It is a kind man who thinks about his animals first. You are welcome to sit by our fire and share our food, Prince William."
The prince started slightly but then nodded his head. His animals were seen to and he was led to a place by the fire, a plate of food set in his hands, a tankard of ale by his side. The gypsies paid him no more attention and he was left to eat in peace.
As he sipped at his ale the old man came to sit by his side. "My name is Dimitri and these," he said gesturing to the folk and their wagons, "These are my people. I am responsible for them, you understand?"
The prince nodded and the old man continued. "I do all that I can to protect them." He glanced at the young man. "But it is from people like you that we are most often in danger."
The prince frowned, "Then why are you here Dimitri?"
The old man smiled fondly, "Because my grandson, Alexi, said we must come here and wait for the prince. So we come, we wait, and here you are."
"Who is your grandson?" The young prince asked in confusion.
"I am Prince William."
The young prince froze as he closed his eyes and smelled roses and cinnamon, bread fresh from the oven and amber from the market, incense from the church and whiskey from the tavern; sin and holiness all in one deep breath.
He looked up and lost himself in eyes of the deepest, richest brown above a wide, welcoming grin. The prince rose slowly to his feet and found himself clasped in a hearty bear hug.
"My friend, I have had my family journey far to meet you." Alexi laughed and clapped his shoulders.
"He is the one my son?" Dimitri smiled.
"He is," Alexi nodded with another smile at the confused young man.
William drew himself to his full height. He was after all a prince of the realm. "And why have you come so far to meet me. Who are you and how do you know me?"
Alexi raised an eyebrow at the imperious tone but seemed not the least bit impressed.
Dimitri gently intervened, "My grandson has the gift of Sight. Since he was a little boy he has seen those that need help. He sees and we go and we help, whether they wish it or not." Alexi and Dimitri shared a fond look.
"What has that to do with me?" The young prince asked again.
"Because my prince, for the last week, all I have seen is you. When I am sitting in a sunlight field, I close my eyes and it is your face I see. At night, I dream of you." Alexi closed his eyes, "And when I am very quiet and look deep into the future and see the shadow of my death, you are there." Alexi intoned solemnly.
Then the young gypsy's face cleared and he smiled his sunny smile. "You need me Prince William. You need my help. A prince's life is fraught with danger and it is important that you survive." Alexi offered his hand.
The prince frowned at the young gypsy; everything in his soul called out to him to take the young man's hand, but this was madness, how would he explain this to his mother and father. He could not just bring a young man home like one would a stray dog. It was on the tip of his tongue to deny the offer when for a third time a breeze gusted from the forest laden with the scents that had beguiled him before.
He reached out and clasped the proffered hand.
So it was without further ado, that Alexi
gathered his belongings and bid his tribe farewell. He hugged his Grandfather
and kissed his mother and little sister good-bye and waited patiently for the
bewildered prince to mount his horse.
Prince William watched the proceedings with barely concealed trepidation. Now that he had accepted the gypsy boy he was unsure how to treat him. He decided that it would be as a trusted servant but upon tentatively issuing his first order he was astonished by the hearty laugh he received.
"No my prince; I am not a servant and truly, I am too lazy to make a good one." Alexi grinned good-naturedly.
"But, then how will I explain you to my parents?" William stared at him in consternation.
Alexi cocked his head to one side and placed a finger to his lips. He 'hemmed' and 'hawed' as he stared into the distance.
The prince found himself bending forward in expectation.
Alexi slapped a hand to his forehead, "I know. We shall tell them I am a gypsy boy who you met in the forest and I am to be your companion!" He beamed at the prince who stared at him.
"But that is the truth," the young prince exclaimed!
"I know. Is it not clever?" Alexi watched the prince carefully.
William gazed at the young gypsy for a long moment and saw his lips twitch. The prince met the boy's laughing eyes.
"I am a prince of the realm. You will not tease me. It is not allowed."
Alexi moved to the prince's side. He stroked the silken neck of the horse and patted the faithful hound. He watched the light from the setting sun glint on the prince's honey brown locks and met the cold blue eyes.
"I will tease you. I will argue with you. If I think that a course of action is dangerous or unwise, I will tell you. But, I will never lie to you. I hope to be your friend because while I am with you: I am yours and you are mine." Alexi said seriously. "But as I do for you, so must you do for me. Do you understand?"
The prince looked troubled and very young. "Have you bewitched me?"
"No, Prince William. I am a Seer not a witch." Alexi smiled
William stared at him for a long moment then returned the smile hesitantly. "I don't have many friends. I think I would like that."
Alexi slapped the startled prince's leg, "Done!" He said. The prince looked bemused.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The unlikely pair made their way to the
castle. As they walked, the young gypsy encouraged the prince to talk of court
and his family: his mother and father, his uncle Angelus and cousin Drusilla.
Young Alexi frowned deeply upon hearing those names. The prince did not notice and continued.
"Since the death of my Aunt Elizabeth my cousin has been very sad. My uncle has left us many times and gone abroad on dangerous missions for the king. If it were not for my cousin, I do not think he would come home at all. My mother is very worried." The prince sighed softly.
Alexi nodded seriously but said nothing.
* * * * * * * * * * *
They arrived at the castle well after sunset
to find that a search party had been organized to find the prince. His mother
greeted him with hugs and kisses even as she scolded him for his recklessness.
His father pointed out that he was not too old to punish, whether it was his
birthday of not. He hung his head in shame at having worried his family so.
Alexi stepped forward to the prince's side. William introduced him as the 'young man who saved my life' and Alexi was instantly welcomed into the assemblage.
The gypsy blushed in embarrassment as the prince's parents thanked him profusely, but William only smiled and announced that Alexi would be his companion from now on and teach him the ways of the forest. The king looked at the young gypsy closely but then agreed that perhaps William should have a companion with common sense.
The king declared that since it was the prince's birthday, the festivities, which had been delayed due to his absence, could now commence. There was a cheer from the gathering and again the prince flushed with embarrassment.
"We have a wonderful surprise for you tonight, one we were not expecting." The king said jovially and the queen smiled in agreement, albeit hesitantly.
The young men quickly washed and dressed in preparation for the celebration. William gave Alexi a suit of soft velvet and gold and when Alexi protested, said only, "You said we were friends," and smiled.
Alexi followed the prince down the grand staircase. For one of the few times in his life he was hesitant and insecure. He knew that he must come with the prince. There was a great evil coming, although he could not see it clearly. He had left his family and his people to follow this young man, but he was a child of the forests and the wild places and unused to stone castles and the manners of court.
William turned at the bottom of the stairs, sensing his new friend's concern. "Remember what you said, 'I am yours and you are mine.'
Alexi nodded in relief.
They entered the great hall where the prince was to be honoured for his birthday. His eyes lit in delight as he spied his cousin Drusilla. She was gowned in a dress of chaste white and seemed to shine softly with her own inner light. To William she was an angel of purity who lived among the stars in Heaven; one who was kind enough to smile upon him at times.
He drew Alexi with him as he greeted her and introduced her to the young man. She smiled at him sweetly and wished him joy on his birthday then turned to young Alexi. The young man shivered slightly as he met those deep dark eyes for he recognized her power. He took her offered hand and bowed low.
"I have been waiting for you, oh so patiently my young one. I knew my cousin was not lost but found this day." She said gravely.
"I had not realized that there would be another here but I am glad to have your counsel." Alexi said in return.
"Not for long I fear; there's a worm in the apple." She gave him a soft, sad smile and turned to the door. William and Alexi followed her gaze.
Entering the great hall was William's Uncle Angelus looking happier then the prince had seen him in many months. And on his arm was a striking woman of pale beauty. Her skin was like the clearest cream, her hair spun of moonbeams. She was dressed in a gown of the deepest red and around her throat, like drops of blood, was clasped a ruby necklace.
She smiled sweetly at all and graciously curtsied to the king and queen. Angelus stared down at her in rapture.
The king summoned William and Drusilla to his side. "This is the surprise I promised you, my son."
The king turned to the gathering; "I thank you all for coming to celebrate with us the sixteenth birthday of my son, Prince William. And on this most joyous of occasions, I wish to announce another event that will bring further happiness to our family. Duke Angelus has wed the Lady Darla, a woman of beauty and grace, who shall be a comfort to him and a mother to his daughter. May they live long and well!"
The court cheered and Darla smiled her cat-like smile while Drusilla clutched her nails into William's hand hard enough to draw blood.
Alexi shivered in the sudden chill and felt someone walked over his grave.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Winter came early that year, first creeping
across the land with a bitter cold that froze the villains in their homes,
huddled about their fires and then with a wasting sickness that killed the young
first and then the old and even the cattle in their fields.
It was the first time in living memory that plague had come to the land. It was the first time but not the last.
The winter was long and hard for the people of
the small kingdom. Although the king had always been prudent in storing grain
against hard times the food was no help with the plague that ravaged the land.
The hardship engraved itself on the faces of the people and everywhere one looked there was weariness and sorrow. The peoples' pain was reflected in the eyes of the King and Queen as well. Prince William and Alexi found themselves working long past sunset to get grain to the outlying villages while at the palace the Queen and her ladies worked at weaving blankets for
The royal house was also not without its own sorrows for the plague had claimed the Prince's cousin Drusilla as one of its first victims. Although she appeared a fragile angel she held fast to life. Her stepmother tried to tend to her but she would shriek and writhe in apparent pain, crying to God in her suffering so that finally the Queen took over the sickbed duties herself.
Darla stood by the bedside and clasped her husband's hand tightly, wept a single tear and acquiesced gracefully to the Queen. Since she could not help her stepchild she mixed poultices and potions for the peasants and made candied fruits for their children.
Whenever William and Alexi returned from their duties, no matter what the hour, she would greet them with goblets of mulled wine and bread hot from the oven. She would brush her cool hands across their foreheads and kiss their cheeks and call them her brave cavaliers. William would watch her leave with a besotted look until Alexi sharply called his name.
Alexi suffered the Lady Darla's touches but when she brushed her hand across his forehead it felt like the whisper of a spider's web touching his face and her kiss seemed cold and dry, like the skin of a snake. He shuddered and wiped his hand across his face, perhaps he was simply weary. There was so much sickness and death. Would the spring never come?
That year the spring was late in coming and that took its toll on the newborn lambs and calves that could not survive in the still deep snows. Also, many of the children born that year were sickly and did not live long; of those that did, the majority were withered and stunted.
When the snow finally melted the King declared that there would be a feast, not so much of thanksgiving, many were too grief stricken for that, but rather of remembrance and renewal so that the people might put the year into memory and start again.
The royal family though could not completely put that winter aside for it now lived in the form of the Lady Drusilla. Her body had recovered from the illness but her mind, alas, had not. She wandered the castle halls clutching a doll of cornhusks that one of the serving women had made and singing softly to herself.
Sometimes, she would flit into the great hall and sit at her father's feet, laying her head on his knee. He would pet her hair and listen with grief-frozen features to her ramblings until her stepmother would fix her gaze on the confused young woman. She seemed to draw inside herself when the woman spoke to her although she always obeyed the soft commands.
"Drusilla, dear, perhaps it's time for bed? Your father and I will be up to see you later." And Dru would stand up quietly and kiss her father and curtsey to her stepmother and leave the hall in silence.
Sometimes she would sit with William and Alexi while they groomed their horses or practiced their weapons. She would sit humming to herself and combing her doll's soft hair. They always treated her like a little sister and although they knew it was frowned upon, they would take her with them into the forest. She seemed at peace there, more so than at the castle. She would dance in the sunbeams, spinning and laughing to music only she could hear.
Sometimes she would abruptly stop, cocking her head to the side, listening and nodding occasionally in unspoken agreement to words only she could hear. It was at these times that William's eyes grew dark with sadness for they meant that a fit was coming. She would fall to the ground, writhing and clutching her head in pain, spewing rhymes and nonsense. When it
first occurred he tried to hush her and calm her pain but Alexi grasped his arm and shook his head and listened carefully to all she said.
William asked him, that first time, what it meant and Alexi confessed, he did not know or understand it all but that the Powers still spoke through her even though the plague had confused her thoughts.
"She's sitting in the dark and spinning her web; soon too strong for the poor flies to flee," or other such phrases and always, after, she would weep for her father.
* * * * * * * * * *
The feast took place on the first day of
summer. The villages sent such representatives as they could spare. All were
dressed in their finest clothing. Those children that attended flocked around
the Lady Darla for they remembered the candies she had sent them. She smiled and
gently stroked their hair praising them to their parents. They blushed and
stammered their answers to the fine lady. Indeed in the midst of their lingering grief she seemed the breath of life itself. Her hair shone like gold and her skin like alabaster. She was dressed all in white and lace and the villagers whispered that she was like an angel sent as a sign that the worst was behind them.
Even the King was grateful to let her shine in the midst of the gathering. If she seemed untouched by the sorrow of the past winter it was only due to her breeding for had she not laboured as unceasingly as the other ladies of Court? Let the people take hope from her presence if they would, did the Queen not agree?
She nodded but her heart was troubled for she remembered the cries of her niece and the fear in her eyes when the Lady Darla came too close as she lay in her sickbed. And afterwards, when Drusilla had regained her health in body if not mind, the Queen had also heard Darla whisper softly in Angelus' ear that perhaps it would be best to send Drusilla away. Were the sisters not trained to care for those touched by God?
Her brother and shaken his head and gruffly refused to part with his daughter. Darla had bowed her head and murmured, "As you wish my Lord," but her eyes had gleamed in the lamplight like a cat's.
Perhaps it was time to speak to her brother and learn more of this woman he had made his wife.
Alexi and William watched the people dance and mingle from their place at the high table. Alexi felt ill at ease and this restlessness communicated itself to the Prince.
"What is it my friend?" William asked.
"I do not know. I feel cold, cold deep in my bones." Alexi rubbed his arms and kept scanning the skies and the crowd.
"It is just the wind. It's from the North today. That's all." William tried to reassure him.
"Perhaps but I don't think so." Alexi shook his head.
William watched his friend with growing trepidation. He had learned to trust the young gypsy's feelings. He thought that perhaps the young man had been sent to help him deal with the plague and deep winter and now that both were past perhaps they could learn more of
each other's ways and traditions. But although Alexi had been a constant source of help and companionship he still maintained that the danger he had foreseen had not yet fully manifested itself.
And now that Alexi mentioned it, the cold did seem to be deeper. He rubbed his hands to warm them. Later, he was never sure what caused him to scan the crowd so carefully for his mother; what caused the sudden sinking sensation when he could not find her kindly face.
He grasped Alexi's arm, "My mother; do you see my mother?" He asked in growing alarm.
"No," the young man said and they shared a look of growing fear.
Prince William and Alexi sprang to their feet but it was already too late. The scream came from within the castle; he and his father in the forefront as they rushed to the cry and found the cook weeping in the kitchen; found the body of the Queen, her neck broken, lying in a heap at the bottom of the pantry steps.
The King dropped to his knees crying out to Heaven for an answer as to why his Queen had been taken from him. The Prince wept with head bowed and took his mother's cold hand in his, but as he turned her palm upwards a small candied sweet made of fruit rolled unnoticed
into the corner.
The Queen was interned two days later. She was
dressed in her finest court dress, a single red rose placed on her breast. The
King spoke all the words required of him, accepted the murmured condolences of
the various nobility but his eyes were empty and his spirit frozen in grief. The
Prince tried to console his father; to share his sorrow over his mother's death
but his father remained aloof barely acknowledging the Prince's presence or his
subtle cries for reassurance.
Alexi watched the Prince and his father become estranged and grieved for his friend. He felt that the Queen had died through no accident but why and by whose hand he could not be sure. Never in all his sixteen years had his visions failed him so completely. It was as if for the first time in his life he had only those senses that everyone else possessed. He knew that a great darkness was coming. That was, after all, why he had been sent to find the Prince. But since then his visions had been fractured and confusing, bewildering him more than aiding him. He had tried to speak to Drusilla but even before her illness she had been mute almost as if she had resigned herself to Fate.
He leaned miserably against the parapet watching the sky darken with an approaching thunderstorm. His visions had always been a gift passed down skipping every other generation. He had learned to seek their meaning at this grandmother's knee. With them he had offered assistance and hope to the people they met. His abilities also provided a measure of protection to his tribe. But now when he needed those abilities most they had seemingly deserted him.
He turned, hearing a soft sound behind him. It was the Prince his eyes dark with grief. He no longer looked like the boy Alexi had first met less than a year ago. His face was lined with weariness and sorrow and maturity beyond his years.
"Alexi my friend, what are you doing here?" William leaned against the stone.
"The same thing as you, I expect; thinking." Alexi gave him a brief smile. They both turned back to watch the thunderhead move closer. The wind had quickened, coming from the north.
"I miss my mother," the Prince said quietly. "I thought that she would live to see my children born. Perhaps even their children."
"When my father died I felt as though a part of me was gone as well." Alexi spoke gently. "Suddenly I felt the weight of caring for my mother and little sister. As I grew older I came to the conclusion that it was part of my innocence that died that day."
William nodded in sad agreement. "Perhaps you always carry that childlike innocence as long as your parents live and it never truly leaves you until they die. Perhaps on that day you truly become an adult." He gave Alexi a poignant smile; "I could have lived my life without learning this lesson."
Alexi returned his smile; "I felt the same way."
They both turned back to watch the clouds which had turned black as pitch. The icy winds now carried a smell; "Sickly sweet like rotting fruit", thought the Prince.
"Like corpses", thought Alexi. Suddenly the young boy pointed to the ominous clouds, "There, in the clouds, what are those?"
The Prince squinted into the gloom, "Birds?" He ventured. "Crows or ravens perhaps. Maybe the storm has driven them from the fields."
Alexi gripped William's arm hard, "I do not think that those are birds, William. Come, we must get everyone inside, quickly."
William's eyes widened in horror, "The bell, ring the bell! I'll get to those below!" He glanced again at the growing swarm of huge bats that swiftly grew closer.
Alexi cried his agreement and ran to sound the alarm. William hurried to the courtyard. All ready many of the peasants were fleeing in panic, crying out to God to protect them.
"Inside, get inside and bolt the doors, close the shutters, hurry!" He grabbed panicked people hurriedly shoving them towards the great hall. He heard the great bell ringing in the tower. His father and the household knights were all ready gathered, helping to herd the people into the castle.
"William, my son, what evil befalls us now?" The King appeared dressed in full armour, his head bare. The Prince looked into his father's eyes and shivered. For the first time in two days, those eyes that had been so empty since his mother's death were filled now with a bitter joy. It was a moment the young man was to remember for the rest of his life; the sight of his
father standing tall and proud, ready, nay willing to go to his death if it would reunite him with his beloved wife.
"Father," the Prince whispered, "Do not leave me too. I beg of you."
Alexi appeared by his side, grasping his friend's arm. "Inside, William. They are nearly here."
"Father?" He took the older man's hand. They entered the hall, closing and bolting the doors behind them. The hall was filled with an eerie silence, which was slowly broken by a great rushing sound. One would think that it was only the approaching storm until straining ears picked up the high pitched squeaking that accompanied it. Round and around the castle the
sound grew louder and louder broken only by the piteous cries of any animals that had been left outside.
Commoner and noble alike bent their heads and covered their ears and murmured prayers through whitened lips.
William stood stiffly with Alexi at his side. The young gypsy closed his eyes trying to calm his senses, to reach out and find the evil's origin. He stiffened abruptly clutching at the Prince's arm. William caught him as he fell to the floor, his eyes wide with dread.
"Alexi, what is it? What do you see?" William begged.
"In the mountains, by a lake, deep and dark, a mouth opens wide, hungry to swallow us all." Alexi gasped in pain.
Alexi froze and gripped the Prince's shoulder, "The mouth of Hell my friend. Hell has come to earth."
The bats besieged the castle and surrounding
countryside as the storm howled outside the walls. Nobility and peasant alike
huddled in the relative safety of the great hall and waited out the attack.
The King sat in stony silence his gazed fixed on phantoms only he could see. While Alexi recovered from his vision, William walked the hallways giving what comfort he could to the anxious people. Darla too walked among the frightened folk, serene and regal in bearing. She offered reassurance and a calming touch. She would kiss a weeping child and they would
instantly quiet. She bid her ladies to bring healing salves and soothing teas for the people. She caught young William's eye and gave a tiny smile before continuing her ministrations.
Alexi watched all this from his vantage point in the corner, his visage grim. There was a Hellmouth opening here and now he knew why he had been summoned. Now he knew what his task was to be and he knew too, that he would not survive. He trembled and tried to convince himself that it was with cold and not fear but he was not a good liar. He smiled sadly. He supposed in his heart of hearts he had known that William was the last person he would help. He had seen visions of the coming darkness for so many months and every vision ended with finding the Prince. There was no omen or sign beyond that one outcome. Still, he was only seventeen and hope springs eternal in the young even those who see the future.
William nodded to his aunt and continued his rounds among his subjects. He glanced at his father and sighed to himself. Even as he walked among the frightened people he found his eyes straying to Alexi. The young gypsy sat tensely, his face drawn and lined, looking older than his years. The Prince had not even let himself think of what Alexi had seen. If truth were told he was far too frightened. He had heard whispered tales of Hellmouth's. How they disgorged all manner of monsters and pestilence upon the land, creating a barren wasteland where once there had been life. There were tales of great heroes who had managed to close these portals to the netherworld before they had grown too large but in every tale the heroes died.
He smiled sadly to himself. He supposed he had known, when he first felt the wind in the forest, first seen Alexi's laughing face and heard his tale, he had known that this task set before him might be his last. He looked once more at his father, at his people and straightened imperceptibly. He was a Prince of the Realm and he had a duty to perform; he took a calming
breath and saw Alexi watching him. They shared a rueful smile while they made a silent pack. They would find this evil and they would destroy it or die trying. There really was nothing else to do.
Darla watched the young men with narrowed eyes. So the children had stiffened their spines had they? Well it would do them no good. She had walked this road too many times to let two puppies get in her way. Let them plan and plot; she was nothing if not patient. Besides, she had a few little surprises left up her sleeves for them. Her gaze lingered on the young gypsy, pity, and such a pretty boy. He'd make such a pretty toy. She glanced down at the mewling babe in her arms, its mother not three feet away. She bent down and kissed its little neck and the crying child instantly quieted. Darla licked her lips delicately before handing the baby back to its grateful mother.
William slid down the wall to sit next to Alexi.
"Are you better my friend?" the Prince asked as he handed the boy a cup of cool water.
"Better, yes thank you." Alexi took the water gratefully. He handed the cup back to the Prince and they sat in silence, listening to the high pitched squeaking from the reeling bats.
"Why haven't they tried to get into the castle?" William asked. "They could have gotten into the upper rooms before we had a chance to secure the windows."
"They've accomplished what they were sent for my friend. They have sown fear and confusion among the people and planted the seeds of despair in your father's heart."
William opened his mouth to protest but a single glance at his father's closed visage dissuaded him. Alexi clasped his hand and gave a single squeeze.
"I'm frightened Alexi." William said the words so quietly that they would have been lost had the young gypsy not been listening so closely.
He grasped the Prince's hand harder. "So am I my friend, so am I."
William closed his eyes briefly before they snapped open again. "Where is my Uncle? Where are Angelus and Drusilla? Alexi have you seen them?" William jumped to his feet.
Alexi rose more slowly but shook his head. "No, I saw your Uncle earlier but I did not see the Lady Drusilla." Being taller, he looked quickly among the various groups seated or standing in the great hall. He and William started forward when Alexi felt as if an icy hand had briefly caressed his neck.
"What ails you young sirs?" William spun about in surprise. His uncle stood behind them in the shadows of the hall. He stood so silently, so still like a statue, thought William. Like one of the dead, thought Alexi.
"It is Drusilla, we cannot find her." William stammered. "I do not see her in the crowd."
"Calm yourselves my young gentlemen. She was upstairs with the ladies earlier. I am sure she is still there." His uncle spoke softly, almost gently but the Prince could hear the faintest hint of steel in that voice.
Look to your own family and I will look to mine." His eyes appeared to flash briefly at the two boys before he turned away.
William stared at his uncle in shock. Angelus loved Drusilla. She was his Princess. He'd always said so. Even after the death of his beloved wife. Even when he left on dangerous missions, he still fretted and planned for his daughter's future. He adored her. But now on the day of his sister's funeral, in the midst of this horror, his uncle couldn't be bothered to find
his only child? William felt anger flare into life. He took a single step forward but the grip of Alexi on his arm diverted him.
Alexi gave a short shake of his head and William reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn away from the man.
"What is wrong with him? He loves her and he doesn't care where she is? I don't understand?" William begged Alexi to explain as they raced towards the stairs.
"He is sick my friend, perhaps too sick to help. I don't know." Alexi rubbed his face with a weary hand. The darkness was moving so quickly, too fast it seemed for two young men to stop yet stop it they must; even if it cost them their lives.
"We must find Drusilla, Alexi," William
grasped his friend's hand, distraught both over his Uncle's behaviour and
"We will my friend, come." Alexi turned to lead the way to the upper chambers but his heart was heavy with fear for the fey girl.
Darla's eyes gleamed cruelly as she watched the young men go in search of the friend.
The companions searched the castle from tower to dungeon, but they could find no trace of Drusilla. William's eyes gleamed with unshed tears. He looked to Alexi, but the gypsy's grim visage gave him no comfort. And throughout, the constant high-pitched squealing of the monstrous bats accompanied their steps.
They retraced their steps, returning to the great hall. William leaned wearily against the wall, his head bowed in sorrow. Alexi stared at his friend, unsure that mere words could offer ease to the young prince. Sensing Alexi's eyes upon him, William raised his head and clasped the young gypsy's arm in wordless communication. They stood in silence until William roused himself; he must inform his father and his uncle of his fears.
He stopped abruptly, cocking his head and listening carefully. He and Alexi shared a look.
"They are leaving, yes?" William asked hesitantly. Alexi nodded.
The people raised their heads gradually at first; unsure their prayers had been answered, fearing some ruse by the dark forces besieging their haven. Hesitantly they began to whisper then cry out loud, thanking God for his mercy in delivering them from this evil.
Yet in the midst of this thanksgiving, William and Alexi stood still and waiting, caught between one breath and the next, one heartbeat and the next.
A child's high scream rang out, cutting through the peoples' rejoicing.
"They've broken the white lady!" A little girl, no more than six, pointed out the chapel window. Other screams followed and several ladies fainted upon looking out the window.
Grim faced, Alexi and William made their way through the horrified crowd to the chapel's garden door. The sight that greeted their eyes was piteous. Drusilla lay in the midst of the courtyard, arms outstretched, eyes staring sightlessly into the now clear sky; a look of deep sorrow etched upon her face. There was no mark or color on her save a single drop of blood upon her lips, obscene in its intensity.
William dropped to his knees beside his beloved cousin, too wounded in grief to even weep. Alexi knelt by his side, noting the blood on the maiden's lips. He closed his eyes and prayed for the strength he would need in the coming days, for himself and his friend.
The King stared down at the body of his niece, little emotion on his face. He closed his eyes and seemed to rouse himself slightly.
"My son, bring your cousin inside. She shall keep your mother company in the darkness."
Bewildered, the Prince raised his head, "Father?"
"Come, come, your lady mother does not like to be kept waiting and night is coming." The King waved vaguely towards the western sky.
Alexi caught the Prince's eye and shook his head slightly, stepping forward to help the Prince.
Together, they carried Drusilla to upper chambers where the weeping ladies of the court waited to prepare the body.
Angelus stood in the shadows by Darla's side, both so silent and still. He made no motion, voiced no word as his child's body passed before him.
"Uncle, have you nothing to say?" William berated the silent man. Angelus blinked slowly and fixed the young man with a vacant stare, yet William shuddered, not wholly vacant, for deep in his Uncle's eye's something slithered briefly into the light. Darla gripped her husband's arm and stepped forward gracefully, her beautiful face painted with sorrow.
"Surely, my lord should not have to defend his grief to you of all people, young Prince. Must he keen and wail to prove his loss?" She questioned softly, her tone indicating nothing but bewilderment and just a hint of disappointment.
William swallowed his retort, feeling Alexi's hand grip his shoulder. He bowed stiffly to the pair and took his leave so he did not see the young gypsy's hard look at the couple or Darla's cold smile in return.
Alexi hurried to catch up to his friend.
* * * * * * * * * *
Drusilla's body was washed, she was dressed in her finest gown and for the second time the little chapel housed the body of a lady of the castle, waiting to be interned in the family crypt, next to her lady mother.
Alexi approached the Prince's chamber with heavy steps; two days had passed since Drusilla's death. She was to be laid for her final rest on the morrow. Alexi had prayed and prepared. He had sent a message to his Grandfather requesting aid but the tribe had left the area the year before to winter in the southlands and had not yet returned. He now feared the message would arrive too late. Drusilla's death had raised the stakes if what he suspected was true. He had tried to confirm his suspicions and as the young girl lay in the chapel but Angelus has ordered that a guard of honour keep constant watch over his daughter's body until her funeral and internment the next afternoon.
Alexi now had one last chance to perhaps save the young seeress's soul but it would require the Prince's help. Alexi knew that the Prince trusted him; he knew that William cared for him. He also knew that what he would ask would horrify the young man but he had no choice, Drusilla must not be allowed to rise as one of the undead.
Alexi steeled his resolve and scratched upon
the Prince's chamber door.
William himself answered, his eyes red from weeping, his face lined and weary beyond his years. Alexi pitied his friend's suffering and cursed that he must now add to it, but only William had a chance of saving Drusilla's soul.
"Alexi, come in my friend. Has something else happened?" William gestured to one of the chairs before the fire.
"No, nothing has happened yet but," Alexi sighed deeply and continued. "William, there are things I must tell you and I beg you to hear me out. My tale may seem fantastical to you but I swear that it is true. I hesitated to speak sooner. I prayed that I was wrong but recent events have borne out my suspicions."
William studied his friend's face for a moment then smiled sadly. "Best to be swift with bad news Alexi."
The young gypsy returned the sad smile before nodding decisively and beginning his tale. "Among my people there are stories of creatures that drink the blood of the living. They are the undead, creatures of darkness that inhabit the bodies of the dead, using those bodies to spread evil throughout the land. Those poor souls that are killed by these creatures are themselves condemned to rise from their graves and become vampires."
The young gypsy stopped for a moment before forging on in his tale; "Drusilla was killed by such a creature. Even now it inhabits her body lying in the chapel..."
"No." William had risen from his seat as Alexi's tale unfolded.
"Please William, you must listen to me. It has all ready been two days. Her body is to be interned next to her sainted mother on the morrow. And when the sun sinks below the horizon the creature that now grows inside her will claw its way out of the tomb and...."
"No, no, no," William turned away, shaking his head, fighting the childish urge to cover his ears to stop the horror.
Alexi continued, his voice stronger, "It will claw its way out of the tomb to stand beneath the stars. It will know everything that the Lady Drusilla knew." Alexi grabbed the distraught Prince, forcing him to meet his eyes.
"Everything William, do you understand, everything; her memories, her abilities, her power, all will exist for the vampire's benefit." Alexi felt his heart break at the look in his Prince's eyes and drew the distressed young man into his arms.
"I am so sorry my Prince, so sorry and if I could spare you this I would but events have moved beyond me."
William took a deep breath and straightened, clasping Alexi by the shoulders, "What do you need me to do, my friend?"
Alexi reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled forth a folded square of silk. He carefully unwrapped it to reveal a small gold cross lying on a thin communion wafer.
"You must place this cross upon her breast and this wafer on her forehead. I pray that we are not too late and that these blessed items may yet drive the creature from her and allow her soul to rest in peace but if it is too late." Alexi drew a dagger from the sheath on his belt.
William looked at it curiously for it was unlike any weapon he had ever seen; fashioned in the shape of a knife yet made of wood and engraved with symbols in a language he did not recognize. Alexi offered the blade to him, hilt first.
"If we are too late, than you must take this knife and plunge it into the lady's breast, piercing her heart."
William recoiled in shock, "No Alexi, it is blasphemy! I cannot desecrate my cousin's body!"
Alexi grabbed the Prince's shoulders and shook him. "You must! She cannot be allowed to rise and walk again William! Think that she would thank you for your fine sensibilities if she were here and knew that you did not stop this demon from using her memories and form to commit the vilest acts? She was a voice for the Powers of Light, my friend; her visions given to her in order that she might help those in need. This demon will still have that power William, the power to see into the future but now it will be turned wholly toward serving the evil that is loose upon this land and in this house." Alexi muttered the last under his breath.
William wrenched away from his friend, hearing the truth in his words.
"I would spare you this if I could but your uncle has placed a guard around her body and I cannot get close to her, but you a grieving cousin could not be turned away without causing suspicion."
William closed his eyes and shook his head in despair before turning a bleak countenance to the young gypsy and holding out a hand for the dagger. Alexi handed the weapon to him in silence.
"My uncle will try to stop me so you must create a diversion." William spoke flatly.
Alexi started in surprise and the Prince gave a bitter laugh. "I am not the na´ve boy who met you in the forest Alexi. My eyes have been opened and they become wider everyday."
He clasped the gypsy's shoulder, "I fear that you and I will be all that stand between the darkness and the dawn. You are the brains and I will be your weapon in this fight; together we will stop this horror or die in the attempt."
Alexi nodded and the two young men embraced, sealing their pact with a kiss. Alexi left to draw Angelus's attention from the chapel and William took a moment to steel his nerves. He glanced again at the small cross and wafer in his one hand and the dagger in the other, sending up a silent prayer for mercy before making his way to the chapel.
The honour guard stood in silent attention, stirring only slightly as the Prince appeared before them.
"Stand aside. I wish to pay my respects," the Prince commanded.
"Your Highness our orders are most strict; we are not to leave the Lady Drusilla's body unguarded, not even for a moment until the burial tomorrow. I am sorry."
The Prince held the Captain's eye for a moment then nodded in acknowledgement. "Very well but surely you will grant me some private time to voice my farewells and offer prayers for my cousin's soul. If I am here than the lady's body will not be left alone and if you stand at the doorway to the chapel than none may enter and my uncle's orders will be obeyed."
The Captain hesitated but he was a kind man and everyone knew of the love shared between the cousins. What harm could there be in allowing the young Prince some privacy in which to voice his grief? The Captain motioned his men away to the back of the chapel.
"I can only grant you a few minutes Your Highness."
"I understand Captain, that should be sufficient to bid my lady farewell."
Drusilla lay peacefully on a dais before the altar. She was dressed in a heavy brocade dress, threaded with gold, the kind of dress she would never have worn in life. William mindful of the time could not help but stare at his beloved cousin's face, searching desperately for some sign that Alexi was wrong but there was nothing, only the face of a young girl.
He glanced over his shoulder, the guards were turned away out of respect and William pulled the silk from his pocket, carefully withdrawing the cross and wafer. He mouthed a silent prayer and kissed the little cross and laid it on his cousin's breast before turning and
laying the wafer on her forehead as Alexi had shown him, holding his breath and waiting. For a moment nothing happened and he smiled in relief but then the wafer started to smoke and blacken and the cross began to glow with a fierce light.
The Prince gripped the dagger tightly unprepared despite his knowledge for the fury in Drusilla's eyes as they flew open. She hissed and her face distorted into a hideous parody of the cousin he loved so well. She clawed at the cross on her breast and the wafer scarring her forehead as she rose up from her bed, howling in pain and anger.
The guards cried out in horror at the sight before them. She growled low in her throat ignoring them in favor of the Prince.
"You're a very bad little boy and mommy's not pleased, no, not pleased at all." She swiped at him with nails like the talons of a beast.
William parried her attack by swiping the dagger across her outstretched palm and she howled in pain again as the knife sliced through the skin as if it were parchment. She snatched her hand back, bringing it to her mouth and looking at him in hurt reproach as
she sucked softly on the wound.
"William that hurt!" She pouted and her face shifted suddenly, melting from demonic to familiar before his very eyes.
William groaned in pain, staring at those features, so similar to his darling cousin's but distorted now by the hole the symbol burned into her forehead, proclaiming her damnation clearly for all to see.
The guards had moved closer but William held his hand to halt their movement forward. Drusilla ignored them, focused only on the Prince. She held out her hand in supplication.
"William, it's your sweet princess; don't you know me?" She held a hand to her forehead in seeming confusion. "I don't understand what's happened to me. Please, help me?"
William, his eyes misty with unshed tears took her hand in his as she alighted from her byre,
disregarding the guard Captain's cry.
"I'll help you sweet; haven't I always?" He drew her close to him, ignoring the flicker of cold triumph that lit her eyes. She stood within the circle of his arms and smiled at him and for a moment he saw the echo of his dear playmate and companion in his eyes. He returned the smile and drew her to his breast and felt the first brush of sharp teeth upon his neck before he drove the knife into her un-beating heart. She jerked back sharply and stared into his face.
"Will?" She whispered in soft confusion before she disappeared before his eyes and only ashes and the tiny gold cross remained in memoriam. The Prince cried out in anguish falling to his knees, his tears falling to mix with the vestiges on the chapel floor.
A roar from above echoed his cry and within minutes Angelus appeared at the chapel door.
"What have you done boy?! Answer me, what have you done?" His hand dropped to the sword at his hip.
"My lord, a demon...." The Captain tried to calm him but Angelus struck him savagely away, his eyes fixated on the figure of the Prince.
William reached out, picking up the cross and slowly stood, wiping his eyes before turning and facing his uncle. The guardsmen shuddered at the Prince's face, no longer the face of a youth, but of a man who knew too much of sorrow.
William met the black gaze of this man he called family and his voice when he answered was cold. "I killed a demon Uncle and freed the soul of your daughter. Surely that's what you would have done had you been here?"
Angelus made no answer, his eyes still staring in fury at the Prince. As if the shadows had conjured her, Darla appeared by her husband's side, her hand dropping to his sword arm. He glanced at her and she gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head before turning to the Prince, her gaze speculative.
"Please forgive your Uncle Your Highness. His grief has clouded his mind, of course he would have done the same thing, had he but known. Indeed with all the frightful things that have occurred these past months, you can now understand why he wished a guard to be
placed around his daughter's body. Alas, even a loving parent's best precaution did not prevent this abomination." She curtsied deeply. "You have our most humble gratitude."
William grit his teeth but mindful of the audience that had gathered he struggled to remain civil.
She tugged lightly on Angelus' arm and he moved to follow her as meekly as a puppy. She paused briefly and turned again to the Prince. "Indeed, if even the most beloved of the nobility is not safe, what protection do the rest of us have?" She smiled a sweet, sad smile
that did not reach her eyes before turning away to follow her husband.
It was only then that William realized that neither Alexi nor his father were in the crowd of frightened castle folk that had gathered at the chapel door. He pushed through the crowd, ignoring the questions hurled at him.
"Where are the King and Alexi?" Silence was his only reply.