slumbering camp exploded into chaos as eerie spine-shivering cries ripped the
night asunder. Terrified, the boy jerked upright, heart thundering in his ears
as his gaze skittered about wildly. Disoriented at being yanked from a sound
sleep, the prince clambered to his feet, calling fearfully for his mother. There
was no answer.
One of the guardsmen kicked apart the smoldering remnants of the evening's cookfire with a booted foot, scooping the little prince up into his arms. "No, Raethan!" cried the boy, struggling vainly to free himself. He could smell the fear on his kinsman, and struggled all the more. "I want my mother! Where is my mother?"
lakeside camp swarmed with frenzied activity as the men of the guard snatched
for their weapons, scrambling to vantage points on the rocky cliffs. Raethan
ducked behind a large boulder into the mouth of a shallow cavern and handed the
squirming boy to the queen, who knelt in the entranceway.
"He is here, my
lady," the young guard grunted, wincing from the well-placed blow delivered
by the prince's sharp elbow. "As I promised," he continued, with a
smile and a low bow. He laid a fond hand on the boy's head for an instant then
whirled on his heel and vanished back into the night.
prince threw his arms around his mother's neck and clung to her in desperation,
his face hidden in her dark hair. It smelled comfortingly of lavender and
sunshine. "What is happening, Mother? I don't understand."
stroked the boy's own unruly mane with a soothing caress. "There now,
little one, dry your tears. Hush now, beloved. You must be very, very
boy swallowed hard and willed the sobs to stop. "Yes, Mother," he
whispered brokenly. He tried to be brave to please her, but his heart hammered
in his chest like a frightened starling beating against the cage of his ribs.
my boy." She tilted his face upward until he could see her grave
expression. "You must stay hidden, here in this cave, no matter what you
see or hear. Do you understand that, my darling?"
prince nodded, sniffing back the threatening tears.
boy," she murmured, smoothing the damp tangles away from his face with a
gentle hand. "You are getting so big now. You must be very, very brave.
Remember what I have said. Do not leave this cave."
nodded again, the tears threatening to spill
over. His lip trembled and he bit it, hard, to keep from sobbing. The hot copper
taste of blood filled his mouth.
this," the queen continued, her tone brisk as she pressed a small, flat
disk into the palm of his hand, closing his fingers over it. "Do not drop
it, no matter what happens outside this cave. Keep it with you always. It is
very, very important."
prince gulped. What was happening? Mother never spoke to him like this,
repeating herself as if to make certain he heard her. Her restless hands
flitting from his hair, to his cheek, to his shoulder, sent a shiver through
him. It was as if she must memorize the feel of him, as if she would never touch
him again. It frightened him.
The cries from beyond the camp were nearer now and the queen darted a quick look outside. "Now, go and hide behind that rock," she ordered, pointing to the rear of the shallow chamber. She rose from her knees and turned toward the door, her figure straight and slender as a young oak.
he choked out, reaching toward her.
glanced back over her shoulder. "Yes?"
my precious boy!" The queen flew to his side and hugged him to her with
bone-crushing ferocity, bewildering him even further. "I love you so
much." Planting a fleeting kiss on his forehead, she cautioned once more.
"Remember. Stay hidden and silent. No matter what you may hear. And do not
drop that amulet!" She flung the final words back at him from the doorway.
Then she was gone.
little prince cowered on one knee behind the rock, willing himself smaller. His
fear shrouded him like a winding-sheet, threatening to smother him but
he forced himself to keep breathing; one, two; one, two; one, two. Even
with his hands pressed tightly over his ears and
eyes screwed resolutely shut, the boy could not block the sounds completely.
There was a swift, singing ‘swish’ as arrows
flew from twanging bowstrings, replaced all too soon by the heavy, clanging ring
of steel on steel that told him the arrows had failed their tasks. More hideous
shrieking war cries mingled with the clash of swords and anguished screams of
pain to create a symphony of death.
rolled unchecked from under his scrunched lids as the boy muffled his sobs
against a sleeve. “She said to be quiet,” he
whispered. “So be quiet. Be quiet!”
he was tempted to release the pent up screams rising to choke him, certain that
no one would be able to hear him above the dire cacophony outside the cave.
the battleground beside the lake became ominously
silent. Unable to resist the impulse that drew him, the prince crawled
cautiously to the front of the cave. He peeked around the boulder, the amulet
from his mother clutched in his hand. He knew it was wrong to disregard her
order, but the need for reassurance outweighed his obedience. Surely, this is
all a nightmare, he reasoned. I will wake up safe in my own bed tomorrow, and
mother will dry his tears and call me a baby for worrying so.
the sharp stones that dug into his knees as he inched forward sent the bird in
his chest on another careening flight. They were too real for nightmare. Rising
to his feet, he stepped closer.
glimmering starlight, augmented here and there by a scattered firebrand burning
fitfully to light the campground with flickers of sullen flame. The scene
held the breathless stillness of a theater before the curtain lifted, but there
would be no encore here. Shadowy illumination outlined crumpled bodies and
splintered bows. The air was redolent with the heavy, metallic stench of blood,
and a sickly, sweet reek that hinted of a body too near one of the flaming logs.
boy stuffed his fist into his mouth to keep from screaming. His soul reeled from
the pain he sensed permeating the atmosphere in almost palpable waves. He kept
from collapsing by sheer willpower alone, until his horrified gaze fell upon a
tense confrontation occurring in the center of the destruction and a cold
numbness rocked him back on his haunches. He froze, a silent, stone spectator at
the grisly play.
His mother stood proudly before a tall young man unevenly limned by one of the guttering embers. The man had strange eyes that glittered with a copper malevolence, even in the uneven light of the fire. His clothes were a rich black that drank in what light there was and gave none back. Silver studs accented the shoulders and slim waist of his tunic. In his gloved hand, he toyed with an ominous dagger that flashed red when it caught the firelight.
queen’s arms were pinned behind her by a
hulking brute whose features were hidden beneath the hood of a cloak. She was
pale in the flickering firelight, a trickle of blood, black in the dim light,
running down her chin from the corner of her mouth. About the ruins of the camp,
shadowy figures watched the confrontation, all eyes focused on the tableau and
the boy ventured to creep a bit closer. Apart from the queen, all the survivors
appeared to belong to the marauders. The prince saw none of the guard and his
were twenty men in the guard. Surely they can’t all be slain? he thought,
stifling an inadvertent whimper with a hand clapped instantly to his mouth. The
kingdom’s best archers…all dead?
is the boy?" snarled the man in black, every muscle vibrating with urgency.
"He is not here!"
will never tell you, Norfulk Roderickson. You shall not vanquish my son,"
the queen answered with a calm dignity.
Perhaps I should ask someone a little more amenable to persuasion." He
snapped his fingers and two of the raiders dragged forth a guardsman so badly
beaten that his features were unrecognizable. Just then, the prisoner tilted his
head in a familiar cocked gesture and gave the man in black a wry, sweet smile.
The world dimmed a little around him as the prince fought to control himself. He
bit down sharply on his hand to stifle the cry that surged to his lips. Raethan
was his mother’s younger cousin and he had never hurt a soul in his life. He
was a favorite of the entire court. The boy growled deep in his throat like a
wounded animal. A mist of tears blurred the scene but he dashed them away.
is only a guard because Father loves him so. He shouldn’t even be here. He
should be home with the baby. Even I can do better with a sword. He is no
fighter. He’s teaching me to play the lute. He shouldn’t be here. He
shouldn’t be here.” The prince whispered the words like a charm, as if the
repetition would negate the reality.
as if he heard the boy’s whispered litany, Norfulk snapped,
"You don’t belong here, bard. Tell me where the brat has gotten to
and I may spare your life."
straightened to the best of his ability and drawled, "Why? Has he gone
missing? I'm sure he must be about here somewhere." He squinted about him
then shook his head casually, though the prince could see the pain behind the
movement. "I don't have the vaguest idea where he could have gone."
is too bad," replied the man in black. His voice dripped ice. He nodded to
Raethan's guards and each took one of the musician's fine-boned hands and
crushed it in his own. Agony contorted the lutanist's features further but he
remained grimly silent.
took a step closer to Raethan, looming over the bard. "Where is the
. . .don't . . .know," Raethan panted, breath whistling between his teeth
as he fought to sublimate the pain.
die," hissed Norfulk, thrusting his dagger home between Raethan's ribs and
giving it a savage twist.
A look of anguished surprise brushed the bard's face and his knees buckled beneath him. His tormentors released the captive. He crumpled forward and was still.
"No!" cried the queen, grief choking her voice. She lunged toward her kinsman but her own captor held her fast. "Monster!" she spat at Norfulk, eyes glittering with fury and unshed tears. "You will never inherit my son's throne. Never!"
we haven't given him the right incentive to show himself." Giving a sharp
nod to the brute pinning the queen's arms, Norfulk bared his teeth in a wolfish
grin while the raider yanked her shoulder out of
Caught off guard, the queen screamed in agony and Norfulk called out, "Do you hear that boy? You can save her further torment. All you have to do is show yourself!"
prince instinctively took a half step forward then wavered. His mother had made
him promise to stay hidden. He moaned to himself, pressing his face against the
hard stone of the boulder. Barely five, he didn't know how to help her without
falling into the evil Norfulk's hands and the very thought of that fate froze
him with terror.
raider kicked the queen’s feet out from under her and she fell to her knees,
wrenching her wounded arm brutally. Through lips white with pain, she panted,
"I have seen the finish of the journey, Norfulk Roderickson. My son will
defeat you in the end!"
you will never see it," Norfulk roared, slashing out with a vicious jerk of
his dagger and slitting her throat.
The cry tore from his throat involuntarily as the prince bolted toward her
are you boy?" howled Norfulk, his face a bloody mask. "Show
yourself!" He stared directly at the terrified prince. And looked right
Mind jittering with fright, the child felt a sharp prick from the hand clutching the little amulet and he almost threw it to the ground. Then his mother's warning rang in his ears, “Do not drop it. No matter what happens!” and he clasped his fingers even tighter, taking some comfort from the sharp reality of the pain in a world gone suddenly mad.
The bloody apparition of Norfulk moving toward him, searching from side to side like a blind bear, sent the bird trapped in the boy’s chest into a frenzy, as if it would dash itself to pieces against his bones. Turning on his heel, the boy ran, swift as a deer, away from the horrors beside the lake.
reasoning had gone away and he reacted now with the instinct of an animal
stalked by a predator. The moon had set and the stars cast little glow upon the
ground at his feet. He ran blindly for some distance, before stumbling painfully
to his knees when his toe caught on
an unseen obstacle. He staggered to his feet and on without pause. His
terror drove him forward, fleeing from the certainty of Norfulk's evil into the
dangers of the unknown. Hot tears cooled into icy tracks on his cheeks as the
night wind caught them and he swiped at them with a grimy fist as he ran. The
landscape was deathly silent and he could hear his ragged, sobbing breaths as he
fought to stay on his feet. He had always been a fast runner. Now he called up
every ounce of speed he possessed. Come on, you can do this, he told himself.
Just a little further; a little further!
He skirted a quarter of the distance around the lake and was finally beginning to regain some control over his thoughts when a searing pain lanced up his side. Gasping, he jammed a fist into the ache, willing the cramp away but it intensified. Reining himself in to a ragged trot, he panted against the pain, massaging the spot with the heel of his hand. As he glanced back over his shoulder to see if he was being followed, the prince stumbled again, this time falling headlong and striking his temple on a stone beside the road. A blinding wave of agony washed over him and he found himself rolling helplessly down a jagged incline. He fought to stop himself; his arms and legs pinwheeling as he bounced from rock to rock. His unprotected face and hands were scraped and torn. Thorns ripped bloody troughs from the tender exposed skin. A stand of brambles finally broke his fall, springing up around him and screening him from the road. He tried to stand but his legs refused to hold him and his head swam dizzily. He could barely see the road from where he lay, but he could still see the glitter of Norfulk’s eyes in his mind’s eye. He crawled a little further into the thicket to assure he was hidden before collapsing into unconsciousness.