The climb to the little used courtyard on the far side of the castle was steep. Camus led the way holding bushes and tree trunks aside for the Seeker and his young niece to pass. Once Megge caught her foot in the meandering vines on the forest floor and nearly tumbled head over heels down the slope. But the Seeker, climbing below her, caught her cape and pulled her to safety.
Evening was beginning to fall and the ground was becoming more and more treacherous as they neared the top of the bluff. The Seeker was beginning to fear they would have to settle in and wait for the dawn. But just as she was ready to advise of this, Camus called out quietly that he’d found the path to the gate. As they came over the rise they could see the green lawn of the courtyard through the iron bars. A great golden coin, depicting the story of creation hung in the air above the gate, buoyed by a field of magick. A small brown rabbit crept from the underbrush, twitched its nose and darted off on its way.
Quickly Camus took the key from the Seeker and slid it into the lock. They could hear the pins turn in the muted surroundings of the forest. The gate itself squealed on unoiled hinges. It was obvious it had not been used in a very long time. The three paused for some moments before continuing on to see if the screeching had alerted the guards. When it appeared all was well, they crept through the magic shimmering below the great coin. The Seeker’s body tingled as it touched her skin. She wondered if the spell would have any affect on them.
The moon was shrouded behind gray clouds providing them with plenty of shadowy cover as they scrambled around the edges of the courtyard. Camus moved quickly, sure of his way. Megge followed holding the chest tightly, trying, with little success, to keep the coins from rattling inside.
“We will go round the turret wing and enter the castle from the grand hall where Megge can ask for an audience with the imposter,” whispered Camus.
“But it’s so late,” said the Seeker. “Will he see her?”
“I have no doubt he will. From what I’ve heard Dwennon greatly enjoys playing the role of benevolent ruler. He will be more than happy to see the child. Even at this hour of the night.”
The Seeker’s eyebrows rose in doubt.
Megge was becoming agitated. “But what about mama? Will he let her go when I give him the chest?”
Camus would not lie to her. “I doubt it, child. But I will distract him as best I can. It is up to you, Megge, and you, Seeker, to find Edwena and release her. This,” he said, placing the key in the Seeker’s hand, “is a skeleton key. It will fit most all the locks in the castle. Get to the room where Edwena is being held. Megge should know which hallway since she has seen her mother there. When you have found her, make your way to the side courtyard and return to the village the way we came.”
“But what of you, Camus?” The Seeker was feeling frantic. “We can’t leave you here to deal with Dwennon all alone!” The anger began to rise in her again and the foolishness that always accompanied her rash decisions, held sway over her common sense.
“Fear not for me, young one. I have faith that the Creator has already sent the help I need. King Aelfraed is surely near by now.” Camus closed her hand over the key and laid his arm across her shoulder to show his faith in her. Then he gathered Megge to himself and bade her farewell. The Seeker wondered if he never expected to see them again.
As calmly as they could, they entered the castle through the grand hall where they found two guards at the ready. At first their request to see the KING was met with suspicion, but then Megge step forward and showed them the chest. “This is for the King,” she said. The older of the two shrugged and the other went to fetch the King. Upon his return he ushered the three into the small hall where the King met one-on-one with the citizens of the land. A fire blazed in the tall stone hearth and the shivering that had rattled her bones finally subsided as the Seeker drew near the flames.
She was surprised to see the man still dressed in his royal robes. He wore a long, flowing red cape over green vestments. On the hem of the cape rode a salamander. She had read about salamanders and how they could change their color to blend in to their surroundings. It did not surprise her, therefore, this man would choose such a symbol for his sigil. He strode forward, his wand held out before him in a threatening manner. His face showed displeasure at being bothered this time of night. The Seeker could sense Camus’ agitation as the false king stood before him. Fortunately for Camus, the hall was dark and Dwennon did not recognize him.
“What do you want?” Dwennon growled. “Why do you come here at this hour? I should have you taken to the dungeons until tomorrow’s audience.” But as he bellowed and feigned anger, his eyes never left the chest in Megge’s arms. He knew exactly who she was. Turning to the Seeker he said, “Foolish girl. You would have been far wiser to have found better traveling companions.”
The Seeker clenched her fist around the staff she held. Everything in her wanted to hurt this man. But even as the thought crossed her mind, she remembered the white feather and the ruby stone in her pack she had left in the valley with Camus’ wands. No, she breathed. This is not who I am…
Brave beyond measure, Megge stepped forward. “If you please, your majesty, I have brought the chest of coins to purchase my mother’s freedom just as you asked.” She moved as close to the man as she dared and sat the chest on the floor between them. Then stiffening her upper lip she said, “May I take her home now?”
“Stupid child!” roared Dwennon. “Did you really think I would release that woman after the way she has thwarted all my advances? I would have made her my queen, yet she chose to be a lowly commoner. There is not enough gold in all the land for me to set the shrew free!” Dwennon turned to the two guards and pointed with his wand. “Take them to the cells!”
But before the guards could move, Camus threw himself toward the imposter in the hope of giving the others a chance to escape. Both guards were on him before he ever reached Dwennon. They held him by the arms between them.
Dwennon’s face skewed into an ugly sneer. “I KNOW you! You are Aelfraed’s Wand Bearer! Where is he?” When Camus refused to answer Dwennon pointed his wand at his chest, utter a spell, and a stream of magick hit Camus full force, driving him to his knees. Distracted now by the possibility that his brother Aelfraed, the rightful ruler of the land, may be near, the imposter paid no attention to Megge and the Seeker. Nor did he see them slip from the room…
© Cheryl D. Carter
Picture Credit — personal (see also www.aeclectic.net)