A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 06

byslyc_willie©

"Ahh!" John cried out as the wizard's slender blade slashed across his left shoulder, inches away from slicing through his neck. He stumbled back, falling to the bridge, his sword slapping hard against the bridge planks.

"All men are fools," hissed Bagdemagus, lifting his blade in both hands, ready to stab it down into John's heart.

The sharp twang of a powerfully-coiled line snapping forward barely preceded a red-fletched arrow as it sunk deep into Bagdemagus' chest. The wizard shuddered, then took a single step back, looking up with murderous eyes as Eric ran forward, already taking another bolt from his quiver. At the same time, John was rolling onto his feet, and even Cedric had some will left within him.

Bagdemagus made a quick decision, and leapt onto the edge of the bridge, above the swift-flowing waters below. Unceremoniously, he ripped free the quarrel from his chest and dropped it to the ground. His eyes met those of the three young men in turn.

"Another time, gentlemen," he intoned, then stepped from the bridge.

"No!" cried John, lurching forward. Beside him, his crossbow just loaded, Eric appeared, looking down as well. But the churning waters below, if they held the wizard, were not telling.

"Damn him!" yelled John, hammering the pommel of the sword upon the wooden rail.

"Methinks that has already been done," mused Eric darkly, sounding more calm and controlled than his younger friend. He glanced back. "The wizard is gone. We had best see to Cedric and Rebecca."

"But—" began John, his blood still boiling.

"But, nothing," said Eric firmly. He gave John a stern look. "Only a fool pursues a winless fight."

John seethed a moment, then forced reason into his mind. He glanced to Cedric, curled up against the side of the bridge, clutching his blood side. "You are right, of course."

Further down the bridge, Rebecca stared at the three men, the men who had come to slay her lover, the man of her dreams . . . she shook her head, frowning. No, wait . . . was he . . . is he . . . she was confused, fighting against the inclination in her mind that told her she existed to serve the will of Bagdemagus, her master.

Her eyes roamed over the three men, whom she knew were good at heart. John, the gentle yet strong, quiet stableboy, Eric, the boisterous giant, and Cedric . . . oh, Cedric . . . her protector.

But how could that be? Why would they need to defend her from her master? Her master was all that mattered in her life! He was her life!

Was he not?

Overwhelmed, Rebecca buried her face in her hands and wept.

***

Word spread quickly throughout the castle even before the three men returned. By the time Rebecca, John and Eric, leading the horse upon which a grievously wounded Cedric was slumped, appeared through the gates, the guard and hospitalers were at the ready. They took Cedric down, placed him upon a litter.

Queen Evelyn, flanked by the new personal guard assigned her by Prince Drest, stared at her lifelong friend as he was borne away. She made the immense effort to hold back her tears. A monarch does not allow herself the luxury of emotion, she told herself, recalling her recently-learned lessons.

She steeled herself and faced the three figures now escorted before her. Her handmaiden, the groom Eric, and the stablehand John. Flanked by guardsmen, the three of them hung their heads in shame before her.

"Rebecca, to your chambers," Evelyn ordered. "I will speak with you later."

"Yes, my Queen," she whispered, and stepped away, framed by a quartet of guards. The Queen addressed the two men before her.

"What happened?"

John and Eric exchanged looks. Eric spoke first. "It appears your handmaiden, milady, was threatened by a rogue of some sort. Cedric was first to challenge him—"

"A rogue!" cried John. He looked to his Queen. "'Twas not a rogue, your highness. 'Twas him. The Spectre That Walks. And he was wounded."

Evelyn caught her breath. "Are you certain?"

"We cannot be—" began Eric.

"Yes!" snapped John. He took a brave step toward his Queen, knowing he was overstepping his bounds. He, John, stablehand and grandson of a whore, meeting the Queen's gaze. He made the supreme effort to remain calm, yet fiercely sincere. "My Queen, it was him. I know not what evil deeds he intended to commit upon your handmaiden, but if he is able to come close to her, then . . . if I may say, your highness, you are not safe. I have seen this bastard about before. Here, in the castle."

Evelyn frowned with concern. "What?"

"John, you know not what you speak!"

John shot a look to his friend. His eyes flared intently. "Yes. I. Do!"

Eric seethed, but fell silent. He lowered his eyes.

John continued: "Your highness, I have heard all the stories, but always thought them the works of frightened minds and grey-haired old spinsters. But I stand before you, with this wound on my arm and fierceness in my heart, to say that I know Bagdemagus is real. I have faced him."

Evelyn search the stable hand's eyes. "You are certain of this."

John nodded. "I am."

Evelyn was quiet a long moment, her eyes averted as she considered what she had been told. "Your name is John, yes?"

He nodded, and bowed. "I am your servant, milady."

"I will think on what you have told me," the Queen said. "In the morning, I may call for you."

John stepped back. "Yes, your highness," he said.

Evelyn's hazel eyes swept to those of Eric, who met her gaze for a moment before casting his down. For all his words, Evelyn could not hope but think that all John had said could be mirrored in Eric's words, if only the man would speak them.

"It has been a long night," Evelyn finally declared, for all to hear. "I want all guards on alert, and there are to be no visitors to the castle tonight. None! I do not care if it is the Earl of Westlake or the Duke of Grandsleigh! Let them camp outside the walls, or find a room at the inn."

"Yes, your highness!"

With a swish of her petticoats, Evelyn followed the light of lanterns toward the infirmary of the castle, where her friend lay.

***

"The wound was surprisingly clean, your highness," the surgeon told her. "Although the blade when straight through, it appears to have missed all the major organs. Even with the loss of blood, it appears Cedric will make a fast recovery."

Evelyn allowed herself a smile as she breathed out. "That is good news," she said. She met the aged man's eyes. "May I see him?"

The surgeon smiled thinly. "Were you not my Queen, I might say no," he said. He gestured behind him, into the infirmary proper. Pale light from candles within sconces bathed the room in an orangish glow. It was a soft, comfortable light, pleasing to the senses.

"Thank you," Evelyn said, stepping past the surgeon. At her entrance to the room, the hospitalers retreated, leaving their regent alone with the valiant young guardsman.

Cedric lay sublime upon the bed, simple white sheets covering his body to his chest. His face was expressionless, relaxed in sleep. His hands lay upon his abdomen.

"My hero," whispered Evelyn with a small laugh through her nose as she sat upon the edge of the bed. She took one of Cedric's hands, gripped it gently. For a long moment, she simply gazed upon his face.

"I remember," Evelyn began, her lips twitching with a smile. "I think I was about eight, or nine. We used to play this game, down by the river. I was the queen, and you were my champion. You killed demons and devils and goblins and ghouls, all to save me."

Her eyes swelled, reddening with tears. She sniffled. "Now look at us: I am the Queen, and you have just faced the devil . . . ." her words became choked in sobs as she leaned over, touching her forehead to Cedric's hand. She shuddered for a moment, letting her tears spend themselves, soaking into the sheets that covered the young man. Abruptly, she jerked herself upright, cleared her thick throat.

"You will not leave me, Cedric," she said firmly. "I do not let my friends go. You have been there, every bit my brother as the brother I never had, and you are not going to leave me now!"

Cedric's eyes flickered. His hands squeezed Evelyn's.

The Queen smiled softly, laughing beneath her breath with elation. "Yes, that's it, brother. Don't leave me."

Slowly, Cedric's eyes opened. They struggled to focus. The blurry form before him slowly coalesced into one he knew well. He smiled crookedly.

"Evie," he said through dry lips.

Evelyn trembled, fresh tears flowing. She leaned over her friend, her brave guardsman, ran her hands through damp hair. "That's it, Cedric, come back to me."

His smile grew to a rakish grin. His eyes flickered heavily. "He's just a man," he whispered. "I wounded him."

Evelyn's smile faded. "Did you?"

Cedric nodded slowly. "He . . . he's a wizard, but . . . he's still . . . just a man . . . ."

Cedric's grip tightened for a moment upon Evelyn's, then relaxed as he gave in to the temporary oblivion of sleep. The Queen gazed upon him fondle, stroked his hair, kissed his cheek. Then she rose.

Benedict was waiting for her at the archway of the infirmary. Evelyn was not all that surprised.

"I believe we should talk," he said grimly.

The Queen took in a breath, meeting the Chancellor's gaze. "My chambers," she said.

***

Evelyn lead the way into her chambers, leaving Benedict by the door. After weeks of suffering his pompous pretentiousness, she decided to give the man a bit of his own medicine. She left him behind as if she would any servant in the castle, not that it was the Queen's habit to do so.

Her anteroom was spacious, adorned with all the finery that seven generations of kings and queens could bestow. Tapestries, furnishings, rugs, and trinkets, all of the finest quality, lent the Queen's private chambers an air of regality and power all their own.

"You don't approve of me," Evelyn said, approaching her vanity. She began removing her earrings. "That is fine. I don't much care for you, either."

She caught Benedict's insulted look in her mirror, but spoke before he could. "But should that really surprise you?"

She dropped her earrings into the ornamental box on her vanity and turned about, fixing Benedict with a direct look she had never given before. "You served my father well, and as a citizen of Vix, I suppose I should thank you. But now, I am your Queen. You may not like it, and I suspect you do not, but now you serve me."

Benedict bristled. "I did not come here to discuss the balance of power," he said. "We both serve the kingdom."

Evelyn glanced away. "Yes, that is true," she said. Her eyes flashed back to his. "Then what did you come here for?"

Benedict stepped forward. "Do you know how many times your father, King Richard, was married?"

Evelyn frowned. "Four times, including my mother."

"Six," corrected Benedict. He impulsively straightened his waistcoat. "Six wives, not all of them queens, with your mother as the first. And not one gave Richard an heir. In fact, not one bore any children at all."

Evelyn ground her teeth. "And he sent them all to death for failing to provide a 'worthy' heir," she spat. "I will not mince words. My father was a devil, an evil bastard as terrible as Bagdemagus could ever be!"

Benedict raised a single finger. "Perhaps," he said as he paced. "Or perhaps he was not nearly as smart as he thought he was."

Evelyn slanted her eyes in suspicion. "What do you mean?"

"You must think upon the odds that a man would take six women to his bed, and of all of them, only one would give birth, and to a girl-child, rather than the male he desired. And that being only the first, with the following five being, mysteriously, barren."

"What are you getting at?"

Benedict stopped pacing and faced the Queen. "Your father's troubles were not the random acts of chance," he said. "King Richard was a petty and greedy king. He hated the thought of his mortality. He deigned to believe he could live forever. And, to that end, he entered into an . . . agreement."

"With . . . whom?" asked Evelyn warily.

Benedict smiled crookedly. "Ah, now you are beginning to think," he said. "With whom, indeed. Whom, you ask, would have the power to change the fates, and guarantee a male child to spring forth from Richard's loins . . . a child to be sculpted, shaped, and formed into his own image. A child into which Richard, himself, could live again . . . and again, and again . . . ."

Evelyn swallowed nervously. "You speak madness," she said.

Benedict laughed. "Aye, that I do!" he exclaimed. "For Richard's plan was madness! And fostered by a darker insanity, that used him, consumed him." His face dropped; he looked suddenly reticent. "I realized too late what was happening, and by then, you were already born. Richard was furious; he ordered the hospitalers and wardens and surgeons tending your mother to leave."

Evelyn backed away, colliding with the vanity behind her, making perfumed vials and jars of fragrant powders shake. "I don't believe you," she pushed out in a frightened huff.

Benedict's eyes met hers. "You had better," he said meaningfully. His eyes drifted away again as he continued: "But there was some heart left within your father. He could not see you smothered, or otherwise snuffed away; instead, he ordered you banished, gave you to a childless couple in the village. I like to believe that he saw, in that moment of your birth, the salvation to the evil he had begun."

Evelyn gripped the edges of the table beneath her. "What are you talking about?" she nearly screamed.

"I am talking about you," Benedict said solemnly. "Your father sought to insure his own immortality through a bargain with the devil. Or to be more precise, a devil of a wizard named Bagdemagus. But he ruined that bargain, in some way, and the devil took his due. Instead of a son, Richard sired you, a girl-child. And he never sired anything again. In a way, it seemed the devil insured that you would inherit the throne."

"That does not make sense," Evelyn said. "Why would Bagdemagus want me to take the throne?"

Benedict shrugged. "That is one thing I do not know," he said. He jabbed a scarred finger toward the young monarch. "And it is the one thing you must figure out."

***

It was long past midnight. The castle and the village had quieted down. Only the lonely howls of wolves upon the moors could be heard now and then.

Evelyn sat at her writing desk, a quill dipped in ink poised in her hand. Her journal lay open beneath her, yet she could not think of what to write. So much had happened within the few weeks in which she had gone from a simple peasant girl gathering mushrooms for the apothecary to the law-giver of the land. To put it all down seemed . . . typical.

Her parents -- Michael and Rachel -- had done what they could, reminding her of her heritage and the potential eventuality that Evelyn might grace the throne some day. But what they had always told her had always seemed like fairy tales. Every girl wants to think she might become a beautiful princess, and marry a handsome prince . . . .

Now, however, Evelyn had surpassed the fairy tales. She was not a princess, she was a Queen. She was the voice of the land. She could declare that all men wear purple kilts on Tuesdays, and her decree would have to be obeyed under penalty of law.

Evie allowed herself a small laugh at the idea of every man in Vix parading about in purple kilts. But the mirth faded. Just because I can, she thought. It does not mean I should.

"You are up late."

Evelyn stiffened at the sound of the voice, but did not give in to her immediate sense of fear. Instead, she curled her fingers about the slim hilt of the silver letter-opener upon her desk. She spoke over her shoulder.

"Have you come for me, now?" she asked.

There came a dark chuckle. "Perhaps."

Evelyn turned in her chair, deftly slipping the silver blade beneath the billowing sleeves of her nightgown. She faced the dark-garbed man who now stood in her room. The hooded lanterns reflected their light off the dull silver toggles on his coat. The man's face was anything but aged; Evelyn was tempted to believe the man before her had not even seen thirty summers. But the age -- the evil -- was revealed in his dark, swirling eyes.

"No," she said, pushing slowly to her feet.

Bagdemagus cocked his head. "No?"

"No," the Queen repeated, maintaining her gaze upon his. It seemed the only thing that supported her strength. "You haven't come for me. You need me."

The wizard's eyes narrowed slightly. "Oh, do I, now?"

"You always have," Evelyn said. She slowly smiled, a mad, reckless smile. "You can't kill me."

Bagdemagus lifted a hand and wagged a finger back and forth. "Tsk, tsk, tsk," he clucked. "Don't count your chickens just yet."

Evelyn stepped closer, a bravery she had never known funneling itself through her veins. Inches from the wizard, she looked up at him, her eyes blazing. "Cock-a-doodle-do," she said flippantly.

Bagdemagus laughed, albeit uneasily. He stepped back. "Such a silly girl," he remarked.

"A silly girl you need," she retorted. She brought up her hands, the one clutching the bright, sterling blade aimed for the wizard's heart.

But Bagdemagus was quick, and he caught her wrists. He glared upon her. "Heed your station," he whispered harshly. "You serve your people. And a good regent should be willing to sacrifice herself for the good of all."

Evelyn found herself whirled about, the copious robes of her gown flying up around her head. She cried out, stumbling to the floor, landing upon her back, staring up at the wizard. He stepped forward, looming over her.

"Is that what you intend?" she cried. "To sacrifice me to your devil?"

Bagdemagus chuckled, holding up the small, slim blade in his hand. His eyes roamed over the polished surface. "Did you really think you could hurt me with this?" he asked. With a flick of the wrist, he sent the blade into the floor, less than an inch from Evie's head. The Queen gasped.

"Just what could you do," the wizard said as he unbuttoned his coat. "To me?"

Evelyn stared at the man's suddenly bared torso. There was a slight scar across his abdomen, and a thick welt, which appeared several days healed, several inches to the left of the center of his chest. Above the supernaturally-healed wounds, Bagdemagus' face grinned. "This is what your vaunted guardsmen inflicted upon me," he said. "Which, when you look at it, is nothing."

Evelyn pushed up to her feet. She took in the scars, the haughtiness of the wizard. Finally, she gave a smirk of her own.

"Then why did you run?" she asked.

Bagdemagus scowled, his features clouding over. "I never run," he hissed. "I simply . . . choose another day."

Evelyn responded with a moment's intuition that seemed to come from elsewhere. "Days that grow shorter," she said.

Bagdemagus regarded her a moment, then snarled. "You know nothing, little girl," he spouted. He raised his hand above her face. "But you will learn."

Evelyn sucked in her breath, tried to move away, but the wizard's strong grip kept her in place. She watched as the hand fell upon her face, then . . . .

Nothing.

***

"Three spades beats any high!" cried John, slapping the cards onto the bed top.

"Only if it is not a king," said Eric, jabbing a finger in his friend's face. "And a king he has!"

Cedric grinned, folding down his cards. "Two clubs and the king of diamonds," he said triumphantly. "I win!"

John sputtered, then groaned. "Pah!" he exclaimed, slapping down his cards. He chuckled upon Cedric. "I'll give you that, since you're wounded. But, soon as you're back on the grounds—"

"Which will be next week!" exclaimed Cedric.

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