A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 22byslyc_willie©
(Author's note: This is the penultimate chapter of A Royal Sacrifice, in which all the deeds and misdeeds committed by the evil wizard Bagdemagus lead up to a thunderous conclusion. I hope you have enjoyed this tale of medieval heroism, heartbreak, lust and love. I have truly enjoyed working with Redhairedandfriendly, Deathlynx and MrsDeathlynx, Maharat, Darkniciad, and Talynnda on this chain. It has been a fun ride.)
The shadows sent chills through the Queen's body. Although the air was humid and warm on the eve of Midsummer's Day, Evelyn felt as if she were strolling through mountain corridors in the dead of winter. Her robes and shawl were not enough to stave off the cold, for it radiated from within.
I am the world's most ridiculous fool, she thought. To think, all this time, though raised by a loving family, it was always a heartless wizard who conducted my life as if he were my parent. Was I sent away to the village because I had been born a girl, when King Richard desired a boy? No . . . I was sent away to deny any chance I may have of growing up within the bounds of royalty, of earning a true education.
The Queen stepped into the throne room, trying to ignore the sentries posted at every doorway and in the balconies. Heavy eyes drifted toward the elevated throne. The previous few days had been filled with despair, anger, anxiety and pain; yet now, Evelyn felt little, if anything. Numbness blanketed her heart.
Every event of my life, she thought morosely. Choreographed for the sake of Bagdemagus' evil plan. A plan that hinges upon my morality. Save Cedric, and I sacrifice a kingdom. Sacrifice him, and I doom my soul.
She sighed, looking down at her feet. Curse me for having been raised by those pure of heart . . . .
"Your father used to do the same, when something vexed him," came Benedict's resonant voice.
Evelyn was not startled by the High Chancellor's voice, though she had certainly not expected his presence. She allowed herself a small smile as she glanced in the direction from which his words had come. Benedict was dressed as was she, his own robes hanging from still-strong shoulders.
"There were many times when I would find him strolling the halls like a ghost, musing over something or another," he continued, stepping forward from the main entrance, hands behind his back. "Sometimes, I could tell when he had been seen by the Spectre. Others . . . well, he had much on his mind, as King."
"So what is your excuse?" asked Evelyn.
Benedict shrugged. "Insomnia," he offered casually.
A sly smile tugged the corners of the Queen's mouth. "Even now?"
Benedict blushed like a schoolboy. Indeed, the sweet essence of having made love with Muriel lingered in his senses. For a moment, his eyes dipped, mouth twitching as he struggled to hide his boyish excitement, to no avail. "Yes," he said at last, with a small laugh. "Even now."
Evelyn allowed herself a vicarious moment. "At least there will be one happy end to this fairy tale," she remarked.
Benedict frowned. "Conceding to the wizard, are you? After all that fire you've displayed?"
Evelyn took a deep breath. "I have to admit he has outsmarted us all, even the Lord Chamberlain. Wherever he keeps Cedric, it is too well hidden for my scouts to find. With as many decades as he has had to plan, it is obvious he has considered everything."
Benedict took a step closer, searching his Queen's face. "He may be the Spectre That Walks," he said. "He may be a wizard over a century old. But he is mortal, and no mortal can consider every possibility."
Evelyn's smile was patronizing. "Of course. You're right."
The Chancellor's face darkened. "What happened to the woman who challenged me?" he asked. "The Queen who put me in my place? Is she now so tired of the stress of ruling a kingdom, that she is ready to take the easy path?"
Evelyn's smile vanished, replaced with a deepening frown as Benedict continued. He stepped even closer as the words rolled off his tongue.
"Don't make me reconsider my respect for you."
The Queen snapped her eyes up, eyes blazing, threatening. "Another slip of that silvery tongue, Benedict, and I'll be wearing it as a charm."
For a moment, Queen and Chancellor simply stared. But then Benedict's eyes softened a bit, his lips stretching in approval. "Good to see my Queen has not completely taken leave of her senses."
Evelyn coughed out a short laugh, realizing why Benedict had said what he did. She moved to the foot of the dais upon which sat the throne – her throne – and sunk onto the steps. "Why is it that the simplest choices are the hardest ones to make?" she asked of the air.
Benedict emitted a grunt and a sigh as he lowered himself beside Evelyn. "Because the simple ones chance fate," he said. "Everything else is simply . . . details."
Evelyn arched an eyebrow. "One of my father's rare moments of wisdom?" she asked.
"No. Mine," quipped Benedict. "And they were not so rare. For a wainwright, my dear old dad was quite philosophical."
Evelyn allowed herself a small smile. Muriel has done wonders with him, she thought. My God, the man really does have a heart. "What was Richard like?"
Benedict straightened, grumbling in thought. He stared forward, resting elbows on knees. "I would love to inform you that your father was a paragon of wisdom, a man unequaled in his ability to command both armies and respect. But, in truth, he was something of a dolt."
Evelyn sputtered in laughter at Benedict's frank words. "Well, now I do not feel so inadequate," she said amid soft laughter.
Benedict cocked his head toward the girl queen. "You have many qualities and advantages Richard did not," he said. "Loyalty and respect, for one, at least from those you truly need depend upon. And, no doubt your upbringing as a commoner has given you more than an inkling of common wisdom. Richard had none of that. His was always a sheltered life. He was bred into arrogance and simplified wisdom. Why, the only reason he roamed these halls at night was to get away from those who told him what to do. Thank God he had enough sense to do that."
Evelyn shook her head in wonder. "I had no idea."
"No, of course not," said the Chancellor with rueful sarcasm. "A king is lofty and wise, so much better than a common herder or farmer or innkeeper. Such a crock. Richard would not have made the mistakes he did had he benefited from a life such as yours."
Evelyn sighed dejectedly. "I fail to see where I possess any advantage over a man who was raised to be King."
A strange sagely smile crossed Benedict's face. "That's good," he said simply. "If you knew all your strengths, you would take advantage of them . . . abuse them. That is not how to rule. More importantly, that is not how to live."
Evelyn frowned in thought. "I wish I knew what you meant."
"You do," reassured the Chancellor. "You do not yet know it, but you do."
He stood, gathering his robes, looking fondly upon his Queen as she followed him with her eyes. "If I may take your leave, your highness, I fear that my side of the bed may be growing cold." He finished his statement with a knowing wink.
Evelyn smiled and nodded, momentarily wondering how cold her own bed was, had always been. "Of course, Benedict."
With a stiff nod and a swish of his robes, Benedict turned and made his way back to the main entrance. A few paces from the sentry-flanked doors, however, he paused and turned back. "There was one thing," he said, his voice echoing lightly off the walls.
"What was that?"
"'A king's life is ever about sacrifice,'" he quoted. "'The only reward comes when you look down from Heaven and see that your kingdom still stands.'"
Evelyn managed a weak smile. "Your father again?"
"No," said Benedict with another wink. "Yours. Good evening, my Queen."
Evelyn did not respond, pleasantly surprised by the Chancellor's words. At the least however, the smile which crept across her face was genuine. Faintly hearing Benedict's footsteps retreat down the hall, the Queen of Vix rose and made her way back to her own chambers.
He made his way through the narrow passage by fingertip, tracing the jagged, sweating limestone walls and cautiously placing one foot before the other. It was not a deliberately-hewn tunnel, Eric knew, but one long ago carved naturally. The entrance to the tunnel, however, had been made artificially, through the wall at the back of a never-used dungeon cell.
The irony, thought the red-haired giant, grimacing as broad shoulders scraped against the occasional jagged rock that thrust out from the wall like a hidden assassin's dagger. He gripped the axe tightly in one hand, felt before him with the other. Now and then, the arc of the crossbow upon his back clattered off the stone. He wondered if any of Bagdemagus' men – if he had any – heard his clumsy approach.
Searching for the man who holds an entire kingdom in fear, and it just may be that he makes his lair beneath the castle itself. What audacity.
Just what an arrogant wizard would do . . . .
His boot slipped upon a loose rock, just as the narrow passage opened into a cavern of indeterminate size. For a moment, Eric nearly lost his balance, but he managed to catch himself against the wall.
Damn the Hells! I do not have John's gift for stealth! He stood still for a long moment, feeling the cold air of the caverns, the faint but swirling breeze. Odors mingled, some sweet and natural, others musky and dank, as if coming from an animal's den. Eric wrinkled his nose at the latter, moved until he had his back pressed to a wall. His ears peeled, having become hypersensitive during the many long minutes he had been following the meandering tunnel.
He heard the echoes of water drops.
Scurrying of insects.
The shuffle of a booted foot.
Eric tensed, focusing upon that last, singular sound. It comes from my right . . . .
"Dieter?" asked a rough, hoarse whisper. "If that's you, you're late, mate. You best not have been smoking that herbal pipe of yours . . . ."
Eric took a chance, raising his axe as he heard the other man come closer. He had little way of knowing how close the man was. "Hmm," he grumbled.
A heavy sigh echoed off damp limestone walls. "Damn you, Dieter. I should have known when you didn't bring the torch back. Don't move. I'll get mine going."
Eric waited, heart pounding. He heard a brief rustle of cloth, then soft amber light spilled out, stinging his eyes. He winced against the sudden relative brilliance, but not before making out the general appearance of a man in brigand's leathers standing before him.
"You know, mate, I don't know how that wizard can make a torch bright enough to light a room, yet give off no heat – hey! You're not Dieter!"
The bandit's exclamation made Eric snap his eyes back open. His vision was a bit hazy, still adjusting, but it was enough to let him see the stocky, swarthy man as he slapped a hand to a sword at his waist. But Eric was already prepared, and swung viciously with his axe, the heavy blade chopping sideways into flesh, bone, and muscle. The bandit grunted, crashing against the rough rock wall.
"No. I'm not," growled Eric, throwing his weight against the man, making the axe dig deeper through the bandit's side. The brigand stared into Eric's face with pain and shock, blood trickling freely from parted lips. He tried to speak, but all that issued forth was a wet, gurgling cough. Finally, with a long, bloody gasp, the man sagged, the light of life fading from his dark eyes.
Eric looked about within the cavern, finding it much smaller than he had imagined. Not even ten paces wide but almost twice that long, there was an exit at the far end, sloping downward. With a casual tug, he jerked the axe from the bandit's body, then bent to retrieve the dead man's torch.
It emitted no flame, nor heat. In some magical way, Eric assumed, Bagdemagus had taken a length of wood and made a few inches of one end glow as if by the bright flame of a candle. Suppressing his sense of wonder, Eric took up the short black cover in the bandit's hand, finding that it made for a perfect fit over the torch.
"Marko? Hey, Marko, I took a little nap in one of the other cells . . . I—"
Eric spun about as the man behind him, who had descended through the same passage through which Eric had come, stopped in mid-sentence. He held a torch like the one Eric now possessed, held before him. The two men stared each other down for a moment.
"Uh . . . who are you?"
Eric allowed himself a vicious smirk. "You're Dieter, right?"
"Yeah . . . ." The man's hand crept across his belt toward the hilt of a sword.
Swiftly, Eric slashed out and up, the keen edge of the axe cleaving Dieter's face from chin to brow. For a moment, Dieter did not move, his blank expression frozen. Then the jaw fell open, split and pouring blood down the stained brown leather of his jerkin. With a gurgling rattle, Dieter collapsed to the ground.
Eric let out a huff of breath. Two men dead, he thought. Their lives taken so easily. Perhaps Father Michael was right. Perhaps I do lack compassion for my fellow man.
Suddenly dark eyes drifted toward the opening at the far end of the cave. May it serve me well . . . .
The only thing that allowed Cedric to swallow the bile and blood in his dry mouth was the knowledge that, if he did not, he would suffocate. He could not even muster the effort required to spit it out. His arms had grown numb from supporting his weight; he had felt tingling for a while, but now, they may as well have been severed. How long he had been trussed up like a chicken on a rack, he did not know. The days since his capture had blurred together.
"The great Sir Cedric," gloated a voice before him. "Do not worry, lad, it will be over soon."
Cedric coughed, trying to muster what remained of his strength. He was aware of the cold air around him, yet he did not feel it. His mouth worked to speak, yet no sound escaped.
Bagdemagus leaned closer to the young knight. "What was that?" he asked. "Trying to speak? Don't bother, boy. You have no hope of defeating me. You never did. All you ever accomplished was to further my plans. Even your dalliance with Rebecca served my purpose."
Cedric struggled, swallowing bitter bile once more, finding within his rage – ignited at the mention of his love's name – enough fortitude to open and lift his eyes. Though the wizard's form was blurry, it was easy enough to find the man's dark eyes within the fire-painted face.
Bagdemagus arched an eyebrow with interest. "Oh? Bit of a fire left within you after all?" The wizard stepped around the knight as he was suspended between two posts driven into the floor of the cavern. "I suppose you think you may yet avenge that whore of a handmaiden you bedded."
Cedric growled, the only sound he could muster, and jerked in his bonds. No reason remained in his mind, only murderous hatred.
Bagdemagus chuckled, insinuating his face beside the knight's. "Shall I tell you how she squealed with delight when she offered her virginity to me?" he whispered rudely. "Shall I tell you how greedily she drank my seed? How does it feel to know you kissed the mouth that had once been filled with my essence?"
Cedric bellowed loudly, shaking and pulling against the chains that held him, planting his feet firmly against the ground and throwing his back straight. Inadvertently, his skull cracked against the wizard's jaw, making Bagdemagus flinch. He stepped back, touching a now-bloodied lip.
"I'll . . . kill . . . you . . . ."
Bagdemagus scoffed, yet his previous arrogance had dwindled. He came around before Cedric, glaring down upon the young man haughtily. Cedric stared back, trembling with the effort required to stand straight. For a moment, even the wizard was impressed by the young man's stamina.
"When you see your whore in the afterlife, be sure to tell her you failed." Bagdemagus turned with a flurry of his cloak, marching away from the knight. The cavern was a large one, cold and dank since it sat so far beneath the surface. Braziers in opposite corners supplied light and some heat, and it was around these that the wizard's hired brigands gathered. None of them enjoyed the wizard's presence overmuch; the promise of riches and Bagdemagus' power of intimidation kept them in his employ.
Beside one of the narrow exits from the cavern, Guy Dorr stood, an almost sympathetic eye upon Cedric. He never considered himself an evil man; cruel, sometimes, and selfish, but not evil. Torture was not part of his repertoire. That was for evil men.
"Why not simply kill him?" he asked as the wizard approached.
Bagdemagus fixed Dorr with a look. "Questioning me?"
"Of course not," Dorr said with a sigh, flickering his eyes from the wizard's.
Bagdemagus followed Dorr's gaze back to the knight, who once more sagged from the two posts. A cruel smile stretched his lips. "Cedric will die," he declared, turning back to Dorr. "But not before he has had the pleasure of witnessing the taking and sacrifice of his beloved Queen. Not before he suffers the realization that his failures have made me truly immortal, and peerless within the world. Then, and only then, will he die."
Dorr nodded slowly. "You really are an evil bastard," he remarked.
Bagdemagus chuckled and grinned. "Yes, I know."
Nervousness and fear, along with renewed pride and newfound strength, fueled Sir John's movements as he marched back and forth before the assembled members of the Royal Guard. Swords that had been oiled and sharpened rest heavily in scabbards at each man's side. Courriasses of boiled leather covered their chests, molded to fit each guardsman perfectly.
"Tonight, we face the greatest evil this kingdom has ever known." The words were practiced, rehearsed before the mirror that morning. But while he knew every word by heart, they now felt more real than before. "Bagdemagus will seal his victory through magic if he takes our Queen, and through victory will enslave this entire kingdom. The Lord Chamberlain himself has told me that if the wizard wins the day, those of us left alive will know nothing but misery. The land will darken and die. Children will be raised as slaves, or worse."
He stopped pacing and faced the men squarely. "That will not happen," he said emphatically.
The guardsmen nodded grimly, silently.
"What will happen, is this," continued John, his voice steadily rising in pitch. "We will triumph. We will win. We will keep our Queen, and the entire Kingdom of Vix free from the evil of Bagdemagus! We will fight, and we will die, to protect our land! We will know victory!"
"VICTORY!" shouted the guardsmen in unison.
His breast swelling, John drew his sword, holding it straight beside his face. The guardsmen all followed suit, the air ringing as blades left their scabbards.
"Some of us will die tonight," he intoned grimly. "I will give you all one hour to spend with your families. When you return, I expect you all to be ready, as I am, to give your life in defense of our Queen. Dismissed."
Solemnly, the guardsmen dispersed, some of them wearing worried or blank expressions. But a few, at least, looked to their knight, their commander, with an admiring smile.
"A better speech I could not have prepared myself," said Prince Drest, approaching beside John's shoulder.
John inhaled deeply and let it out. "I hope it is enough," he said, then glanced to the prince. "How is Evelyn?"
Drest rolled his shoulders. "She has strength, of that there is no doubt. She is a very stubborn woman, you know."