“What is going on with this graveyard?” Chance whispers.
The four of them stop dead. A sound of racing footsteps carry over the hill as the man and woman with swords and shields appear once more. They spy the four young people and skid to a halt, staring at them curiously.
“I told you I heard something,” the man says.
“Children? I thought the hunt was for a grown man?”
“Obviously part of the rebellion hoping to rescue him. Kill them.”
Danny curses as the four begin to flee for their lives. Elliott's heart is pounding as curses continue to escape Danny's lips.
“How'd they hear us? They were too far away,” Chance asks as they run.
He receives no answer. They run as fast as their legs will carry them, but each time Elliott looks over his shoulder the man and woman who pursue them are nearer and nearer. He feels that his side will explode and he's pushing his legs so hard that they are beginning to wobble. Then a sudden cry rings out from behind him, but he doesn't stop. It isn't until he hears Chance calling out for him that he realizes that the other three have stopped running, and he can see why. A third figure has entered the fray. The tall, armored female collides swords with a new stranger dressed in green and tan, hidden within a dark brown cloak. The tall, armored man lies on the ground only a few yard from the combatants, dead or unconscious. Chance leads Danny and Riley up another small hill toward a small gathering of trees and so Elliott follows them. As he vanishes into the brush, he spies the armored woman falling with the cloaked person's sword in her ribs.
He holds his breath as the hooded figure rushes toward them. Then a noise shifts in the distance and the person quickly turns to confront it. Someone is rushing toward them from the fog that hangs on the graveyard to the south. The hooded figure holds out their blade but quickly lowers it. They then rush toward the man who comes into view and embraces him, their sobs becoming clear. The cloak's hood is thrown back and a woman's face is revealed, her brunette hair long and tangled, her features attractive. She kisses the man as tears run down her face, but he quickly pushes her away.
“You shouldn't be here, Kayla. If they find you...”
“Then they find me. I will not let them kill you, Richard. I love you.”
“Stop it, now. Think of the rebellion. Your place in the royal family is what keeps them alive. You mean more to me than life itself, but you are needed here still.”
“Then let me help you escape.”
“They're already after me. You must go.”
“Richard, I can't. Please!”
“Go!” the man says sternly, yet silently.
He pushes her toward the trees and reluctantly she enters them. She stands in the tree's shadows, a silent grieving statue, but then she kneels and stares at the man whom she loves. Elliott watches her from a distance and he can see the glare of tears reflected by the moon's light. She will not run. She will stay for her lover as he is slain. Hoof prints draw Elliott's attention again as two horses burst from the fog that Richard had just come through. Richard does not run, nor speak. He simply stares into the woods and Elliott imagines him staring into his lover's eyes, wordlessly telling her that he loves her. The two horses come into view and Elliott can tell by first glance that these are despicable people. The first horse bares a man in a long black cloak with gold and silver designs shining throughout it's front. A tall collar wraps around his neck with that same emblem on it that the headstones and the shields bore. His long silver hair is offset by his clean shaven face and his cruel smile. His eyes are dark. The second man rides behind the first with a dark brown shirt and tan pants. His black boots sit high on his shins and a black cape flaps freely behind him. He is young, though not a trace of hair can be found on his head, and even in this dull light his eyes shine a brilliant blue.
“Well, well,” the robed man says. His voice is cold and flat. “Richard Harper. And what should we place on your headstone? How should people remember your life?”
“I think, Victor,” says the caped man, “that we should first hear his pleads for mercy before we mark his headstone.”
“So be it, My Lord.”
Elliott wishes more than anything that he could look away, but he finds himself unable. He can't help but to watch what happens. He knows that he will regret it, but his curiosity has claimed him and it appears that the same can be said for Chance and Danny as well. Riley, however, keeps her face hidden in her hands.
Richard then takes a breath and shakes his head.
“You'll hear no pleads from me, Jared. Our cause is just, and I will never give you the pleasure.”
The caped man rides forward a few steps and bares down on Richard with a stern, angry glare.
“You will refer to me by my proper title, fowl, and yes, you will plead for mercy this night.”
“My apologies, Prince,” the title is saturated with sarcasm, “ but I am prepared to die. There is no need for me to plead with you.”
“And if I prolong your death? If I find joy in torturing you?”
“I have been tortured since the day your grandfather took the throne, and Aarom after him. Why should I expect any less from you?”
Prince Jared sighs as he sits up on his horse and looks to the cloaked man.
“It seems, Victor, that the fowl has no fight left in him. How I do hate it when they give up. It's always so much more fun when they fight. I like watching their spirits crush.”
“The sun will be found,” Richard blurts out, but it is met with laughter.
“The desired final words of a martyr?” Prince Jared says with a laugh. “You'd think that after all these other martyrs were buried and desecrated the desire to be one would have faltered by now. Victor, show him a bit of what he desires.”
The robed man known as Victor then holds up his right hand and touches his thumb to his forefinger. Elliott watches from his place as a sudden piercing light shines from the man's hand, as if the circle that his fingers now make creates a window through the dark sky, allowing the sun to peak through. The illuminated beam that pours forth is nearly blinding in this dark landscape and Elliott quickly notices that Richard's eyes are drawn toward it. A cruel smile then crosses Victor's face as the light rapidly intensifies and Richard falls back, holding his eyes. He removes his hand but his eyes do not regain focus.
Prince Jared laughs heartily as Richard falls to the ground, cradling his face.
”It warms my heart to know that the sun you so desperately desired to find has cursed you unto blindness. You longed for it, but have you considered the possibility that, perhaps, it has never wanted anything to do with you?”
The Prince then pulls a knife from a place in his belt and throws it with accuracy into Richard's chest. The man falls back, but he does not scream. He rolls over and glares aimlessly into the trees where Kayla had run, his body becoming still. A firm resolution remains in the fearful face of the blind man, and only when a long slow breath leaves him does Elliott realize his death. He tries to find Kayla again, to see her reaction, but the woman is gone. Vanished without sound. Elliott's stomach drops. He looks at Richard once more and cannot help but to cry. He hears about death every day on the news and radio, but never has he seen someone die in person, let alone being murdered. A state of shock overcomes him and he doesn't know how to react. He simply allows the tears to fall, careful to keep all sobs silent. It isn't until he hears Danny yell that he regains his sense of self. He quickly turns and finds a large hand coming at him. He kicks it and tries to crawl away but the person grabs him anyhow. He fights but it's no use and he is pulled from the trees and dragged out into the open. He is thrown to the ground before two sets of hooves and his heart stops.
“Well, well,” he hears the cloaked Victor say. “And who are these children?”
He looks around and finds armed men throwing Chance, Danny, and Riley to the ground as well, holding them at bay with swords. He quickly realizes that a sword's tip rests against the back of his own neck.
“It's possible that they are simply lost. On a nightly stroll from the nearest town, but I somehow doubt it.” Prince Jared smiles as he looks them over. “I'm sure Father would like to speak with them. But tell me, Victor. Which guard is assigned to the graveyard tonight?”
“The two small ones, My Lord.”
Elliott can see disgust on Prince Jared's face as he shakes his head.
“I do not know why he keeps them. They are such useless fools. Very well, perhaps luck will find us and they will no longer be an issue. Gather them and bring them before my father as well. What good are guards who fail to fulfill their duties? I certainly would like to see Father put them to death.”
The Prince then turns and departs as the other guards lift the four to their feet. The armored hand on Elliott's arm grips firmly, bruising him, but the fear that engulfs him hides away all notion of physical pain. He is in a state of shock and simply does as he is told.
The guards lead the four through the graveyard to a gray stoned trail that leads them to the castle. Elliott can barely walk on his wobbly legs but he knows that the guards would hurt him if he faltered, and so he forces himself to continue. His body shakes, his mouth is dry, his stomach turns. He wishes more than anything that he could free himself. That the hooded woman would come to rescue them again. But none of this happens. They soon reach the castle gates, which draw inward allowing them entrance.
“Send word to my father,” Prince Jared says with a smirk. “We have visitors.”
He continues to lead them through the long hallways of the dank castle covered in black and gold draperies. Not at all the spectacular image that most artwork or books portray them to be. This castle is pure stone and pavement. Uncomfortable to walk in or look upon. A cool breeze freezes them, as their skin has become accustomed to the late summer warmth, and the winds rattle the windows, creating an eerie haunting jangle. There is nothing cozy about this place.
The young ones are led to a large wooden door that appears half rotted, and here they stop. Prince Jared turns to face his captives, and then to the cloaked man beside him.
“I think it best to better secure them while before the King. Last thing we need is for one of them to try something odd. My father may blame me.”
Victor nods and then walks toward Elliott. He stares him in the eye and Elliott cannot help but to look away. Victor nods, and then kneels. Elliott looks down, curious what he is about to do, and is confused to find Victor waving his hand rhythmically about his feet. A slight tingling begins in his toes and he has the sudden urgency to run away, but he hasn't the chance. Victor then touches the fingers of his two hands together and slowly starts separating them in a vertical motion, keeping his fingers stiff and steady. As he does this, Elliott begins to rise from the floor. He cannot help but to cry out, and Riley does the same. Danny and Chance gasp at the impossible and terrifying sight. Elliott struggles for balance, but quickly finds it unnecessary as his whole body becomes stiff, as if a corpse.
Elliott tries to look at the others, but finds every muscle paralyzed. Victor then moves to the others and before long the four of them are all hovering several feet above the ground, stiff as stones. When finished, Prince Jared dismisses the guards and he and Victor open the door, leading them into a great, yet dim, throne room.
No cloths drape the walls or ceilings. There are no loyal advisers giving advice or court jesters dancing about. The long, large room is bare of all save two thrones at the front of the room and a small wooden table before them. Upon the thrones sit a man and a woman, both old and wrinkled, the king beyond his years, and Elliott shivers as their eyes come into view, for cruelty floods through them in waves. King Aarom and his queen, Madra.
“Greetings, Father,” Prince Jared says with a slight lowering of the head. Victor bows deeply.
“And what mice have you brought me this time, Jared?” The man asks, his voice deep and rattling. It is quite a contrast to his frail and weakened body. His hair hangs in strands and a scratchy beard lines his face.
“I was hunting a game when I came across them. I wonder if perhaps the rebellion sent them to free him.”
“Mere children?” The king asks, squinting to see them, his eyes obviously waring old. “If the rebellion sends children against me now, then surely they must be thin indeed. Speak your names children.”
Elliott hesitates and it seems that the others do the same. Victor looks up to them and a sudden wave of heat floods over their bodies and faint cries of pain begin to fill the room.
Elliott hears their cries, and so he decides to follow.
“Elliott Schultz!” he cries and almost immediately the heat dims.
A moment later Chance says his name and Victor smiles at their displeasure.
“I believe there was a Daniel Bonham who was once a guard here. Any relation, young Danny? Father perhaps?”
Elliott imagines Danny trying to shake his head, being unable.
“No,” he finally says.
“Lucky for you. He was a traitor and Victor here slew him. I believe I inscribed on his tombstone that all his family would die by my hands for every generation until they were extinct. I believe I had his chest exposed from his grave so that my guards could stomp his ribs and vermin may eat out his heart.”
A small smile creases the king's dry mouth as the memory runs before his eyes. It quickly fades. The woman beside him, his queen, remains still, eying them intently.
“Who are you?” he asks finally. “Why were you in the martyr graveyard?”
Elliott's mind frantically searches for an answer, but sadly, one does not come. He tries to remember why they were in the graveyard, why Mack and Artie sent them there, but he could find no answer. If there was a reason they had to pass through this horrid place, he wasn't aware of it.
“We were just passing by,” Chance says finally.
“Were you?” the king asks almost sarcastically.
He is about to speak once more when the woman beside him stands. He silences himself and with a motion, allows Queen Madra to speak.
“And from where had you come, and to where were you going?” she ask.
The woman is old, same as the king, but her face still appears fairly young and much less wrinkled. Her white hair still has streaks of brown and her eyes shine green.
Elliott doesn't know what to say, and apparently Chance doesn't either.
“Earth,” Danny finally says as the woman's eyes meet his.
“There is no such kingdom,” the king says bitterly. “Perhaps a place named by the rebellion?”
“Children with secrets I see,” the queen says. She then turns to the king and bows.
“I met with Madam Porefray, only days ago. She brought the stars with her and had me read them. I perceived odd children, clothed in a fashion unfamiliar to our kingdom. She had then warned me of these children and the dangers they present if they were to pass through our kingdom. I asked if she would like us to kill them upon capture but she would not condone it. She wished to meet them herself. Surely, these are those children.”
Elliott spies a sudden worried expression on Chance's face and wonders if it is due to their circumstances or something more. The king sighs and closes his eyes. He then leans forward with some effort, appearing almost ill. A frustrated expression crosses his face as he eyes the children, then his son and Victor.
“I ask you, Son, who is king of this kingdom?”
“You are, my Lord.”
“Then why is it that your whore of a mother continues to regard the words of an old soothsayer above mine?”
The queen returns to her seat and leans close to the king. She begins to whisper into his ear but her voice still manages to carry and Elliott hears every word. He isn't certain if this is intentional or not.
“If not for Madam Porefray your father would not have come to power, and thus, the throne would never have passed to you. She reads the stars and the bones in ways that provide us with power and knowledge. You are the king of Birkenshaw, and I honor you as my king, sire, but her words have kept us this far. When she speaks, I merely listen.”
“You listen,” the king says sternly, “because you are her disciple. I feel that she desires to dethrone me and I forbid you to speak with her when I am not present.”
“Then you accept the consequences of denying her? Did your father not deny her, and was he not slain for it?”
Elliott notes the anger in King Aarom's face, but fear remains hidden behind his stone features and he holds his tongue. He then turns to face the others, and slowly stands.
“I accept no counsel from a woman, and I will not head her words. However, I do not wish to be burdened by children this night. Take them to the dungeon and I will ponder their fate.” He then turns to his queen, who appears only amused. “But if the soothsayer arrives prior to my decision, I see no harm in allowing her to visit the prisoners. Though I will only allow it under my direct supervision.”
“Would you rather I supervise their meeting, Father?”
“No, I wouldn't. I trust you even less than I trust her.”
Prince Jared smiles savoringly, obviously enjoying his father's disgust, and bows low. He then turns to depart, his black cape billowing behind him. Victor gives a more believable bow and turns to go as well. Elliott and the others turn in the air and follow after the wizard, or whatever he is, until they exit the room and the door shuts behind them. Only when they are clear of the room does Prince Jared laugh heartily, tightening his grip on the hilt of his blade.
“Paranoid old fool.”