Darkness wrapped its familiar cloak around me as I hurried from the stables. My steps faltered when I reached the castle steps. Two of Lucinda’s men waited by the door; their dark scowls promising retribution to any who tried to enter.
“What is the meaning of this?” As the prince, I and outranked them whether or not they believed it.
“The queen wants to see you in her chambers.”
What was Lucinda up to now? Wasn’t it enough she murdered my father? Every day my wariness grew, for I knew not whether I would meet the same fate. I couldn’t prove it, but when my healthy father was alive one day and dead the next, I knew it wasn’t the fabricated illness she told the kingdom.
When my mother passed away, my father sank into despair. His love of life gone with the last ember of the funeral pyre. Lucinda swept in out of nowhere, attending the grieving king and enticing him to her bed with promises of new love. The death of my mother left my once powerful father weak and vulnerable to evil’s ways. Only a few short months later found me staring at the glowing flames of his pyre, and a new queen had risen to power, pushing me out of my birthright.
I followed them up the stairs to her wing. When my mother lived, the castle bloomed in a vibrant and bright array of colors and art. She filled it with laughter and love. Now the blackness of Lucinda’s soul seeped into every single stone within the walls and left it dull and dead.
When I hesitated at her door, a shove from behind pushed me forward. I knocked before entering, my mother’s lessons of propriety still ingrained in me. Lucinda bade me admittance, and I steeled my nerves before entering. My occasional encounters with her never boded well for me. I avoided her when possible, choosing to stick to the village, helping where I could.
I bowed before her. “You wish to see me, my queen?” Anything less than her title resulted in a trip to the dungeon, if you were lucky. Families and friends mourned the unlucky buried in the church cemetery. I had no desire to see the same fate.
“Eorich, it is time you stepped up and did your duty to the kingdom. I have arranged an alliance with the Intha kingdom. You will marry their eldest daughter at a ceremony on the full moon. After which, you will leave with them to live in their kingdom.”
Stunned, I grappled for a rebuttal. Marry? A woman? Lucinda knew my preference for men. No female had ever turned my eye. And what of Remy? We often met in the tack room of the stables, sharing a sweet kiss or touch. We shared hopes and dreams where we could be together without reproach.
“But, Lucinda, I—”
“Enough! You will do as you’re told. If you do not, your precious stable boy will pay the price.” She grinned. “Don’t look so shocked. Did you really think I didn’t know about your dalliances with the help? I know everything that goes on in my kingdom. Now go to your room. You will stay there until the ceremony.”
Before I could respond, each guard took an arm and escorted me out. They tossed me in my room in the northern tower and barred the door. How had it come to this? I remembered better times with my parents, their loving and generous ways. Everyone throughout the kingdom revered them. Mother had the gift of healing and would often travel to the village to help with the hard birth of a child or the sick. Father worked tirelessly to make sure everyone had food and shelter. They brought me up to respect and provide for the people. It was my duty.
Now, I watched from my window as the villagers below went about their day, forging for food in the castle trash bins, even picking pieces of slop from the pig pens when the guards didn’t chase them off. They wrapped their thread-bare and tattered clothing around them against the sting of the wind. What was once rich and thriving, now lay in ruins. People starved and died while Lucinda did naught but sit on a stolen throne and take from those she was meant to protect. I turned away. Things were slipping through my fingers, and I had no recourse.
Remy. Would he think I had abandoned him if I didn’t show tomorrow? I needed to get word to him. We met almost every evening, those few precious stolen moments giving me the courage to keep going, striving for a solution. For a better way. Would Lucinda really harm him if I didn’t do her bidding? Of course she would. Maybe it was better I didn’t risk an untoward attention his way.
Sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned, thoughts of our dying kingdom haunting me well into the morning’s early light. Lucinda had burned her way through all my parents had worked so hard for, and now she bartered with not only my life but Remy’s as well. I was as trapped as a woodland creature ensnared by a huntsman’s noose.
The click of the lock signaled breakfast had arrived. One of the few servants left in the castle set a tray of dried meat and porridge down on the side table.
“You’re welcome, sire.” Her whisper barely a sound through the threadbare robe all hidden but a strand of white hair hanging loosely from behind the hood. She curtsied before scurrying between the two goons at the door.
Only one day until the full moon and the sham of a ceremony. I still didn’t know Lucinda’s purpose other than money had to be involved. I supposed the bride came with a sizable dowry, as was custom. There had to be a way out of this mess. I prayed to any god that would listen, someone would help.
I stared out the window from dawn’s early light until the blackness of the shadows fell over the village, searching for signs of Remy. Had Lucinda captured him as well? Fear and panic threatened to steal any common sense I had left as I contemplated escaping. I searched the room again for anything useful. Nothing. How could I save him when I couldn’t save myself?
On the second day, when the last ray of sun fell behind the mountains, I knew my time had come. Many villagers held superstitions regarding the full moon. Some believed werecreatures came for unsuspecting folk. Others thought witches and warlocks became more powerful as they performed their incantations in the bright light of the moon. Now I saw why it brought bad luck. It certainly did for me. Lucinda’s evil plan was going to come to fruition, and there was nothing I could do.
Resigned to my fate, I dressed in my ceremonial robes as instructed. The door opened, and the two guards entered, escorting me through the castle and outside into the bailey. People gathered near a stone platform where Lucinda, the village priest and presumably the bride dressed in all white stood.
My steps slowed the closer I got. How could I do this? My people needed me here. Lucinda turned her steely gaze to me. She motioned to the side. Two guards dragged a battered and bruised Remy into the bailey. His porcelain skin I'd caressed and kissed every inch of, now mottled with purple and black.
“What have you done to him?” My heart thundered in my chest.
“Let us just say it’s a little assurance you will comply and go through with the ceremony.” A cruel smile crossed her face. She turned to the priest. “Now get on with it. There’s not much time.”
The full moon rose overhead, lighting the bailey. When the priest stepped forward, a stream of whispers moved through the people gathered round. Lucinda eyed the crowd. “What is the meaning of this? You are not welcome here. This is a private ceremony.”
I scanned the people moving anxiously. They parted, allowing a beautiful woman through. Her flaxen hair shone in the moonlight, forming a halo around her head. White robes trailed behind her, and she moved as if she floated along the ground.
She walked straight to me, ignoring the whispers of ‘witch’ and ‘sorceress’. “Prince Eorich, we have not officially met, but I have heard many things about you. You have garnered the respect of the people of your kingdom, such as your parents before you."
“I care deeply for all the kingdom entails, but find my hands tied.” I glanced at Lucinda.
“What would you be willing to give up to right so many wrongs done to your kingdom and escape the evil hold it now lies in?”
“I would give anything, even my life.”
The beautiful woman looked over at Remy. “The thing you value most?”
Panic seized me, and I rushed to his side. “No! Not him. Anything but him.”
“Sometimes the life of one must be sacrificed for the good of all. His life for theirs.” She pointed to the circle of villagers. Their despair and hunger shot through me. An arrow hitting its true mark.
Remy stared at me, love shining through his emerald eyes, so bright it nearly toppled me to my knees. “It’s okay, Eorich. Have faith. We will meet again in the next life.”
I stared at Lucinda, who stood motionless on the platform as if frozen in time. I knew deep in my heart if I did not make this sacrifice, there would be no escaping this world for any of us. It hurt, a hurt so deep I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but I knew what I must do.
“Okay,” I whispered. Tears formed a steady stream down my cheeks as I held Remy’s gaze.
“Your sacrifice will not go unrewarded.” With a flick of her hand, Remy closed his eyes and fell limp to the ground. A sob escaped me, and I followed him down, cradling his head in my lap.
“What was done, is now undone. Wrong made right.” Her words carried on the wind over the land.
From one blink to the next, the sun rose high into the sky. Children laughed and played in the streets. Merchants sold their wares from their stores. The villagers' tattered and ruined clothes were now spotless and woven. Feast graced tables laid about the bailey. The castle gleamed bright and shiny. Everything was as it once was. As if nothing had changed. Except for one thing.
“Remy! Remy!” I grasped at empty air.
“Who are you talking to, son? Come on. Your mother is ready for dinner. She has someone she wants you to meet.” I stared at my father standing in front of me, alive and whole. My mother waited on the castle steps.
I looked around at all the smiling faces, the laughter and love. “The life of one for the good of all.” The thing I held most dear gone. Now I had to make it all worth the sacrifice.
* * * *
A shake of my shoulder startled me awake. “Eric! Wake up.” Where was I? I glanced around the car.
Remy’s beautiful green eyes stared down at me. “Are you okay? You drifted off, and I couldn’t wake you. I was getting worried. You kept calling my name.”
I grabbed him and placed a hard kiss on his lips. When I pulled back, a sweet smile lit up his face. “What was that for? Not that I’m complaining.”
“I had a nightmare. I lost you. I—” A tear slipped free as I tightened my arms around him, fearing if I let go, he’d disappear again.
“Shhh...I’m right here.” He rubbed his hand soothingly down my back.
“Where are we?” I looked out the tinted window.
“We’re at your parents’ beach house. Remember? We’re meeting them here for the wedding.”
He pinched his eyebrows and ran his eyes over my body. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re pale and sweating. Let me call your mother and have her check you out. She said she was going to be a little late because her last patient was at two, but if you need her...”
“No, I’m fine.” The dream still lingered along my consciousness, and I waffled between reality and fiction.
“Your dad’s plane from Africa just landed. He finished his current mission trip a few days early. Everyone should be here in time.” He prattled on about the wedding guests and food. I didn’t know what all he said, but was content to sit and listen to the lilt of his voice as I stared at him. He was here, safe.
“Hey, you’re shaking. Eric, what’s wrong? Are you having second thoughts about the wedding?” His worried expression snapped me out of my haze.
“No, baby. I just...I hope you know I would never give you up for anything. Absolutely nothing. Not even my own life.”
He smiled. “Well, let’s hope it never comes to that, but yes, I know. I’ve never had someone love me the way you do.”
I tugged him onto my lap and ran my lips over his. “You’re mine in this life and the next. Forever.”