The silver armor of the approaching order of knights gleams with menace as they advance toward King Quentin Kaloric’s castle.
Four knights detach themselves from the order, their metal shoes clanking loudly as they cross the drawbridge.
Still standing at attention outside of the castle, their battle flags flying, the figures of the other hundred knights appear to fade into the moonlit night.
Despite the warmth of his oversized robe, King Quentin shivers as he watches the four knights get closer, their metal shoes leaving a trail of blood.
“They must be stopped,” King Quentin says.
Julian Hammersmith, the King’s chancellor, smiles confidently, his pointy features giving him a wily appearance. “My best men are at the gate. They will cut them down like barley.”
The silver knights march up to the gate. Eight of the King’s guards descend upon them, but they are cut to ribbons in a matter of seconds.
The sliver knights march through the locked gate.
Sitting on his throne, the diminutive fifteen-year-old king squeezes his jeweled scepter, hoping he won’t have to use it to protect himself.
“Like barley, eh, counselor?”
“They walked right through the gate as if they were invisible, leaving nothing but the torn bodies of the guards, and a trail of bloody footprints. They are obviously enchanted, or some sort of devils.”
“Or ghosts,” King Quentin says.
Quentin Kaloric has been King of Zaragoza for five tumultuous years, having ascended to the throne following the death of his beloved father, King Justin. Many of his countrymen felt Quentin was too young, too inexperienced, and too skittish to rule. They supported his uncle, Prince Thomas Blessing, as the rightful ruler. Quentin and his supporters acted quickly, executing his detractors as rebels, and imprisoning Blessing’s family. Quentin went on to sanction several unpopular wars against Tortosa and the much larger province of Kirwan, which have served to isolate Zaragoza and crippled its economy.
A former soldier who attained his position through guile and the untimely deaths of his rivals, forty-six-year-old Julian Hammersmith has been at King Quentin’s side serving as his advisor for the duration of his reign, guiding him, some say, by the nose.
The loud clamor of the silver knights marching down the hallway draws closer. The dozen guards summoned by Chancellor Hammersmith to protect the king timidly draw their swords.
The knights march into the throne room, marring the stone floor with bloody footprints. Standing side by side, they draw their swords, pointing them at King Quentin.
“They are acting the way they did the last time they appeared,” King Quentin notes.
“Let us hope it stays that way.”
They watch as the knights’ bodies begin to fade away and disappear.
“They are our men, yet they threaten us,” Chancellor Hammersmith says. “I wonder what they want?”
“Me,” King Quentin sniffles, struggling to hold back his tears.
Magnus, Zaragoza’s most revered sorcerer, bows to the king.
“The past five years have been kind to you, Magnus,” King Quentin says. “You look exactly the same. Not even a grey hair and you still carry the same air of mystery in your indigo eyes. Perhaps it is the freedom of not having a wife or children that brightens your appearance.”
“My wife and daughter were killed by your soldiers. That did not serve to improve my health.”
Chancellor Hammersmith leans over the sorcerer like a vulture circling its prey, his eyes lifeless and uncaring. “Yes, you look incredibly well for a man of what, a hundred and fifty? Have you forgotten we spared your life? A few more comments like that and you will not see a hundred and fifty-one.”
“We have all lost loved ones in the struggle between myself and my uncle for the throne,” King Quentin says. “But that time is past us.”
“As I told your emissary, your majesty, I have ceased practicing my former profession.”
Chancellor Hammersmith’s sharp features knot together as if he’s tasted something sour. “You willingly served the six kings who sat on the throne prior to King Quentin.”
“Which I hope has earned me the right to have a long rest, and to refuse your request.”
“I understand that you agreed to leave court because you believed my uncle was the rightful ruler….”
“Who was proven to be a traitor to Zaragoza,” Chancellor Hammersmith says, intervening. “He wanted to form an alliance with our enemies, the Valencians. When his treachery was revealed, he fled, joining them.”
“And now we are at war with Valencia,” Magnus replies. “And we are losing. Our soldiers on the front are dying from hunger and disease, while others have thrown down their weapons and deserted.”
A pop-eyed King Quentin looks to Chancellor Hammersmith for an explanation. “Is what he says true?”
“Of course not, your majesty. Our troops are massing for a decisive offensive as we speak. But you were not summoned to spread political lies, sorcerer. Your task is to rid the castle of spirits.”
“Your messenger said there are at least ten of them.”
The king anxiously leans forward on his throne, his oversized crown slipping over his eyes. “Yes, four knights, two noblemen, and a woman with a baby.”
“You fear a woman and a baby?” Magnus asks.
“It is obvious they mean your king great harm,” Chancellor Hammersmith retorts.
“Have they appeared before?”
“Every night for the past two weeks. Their forms seem to linger a bit longer each time they appear.”
“I will rid you or your apparitions for twelve hundred gold pieces.”
Chancellor Hammersmith’s pasty face reddens. “That is robbery!”
“You can always try to exorcise them yourself, Chancellor.”
“I am losing sleep as well as my sanity,” King Quentin whimpers. “I cannot stand it another night. We will meet your price.”
“I will need an assistant. Someone who is familiar with herbs, perhaps a cook or a scullery maid.”
Chancellor Hammersmith is about to argue when King Quentin raises his hand, saying, “Fine. But you must begin immediately.”
Chancellor Hammersmith smiles maliciously. “And if you fail, sorcerer, I will use your severed head to scare the spirits away.”
Magnus and Opal, his assistant, lean over the castle’s turret, watching the troop of silver knights approach the castle.
The raven-haired, eighteen-year-old maid’s violet eyes widen. “Why do they leave bloody tracks behind themselves?”
“Perhaps it is a sign of guilt; not necessarily their own. We need to go to the throne room in order to put their souls to rest. Did you mix the herbs together as instructed?”
“Yes,” she says, showing him a pouch.
“Good. Our lives depend on the strength of our magic.”
A horrified King Quentin slumps in his seat as the silver knights enter the throne room leaving behind them a gory, blood-stained trail.
Raising their swords, they point them at King Quentin. The king’s trumpeters fidget nearby, inching away from the throne.
“I ultionem habebo,” says the first knight.
Magnus translates: “He speaks in an ancient tongue used by the Badajoz, who inhabit the farthest realms of the kingdom.”
“What did he say?” King Quentin asks.
“I will have my vengeance.”
Turning to his assistant, he says, “Now, Opal.”
“Are you certain they will not hurt me?”
“I have cast a spell on them. They cannot see you.”
Opening the pouch, Opal draws a line in front of the knights in white powder.
“What is that?” King Quentin asks.
“The powder will provide a barrier to keep you safe. The apparitions cannot move beyond that line.”
Tuning to the King’s trumpeters, Magnus instructs them to begin playing a funeral march.
Magnus and Opal salute the knights.
Magnus says, “You fought for your king and your country. You sacrificed yourselves so that others could remain free. Your service is at an end. We will remember and celebrate your courageousness for all time.”
Chancellor Hammersmith, his expression riddled with doubt, remains still.
“This will not work if you do not follow my instructions,” Magnus says.
Groaning, Chancellor Hammersmith salutes the knights.
Sheathing their swords, the knights return the salute.
“…I can’t…,” King Quentin says, his body shaking.
“You must, or they will continue to haunt your castle.”
Chancellor Hammersmith hands King Quentin a sword. King Quentin’s knees knock together as he walks toward the knights.
The knights drop to a knee.
Raising his sword, King Quentin says, “You men are heroes of our realm. Every citizen of Zaragoza owes you a debt of gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice you made to protect us. I dub thee The Duke of Virtue, The Duke of Wisdom, The Duke of Courage, and the Duke of Fortitude.”
King Quentin backs away as the four knights rise. Saluting, the knights disappear.
Shivering as he stands in the courtyard, King Quentin pulls his massive robe around his boyish body.
“Can you feel their presence?” he asks.
“All I feel is the chill of a fall night,” Chancellor Hammersmith snipes.
Opal tightens her grip around the pouch as the figures of two men begin to coalesce.
The two noblemen are well-dressed, wearing colorful jackets with hose, leggings, and breeches. They hold their heads in the crooks of their arms.
The bearded men cackle at King Quentin.
“Fop,” says the first one.
“Fool,” says the second.
The second nobleman throws his head at the petrified king, who reacts by catching it. Looking down at the laughing head, King Quentin faints.
King Quentin falls backward, flopping onto the dusty ground. Chancellor Hammersmith grabs the head as its launched in the air. He angrily tosses it back at the decapitated nobleman, who deftly catches it.
“Now, Opal,” Magnus says.
Opal stares at the headless men, frozen.
Opening the pouch, Opal grabs a handful of powder, blowing it in the direction of the noblemen.
The heads stop cackling and their expressions turn somber.
“You have given something that cannot be measured by silver or gold – your lives,” Magnus says. “ You sacrificed yourselves so that others could be free. Your wisdom and selflessness will not be forgotten.”
Placing their heads back on their torsos, the noblemen fade away.
Chancellor Hammersmith leads the group through the dank, torch-lit hallways heading to the tower. King Quentin lags behind, whimpering.
“Only the most nefarious enemies of the king are housed in the tower,” Chancellor Hammersmith says.
The chancellor’s determined gait slows when the sound of a crying baby permeates the air.
Offended, Opal says sharply, “You have imprisoned a baby in the tower? How cruel!”
“Hush, girl!” Chancellor Hammersmith replies. “Presently, we are not holding any children prisoner.”
They pass by a locked cell door with a black cross nailed to its center.
Magnus and Opal glance at the cross, recognizing its symbolism.
The crying becomes louder as they approach the cell. Chancellor Hammersmith unlocks the door. He and King Quentin hesitate to go inside the cell.
Magnus enters, bowing to the apparition in front of him. Opal clings to his cloak, peeking out from behind his shoulder.
A well-dressed woman, her amber hair arranged in elaborate ringlets, sits in a simple wooden chair, cradling a baby girl.
“The child is blue,” Opal whispers.
“She is as dead as m’lady,” Magnus replies.
The woman looks up at them, tears welling in her gentle eyes.
“…Help him… Help my daughter…”
Magnus raises his hand, making the sign of the cross. “You are the mother of all that is innocent, pure, and righteous. You sacrificed yourself for love. Rest now, m’lady, knowing all will be made right.”
The woman and the baby slowly dissolve.
“Well, we made short work of them, did we not, Magnus,” Chancellor Hammersmith says.
“We?” Opal counters.
King Quentin and Chancellor Hammersmith enter the room looking around for other spirits, as Magnus and Opal back toward the door.
“They are gone! I am free!” King Quentin exults.
Magnus closes the door. Locking it, he tosses the key aside.
Chancellor Hammersmith presses his crimson features against the door’s small, barred window.
“Open this door, now! Your treachery will cost both of you your heads!”
“Just as it cost Pierre Alsace and Georges St. Lorraine theirs?” Magnus asks.
“What are you talking about, Magnus?” Opal asks.
“The two noblemen, Alsace, and St. Lorraine were ardent supporters of Prince Thomas Blessing. King Quentin and Chancellor Hammersmith took their lands and their money, then had them executed in the palace courtyard. They told the public Prince Blessing had fled to help the Valencians. Then they imprisoned his wife Madelyn, and baby daughter, Katelyn, in the tower. King Quentin was too cowardly to kill his uncle’s wife and daughter, but Chancellor Hammersmith had no such qualms. He wanted to solidify his hold on the throne. He had Madelyn poisoned, and then drowned Katelyn.”
“…Water…That is why the child appeared blue to us.”
“And the knights?” Opal asks.
“Four devoted commanders from Badajoz who supported Prince Thomas’ efforts to negotiate peace with the Valencians. When the King and Chancellor Hammersmith learned of their plans, he promised them they would become Dukes if they could bring peace. Then they sent them and a hundred men into Valencian territory thinking they were there for peace talks. They were slaughtered by a thousand waiting soldiers.”
Sitting in the chair, King Quentin rocks back and forth crying, “I didn’t want to do it… I didn’t want to do it…”
“This treasonous act will be your last!” Chancellor Hammersmith shouts. “When the guards make their rounds, we will be freed, and I will have the pleasure of seeing your heads roll off the chopping block!”
“The guards are with us. They believe Thomas Blessing is the true sovereign,” Magnus replies. “Give me the pouch, Opal.”
Opal hands him the pouch. Reaching inside of it, Magnus grabs a handful of powder, blowing it in Chancellor Hammersmith’s face.
Chancellor Hammersmith backs away, sneezing.
“The guillotine is too quick a death for you, sorcerer! I will starve you, then before you are about to die, I will have you tied to two horses and torn apart!”
“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Opal asks apprehensively.
“Do you believe Prince Thomas is the true king and not that simpering boy?”
“King Quentin is the true king!” Chancellor Hammersmith shouts between sneezes. “Tell them, boy, you are the true king!”
“…I didn’t want to do it… Hammersmith made me do it.”
“Coward! I will stand by what I have done. I did it for his majesty, the King, and for Zaragoza.”
“Then we feel the same,” Magnus says, backing away from the door.
“Where are you going! Let us out!”
Magnus turns to face Chancellor Hammersmith. “Thank you for sparing my life You gave me the opportunity to put it to good use.”
Chancellor Hammersmith turns to admonish the blubbering king.
“If you had the slightest hint of a backbone, we could have sat on the throne for decades to come!”
Chancellor Hammersmith’s anger fades as the surrounding shadows turn into figures. Pierre Alsace and Georges St. Lorraine appear with their heads firmly on their shoulders and daggers in their hands. The four knights materialize, their gleaming, sharp swords drawn.
Opal grimaces when she hears King Quentin and Chancellor Hammersmith’s screams, but she doesn’t look back, grabbing Magnus’ hand.
“May I ask you a question, Magnus? Why did you pick me? Anyone in the kitchen could have assisted you.”
“A man can trust his daughter.”
The two of them walk to the door with the black cross. Magnus pulls the cross off the door, turning it to dust in his hand.
“You conjured up those spirits to frighten King Quentin, then pretended to make them disappear.”
“Yes. The powder you mixed together is useless, although it would make a superb chocolate cake.”
“So, this was all to avenge the rightful king,” Opal says.
Magnus unlocks the door, opening it. Thomas Blessing rises from the corner of his cell.
“No, it was done to free him.”