“And so despite her injuries,” the king said, glancing at her with a bright smile of encouragement before turning back toward the vast crowd gathered below the castle balcony, “your queen will be joining you for the festival in three days’ time.”
The crowd roared and the king laughed. His merriment seemed genuine. She wondered if it was these days. A few years had passed, after all, since he became king and she became queen. Though in another memory, a false one that glimmered at the surface of her thoughts, he had been king for nearly two decades.
Despite his suspicious nature, perhaps he was tired of always worrying. Perhaps he had decided that he need not worry. The spell that bought him a clean slate at every sunrise meant that he could learn from his mistakes and learn to do all the right things and say all the right words and explain away any horrors that might be found. And he had tasted and reveled in something far more desirable than the people’s fear and obedience…their love.
Once, the spell had been constant, but the king’s enemies had managed to weaken it by killing some of those who sustained it. Until that morning, the queen had not remembered all of that. She had been told again and again by one who did remember. But she herself had forgotten. For the spell worked on her as well. And so she did not remember how she had broken her arm. When she woke that morning and turned in her bed, the sharp instant pain had made her cry out. Her husband, who did not share bedchambers with her, was not there to hear or to give comfort.
Indeed, it was likely that he was the one who had broken her arm. And given her the bruises that marked one side of her face and the ones concealed by her royal dress. The king. Not the innocent flight of stairs down which she had presumably fallen. Such a clumsy queen was she, she thought to herself, staring down at the scars of old injuries on her hands. Once upon a time, she would have dismissed them, because she would not have remembered how she got them. But now she wore around her neck a trinket, a talisman, a flat stone woven with spells that were working to build a shield around her mind.
It was a plain thing for a queen. But then, she was no queen when she first entered the kingdom, armed with that protection against the spell of forgetfulness. She was a commoner. An uncommon commoner. Her memory of the past was not yet restored. Remembering took effort and concentration. And it would take time. She hoped that three days was enough. For that was when she would carry out her plan.
And what had she done or said to provoke the king’s anger? She could not yet remember. It must have happened before she put the talisman on. There was someone who would remember. But what if that someone was the reason for the king’s anger? What if the king had discovered her secret?
A spike of fear pierced her heart. She lowered her head as he passed her by, retiring after his speech. She could take no chances at stirring his suspicion. For her secret was that she had a son who was not the king’s son.
Jason was not her son by blood. She had not carried or born him. And when she met him, he appeared to be ten years into life and yet was in truth, according to his own words, a fair bit older than herself. She met him on a royal visit to a nearby town to dedicate a new well. She had suffered another “accident” and turned her ankle. After the dedication ceremony, she received well-wishers and many kind words of sympathy for her ankle. She had, the king told her, twisted it while dismounting her mare. She could not remember for she had fallen and must have been knocked unconscious for some while. His words had been sore but kindly when he scolded her to be more careful when she rode. She remembered flinching away when he tried to lay his hand on her cheek. But she couldn’t remember why she should have recoiled from her husband’s concern.
The boy had not been among the line of well-wishers and sympathizers. He had been hanging about at the periphery of the crowd, watching her with large dark eyes. He only approached when she made preparations to return to the castle. So much was muddled in her memory, but not that first sight of him. A boy of maybe ten years, slim and tall, mostly clean despite his ragged attire. His curly black hair was close cropped. And his nails were clean. And his dark eyes were considering, cautious but resolved. He didn’t seem to belong to anyone. None of the men and women close by gathered him up as part of their brood as the day’s events came to a close.
The boy had bowed low and said, “I am sorry her majesty is wounded. I hope you recover quickly and stay well and safe ever after.”
The queen smiled and said, “The world is not a safe place, but perhaps your kind and courteous words will serve to guard me, at the least by encouraging me to be more careful.”
“It was not your fault that you were hurt,” the boy said. He bowed again and retreated before she could respond. He struck her as quite the curiosity. The contrast of his ragged clothes and his courtly manner were bizarre. But what moved her most were his eyes. They seemed far too wise for someone his age, but then, if he were a child of the streets, he would have had to gain wisdom and knowledge quickly to survive.
In the dying light of early evening, she glanced about and saw that her guards were somewhat inattentive. She pretended to retire into the royal carriage to rest while the the party finished its preparations for departure. She slipped away to follow the boy, who had disappeared into the wood beyond the town.
She kept herself within the sounds of the royal company and tried to follow the footsteps on the forest floor. She had no skill in tracking, but she saw signs that by common sense must have been made by someone passing through. Broken branches and the like. And she soon came upon a small clearing, and what seemed a tent nestled between three beech trees that grew close together. It had darkened enough that she could not see well. And she began to rethink her impulsive notion when she heard a stirring in the tent. A dim light appeared, and as she watched, a small hand pushed aside a flap and revealed a lantern in the hands of the boy.
The queen held out one hand. “Please don’t be frightened. I was merely curious about you. Your words impressed me.”
The boy came out of the tent and held up the lantern. “They were the same as everyone else’s words, majesty.”
The queen said nothing in reply but only looked at him. He set the lantern down, then returned to his tent and came out again with a large blanket. He set it on the ground before the queen.
“It is not fit for a queen, but I fear this is all the seat I can offer you, your majesty.”
The queen smiled, and being careful of her ankle, she managed to lower herself to the ground and find a fairly comfortable position on the blanket, which was thick and soft. If she were not injured, she thought she might have found the seat as cozy as her own bed.
He sat across from her, keeping the lantern between them.
“What is your name?” the queen asked.
He answered with a question of his own. “Would you like to hear a story?”
“Certainly, if it’s not a long one,” the queen said, amused. “My guards will call for me soon.”
The boy looked dubious. “Truly? Do they know you are here?”
The queen suddenly felt defensive at the boy’s presumption, particularly because he was correct. She adjusted her skirts and took a long breath.
“On second thought, take your time,” she said. “It has been a tiring day and a good story would be refreshing before my long journey back.”
The boy suddenly sprang up, darted into his tent, and popped back out, holding a piece of fruit. It was one of the fruits that grew in the orchards of that region. They looked like dark green apples and tasted like honeyed pears. The one he handed her was ripe and fragrant.
“Refreshment,” he said, explaining. “And sustenance. You’ll need it.”
The queen laughed. “Thank you.”
The boy settled down again. He fixed his dark gaze on her eyes and began his story.
“There was a great kingdom, ruled by a noble king and queen,” he started, and the queen thought he meant to flatter her, until he continued his story. “They had a son and loved him well and dreamed of more children but had no more. Their son grew up and reached the age where he should choose a companion. And his grave misfortune was that the one he loved was not of royal or even noble blood. He did not yet know what grave misfortune was. Before he could tell the queen and king, a disaster overwhelmed the kingdom. Into the castle had come an enemy disguised as a courtier. He attacked the king and queen and took them hostage. And before they could be rescued, he had his casters cast a spell upon the entire kingdom. Six troll-witches he had. And he needed them for the spell they cast required the strength of trolls. Rare was a troll-witch, for trolls were seldom intelligent enough to study any craft, much less a craft as subtle as spell-craft. And yet this villain had found six and had won their loyalty to him.
“They cast a spell over the kingdom that caused all to forget,” he said, waving his hand over the air. “The royal guards forgot that their sovereigns were in danger. The other courtiers forgot that the villain in the throne room was their enemy. The people forgot that there was trouble at the castle. The only ones whose memories were unaffected were the king and queen themselves. For spells of protection were wound about them as part of their birthright. The prince likewise remembered everything. He tried to rally the guards and managed to break into the castle, but the troll-witches held the castle till morning and they tuned the forget spell so that all would forget that the prince was the prince. And that the king and queen were the rightful rulers.
“The enemy named himself the king and became a usurper. And he had a chopping block built so he could put the true king and queen to death, calling them the usurpers. The once-beloved monarchs were pelted with rotted apples and cabbages as they lost their heads and their lives. The prince was helpless to stop it. And he would have been next, but for word that a force was attacking the kingdom. Before they died, the true king and queen had sent word to allies outside of the kingdom. And that word reached sympathetic ears, for their allies reached the edge of the kingdom. In the confusion of the attack, the prince escaped. The troll-witches tried to kill him with their spells, but against most magical harm, he was protected.
“The prince made his way to the kingdom’s borders, so that he might join his allies and warn them about their enemy. They had lost many troops when they passed into the borders of the kingdom and fell within the borders of the spell. They forgot their purpose. And as they stood in a fog of confusion, they were turned to stone by the troll-witches so that their minds would not strain the forget spell. The allies of the true monarchs had their own casters work night and day until they found a way to shield against the spell of forgetfulness. The prince managed to reach his allies, but they did not recognize him, for the troll-witches, though unable to destroy him, had managed to cast a spell on him to change his appearance. In vain, he tried to tell them who he was, but they would not believe him. So he returned to the kingdom, determined to help his allies from within.
“The allies of the kingdom forged seven talismans of protection. Seven warriors took them and entered the kingdom, one of whom also carried a weapon that could destroy the casters and the usurper. For by that time, the allies knew that the usurper had the help of troll-witches. They should not have failed. But somehow, they did. Four were killed outright, their talismans destroyed. Two were captured. The warrior with the weapon bargained for the lives of her comrades. She was made to surrender her talisman in exchange for the lives of her friends. She did and she began to forget. But the usurper betrayed her and killed her comrades. Four of the troll-witches died in the battle. But the spell they wrought held. It was complete by that time and it could stand on its own. The usurper found he could not kill the last warrior. The weapon she bore protected her. So he imprisoned her. And with the spell upon her, she knew nothing of what had happened.” The boy took a deep breathe and sighed heavily. “She lives in darkness to this day.”
The queen suppressed a shudder. “Not a happy story.”
“Not all stories are.”
He helped her up and she returned to the castle. When the king asked her how the day had proceeded, she told him of the dedication ceremony, the well-wishers, and the feasting. She almost spoke of the boy and his story. But she decided not to.
Many days passed, and each night the queen had the same dream. Details varied, but the main part of the dream was the same. It was the boy’s story.
In the dream, the spell he spoke of would descend upon the kingdom like a material net, diaphanous, insidious, snaring the minds of all who stood within its influence. Including the queen. Only there was one difference between the boy’s story and her dream. In her dream, she was not queen. She was a commoner and she had a weapon, a sword or dagger, which she used to tear at the net. But she struggled in vain. The net would choke her in the end. In the end, it choked them all.
And then she would wake.
She felt compelled to find the boy again, convinced that if there was spell-craft about, it was the boy’s doing. He was not who he seemed to be. She had known that well enough. She left the castle in secret, which was easy enough as the guards expected no mischief from her and the king was secure of her obedience. Indeed, she was deathly afraid of being found out, but could not puzzle out why she, the queen, should feel forbidden to do or have anything. She sought the boy where she had first found him.
And there she found him again, sitting on his blanket. He watched her approach. She wondered if he had seen or heard her coming and prepared himself. He could not have been sitting serenely in the middle of the forest doing nothing.
She gave greeting and sat down when he gestured to the blanket. They were quiet for a moment. She was loathe to breach the serenity of the forest, but finally she spoke.
“The story you told me has affected me more than I expected.”
The boy seemed to be suppressing some emotion. She could have sworn it was eagerness.
“You have been thinking about it?” he asked.
“More than that. I have been dreaming about it.”
“Your mind knows there is truth in the story,” he said. “It is trying to help you remember, I think.”
“Remember what, I wonder? There are things in my dream that are different from your story. That is no surprise. But there are differences that I remember when I wake. And other things that I know I have seen in the dreams but that I cannot remember.”
“I am no dream-walker. I cannot help you remember your dreams. I’m just a story-teller.”
“Then tell me more of the story.”
“I will,” he said. “The story is a true one. I will tell you as much of it as you will hear.”
The queen felt a faint flutter in her heart, but she set her resolve and nodded.
“There is a spell upon the kingdom,” he said. “It works most insidiously, but it is a far greater defense to the usurper who has taken the throne than any wall or shield or moat.”
“Usurper?” The queen laughed nervously, amused at the boy’s boldness. For he spoke of their king.
The boy continued. “Controlling thoughts is difficult, but wiping them out of memory is within the reach of skilled casters. Skilled and unscrupulous casters, that is. This spell lays like a net over the entire kingdom and its people. You remember your lives, every detail, except whatever he wants you to forget, and whatever he has already asked you to forget, like the crimes he has committed.”
The queen raised her brows. “What crimes would those be?”
At this, the boy looked troubled. A glaze of tears coated his huge brown eyes. They were filled with a deep sadness. The queen gasped. She reached out and grasped his hand.
“It’s not only for myself that I weep,” he said and he looked at her with both sorrow and guilt.
She did not know why he should feel guilty. She wondered how she might lighten his mood and thought to challenge his wit by challenging his fantastic story. She pushed worry aside and put on a smile.
“And how is it that you are immune to this spell when no one else is?” she asked.
The boy seemed to have expected her question. “Because I am protected and have been since I was a babe. A caster bound a shield around my mind, so that I might not be easily influenced, my heart, so that I might remain steadfast, and my body, so that I might not be easily harmed.” He frowned. “But there are ways around any spell. And the usurper’s troll-witches found one.” He looked up at her again. “I am older than you, majesty, by a few years at least. But they cast a spell on me to turn me into a boy so that I may be harmless and so that I may watch what he does to my country.”
The ferocity and passion with which he said the words “my country” made her start. His story…it could not be true. She continued to play along with his tale.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You were protected too,” he said. “But you surrendered that protection to save someone’s life. The king betrayed you, of course. He went against his word. He has taken much from you. But you don’t remember. And that has protected him from you. For if you knew what he had done, your fury would awaken. If you wanted to, you could destroy him. For even now, you bear the weapon that you carried into my land to help me free it from him.”
The queen felt a throb in her heart, a throb of fear, she thought, of the violent and treasonous words coming from this otherwise gentle-seeming child. But there was also some other emotion she felt that she could not define. (Pain.) She blinked. (Fury.) She squeezed her eyes shut and took slow breaths until calm returned. She opened her eyes and the boy was looking at her, gauging the effect his story was having on her.
“If you wanted to, you could undo all of this,” he said. “You could bring us all back to the time before this happened. Your own casters made a…marker of sorts. To mark the time. And they gave you the power to return to that marker, to that time, after you had infiltrated the kingdom and learned what you needed to know to stop the usurper.”
The queen suppressed a smile. The tale had truly crossed over into the impossible. The boy certainly used words that she would not expect a boy, especially an orphan raised in the streets, to know. He most definitely was not a street urchin. But he was not who he claimed to be. She was intrigued by the mystery of his identity if not by his outrageous story. The story was perhaps his own way of protecting himself. He needed her help. Most likely he was afraid, lonely, destitute. He wanted a family, and discipline. He was certainly clever and genial. She liked him. She had already grown immensely fond of him. It was strange. She had always had difficulty in making acquaintances. She had no friends. She continued to humor him.
“Why wouldn’t the king just kill me outright?” the queen asked.
At this, the boy smiled a fierce smile. “He tried.”
The queen furrowed her brows.
“The spell broke when he tried. You remembered everything and you almost saved us all and almost killed him, but you were overpowered by the troll-witches. Five were still alive back then. Only two remained by the time they subdued you.” The boy’s smile faded. “He didn’t touch you for a long while after that. And when our allies managed to another of the troll-witches, the last remaining witch advised him to bind himself to you, so he could keep an eye on you and perhaps find a way to use your power someday to attack other kingdoms. It was clever, by marrying you, he made you his ally.”
The queen should have felt hurt, but she knew the king did not love her, nor she him. It was a marriage of convenience and one that favored her for she was a lesser noble from a family that was all but destitute. Yet one that controlled a major port of great importance to the king. She frowned. She had not thought of the story of her heritage and upbringing in a long while. It all seemed hazy and somewhat senseless.
“Then he discovered that he could hurt you and so long as the injury did not threaten your life, the spell of forgetfulness upon you would remain intact. It was an accidental discovery,” the boy said, his expression darkening. “I wasn’t there, but I’ve been spying on the usurper for a long time and I heard his troll-witches talking about it. He can’t control his rage, no matter what he does. Cruelty is in his nature. Your nature to question and defy. You questioned him about some matter and he lashed out at you with that small dagger he carries at his hip.” The boy’s gaze flicked to the scar at the side of her face just in front of her right ear. “In terror, he called his witches to him, but you didn’t strike out. You were angry, but you were also frightened. You didn’t remember yourself. The next day you forgot he had done the injury. But you didn’t forget your fear of him. That was his will. And that’s why over time, he struck you just to build your fear of him, so that you would never defy him again.”
The queen gaped. The boy was going too far. And yet…she was nervous around her king, grateful that he didn’t share her bed. But the king was hardly the beast that the boy described. He was stern, he had to be. And he had passed many laws and pronounced many punishments that had gained him no friends among the people. But it was not a king’s duty to please the people. It was his duty to rule them.
At that last thought, something pricked at the queen’s heart. A sense of wrongness. The boy was certainly an affecting storyteller. And she was certainly far too soft-hearted.
“I’ll help you regain your memory,” the boy said. “If you let me stay in the castle.”
And there it is, the queen thought. There was the motive behind his bold tale of the evil usurper-king and his witches. And of course he had made her, whom he wished to recruit as his ally, both the hero and the innocent victim in the tale, one whom he could rescue.
“I can’t let you stay,” the queen said, trying to look away from his large brown eyes. “Not…without earning your keep. The kitchens—”
He shook his head. “I can’t be seen. The king or the witches, if they saw me, they would try to kill me. And he would be very unhappy with you too. I know I ask you to take a great risk, but I know how to stay hidden.”
The queen sighed. “Then why would you need my permission?”
“Because I need your help, and to earn your help, I need your trust. And to earn your trust, I must respect your word.”
“You must respect that anyway, for I am your sovereign,” the queen teased.
The boy sat up erect and he bowed his head. “That you are,” he said. But his blank expression and the grace of his posture made her feel foolish for her teasing, and her claim.
She realized that if the boy believed that the king was a usurper than she as the queen was a usurper too. The boy was her enemy then if he believed he was who he seemed to say he was. It would be dangerous to invite him into the castle.
The boy sprang up suddenly again, as seemed to be his manner. He smiled and held out his hands to help her rise. She took one hand and used her cane in the other and managed to rise without aggravating her ankle much. She dusted off her dresses and gave him a nod.
“Thank you for your hospitality…” She waited, but he would not be so easily convinced to part with his secrets.
He laughed and shook his head. “My name is one thing I know you would remember, then you would tell the usurper. And he would know I was alive and he would have his troll-witch cast another spell on me.”
The queen sighed. There was no convincing him that the king was just a king and not some kind of villain. In part that was because she was not convinced herself. She was troubled that the boy’s seditious story had provoked sympathetic feelings in her.
His last words to her haunted her all the way back to the capitol and the castle.
“You’ll never know what he truly is unless you remember what he’s done to you.”
She watched the king that evening at dinner, at court. He did nothing evil. Nothing unkind. The words he said were typical, not sinister. His advisors both agreed and disagreed with the topics he brought up for discussion. And he did not ask for their heads or send them to the dungeons. She had wanted some outward sign to confirm what the boy had told her. She wanted a reason to defy her king and welcome her little friend into the castle. For if the king was just a king, then she would be bringing danger into the castle. But there were no outward signs. Her reason had to be her own.
And she decided.
The next day she dressed in common garb, slipped out the castle, and found a carriage to hire. She returned to the town where she’d seen the boy, to the wood where he kept his quarters, but this time she could not find his tent. Either she had forgotten where it was, or he had moved it.
She began to wonder if she had imagined him as he had imagined his story. She sat down on a boulder and took a swig from her water flask, cursing the fogginess of her thoughts, wondering what to do next.
“Have you made up your mind?” a voice asked.
The queen dropped her flask and nearly choked on the water she had just sipped. She rose and glanced about her, but there was no one. Then she looked up and saw him perched on a high branch like some mischievous fairy.
“I have,” the queen said. She watched him descend to the ground. And though he was nimble, he did not have any magical grace. He flicked a branch in his face and managed to scratch up an arm on the way down.
She pulled a kerchief from her cloak pocket and doused it in the water that still remained in her flask. He let her approach and dab at the shallow cuts on his arm.
“The king…the king is not a villain,” she said. “But he does have a temper sometimes. He would likely not approve of my taking in a stranger as our guest without his permission. But if you truly are skilled at remaining hidden, which it would seem you are, then you may stay at the castle. On the condition that you mind my instructions. And that you tell me more stories.”
The boy smiled. “We will have to find a secret place to meet.”
And that was how the strange relationship started. He was her little friend at first. A secret companion. She was often troubled by the unhealthy arrangement of keeping a child in the castle in secret. She wanted so much to announce his presence and watch him run about the kitchens and courtyard with the other castle children. And she did not, of course, believe the boy when he continued to insist that he was of age with her. Not at first. At first, she merely wanted to take care of him. His story-telling was just her way of preserving his pride by letting him believe that they had an equal deal, when really she had brought him into the castle so she could take care of him.
In the present, with her memory returning, she knew that he had tricked her into taking him into the castle, for her accompaniment was needed to get past the spells and sigils that the troll-witches had set in place to keep him or anyone of his blood out. The sigils were monitored by the castle guards, who did not know what they meant. So when the queen was not allowed to pass through, because she held the kerchief with the blood of the boy, the guards noted which sigil it was that glowed its warning, and fearing the king’s wrath for denying the queen, they removed the sigil. And so it was that the boy had entered the castle.
In those first days of his secret residence in the castle, the boy told the queen that the key to regaining her memory was to recover one of the talismans that her people had made. All but two had been destroyed. One he said he had given to an ally, whom he would introduce the queen to once she had gained more of his trust. The other had been kept by the usurper himself. He mistrusted his troll-witches and wanted to assure he had a way to resist the spell they had forged, in case they decided to turn on him.
The boy searched the castle, for he seemed to know of passages and chambers that no one else knew of, but he could not find the talisman. The queen thought it was destroyed, if it existed at all. She did come to believe his story little by little as time went on, though he told her that she would often forget it. And she continued to forget her injuries.
She noticed though that each time she was injured now, the king seemed to suffer some mishap as well.
She slammed her hand in a door by accident once. The king stepped on a nail in his rug.
She suffered an accidental lashing when she stood behind the horse-master in the stable as he tried to punish an unruly filly. A shelf in his study fell on the king.
And so it went until a year had passed.
She never remembered the injuries, but the boy told her each time what had really happened. It was the king who slammed her hand in drawer when she said something that displeased him in front of his courtiers. It was the king who lashed her when he was angry that the forces that still lingered outside of the kingdom had launched another attack, albeit a failed one.
She would always forget the next day. She would forget her injuries. But she did not forget the king’s. The king noticed too as did the castle’s inhabitants. And there started the rumor of a haunting. And it was indeed noted that only the king and queen were ever injured.
The queen did not ask the boy if he was responsible for the king’s injuries, but one day after the third time the king had suffered a mishap, she told the boy about it and then reminded him again to be careful not to be seen.
The boy seemed to understand what she was really cautioning him about. And that was the day he gave her his name.
“Keep it secret from the king, I beg you,” he said.
The queen’s eyes had widened. Jason. His name was Jason. “I have already forgotten it,” she assured him.
He laughed and shook his head before he slipped away. Each time they met, they met in a different one of many secret chambers that Jason knew of. And sometimes, it would be several days before they saw each other, if the queen felt the guards were being especially attentive. Still, as time wore on, and as the king became more suspicious of the castle’s “ghost,” the queen began to think that she should send Jason away, out of the kingdom to safety. She began to fear for him constantly, even when she could not remember why she feared.
Almost a whole year passed, and Jason had given her the gift of his memories. She forgot half of what he told her. But she remembered that he told her she had friends and loved ones. He had not known her. But he had seen much in the short time he watched the seven warriors come into his kingdom to try and save it. The urge to send Jason away had overwhelmed the queen. She told him of her intention.
She looked at him. Two years had passed since she found him in the forest. He should have changed, grown. In two more years’ time, he should be entering manhood. Yet he was the same.
“You cannot send me away, mother.” He had taken to calling her “mother” a few months after living in the castle. At first, it was to please her and win her favor. But now she felt he halfway meant it. He knew she would do anything to protect him. And she knew that he understood and appreciated that. “I am still searching for the talisman,” he said. “Once I find it and give it to you, you will remember everything, including how to use your weapon.” He looked at her left wrist. It was bare of any adornment, but Jason insisted that the gauntlet was there, hidden by her own forgetfulness.
His plan was simple. He meant to restore her memory so she could defeat the usurper, while he and his still-mysterious ally dealt with the last remaining troll-witch. The troll-witch was disguised as a courtier, a beautiful courtier whom Jason said shared the usurper’s bed, much to queen’s disgust and alarm for her son’s innocence.
“The harvest festival is a week away,” the queen said. “With all the merriment and confusion, it will be the perfect time for you to leave the kingdom.”
He grasped her by the shoulders. “Mother, I could have left the kingdom any time I chose to. I have stayed because this is my kingdom. It is my responsibility to free it and guard it.” He released her. “And rule it.”
She drew in a breath. He had never directly spoken of it since that first time he had revealed himself in his story. His claim as the true heir.
“I am leaving the kingdom too,” she said. “And I am taking you with me. Who’s to say the spell on you won’t break once we are outside of the kingdom’s borders?”
“I am to say. I’ve already tried that, remember I told you?”
She did not remember. He knew that. He sighed. “You must trust me. Give me more time to find that talisman.”
“I give you one week, then.”
He did it. He had found the talisman with three days to go before the festival. The necklace with the flat stone. Once he gave it to her, she began to retain her memories of the present. And slowly, the memories of her past trickled back. Jason told her that she would remember how to trigger the spell that would take her back to the time before she entered the kingdom with her six companions. She would not be able to save the king and queen, for they died before the casters made the marker. But she would save her companions and the thousands who died at the usurper’s chopping block after the companions failed in their mission.
The night before the harvest festival, the queen continued to search. She was desperate now, for she hadn’t seen Jason for two days. She had checked the dungeons. She had checked all the secret chambers and left coded notes there for him. When he gave her the talisman, he had told her of his other ally, a young woman whom he said would be lodging at a nearby tavern. The queen resolved to visit all the nearby taverns next. She scratched at the skin of her left wrist. With her arm broken and her memories only partly restored, she would be of no use to Jason in his grand plan. She planned to talk this companion, the young woman, into fleeing with Jason. The way he had spoken of her, he seemed…devoted. The queen was certain he would heed the young woman as he would never heed his mother. The queen would deal with the usurper herself and give her son back what was rightfully his.
She returned to her bedchamber to don her common garb.
“Is this what you have been searching for these past two days, my dear?”
The queen turned and found a horrifying sight. The usurper was in her chambers and he held Jason with one arm. And he held a knife at Jason’s throat with the other. She looked at her son.
She was mesmerized by his large brown eyes. Not for the first time, she wondered if he was the one who was casting a spell on her. She was long past feeling helpless at the thought that her memories were false, her mind not completely her own.
It’s all right, Jason’s expression seemed to say. All you have to do is remember and live.
She could undo it. If he was right, her little son, the true king, then she could undo it. He would never be her son in the new lives they would lead, he would never know her, but it didn’t matter. He would grow up. He would rule. He would live.
But she did not know, she did not yet remember what spell could take her back in time. In her panic, she only remembered one thing. She unslung her broken arm. There was a gauntlet wrapped around her wrist. She winced as she straightened her arm and raised it to him.
“Let my boy go.”
The usurper glanced nervously at the gauntlet. “You’re bluffing. You don’t remember how to use that.” He pulled Jason closer to him. “And even if you do, you won’t be fast enough.”
“If you kill him, there is nothing to stop me from killing you. You want to live, don’t you?”
“Of course, that is why I will keep this hostage with me.” He pulled Jason backward. The knife edge was too close to his neck. Jason could not struggle and slip away. “Remove the gauntlet and I’ll consider freeing him.” The offer was an empty one. The usurper’s expression betrayed him.
The queen stepped toward them. Her arm aching and throbbing with both pain and power. She could see that Jason wanted her to strike, to kill them both, for it would not matter what happened now if she set things right in the past. And the troll-witch, she must have been hiding somewhere, ready to leap out and stop the queen. She felt some force in the gauntlet, straining against her will. But she could not strike. She could not risk her son. If she failed, she would lose him. The kingdom would lose him.
“Stop!” She reached around her neck and pulled off the talisman. “I’ll set this down, then I’ll forget what’s happening and there will be no reason for you to kill him.”
The usurper laughed. “I’m not a fool, you oaf. You would remember him. And anyway, I know who this is. I missed my chance to end his line once, I will not miss it again.”
Jason glared at the queen. “He means to kill me anyway. Why do you not strike!”
“She can’t,” the usurper said, understanding better than her own son did. “She cannot harm you.”
Jason’s hands were on the usurper’s arm. He moved one hand now toward the usurper’s knife hand. And the queen knew what he meant to do. In desperation, she raised the gauntlet and let fly all her power toward the usurper.
She saw the usurper’s eyes widen. She saw him start to recoil. She saw the knife slide across Jason’s neck. She saw blood.
She cried out in rage and let fly her power again. It was a force she could not see but only feel. A burst of energy that struck the usurper and flung him toward the opposite wall. He slid down the wall and slumped before it motionless.
Jason crumpled to the ground. She ran to him. He seemed in a daze. He was still alive, but there was blood dripping from his neck.
Tears poured from the queen’s eyes. She wiped them away and pressed her hand against his neck to staunch the flow of blood. But then she felt other hands, small hands, pulling her own away.
“Mother,” a low voice said. Jason’s voice. “It’s not…deep. I think. I might be all right.”
The queen checked his neck and found that it was true. The wound was still bleeding, but it was not deep. Relief flooded through her.
“Bind it,” she said to herself. She could hardly talk from the pain of her broken arm and the shock of nearly losing her son.
A cry of anguish tore the still night air. The queen turned and there in the threshold was the beautiful courtier, the one who had the king’s favor. But her face was melting and she was shrinking and yet growing. Her disguise fell away and she took the shape of a stout stony-skinned creature with straw-like hair and two sickly white beads for eyes. And those eyes were filled with grief as she looked upon the still body of the usurper. Then those sickly troll eyes turned toward the queen. And those eyes were filled with hatred. The troll-witch flung something toward them. And the queen rose and pushed Jason behind herself and was struck in the chest. She looked down and saw a gray sand sliding down her dress.
She glanced up in time to see a blade slice through the troll-witch’s neck. Her body fell away and the head dropped to the ground. And the wielder of the blade stepped into the room as a sharp spike of pain pierced the queen’s heart.
The pain was so great she could not cry out.
She was frozen in place. Jason moved out from behind her. And he was changing, growing. With each step, he grew taller. His chest grew wide and strained at his tunic. His complexion grew darker. A shadow of stubble sprouted from his chin. His eyes widened as he looked down at her. She followed his gaze and saw what he saw. A mass of gray spreading from her chest to the rest of her body.
She was turning to stone.
She looked up at him. She was turning to stone, but Jason had turned back into himself. And he was now king. She smiled as a figure rushed to her son’s side. A young woman with flaming hair and a sword dripping with the blood of a troll-witch. She had a flat stone about her neck, a talisman. As Jason reached out to the queen, the young woman blocked him and held him back. And the queen was pleased for the young woman was right, Jason should not touch her or he too might turn to stone. The young woman looked at the queen, frowned, and spoke some words, but the queen could not hear them.
The spell should have broken, the queen thought. That’s what his red-haired warrior must be saying. The spell on me should have broken when she killed that troll-witch.
The queen did not care. She cared only that she had saved her son. And avenged her comrades. And freed herself.
His story will go on, she thought. She closed her eyes. My story is ended.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.