It is said that just before a child is born, he is given every gift a person can possess in life. But those gifts attract the attention of evil and greedy beings, who always steal them away one by one. Every child manages to grasp hold of at least one gift so tightly that it cannot be stolen before the child is born.
“My son was born with all the gifts,” the king proclaimed, standing before the beaming prince. “It is no wonder that he and he alone was able to capture the greatest terror our capital—our kingdom—has known in many a generation.”
All who were gathered in the square listened to the king’s story. They stood rapt and frozen as something they had not seen—save the oldest among them—was unveiled from behind a red curtain on a stage in their midst. Gasps and whispers flickered through the gathered crowd. On the stage was a rod of wood with a single arm, and at the end of that arm was tied a rope in the shape of a noose.
Yllenore recognized her king’s tale well, for she had often told it to her son. But she remembered a part of the story that the king did not tell. There were some children who held on to all the gifts they were given. That was true. But a few among those were not satisfied with all. Their fingers were ever grasping for more. So when those wicked beings came to steal the gifts away, not only did they fail, but they themselves were sometimes caught by the child, caught and grasped so tightly that they were brought into the world as a part of that child, just as all the gifts were.
As the royal guards brought out their prize prisoner, shackled and hooded, and led him to the noose, Yllenore kept her eyes on the prince. She saw in the prince’s eyes what she could not find in the eyes of other men, and certainly not in the eyes of the man whom the prince had marked as the kingdom’s worse villain. The man known as Lampaneer. She had long suspected that the prince had kept all his gifts and dragged something more into his mortal life.
“If the queen still lived,” the king went on, seemingly oblivious to all that rippled under the surface of the moment, “she would have been as proud as I am now.” He clapped his son on the back and the prince gave what appeared to be a humble chuckle and lowered his head for just a heartbeat.
“Does our king not know that the greatest terror in our kingdom stands just beside him?” someone said in a low voice.
He was hushed by those around him.
But Yllenore was glad to hear his dissent. Some said rumor was an evil. But there were greater evils than rumor. And some rumors were true. The ones about the prince. The ones about Lampaneer.
Lord Lampaneer was caught. The people’s hero would soon be dangling from a rope, destined only for death now. His lands had already been seized. His wife had gone into hiding. Yllenore had made a promise to that lady, a promise she would keep even at the cost of her own freedom, her own life, if that’s what it took. It was what she owed to her realm. It was what she owed to her friend.
It began in the eastern lands with attacks on travelers. Maimings. Then killings. Then the kidnapping of travelers. Then the vanishing of villagers from the villages at the edge of the forest.
One of the minor eastern lords, someone no one had heard of before then, Lampaneer by name, tried to gather up his fellows and his people. He tried to entreat them to search the forest, to find those who were lost, and to discover something about the beast or villain that stalked among them. Those who managed to escape with their lives described a creature, clawed and fanged, hulking and strong, striking quickly like a snake, stalking like a cat, but with eyes that were filled with wicked intent. They sounded like the old tales of creatures known as the draca.
He had no luck convincing anyone, so he went by himself and was gone for many days. The Lady Lampaneer, heavy with child and awaiting the return of her husband, continued to entreat the other lords and ladies, the village chiefs, the town elders, mayors and ministers of her province. During that time, a boy was taken from a village and a young woman from a town northwest of the forest. After that, no further entreaty was needed for many.
Warriors and hunters were gathered. Witch doctors and alchemists were consulted. Traps and weapons were crafted.
Yllenore watched the hangman wrap the noose around Lampaneer’s neck as his crimes were proclaimed to the crowd. He was accused of bringing the draca into the kingdom.
Long before the draca troubled the realm, there was another horror growing and festering in the heart of the capital, in the castle. Perhaps many knew of it. The queen certainly had.
Yllenore knew what many did not know, what even the king did not know, about their queen. Several years earlier, the queen had devised a somewhat reckless and desperate plan. For she had grown troubled as she watched her only son grow older. At the time, the prince had reached an age where he could, according to the laws of their realm, command all the castle servants and even the court. His commands were revealing an unnerving lack of regard for those with whom he shared his home and his life. All the queen’s efforts to shape his character seemed to fail. She feared she was raising a prince who would become a despot. If that should happen, she hoped to defend her people, to teach them how not to be cowed, how to resist.
The queen sought to inspire and hearten her people. But if she were to stand against her son, she could not do so as herself. She would wear a disguise when moving about the kingdom. She would need to be able to move freely, so it would help if she were in a position of some authority, but not so much that she would be noticed. Not so much that she would look amiss drinking in a tavern with knights and farmers. The queen was tall, and though no longer a warrior as she was in her youth, she was still strong. To complete her disguise, she took on the role of a lord. She searched the histories of the realm and found a long-dead line of nobles whose name and heraldic shield she took for her disguise, satisfied at the list of noble and charitable deeds attributed to the family before they died out.
After a few heroic deeds, the routing of bandits, and the solving of a few crimes, the queen realized that even if she were in her peak, she was no mighty knight. She realized that it was difficult to inspire when she could not speak, for speaking would give her away. She realized that she could wear the insignia. She could wear the black bird of House Lampaneer, but she could not match their deeds, not alone.
The black bird had begun to be recognized in the towns surrounding the capital, so the queen had traveled farther out. She sat in a tavern one day, mulling over a mug of mulled wine when she met the man who would become what she had sought to become. He was noble of heart if not of birth. He recognized the insignia and tried to ask if he could join the cause. Without a word, the disguised queen waved him off and departed. But the man persisted and so she watched him for many days. She sent word to him as Lord Lampaneer with a simple request. If he could follow it, Lord Lampaneer would let the man follow him. The man was young and so was his wife. They were willing to move from the south to the eastern lands, which were farthest from the capital. When he arrived, he found a surprise, a burden and an honor he did not expect.
The queen passed the mantle of Lord Lampaneer onto the young man. She used no scribe, but drafted the needed papers herself.
With the authority granted to him, Lampaneer began to take a few matters into his own hands, such as the matters of crimes in what were now his lands. He had a modest villa. And farmlands. He worked them well and became known to the people of the nearby towns and villages as a kind and friendly lord.
Seven years passed in peace.
After many days, Lampaneer finally emerged from the forest. He claimed to have fought a creature that he couldn’t quite see in the darkness, but seemed to be made of smoke and scales. As he fought, he heard the cry of a child and went to seek it. He found the boy who’d been taken and having someone to protect, he stopped fighting and starting fleeing through the forest until he reached the nearest village.
When he heard that there was still a young woman missing, and that now there was a party gathered as he’d wanted, he joined the party, and again dove into the forest.
Weeks became months, and the months bore on. Lampaneer and his band managed to save many, and many managed to save themselves from the draca that ran amuck. Lampaneer was known as a hero by then, for while he had not yet succeeded in dispatching the horror that haunted the land, he had saved many from death and dread. Word reached the capital of his valiant deeds. But almost at the same time, word reached the capital of trouble in the southern lands, and then the western lands. The news was the same. Vicious creatures stalked among forest and fen. The capital was in the north and had yet to hear of any attacks in their own province, but the fear was that the draca would come to them in time.
The prince proclaimed to the court that he would go out first to the southern and western lands, then to the east, to aid his people.
Not often did the prince leave the capital or even the castle grounds. When he ventured forth to the southern lands, the queen saw her chance to find the proof she sought, the proof she feared to find, the proof she feared not to find. For now that the prince was of an age to inherit the crown and rule, she did not think he would wait long.
The queen had tried to be gentle when he was a child. He was quiet but had troubling habits. He wrestled too roughly with the pups that were given to him. He seemed not to know his own strength. He was a prince and would want for nothing, but the queen sought to teach him humility and empathy. She made efforts to remain in control, to be patient and observant, to learn how he might be reached. When she saw that her direct lessons had no effect, she had tried to steer her son subtly.
Perhaps she had averted her gaze, denied what she feared, believed it was her own lack. One day, she saw her son take in playmates from among the children of the castle servants, and a spark of hope filled her heart. But so did a spark of suspicion, a suspicion that grew when those playmates, a brother and sister, thereafter disappeared. Their parents came looking for their children. The prince insisted that he had his coachmen delivered them back home. The prince’s word was the kingdom’s word. It could only be questioned by his superiors, only by his king and queen. It never was. For the queen did not truly believe that her son had done his playmates any ill.
Soon thereafter, the queen went away on a diplomatic visit to a neighboring realm, and the same thing happened three more times. The prince took in a playmate. The playmate vanished. By the time the queen returned, there were rumors and whispers and parents seeking audience with the king. The prince continued to insist that he had last seen his playmates alive and well just before the coachman took them home.
The coachman was jailed for the crimes of kidnapping and dispatching the poor children that were brought to play with the prince. None of the children were ever found. One of them wasn’t even claimed by any family. Either she was an orphan or a bastard, or her family was too afraid of their monarchs.
Fear was not the way that either the king or queen sought to rule their people. After the coachman was jailed, the prince’s playmates stopped vanishing, and the queen was relieved, though something still gnawed at her heart. It kept gnawing and she kept hoping she was being foolish.
But then the prince became old enough to rule. And the queen feared that time was running out.
So while the prince was away in the southern and western ands, the queen searched his quarters and all the places that he deemed secret. She found nothing troubling until she began to search outside the castle proper, to places where rumor led her. In an abandoned cistern she found bones ground in stone mortars, bundles of long-dead herbs, and glass vials full of dank liquids. In a crumbling dungeon from older, crueler days, she found evidence of gruesome works. Animals first. Then bones that belonged, undoubtedly, to people. She found shallow graves marked with twigs and stones. She dug them up with her own bare hands and found the remains of animals and beings that were rare and protected by law.
None of what she found was guarded or locked in any way. The prince had no need for locks or secrets. For who would question him? And who, even if they witnessed his acts, would dare tell him nay?
While the queen roamed her kingdom in disguise, saving her people from villains, she had been living beside one all along. And she had failed all who had fallen victim to him.
She kept searching.
The queen found a cabin deep in the woods behind the castle. There she went alone and when she arrived, she realized that there was still someone living within the cabin. There was smoke from the chimney. There was movement within. She called out.
She ventured in and what she found was worse than defiled remains. For a dead body was one from whom the spirit, now free of pain and suffering, was gone. What she found was five living people, three men and two women. Their bodies were twisted and mutilated. It was difficult to tell with all the cuts and changes to their faces, but they seemed about the prince’s age. She did not know how they still lived, for their limbs had been cut off and reattached in the wrong places, their bones broken and reshaped. The head of one was twisted so far around that it faced the same way as his back.
When they saw the queen, their dull eyes sparked to life and they shuffled around her. Only one seemed to speak and that one warned her off and threatened to send evil spirits after her if she didn’t leave. She tried to ask them their names, to ask who had disfigured them, but they did not answer. Their minds too had been twisted and broken. She could not leave them. She feared it was only some evil magic that was keeping them alive, for they had been changed too much for them to survive by eating, drinking, and resting. There was an odor of rotting flesh in the cabin.
The queen did not dare tell her gentle king about what she’d found. He was completely blind to the prince’s disturbing nature. He saw only the bright and golden boy that he had hoped to have ever since he had fallen in love with and married the captain of his guard.
The queen sent some of her trusted servants to care for the five monstrosities that now lived in the cabin, warning them to abandon the creatures if their own lives were threatened.
She had aimed to thwart the prince. But after what she found, she knew she had no choice but to stop the prince for good, no choice but to destroy him.
The prince succeeded in dispatching the draca that troubled the southern and western lands. He brought back their heads. The heads, three times the size of a man’s, appeared like that of a serpent, but narrowing at the snout. They had curled horns behind scaly ears. And even dead, their obsidian eyes seemed to glow with a blood-red fire. In the capital, the prince proclaimed that he would next travel east, to where the troubles had begun, and help the heroes who were fighting there to dispatch their draca.
The king had fallen ill while the prince was gone, sick with worry for his son, some said. But the queen wondered. She had tasters sample every bit of food, drink, and medicine the king was served. The king only began to recover when the prince returned.
The very next day, the queen departed for the eastern lands, claiming she would go in advance of the prince, to give comfort to the people, as she should have done so long before. But she was certain that the prince had something to do with those draca. For he had dispatched two so easily when dozens of warriors in the east had fought and failed to dispatch even one. She went forth to warn Lord Lampaneer, and to find some way to put an end to the horrors that her son had wrought in the capital and the kingdom.
Word came back to the capital that the draca had attacked the queen’s caravan, and the queen had vanished. The hero Lampaneer and his compatriots were sent to find their queen. The prince rode out at once.
Neither hero nor prince found the queen. But they did find the draca. There were others present when it happened, but stories differed. At first, it was claimed that the hero and prince worked together to dispatch the beast, after trying to speak to it and compel it to reveal where it had taken the queen. They both killed it, though the prince gave the death blow.
Somehow in the days that followed that night, the prince became convinced that Lampaneer had been false. The heroes and leaders of the eastern lands were gathered in the township closest to the villa of Lampaneer, who was celebrating the birth of his second child. The prince convinced them that Lampaneer had summoned those creatures, and then he had hunted them, to further his name and his station. Worse, he himself had kidnapped some of the people who’d gone missing, so that he could later return them and claim that the beast had taken them. Of those who had been taken, many did admit that it was not a beast that had taken them, but a man. Of those, a few claimed that they later did see a beast with the man, and he seemed to be commanding it, for he commanded it to come forth and feed.
Fear of the draca, obedience to their monarch, and knowledge that the Lord Lampaneer was a near-stranger to the land, only having settled there seven years before, made a broiling potion of suspicion and loathing in the people.
Lampaneer soon found himself in shackles and thrown into a cart bound for the capital. Before the people’s ire could fall upon Lady Lampaneer and her newborn child, a friend appeared who owed them a debt. That friend was Yllenore. She promised that she would not let Lampaneer die.
The people of the capital knew the prince far better than the people of the outer regions, though their fear and obedience were just as strong. They were not so easily convinced of Lampaneer’s guilt, but they would not say so for fear of meeting the same fate he was meeting, or worse.
Rumors were spreading. Rumors that the queen had assured by sending her servants to care for the deformed souls in that cabin. Only weeks had passed, but rumor moved as quickly as fire, sometimes quicker.
As the noose fitted around Lampaneer’s neck, Yllenore watched with dread. The deed was done. He was hung and all watched silently as he took his last breaths. Yllenore feared that they might leave him hanging through the night. But they did not. He was soon removed and his body taken away by the guards. The prince kept the crowd from dissipating by making some speech that Yllenore heard but did not listen to.
The next morning it was discovered that the villain Lampaneer’s body had vanished from the keep. A search was mounted. The prince seemed unperturbed when he gathered his court around him. He proclaimed that whatever evil forces had spewed forth Lampaneer into the world must have reclaimed him. But if that were not so and it was a mortal thief who had stolen the body, it would be found, and all responsible, including the guards who let the body be taken, would be properly punished. It was at that moment that the king at last spoke up, and gently but firmly announced that while any criminals would indeed be punished, none would be hanged henceforth by order of the king.
Yllenore was not present for that moment. She had left the capital. She later wished she had been there, for she heard there were gasps of surprise and a spark of hope in the king’s proclamation, which so many had witnessed, and therefore none could overturn, for it was the word of the king. The hangman’s noose was removed from the square within the hour. The people who wandered through the square wondered until they saw a notice posted of the king’s proclamation. Then they too felt a shift, but one they could not quite grasp.
That same day, the prince joined the search for Lampaneer’s body, and the king fell ill once more. Several days passed and the king became so ill that envoys were sent to entreat the prince to return. This he did, but by the time he did, it was too late. The king was dead.
Yllenore had not heard the news that her king was ill until it was too late. Then she had tried to return to the capital, knowing it was in vain, that no remedy she could find would match the skill of the court doctors. She might have tried anyway. She had found some powerful magic on her recent journeys. But she arrived too late to save her king.
That shift the people had felt, that hope, it died away. If the queen was lost, the kingdom was lost. If the king was dead, the kingdom was dead.
On the eve of the prince’s coronation, Yllenore appeared in his chambers, dressed in a black gown embroidered with black birds. It was not serendipitous that she had chosen a house whose crest was a black bird. It was a purposeful choice.
Black birds, especially small ones, like sparrows and robins, were among the few creatures that were purported to have the power to chase away those evil beings who stole the gifts given to soon-to-be-born children. The birds were common in the heraldry of the kingdom’s oldest families.
Yllenore had revealed herself to members of the court. She had arranged for her conversation with the prince to be heard by those who dared to hear it by granting them access to the private royal chambers. A few were too frightened to defy the prince. But many, more than she had hoped, were willing to at least listen. She would need for at least some of those who listened to do more than just listen. But that too she had arranged.
The prince did not seem surprised to find her in his chamber. Perhaps he knew what she had planned and did not care. Perhaps he did not know and his lack of surprise was a bluff. He turned and rose from his chair on which was draped the rich cloak of the king. He spoke.
“I saw you, mother. In the crowd. I didn’t see your face. I saw the mark I had put on you long ago. I knew you must be alive still. I felt it to be so. I admit, I did not foresee that you would be in league with the pawn I had chosen to bear the burden of all the ill that has fallen on the kingdom.”
“The ill you had wrought on the kingdom, you mean.”
“It broke my heart to have to kill my father. I loved him. I loved you too, but you abandoned me. You abandoned the kingdom. At our time of greatest need. Was your caravan truly attacked?” He narrowed his eyes. “No, you were waiting for your chance to leave, weren’t you? He never left my side. Not the strongest ruler, my father. Not deserving of a kingdom so mighty and vast. But he wasn’t the worst and weakest ruler of all. You, not him, you are the weakest ruler our kingdom has ever known.”
“On that we agree,” Yllenore said. Her son was powerful. Too powerful perhaps for her to defeat. She had the people’s loyalty. But he had his evil magic, and she knew not the depth of his skill. She had stood by for years, helpless and useless, while he grew that power. She could have stopped him then and should have. She would stop him now.
“But I must admit, your leaving was an advantage to me. I was able to act so freely without you constantly peering over my shoulder and countermanding the orders I gave to the court and the servants.”
“You linked his life to you somehow,” Yllenore said, “so that he would not survive your absence.”
“Endearing, isn’t it? For a father to grow sick upon the lack of his child?”
Her king. Her husband. Her own son had taken him from her. “How did you do such a thing?” she asked.
“I cut out a piece of my own heart. And I cut out a piece of his. I bound them together. Then I put them back into my chest.”
“It was you who conjured this monstrosity, or perhaps you made it.” Yllenore pointed to the draca’s head that sat on the prince’s study. “You learned how, dabbling in forbidden magic bound in the tomes that could only be found in the castle vault.”
“Why would I do such a thing?”
“To cow the people by winning their love and adoration. The best way to show them they needed you was for you to save them from something. But there are no threats from outside our kingdom in these days. So you had to save them from some threat inside the kingdom. But there were none of those either. Until that creature began to appear.”
“Indeed, you are bright, mother. I inherited that from you.”
“To me it seems you have inherited all of the weaknesses of your forebears and none of our strengths.”
“You have no strength, mother. Lampaneer was your strength and he is dead.”
“Lampaneer defeated the beast you conjured. He cast it out of our realm. You took the praise that was meant for him. Then you put him to death.”
“You wish he were your son, and not me.”
“I wish you were the son I raised you to be.”
“Do not despair, mother. You will soon see that my rule is right.”
“I vowed to raise you to value the lives of your people, to cherish them, to exalt them, to truly lead, and not to dominate.”
“You failed, mother.”
“That I did.”
Yllenore noted then the prince’s golden garb. He was always fond of gold. His hair was golden just like his father’s. How happy the realm would have been if he had inherited more from his father than yellow locks. Yllenore had not yet grieved her husband. She would do so when she had brought his murderer to justice.
She peered into the prince’s eyes. “You brought evil with you when you came into this world.”
“Have you come to expel this evil from me, mother?”
“It is not evil that has a hold upon you, my son. It is you who has a hold upon evil.”
“Then have you come to kill me? Your only child? You have come to take the life from me that you gave me? Can you do that?”
“I do not know if I could. I don’t have to know. I have not come to kill you. I have come to kill your legacy.” Yllenore stood straight. She felt some great force looming. Whether doom or triumph, she did not know. “All have now seen how far you would go to punish. They will soon see all else that you have wrought. You are vile and wicked. But you are not mad. And you may be prince, but none are protected from the crime of killing their sovereigns. Though I would you be punished as well for the crimes you have wrought on others.”
“I would go farther still for my kingdom. It is stronger for what I have done.”
“Whatever your reason for maiming and killing so many—“
“Why didn’t you stop me? Why did you merely watch?”
“—you will harm no others from this day forth.”
“Are you certain of that?”
“Your name will not be remembered. I have seen to it that is part of your punishment. Your name will be stricken from all records, banned from utterance. It will be his name that lives on. Lampaneer.”
The prince laughed. “So even in death he defeats me, is that it? Perhaps it’s time for us all to die. But then I shall see you in the after-realm and we will begin this plot anew. You may strike my name from history. But I will find your hero in the after-realm. I will find Lampaneer, and strike his very spirit from being.”
“Then you have not unraveled the last thread of my plot?”
The prince frowned.
“I am Lampaneer.”
The queen did not stay to watch her son be led away in shackles, flanked by guards bearing weapons and shields of metal, and witches bearing weapons and shields of magic. She had far and deep to search to find those who could decipher what the prince had done and who could contain his power. Sorcery was a rare field of study in the kingdom in those days. Perhaps a future monarch would change that. It would not be her.
The prince had not been bluffing when he asked if she were certain that he would harm no others. For there was one more person who would die by his hand, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
But she had stopped him.
As her carriage made its way to her destination, she remembered the first time she finally and truly acted to stop her son. It was before she discovered all the horrors on the castle grounds, the bones and the maimed ones. It was when word of the draca first reached the capital. She had thought that the prince had bred some vicious animal and set it upon his own people. She would stop him by killing his creature.
She dressed in her black cloak and the vesture of the house she had resurrected from the kingdom’s memory. She raced east on her fastest mare, riding for days. She plunged into the eastern forest hunting for the beast, the child, and her friend.
Miraculously, she found all three.
Lord Lampaneer was fighting the draca when she arrived. A child cowered beside a tree.
Yllenore drew her short sword and dashed to her friend’s side. It was dark and something slithered in the air before them. Something with scales and claws and a gaze full of malice.
“You’re no longer a warrior, highness. Take the child and go. I will keep it busy.”
There was no time for the queen to ask how he had known it was her. But knowing her disguise was lacking meant she had to hide her face when she delivered the child back into safe arms. She fled before any could speak to her, thank her. All anyone later remembered was the black garb embroidered with sparrows. When Lampaneer showed up later, dressed in similar garb, he was praised for saving the child.
Yllenore arrived at the village and was led into the woods that surrounded it. They were not as thick as the eastern forest and didn’t provide as much protection.
She entered the modest camp where she was greeted with bows from the guards. She made her way to a small tent. Inside she found a man lying on a cot. Aside from the awful rope burns around his neck, he seemed well. Yllenore had managed to keep her promise to Lady Lampaneer. She had managed to save her friend.
Lady Lampaneer was sitting by her husband’s bedside. She rose and bowed to the queen. She told her young son to bring water for the queen, then she smiled brightly and rose to go fetch something. That smile was a good sign. It meant that her lord was recovering.
Yllenore received a cup of water from Lampaneer’s eldest.
When the lady returned, she bore a bundle, within which was a sleeping baby. She entreated the queen to sit on a nearby pallet of soft blankets, then lay the baby in Yllenore’s hands. The baby’s sleeping eyes flicked open. Yllenore gazed into those eyes. She saw something there. A terrible grogginess. The baby closed her eyes again and dozed. Yllenore sighed. Lady Lampaneer sat beside her.
“We have thought of a name for our child, with your permission, highness. We would name her Lenore.”
Queen Yllenore smiled and gave a royal nod. She was tired. She handed the child back to her mother.
She wanted to lay down and sleep. She knew she would not wake. She also knew she would not suffer thanks to the concoction her witch doctor had given her, one that would relax her muscles and her nerves, when the time was right. It was not discovered what poison the prince had used upon her and how. There were good men and women—the court doctors—still searching. They had warned the queen against leaving the capital. But Yllenore did not feel beholden to them or to the throne which she had already relinquished.
She hoped she could speak with her friend before it was too late. But she would not cast an ill omen on the camp should she pass in her sleep. She returned to her carriage and sipped the potion. She lay on the couch and through the open top, she watched the stars.
As she drifted into sleep, the queen had one last thought.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel