The queen hurried from her chambers, her maidens in close pursuit. She made her way to the royal nursery, where her infant son slept. Today was a very special day - the day of her son's baptism. It would also be his first public appearance, an event to be witnessed by thousands of loyal subjects who had come to visit the capital and see their future king. Now things were slightly behind schedule, and the queen, as worried mothers tend to do, was becoming impatient and fussy.
"I do hope this goes well," she muttered thoughtfully, as she paced up and down the hallway outside of her son's room. "The people need to see that their future is a strong one," she explained rhetorically to the head nursemaid, who nodded in solemn agreement. Ever since the king had passed away in the bitter winter prior, the kingdom had lingered on in coldness and fragility. This baptism was to come on the first day of spring, a symbol of life and rebirth for the land. It was going to be a very special day - most of all for the year old prince who, though still in swaddling clothes, would one day rule over those who came to see him now.
"It will go very well," the nursemaid assured the queen, smiling humbly. The queen returned the smile, and then resumed her nervous rounds.
The door to the dank dungeon swung open, and two men in dark robes stepped inside the tiny unlit room. One held a candle, the only illumination the cell had seen in over a week. He waved it around slowly, and then quickly snatched out into the blinking darkness. A weak mewl escaped from his quarry as he dragged her roughly across the floor and out the door. The mewl quickly turned into a gruff cry of anger, and the small girl of six he held in his arm bit him roughly on the hand, shredding his thumb and causing him to drop the candle.
As her assailant howled in agony, the second man's hand struck out, slapping the girl hard across the face. Blood dribbled from her lip, mixed with the tears of her jerky sobs. He ignored her, grabbing her forcefully by the hair and yanking her to her feet. Even in the darkness she knew his face, the face of apathy and destruction, smirking callously as he pushed her out the door.
To her it was the face of the Devil.
The proceedings began precisely at the rise of the midday sun. The crowd had gathered in the town square around a raised platform adorned in roses and lilies. A gilded carpet led from the church entrance to the platform. The baptism itself was to take place inside the confines of the church, and then the child would be presented to the masses for admiration. Already a small collection plate had been passed around, to present to the prince as a token of the kingdom's graciousness and loyalty.
Jugglers and dancers entertained the crowd while they waited for the prince's arrival. Pickpockets worked their way through the huddles of people, taking what they could and dodging the soldiers who mingled with the civilians. Peddlers hawked their wares, poets read sonnets declaring their everlasting love for the prince, bakers, smiths, and merchants talked shop in their small circles. Nearly everyone who lived in the capital city had arrived. A momentous occasion indeed, for the kingdom and the prince.
The two men led the girl to a horse-drawn cage at the rear of the city, tossing her inside amongst grim silence. Off in the distance they heard the fanfare of trumpeters; the public ceremony had gotten under way. Neither man was glad to be away from it - their business at hand was much less desirable. The younger of the two - the one who had held the candle - wrapped his hand in a bandage. The older man grabbed the reins and sent the carriage roaring westward, towards the looming storm clouds that had congregated around the Rosethorn Mountains.
The girl shook the cage violently, but the hinges on the door refused to budge. She watched the town she had called home disappear over a hill. Crossing through the Widows' Woods, the girl thought of her mother. She had been doted on from such an early age, loved beyond compare. She had never seen her father, though she had only questioned this once, and had been sternly rebuked by her mother. And then a year ago, something had happened, and she had been sent away to live with a friend in a neighboring town. She did not know what had happened, but she was a carefree girl, and didn't consider such matters. And then it the robed men had come. They had came to her room, in the middle of the night, and they took her. She screamed and fought, but they had placed a cloth sack of her head, and in her blindness was subdued. She was completely helpless.
They had thrown her in that small sewer of a cell. Foul odors had crept into her nostrils like poisoned vines; now they lingered with her despite the fresh sun air. Rats and insects had kept her company, feeding on one another, their bitter battle cries echoing along the stone walls of her prison. She had wept, wept for days. The door would open - though it was still pitch black in the room - and a plate of bones or rotting vegetables would be thrown in. Was this hell? Was this the infinite torture of a thousand sins? She prayed silently in her darkness, ignoring the whispers of the wind that beckoned to her to turn away from God.
Now, in this cage, as the clouds slowly overtook the Sun, greying the sky, she once again began to pray.
The baptism had gone well, a simple extravagance for such an important event. Now the young prince was sitting on a small cushion atop a stone pedestal in the center of the platform. Here in the square he was a deity, an idol for praise and worship. The not uncharitable collection had arrived back at the front and sat like a happy fat child at the foot of the pedestal. The queen stood close by, waving to the people with a calm smile.
The village crier now stood up and unrolled a parchment. He cleared his throat, and began. "Hear ye, hear ye, citizens of Alluria! Here sits now before you your future king, Prince Victor! All hail Prince Victor!"
The crowd chanted in response, "All hail Prince Victor!"
"To mark this special occasion of young Victor's baptism and acceptance into the faith, her majesty the Queen would like to extend a special invitation to you all. You may come forth and touch the Prince, so that you yourself might transfer unto him your gifts of loyalty and obedience, and he might come to know you as the people he will love for all of his life."
The crowd's murmur was almost a violent one. Already a small throng of people had began to rush the stage, but were quickly repulsed by a cadre of soldiers. The crier continued.
"Please, people, people! Everyone will get their chance to see the Prince, but we must have order! A line will form at the base of the platform, and you will be allowed up two at a time to see young Victor. Any one who breaks these rules will be forbidden to see him, is this understood?"
The crowd nodded in agreement, and began lining up in a more orderly fashion. Two by two, the people approached the pedestal and placed their hands upon the prince's face, arms, and chest. The queen stood very close, a watchful eye on her young son, the future king of Alluria. Her calm smile never once waned, but her nerves had not subsided from earlier in the day.
Finally, the carriage came to a stop. The girl, who had been praying with her eyes closed, opened them now. She heard the sound of a gurgling stream, but could not see it. The two men swiftly approached her, flinging open the door and dragging her out. They pushed her around the side of the cart, and as she looked up, she saw where they were: at the banks of the Golden River. With the remnants of her childlike fascination, she watched the water flow over the rocks with comfort. But she had no time to enjoy the scene - she was being pushed once more, towards the north.
At the juncture where the road met the river, a mighty bridge was now being built. It was in fact almost completed. One more pillar was being erected at its base for support. Masons were hard at work moving stones and directing workers to finish the job. The two men continued to shove the girl forward, towards the work site. One of the masons saw them coming, and rushed forward to meet them.
"Blessings to you," he offered in a shaky voice. He was visibly nervous, his hands wobbling as he rubbed them together.
"And to you," the older man replied. "Is everything in place?"
"It will take about ten minutes or so."
"Fine. We will wait. Go about your business."
The mason nodded agreeably and ran off, shouting at the workers. The workmen visibly came alive at his hoarse cries, and it was not but five minutes that they had ceased, and the pillar appeared complete. He returned to the men, and pointed them towards the newest construction.
They grabbed the girl by the arms, tugging her along as they walked towards the last pillar. They arrived at its base. The girl saw that there was a hole in the pillar, a large one. Off to the side were two stones, big enough to cover the hole. She began fighting again, crying loudly, her high-pitched screams resonating through the woods on both sides of the river. The two men ignored her, picking her up and placing her inside the pole. They gave a brief signal, and workers came over and began placing the stones in their place. At first she tried to climb out, but the young man gave her a violent punch to the stomach, sending her reeling. By the time she had caught her breath, the workers were done.
Once again, she was surrounded by darkness. She banged with all of her waning strength on the walls of her living tomb, but there was no reply. She sat down on the stone floor and began to sob. Finally she was pressed for air, and quit crying long enough to catch her breath. Here in the darkness she would meet her end, a sacrifice for the safety of others. Now as she sat in the black, she could not hear any rats, nor bugs, nor men outside, nor the bubbling of the Golden River.
All she could hear was her own screams of terror, the ones escaping her mouth beyond her control, echoing back at her in a taunting sing-song.
As the last of the people came to see Prince Victor, the Queen watched with mild relief. The affair had gone off without a hitch. Victor was in fact sleeping at this point. It was nearly six o'clock.
When the crowds ceased, the royal carriage was called and mother and son were whisked away back to the castle. When she arrived, she noted the presence of two black horses at the garden entrance. She passed young Victor to his head nurse and made her way to her hamber room.
The two men stood waiting for the queen. As she approached them, they bowed somewhat irreverently, going through the motions. She waved them off before they had finished. "Is it through?"
"Yes, m'lady. Everything went as planned."
"Good. You will be rewarded well for your efforts. You are excused."
"Thank you, m'lady." The two men exited the chamber. The queen went upstairs to her bedroom and excused all of her maidens in waiting. Alone, she walked over to a small chest she kept in the corner of the room. Inside was kept the king's crown, awaiting its next inheritor. She picked the crown out of its box, holding it gently in her hands.
"Harold, Harold," she clucked. "Why did you go astray? What good would come of it? And then to have the child! You had hidden her so well - you thought I suspected nothing! And in your drunken foolishness, you revealed it all to me. Inadvertently, of course. And then you had your accident. Your weak heart gave out on you." She laughed quietly. "But not before you had given me Victor. For which I thank you very much," she added mockingly, kissing the tips of the crown.
She placed the crown back in the box, locking it up with a small key near her chest. And then she went out of the room, to see her son, her legacy, her life's work. As she entered, she overheard two of the maids gossiping sweetly. "Today was a great success for Victor. Such a happy baby. He certainly has the common touch." And the queen smiled to herself, the innocent smile of a mother's pride.