Lady Harmony Kensington begins her rule of Mangadarth as Castle Banion is taken over by the three lords who formed an alliance. A spell is formed to place a hedge of protection around Mangadarth, allowing none to enter who have intent to do harm. The residents of the city rally around their new ruler and stand as one body against the lords, even as the crone is called on for aid to end the curse that has plagued Mangadarth for hundreds of years. As the stain of blood from innocent souls dissipates, the sky turns a brilliant blue and Mangadarth is finally freed from the curse of the pale ones.
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?Lord Abingdon is here to see you, Lord Kensington,? George Ashcroft said.
?Show him in.?
?Lord Kensington, it is good to see you again.?
?Likewise, Lord Abingdon.?
?All is in readiness, I presume.?
?Yes, my lord.?
A guard entered the library and Perceval asked, ?Are they secured??
?Yes, Lord Kensington. Belinda and Jonathan are locked in the north tower. A guard stands outside the door, as well.?
?We must act quickly,? Lord Abingdon said. ?All men shall pull double duty as they keep a keen eye on all that moves in Mangadarth. Send men to infiltrate the city as spies. Make sure they know to speak ill of me and the Abingdon family so they will take them into their confidence. Perceval??
?Yes, Lord Abingdon.?
?You will find yourself the target of the Banion family?s wrath. They will see you as a traitor for your deceit. They will not look upon you kindly, Marayah most of all. There is none more vengeful than a mother who believes her child has been wronged. The crone is a prime example of a woman?s heart turned to obsidian.?
?I am ready, my lord. My allegiance lies with you.?
Lord Abingdon nodded. To the guardsman he said, ?Send for Eldrick?s winged horse and lock it in the paddock beyond the clearing. Guard it with many men. He will no doubt seek it out very soon. We will show him a taste of Abingdon hospitality with swords drawn.?
?Your will be done, Lord Abingdon,? the guard replied.
?It is time. Ask Harmony to join us,? Perceval said.
?Yes, m?lord.? The guard found Harmony in the music room. ?Lord Kensington would like to see you in the library, Lady Harmony.?
?Thank you.? Harmony made her way to the library as the guard headed to perform the duties he had been assigned.
?I daresay you grow more beautiful every day, Harmony.? Perceval said as he kissed her on the cheek.
?Your words are sweet and make me blush.?
?It is a lovely hue.? Perceval?s fingers brushed the tinted skin with his thumb tenderly. ?Today marks two months of wedded bliss and I have a surprise for you like none other.?
Harmony?s eyes sparkled at the thought. ?Pray do not make me wait a minute longer, Perceval. What is this surprise you speak of??
?Before I give it to you, let us drink a toast to the days ahead.? Perceval poured the liquid into two goblets, handing one to Harmony. ?A new power is rising over Mangadarth this day. One that shall unite the people, as in the days of old, under one rule. They will be led as was decreed thousands of years ago.?
?To a new day,? Harmony said, raising her goblet high in the air. Perceval lifted his goblet to his lips, but did not drink, watching as Harmony swallowed the elixir that would bring her body to rest.
?We have a visitor, Lord Kensington,? George informed them as if Lord Abingdon had just arrived. Perceval nodded and George stepped aside as Lord Abingdon entered the library.
?Lord Kensington, Lady Kensington.?
Harmony found her vision to be cloudy as she eyed Lord Abingdon and she shook her head to clear it. ?Welcome, Lord Abingdon, to what do we owe the honor of your company??
Harmony?s head felt heavy and she rested it on her hand for a moment, trying not to close her eyes.
?Are you feeling ill, Lady Kensington?? Lord Abingdon asked.
?I seem to be caught in sleep, yet it is the middle of the day. Perceval, will you send for the healing woman. I? I have never felt this way before.?
?I am afraid I cannot, my lady.?
Harmony heard Perceval?s words, but could not understand them. She tried to open her eyes once again, and found the men, nay the entire room, bent to the right and stretched fat in length.
?The healing woman, Perceval. I need to see the healing woman.?
?What you are experiencing, Lady Kensington, is an elixir of powerful origin. It will continue to make you increasingly drowsy until you fall asleep. Do not fight it, you cannot win.
As for you, Perceval, you have done your job well. The others have been detained and they will soon find themselves on the streets of Mangadarth, penniless and stripped of all power. Say goodbye to your lovely wife and take your position by my side as ruler of Mangadarth.?
Harmony tried as she might to comprehend what was happening. Her world seemed to have shifted beneath her feet. She felt her body being lifted and then carried outside the castle. She saw the small scar on Perceval?s face through almost closed eyes.
She would be fine, as long as Perceval was nearby. She had nothing to concern herself with. He would take care of her. He would make sure the healing woman was found and brought back to the castle.
Harmony closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Lord Abingdon ascended the stairs until he was in the room with the highest window. He waved a white handkerchief out the window until he saw the healing man come forward by the edge of the forest and head for the entrance to the underground passageways, the altered ones followed close behind.
Guard after guard received a sword in their side or across their throat as Lord Abingdon?s army descended upon the castle. Those that tried to leave through the underground passageways were unpleasantly surprised to be greeted by the altered ones; hungry and all too willing to feed on humankind flesh. Screams echoed down the tunnels, embedding themselves in the walls.
Several of the servants tried to fight and were met with fists and swords in their back or belly. Other workers kept to their tasks, heads down, fearing even eye contact might mean death.
When things quieted down, Lord Abingdon sent a guard to bring Celeste to the castle as the men began to share stories of how many guardsmen they had killed. They availed themselves of the Banion family wine closet and began to eye the maids in a lascivious manner.
?Lord Banion would never have allowed such behavior,? the cook said to a nearby maid, her voice barely a whisper.
The maid glanced at the guardsmen. That was the only invitation they needed. One of the men came over to her and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward the group. ?If you have time to be staring at us, why not come in for a closer look.?
He threw her body onto the table and the men began to pull at her clothing and taste her flesh with their lips and tongue.
The cook grabbed the largest cast iron skillet in the castle. It was heavy and she wheezed with the effort of raising it above her head. ?You leave her be. She is married and with child.?
A man stepped forward and said, ?I believe you are jealous. When was the last time a man touched your flesh in desire??
The cook brought the skillet down hard against the man?s skull and he fell to the floor, blood streaming from his wound.
While she thought the men would be angry and she would receive a blade in her belly for her actions, the men howled with laughter.
?She took him out with one blow!?
As soon as the men?s attention had been diverted, the maid slid from the table to the floor and crawled toward the dining hall. She found a hiding place in a low cupboard and while it was dark and cramped, she believed she would be safe there.
The cook threatened to hit any man who stepped near. While they were not afraid of the woman, they would rather have another drink and canoodle with the young maid.
?Where did she go?? one of the men asked.
?She was here a minute ago,? another said.
?As the men searched under the table and in nearby cupboards, the cook made her way quietly out of the room and down the corridor to the secret staircase. She knew not where the maid had gone, but she hoped she was safe.
When the men turned their gaze back to where the cook had been standing, one man said, ?Now she has up and gone, too.?
?Forget them. Let us have another drink,? another man said.
?Yes! Pour another drink. To Lord Abingdon?s army!?
?To Lord Abingdon?s army!?
While the men drank among themselves, Lord Abingdon celebrated his victory with a private toast in the library as he waited for Celeste to arrive. Within two hour?s time, Celeste Abingdon joined her husband.
?I am proud of you, Jameson. It has been a long road for the Abingdon family, and now we have resumed our rightful place as rulers of Mangadarth.?
Jameson pulled his wife close to him and kissed her hard on the mouth. ?It is not your pride I desire.?
He ran his fingers through her hair and pulled at the strands close to her neck. Celeste gasped as pain shot down her spine. Lord Abingdon continued his assault, ramming his tongue deeper into her mouth. He pulled at the top of her gown until her breasts were exposed and began suckling and biting the fleshy mounds.
Celeste wished she had not responded so quickly to Lord Abingdon?s decree for her to join him. She knew he enjoyed the feeling of power and dominance surging through his body at her submission.
?Let us go to the master bedroom and consecrate it in the name of the Abingdon family,? Celeste said, needing a break from Jameson?s tormenting hands.
Lord Abingdon?s eyes narrowed with suspicion and paranoia. ?Why Lady Abingdon, I have no need to lie on a bed of comfort when I have your body to cushion the floor.? Jameson shoved her hard and she fell to the library floor, catching herself with her hands just before she would have received considerable bruising.
He began to untie the laces that wrapped around his pelvis and Celeste moved in her mind to the meadow that led to the west. The closer Lord Abingdon came, the farther she walked away from him in her mind?s eye. Butterflies filled her vision as the sun?s rays made the wildflowers pop with color.
She could feel the warm breeze on her skin, even as Jameson pummeled her with his hardened shaft. Again and again he drove himself into her. Celeste envisioned clouds drifting by slowly as tears slid from her eyes.
?Crying in joy, my love?? Jameson asked when he had finished using her body and began to dress.
Celeste forced a smile to her lips. ?As always, my love.?
?We have to get out of here,? Belinda said.
?I know, but how?? Jonathan asked. ?Even if we can get the door open, there is a guard posted right outside.?
?What do you think they are doing??
?I daresay they are taking the castle by storm.?
?Where are Eldrick and Marayah??
?They were to be working at the far end of Mangadarth today. I can only assume Lord Abingdon and Perceval knew this and used it to their advantage.?
Belinda peered over the north tower walls toward the city. ?Jonathan, is that Harmony??
Jonathan stood and joined her, following her gaze. ?Yes.?
?Where is Perceval taking her??
?I do not know. Keep watch while I try to get this door unbarred.? Jonathan removed the dagger from his right boot and tried to pry the door open with it. When that did not work, he tried inserting the tip of the blade through the gap in the door and into the wooded board that barred the door from the outside and lift it straight up. The blade was too short, only nicking the wood barrier.
?I have lost them. They entered the woods by the shelf with the red liquid. I know of no shelter in that area of Mangadarth.?
?Do you have a dagger on you??
?Yes.? Belinda retrieved it from a narrow long pocket underneath her skirt.
?I do not wear boots as the men do, but need protection just the same.?
?Your dagger is longer by almost two inches.? Jonathan slid the dagger through the space again and this time he was able to push it into the wood. He lifted it straight up and felt the board move. ?It is working. When I open the door, be ready to run out. Take my dagger and hold it steady in case the guard comes after you. I will be right behind you.?
Belinda nodded and took Jonathan?s dagger in her hand.
Jonathan nodded and opened the door slowly. Belinda slipped through the opening with ease and darted forward.
The guard was taken by surprise and yelled out, ?Stop!?
Jonathan pulled Belinda?s knife from the board and threw the door open wide, knocking the guard off balance. He recovered quickly and drew his sword, backing Jonathan into the north tower.
Belinda ran up behind the guard and plunged Jonathan?s dagger into his side. If she had been taller, she would have rammed it into his neck as she knew that was one of the most vulnerable locations to stab a man, severing his carotid artery.
Jonathan ran out of the tower, retrieved his dagger and wiped it against his pants to remove the guard?s blood, then they headed toward the castle door.
?We cannot simply stroll through the castle. We will be seen,? Belinda said.
?I doubt any guards will be placed on the fourth level. If we can reach the room at the end of the corridor, I know of a secret stair.?
?A secret stair? Where does it lead??
?To the passageways below the castle.?
?They are said to be like a maze. We would get lost, and I am certain they will be well guarded.?
?Do you have another suggestion??
Belinda thought for a moment, then shook her head and opened the castle door, peering around its edge with caution. ?It is empty.?
?Good.? Jonathan followed Belinda down the corridor and they entered the room at the end of the hall.
?How did you learn of the secret stair??
?I have a hard time sleeping sometimes. I visited all rooms in the castle for wont of anything better to do.? Jonathan walked to the bookcase. ?Come here.?
Belinda joined him. ?I feel a stream of cool air from here,? she said, pointing toward where the air was coming from. It seems as if there is a crack in the bookcase.?
?It is no crack. Watch this.? Jonathan pushed on the side of the bookcase and it slid to one side revealing an opening with stairs winding downward.
?How do you get the bookcase back in its position when you enter the stair??
?There is a handle on the other side. It takes a bit of effort, but once you get some leverage, it slides back into place.?
Belinda entered the dark space. ?Is there an opening on each level of the castle??
?If we can reach the area where sheets and clothing are cleaned, we could don servant uniforms and leave the castle through the peddler?s entrance.?
?I do not know if we can walk the main level of the castle unnoticed.?
?We need only travel two corridors.?
?We can try. It is a better plan than taking our chances in the underground passageways.?
?I daresay that will be determined on whether we succeed or not.?
Jonathan used the handle to move the bookcase back into its original position and they headed down the stairs, holding tight to the handrail as it was pitch black.
Once they had traversed the stairs and were at the main castle level, Belinda asked, ?Where does the opening come out at??
?The end of the corridor by the narrow window with velvet cover.?
Belinda followed the dark pathway, keeping her hand against the wall to guide her. She felt the air warm and then the passageway seemed to grow slightly dim.
?We are close,? Jonathan said.
Belinda?s hand fell upon the velvet drapery. She pulled it the side slowly and peered out.
?No. I do not see or hear anything.?
Jonathan peered out. ?Move quickly, to the first room on the left.?
Belinda and Jonathan ran silently to the room and ducked inside. ?To the next room now,? Jonathan directed. ?The same way.?
They moved through the castle room by room until they were in the corridor that housed the washing room. ?I will go. You stay here, in case something goes wrong,? Belinda said. ?If I do not come back, go through the underground passageway. We must find Harmony.?
Jonathan was about to argue with Belinda, but realized the wisdom of the plan. ?Be careful.?
Belinda was about to step forward into the hallway when she stopped and turned back to Jonathan.
?Is something wrong??
?I just wanted to see your face one last time in case this was, well, the last time.?
Jonathan brought his hand to Belinda?s face and stroked her cheek with his thumb. ?It shall not be the last time.? He leaned forward and kissed Belinda?s lips. ?Be careful. Be safe. Return to me.?
?I shall.? With those words, Belinda checked the hallway again and then swiftly made her way to the washing room. Three women were bent over the large tubs as steam rose high into the airways in the ceiling.
Belinda surveyed the area quickly and found newly pressed servant uniforms to her left. She walked straight toward them as if she had every reason to be in the room, believing the women would take no notice of her.
When she was hidden by the uniforms, she breathed easier, selecting two that would suffice. She peered between two articles of clothing to find the women still hard at work. She raised the uniforms high, covering her head and made her way to the doorway, peered left and right into the hallway, and then found Jonathan?s side once again.
?Here,? she said, thrusting a uniform in his direction.
?I hope you got the right size.?
?I did not check for sizes, Jonathan, there was no time. Three cleaning women were in the room.?
?Did they see you??
?I do not believe so.?
They turned their backs on one another and changed into the uniforms. With both the clothing and a white stretchy cap placed upon her head, Belinda looked as every other maid in the castle looked. Jonathan?s attire was a bit more revealing as he had no head covering.
?I will go first. I am much more disguised than you,? Belinda said. ?Besides, we should not be seen together. If they are aware we have escaped, they will assume we will be together as two people. Traveling as one, we have a better chance of leaving the castle.?
Belinda headed into the hallway after peering out cautiously and finding the corridor empty. She held her back straight and walked with purpose toward the peddler?s entrance. She passed two guards, but kept walking at the same pace and did not make eye contact. They paid her no notice.
Jonathan followed behind by twenty yards or more, staying in view of Belinda, but not getting too close.
No suspicion was aroused until they reached the peddler?s gate. Many guardsmen and servants were there, as well as at least thirty men acting as Lord Abingdon?s army.
Belinda gathered her wits and walked to the gate, stating firmly, ?I am leaving for the day, please open the gate.?
The gatekeeper eyed her for only a moment before opening the gate and allowing her to leave.
?I am on my way home, as well,? Jonathan said.
?Hurry it up, then,? the gatesman said.
Jonathan complied and said to Belinda, ?May I walk you home, m?lady??
?That would be very kind of you, sir.?
The sound of the gate closing behind them was one of the sweetest sounds they had ever heard. They made their way to the location Belinda last saw Perceval carrying Harmony, by the shelving where the red liquid was housed. When they reached it, they looked around for signs of Perceval?s footfalls.
?Here,? Jonathan said. ?There are broken twigs and the dirt is slightly indented.? They followed the path deep into the woods.
?Where could he be taking her?? Belinda asked.
They kept following the tracks until they reached an opening in the wood by the healing man?s home.
?The cells underneath the healing man?s home. He used them to house the experiments.?
They quickly made their way to the healing man?s home, only stopping to look in the dingy windows. A dim light burned in the fireplace. ?Someone is home,? Belinda said.
?Go back to the forest?s edge and hide. I will go inside. If I do not return shortly, go find Eldrick and Marayah and bring them here.?
?I should go with you and make a united stand.?
?If things should turn sour, we will need a back-up plan, just as before inside the castle.?
?I do not like it, but you are right.?
?I did not like it when you posed the plan either.?
?Be careful. Be safe. Return to me.?
Belinda leaned forward and kissed Jonathan.
?We need to continue this habit, only without the possibility of death attached,? Jonathan said.
Jonathan watched as Belinda made her way to the forest?s edge, then disappeared behind heavy brush. He then turned his attention toward entering the healing man?s home. He remained low as he traveled under the window and tried the front door to see if it was locked. It was open, to his good fortune.
He entered and quietly made his way to the stairs that led down to the cells. When he was at the bottom and could see partially into the room, he saw Harmony behind the bars of one of the cells. Perceval was sitting at a table drinking wine, the healing man sat across from him.
?How long will it take?? Perceval asked.
?She will be dead within twenty-four hours.?
?Is there any way to speed up the process??
?In a hurry??
?I have other things I need to tend to. It is a waste of my time to play babysitter to a corpse.?
?Harmony is not a corpse yet. Maybe you would like to partake of her flesh one more time before saying your farewell.?
?You are a disgusting man! How did you ever become a healer??
?Need I remind you that you are indebted to me? Show me the respect I deserve or I will give Harmony an antidote to the sleeping potion and bring her back to life fully.?
Perceval poured more wine into his goblet and drank heartily. ?I meant no harm by more words, healer.?
?If you have more important matters to tend to, as you say, leave. I shall watch over Harmony.?
?Why? What is in it for you if I should leave??
?What do you care? You are finished with her, are you not??
?Do as you wish. I am needed at the castle more than I am needed here, of that I am sure.?
Jonathan looked for a hiding space. He found a desk with a hollow center where a chair might be placed. He tucked himself into the space far at the back and hoped Perceval would not take notice of him as he left.
Perceval staggered as he stood and began to walk toward the stairs. He stopped to gain his balance, then continued on his way. He would not have noticed Jonathan had he been standing right in front of him.
The healing man retrieved the key to the cell from his pocket and opened the lock on Harmony?s cell. He sat beside her and began to stroke her forearm. ?You are beautiful, as your mother. I would have tasted the delights of her flesh had she not rebuked me. I shall receive no such rebuke from you.?
Jonathan armed himself with his dagger and entered Harmony?s cell. ?Take your hands from her body.?
Startled, the healing man stood up. His eyes searched the room behind Jonathan, but there was no one to offer him aid.
Jonathan saw the shackles attached to the wall and forced the healing man down to the dirt floor, placing one of his hands into the shackles and then the other.
?They will find me here. They will show no mercy when they hunt you down for this atrocity,? the healing man said.?
?You have nerve to call what I am doing an atrocity when you would have defiled an innocent woman. No, there is no atrocity in my actions, only yours.?
Jonathan lifted Harmony into his arms and carried her out of the cell, up the stairs, and out of the healing man?s home.
Belinda watched as Perceval left the healing man?s home not long after Jonathan entered. He did not seem agitated, but was staggering as if he had too many ales. He had walked right past her with a blind eye.
?How is she?? Belinda asked as Jonathan and Harmony entered the forest.
?She is still alive. The healing man said the sleeping potion would end her life within twenty-four hours.?
?We must get her to Eldrick and Marayah. They will know what to do.?
Belinda and Jonathan hurried as quickly as their legs would carry them to the other side of the city.
Word reached the city of Mangadarth that something had happened to Harmony and the castle had been taken by Lord Abingdon, Lord Kasimir and Lord Kensington.
Eldrick and Marayah were heading toward the castle when they saw Jonathan and Belinda running toward them with Harmony in Jonathan?s arms.
?What is wrong?? Marayah asked.
Eldrick took Harmony from Jonathan?s arms into his own. ?She is warm with fever.?
?She has been given a sleeping potion that will kill her within twenty-four hours. The lords and the healing man are responsible. I know not which one delivered the potion, but they were all involved. They have taken over Castle Banion.?
?The castle can wait, Harmony cannot,? Eldrick said.
?There is unseen power at work here. We need the healing woman from Braline; the one who helped you when you were poisoned with the bitter root and assisted me in birthing Harmony. Dakron will have you there and back in good time and I can tell you exactly where she lives,? Marayah said. ?Dakron will also remember the way.?
?I will go quickly.? Eldrick laid a hand on Marayah?s arm and then kissed his daughter?s cheek. He handed Harmony back to Jonathan. ?Keep her safe,? he whispered.
?I shall,? Jonathan replied.
Eldrick stood and made haste toward the castle.
?How may I be of service, Lord Banion?? Teagwah asked, falling into step with Eldrick.
?I need my winged stallion. Lord Abingdon will no doubt have him caged in the paddock far from the stables, through the forest to the clearing beyond. You must gain entrance to the castle and find the key that unlocks the gate. And, Teagwah, my daughter?s life depends on you. Do not let me down this time.?
Teagwah lowered his eyes in shame. ?I shall earn your trust once more, Lord Banion. I will not fail you.?
Eldrick ran to find, believing Lord Abingdon?s arrogance would override his cruelty in wanting the only horse in Mangadarth with the ability to fly.
When he reached the small paddock, it was well guarded. Dakron had only ten yards in which to move and was barely able to turn around, let alone spread his wings to their full length.
Sensing his master was near, Dakron?s head rose and he sought out his master?s eyes.
The paddock gate was too high and there was not near enough room for Dakron to achieve a walk, let alone a gallop to gain momentum to head to the skies.
As time continued to move forward, Eldrick thought of his daughter?s spirit waning. He must find a way to get to Braline and bring the healing woman back to Mangadarth.
As two guards leaned against the gate, eating apples and keeping watch. Dakron gave forth a might snort and spread a wing in their direction. The impact knocked them both to the ground, leaving them winded and bruised.
Eldrick sped forth. With two guards down, there were only three to subdue. The men were distracted and Eldrick managed to slam his body into two of them without any resistance. They were thrown forward, falling to the ground, yet they stood immediately, now aware of his presence.
?Report to Lord Abingdon,? one of the men shouted, and a boy not one day past twelve years old darted across the clearing to sound the alarm.
The three men surrounded Eldrick and drew swords. He had no weapon save his own strength and keen mind.
He moved in circles, forcing the men back, closer to the paddock.
?It is three against one, them?s pretty good odds,? one man said.
?You would need thirty men to subdue me today. My daughter lies on the brink of death and nothing shall come between me and her survival.?
Two of the men exchanged glances and one nodded for the other to move to the side. Eldrick rushed the man as he moved, tackling him low at the knees, sending him flying over Eldrick?s head and landing hard against a heavy stone.
Dakron closed his teeth on one of the man?s arms as he raised his sword high. The man bellowed as he fell to the ground, his severed hand fell beside him, his sword still grasped in his fingers. Blood poured from his wound, staining the grass a shocking scarlet.
Eldrick stood facing the lone guardsmen, recognition flooding his vision. ?What say you, Michael? You came to Banion Castle needing aid and you received it. We gave you shelter and food and a way to earn coin. Now you would forsake the Banion family and cleave to Lord Abingdon? He cares naught for the people of Mangadarth. He will use them for his own folly, then watch as they lie bleeding in the streets, not lifting a finger to assist them. Are you a man of honor or one of Lord Abingdon?s pawns??
The man faltered as his eyes shifted from Eldrick?s gaze to his feet.
?I have found it!? Teagwah yelled as he crossed the clearing. ?I have the paddock key, Lord Banion.?
Teagwah handed Eldrick the key and he unlocked the paddock and released Dakron. He mounted the stallion and then turned to Michael. ?Lord Abingdon does not deserve your loyalty. We can begin anew, with a clean slate, if you so desire. A faction will be forming in Mangadarth to take back the castle. Lord Abingdon will expect this. Choose your allegiance, Michael.?
Eldrick guided Dakron away from the trees and into a gallop. ?Sky!? A thunder of hooves tore at the dirt as Dakron gathered speed, spread his wings and headed skyward toward Braline.