When I awoke it was still pitch black. I groaned a little as I heaved myself off the dirty ground. I was encircled by trees, a thicket of brush, and mounds of leaves and twigs. My surroundings looked the same as any other forest imaginable. I could be as little as a few hundred yards from the castle or as far as several thousand miles. I was praying for the latter. I was also praying that Dante thought I had been transported back to my own realm. I knew, however, that his impending rage would lead him directly to his brother's room where he would no doubt attempt to finish carrying out his murder plot. Once he tried to cause harm to Vindictus, it would not take him long to figure out that I had not returned to my own realm but had become a refugee in The Thirteenth Gate.
I stood on legs that still felt rubbery from my trip through the wormhole. I glanced down at my attire, absently dusting off the bits of dirt and other debris that clung to the simple robe. I was not really sure how I was going to hide out with nothing more than a bathrobe, a small ceremonial dagger and a book of spells at my disposal.
The spell book!
I had forgotten all about the great ancient text. I got back onto my hands and knees and rustled through the underbrush, quickly finding the book even in the dark. I wrapped my hands around the book and hefted its weight into my lap. I turned to the center of the great text where a map of the entire Nedella Outlands had been hand-drawn. I quickly said the small incantation that would pinpoint my exact location in the kingdom. I had performed this incantation back when I had been relearning some basic spells. I knew from performing that spell that the castle lay situated in the center of The Thirteenth Gate. Now, as the glow from the red X lit up the entire map, I saw that I was a good five hundred miles northeast of the castle.
I sighed in relief. I wasn't in immediate danger. But once Dante realized I was still within the kingdom, it wouldn't take long for him to order The Council to cast a spell that would pinpoint my location for him just as easily as I had pinpointed my own location. I had to work quickly or else my work thus far would be for naught.
I cleared a circle of about four feet in diameter of the leaves and other debris. I sat just shy of the center of the circle, chanting a spell that caused a flame to appear above the ground. It was large enough to cast a good bit of light into my clearing, but not so bright that it would call attention to my whereabouts.
I swiftly thumbed through the book in my lap. It was easy enough to find the spell that I needed. I had flagged all the incantations that I thought might help me while I had been held captive by Dante. Within moments I had conjured up the protection spell that would keep me hidden from any and all magical charms, incantations, and spells. It wouldn't keep me protected from those who tried to teleport to my location; that particular spell would require ingredients that I would have to search out once it became daylight.
I sighed as I lay back, shivering in the night air. There was a deep set fear settling into the pit of my stomach. Right now I was on borrowed time, as was my husband. I wasn't exactly sure what I could do on my own. My powers of The Black Arts were severely limited. I also had not been officially announced as the queen of this land. I was not sure if I could talk the commoners into believing that their king lay dying and that his brother, Dante Invectus, was planning on taking over the throne upon his brother's death.
My home village would believe me, I thought as I lay in the dirt. I stared up at the branches that stretched high above my head, searching for answers.
And then it hit me. My home village! They all knew that I had been taken by Vindictus' guards. Not only that, but they knew why I had been taken. If there was anyone in this realm who would believe my story, it would be my surrogate family!
I hurriedly flipped back to the map of the land. I repeated the location spell, only this time I conjured up the location of my home village. Just as I had thought, my village sat not more than ten miles from where I now lay. I thanked the Goddess above for small miracles.
I jumped to my feet, eager to be on my way. I used my magic to change the lightly flickering flame near the ground into a travel-sized lantern. If I hurried, I could be in my old village by breakfast.
It took me close to four hours to walk the ten miles to my old village. It was still very dark out as I arrived at the backdoor of the man and woman who had taken me in all those months ago. The eastern sky was beginning to show the faint signs of light on the horizon. Likewise, my former home was showing signs of life inside the tiny kitchen.
I rapped lightly on the door. The soft noises from inside immediately stopped. I could hear a man and woman talking quietly amongst themselves.
"Elias, did you tell your brother to come over so early?" I heard my surrogate mother ask.
"Not this early, darling," came the reply.
A few seconds later the backdoor was unbolted and my surrogate mother stood in front of me. It took a few moments before recognition, and then shock, registered on her face.
"The king be praised! Elias! It is Sophronia! She has come home!" Avenel stared at me in disbelief before she threw her arms around me. She hugged me so tight that I could scarcely breath.
And then I was laughing and crying and babbling all at the same time as my mother and father hugged me and placed endless kisses upon my cheeks. They ushered me into the small home, asking questions in between the kisses and hugs. My mother guided me into the little chair that sat beside the hearth. A few moments later she had handed over a steaming boil of the hot cereal that resembled the porridge of my home land. My father stoked the fire to chase away the chill from the room. I gulped down the porridge, telling them the my story between big bites of cereal. Within minutes I had wolfed down the food and given them the raw details of Dante's treachery. My father, Elias, immediately left to fetch the Chief Principle of the village and his panel of councilmen.
"So the rumors were unfounded," Avenel mused quietly to herself. She helped me into one of the dresses that had been left behind after I had been forcefully removed from my home. "You really were taken to be the bride of our king."
I nodded as I jerked the dress over my body. I turned to her, seeing a great sadness in her blue eyes. It was then that I noticed the normally bright blonde tresses had been greatly dimmed by a scattering of grey that had not been there less than a year ago. The smile that was on her round face was not the one that normally lit up the room. The face that had been so quick to laugh now held a deep knowledge of life that only fear and suffering could etch into her features.
For the first time I realized that my parents must have been devastated when I was taken from them. I crossed the few feet that separated us and hugged her plump body closely to mine. "The king has been very kind to me. I have wanted for nothing. He has treated me as his equal in all things," I assured her as I patted her back, trying to comfort her the best that I could.
I silently cursed myself for lying to the one who had shown nothing but kindness to me. But I was determined that they never know the details of my forced marriage. The fact that I had been chained to the floor of the king's bedroom like a common whore would cause them nothing but undue misery. These were unnecessary evils that I refused to divulge to my parents, or the rest of the village for that matter. There were some things, after all, that just simply did not need to be said.
I released my mother. Right now I had a duty to the king and time was a commodity that we had very little of to waste. I barely took the time to button my dress up before I was rushing back into small kitchen. The Chief Principle and his council were all gathered in our small home, talking quietly in the early morning light.
I told the people gathered there the barest details of what had transpired in my bedchamber. "I have not officially been announced as the queen," I said, once again ending my tale. "I have no control over this land or the throne. Neither The Council nor the king's guards recognize me as anything other than the wife of the king, a wife who tried to kill him."
The thought of Vindictus lying in his bed with the gaping wound in his belly caused me to cringe. I raised my chin, leveling my gaze at each man in the room. "Be that as it may, I will not let Dante get away with this. He has tried to kill his brother, my husband the king, and is trying to take the throne by force. I may not be the official queen of Nedella, but I am still Vindictus' wife and as such I will fight Dante with my last breath."
The councilmen murmured amongst themselves for several minutes. The Chief Principle got slowly to his feet. As he stood there before me, he announced, "If it is my Queen's wish to fight, then we will fight by her side."
A quiet ripple of agreement went up from the room. I smiled, tears brimming in my eyes. For the first time since this whole ordeal started, I was no longer fighting this battle alone. There may be strength in numbers, but there was also peace of mind that I would not have to carry this burden alone.
"I will go to the neighboring villages, request council with the nobles. Once word gets around that our king's life has been threatened by his brother, the nobles will be lining up to pledge their armed forces and their allegiance to the king and queen." The Chief Principle patted my arm. "Don't worry, my Queen. We will mobilize our men and take this kingdom back by force if necessary."
My eyes darted over to the cabinet where I had safely stored the ancient text. I walked over to the dresser and picked up the ancient text. "I have a plan, Chief Principle," I said as I sat down with the large book.
The room became quiet as I gently turned the pages of the crumbling book. "There is a spell that will heal the king. I fear that the ingredients I need may be impossible to obtain. But if I can get the required components, then your men will only have to keep Dante and his troops at bay long enough for me to heal the king. We get Vindictus back, and Dante will fall before his wrath."
The Chief Principle nodded in understanding. "What elements do you require for the spell to work?"
I looked down at the book, scanning the list of ingredients. "I can get all but two of the compounds easily enough. The final two components, however, may be a bit...difficult...to come by."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. No one was going to like what the spell needed in order to work, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it without my own powers being restored. That, of course, was not going to happen. The only choice I had was to obtain the required ingredients. "One of the compounds is the most sought after trait in this kingdom. The blood of a virginal human female who is of child-bearing age."
I held my breath as I let this information sink in. I, as well as everyone in this entire kingdom, knew that any human female who had the remote chance of still being a virgin would be a prime target for all of the demons of this land. It was why they were wed at such an early age. Most parents did not want their daughters to become harem slaves of the demon spawn of this realm. Those who were looking to become rich off the blood of their offspring would sell their own children into slavery for gold. The buying and selling of virginal human female flesh in this kingdom ran rampant. It was not uncommon for female infants and children to be kidnapped from their own beds during the night and raised in absolute solitude until they were of age to be sold to the demons.
The Chief Principle looked me in the eye as he said, "My eldest daughter, Oleander, became of child-bearing age just last month. She will not wed until the coming fall. I will supply my Queen with the requested item. What else does My Lordship require for the spell to work properly?"
I blinked at the aging man. I had not realized that Oleander was so close to becoming of age. I mentally shook myself. "Your sacrifice will not go unnoticed once my kingdom has been secured." I smiled at him in thanks. "The last element is not nearly so rare, but will be very difficult to secure. The final compound is the essence of life from an immediate family member of the one who is injured."
I returned his intense stare as I said, "I must have the blood of Vindictus' brother, Dante Invectus."
I had been up for nearly seventy-two hours straight. Once Avenel saw that I could barely keep my eyes open, she insisted that I rest while the Chief Principle plead our case to the nobles. I mumbled something about finding a spell, but what came out of my mouth was not what my mind had meant to say. With a slight, "Humph!" Avenel closed the great spell book and took it, and me, into my old bedroom. She secured the book beneath the floorboards of my bed so that it would not be discovered. My thanks came out garbled and incoherent. Soon after, oblivion took over my mind.
.....I could see Dante approaching the still sleeping form of my husband. I wanted to scream at him to get away from Vindictus, but my voice could not be heard. I could do nothing but watch as my brother-in-law walked with heavy steps to the bedside. My husband's attendant said something, his face registering fear as he became aware of Dante's intentions. I saw the gleam of the blade for a split second before Dante plunged it into the abdomen of the attendant. He ripped the sword upward, slicing the body of the demon nearly in half. My screams echoed through my own mind, the sound so loud that I thought for sure that it could be heard in the room.
I shook my head in desperation as he turned back to my husband. My arms reached out uselessly to protect him, but there was nothing I could do. Dante raised the sword over his head and brought it down with as much force as his body could muster.
"No!" my scream echoed off the stone walls of the bedchamber. Dante's eyes went wide, almost as if he had heard me scream. And then the sword landed hard on the invisible magic shield that I had cast around the king. A reverberating metallic clang could be heard as the sword bounced off the shield, causing the blade to slip from Dante's grasp. It skidded harmlessly across the stone floor.
My brother-in-law looked around the room wildly. He had heard me! And now he knew that the king lay beneath the protection of the shield that I had conjured. Time was running out....
My green eyes popped open as I sat straight up in my bed. I was drenched in sweat and my entire body was shaking. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I struggled for breath. My parents stared at me with a mixture of horror and worry.
"Sophronia, are you alright?" My mother asked, her voice shaky. "You must have been having a terrible nightmare. You have been screaming for the last five minutes. I feared you would hurt yourself from thrashing about so much."
I looked around my tiny bedroom as the memory of the dream came back. No, not a dream, I corrected myself. I grabbed hold of my father's hand. "It wasn't a dream, it was a vision. Dante knows that I have conjured a protection spell around the king. He will no doubt figure out that I have not returned to my own realm. It is only a matter of time before he discovers my whereabouts."
I pushed past my parents and dropped to my knees beside the bed. I jerked the floorboards up and tossed them to the side. My mind was racing. "We are running out of time," I said as I pulled the ancient spell book from its hiding place.
I stood up, hugging the book to my chest. "We have to leave for the castle...now."