The moment the boy was out of sight, Eleri found refuge from his constant stare by dodging behind a baker’s stall. She breathed a deep sigh of relief and leaned over, hands on her knees and eyes closed. Immediately, Kendrik’s face popped into her mind.
She liked the way his name sounded. The K clacked against her teeth before the solid feeling of the D. It rolled from her tongue comfortably. Never before had someone had such an effect on her. Her bashfulness sent a sting of embarrassment to her eyes. Usually, she found herself getting into trouble in the castle because she could not keep her tongue still. Yet, Kendrik seemed to have the opposite effect on her.
To distract herself from the confusion Kendrik had clouded her mind with, Eleri turned her attention to life around her. The marketplace thrilled her with all of its bustling about. The tailors had their section, the glass-cutters another, and all the others like the leather-workers, the butchers, the artists, the Buffoons, the weavers, the dyers, the hunters, the farmers, and of course the carpenters had an area in town to set up their trade. Everyone had a place where they belonged. Everyone but Eleri.
Normally, one could find her in the Buffoon’s Corner. The Buffoons were a group of actors, tightrope walkers, jugglers, fire-eaters, and all mannerisms of tricks and cleverness. A stage was set up, just to the side of the path, where individuals displayed their various talents while people threw gold coins. She would sit there, longing to join them up on the stage, for Eleri had a very different talent than those jesters of magic and entertainment. Her voice was sweeter to the ear than sugar was to the tongue. Ever since Eleri had been old enough to talk, music had seemed natural to her. Melodies flew in and out of her head like the songbirds of meadows.
It had turned out to be an enticing asset in the eyes of her King. Though she could not remember the event, Morales had detailed it perfectly for her. Claudius had heard her singing one morning while she played in the stables and, being the jealous creature he was, convinced himself that he alone should own her voice. That moment had changed everything. He had made her his own personal servant, demanding that she be allowed to sing for no one but him.
“Eleri!” a voice shouted from ahead.
At the sound of her name, Eleri’s head snapped up. It was Mira. The green-brown eyes were lit up with alarm as she ran to Eleri’s side. “Mira, what’s wrong?” Eleri questioned at the sight of her friend’s stricken face.
Mira was gasping for air. A long strand of red hair had fallen over her face and swayed lazily back and forth with every puff of air. She placed a firm hand on Eleri’s shoulder and tugged slightly. “Morales is going insane! Claudius has requested you four times in the last hour.” They were rushing by people with such speed that their movements attracted quite a few bewildered stares. Only once they were within the castle gates did Mira slow her pace.
“He’s asked for me already? I’m not normally called upon until the evening.” Eleri shook her head, puzzled. She detested going before the King. The way he stared always made her feel transparent. It seemed as though he was scrutinizing her through a looking glass, meaning to draw out some fault or weakness in her character. Eleri did not enjoy being studied so.
As long as she could remember, she’d worked in the castle and done whatever King Claudius asked of her. Her tasks were simple: do whatever Morals demanded of her and come whenever the King beckoned. Yet she’d had difficulties obeying. It was against her character to take commands from someone else. Most had expected her to just become used to such a lifestyle. Even she had assumed it would become second nature, but it had not. She was begrudgingly submissive, often being reprimanded for the audacity to question.
But the King never raised his voice to her. It was that silence which made her fear him. The others got angry; they were predictable. Claudius was not so easily read. His stern lectures were always in the lowest voice; it was a dangerous voice. Eleri didn’t need to be told to fear the Tyrant.
Mira’s voice broke through her fevered thoughts. “He demanded that Morales find you. We have to hurry.” Grabbing hold of Eleri’s hand, Mira yanked her along, closer and closer to Claudius.
“Where have you been? The King has been waiting!” Morales shrieked the moment she saw Eleri. The fussy old woman plucked at the girl’s scruffy gown, scowling all the while. “No matter, you must go before him immediately. There is absolutely no time to make you respectable. Don’t dawdle. Go!” She shoved Eleri roughly through a doorway, not giving her a moment for argument.
The air in the throne room was clear and sweet-smelling. Claudius preferred to have his servants to burn incense or spray luxurious perfume about the hall, despite the fact that the money spent for it could easily buy dinner for half a dozen peasant families.
High, paneled windows let only a few beams of sunlight trickle down to Eleri’s frozen form. She didn’t want to move forward. Every instinct told her to run from the room and never look back. But there was no way to escape. Morales guarded the door behind her, and Claudius stood in front. Her every avenue of flight was cut off. She took one step after the other, approaching Claudius’s throne. As she had upon waking that morning, she retreated into her mind. She was a heroine, about to do battle against the great monster that was terrifying her village. She would win. Or else she would die knowing her fight was worthwhile.
Claudius was a man whose appearance could strike terror into the heart of any man, whether he wore plainclothes or an entire suit of gleaming armor. A tunic of rich fabric draped his eloquent figure. Beneath the folds, one could easily tell the strength hidden in the velvety drapes. His body was tall and lean, held high with a haughty dignity. He wore green, which he believed a noble color. Eleri believed it relieved his true character. The serpent beneath the flower. Claudius’s yellow hair stayed trimmed neatly at all times; it was a shade almost as dark as her own.
None of these attributes, though, were what frightened Eleri. His eyes were the source of her dread. Those eyes, as keen and sharp as a hawk’s gaze, were a fiery blue that seemed to burn right through her. His gaze could pierce her as brutally as any mortal blade could. When he looked at her, it felt as though she was one of the animals he shot and preserved to mount upon his wall. She was property and, as such, had to be judged for her value.
Those terrifying eyes were locked onto her the moment she entered the room. She could feel them tracing her face, her tattered and soiled servant’s attire, logging away anything that he disapproved of. Eleri trembled as she stood before him. “You called for me, Sire?” Her voice was soft and timid in the large hall, echoing across the expanse to Claudius.
The people of Ambrist had spoken correctly when naming their king. The Tyrant could be as cruel as the northern wind that swept through their town in the bitter cold winter. His will was just as destructive. Homes were ravaged and lands torn apart if one could not pay the hefty taxes he demanded. Soldiers patrolled the streets, prepared to arrest any disobeying villager outside past the curfew Claudius had insisted upon enforcing. Be it man, woman, or child, no one was exempt from his punishment, especially not a little servant girl. Eleri was always on her guard when his gaze was holding her fast in its grip.
“Eleri.” Claudius’ voice was deep and intimidating, even when speaking so soft and mild. That was the voice that was most dangerous. “Where have you been? I sent Morales searching for you long ago,” he continued, eyes narrowing. His lips were always set in a firm line. She’d never seen him truly smile, not once.
A mountain of a lump had lodged itself within Eleri’s throat. It seemed more difficult than necessary for her to draw in one trembling breath after another. “I was in the town. My chores were done, and no one suspected you might need me so early.”
Luckily for her, it was the right answer. Her meekness pleased him, as it always did. There were stories throughout the town of his cruelty. He liked to see people cowering before him like beaten dogs to their masters. Nothing could thrill him more.
It was said that he had once burned a man’s farm for defying Claudius his horses. The Tyrant had flown into a rage. He’d sent soldiers to abduct the man’s family and livestock. When the farmer had arrived later that same day, begging pardon and the return of his family, Claudius had grinned with a smile filled with a cold, biting joy, the likes of which Eleri had never seen. He’d then ordered the wife and children massacred, all while the man stood by helplessly and watched his family being torn apart. The very memory made Eleri shudder with revulsion.
But there were things that Eleri felt sure could frighten even proud Claudius. All manners of harmful creatures roamed the endless forest depths. Houndlings prowled the night, their long teeth and claws aching to rip into vulnerable prey. The Woodsmen were into their exploits as well, tricking random passersby off the roads. That would be the last anyone saw of a person, should they listen to the being’s winsome call.
Yet one of the greatest nightmares in all of Ambrist was known as the Shadow Folk, the dark harbingers of death that would enfold a traveler within their inky black cloaks and leech the life from his still beating heart. The Shadow Folk were the most feared creatures of the Whispering Forest for, once the heart echoed its final beat, the entity could slip into the human’s body like a hand into a glove. It had a form at last, which made it even more dangerous; a wisp of smoke cannot physically take hold of you. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, however, was quite capable of biting.
But the Shadow Folk had a disability. They could not reside within the host body for too long. Soon, it would be used up, depleted by the malevolent being within it. So, the Shadow Folk were always searching for that next person, so they could finally feel alive again, despite the shortness of their bliss.
Quickly, the local suspicion became that the images of all the King’s victims, so alike to those murky silhouettes that could overtake a man’s very soul, haunted Claudius in his deepest dreams. Guards reported that he woke late into the night, screaming a name that no one recognized. One man who’d dared to look into the chamber during one of the Tyrant’s fits claimed to have seen his eyes open wide, though sleep still kept an icy hold on his mind. His blubbering lips had mouthed silent prayers to no God in particular. All that could be identified in his mumblings was one word: Rochelle. Over and over, the name would be called in a voice so mournful that it sent pity into even the most hardened heart.
Every heart, that is, except Eleri’s. Claudius believed that Eleri’s voice was the only thing that soothed his troubled dreams. When she sang, he was put at ease, able to slip into a sleep more peaceful than he’d ever experienced before.
Eleri despised him for it. She did not want to calm his turbulent guilt. Everything that befell him, he deserved it ten times over. Countless times, she had born witness to his brutality. His vindictiveness had scalded her innocent heart, scarring her of the purity she had held until accepting the castle as her home. A bitter poison had been inserted into her veins when Claudius had laid his hands on her, removing her from the former life she knew she must have loved.
Once upon a time, she’d had a family, despite the fact she could no longer remember them. There had been a father, a mother, and maybe even siblings. Now all she had were cold, hard walls. Surrounding her now were words of daggers and hands of iron.
Claudius peered at her, as if trying to read her thoughts. Eleri was relieved that he could not. Still, his next words made her fists clench. “I had trouble sleeping last night, and the reports from my captain of the guard have vexed me. The first remedy that entered my head was to hear you. Sing to me, Eleri.”
She knew there was nothing to be done. Eleri could not fight for her freedom, not against an overlord like Claudius. So, without voicing the resentment and torment nestled inside her heart, she opened her mouth to sing.
Immediately, the Tyrant’s eyes closed to let her music wash through him. Her voice was as sweet as birdsong and as captivating as the call of a siren. It took him away from the world, away from his sleepless nights. No more did the ghosts of the past follow his footsteps with silent ones of their own. Gone were the chains of his victim’s retribution. Eleri’s beautiful soprano submerged him in a cleansing onslaught of serenity.
He continued to float on his languid ocean of liberation while Eleri sang as wonderfully as the lark of the forest. Her ethereal voice filled the great hall as though it held some sort of magic within itself.
“Once upon a time, in my humble little home,
A tiny bird did stray afar and land upon the stones.
And so, with tearful eyes,
I beckoned her to my side.
Little bird, fly away from the winter.
Enter my house; tell me your tale.
Little bird, fly away from the danger.
I’ll lend you comfort; shield you from the hail.
And so the bird told me all that was to be told.
I saw a lad, with hair of russet red,
Sitting by the river with his hands holding his head.
A lonely tear did fall from his sorrow-filled face.
His voice broke as it all spilled out,
The reason for his horrid disgrace.
‘I have loved a girl,’ he said,
‘And she did love me, too.
We were as pure as two could be
But nothing could we do
To forestall the demons that tracked along our destiny
Or tempt fate to decline.
Now I’m sitting here alone
She will ne’er be mine.’
Then my bird, she flew away
To tell me of that man.
He is sad, to this day,
And here I’m doomed to stand.
Pray, listen to what I say
And do not join my tears today.
Do not pity the boy who sits alone
Or dwells where none can touch him.
He is satisfied on his own
For now love cannot stab within.”
Her sad tune ended upon that cheerless note. It was a song Claudius requested often, one he seemed to enjoy. Eleri loathed it. She enjoyed using her voice for songs that told of pleasant things, not heartbroken young men forever doomed to pine for their lost love, heartbroken and bitter. Claudius had stolen her voice for his own. Forcing her to sing only songs of loss and sorrow only made her hate him more.
“Thank you, my little flute. As always, your skills burn away the chill around my heart.” Claudius’s voice was groggy. Eleri bit her tongue so hard, she could taste the coppery tang of blood. She did not want to lend him comfort so that he could be satisfied with the evil that spread from him like a plague. His suffering was justice through shadows. But she curtsied mildly, despite all the resentful thoughts trapped behind her lips.
Her feet turned towards the door, preparing to go, when Claudius’s whisper stopped her at her first step. “Stay a while, Eleri.” Her heart nearly ceased beating. It was unthinkable that such insignificant words could chill her worse than winter’s ice could. Claudius had never asked her to remain in his presence after her song was over. His dismissal had always been brief, following upon the last syllable of her melody. There was no possible reason that reached her mind as to why Claudius wished for her company longer than normal.
Eleri turned back to him with a confused face. “Is there something you need from me, Sire? Would you like another song, perhaps?” she asked cautiously. Claudius’s temper was known to be as abrupt as the changing winds. She did not want to say something that might anger him in any way.
However, the King’s eyes glimmered with nothing but curiosity. He reached a hand toward her, beckoning her forward. “Just sit with me. I would like to talk.” She couldn’t have been more horrified had he been holding a live adder in his hand. Sit and talk with him? What could be the purpose? Nothing about the Tyrant was good; Eleri had learned at least that much during her life in the castle. People said that Claudius cared for nothing and no one. He couldn’t have ever loved anything, and she couldn’t imagine anything loving him. You cannot love with a heart that beats with the coldness of steel.
“Talk?” She approached him, perching on the step next to his throne. She sat close enough to show obedience, and yet far enough to be out of his reach. Never had anyone in the castle but Mira cared about what she had to say. Her place as a servant kept her relatively apart from most of the royals who visited Claudius. And, of course, most of her fellow workers did not crave the concepts that sprang from a child’s mouth.
“Yes, talk. You are reaching womanhood and have no mother who can guide you through that change. What are your years, seventeen, eighteen? That age begins to attract attention. My guards have noticed a youth from town appearing near the castle gates every day. He simply stares at the windows, nothing more. In fact, it seems he stares at your window quite a lot.”
Unconsciously, Eleri stroked the small carving in her pocket. She, too, had noticed the boy. Her meeting with him in the marketplace had not truly been as much coincidence as he might imagine. “You mean Kendrik?” she questioned. The words were out before she could think them over. Too late she noticed the crafty smirk that stole over Claudius’s face.
“Yes, Kendrik, the wood-carver’s son. Do you know him well?”
A tension had filled the room. Eleri gulped, contemplating what she should say. It was not wise to lie to Claudius. His uncivilized tactics for extracting the truth were known far and wide. “No, not well. We have only met once,” she finally admitted. There was no need to confess her intention of meeting him the very next day.
But Claudius broke through her eager thoughts. “And has he imparted any offering of what his family is like? Namely, what his father is like. There have been rumors…” he stopped, eyeing Eleri suspiciously.
“No, Sire, I know nothing of his home life. What rumors do you mean?” Whatever the sayings were, they could not be good if she of all people was being questioned. Claudius was a paranoid man. His ear was always open to tales within the city. If something was being said about Kendrik’s family, it could very well mean they were all in danger.
At her question, the suspicion vanished from Claudius’ eyes. He lifted her chin with his index finger, gazing intently into her face. The touched burned like nettles. “Eleri, little flute, I know whom I can always turn to for trust. You are a good girl. You have been one ever since entering these walls. No secrets go past your lips.” His words were true, but only because Eleri had never heard anything worth repeating. The townsfolk cared little for the meaningless drivel of castle servants.
“I have heard that Kendrik’s father, Daniel, is in league with rebels that reside somewhere within the Whispering Forest,” Claudius continued. “He intends to aid them in overthrowing my rule. That cannot happen. There is no father in existence to protect you, so the task falls to me. You are forbidden to associate with Kendrik another day. I do not want you tainted by his company.” Claudius’ voice was so hard, so commanding, that Eleri’s head bowed in mock submission at once. She must show neither a sign of defiance nor any mark of rebellion.
But, through her silence blossomed a dark flower of horror that she’d never known before. Her face was set with a resolution Claudius could not see. As he dismissed her, every thought was turned toward Kendrik and what fate was set apart for his father. She could not let such a thing happen. The child went straight to her room and stared out the window at the sun, still high in the sky. Apparently her fight with the monster would no longer be in her imagination.
“Tonight is the night when reason flees and only strength remains,” she whispered, settling in for the long wait before dark.