Here’s the first chapter. I hope you like it!!
Prince Conell DeCapris pressed his back against the cold stone wall and stared at the cell’s spider-webbed ceiling
He flicked off the cockroach that dropped onto his shoulder, his castle now a cell where the reek of mold and rotting corpses hung in the cramped chamber no bigger than a child’s bedroom. Five long years imprisoned by the regent-queen who betrayed him and now ruled Ezasu from what should have been Prince Conell’s throne; and the blame lay at Conell’s feet.
Another prisoner’s scream ripped through the prison corridor. Conell pressed his hands against his ears and grimaced. Eleven years had passed and still, each shriek sounded like his mother begging the barbarians, “Please do not harm my baby!” “Father, forgive me,” Conell whispered.
Conell’s tired eyes looked to his young captain of the guards who had risen up the ranks of the king’s army to become Lord Émer Muiris Amgets of the Third Council of Opize, Maúl Commander of the King’s Army, and son of Lord Cadoc Ailill Amgets of the Second Council and Maúl Commander of Father’s army. Now, his captain was simply known as Émer. Ranks and forgiveness no longer mattered. Getting Frigg and Émer to safety became his main goal. What was to happen to him afterward depended upon the kindness of cheap wine.
He rubbed his forehead, brought up his leg and dangled his wrist over his kneecap. This nightmare would only end when they escaped. He hoped that safety hid beyond the prison walls.
“Did you say something?” Émer slid the last brick into the stonewall and brushed the dirt from the surrounding bricks. He smoothed down the filling and gently blew away the residue “There. Hopefully, they will not see the lines.”
Conell gave his captain a slight grin at his minor obsessions. “It was nothing. You have made cracks invisible.”
Émer gauged the dim light in the small cell and stepped back. “I can still see the lines from the pulled bricks, but I don’t think the guards will notice.”
The young prince raised his eyebrows, but nodded.
“Still, the Maúl would be pleased.”
“My clan is dead, so it makes no difference if they are pleased.” Émer stuffed more dirt into the cracks.
“As I said, it will be good to leave this place tonight.” Conell averted his gaze.
Seeing his friend day and night fueled his shame. The words, if only, haunted him like his mother’s frantic tears. Faces of those who died in the midnight raid peered into his cell and accused him constantly. If only he’d spoken the words that would’ve saved his mother and father and all those in the castle. If only he hadn’t remained silent. If only he’d told someone. That same silence now wrapped her arms around him and became his cursed companion.
But the songs of the past no longer counted. His father always said, “Focus on the present, not the past.”
“What of Frigg?” His captain stepped back and surveyed his work.
Hours ticked by since the guards hauled Frigg, his young advisor, from his prison cell. “I fear they torture him for sport. He’s strong, but I hope his strength holds. I refuse to leave him behind.”
“I know, My Moji.” Émer smiled at him. “We did not leave him behind after the attack. We will not leave him behind now. He’ll survive as we have.”
The cell lock jingled. Émer whirled towards the door, brushed the dirt from his hands, and crossed his arms over his chest. The door swung open.
Ruárc, the prison sentry, had a stout body that filled the doorframe. A sneer crossed the guard’s thick lips. His younger brother, Toál, stood behind him, his husky hand latched around the squirming arm of a small-frame.
“Let me go!” yelped the prisoner’s panicked voice.
Émer straightened. Conell raised his hand and kept his captain in his place.
Ruárc tossed the prisoner into the cell. “Here’s company for you, Your Highness. Her name is Chuoha.”
Conell eyed Émer who mouthed, her? A woman in Queen Jezebel’s prison? The queen refused to have women in the penal for they did not last long. Why was she here?
The girl stumbled then whirled to face Ruárc. She stiffened, but trembled in the weak light. Conell raised his eyebrows. A sign of defiance or fear?
Ruárc blew her a kiss and slammed the door as he exited the cell; the sound vibrated through the stone walls.
Émer leaned over Conell. “Who is Chuoha? Why put her here?”
“My name is Imogene Katherine Rezaley!” The young girl rushed to the door, pounding with her small fists as the hollow sound reflected her worthless effort.
Émer chuckled and nodded toward the girl. “Look at her short sleeves; they do not cover her arms or hands.” He nudged
Conell with his elbow and winked. “She is a Zuuho.”
Conell rubbed his chin as his eyes roamed over her petite frame dressed in blue trousers and yellow short-sleeved top. The girl’s curly, long blonde hair framed her smooth face. She could have been a maiden in his father’s castle, except for her indecency. “She dresses as a man, not as a proper woman. She is not a TTishos.”
“Her sinning mother forgot to teach her noble ways. No respecting TTishos dresses in such a disrespectful manner. Is it a wonder that she’s here?” Émer grunted and shook his head. “She is a disgrace to the noble line of King Broden.”
“My mother would expel her from Father’s courts and hide her Zuuho foulness from the children.” Conell flashed a grin to Émer. “ʽDo not expose the children to such nudity,’ she would say.”
“My mother would beat her and drag her out into the streets where she belongs.”
Conell rose from the bench. “Let’s see why Ruárc’s little
Zuuho has come to visit us.”
The girl grew quiet and leaned her forehead against the wooden door. Soft whimpers crossed the room.
“Tell us, Chuoha, what brings you to our humble dwelling?” Conell asked.
The Zuuho slowly faced them. The cell’s torch spread its dim glow over her curling tresses that spilled down her shoulders. Her blue eyes were swollen from weeping and tear tracks stained the youthfulness of her cheeks. The girl’s gaze followed the walls to the ceiling where the spider webs dangled like skeleton fingers. She cringed and covered her head.
“Please help me.” She shielded her eyes from the torch’s harsh light. “That horrible man brought me here. I’m not supposed to be here.”
Conell raised an eyebrow. “Not be here? Ruárc’s spurred lover angry over her new accommodations? Perhaps Ruárc’s soft warm bed would better suit this tainted creature. Not supposed to be here?” Conell paced around the female with certainty, devouring the precious distance between them. “My, my, my, a Zuuho who thinks she is better than me?
Perhaps you prefer Ruárc’s bed instead?” He dragged his dirty fingertips over her bare arms. “Or has he thrown you from his embrace?”
She recoiled and slapped away his hands. “Don’t touch me! I want to know where I am. Why am I here?”
He blinked. How could she not know she sat in Jezebel’s prison? Everyone within the land feared this place of hell. Some even embraced the sword over the death stench clinging to this nightmare.
Her watery stare lingered on his eyes until she lowered her head and swallowed. To enjoy the fresh perfume of a young woman’s cleaned locks again made him smile and his fingers intertwined in the golden ringlets. The girl tried to move away, but he shoved her back against the door.
“Where are you?” He whispered in her ear. “Ioole Chaj, leep to aeepa vozo.”
Her brows knitted together and her lips moved, but said nothing.
“Be careful, Moji,” Émer called. “Do not let the stones hear you using the forbidden tongue. You know the witch forbids us to speak it, even here. Speak the queen’s tongue so the Zuuho will understand.”
The prince flipped his fingers. “I will not let Jezebel rule me. I will speak as I please.”
“Again, mind your tongue.” Émer leaned against the wall and grinned. “You might find it missing one day.” Conell grunted. “I don’t understand what you said,” the girl whispered.
He stepped back. Jezebel prohibited her slaves from speaking the ancient language of the Attiyq, but even they understood the forbidden tongue. How could she not understand? What did her eyes seek? The guards planned to execute him and Émer tomorrow. Why send a watcher now?
Conell said to Émer in his language, “The girl could be a watcher, be careful what you say.”
“Witch prison, home of the forgotten,” he said to her.
“Why am I here?” A tear inched down her young face and her dry lips trembled.
Conell sneered. Many women had used tears to break his heart; Ruárc’s Zuuho would fail in her quest. He placed his forearm against the door and locked her in place. “I am sorry, Chuoha. I did not hear your words. You must speak up.”
“I want to go home. I want my mother.” Her trembling arms knocked against the wood.
“Your mother?” Conell laughed. “The sinning Zuuho begs for her mother.” He lifted her quivering chin; his thumb stroked her cold cheek. “What you ask, Chuoha Zuuho, is quite impossible. Jezebel does not allow mothers to enter here. You are alone.”
She cringed and tried to move her face away from him. “Stop! I don’t know a Jezebel!”
His fingers slid under her chin and held the girl’s face close to his. “Jezebel is now the queen of this land. She has sat on my father’s throne for ten long years. Or have you forgotten? Perhaps, I could refresh your memory?”
She swiped his hand away. Her whimpering voice grew into a panic pitch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There is no queen. Let me go!”
Conell flicked his fingers and strolled away. “Ruárc must have picked an insane lover.”
The girl’s face twisted. “I’m not his lover! You’re disgusting! And you don’t touch me like that ever again!”
He spun and laughed. “Touch you? You are a Zuuho, now you care of touching?”
The girl shrank against the door. “I don’t know what that means, but don’t you touch me again!”
Émer grabbed Conell’s arm. “My Moji, there are other ways of finding information.”
Conell raised his hands in defeat and leaned against the wall next to the bench. “The Zuuho is all yours, Captain.”
Émer led her to the stoned bench. “Maybe you should sit down.”
A large black rat scurried from under a blanket tossed over a pile of dirty hay and disappeared into a hole in the wall. She squealed and jumped onto the seat; her shrieking voice bounced around the cell.
“I’m not doing this. I can’t stay here.” Conell shook his head.
Émer chuckled and helped her to sit. “My name is Émer Muiris Amgrets, son of Cadoc Ailill Amgets, Captain of the Prince’s army. And he is Moji, Prince in your tongue, Conell DeCapris, son of Efuko DeCapris, last reigning King of Ezasu.
King Efuko is dead now.”
“Is this hell?” She brought up her legs and wrapped her arms around her shins.
“Some have called it hell.” Émer took a seat beside her. “You are in Iool Chaj a prison for those who fight against the Witch-Queen Jezebel, whom—as the Moji said—now rules this land. You must have wandered into Yoem Eoko, Demon Forest. Those who escape from the prison or rebels seeking to attack the guards wander into the forest.”
She rubbed her forehead. “I don’t know a Jezebel and I didn’t wander into any forest and I’m not Nasty Guy’s lover. I was in Glen Oak Park. Then I was in those weird woods. There is no Demon Forest around here.”
“What is this Glen Oak Park you speak of?” Émer asked.
“It’s a park where people go to have fun. You know picnics, Frisbees, playing with dogs—fun stuff!” Her voice rose with each word.
Conell nudged him in the shoulder. “What is frisbees?” His captain shrugged. “What were you doing in this park?”
A look of shame crossed the Zuuho’s face. Her babbling words tumbled from her shaking lips and her wringing hands trembled. “I broke the law. I did what the judge wanted me to do and followed of the all of his orders. This isn’t supposed to happen. There was an hour left of my probation and I was going home for my sweet sixteen birthday or what was left of it. That’s where I’m supposed to be now. Home, not here!”
“Calm down.” Émer patted her bare arm. He grimaced and wiped off her polluted touch.
Conell straightened. “What orders?”
“I know it was wrong.” She brought her knees closer to her chest as a cockroach scurried across the straw-covered stoned floor. “But I wanted the others to like me, so I went along with them. They wanted to spray graffiti on the school building. It was wrong, but I wanted to be cool. When the cops showed up, they found a bag of weed on my friend and they arrested us. The judge said since this was my first offense, he’d let me off with a hundred hours of community service. I did what they wanted. I was cleaning the park, when this found me.”
She took a medallion from around her neck and passed it to Émer. Conell’s gaze flickered to his captain. The gold trinket encompassed Émer’s palm and faint light caught the edge of the shining surface. A large wine-colored stone in the middle of the ornament reflected the torch light. A circle with strange letterings ringed the jewel.
Émer peered at the markings. “I am not sure, My Moji, but I do believe this writing could be of the Old Priests.”
“I was picking up the trash,” she said. “And I saw something in a bush. I reached for it and the chain…well…grabbed me. Wrapped around my wrist. I fell into a pit or something, and I landed here.”
Émer looked at Conell, then back to the Zuuho. “What do you mean? I do not understand the words with which you speak. It grabbed me?”
“Grabbed. Me.” She squeezed Émer’s wrist. “Grabbed.”
Émer pulled free from the Zuuho’s stained hand and scoured off her depravity.
She looked at his wrist. “Why do you act like I’m dirty?”
Émer blinked. “You are a Zuuho.”
“What’s a Zuuho?” she asked.
“Zuuho are stained women who are improper with men.”
“You mean a woman who does… things with men? I’m not… I mean, I’m not one of those.”
Conell chuckled and spoke in his native tongue. “Insane, she
Émer pursed his lips and raised his fingers. “You dress as one.”
She looked down at her clothes. “I don’t understand.” “You bare your arms with no shame and you wear a man’s clothes. You must be as you said, a woman who does things.”
“What?” Her quaking voice was above a whisper. “No, it was hot at the park and this is what I wear when it’s hot out. Why would you think a summer top means…that? I really want to leave now.”
Émer’s strong purple eyes held her as a snake holds a bird.
“As my Moji has said, you cannot leave.”
More tears danced on the rim of her blue eyes. “I can’t help it that you find it offensive, but please, I’m not…I just want to go home.”
“Tell me,” Émer said. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I think I’m dead.”
“Who is Queen Jezebel?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
“What crime did you do to put you in this place?’
Émer’s strong gaze made her inch away. “I was at the park, picking up trash.”
“If I were to offer you freedom from this hell and from the guards for pleasure with you, would you take it?”
The Zuuho’s pale face fell and she focused on her trembling hands. “Please don’t make me do this, please; I just want to go home.”
Émer sat back and gave her a small nod. “A normal Zuuho would take my offer with gladness. Yet, you are one who shies away. Forgive me, My Lady. I am Maúl and should not treat you this way. You are not as I had thought. I ask for your forgiveness
if I have offended you. Please, go on.”
The prince moaned. “Captain?”
The captain held up his hand. “My Moji, please! Please,
My Lady, continue.”
The girl rubbed her palm against her forehead. “I know this isn’t happening, I know it isn’t. None of this is real.”
Émer strong eyes softened. “My Lady, please forgive me for frightening you. I must know who you are. I must protect my prince.”
“Protect your prince?” Her amazed face lifted and she held up her palms. “Look, whatever you two do on your own time is your business, but I don’t want to belong to it.
Just let me leave, please, I won’t tell anyone.”
Émer inched towards her and she jumped from the seat.
“You guys are insane,” she said. “I want to go now. I don’t know who put you up to this, but this ends now.”
Conell grinned. This frightened maiden had great spunk. Whoever owned her must have paid much. If she belonged to Ruárc, Conell could understand why the guard put his prize in this cell. Her pretense made her as a mouse that sits under the table and waits for scraps. This small golden mouse sat in the captain’s hand and could gather anything she pleased.
“Sit.” Conell’s eyes motioned to the seat.
She plopped onto the bench and forced her shaking hands into her lap.
“What happened?” Conell asked.
Her frightened gaze jumped from him to Émer. The words tumbled. “I don’t know what happened. That thing grabbed me; I fell into secret, weird Never Never land! The chain was around my neck when I hit the ground. That guard, whoever he is, found me. He put a knife to my throat.” A haunting covered her face as if feeling the blade. “Oh God, I don’t want to die here.”
Émer look up at Conell and spoke in his own language. “Moji, I do not believe this girl is Zuuho, but I do believe she is ill.”
Conell moaned and snatched the medallion from the captain. “Because she is a woman you believe her words?
She lies to you, Captain. She has you in a snare.” The warm pendant tingled in his palm. His fingers traced the old engraved writings. But why would Ruárc try to kill a prized possession if he wanted the girl to spy on us? He shrugged. She lies. But does she look like she’s lying? “It looks ancient, but I am unsure of the age. The writings look like those in my father’s ancient scrolls.”
A memory raised its ugly head and jabbed at his heart. He shivered and tried to shove it away, but it stormed into his mind as they all did.
Father sat in his study listening to the Maúl elders reciting these archaic words. The wind blew the thin white curtains into the room.
An angry Maúl elder jumped from his seat and pointed to the draperies. “The angels of the Attiyq stretch out their hands to the disobedient!”
Father cringed as Mother called Conell from the room. The seven-year-old boy stepped out into the hall, but peeked back to catch a glimpse of the angel’s hands. They sought him and a chill slipped down his back—an omen for his childish defiance. Those same revenging cherubs lunged for him today. He should have said something, anything.
He shook the memory away and gave the medallion to the girl. “But I cannot read it. The language is of the old tongue.”
“I don’t want it.” She pushed it way. “I wanted to sell it, get some cash for it. But I’ve changed my mind.”
“I think it should hang around your pretty neck, not mine.” Conell slipped the chain over her head.
The medallion dropped with a thump against her small chest. Father had often said that one could see a man’s soul through his eyes. Her fearful child-like face reflected the carnage of Father’s citadel, the blood flowing across the clean castle floors and dead eyes staring at the freshly-painted ceiling. The haunting past of young maids’ dying screams and the weeping children were silenced by the prison door swinging open. Conell stepped back.
Ruárc strutted into the room like the king who ruled the palace. His fat belly jiggled under his sweat-stained black shirt and his sword swung from his hip. Toál stood in the doorway. A limp Frigg slouched in his strong grip. The captain rose from the bench and planted his feet before the guard. Conell drew the wide-eyed girl from the bench.
Ruárc spread his arms. “Tell me, Prince Conell, will you miss your royal accommodations?”
Toál tossed Frigg into the room and he landed with a sickening plop. A deep moan escaped the young man as he tried to rise. His elbows buckled. The girl moved toward Frigg, but Conell held her arm.
Conell’s stomach ached as a boulder had fallen on him. The fault lay on him. It was his hand that lashed Frigg’s back—his fault Frigg was left as an orphan and now the young man paid for his foolish mistake. His closed his eyes. His goal feathered before him, to take Émer and Frigg to the safety of the Southern Borders. He studied the girl. What to do with her?
Ruárc smirked and bowed before Émer. “Lord Émer Muiris Amgets of the Third Council, how good it is to see you again.” Ruárc placed his dirty hand over his mouth; a feign shock covered his face. “Forgive my poor manners, I have forgotten, the queen striped you of your title years ago.
Now, it is only the poor, dirty, peasant Émer.” The young captain let out a bored sigh.
Toál leaned his fat body against the door and cleaned his nails with the tip of his knife. “Take care, big brother.” He grinned at Ruárc. “You stand before a brave Maúl.” Ruárc grunted. “I do not fear this tiny Maúl fly.”
“Well, well, well.” Émer crossed his arms over his chest. “Jezebel’s dogs have come to visit us. Did the witch run out of scraps for her pets?”
Ruárc narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps, I can give a message to your father and brother warriors? I am sure they would love to hear from one who is forgotten.”
He shook his head and frowned. “Forgive me again, Captain. I am the one who has forgotten. They met such a tragic end, slaughtered by the barbarians. How tragic that you are the last of your kind.” Ruárc clicked his tongue.
Toál laughed. “Brother, what did the legends say? The great and mighty Maúl warriors could rise like ghosts from the ground and defeat their enemies. No man could stand before them.
Where are they now? Where are these ghosts?”
Ruárc shrugged. “Perhaps, haunting the castle? Maybe if we found a witch, she could summon them. Summon your father, Amgets? Your clan?” The guard sneered. “How will you ever learn the ways of your people now that they are dead? Whatever will you do?”
“Yes, Captain, give us your plan for your future,” Toál said. “Oh of course, you die tomorrow. But be of good cheer. Now, you have no need for training.”
Émer narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.
Conell’s hands tightened into fists and he gritted his teeth.
“Do not allow their words to hurt you, Émer.”
Ruárc took a step towards the captain and chuckled. “Poor little Émer. You will die tomorrow knowing you die as a Maúl child, not a Maúl warrior. What does it feel like to see your dream die?”
Émer’s purple eyes pierced Ruárc.
Ruárc’s chuckling ceased. He broke Émer’s challenge and winked at the girl. “Hello, Chuoha, I apologize for the poor dwellings. Perhaps we can take a walk along the path again?”
Toál licked his lips. “I know you would enjoy it.”
An ash-white spread across her soft features and she grabbed Conell’s arm as her legs buckled.
He furrowed his brow. Did she play the part of the woman in distress or did Toál and Ruárc really hurt her?
Émer took a small side step and blocked Ruárc’s view. The guard’s smile disappeared.
“I heard you enjoy placing your steel against young maidens’ throats. Are you man enough to place the knife against mine since I am forgotten, a peasant and the last of my kind?” Émer bowed and spread his arms.
“The brothers who dance with swords,” Conell
snickered. “Well said, Émer.”
Toál reached for his weapon. “Do not speak to my brother with such ill words!”
Ruárc dragged his younger sibling from the cell. “Save your anger, Toál.” He stood in the safety of the doorway and grinned. “Tomorrow our swords will taste their blood.” Before leaving, he wiggled his dirty fingers at the girl. “Do not fret, Tiny Chuoha. Tomorrow you will share my bed as well as my brother’s.”
The girl dropped to the ground and pressed her palms into the floor, struggling to breathe. The guards slammed the door; the loud click from the lock bounced off the walls as their muffled laughter drifted away
Conell and Émer rushed to Frigg. Gingerly, Conell rolled him over and brushed back his red hair. Frigg’s young freckled face wrinkled in pain. “Frigg, what happened?” Conell asked.
A soft groan rose from his chapped lips. “My Liege, I do not… know what they seek. They… beat me… with staffs… yet… asked no questions.”
The girl crawled to the men and squeezed in between them. “Here, let me help him. I know first-aid.”
Conell shoved her back with his elbow. “First what?”
Despite her fear, a determination sat in her eyes. “Please, I can help him. I took a class last year. I made an A…”
“You need to move,” she said.
Conell rose and frowned at the small intruder.
She gently rolled Frigg to his side and lifted his shirt. Blood dripped from the thick purple slashes crossing his shoulders down to his lower back. “I will get you some water,” Émer said.
“No. The water here must be dirty. If we place it on the wounds, they may become infected. He could die. I need something to stop the bleeding, a clean cloth, if you have one.” The girl grimaced. “I’ve never known of a prison that beats a juvenile inmate like this.”
Émer and the young prince exchanged confused glances, but said nothing.
The captain slipped off his gray shirt and handed it to her. “I have nothing else. It is not clean as you asked.”
A blush covered her cheeks as she quickly averted her eyes and placed Frigg over onto his stomach.
Conell tried to examine the young man’s wounds, only to have his hand slapped. She gently pressed the fabric against Frigg’s back. His wounded body jerked and painful groans escaped him. “I’m sorry,” she said.
After a time, she lifted the cloth. The bleeding stopped and she lowered his shirt. Émer and Conell led him to the stoned bench and laid him on his stomach across the cold surface.
The girl sat beside him and felt his pulse. “Be careful. He may start to bleed again. He really needs to see a doctor.”
“A doctor? What is a doctor?” Conell growled. This game grew tiring.
“A doctor. You know, someone who heals others using medicine.” Her eyebrows rose as she emphasized the words. “Have you heard of med-i-cine?”
A snicker escaped him. “You are a stranger to hell, Chuoha. ‘Doctors’ do not live in Ioole Chaj.” He snatched the cloth from her hand, lifted Frigg’s shirt and gently dabbed his friend’s back. The barbs of guilt throbbed in his chest.
“Stop.” She pulled the bloody shirt from his fingers. “You’ll make it bleed again. He needs to rest so he can regain his strength.”
Émer frowned. “Moji,” he said in the forbidden tongue. “The girl’s mind has fled and you know I cannot leave her behind to suffer from the hands of Toál and Ruárc. You know what they will do to her. Listen to her words, My Moji. They are strange— insane. No one with a well mind would speak such things. We must take her with us.”
Conell glowered at him. “Has your memory left you? Remember how Jezebel befriended us? And her betrayal? How she confined us in Father’s prison? Do her betrayal and the betrayal of those who followed us flee your mind? I will not give my hand to another so easily.”
“I made an oath before the elders of my tribe when I sat at my father’s knee.” Émer crossed his arms over his chest. His purple eyes darkened and his soft face hardened. “And I will not break my oath even though they are dead. The girl is ill and the Attiyq demands I show mercy to the ill. I will follow His words. Do not make me choose for you know my answer.”
Conell understood the captain’s determination. It would lead the young Mául to the executioner’s slab, his young neck pressed upon the bloodied block and a sharp axe removing his head from his body. Prayers to the Attiyq would fall from his dying lips until he no longer spoke. Conell looked away from the thought. Yes, he did know the answer, but to trust another? His last mistake cost the lives of those in the castle.
“Okay, enough of this.” The girl jumped to her feet and shoved her small hands on her hips. “It’s obvious you’re talking about me. Please have enough courtesy to say it to my face.”
Conell rubbed his chin. For a spy, this little one has a great spirit. Ruárc would enjoy taming her. “Well, Little Chuoha, we speak of escaping tonight and what to do with you. Émer thinks your mind has fled and the ways of the Voobo-Maúl demand he cares for you, meaning we must take you with us, yet.” He cocked his head. “I wonder if you truly are insane.”
“I don’t understand.” Her small body dropped onto the bench. The spy now became the child, her small frame trembling.
He towered over her. “Jezebel sent you. Or perhaps your heart belongs to Ruárc?”
She shook her head and rose from the bench. “No! I told you what happened. I don’t even know a Jezebel! And I’m not Nasty Guy’s girlfriend. He’s gross, disgusting, nasty. I’d never.”
“Ah, yes.” Conell nodded and slipped his hands behind his back. “You grabbed a strange medallion, which magically brought you here from the place of parks, doctors and what words did you use? Ah, community service. A very imaginative story.”
“But it did happen!”
Conell motioned to the dirty blanket. “We could bind her with some strips of cloth. We would still have a day’s journey ahead of them.”
Émer stepped between him and the girl. “Moji, I will not leave her in the hands of Ruárc and Toál. Still, we die tomorrow, why would the witch send a watcher now? And I do not think her eyes wander to Ruárc.”
The girl pointed to Frigg. “If I were a spy, why would I help him? Would I honestly help if I belonged to that nasty thing? I mean, seriously! What is wrong with you?”
“Her words hold wisdom, Moji.” Émer raised his eyebrows.
He pursed his lips. “And what if your eyes spy for the witchqueen and you convince me your heart beats pure and you betray me?”
The girl gritted her teeth. “I swear, if you don’t take me with you, I will scream at the top of my lungs and tell the nasty guard everything.”
Émer shrugged. “She has you in a net.”
Conell growled and pushed Émer aside. “Our problems would flee if I broke your tiny neck.”
The girl stumbled back. Anger rose in her young face. She stood on her toes and tried to meet his eyes. “Go ahead. Kill me now. I’d rather die than rot in this hellhole. Anyway, how do I know you’re not just a bad dream?”
Conell’s eyebrows rose. The cowering mouse was now a roaring kitten that looked and sounded like a little girl. The prince’s rough fingers coiled around her small chin and drew her face towards his. “If you long to join us, I will take you with us. But if you betray me or my friends, I will break your neck and leave you to die alone. You will beg for Ruárc’s arms.”
Her face paled a deeper white and her brass voice became a small whisper. “I promise I won’t betray you.
Please. I just want to go home.”
He dropped his arm. For a woman who was to be a spy, this one acted more as a frightened child. But the screams from Mother, the young maids and the children drowned out her innocuous whispered voice. He would not make the same mistake. “Chuoha, Émer and I both will have our eyes upon you.”
With a nod, she plopped on the bench and wrung her trembling hands. “I promise I’ll do whatever you want.”
Conell exhaled a deep growling breath and leaned against the door. Every instinct begged him to abandon her to the mercy of the guards, but he had no choice. The fierceness in her blue eyes told the truth; the guards would know of their plans and none of them would leave this hell tonight.
He peered through the small barred window at the deserted corridor. The prisoner in the cell across the hall yelled at him then dropped onto the bench and mumbled to himself.
“Captain, show her.” Conell nodded towards the opposite wall that Émer had repaired.
He extracted two bricks. “Come here, Imogene Katherine Reazley.”
“Please, call me Imie.” She offered him a small smile. “It’s what my friend calls me. And what is or are the
He gave her a small bow. “Lady Imie, the Attiyq is our God. He is holy, merciful and fair. He commands that the Maúl must care for the ill. I belong to the Maúl clan; you have no worries. See the large hole? We discovered it a few days ago when the guards put us in this cell. We found a loose brick, which led to a small tunnel. The previous prisoners must have dug it. We think it leads into the woods behind the prison, although we are not certain.”
She peeked into the black hole. “How did they know about the tunnel?”
He shrugged. “King Broden made many tunnels which lie beneath the land. His soldiers used those years ago during the war with the Southern Lands. The prisoners may have known of them, and dug into it. They must have worked on it for a long time, but I do not know. The guards executed them before they could use it.”
“Why didn’t you guys use it earlier?” she asked.
Émer gave her a tight smile. “We have been in this cell for a few days; tomorrow is our day of execution. We must leave tonight.”
“How do you know it’s safe? And how did you find it? And where’s the dirt?”
“She sounds like my sister,” Émer said in his native tongue.
“My Moji, I will let you answer this one.”
Conell gave his captain a wry look and checked off the answers on his fingers. “Émer found a loose brick. The dirt lies in the main tunnel. And if you would prefer Ruárc’s company…” He raised his hands and shrugged.
She shook her head; a small withered leaf floated to the ground. “No, of course not. But how do you know which way to go?”
“You ask many questions for one who wishes to leave, Chuoha. We do not know, but as I said, we will leave you with
Ruárc and Toál if you choose.”
“No, I’ll go. I’ll do what you want.”
“We leave tonight.” Émer replaced the brick and stuffed dirt between the cracks. “Tomorrow the prince turns eighteen and it is also our execution date. We have no choice.”
The girl looked back at the brick wall, then to the door. She bit her lip and avoided Conell’s eyes.
Connell thought her words rang true regarding her innocence, but maybe he had stumbled into one of the queen’s many snares and their lives would end before the sun rose. Paranoia teased him. Voices that only he heard whispered in the hallways. “Traitor, murderer! How can you lead others when you betrayed so many?”
“The guards will check each cell before retiring for the night.” Conell checked the hall.
Five boys and girls covered in blood gather hands and skipped in a circle. Their childlike voices sang of a traitorous prince who left others to die. The children plopped onto the ground and disappeared into the floor; their laughter echoed along the corridor. The haunting past continued to torment him.
Conell grabbed the blanket from the hay pile, shook it out and laid it over Frigg. “We will wait until the last sentry call to leave this hell,” Conell said roughly. “The darkness will shield us. Betray me, woman, and you will rot in the forest.”
She nodded, but kept her gaze on the floor.
Émer led her to the bench and handed her a plate filled with bread, fruits, a slab of beef and vegetables. “Here, eat.”
Her stomach rumbled and she picked at the food. “How are you able to get this?”
The captain grinned. “The witch feeds us better than the other prisoners in hopes of them killing us before she can. The Moji is wise although I question his decisions. I believe we should feed others, while he has commanded us to eat, and to train our minds and bodies for this day. You must eat if you are to travel.”
“Thank you.” She studied the food on the plate. “Oh, please don’t tell me the bugs and rats were also picking at your food.”
Émer grinned. “No, My Lady, I keep them far from our food. Although the rats are quite tasty.”
He laughed. “I only poke you with a sword, My Lady.”
“My Prince.” Frigg licked his dry lips and his glazed eyes struggled to focus on Conell. “I will hold you back. Leave me here.”
Conell wrinkled his brow and placed his hand on Frigg’s shoulder. “No, my friend, I will not leave you here to die amongst the wolves. If I must, I will carry you to Shes Cheez.”
Imogene cocked her head at Émer and mouthed, Shes Cheezse?
Émer grinned at her. “Mother’s Hills.” Conell frowned.
Her cheeks burned red and she looked away.
A hacking cough attacked Frigg. A deeper gray rushed over his face as he rose onto his hands and knees.
Imogene placed her hands on his waist and pushed his hair from his face. “Try to take deep breaths.”
He grasped her fingers as his lungs fought to expand.
“Now, let it out, slowly,” she said.
He released his breath and the coughing ceased. She laid him back onto the surface and brought the blanket up to his shoulders. His eyes fluttered closed.
The prince laid his hand on the young man’s arm. “Be strong, Frigg, by tomorrow we will be safe.”
But what of the girl? Either his decision would become his worst mistake or a great blessing. Of course, trusting Jezebel became his worst mistake, but would this be worse?