Barris was dead.
Orteg had awoken one morning to see what remained of the man who had orchestrated the murder of Orteg’s children laying immobile with his usual coating of insects. He had gotten used to the inexorable rising and falling of the hollow wood sitting atop Barris’ chest and its sudden stillness drew his eye immediately.
Every day Orteg had been given a bladder of water and some days he was given stale or moldy bread which he wolfed down before they could change their minds and remove the crusts. He knew that with Barris dead, they must come for him today; now that Barris was dead, the torture of watching the man be infested and rot from the inside was over. But what would become of him? Would the wizard prove merciful? What would he have to gain by setting Orteg free?
The answer to which he kept inexorably returning was: nothing.
Orteg’s black musings were interrupted by the sound of rushing wind, though the trees and grass were still. A piercing light split the early morning air, causing Orteg to throw up his arm and turn away, cowering against the wall of his cage. The sound of the wind tapered off to nothing as the light faded, leaving absolute silence in its wake. Even the creatures of the swamp were silent.
“Orteg, son of Wendell. Attend me.”
The voice was female, rich, and cultured. Orteg’s eyes opened wide and he turned. The woman standing before him was tall and willowy, silver hair shining from simple braids. A white garment like a toga was wrapped around her from which seemed to emanate the same silvery light.
“Who–who are you?” Orteg asked, shaking.
“I am the fairy Liseem,” she said, a smile on her face. “I am come to release you from this captivity, that you may take your rightful place as king.”
Orteg blinked, his stomach spasming as it growled abruptly and the world spun around him. “I’m sorry, you’re who? What? I’ve finally started hallucinating, haven’t I?”
The fairy smiled and extended a finger. The door to the cage simply went away. One moment it was there, the next it had ceased to exist. Orteg gaped.
“Come, son of Wendell,” Liseem said, holding out her hand.
Orteg held his own hand out. Touching the fairy’s skin which was softer than anything he had ever experienced. She smelled like life. He smiled at her. “You’re beautiful,” he said.
She laughed. “Prepare yourself,” she said.
“For what?” Orteg never got the chance to ask. There was a tug at the hand the fairy held and the world around him blurred into dark nothingness. Wind roared in his ears and he got the sensation that there was nothing at all around him. He squeezed and felt Liseem’s hand. He tried to yell but before he could, he was standing in the forest beside Liseem with the castle’s towers visible through the trees.
“We have arrived,” Liseem said. “Observe yourself; you will find you are no longer weak from hunger and thirst.”
With a start, Orteg realized she was right. He was certainly hungry, but no longer felt as though he might pass out at any moment and, while he felt thirsty, he would not have sold his soul for a cup of water. “Where have we arrived?” he asked dumbly.
“Your birthright,” Liseem said, gesturing toward the castle. “You have all you require. You only lack the christening of a true king.”
Orteg looked at her blankly. She smiled. “Kneel, son of Wendell.”
He did as she bade, bowing his head. She placed one cool hand on his head, sending chills down his spine.
“I christen you King Orteg Bluenote of the kingdom of Dandoich. May your reign be as long and happy as it is possible to be!”
A dazzling silver light shone from her hand, enveloping them both. Orteg’s eyes were squeezed tight shut as he heard the rushing of wind but felt nothing. As it died, he noticed that her hand was gone from his head. He opened his eyes a fraction and looked around him. He was alone in the forest, as though there had never been another soul.
He raised his eyes and took in the castle, still a great distance but near enough to taste. He recalled his hours there, the respect he had been shown, earned or not. He remembered Barris, the man’s bloated visage smirking at him, that same face half-eaten by vermin, pleading for water. He remembered his children being bundled into the castle by a patrol with as little care shown for their well-being as a sack of unwanted kittens. He remembered seeing those same bodies born out of the castle, toward the burying ground. Looking at his hands, those same appendages which had stolen the lives of his children, tears rose to his eyes. He clenched them, taking a deep breath, and began to move.
Agathas cowered in the corner of her cage, cold iron bars pressing into the naked folds of flesh she normally kept covered by her robes of state. Now, naked, dripping and shivering from the buckets of ice water that had been dumped on her, she watched Sir Antion manipulating himself beneath his trousers, breathing heavily as he stared at her. Another bucket of water sat beside him, this one steaming hot. Her eyes went from his flushed cheeks to the bucket and back in endless cycles.
Sir Antion grinned, thrusting his hips in her direction as he massaged himself. “You wet enough yet, Prefect? But you look cold. Shall I warm you?” He made as if to grab the handle of the bucket.
“NO!” she shrieked. Dropping to her knees, she laced her fingers together. “Please, Sir Antion, don’t burn me…don’t burn me…”
Antion dipped a finger into the bucket of water. Wincing, he pulled it out, waving his finger in the air to cool it. “Mighty hot water, this is,” he said with a grin. “Castle cooks had it boiling all morning. Wouldn’t you care for a little—”
The door banged open. Antion and Agathas both jumped, Antion spinning in place, his foot colliding with the bucket of hot water, sending a flood of scalding liquid cascading across the chamber. Antion scarcely felt it though, occupied as he was by the giant broadsword now protruding from his middle.
“For my family, you foul scum!” Orteg shrieked, pulling the broadsword clear of Antion’s stomach before running him through once again. The knight screamed, a gout of blood pouring from his mouth as he grabbed at the sword blade, slicing his fingers to the bone as he attempted to pull it out. Orteg pulled the sword from Antion’s belly once again, the latter falling to his knees as he stared down at the ragged holes in his stomach. He looked up just in time to see the massive broadsword blade swinging toward him.
Sir Antion’s head rolled across the wet floor, splashing in the cooling puddles of water before coming to rest against the cage containing Agathas. The head’s lips twitched into what could be construed as a grin. One eye winked at her once, then was still. Agathas screamed, curling up in the corner farthest from the severed head, unable to take her eyes from its glassy stare, terrified that it would move again.
“Silence!” roared Orteg, splashing across the floor to the cage. “By the gods, woman, silence your infernal tongue, before—”
“Someone hears the racket you are making and comes to investigate?”
Orteg spun as the door slammed shut. Zavier stood before it, his face a malevolent blank. Before Orteg could react, he felt all the strength draining from his limbs, like water from a pierced gourd. He sank to the ground, fighting to maintain his upright posture and helpless to do so. He gazed up at Zavier from the stone floor, filled with equal parts of hatred and dread.
“So,” Zavier said, “Now that you won’t be trying anything foolish, we can have a little chat before I am finally rid of you. How did you like my little arrangement for Barris? A friend in a far-off country told me about that method of disposal but I’d never had an opportunity to try it out for myself.”
Orteg’s stomach rolled as his mind flashed back, unbidden, to Barris, grinning with his face that was not a face and drooling as the insects infested him from the bottom up, continuing their life cycle relentlessly inside the body of the dying man. Zavier saw the look on Orteg’s face and smiled.
“Yes, I thought you would enjoy that. You know, Orteg, all you had to do was take the throne and do what I told you. Had you done that, you would have been the lord of the land with nothing to concern you but which wench you wish to service you. Instead, you allowed yourself to be manipulated by this piece of trash—” Zavier waved at Agathas who cringed as though he had struck her, “and her brother, leaving us where we find ourselves now.” Zavier sighed. “It didn’t have to be this way. You should never have listened to Barris.”
“Barris is… is dead?” Agathas whispered, her voice hoarse.
“Of course he is,” Zavier said, contempt dripping from his words. “The great fat lump was consumed by the smallest inhabitants of the swamp, with plenty of time to think about his actions, let me assure you. A big man like that probably won’t be fully claimed by the swamp for months…”
“Why, though?” Orteg asked angrily. “Why are you going to this effort?”
Zavier was still for a moment, staring at Orteg. “Do you have family, Orteg?”
“None, they have all been murdered!” Orteg spat from his position on the floor. Try as he might, he could still not move a muscle below the neck.
Zavier waved a hand, dismissing Orteg’s murdered family. “Family by blood, not a wife or your disgusting spawn.”
“Never,” Orteg said. “My mother died when I was very young and I had no siblings.”
“A lie you have espoused your entire life, without even knowing it,” Zavier said, a mad light in his eye. “You are the bastard son of the king. However, he was not the only one to seek solace outside of his holy union. King Wendell’s wife, the Queen Hespa, had her own child out of wedlock, with the wizard Sapius. Orteg, I am your half-brother. I am the queen’s son!”