"Fates! What was that?" said James with a moan, as he sat bolt upright. "Oh bell tolls from the Pit! Probably something going off in my stupid, stinking head. Why sit up, anyway? There's not a thing I can ever see, even when I bump into it." He reached for the familiar itchy place on his scalp, which had just lately gotten gooey, and found it unexpectedly painful. He lay back with his hand over the spot to keep the filthy straws from poking it. "Mmmm! It throbs just lying down. Why, oh why doesn't Spitemorta just execute me...?"
"Mercy no, King James! Fates forbid it...!"
"Damn!" cried James with a wail, not knowing in the least whether he was delirious or whether some speaking something had gotten into his cell with him.
"Sire! Your eyes are mattered shut," said the young soldier, nodding at another to come forth with a torch, as he knelt to peer into James's face. "I'm Owain, I was..."
"Yes!" cried James as he accidentally broke into sobs. "You brought me that nice supper, didn't you! You're the one, right? You've got to be...!"
"Yes. I see you do have a light...I mean through my lids..."
"Well we had a delay, ye might say. We found one amongst us who was a stinker, a traitor, if ye know what I mean, a loyalist to the queen. We had to carry on very careful Hit took us a right smart number of days to be safe. Here sire, let me help you up."
"You've come for me then?"
"Why absolutely. I gave ye my word, sire."
"Certainly..." he said, breaking into sobs all over again. "Oh forgive me! I'm not acting like much of a sovereign..."
"Why, you've run clean out of hope, is what. Anybody would, slow as I am, if ye know what I mean, sire."
"I'm just so very, very grateful."
"Easy, Your Majesty...Here. Take his other arm, Llewyrch. He's right wobbledy.
"Well as I was saying, there was one amongst us who was a-spying for Spitemorta. She never did find out that he was, but he was fixing for to wheedle his way into her good graces, the best he could."
"He's as big a fool as I was," said James, trying to steady himself. "Spitemorta has no good graces."
"You're no fool sire, but she certainly has no good graces," said Owain as he and Llewyrch carefully helped James to the door. "Anyway, as I was a-saying, we caught him attempting to take her news of our plans to get you out of this dungeon. Well. We pinned him down last night and the varmint confessed everything. There's 'way more to the story than that , but..."
"What will keep him from going to her behind your backs if you already can't trust him?" said James.
"Oh he won't have a chance. Ol' Culwch (that's his name, by the way) won't be bothering a soul."
"You killed him?"
"Nay. Not yet. I guess you don't have your eyes open yet..."
"I haven't tried. They've felt like they had sand in them and I couldn't see anything anyway, so..."
"Well, we got Culwch standing right before ye, all blindfolded, gagged and tied up. There are five more of us here to keep him pointed the right way, and we're going to make him nice and comfortable in your old cell. Won't take but a minute."
James heard some scuffling and a muffled yell before the groan of hinges, a heavy bang and the rattle and jingle of hasp, lock and keys behind him. He felt light and giddy, but there was no way he could stay on his feet. As his knees buckled, he felt Owain, Llewyrch and the others grab him up to haul him hurriedly down the corridor, up several flights of gritty stone steps and outside for a good way in the gloriously fresh air of early dawn. A rooster crowed. He could smell unicorn manure and hay. Somebody was cooking breakfast, maybe egg in a hole. He felt like singing. "I'll thank the Fates for the privilege of being allowed to enjoy this world, every single day," he thought.
"Oh, that's right good advice for each and every one of us, Your Majesty," said Owain with a grunt, right at his ear.
"My word! Have I lost track of when I'm speaking?"
"You're a-having your first joy in quite a spell, sire. I'd speak out too, and that's a fact."
At last they carefully stepped through a narrow door with him into some other building. They set him down. "Here sire." said Owain as he carefully took James's hand and put his fingertips into some warm water. "What do you think of that? If that's about right, we'll get those filthy rags off you and Pryderi here will give ye a proper bath. He's a barber and a healer, and he's right good."
"Oh, it's perfect..."
"Now, there ain't no women around sire," said Llewyrch. "Let's get your shirt."
Soon James was in bath water up to his chin. "Do you object to Elf medicine, Your Majesty?" said Pryderi as he carefully examined James's head.
"Not in the least. It was Spitemorta who tried to pin the sukere burning on the Elves, not I."
"Well I have something that'll put you right quicker than anything I know of, but it's the bitterest thing you'll ever have in your mouth. You need to chew it up real fine and swallow every bit," said Pryderi as he put a black twist of leaves to James's lips.
"Mercy! I'll say!" said James after a couple of thoughtful chews. "It makes my tongue and mouth feel like old dry wood."
"Oh, it's just got started, sire. Just keep a-chewing. Try not to bite your tongue. It's called aquilaria. It's very difficult to come by. My grandfather found out about it from an Elf called Talamh Coille Graham, right before he was murdered by a witch known to the Elves as Bailitheoir Cailli. Ever hear of her?"
"I'm afraid so. She was Spitemorta's real mother. I had no idea when I married her."
"My word!" said Pryderi, falling silent for a time before resuming: "Well, the Elves's name for aquilaria is sláinte ollmhór. How's it doing?"
"Makes wormwood seem like something sweet. You're sure that I'm not turning into some kind of stump?"
"You don't have to worry about that, but I'm going to have to cut your hair. It's nothing but a filthy mat of snarls and nits. Now before I do, lay your head back here so that I can put a poultice of aquilaria, eyebright, goldenseal root, rue and fennel on your eyes. When I get your hair cut, I'm going to put burdock root and dandelion root on this awful festered sore on your head. If it doesn't dry up in a few days, someone will have to put a hot iron to it."
After a while, James found himself dressed in fresh plain wool and linen clothes, and able to partly open one eye as he sat in a chair, pressing a poultice against his face. "Do I smell food?" he said as he took down the sopping wet muslin and tried to use his eyes.
"The board is set for you in the next room," said Owain as he peered into his face. "Can you see to get there, or do you need help?"
"Let me try," he said as he stood and slowly shuffled to the next room, navigating with the flaming red slit of one eye. He paused as Llewyrch drew back his chair. "My! This is wonderful!" He took his place at the head of a sumptuous table of plain fare: roast chickens, cabbage and carrots, buttered squash, hot brown bread and heaping saucers of cottage cheese and honey. A dainty old lady whisked up and poured him a cup o' tea. "My word! Each of you, please, please have a seat and eat with me. And please don't be so formal. You will always be my friends." He spread wide his arms and bowed his head.
Never had a meal tasted so heavenly to James. At last he wiped his mouth and sat back. Just as he picked up his poultice to daub his eyes again, in came the little old lady with a steaming hot apple pie. She set it down before him and cut him a big piece. Suddenly he grabbed her by the waist and gave her a squeeze as tears ran down his cheeks. "My wonderful, wonderful friends!" he said.
"We are right honored to serve you, Your Majesty," said Owain.
"I am indeed grateful beyond anything I'm capable of putting into words," said James, "but you all are taking an unbelievable risk. The longer I'm here, the more peril you'll be in. I should be getting away immediately, but I've no idea how that would even be possible with Spitemorta and Demonica and their spies everywhere."
"This be the perfect time, sire," said Owain as he shared a look with Pryderi. "They've got all their attention on the birth of the new babe... Oh my stars! I apologize, sire! We neglected to tell ye that your queen bore a baby girl."
"Wasn't there another child?"
"There certainly was," said Owain with an anxious glance each way, "but he was stillborn, much as I hate bearing you such news. And worse yet, Spitemorta was so blithering furious over it all that she up and killed the midwife and all the attending help cleaning up the birth."
By now James had both eyes open.
"They keep saying she used some kind of witch's power to stop all their hearts," said Llewyrch. "And lots of folks reckon that she did indeed do it from different things people have seen. Do you suppose she actually did, sire?"
"Oh very possibly. Did you hear me tell Pryderi that she is Bailitheor Cailli's own daughter? Brutelee and Bee secretly adopted her."
"Well, we're right sorry we had to be the ones to tell ye, Your Majesty," said Owain. "But now, that's a piece of news about Spitemorta's dam."
"I appreciate your courage," said James.
"Thank you, sire," said Owain. "Anyway, we figure tonight's the night to get ye out of here. The servants think Spitemorta will be laid up for at least a week, and not only that, Demonica seems to have quite vanished, and no one has the slightest idea where she's gone off to."
"Then tonight's the night," said James. "But I'll say this: you need to keep a right sharp eye out for Demonica every single moment, because she reappears just as suddenly as she vanishes."
"We've heard the like," said Owain with a solemn nod. "We'll be as careful as we can be. And if ye don't mind my saying so sire, nobody's ever seen you with a beard. Maybe you should keep it for a while."
"Suits me, my dear fellows," said James as he stretched wide a bushy red-eyed grin.
On the eve of Queen Spitemorta's campaign to take over the world, King James is caught by her and her grandmother Demonica, tortured and imprisoned in the fetid blackness of Castle Goll's dungeon. He and his rescuers flee into the Gollmore countryside to join the Elves in their flight to the Wilderlands in Chapter 19 of The Burgeoning.
Have you ever experienced sudden hope after all was lost? Please tell us about it.
Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps