menu Menu
Chapter 71
By Goth Kitty Lady Posted in Story on 28 March 2023 3250 words
Chapter 72 Previous Chapter 70 Next
Previous Chapter Story Index Page Next Chapter

In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 71

The next morning the Fearless Seven rose early, left their ship and made their way to the castle, which sat just a little past the far end of town. The streets were not busy the way they likely would have been before, but there were people making repairs to damaged houses and shops and a few of these stopped their work to watch the seven men stride past.

The Castle of Mendekua was on the small side, a squat tower braced by a pair of slate-roofed windowless buttresses and surrounded by a stone wall that stood just half again as high a tall man. There was no guard at the gate and no one came when they called out, so Noki used his tools to get the lock open and the Fearless Seven let themselves in. The green area between wall and tower was a very plain, formal space with trimmed bushes and slender trees growing within neat stone rings, split by a slate walk which ran straight to the tower and then branched off to wrap around its base. There was no mess or ruin here such as could be found in the streets beyond the wall, just an air of cold abandonment. They stopped before the imposingly large doors, which when tried appeared to have been barred from the inside. “Are you all thinking what I’m thinking?” Merlin wanted to know.

“That they locked themselves inside?” Jack responded. “Yes, absolutely. But I do not believe this was the same choice that was made on Odinson.”

“No, it’s not,” Arthur agreed, frowning at the pristine grounds. “From what the people in town were sayin’ last night, it sounded like Queen Petra had her guards refusin’ entry to everyone even before things got bad.”

“Yes, and she only let the guards out to kill anyone who might be infected, after which only the guards were allowed back in.” Pino was frowning as well. “There is no one on watch and no one at the windows, the same as it was yesterday. Should we just go in?”

“We might as well.” Merlin poked the doors with a tendril of magic, then shook his head. “I’d have to blow these into splinters to get us in this way. Let’s see if the kitchen entrance would be easier.”

The kitchen entrance, all the way around the back of the tower, had an equally sturdy door that was not barred against intruders, but only because someone had apparently used it to get out and then hadn’t come back. Whoever it was also seemed to have packed up most everything that had been in the kitchen to take with them, far more than a single person or even two could have carried, and had either locked or blocked all of the interior doors leading into the kitchen from the rest of the castle. “They were taking the food for those in the town, I would expect,” Hans said, examining the near-empty shelves, cupboards and storeroom with a knowledgeable eye. “But it would have been the cook who removed everything else, not wanting to leave the tools of their trade behind. So they did not expect to be returning at all, ever…Kio, come with me.”

He darted back out the kitchen door, Kio following in his wake, and a few minutes later they came back looking grimly pleased. “They escaped the grounds without any trouble, and this kitchen has had a slow leak for far longer than the shadow-taint has been here,” Kio said. “There are some cleverly camouflaged bolts in the wall that are arranged to to facilitate the use of a pulley.”

“The bolts are polished from wear, and a path coming from the town winds around trees and bushes so that it cannot be easily seen from the tower windows,” Hans added. “So either the cook was making money on the side by selling things which were in surplus, or they were giving out what was left from the queen’s and the guards’ meals to those who needed food but could not afford it. Possibly both.” He scowled. “It is a bad sign, to find a situation like this in a royal kitchen. There may have been a guard helping them in the past, or even just turning a blind eye, but at the last whoever was still here fled in fear of something worse than discovery or even the sickness—they were willing to risk leaving the safety of the castle walls while loaded down with heavy burdens to take refuge in a town besieged by a whole pack of the tainted.”

Pino was nodding. “That makes sense, but we still have to go find whoever or whatever remained here. Which door should we choose?” Hans immediately pointed to one. “You are seeing something I do not, I take it.”

“The mark is there if you know what to look for.” Hans helped Arthur move the heavy table away from the door he’d indicated, then traced what at first glance appeared to be just an oddly-shaped dent in the wood. “Do you see it now, the shape of a scepter? This marks a passage which leads to the area of the throne room. Had it been a crown, it would have indicated a servants’ entrance into the royal wing.”

Behind the door was a steep, narrow stairwell, and once two discarded lamps had been lit and Merlin had called up a mage-light they could see nothing but clean, empty stone steps. Merlin went first anyway, not knowing what they might find higher up…but what they found was just another locked door, and no sounds could be heard from the other side. He started to knock and then thought better of it, instead sending a small bolt of magic zipping through the keyhole into the room beyond. Nothing happened. Noki once again used his tools, and the door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges to let their lights push back the darkness shrouding the throne room of Queen Petra of Mendekua. Who was there, slumped over on the throne which sat like a quiet island in the center of a violent mess of puddled blood and broken bodies. “They killed each other,” Arthur observed as he and the others moved out into the room. “It looks like they all died by the sword, not the shadows.”

“This one was infected,” Jack pointed out, indicating a body which had been all but decapitated. “There is blood around his mouth, he must have bitten someone. After they were locked in, perhaps.”

Hans shook his head. “But they were not—a kitchen passage such as the one we just used is almost always kept locked on its royal end, as a security measure, but the captain of the guard would also have had that key and the door leading from this room into the antechamber has been barred from the inside. The guards locked themselves in, with the queen, possibly even before the cook took the alarm and made certain no one could get into the kitchen from the throne room.” He examined the large formal doors and their heavy bar. “No blood save for some splatter. No one touched this once the fighting started, none of the bodies are even near it.”

Arthur indicated the door they had just come through. “No blood on that one either. So they didn’t even try to get out.”

“They may not have had a chance. This,” Jack waved a hand at the carnage, “looks to have happened very quickly.”

Merlin and Noki had ventured up onto the single-step dais to have a look at the queen. “Her neck is broken,” Noki announced. “But there is no blood on her clothing that I can see.”

“She’s wearing night-clothes with a robe thrown over the top.” Merlin went to one knee so he could look up into her face. “Oh.”

Noki looked too, then pushed up one loose sleeve of the fine velvet robe. “Ah, I thought so—you can still see the bruise. Trying to pull her along?”

Merlin sighed. “Or catching hold of her when she tried to break away from them.” He stood back up, pulling Noki back up with him. “It was probably an accident.”

“I could see that. And then he brought her in here and put her on the throne, perhaps thinking she had only fainted.” They had everyone’s attention now. “There is a hand-bruise on her arm,” Noki explained. “And a much larger, deeper one across her forehead. If I were to guess, one of the guards went to get her in the middle of the night, possibly fearing the castle was no longer secure. She started to go with him—she put on a robe, stepped into soft shoes—but then for some reason changed her mind. He grabbed for her, caught her by the arm.”

“He was likely panicking,” Merlin continued. “He dragged her into his hold, threw her over his shoulder so he could run. And that was probably when her head connected with something that made it snap back on her neck.”

Pino came to have a look for himself, and rose back to his feet frowning. “The stone lintel of a door, most likely—it dented the front of her skull even as the force of the impact broke her neck. She would have died instantly.” He took a step back, then moved his brother and Merlin down off the dais. “We will need to gather whatever is left of this kingdom’s higher-ranked citizens and bring them here, so they can judge what happened with their own eyes. We simply do not know enough about this queen or her guards to be certain of anything except for the very obvious.”

“True, all we know is that she was definitely dead before her guards were, and one of them had been hiding a bite,” Merlin agreed. “I wonder if the kitchen staff fled because they saw or heard whatever was going on that night—Hans is right, it wasn’t like barring the servants’ entrance would keep anyone from leaving the throne room.”

“No, the blocked doors in the kitchens were to buy themselves time to escape.” Hans shook his head. “Perhaps I can find one of them, they would talk to me.”

“They would,” Kio agreed. “I will go with you for that.”

“After we search the rest of the castle,” Merlin said. “Although I suspect everyone who could got themselves out some time ago.”

“We can hope,” came from Pino. “We should start by making sure the way between here and the main entrance is clear, just in case.”

Arthur and Noki were already lifting the heavy bar away from the doors, which opened out into a small windowless antechamber that in turn opened into a stone-balustered hall from which a set of stairs curved down into darkness along one outer wall. “This was not a welcoming place,” Jack observed, holding up the lamp he was carrying to better see the single heraldic shield which hung facing the stairs; it was too large to be anything but decorative, painted half red and half white, and centered on it was a tusked boar stattant guardant whose black eyes had been inlaid with chips of jet and glittered menacingly in the light. “Or perhaps the royal family was not fond of visitors?”

Merlin snorted and headed down the stairs, mage light in one hand and sword in the other. “I can see that working to intimidate people—he’d seem to be looking you right in the eye as you came up the stairs. We ought to do that in the Black Castle.”

“The Black Castle is plenty intimidatin’ already,” Arthur said. “But if you really want to scare people, hang up that tapestry I found.”

“No, do not hang that up,” Hans countered immediately. “Not unless you want your visitors to run screaming back down the mountain before they ever make it to the throne room.”

“Snow thinks the horse is cute!”

“Merlin, the horse has a dragon’s muzzle, clawed feet, and wings like a bird,” Pino pointed out dryly. “And I still say those things on the ground in front of it were meant to be something’s entrails. I do not know what the artist was attempting to depict, but whatever it was did not need to be depicted and I blame your wife’s family’s strange ideas about art for the fact that it was.” Something on the wall caught his eye. “Hmm, there is a relief of the boar carved into some of these stones. I wonder if he is on the royal seal as well?”

“I would not be surprised,” Kio said, reaching up to run his fingers across one of the carvings as he passed it. “He is not on their coins, though.”

“There is a broken arrow under one of his hooves on the shield,” came from Jack. “The arrow is on their coins, likely because it was easier to make a stamp for.”

The stairs went straight down to the slate floor of the entrance hall, and it took Arthur, Merlin, Jack and Pino to get the huge bar off the main doors. Which were thick and heavy and banded with iron, and had iron stops which fitted into holes in the floor to hold the doors either open or closed. The early morning light pouring in once they were opened illuminated an old but well-maintained tapestry that had the heraldic shield in the center with scenes of bloody battle all around it…and nothing else, not even a bench to sit on. There weren’t that many rooms on the ground floor, and all of them were equally bare of warmth, color or comfort. The buttresses had apparently been reserved for the use of the guards, as each contained a small armory closet and a largish open room, one of which held a long wooden table with two long benches and the other which appeared to have been their barracks. In fact, it looked as though several of the guards had been roused from their beds in the middle of the night, leaving disordered bedclothes and a scatter of discarded garments strewn about the otherwise clean, orderly room. But nowhere was there any sign of why the alarm had been given.

Or at least there wasn’t until they went down into the lower level and found an infected woman who screamed and clawed at them through the barred window of the heavy door which separated the dungeon from a series of storage rooms. The key to this door was doubtless with one of the bodies in the throne room, so Merlin blasted the woman away from the window while Noki worked the lock, and then once they were inside and Pino’s sword had put an end to her they checked the rest of the dungeon and found it empty. The woman’s attire suggested she’d been a servant, possibly a kitchen maid. “The cook must have gathered the rest of the staff and fled into the night to escape the blades of the guards,” Kio speculated. “As they were known to kill anyone who was even suspected of being tainted.”

“We will still find and speak to him, if he survived,” Hans said. “But I say we should not speak of this to anyone else—the cook has no doubt told his own story already, one crafted to keep himself and his people safe. And I do not think anyone who comes down here will think to question it anyway, as they will be much more interested in the supplies which are stored across the way. There should be enough here to see the town well on its way to recovery.”

The well-stocked storeroom was at least one good piece of news they had for the people of Mendekua, but it turned out to be the only one. The queen did not appear to have been hoarding any of her kingdom’s wealth, but she had apparently been sharing her quarters with the captain of the guard—for quite some time, by the looks of things. The newly-chosen magistrate, a silver-haired man with a slight stoop to his shoulders who had introduced himself as Darvin Eggers, confirmed that the relationship had been suspected by many but never officially confirmed. “It was the law, you see, that no member of the royal family could marry into a common line,” he explained. “They’d gotten around it in the past by ‘discovering’ a royal ancestor no one had ever heard of to make a desired marriage happen, but I don’t believe Queen Petra knew that.”

“The same way she didn’t know that most of the people wouldn’t have cared if she’d changed that law, or even just broken it,” the portly, nervous guildmaster who was with him chimed in. “She was the last of her family, any heir is better than no heir. I don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

“The same thing we’ve been doing since her father died, Guildmaster,” Eggers told him. “It’s not speaking ill of the dead to tell the truth: Queen Petra did very little when it came to ‘ruling’, she was more of a figurehead for us than anything else.”

“Yes, but a figurehead with a royal seal to ratify our trade agreements,” the guildmaster snapped back. And then he flushed, running a hand down his face. “My apologies, I’m…I’ve been afraid of something like this happening for a quite some time.”

“Understandable,” Jack allowed. “But I would not give up hope just yet. Perhaps you will be able to ‘discover’ a distant cousin who can step into her place.”

Eggers’ eyes widened…and then he nodded slowly. “That is a possibility, yes. We’ll…do some research.”


There wasn’t much more for the Fearless Seven to do on Mendekua, although they pitched in to help distribute supplies and help here and there with repairs before returning to the Rescuer so they could prepare to leave with the dawn tide. Captain Roberts went for a stroll along the pier that evening and stopped by to have a chat with them, ostensibly to let them know how Mr. Taylor was doing although he was on board a bit too long for just that. He returned home in a visibly troubled state of mind, and once their boys were all in bed his wife brought him a steaming mug of toddy and then took a seat beside him to sip at her own. “They’re still leaving in the morning?”

“Yes, but not to go hunt down that tainted ship like I keep hearing people say—Prince Merlin told me that one is likely a drifting wreck right now, he thinks the shadows would have spread from those tainted casks and rotted her from the hull up.” He sighed. “I wish they were just heading off to rescue someone else, Mari, but they aren’t. No, their plan is to try to stop the shadows at their source. They’re heading for Caray.”

Previous Chapter Story Index Page Next Chapter

fanfiction In the Land of Stories Old

Previous Next

Have something to add?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.