The King’s sergeant-of-arms, Calen, half dragging and half carrying Maud, burst through the tent entry, swearing at the sentry to leave them. Maud fell into the pile of cushions, trying to cradle her left arm, her hand wrapped in what looked like a bloody rag.
She screamed in pain when she landed with a thud, but it was obvious to her son, Duncan, and her friend, Agatha, it was all an act. Lying back on the cushions, Maud removed the wrappings to show Duncan and Agatha that her hand and arm were unharmed.
Duncan brought out a bundle of clean rags and began re-wrapping her hand, hiding the fact she was uninjured. She had to make King Rája think Calen had enacted the punished he ordered.
While the boy worked, Calen sat with Agatha in silence. After a long moment, she reached over and took his hand, and whispered, “thank you.”
He place his larger hand over hers, gently squeezing her fingers. “It is I who should thank you,” he said.
“I thought I would die in the catacombs, losing my mind before losing my breath.” He was back in the tunnels, reliving his encounter with the spirits haunting the dark catacombs. “Their ancient mutterings kept me confused and lost. I couldn’t tell up from down, night from day, what was real and what was an illusion. It was as if all time was suspended. You interceded for me, didn’t you?”
Agatha nodded in assent, remembering how she escaped her wedding to the king, going into the tunnels under Rája’s castle. She took her chances with the spirits, believing losing her mind was far better than losing her soul to the King’s cruelty. Instead, the spirits led her to freedom, her mind and humanity intact.
Calen and Rája followed her, expecting to bring her back for the royal nuptials. Only, the spirits imprisoned the King, and released the sergeant-at-arms after toying with him for several days.
Once the King finally stumbled out from the catacombs, his descent into madness was complete.
“At night, I sometimes hear their voices,” Calen said. “I can’t make out the words, but their sibilant whispers will not leave me in peace.”
Agatha could see how haunted he was still, and wanted to help him.
“Their intended victim was always Rája,” she said. “They had to be sure where your alliances fell. The voices you hear can be quieted. I can help you.”
He looked at the young woman, studying her countenance. He searched for the tell-tale signs of madness he had come to know so well in King Raja’s service.
“You hear them too,” he finally said.
“I do,” she said, and softly laughed. “I have grown accustomed to their nonsense.”
‘How can you find humor in what we went through?” Calen felt fear bubbling up, questioning if she was as mad as the King, only better at hiding it.”
“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,” she said. “The spirits aren’t evil. They are more mischievous, than maleficent. You only have to give them what they want, and they will leave you alone.”
“What do they want?” Calen waited, knowing her answer would tell him if she lost her wits in the tunnels as Rája had.
“They want you to listen,” she said. “They have the same desire that we have – to bring King Rája to ruin. If we listen, they will tell us how to do that.”
Maud and Duncan had joined them, Maud’s hand bandaged to appear as if Calen broke her fingers as the King ordered. The subterfuge was necessary to placate the mad royal, and protect the queen from real harm.
“The spirits led Agatha to freedom once before,” Maud said. “They did not harm her.”
Agatha understood Calen’s reluctance.
“You are wary,” she said. “The spirits were not kind to you, and you carry those memories and scars every day. Yet, you are stronger and more cunning today because of what you endured.”
Calen looked to Maud, then Duncan and finally back to Agatha.
“I’m a soldier,” he said. “Trust is a dangerous thing.”
“Trust is all we have,” Agatha said.