Monday, January 31, 2011
Two dusty thrones sat in the stale great all, untouched by human hands for over a decade. Catalena could scarcely make out their silhouettes despite the roaring fire in the enormous fireplace, flames barely illuminating a small portion of the grand room. What was unmistakable as the guards brought her in was the prince sitting at a table by the fire, the chess game before him and a rough wooden block stained ebony with time and blood several feet away. "I was eager to finish our game until I discovered something quite disappointing," the prince announced playfully as he leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together. Catalena carefully approached the table to get a better look at the board in order to ascertain his meaning. It took but a moment to see, the onyx pieces had the ivory king cornered in checkmate. "What a pity to have come so far only to fail in the end." Prince Dragos paused for a moment, his gaze flickering around the familiar room he had not seen since his parents' funeral. "This hall had borne witness to many things, served many purposes over the centuries. Coronations, knightings, funerals...executions." The prince gave a subtle wave of his hand and a burly guard snatched Catalena, forcing her to kneel before the wooden block. A wave of terror consumed her as she faced the place where countless others breathed their last, their lives ended under the hangman's blade. Her beleaguered brain was having difficulty focusing through the horror, hunger and fatigue, but something was not right. "Wait! The game is not over, Prince Dragos. You cheated." A brief glimmer passed behind the prince's eyes as he observed the filthy yet determined face confronting him, the guard who was to be her executioner standing behind her, ready to strike. "That is a dangerous accusation to make, Catalena." "It is the truth. I can prove it." The prince nodded to the guard who allowed the young woman to scramble to her feet. Catalena swiftly approached the table and studied the board, returning the ebony bishop placing her king in checkmate back to the square where it had been when they halted the game nearly a week ago. "There. That is how we left it. If I lose, then so be it, but you must give me the opportunity to defend myself. I will not allow you to win through trickery and deceit." The prince smiles as he motioned to the seat opposite which Catalena quickly occupied. He felt little emotion towards others as time went on, but now the warm sensation of admiration rose within him. No matter the outcome, she would fight to the last. "I truly did not believe you were wise enough to discover my little deception. You have reopened the contest, but it was I who will raise the stakes." The door nearest them burst open and Catalena stared wide-eyed as the guards ushered her father into the room. They kept a firm hold on the muscled blacksmith to prevent him from rushing to his distressed child, making it clear there was to be no contact between them for the time being. "Father...," she gasped. "You play for more than your life, Catalena. Now you place for your father's as well. This is the final battle of wits between us. Fail, and your entire family will be destroyed." Catalena wanted to run to her father and throw her around around him, but she know that was impossible. She did the only thing she could, turning to study the chess board, her heart thundering under her ribs. Their lives hung in the balance, contingent on her next move. She had no choice but to best the angry prince at his own game.
Monday, January 24, 2011
The prince sat alone in the library watching the embers flicker as they breathed their last upon the hearth. The few remaining servants and guards had grown accustomed to fulfilling their duties in silence, giving the young monarch a wide berth, interacting as little as possible. Tonight, the old servant woman felt compelled to break this habit knowing full well what it may cost her. "I must speak with you, Sire," she announced with firmness of resolve. "Go away. There is nothing you have to say which I need to hear." "On the contrary, it has been far too long since I spoke my mind. In that respect, I have done you a disservice." Prince Dragos sat up straighter in the chair and turned his head to appraise the old woman, dark eyes glittering. "You forget your place." "I am all too aware of my place, Majesty. I was at your side as you took your first step. It was I who tucked you in at night while your mother attended to affairs of state. I who nursed you back to health after the incident which caused the scar you carry. And it was I and the Vizier who were entrusted with your upbringing after the death of your parents." "Those are duties. They entitle you to nothing." "I have earned the right to speak," the old woman stated stoically. "What you are doing is wrong. You are destroying an innocent life because you fear your family's law...fear your family's curse." "There is no curse, merely ridiculous superstition." "The young prince I raised knows better. Every monarch must marry by your age. Neither throne in the great hall may stand empty." "I have heard this fairy tale since I was a boy. Without both king and queen, the kingdom will fall into chaos." "The curse promises none in your lineage will ever be fit to rule alone. There must be a partner who brings balance." "I attempted to follow my father's law. No suitable woman exists in the entire kingdom." "With all due respect, Majesty, we both know that to be a lie." Prince Dragos had no answer so he turned away, unable to hide his trepidation and hesitation from the woman who had been like a second mother. "You are the bravest and most foolhardy of young men, but there is one thing you fear. After your parents, you refuse to let anyone near you. If you care for no one, there is no one to lose. If you put Catalena to death, there will never be another. You will live out the remainder of your days alone. Your heart will remain safe in the lead box in which you preserve it, but at what cost to your subjects? At what cost to yourself? All of us have our duties, Prince Dragos. It is time you performed yours. Do not leave your future queen sitting in the dungeon much longer."
Monday, January 17, 2011
Catalena rocked back and forth, singing to herself, hands clamped over her ears. Somewhere in the gloom the monstrous wolf howled, raging against his confinement. It was everything she could do to drown out the horrid noise knowing she would likely run mad if forced to endure it. The kind old servant woman appeared with a tray of food the first day and bandaged her wounded arm, but the injury ached. Time was a meaningless concept within these confines, trapped like an animal in the dark, cold and alone. The cruel injustice of her situation stung like a thorn. This was a game where the rules changed at the whim of the prince without regard for those around him. This was a game she was destined to lose. A sliver of pale light and the sound of footsteps alerted her to the disruption of her solitude. All she could do was glare in bitter animosity at the figure of the prince on the opposite side of the bars, flickering torch in hand. "No words of reproach, Catalena?" "What good would it do? It will not alter your decision," she retorted with disdain. "You attacked me." "How was I to know it was you? You placed me in an impossible situation. What do you gain by killing me?" His face remained the superior, expressionless mask she was accustomed to, never once wavering. He felt no compulsion to provide her an answer. "I took the liberty of informing your father of your fate. He begged me for your life. He offered his instead." Catalena choked back a rush of tears at the notion of her grief-stricken father, forced to lose his beloved wife and now his only child. "I would never allow that. I was my decision to come here, my mistake. I will bear the punishment for my misjudgment." "Rarely do people pass up the opportunity to save themselves." She refused to answer him having made her point perfectly clear. Even in the gloom, the prince was not ignorant of her anger as it burned behind her eyes brighter than the torch he carried. "You did not always despise me, Catalena. You told me there was nothing to fear, no monster did you see. How fickle you are. How quickly your opinion changed." "Despite your desire to portray otherwise, you are no monster. Nevertheless, you have a spiteful heart. I should have seen it from the beginning." "Our game is not yet finished. You promised you would play til the end." "I have been playing your game from the moment I arrived at the palace. I refuse to humor you anymore." The prince stepped closer, a smile briefly flickering across his visage. "It would be a shame for you to sulk in your cell awaiting execution. You have come so far, so close to besting me. Finish the game, Catalena. Lose, and you will be no worse off than you are at present. Win, and I will spare your life."
Monday, January 10, 2011
Lady Vivian deeply inhaled the cleansing air as she and Catalena strolled through the forest surrounding the castle. Today was the first time they were allowed beyond the castle walls. They were warned to remain close to the palace, a warning Lady Vivian heeded after their unfortunate experience in the dungeon. Three nights passed since Catalena left her chess match with the prince unfinished. A strange part of her was unhappy with this situation although she could not begin to discern the reason. The memory of those enigmatic onyx eyes haunted her. There was little doubt Prince Dragos lived in a world of treacherous secrets, a world where she would do well to tread carefully. "Do you hear something?" Lady Vivian queried as she rose, freshly picked flowers in hand. Catalena shifted her focus from her thoughts to the world around her, the unmistakable sound of hoof beats drawing closer. "Perhaps one of the guards out for a ride," she suggested, unaware of how mistaken her supposition was. A coal black stallion crashed through the trees barely five yards from where the astonished women stood. Both horse and rider were silent as a tomb, the mysterious knight dressed all in black, a helmet covering his face. Without warning, the rider spurred his horse, charging at them, unsheathed sword in hand. Catalena shoved herself and Vivian into the shrubbery, out of the way of their attacker, but his malicious intention towards them was abundantly clear. Catalena had been quick, but not quick enough to avoid his blade which nicked her arm leaving a painful, bloody gash in its wake. Catalena warned her companion to remain on the ground and out of sight while she grabbed a thick branch which had fallen from a nearby oak. The rider turned his horse, preparing for another assault as Catalena stepped onto the path. The branch was nearly as tall as she, and she held it upright like a staff, fearlessly waiting in the open. The rider paused, examining her, before charging at full gallop. Catalena held her ground. The earth shook with the thud of hooves, the metal of the blade winking in the sunlight as it swung in a dangerous arc. At the last possible moment, she stepped out of the path of the charging beast and angled the branch like a javelin, striking the rider across the chest. The knight tumbled from his horse to the ground, sword flying from his grasp. Catalena wasted no time, furious at the attempt on her life. She heard the rider gasping for air as she pinned him to the dirt. A knife was sheathed on his belt and she snatched it having learned from a young age although men were stronger, a weapon in her possession evened the playing field. Without contemplating her actions in her rage, she ripped off the helmet, eager to expose the face of the coward who dared attack unarmed women. The shimmering onyx eyes which greeted her took her completely by surprise as she came face to face with Prince Dragos. He subtly smirked at her, either in admiration or irritation she could not tell. The royal guards appeared from nowhere and dragged her off him before she had a chance to remove herself. The prince got to his feet, retrieving his knife the guards took from her grasp. Catalena said not a word, unable to understand what transpired and for what purpose. "What would you like us to do with her, my lord?" a guard asked, waiting for an order so he could appropriately respond to the strange situation. "She goes to the dungeon. The punishment for attacking a member of the royal family is death," Prince Dragos responded, mercilessly sealing her fate.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Empty though the lonely castle was during waking hours, it was a veritable hive of activity as the sun dipped below the horizon. Creaks and clatters normally muffled by light and life were granted free rein by moonlight. Spirits roamed the halls where once knights walked and children played, taking ownership of what had been theirs in life since there was no one left in the stone confines to quiet them. Catalena had grown accustomed to these noises, finding she was able to block them out in favor of a brief, fitful night's rest. So adept at ignoring every out of place scuttle and moan, she missed the soft sound of a key turning in the lock. The guards dragged her from her warm repose and hurried her along, the frigid air seeping through her night dress and bare feet. Her mind foggy in sleep, she was unaware of where they were taking her until they came to a familiar sight--the door to the library. The guards shoved her in, leaving her alone in the room with an unexpected companion. Prince Dragos sat at the table with the chess set before him, motioning for her to take the chair opposite. Catalena rapidly complied. The roaring fire in the fireplace at her back warmed her bones, but she was barely aware of anything except the way the light shimmered off the prince's onyx eyes, setting them aglow. "You should never begin a game unless you intend to finish it," Prince Dragos spoke, his smoky baritone unwavering. "If it pleases you to play, I intend to finish," Catalena responded, finally tearing her vision from his mesmerizing gaze. "Then do not divert your eyes like a chambermaid. Face me and play the game. It is your turn." Catalena defiantly raised her eyes once again before studying the board, a black pawn moved one space forward. Catalena and Prince Dragos continued the game for some time in silence before Catalena summoned the courage to ask the question gnawing at the edge of her consciousness. "Did you release the wolf in the dungeon?" The prince stared at her for a moment, the disdaining rise of his eyebrow wrinkling the scar. "Yes." "Why would you have done such a horrid thing?" she asked, moving her bishop on the offensive. "It was not I who ignored the warning. Some places are forbidden for good reason," he answered, countering her with his knight. "Sometimes places are forbidden because people are too frightened to let others in. Frightened of what they might witness." Prince Dragos paused, his hand in midair about to pick up a piece. "You have experienced firsthand many of the creatures which dwell in this dark place, Catalena. Tell me, are you frightened?" Catalena swallowed hard, carefully formulating her response as the prince settled back in his chair, waiting for her answer. "What lives in the dungeon is a monster and monsters are meant to scare us. Yes, I was frightened then, as I was frightened by the ghosts the first night. I am not frightened now." A full moment of silence passed between them before the prince stopped the game for the night, summoning the guards to escort her back to her room. Catalena did not know what she had said or done wrong. It plagued her as she fought to return to a dreamless sleep. Prince Dragos remained in the library studying the chess board, her answer echoing in his head long after the sun rose and the fire died.