Eyes of an Angel (Part one of two.)
"Now, Ellena, what did your grandmother tell you about playing in the swamp?" The voice that asked the question was soft and far from scolding. Every word that the young woman spoke seemed to be wrapped in love and tied with a smile. For some, such a caring tone would be reserved for only those dearest to them, but for Jessica it just came naturally. For her, every being - human or animal, living or dead - was precious.
That didn't make the child who sat before her any less nervous, the petite girl biting her lip and hanging her head forward so that her chestnut bangs partially hid her face. Far shorter than Jessica's own locks, they were also quite a bit darker and did an admirable job of casting the girl's face into sullen shadow. "She... she saids ta always make sure ta wash my hands afore I ate, 'cause I could get disee... dizel... I could get sick." Speaking more to the floor than to Jessica and struggling a bit with the wording her grandmother had used, the girl of only seven years - eight at most - couldn't help but feel a pang of loss at just the thought of her dear grams, who had stepped through the veil just one year past.
Jessica had never met the elder woman. She had perhaps seen her around the village, but they'd never spoken, at least not before that very day. In life, the girl's grandmother, Eileen, had shown Jessica no more love nor trust than any other member of their small community, but within the hour since Ellena's mother had brought her feverish daughter to Jessica for help, Eileen had told her numerous stories about the girl and all the mischief the curious child had gotten herself mixed up in throughout her few years. Neither Ellena nor her mother had ever given any names, it had been Eileen who'd provided them, along with the knowledge of how to cure the fever.
"But da says that they're just old wifeses tales."
Jessica grinned at the girl's mispronunciation, responding lightly even as she mixed herbs with her mortar and pestle. "Well, how do you think those wives got to be so old?" She stressed her use of the proper word, hoping to subtly correct the child. She waited long enough for Ellena to give a slight shrug before answering her own question. "By listening to good advice and growing in wisdom, of course."
She paused to pour the contents of her mortar into a small leather pouch of her own making, then set both of them down on the small oaken counter which served as her workbench. Picking the kettle up from its place atop the cast iron stove, she poured some of its contents into a wooden mug. The water was warm but not boiling, which was exactly how she wanted it. She'd actually put it on before the mother and daughter had even arrived, forewarned of their coming by Eileen, who'd explained both the problem and solution before the knock had even come at the door.
Jessica took two pinches of the herbal mix and dropped them into the half-full mug, then stirred it with a spoon before turning back to the girl. Jessica crouched down in front of her, then reached out a delicate hand to gently lift the child's head with a single finger beneath the chin. "Don't be sad, Ellena, your grandmother still watches over you and still loves you very much." She gave the girl a brilliant smile; one which the child couldn't help but return, albeit shyly. "Now drink up. It won't taste very good, but it will make you all better."
Ellena wasn't happy about the thought of drinking bad-tasting medicine, but what medicine actually tasted good, anyway? Taking the mug from Jessica's hand to hold it in both of her own, the girl made a face at murky mixture before letting out a heavy sigh. With her mother looking on in an amalgam of hope and suspicion, the child drank down the bitter tea. The face she'd made before draining the mug wasn't even a fraction of the one which followed it and Jessica broke out into a light laughter. "Pretty awful, isn't it?" She asked sympathetically as she took the mug back and set it on the table. "I can get you some juice to wash the taste away. Just let me-"
"That's quite alright." The mother cut in sharply, moving forward to take Ellena's arm in her hand and guide her up to stand. "We'll be on our way now. How much do I owe you?"
Jessica blinked, a little surprised by the sudden change of direction in the conversation, as well as the offer of money. She never really charged for her services. She grew her own fruits and vegetables on her small plot of land, sewed her own clothes and had few other needs to tend to. Money just wasn't really an issue to her; she helped people because it was the right thing to do. Still, the subject always seemed to come up with the villagers. "Oh... well, nothing, really. Just make sure she takes the medicine twice a day for the next two days. She should feel fine by tomorrow but make sure she takes all four doses. There will also be some left over in case you ever need it again."
"Thank you." The woman's tone held no gratitude despite the words, although there was a lot of relief. She was happy to know that her daughter would be fine but distrusting of the method; less so of the one who'd administered it. A few coins were set on the table, regardless of Jessica's objection, before she took the pouch full of herbs. The woman didn't want to feel like she was left owing Jessica anything, a sentiment shared among most of the villagers. They'd rather pay for a free service than be indebted to the local "witch".
Jessica nodded mutely, knowing that attempting to refuse the payment would only cause further problems. She'd long-since learned to accept their distrust as simple misunderstanding. She took no offense to it, she was just glad that she could help. Instead she simply trailed after the mother and daughter as they made their way to the door, if only to make sure the door was shut behind them.
It was while the mother had paused to open the door, however, that Ellena looked back over her shoulder, smiling brightly despite the bad taste lingering on her tongue. "Thanks! I like your hair!" It was a heartfelt gratitude, one that was for more than simply providing the herbal remedy, and a compliment of the most random variety - completely honest, but the kind that only the youngest at heart would blurt out. It warmed Jessica to her very core, yet she didn't even have time to respond before the mother had departed, dragging the child with her in haste.
Shutting the door, Jessica sighed softly, yet still smiled. It was saddening that so many in the village held misgivings towards her but one open heart was worth a hundred thousand that were closed. It was those few that ensured she had the strength to continue.
"Don't worry, child. They will learn one day. Much as I have." Even had anyone else still been in the room with her, the voice still would have gone unheard by any ears save her own. It was the voice of Eileen, the elderly woman's spirit lingering after her grand-daughter's departure. "Thank you ever so much."
The sincerity of her words were accepted with modesty from the young brunette, still in her nineteenth year yet already worldly in her wisdom, though she would surely disagree on that point. "All I did was mix the herbs as you told me. Without your knowledge..." Her voice trailed off, not really wanted to contemplate just how badly Ellena might have suffered in the illness.
"She might have died, yes. But my knowledge would have been useless if you weren't able to hear it, child, and also willing to act upon it." The older woman's form - virtually transparent yet simultaneously crystal clear to Jessica's eyes - shook her head slowly, sadly. "And to think that we called you 'the dark child' when all I can see in you now is the light. Wise I may have been, but also a fool. You have my deepest apologies, my dear."
"It's not your fault, you just didn't understand. I'm... different." Jessica sat down on the same chair which had been occupied by Ellena just a few minutes before, head hung in much the same way as the girl's had been. In Jessica's case, however, it was in bashfulness. "Besides, I never heard you say anything about me."
"And does that make it any less wrong?" Eilleen's question was rhetorical and Jessica left it unanswered. There was no need to voice what they both knew. "Now then, I must be off. Ellena may still be sick but the girl has a gift for getting into trouble as great as any I've ever seen!" Flashing a wry grin, the spirit-woman moved for the door herself, though she had no need to open it and simply passed through the wood as easily as she did air.
Left to herself, though never truly alone, Jessica stood and moved to the table to clean up. Around her were other spirits, of course, as they drifted and danced around her as they did each and every person, but they were ephemeral and quixotic in their nature. Animal spirits and elementals, entities which would often be dubbed "fae" by the villagers, they were ever entertaining, but not much for conversation. They were the "nothing" which cats chased through the grass and dogs barked at in the moonlight; they were the unseen hands which guided flocks of birds to form fluid, transient patterns in the sky before returning to the same perch from which they'd come and the source of the random giggles of a newborn babe.
They were everywhere, yet seen by none except for the very young. Animals seemed to retain their sensitivity to the ethereal beings, but humans quickly left them behind, letting rationale erase them from their sight. Perhaps, Jessica had to wonder, the reason she had retained such vision was simply because she had refused to let go of it. Her father had died in war when she was just a babe, yet he remained at her side, watching over her in her earlier years and offering advise as she grew. Nothing could convince her to let him go - he was her father and they loved each other dearly.
Her mother, like everyone else, tried to convince her that such ghosts were not real and just the workings of her imagination, at least at first. Yet Jessica knew things about her father that she could never have known, that only her mother herself could have told her. It didn't take long to convince her that Jessica's gift was real and to accept it as a boon. Others in the village were not so willing to accept.
Jessica was only just barely into her teenaged years when her mother was murdered, protecting her daughter against a man who had declared her to be a witch and demon-possessed. Killing her mother had been entirely accidental, but while the others in the village agreed with his sentiment he was still punished for the crime. It was a light sentence - only three years in prison - but he had felt honest guilt for his actions and had moved north to the capital with his family upon his release. Jessica herself never held any hate for the man, although her mother was not so kind. He had left Jessica an orphan and her mother's spirit refused to abandon her child.
For the next four and a half years Jessica was raised by a pair of ghosts, her parents reunited at last. They taught her how to cook and sew and take care of herself. They taught her the rudiments of herbalism, what her mother knew from keeping her child healthy and what her father knew from tending wounds on the battlefield. The older she grew the more spirits came to visit her, to share their tales and knowledge, to tell her the needs of others that they would not admit themselves. When she began giving healing salves to villagers both free of charge and without even being asked, they began to wonder and then to talk. They would use her salves and medicines, if only out of desperation, but any gratitude was quickly twisted into cynical wariness. They couldn't accept that she did it simply because she cared and they couldn't fathom the means by which she knew to do it in the first place.
Eventually, once she had reached womanhood, her parents finally let go of their earthly ties and moved on to the true afterlife. Their job had been completed at last and she happily bid them farewell as they departed. She missed them at times but knew they loved her still and knew that she would see them again when the time was right. Until then she had a great many other spirits to keep her company and share their knowledge. She was able to use that knowledge to help the other villagers and had even traveled to the neighbouring towns when the spirits asked it of her. She had a good life, a full one... and yet she knew that there was still something missing, though she couldn't have said what. There was still a thread which had yet to be woven into the tapestry of her life and she sensed - knew beyond a shadow of a doubt - that it would soon be revealed. She could never have imagined the form which that missing thread would take.
The skies were clear that next morning and with the summer sun already well on its way towards its zenith, Jessica had decided to venture out into the woods surrounding the village and collect some of the herbs which grew wild there. Her supply wasn't really that low and it normally would have been at least a few more days before she would've found it necessary to make the trek into the wilderness, but something told her that it needed to be done. Curious compulsion aside, she really couldn't have asked for a better day for it.
Dressed in typical garb for the pleasantly warm weather, she wore a lightweight skirt and blouse, both dyed a sky blue. It was one of her favourite hues as it matched her eyes, though she loved all of the colours of nature. The cooler colours were her preference when it came to clothing; reds, yellows and such tended to attract attention and were a little too bold to suit her, but blues, greens and browns made her feel more a part of the world around her. A wide-brimmed, straw hat served to keep the sun out of her eyes as well as help control the long brown locks of hair which danced on the morning breeze and a pair of simple, leather sandals completed her outfit. The woven-straw basket she carried, its scant weight hanging from her right forearm, was empty for the moment but it would be full to overflowing by the time she returned.
In truth her clothes were little different than that of anyone else in the village, yet still she stood out among them. Passing the various houses between her home and the forest, many paused in their daily tasks to watch her in silence, their hushed voices trading comments as soon as they thought her out of earshot. They underestimated her hearing, but she honestly wasn't bothered by it. They theorized that perhaps she was a witch but then... perhaps she was. If they believed a witch to be someone who spoke to the spirits, someone who could traverse the forest without disturbing the animals, then she would certainly fit the description. So long as they were at least willing to accept her medical help for their ailments she didn't really care what they called her.
Jessica could have found her way to the forest blind-folded and would've known the instant she was there. It wasn't the feel of the ground or the brush of vegetation against her skirt that was the giveaway, but rather the smell. The forest smelled more pure and primal than the village, even though they were practically bordering each other. Five steps into the woods and she stopped to take in a deep breath, letting the ancient power of the forest fill her. It was both intoxicating and soothing at the same time.
With a smile on her face, Jessica wandered deeper into the woods, pausing to examine any plant or moss that caught her eye. Even fungi was worth collecting for her medicines. Most of the villagers would surely scoff at the thought of toadstools or other growths being used for healing, but she'd learned their usefulness from the spirits and their value had been proven through success. Within half an hour her basket was three-quarters full and carried in her hand to prevent the handle from digging into the soft, lightly-tanned skin of her arm.
Around her the forest went on about its daily business; squirrels, rabbits and birds paying her no mind at all. It was as though she were as much a part of the wood as they themselves and they knew that she wouldn't harm them. The spiritual entities that danced among the ages-old trees - indeed, some of the intangible essences were parts of the trees themselves - paid more attention to her, but they did so politely. She giggled as one, appearing (for the moment) to be some sort of cross between a chipmunk and a hummingbird, hovered over her basket to inspect the contents before chirping and fluttering off. They were always curious of the activities of humans, finding that much of the time they made no sense, at least to the spirits.
It was perhaps five minutes later, as she knelt to inspect a plant to see if its roots were ready for harvesting, that she noticed something entirely unusual. The forest had gone silent. Not just on the physical plane, but on the spiritual as well. No birds sang, no animals chattered, no spirits danced around her. They all seemed to be frozen in time, with only the soft breeze and swaying branches at the treetops to prove it wasn't so. Still, the entire forest seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting.
Jessica stood, leaving her basket on the ground, and looked around in confusion. She immediately wished she hadn't, for no sooner had she stood than the tremendous sound of thunder rumbled through her, nearly deafening in its volume. Her body tingled, as though she had been standing right next to a bolt of lightning, and her heart began to beat more quickly. There was a power in the air unlike anything she'd ever felt before and it dropped her back to her knees. Hand coming to her chest as she tried to catch her breath, she was only vaguely aware that her hat had fallen off and lay on the ground beside her. Her eyes stared at the ground, her head spinning from the sheer power that washed over her, but a moment later it had cleared and suddenly she felt better than she ever had in her life. All because of a single touch.
The finger which hooked under her chin, lifting her gaze from the ground in much the same tender manner with which she had lifted Ellena's, was wrapped in a silken white fabric that was softer than anything she'd ever felt. The gentle, wonderful feeling which filled her at that simple touch, however, could not compare to the sight which greeted her raised vision. She had seen the majesty of the stag and power of the wolf. She'd seen the sun set and the moon rise. She'd seen stars fall from the sky and trees that reached up to touch it. She'd never seen anything so beautiful as the man who crouched before her.
Clad head to toe in that same white fabric, his lithe body was all smooth lines. The silky cloth of his robe, seemed to cling to his frame, a powerful but elegant strength laying just beneath its pristine surface. His hands and arms were entirely covered, fully sheathed as though it were a second skin, and archaic, mystical designs were embroidered into the sleeves. The only flesh revealed by the robe was the face and neck, where the small flares of his collar opened up to expose alabaster skin that seemed impervious to the touch of the sun. Even his hair was such a pale blonde as to be nearly white, platinum locks even longer than her own floating on the breeze behind him. Most of his sunlit hair flowed out behind him, kept in check by the silver circlet which rested on his brow, though even that metallic halo couldn't contain it all and wisps snuck out to fall before his face; a single braid ensured that the left side was unhidden and allowed her to look into brilliantly blue eyes. Even if all that had not been enough to convince her that she truly looked upon an angel come to earth, the dove-like wings which sprouted from his back were the undeniable guarantee.
He smiled at her and she could feel his love as surely as she could feel the sun on her skin, warming her and encouraging her. When he spoke it was like a sun-shower, gentle and refreshing; promising a rainbow before it was gone, yet simultaneously foretelling of a horrible storm on the horizon. "Hello, Jessica, I am Gabriel. I've waited a long time to meet you." She just stared at him, speechless, as his fingers lifted to brush some of her errant hair behind her ear. "I have a task for you; a mission which must fall to you to complete. This kingdom is about to go to war with its northern neighbour, much as it did three years past. The last time, the two armies fought to a draw, but if your countrymen march northward now they will be utterly destroyed. Should that happen their army will invade, but in their fervor they will not conquer. This kingdom will perish in the fires of war. Everyone you have ever known... will die. This... is what I have foreseen."
Gazing directly into her eyes, his words burned with their conviction. He spoke the truth and she knew it beyond any possible doubt. She shuddered at the thought of her entire village being put to the torch; villages across their small kingdom being slaughtered mercilessly. It was enough to move her to tears, but his next words stilled them before they could fall as he showed her the rainbow of hope he had wordlessly pledged. "You are the only one who can change this fate. This, too, I have foreseen, though I am unable to descry the manner by which you can accomplish it. You must deduce that for yourself."
Gabriel stood, drawing away from her and she desperately wanted to follow after him even though she knew she could not. He smiled down at her, confident that she would find a way to save her homeland from destruction. "The two armies will meet four days hence. Good luck to you, Jessica. I will be watching."
There was a bright light which grew out from him until it filled her vision before suddenly vanishing and leaving her alone in the hushed forest. For a moment she stared at the spot where Gabriel had stood only seconds before but she quickly snapped herself out of her awe. She had been given a task and she knew the consequences of failure. Forcing herself to her feet, she turned herself back towards the village and broke into a run, moving as quickly as the uneven terrain would allow. Her basket and hat were left behind in her haste, unimportant to her after the revelation she'd been granted; two simple items made from straw, marking the spot where an angel had stood.
The capital city, the king's castle sitting at its heart, was only a day away by horseback, but it would have taken her much too long to walk. She knew that if the battle was to occur in four days then the army would leave within two. That meant that she needed a horse, despite having nowhere near the money necessary to purchase one and she could never bring herself to simply steal one.
Still, she managed to come to an agreement with the local innkeeper to acquire one of his horses. If she did not return in a week, with the horse healthy, then he would gain ownership of her home. In truth, she saw little to lose from the deal, for she knew that should she fail her house would burn as well. The arrangement made and her house key left in his care as a sign of good faith, she had quickly departed the village and set out on the road. She brought only minimal food for her journey and didn't take the time to change her clothing despite the general difficulty of riding in a skirt. She simply hiked it up and held fast to the reins.
She rode the horse hard, keeping it at a gallop and only stopping for brief rests to let it drink from streams. They kept up the rapid pace throughout the afternoon and evening, forgoing sleep as they rode on into the night. She hated treating the creature so poorly but felt she had little choice if she wanted to reach the capital by dawn. In the end, though the chestnut mare had done her best, she simply couldn't keep up the pace any longer and Jessica let it walk the last two hours of travel. When they finally walked through the main gates to the capital, the streets were already bustling with people, the dawn a full hour past.
Guiding the mare - whose name she'd never even learned - to the first stables she found, Jessica dismounted and took the small coinpurse from her waist. She handed it to the stableboy, simply placing the whole pouch into his hand. "Give her the best you have. She's more than earned it."
The stableboy's eyes lit up at just the weight of the purse. It wasn't an excessive amount, yet still more than he made in an average day. "Aye, m'lady! I'll treat 'er like a queen!"
Jessica returned his smile and handed him the reins before turning to wrap her arms around the horse's neck in a firm embrace. "Thank you. Rest now and be well." She stepped back from the horse then turned away, her eyes seeking out the castle parapets where they towered above the city. The main road would take her straight to the castle and, while it was crowded, she managed to navigate it with relative ease.
It would have seemed strange, had she taken pause to think about it, but no one stopped to stare at her there. There were a couple of appreciative glances as she hurried past but no gawking... no suspicion. She was just another pretty girl, rushing about her business. She would have enjoyed that feeling of normalcy had she but the time to notice it.
Hasty steps brought her to the castle relatively quickly, though she had to stop at the gates to the castle's courtyard. Four guards stood there and at first she worried that she'd need to convince them to let her through or offer some kind of password, but they merely inspected her to ensure she was unarmed before allowing her entry. They also - although it seemed more for the sake of their own curiosity - asked her what her business was within the castle. Perhaps they had expected her to be the daughter or representative of some merchant seeking to contact the Minister of Trade and Revenue or maybe she had come seeking her husband among the guards' barracks. They certainly didn't expect the answer they received, confusion and doubt showing clearly in their faces. "I must speak with the king and warn him of the coming war."
She'd spoken quite frankly, the explanation raising the brows of the two guards nearest her, while one of the others simply shook his head. It wasn't that they didn't believe her, it was just that only those of significant station or military rank ever got to speak with King Suthwen. Like all the kingdom's peasantry, Jessica had never seen the king nor even known anyone who had. She didn't know the harsh, cruel man who sat upon the throne. Still, it was not their place to tell her otherwise, nor prevent her access to the grounds. Others of higher rank stood guard at the entrances to the private wings of the castle, who would not let her pass. "Good luck with that, lady." One of the guards grunted out the response, then motioned with his head for her to continue on.
There was another guard, however, whose curiosity had not been satisfied. He was not one of the four assigned to protect the gate that day, nor were any of that quartet even aware of his presence. Although he stood beside them, faithfully watching over the castle's entrance as he had for many, many years, only Jessica could see or hear him as he inquired further about her purpose. "And why would ye be seekin' to speak to his Royal Highness, child." The old soldier's ghost asked of her, his stance rigid as he watched her through narrowed eyes. "What business do ye have that he might be interested in?"
"I bring warning, sir. The enemy lay in wait, seeking to ambush our army. I must warn him or all will be lost!" Jessica's blue eyes gazed directly at the shadowy grey image of the long-dead guard, surprising even the spirit with her awareness of his presence, for he had not truly expected any sort of response. While the four living guards cast concerned glances at each other, watching as she spoke to an empty space between them, the spirit peered into those sky blue orbs and judged the sincerity of her claim. It took him only a moment to deem her both honest and trustworthy. She was seeking to protect his kinsmen and he would certainly aid her in that endeavour.
"When ye reach the inner guards, tell them that ye're the king's agent with news from the front. The word they will seek from ye is 'patriarch'." He spoke slowly, adding weight to his every word so that she would remember it clearly. His next instruction, though, struck her as odd. "Do not deliver this information to King Suthwen. Seek out Commander Ashlein. It is he who most needs to hear it and will be more likely to listen."
Jessica nodded, having listened to his advice carefully. "Thank you, sir. I will do that." Offering the spirit a smile of gratitude, she set off once again, leaving the guards behind her to question the sanity of the woman they'd just granted access to. They had to expect that she'd be finding herself in the dungeon before long, certain that the royal guards would deny her entry.
The royal guards did challenge her, taking aggressive stances as soon as she approached, but with the knowledge of the dead Jessica presented herself properly and left them with no choice but to allow her access to the inner court. It was surprising to them, as their king had never shown any use for women beyond menial tasks and his own sexual pleasure, but they also knew better than to delay one of his agents. They hesitated only long enough to make sure she was unarmed, frisking her in a quick and respectful manner before unlocking and opening the doors to allow her passage. One remained in place while the other stepped through with her to announce her entry in a bellowing voice. "An agent of the King, with news from the front!"
Shutting and locking the doors behind her as another pair of guards just inside the door eyed her cautiously, Jessica found herself in a large and opulent room,. Perhaps fifty feet long and thirty feet wide, it had a marble floor which was split down the middle by a lush, red carpet that was surely more expensive than the entire wealth of her village could have possibly afforded. Rich tapestries filled with brilliant colours and displaying old tales of heroism hung on the walls between narrow, arched windows which reached over ten feet in height. Two enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling, hundreds of crystalline shards of glass dangling from their golden frames while unlit, white candles adorned their tops. Off to her left was a grand staircase, manned by another pair of guards while directly ahead of her, at the far end of the carpet and perched upon a dias, were the royal thrones.
The king's throne was easily twice as large as that of the queen's and also of much more recent construction. While the queen's was elegantly beautiful, its wooden form decorated in gold and ivory, the king's was almost gaudy in its excessive grandeur. A large sun sculpted from pure gold adorned its back and it was studded with a multitude of large gems. It even sat higher than the queen's throne, requiring a step to reach its fur-laden seat.
Such extravagance held no importance to Jessica, however, and her steps never faltered as she walked swiftly down the carpeted aisle. There, standing before the thrones, was a small cluster of people, all their eyes focused upon the woman approaching them. None of them seemed particularly glad to see her, least so the king himself. Sitting upon his throne, he glared down her, the first to speak. "Who in the blazes is this wench and why does she sully my throne room?"
The others with her - all male except for the queen - seemed to be wondering the same. The king had no female agents within his employ and would never entrust a woman to bear information to him. Even his queen, as lovely and intelligent a woman as she was, was nothing more than a trophy to him. She alone seemed more worried than angered at the intrusion, knowing his reaction would not be a good one. Even the few ghostly entities who resided within the room looked upon her with irritation and mistrust, knowing that she did not belong there.
Commander Ashlein was as easy to pick out of the small crowd as the king himself. He carried himself with the bearing of authority and discipline. He wore a uniform similar in style to that of the royal guards but with the additional accouterments of his rank; a silver sash and golden epaulets marked him as the supreme commander of the kingdom's military might. Beside him were a pair of the king's ministers, his two personal servants and the Commander's own aide, who was the youngest of those present. It was the latter who stepped up to block Jessica's path, his hand coming to rest on the pommels of both his sword and dagger. He had anger in his eyes and she could tell in an instant that he would draw and cut her down without a second thought. He was of roughly the same age as she, yet where she was filled with love, he overflowed with hate.
She came to a sudden halt when he intercepted her, gasping at the look in his eyes before forcing herself to turn her gaze towards the Commander. It was he whom she'd been told to deliver her message and although the king would obviously hear it as well, she needed Ashlein to both hear and see the truth in her words. "Commander Ashlein, I have been sent to give you warning." She spoke quickly, not certain how long they would give her to say her piece. "If you march your army northward it will be destroyed and the whole of our land will follow soon after. You must not go to war!"
"Preposterous!" Suthwen's retort came instantly, the king rising to stand before his throne. "Utter nonsense! Our forces will obliterate them!"
The king's enthusiastic assurances aside, Ashlein met Jessica's gaze evenly as he tried to get a read on her. She seemed entirely serious and he couldn't deny that he had his own misgivings about the impending campaign, but to say that they would be slaughtered seemed insanity. At worst they would be forced to disengage so that each nation could rest and lick its wounds, much as had occurred three years prior. "How is it that you knew the codeword to gain access to this room?" He watched her intently as he asked the question, his grim face revealing nothing of the thoughts swirling within his mind. He wanted to gauge her response; it was unlike anything he could have expected.
"I learned it from the ghost of one of your guards. He- I think he died a long time ago, but he still stands guard at the castle gates. He said I needed to give the message to you." Jessica bit her lip, feeling a little nervous with all the harsh eyes glaring at her. Suspicion and disdain were nothing new to her but there was such hatred in the room that she felt her life was honestly in danger. Even the spirits cast dubious glances at each other, wondering if she were mad. There was one, though, who cocked his head slightly to one side, examining her every bit as intently as Commander Ashlein did.
"A... ghost... told you?" Ashlein asked the question hesitantly, a brow lifting upwards. It was utterly absurd, a fact which was voiced by one of the ministers, but she seemed so sure of it herself. Perhaps she was telling the truth, at least as she knew it. Perhaps she was just being played for a fool by some agent of their enemy, duped into believing the nonsense she spouted. "And this 'ghost' of yours, was he the one who told you that our army would be destroyed if we marched tomorrow?"
"No, it wasn't him, it-" She was distracted from her response as the spirit that had been watching her so keenly suddenly approached her, closing the gap between them in two quick strides. It seemed that he would have grabbed her by the shoulders had he been able to touch her and she sucked in a startled breath at the intensity of his gaze. There was a physical resemblance between the ethereal man's face and that of the Commander, a relationship that was confirmed as the spirit began to speak.
"I am Christopher Ashlein, the Commander's son. You can see me? You can hear me?" His questions were asked with a desperation and she merely nodded in response, eyes glancing between the dead son and the living father. "Then you have another message to deliver to him. Mine."
Unsure of what else she should do, she mutely agreed to serve as his mouthpiece, her gaze returning to the Commander. To those watching her she had been staring at nothing, peering at an empty space to her right, but the words she relayed struck the Commander to his core. "Christopher is here. He's stayed at your side, even after his death." She swallowed, watching the older man's face drain of colour. His aide seemed even more infuriated than before.
"Silence, dark child!" The youth's shout echoed throughout the throne room, his sword-hand leaping out to snatch the front of her blouse in his fist. Jessica's heart raced in the face of all that loathing, shocked by his use of the title given to her by the people of her village. She couldn't fathom how he had come to know it and he seemed to take some sort of twisted pleasure from her confusion. "Yes, dark child, I know you. She claims to talk to the specters of the dead." He directed his last words at those behind him, turning his head just slightly so that his voice would carry to them better. "She is a thing of evil! Afflicted with the most unholy of madness!"
Jessica tried to pull away from the youth but his grip was like steel; he would not relinquish his hold on her. "No! They're not evil! It was an angel that sent me here, told me that you must be warned!" She pleaded with them, once again focusing on the Commander. Of all that stood there, he alone seemed to have ears to hear her verity. "Gabriel said that if you went to war now, they would kill everyone and set the whole kingdom ablaze! All those people will die. You must not attack them!"
"Demons, more like it!" The youth growled at her, but he was cut off before he could speak more as the king stepped forward, giving a derisive snort.
"Nonsense. You're either possessed by the minions of hell or simply mad. Either way, I've had enough of this idiocy. You are obviously attempting to mislead us. Probably trying to buy more time so that they can prepare their defenses." He raised his hand in a casual signal and the guards standing at the base of the stairway set into motion. "Guards, take this pathetic traitor to the dungeon."
With the guards approaching and already helpless in the young swordsman's grasp, Jessica felt tears welling up in her eyes. In desperation, she drove her attention back to the Commander, Christopher insisting that he was her only hope... and that of the kingdom as well. "Christopher's been trying to talk to you in your dreams. You've seen him there, haven't you? He's been trying to reach you! He says you shouldn't blame them, shouldn't seek revenge for his death. The man who killed him died on that same field of battle. There is no one to take vengeance on!"
The Commander said nothing, nor did he so much as flinch, but she could tell that he was listening; his heart was telling him to believe her even though his mind said it was impossible. She pressed on, not knowing what else she could do. "He's here, Commander! I can hear him; I can see him."
"Then it's the last thing you'll ever see, witch!" The youth drew his dagger, raising it up with every intention to drive its tip through her wide open eye. She couldn't look away from it; couldn't even blink. The blow never came, though, and it wasn't because he didn't want to deliver it, nor was it prevented by Ashlein. Surprisingly, the voice that commanded him to cease his action was that of the king himself.
"Hold!" His voice bellowed in a tone of absolute authority. "I will not have blood spilled within my throne room!" It wasn't because of some measure of generosity or mercy that he'd prevented her maiming but simply the monarch's concern for the expense of his carpeting. Jessica found herself horrified that he could care so little for human life and so much for material wealth. Had they been out in the street, she knew without a doubt that he would have simply watched the spectacle, enjoying every moment of it.
A wicked grin spread across his visage and she knew in that instant that if there truly were demons walking the earth, she was looking upon one of the most evil. "I do believe that young Gregory has the right idea, though." He looked at Jessica and she felt a shiver go through her but he stayed well back from her. Even looking upon such a peasant was beneath his dignity; he certainly wasn't going to touch one.
He leaned over and spoke something to one of his personal servants who departed in haste even as the royal guards took her arms firmly in their grasp. Turning his back on her, Suthwen began to walk towards a third exit, behind the thrones along the left wall. It was the least impressive of the doorways and most commonly used by servants but there were times when the king found it a useful shortcut to one of his favourite places: the dungeons.
Without a word the guards knew to follow him and began dragging Jessica with them. Gregory hesitantly released his grip on her shirt, but the guards' grips were so tight as to bruise her soft skin. She didn't resist, there was no point, yet they still treated her roughly. It was how the king preferred it. Commander Ashlein and Gregory followed after them stiffly, as did the spirit of Christopher, but none of them spoke. There was little to say. Even Jessica seemed resigned to her fate, accepting that she might very well be facing a summary execution or, at best, living out the rest of her days in a dungeon cell. King Suthwen had nothing so generous in mind.
He led them into the dungeons but not to any of the cells. After several minutes of walking and descending stairs, he stopped in front of an ordinary-looking wooden door. There they only had to wait a short time before the servant reappeared, carrying the cherry wood box that Suthwen had bade him procure. The king seemed entirely pleased, which only worried Jessica that much more.
Around them spirits raged, the ghosts of all those that had died within that dungeon crowding into the hallway to shout curses at the king that went unheard by all ears except Jessica's. She paid little mind to the vehement words of hatred, though; Suthwen's voice was the only one that mattered, the despot king casually explaining the horror of what he was about to do. "Venoms are a most amazing thing and something of a hobby of mine. They come from any number of animals and each has different effects."
The servant held up the box, holding the lid open while Suthwen selected a glass bottle from within it. The vial was small, only two inches in height and he held it easily between his thumb and forefinger. "Some paralyze while others make you horribly ill. There are still others, of course, which simply kill its victim, even in small quantities." As Suthwen stepped towards her the two guards forced her to her knees, one of them grabbing a fistful of her hair and bending her head back until she looked at the ceiling. Christopher tried with everything he had to strike the king, but his efforts were entirely in vain. There was nothing that any of the dead could do and nothing that the living were willing to do.
"This particular venom is usually spat by a certain type of snake. It's known to cause blindness even with only minimal contact." Coming to loom over Jessica, Suthwen grinned down at her and pulled the cork from the bottle. A piece of wood jutted out from the underside of the cork, just the right length to reach nearly to the bottom of the bottle. As he held the cork over her eyes, a malicious smile plastered on his face, she could hear the anticipation in his voice. The eagerness. And then a drop fell from the saturated wood, plummeting into her eye. A second drop fell into her other eye and even though she'd closed her lids, her eyes burned as though they were on fire. "Oh yes, and I'm told that it's really quite painful. What do you think?"
Her response came in the form of a scream so full of sorrow that even Gregory could not bear to watch her suffering. Hearing it was bad enough. He was not cruel, after all, he simply wanted vengeance; justice, as he saw it. Suthwen, though... he watched her agony with a growing sense of glee until her voice turned hoarse and his amusement waned. He had already returned the bottle to its place in the box and sent the servant away to return it to its place and now he had other matters to attend to. "Take her to The Hole. A slow death will give her time to reconsider this foolishness about seeing ghosts before she joins their ranks."
King Suthwen returned up the corridor, Commander Ashlein and Gregory in tow while the two guards opened the door and dragged the barely conscious girl through it. The ghosts were silent in the dungeon and even Jessica's ears could only hear the sound of the door slamming shut behind them.