Lady Morgan paced the throne room, her anger boiling up inside her. Christofer had escaped! She caught the smirk on Ezra’s face. “You! You helped them!”
He couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. “How could I? You expressly forbade me from helping him or trying to free him. I haven’t even been near the dungeons—as per your orders.” He turned to go.
“Stop right there!”
Ezra froze at the power of her command.
She got up in his face. “But you knew, didn’t you?”
His chest burned. “I had no knowledge of this attempt to free the king.”
She sliced at him with her dagger, leaving a cut along the side of his neck. “If I didn’t still need you… Just be glad that wasn’t one of my poisoned daggers. Once Camelot is secure and my authority established I won’t need my little figurehead anymore.” She wiped her dagger on a handkerchief, her cold composure coming back to her. “Go to your chambers and stay there until I summon you. Get out of my sight!”
Ezra hurried from the room. He wouldn’t have needed a spell to force him from her side. He couldn’t get away fast enough. As he walked to his rooms, Ezra couldn’t resist a smile. They’d done it! Lord Vin and the others had somehow succeeded in freeing the king. He wondered how Vin had disappeared so quickly and efficiently when he’d encountered him in the hallway. Probably some system of secret tunnels. All of these old keeps were riddled with hidden chambers and passageways. It seemed to be a standard part of the architecture. King Lot’s castle had been snaked with its own tunnels—perfect places for a curious young boy to skulk and hear things he shouldn’t.
Ezra stopped suddenly. A strange sound had caught his attention. He peered around the corner. Nothing. He looked back in the direction he’d been walking. Nothing. Was he just imagining things or… Hands grabbed him from behind, covering his mouth. Ezra was quickly dragged into a hole in the wall, previously hidden by a large statue. He was roughly spun around and shoved up against a wall. King Christofer’s face was mere inches from his own and full of more menace and black anger than Ezra had ever seen in it before.
“What’s going on here, Standish? What kind of game are you and that witch up to?”
Ezra opened his mouth, but no words would come. His chest burned from the amulet’s touch as he fought to confess everything. He was physically incapable of making the sounds come out. His shoulders slumped in frustration. “I’m sorry. I can tell you nothing.”
Josiah watched Ezra’s reactions intently. The young man was struggling with some inner demon. When Ezra had opened his mouth to say something, Josiah could’ve sworn he saw the medallion glint for a moment. Curious.
Chris drew his dagger and put it up against Ezra’s neck. “Seems we keep coming back to this point. I asked you before in Levinshire where your allegiance lay. You didn’t give me a straight answer. I want one now.”
“If…if I were free to give my loyalty, I would give it to you.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
“The only one I can give you.”
Josiah moved up next to them. “What kind of hold does she have over you, son?”
Ezra wouldn’t meet his eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a traitor. You’re going to kill me anyway.”
Josiah’s eyes narrowed as he noticed the cut on Ezra’s neck. He took hold of Ezra’s chin, turning his head to the side. The cut wasn’t too deep, but a there was a bright red trail of blood. “What happened?”
“I didn’t duck.”
Josiah raised a questioning eyebrow, but didn’t pursue the matter. “Why can’t you tell us what’s going on? What’s preventing you from talking to us?”
Ezra merely shook his head as the medallion seared his skin.
Josiah saw it glint with magic this time and knew that it was part of the problem. He reached out and grabbed it. Ezra screamed. The Merlin held on, mumbling a few words of some inscrutable ancient language. The amulet suddenly crumbled to dust in his hand. Ezra collapsed, unconscious. “He really didn’t have a choice, Chris. She was controlling him through the amulet. I’ve been suspicious of that medallion ever since I first saw it in Levinshire, but I couldn’t be sure. I was going to do some research on it until we all became distracted by other things. When I saw it glow, I finally remembered where I’d seen it. It’s a very old charm that when properly employed, forces the wearer to do the bidding of the sorcerer or sorceress who invoked its magic.” He picked Ezra up and carried the limp young man to another chamber.
Several hours later, Ezra awoke to a pounding head and aching body. “I must be alive. Being dead wouldn’t hurt so much.”
A voice in the shadows startled him. “Oh, you’re very much alive. I’m sorry about the pain, but I couldn’t break the amulet’s hold any other way.” Josiah moved closer to the cot. Ezra could now see his face in the candlelight. He truly did look sorry.
Josiah chuckled. “Don’t look so surprised that I care about your well-being.”
“I think, perhaps, you might be the only one.”
“Then you don’t know us so well after all. The others have been worrying, too.”
Ezra laughed, a bitter sound. “Really? Just before you grabbed the amulet, the king was about to cut my throat.”
“That was before he knew that she was controlling you.”
“So now he’s full of forgiveness, ready to welcome his long lost son?”
Chris stepped into the room, the others behind him. “Maybe not quite that far—but willing to listen. I want answers, though. The whole truth.” Chris moved over to the cot to stare down at Ezra in an intimidating way. “Are you my son?”
“She says that I am.”
“How old are you?”
“Your real age! Not what she made you!”
Ezra flinched. “I don’t know exactly. Eight or so I think.”
“Did you know what your mother did to my family? What she did to me?”
“No! I didn’t know she had them killed! I didn’t even know you’d had a family before. And I didn’t know about how she drugged you. She always told me that you shamed her by refusing to marry her and then brutally violated her. She said you were a cruel tyrant who killed her father.”
“I may be indirectly responsible for her father’s death. I refused to marry her so Uther could get his cursed alliance. Her father was insulted and declared war. But it was his choice. His wounded pride. The rest of it’s not true.”
“I know that now. I didn’t before. I swear!”
“You swear? Just like when you swore your oaths of knighthood? How much is your word worth?”
Ezra looked away. “Not much, I’m afraid.”
“Was the oath just words to you?”
“Some of it. At first. It meant something more later. But it was too late then.”
“So you’ve been under her control this whole time?”
Ezra looked back at him, meeting his eyes. Nothing less than the absolute truth would satisfy this man. “No. She gave me the amulet as a parting gift. She didn’t invoke its power until I started questioning her.”
“When was that?”
“A few days before…Buck and the queen. She made me mix a special potion and give it to them. They couldn’t help themselves. Then she had me make sure you found them together.” He turned to Buck. “I truly am sorry.”
Buck said nothing.
Ezra’s attention jerked back to Chris with that harshly spoken question.
“Why did you do it?”
“She’s my mother. It’s what she raised me to do.”
“Do you hate me that much?”
“No! I…I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”
“That’s not good enough!”
Josiah grabbed Chris’s arm. “Chris…”
“What do you want me to say? She taught me to hate you. They all wanted me to hate you, to destroy you. But then I met you and you weren’t the man I’d been raised to kill. Nothing made sense. I still don’t know exactly what kind of man you are, but I know you’re not the monster they made you out to be. She lied to me. It was alright for the others—especially Queen Maude. I was used to their deceptions. But I believed Lady Morgan. Maybe I only wanted to believe. In which case, it’s my own fault for being such a gullible fool.” Ezra refused to shed the tears he felt pricking at his eyes. He wasn’t a child. He wasn’t! He would not cry in front of these men.
“Do you still want to kill me?”
“What do you want?”
To stop her. To put you back on the throne.”
“How can I trust you?”
Ezra’s shoulders slumped. “You can’t.”
“What am I going to do with you?”
“I’m a traitor. I usurped your throne. You know the penalty for treason is death.”
“You want me to kill you?”
“It’s not a matter of what I want. It never was.”
Chris didn’t know what to make of that. He turned and walked into the adjacent chamber. The others followed, leaving Ezra alone.
Ezra sat up, rubbing the warm spot on his chest where the medallion had been. He could see them just beyond the doorway, talking quietly and standing together. Together. What would it be like to truly be a part of that? He sighed. “I wish…”
Josiah stood closest to the doorway, one ear attuned to Chris and the other to Ezra. He’d heard the whispered words the young man had uttered. Josiah was sure Ezra hadn’t meant to say them out loud. He stepped back into the chamber. “What do you wish?”
Ezra refused to look at the Merlin, busying himself with putting on his over tunic instead. The other man waited patiently. “What I wish is so far out of my reach that it’s folly to even dwell on it.”
“Maybe it’s not as bad as all that, son.”
Ezra stiffened. “I am not your son.”
“Sorry. Figure of speech.”
“Well it’s a rather sore subject at the moment.” He fastened his cloak and strode past Josiah.
Everyone stopped when he entered the room. Chris glared at him, still having trouble seeing the good man Vin and Josiah swore was there. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“No. We can’t waste time and energy keeping an eye on you all the time. You’re staying here.”
“I can help you! I know her plans, how many soldiers she has, where they’re stationed...”
“And you’re going to give us all the information you have. But you’re staying here.”
“Please. I need to do this.”
“I can’t trust you. That’s what it comes down to. We’ll sort out all this other…stuff later. Right now I want you here out of the way. I just can’t risk it.”
Ezra nodded. He understood. In Chris’s position, he’d do the same thing. It didn’t make Ezra feel any better, though.
Ezra told them everything he knew about Morgan’s plans. When he was done, Nathan escorted him back to the little chamber and locked the door behind him. Ezra had let himself be led without a word. He sat on the cot and waited patiently for them to leave. A short while later, his patience was rewarded.
It was a fairly easy task for him to pick the lock. Perhaps someday locks would be more complex, but for now they were simple enough that a child could do it with a bit of practice. In fact, Ezra had been a child when he’d learned how. Boredom combined with a childhood fear of being locked in his room when the adults wanted him out of the way had encouraged him to acquire the ability. After a time, he learned how to open every room in Lot’s castle. All locks were basically the same so… Ah, ha! Success. Ezra chuckled humorlessly. Maybe he should’ve become a thief. Perhaps he would’ve been more successful at that than being a knight. That hadn’t turned out so well.
Ezra headed for the pantry in hopes of finding Madam Nettie there. He wanted to do his part to help the king, but there was something else he needed to take care of first. Whenever Lady Morgan became angry, she always took out her frustrations on the helpless people around her. Not having any of her own servants here, she would make Chris’s staff suffer.
The old woman was surprised to see him. He wondered if she’d been privy to Chris’s escape. “You have to organize the other servants and their families and get them hidden without raising Morgan’s suspicions. The king probably thinks his tunnels are a great secret, but I’m betting someone like you, someone who’s served three kings in this castle, knows her way around.”
She did, but she wasn’t going to tell him that.
He was exasperated by the skeptical look on her face. They didn’t have time for this. “You trusted me enough to send your niece into danger based on my words. I need you to trust me now.”
“That wasn’t trust. That was desperation.”
“Well, I certainly can’t think of a situation more desperate than this. She’s become enraged at the news of the king’s escape. You and all of Chris’s servants are in immediate danger. Even the children aren’t safe.”
Nettie remembered how Lady Morgan had terrorized little Emily in the throne room. Had that been a true threat or a bluff? “Would she really hurt a child?”
Ezra’s laugh was short and bitter. “Oh, Madam. I didn’t think you that naďve. She’s a merciless woman bent on nothing but obtaining her own desires. Other people don’t matter to her. Believe me, the Lady Morgan has absolutely no qualms about hurting children.”
Nettie wondered at what kind of childhood Lord Standish had with that woman as his mother. She wasn’t sure she trusted him, but Lord Vin seemed to think he was a decent man—even though he’d helped that Morgan take over the castle. She could get the others into the deepest parts of the keep, below even the dungeons. Lady Morgan would never find them there. Madam Gloria could help her. She’s been a servant to old King Uther and had some knowledge of the castle’s secrets, too. Nettie nodded. “Alright, Lord Standish. I’ll do this.”
“Excellent! You should begin at once and as quickly as possible. She’ll be wanting to vent her anger soon and I don’t want any innocents to catch her eye.”
“What are you going to be doing?”
“Whatever I can to help King Christofer.” He hurried out the door.