Behind the Black Gate
The air sent a prickle up Noddie’s spine. It was as if the world had died leaving this empty shell. No stray cats slinked through the frostbit alleys, no dogs barked into the grating silence, and not one bird sat on a skeletal tree. A cracked street faded into the mist as though leading to the afterlife. Filthy, decrepit houses lined the streets, Their interiors dark and cold.
“It’s a ghost town,” Mesha whispered. “It was not this bad when I left.”
“It’s so sad,” Noddie whispered. Not even the Island of the Kings held this kind of emptiness and sorrow.
Lorance stopped to survey the city around him. He stood in a trance, as though he could see the reflections of a past time. The sun shining on strong and artfully designed buildings, the sound of men talking as they bustled about their chosen trade, the gossip of women as they headed to and from the market. He could see the ghostly images of children playing and laughing through archways and down smooth, flower-lined streets before fading into dim silence.
Blackened dust from the streets brushed around Lorance as if to embrace him. Welcome home, our prince. You are late. We are all that’s left. His bright clothes blazed against the somber backdrop as though he were the lone survivor of a dreadful, all consuming battle. “Oh fair and beautiful Bolzenar, what ill fortune to befall a city so grand.” A tear escaped his eye and rolled down his cheek. The sight made Noddie feel as empty as the darkened windows of the nearby houses.
“We must keep moving,” Vince urged them.
Mesha took his brother’s arm and pulled him away with a last look at their crumbling kingdom.
The Gondorien palace was made of smooth, dark marble with intricate spires and domes that gave off a soft glow. It towered twice as tall as the all-encompassing wall and Noddie thought of how majestic the place would be where it not surrounded by a plague-infested city. As it was, the palace looked more like a tombstone.
They approached the gates and after a quick conversation with the guard they were granted access. Vince led them through the grounds. “We should strive to go unnoticed as much as possible once we enter the palace. Hemlin might already know you are here, but I want to keep you from confronting him at all costs.”
“Are there many who have betrayed the crown?” Mesha asked.
“Most are just trying to follow orders. We believe those who support Hemlin alone are few, however, we do not know who they are and you never know what information a servant will divulge if offered the proper coin.”
They crossed a footbridge arching over a stream and stopped before a small island of dead grass with an alcove holding a statue of a stern king, wielding a sword in one hand with a snake wrapped around the other hand.
After feeling behind the statue for a minute Vince located a lever. The statue slid forward revealing an archway leading into the castle.
Lorance’s jaw dropped. “I cannot believe I never found that! I explored every inch of this area when I was younger.”
“It is meant for emergencies. Goodness knows you found plenty of other servant passages and escape routes in your time. I could never find you, particularly when it was time for your lessons.” He gave Lorance’s back a small shove to get him through the opening.
Inside was a steep set of stairs leading upwards to another door. Lorance discovered how to slide it open and they emerged from behind a tapestry into a bright, purple-carpeted hall.
Lorance took a deep breath. “Home at last.”
“Yes,” Mesha agreed. “It does feel good to be back.”
“Where to now?” Noddie asked, looking up and down the deserted hallway.
Vince led them through an empty room to a small door. “We’ll take the servant’s passage up to the steward’s corridor.”
“It’s after dinner. Won’t the servant passages be crowded? We’ll be noticed.” Lorance asked.
“Near the lower levels and the kitchens, yes. The higher we go the less likely we are to meet anyone. Make haste to the first floors. If we meet someone let me do the talking. Quickly now.”
“How are we going to send a meeting request?”
“Meeting request?” Noddie questioned turning to Mesha.
Mesha explained, “Not just anyone can meet with the king, or in this case, the Steward of Irestead. If one wishes to speak to him face-to-face, including family, such as Lorance and me, they have to send a request for an audience with him. In time the steward will send a missive back either denying or confirming the request. The steward is under no obligation to answer right away, and the whole process could take several hours to several days.”
Vince ushered them forward, “Unfortunately these are desperate times and we do not have that luxury. We must risk it. I pray Niles will not be in his private rooms at this time, or we will be forced to wait. Even under our extreme circumstances to enter there bears the penalty of death.”
The narrow hallways of the servant passages were a maze of beautifully carved arches and sturdy stairwells. Vince peered around corners before proceeding, and they sunk into the shadows as busy men and women passed in the intersections.
“We’re almost there,” Vince assured them, as Noddie’s legs grew tired. “One more floor.” As he turned back around he came face to face with a servant woman with dirty-blond hair and flabby arms.
Vince’s posture relaxed and he breathed out, “Martha,” in relief.
“What are you doing back here?” Martha hissed, her eyes scanning over the young group behind him. “I thought I told you to take them away from here?”
“Hello, Miss Boyce.” Lorance greeted her with a smile, leaning out from behind Vince.
“You’re Highness,” Martha tilted her head in kind.
“Miss Boyce?” Noddie whispered into Mesha’s ear.
“Vince’s elder sister,” Mesha replied.
Martha turned her attention back to Vince. “They are in danger here. Things have become worse since you’ve been gone. Hemlin is up to something and I don’t like the look of things.”
Vince scratched his head, “Things became more complicated. We’ve discovered things while we were away. We need to see the steward as soon as possible.”
Martha threw back her shoulders. “Without a meeting request? Are you mad?!”
“Our choices are limited. This is urgent.”
“I always said you’d end up locked in the dungeon one of these days. And I’ll be right, you mark my words.”
His sister gave a heavy sigh and motioned them to follow her. “Perhaps I can give his Grace a warning for you. I happen to be one of the few around here Steward Niles trusts.” She spoke over her shoulder as they continued up another flight of stairs. “All the servants have noticed things are not right around here, you know. I hear them all whispering and hissing away in the corners of the kitchen and living quarters. Most of them are confused, although I do know of a handful who spy for Hemlin. I see them glaring at me when they think I’m too busy to notice.
Martha grunted. “Of course, how else would Hemlin know what is spoken of in the servant’s quarters? Soldiers come down and haul people off. No explanations given. The only conclusion I can make is that anyone who professes loyalty to the young princes instead of Hemlin is locked away. They’ve been trying to get something on me for weeks, but I know how to keep out of trouble. Tight lips and sharp ears.”
Lorance’s face hardened at this news.
Reaching a narrow door at the end of a corridor, Martha stopped. “As you know, this leads to the study on the Steward’s corridor. Steward Niles is usually there this time of night. Let me go in first.”
She slid open the door and stepped out, falling into a low curtsy. “My great Steward, have mercy upon my intrusion, but we have some rather important visitors that requested an audience with thee of great importance.”
Lorance pounced into the room. “Uncle Fawn!” he cried joyously jumping into the arms of a man wearing a long purple cloak.
“Lorance, this is hardly the way a young Prince should behave,” the man scolded, but the effect was lost between chuckles as he hugged his nephew.
Mesha came forward and gave a short bow. “Uncle Fawnton, we have returned.”
“So I see. This is unexpected.”
Noddie and Vince followed them into the room and knelt low in respect, waiting to be acknowledged.
The room was decorated in navy and gold, with bookcases lining the walls and a desk near the fireplace. A pot-bellied man in a black suit stood against the wall, speaking in low tones with Martha.
“Martha’s husband, Johnathan,” Vince whispered, seeing where Noddie was looking. Noddie changed her focus to the Steward.
The King’s brother-in-law was of a darker complexion then the twins, but his straight hair and fine-trimmed beard was the same deep brown.
“Mesha, Lorance, it cheers my heart to see you both well.”
“Our words are likewise, uncle.”
Mesha gestured to Noddie. “Uncle, this is Noddie May Grace, a dear friend of ours, who has shown remarkable courage and loyalty in the face of danger.”
“You may rise. It is an honor to meet you, young lady. And Vince, you have served my young nephews well. Your devotion never ceases to please me.”
Vince smiled humbly at the floor. “It is an honor and a privilege, your Highness.”
Fawnton turned back to the princes. “Mesha, did you obtain my missive?”
“Yes, uncle. The king, honor to his memory, desired to discover a cure for the plague. We acquired his notes and obtained something that may end the scorenza for good. But it will be dangerous. There are several risks involved.”
“I must hear more of this presently; I want details. But first, I must say, I received news from beyond Torben. Is it true the Mordekah robbers have been defeated?”
Lorance’s face brightened, “Yes, uncle Fawn, we were there.”
“Well done, my boy, you have made your uncle proud.”
“I cannot take credit for it, uncle. It was the men and woman from the surrounding cities and our own faithful scouts and guards. I regret to say that I did not fight, nor was I the one to lead them.”
“But all was organized under your command. Word has reached me of the work you have done while exiled in the Lone Palace. Admirable accomplishments.”
Lorance’s ears turned red.
“The robbers may be disbanded, but Mordekah himself remains at large.” Mesha took Noddie’s hand and led her forward. “It is certain that he will try and kill Noddie May’s uncle. She has come here to find him and warn him of this threat.”
Fawnton looked upon Noddie with kind gray-blue eyes, wrinkled by worry and sleepless nights.
“We will do all within our power to help you.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“We have trouble of more than one kind,” Lorance told him. “The witch Isca has also returned to the area.”
Fawnton went pale at this news and rubbed a hand over his face. “I understand. We will send guards to search the city for both Isca and Mordekah at once, though I don’t hold out much hope for capturing either of them.”
There was the tinkle of a bell and a pageboy appeared at the door, “Excuse me, Sire, but there is a guest who requests an audience with you.”
“Yes, Sire, a certain Martis Lazren. He says it is of the utmost importance that he is granted an audience with you. A matter of life and death, he said.”
“How did he get in?” Fawnton asked puzzled.
“I do not know, Sire.”
“Very well, thank you Pender, send back my acknowledgment. I will meet him shortly in the yellow visiting parlor.”
“That is my uncle!” Noddie exclaimed.
The steward blinked in surprise, “Well then, this is a fortunate turn of events. Martha, please take Miss Noddie May to the yellow parlor to meet her uncle.” He turned back to Noddie. “Go speak with him. I will arrive there in due time as well.”