Ergyfel, King of Lyonesse, shot up in bed, awakened by the same nightmare that had plagued him for a week. His body trembled as he looked into the darkness and tried to orient himself. Before his eyes could focus, a cold shiver replaced the tremor. Sweat soaked his skin and nightclothes. A cool draft from the window tickled its way across his flesh, bringing his attention to the warm gentle hand on his arm.
Ergyfel looked to his side. Lady Maeven, barely visible in the dim light, lay raised up on one elbow, her silky brunette hair draped loosely around her alabaster shoulders. Even now, with most of her delicate, pleasing form covered by bedclothes, her full dark lips were enough to make him hunger for the feel of her. He would have forgotten his troubles, willingly lost himself to instinct and her natural feminine wiles, had she not spoken.
“The same nightmare, my lord?”
“Yes.” He pulled away from her and sat on the edge of the bed. She shifted position and again the warmth of her hand fell upon him. “It’s not enough that the king hid his crown and deprived me of a proper coronation?” He struck his leg with a fist. “Now the boy’s got to deprive me of my sleep as well?”
“Billy?” Caution flattening her tone.
“Yes! Who do you think?”
“It was not your fault, my lord. How could you know that he was the king’s son?”
“He’s as much a burden to me dead, as he was alive.”
“My king.” She squeezed his arm. “The guilt is not yours, but those who plotted against King William.”
Ergyfel remained silent.
“Come.” She tugged gently on his shoulder. “Lay with me for a while and forget. We have time before we are needed.”
Ergyfel resisted her persuasions until her warm body pressed against his back, and her mouth brushed the side of his neck. Her silken hair, like wind, flowed onto his chest and he fell back into her embrace. Even though she had shared his bed for a short time, she had come to have a hold over him. A hold more powerful than any succubus could hope for. For in her glance, her voice, her touch, there was a kind of magic that was beyond Ergyfel’s prodigious knowledge of sorcery to define. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before, for he had a place in her heart.
Ergyfel’s mind drifted with the gentle caresses of Maeven’s hands. His thoughts strayed from the current turmoil of his heart and kingdom, and snuggled into a warm comfortable place in his memories. He sifted lazily through the events of the past years.
He had come to Castle Orgulous a mere youth, whose only assets were his distant relation to King William and a secret talent for sorcery—the only gift his mother had ever given him. Yet by use of his keen intellect and his birthright, he had landed himself on the throne.
He marveled at how easy it had been to manipulate people and events with words and a little magic. Ergyfel smiled, feeling very satisfied and mulled over his blackest triumphs. The masterstroke had been contriving to have his uncle murder his beloved wife, Queen Eleanor, with his own hands. It had worked so well in fact that Ergyfel had used it as a model for his other endeavors. Not that it was flawless; after all, their heir Billy had escaped. A sore point to be sure, but then in time Billy too became one of his shadow puppets.
A spell here, a word there, an assassination or two. A propitious accident to augment a handful of betrayals and lies. They all wove together to form the dark tapestry of his rise to claim the throne. He replayed the events in his head for amusement. He reveled in his deeds, watching with great pleasure as the little shadows of his play combined into one great shadow: his. He felt warm and safe within his darkness.
A figure emerged from the comforting darkness of Ergyfel’s mind, growing larger as it approached, and bathed in light of an uncomfortable intensity. At last, it was directly before him. Two eyes stared back at him with icy intent. The eyes of King William—but no—they were those of the late king’s son. Ergyfel brought his gaze away from the penetrating blue eyes and saw Billy’s visage. The little man was somehow different. His habitual smile and cheerful demeanor were gone. In their stead, there was naught but hatred and determination. Without warning, the luminous form of Billy held up a long curved knife and slashed at his throat. Ergyfel gasped and awoke, his hand grasping his throat.
“My lord!” Maeven startled, but still cradled him in her bosom. “What is it?”
Ergyfel looked up at her soft brown eyes and caught his breath. The first light of morning warmed her features. His thoughts turned and his eyes narrowed. “You!” He pointed at Maevn as he rose and stood beside the bed.
Maeven looked into his black eyes and froze, struck dumb by unknowable fear.
“You.” Ergyfel shook with anger. “You harlot. You weaken me.”
The king struck his concubine with the back of his hand. Pain tore through the flesh of his left arm like fire on oil and exploded in his brain, consuming his anger. He fell to his knees, gripping his wrist as if he could choke off the pain and isolate it in his hand.
The pain ebbed and Ergyfel opened his eyes to look across the room. Lady Maeven still lay on the bed, the side of her face red from his strike, and tears streaming down her cheeks. She sobbed and stared at her love, a mixture of concern and confusion in her eyes.
Ergyfel caught her eyeing his left hand. She had seen the odd burn on its back but once—a horrible, festering wound that turned the flesh grey—and yet her revulsion was plain. It had been several weeks now, and still Ergyfel wore a glove over it, even in sleep.
“The same wound, my lord?”
“Yes,” he gasped.
She edged forward. “It still has not healed?”
“Perhaps it needs air, my lord.”
“But in that glove …”
“No!” he roared at her.
Maeven fell silent and covered her still burning cheek with her hand.
Ergyfel rose to his feet and started for his wardrobe. Maeven left the bed and poured water into a basin. She applied the cool water to her tight hot cheek. In the costly silver mirror, Ergyfel caught her watching as he struggled with his clothes. The wounded hand was an albatross.
“Please, my lord, allow me to help you.”
Ergyfel stared. With her help, the task of dressing would be less painful. Further, she earnestly wanted to help him, and in fact seeing her before him brought forth desire for her assistance, but then something in him twisted and hurt. He grew angry again.
“You’ve helped enough.” His voice sounded more like a snarl. “Leave me. Now!”
Maeven bowed to her king and collected her things. Then mute, and with the utmost of humility, she left.
The door to the royal bedchamber closed, and Ergyfel looked at himself in the mirror across the room. As he approached it, he shook inside with pent up anger. He splashed some water on his face then with caution pulled off the glove that covered his left hand.
“Damned faerie curse,” he muttered while he examined the wound.
Ergyfel had tried everything he could to heal the injury caused by Billy’s ring. At first, it had looked like an ordinary burn. He had used all his knowledge of practical medicine and alchemy, but nothing seemed to affect it. That is, nothing except magic. Unfortunately, with each spell Ergyfel cast, the wound consumed new flesh as if the magic fed it. Now, much of the hand had festered, and become grey and swollen. Its smell turned his stomach and he had to turn away. His gaze struck the mirror again and he saw that his fingernails were turning black, as if great blood blisters grew beneath them. A closer examination revealed long thin streaks of grey coursing up past his wrist to his forearm. A turn of his limb confirmed his worst fears. The arcane cankerous disease, was not going to stop with his hand.
Ergyfel cleaned the wound, and pondered over his decision made the week prior—not to cut it off. The choice seemed no easier now, and indeed, it might be too late for that. There had to be another way. He was determined to find it. Ergyfel couldn’t imagine continuing the rest of his life as a one-handed cripple. Somewhere, amongst all the tomes he had collected over the years, there would be an answer—a cure. There had to be.
If only I had the ring. Blasted faerie! If Billy hadn’t taken it to the bottom of the sea …
Ergyfel’s mind circled around the image of Billy. Why was the boy invading his dreams each night? He was gone, swallowed up by the deep, and that was that.
Ergyfel completed dressing and left the royal chambers. He ignored or avoided all whom he passed, only offering, “Later, later!” to his cowed and feckless ministers. One of the less malleable toads persisted, but Ergyfel deboned him by saying, “You are fortunate I have something more important to dissect than you.”
At that moment, a servant arrived and announced, “My lord, the king’s funeral waits upon your presence.”
Ergyfel halted his stride and turned his face to the daring servant. The others backed away, leaving the man alone.
“Don’t you mean King William’s funeral, Gullinburst?”
The man bowed hastily. “Yes. Forgive me, Your Majesty. My grief got the better of me.”
Ergyfel demoralized the hall full of minions with his stare. He spun on his heels and left them dithering. Without turning back he proclaimed, “William denied me a crown at my coronation, I am returning the favor.” When he reached the end of the hallway, he added, “Do not speak to me until he’s buried.”
By the time he arrived at his study, Ergyfel’s mind had wrapped around the first fragment of a spell—a spell that would allow him a tiny glimpse of the future. He had dared to use the spell but once before; for to gaze on the future, as one not born with second sight, could drive a man mad or cost him his life.