Queen Lysandra tried to force herself to feel something. Pain. Anger. Hatred. Relief. Anything would be better than this hollow emptiness inside.
The messenger continued staring up at her and instinctively, she laid her hand upon his shoulder.
His memory of this morning's events was still quite strong. She followed his thoughts deep into his mind, searching for clues to the cause of her husband's death.
Lysandra closed her eyes and let herself follow the lad's grief until she saw the setting as clearly as he had seen it only a few hours before.
Sigeric was racing his gray stallion alongside Evald's bay. Evald leaned into the jump as his bay cleared the bushes and stream without a hint of effort. Sigeric's gray also landed safely on the other side. Sigeric did not.
This could not be right. The king was too good a rider to ever fall.
What happened earlier?
Lysandra's fingernails bit into the boy's flesh as she moved past his limited vision and backward in time to the day's beginning. What had the boy seen that his weak eyes failed to note?
Evald was standing near the king now, laughing and joking loudly. He was next in the line of succession and she'd always warned Sigeric to watch out for him.
A lone hand passed near the king's drink and no one but
Lysandra caught a glimpse of the powder which drifted into the king's ale.
Poison? But I protected him from that.
She needed a different view of this.
Lysandra, falling into the body of her husband Sigeric, tightened her grip upon the reins as the first wave of nausea passed.
Evald shouted his traditional challenge and raced off.
Pride and arrogance filled Lysandra's body and pushed aside the pain. She kicked her steed into a gallop and twisted the reins around her fingers.
"Pull up, you fool!" she wanted to shout. But the past is done and cannot be undone. Only the future can be changed.
She fought helplessly as her legs weakened and cramps racked her body. The time when she could have controlled the great horse was gone. Given full rein for the first time in his life, the stallion ran like never before.
Even as Lysandra fought the panic which gripped Sigeric in his last wild ride, she could appreciate Evald's cleverness.
If the king had died after a sudden illness, everyone would have suspected poison. By giving Sigeric an overdose of a healing drug, then leading him in a neck-breaking chase over rough terrain, he created an accidental death that would never be questioned.
Only I know the truth.
Another sharp pain brought Lysandra's mind back to grip with her husband's fate. She should leave him and return to the present. Continuing like this was pointless.
But she couldn't let go. Much as she wanted to break the connection, something compelled her to stay to the bitter end.
As the reins slipped from between her fingers, Sigeric's stallion closed the gap on Evald's bay until the horses were racing side by side. Their eyes met for just a moment before Evald laughed and turned his horse toward the jump. The gray followed.
Lysandra's fingers clutched air as the horse reached the bank and leaped. She felt herself tumbling, then her head struck something hard and sharp.
Water closed over her and she lost her grip on Sigeric's mind as he slid downward into a place where no mortal, not even one such as herself, could follow.
Lysandra opened her eyes and realized the boy's face was twisted in pain. Physical pain. She released her grip and turned to the crowd gathered before her.
No one in the court could be considered a friend. She'd left all those behind to travel across the wild sea with the prince who had shipwrecked upon the warm shores of her homeland.
Were it not for the beginnings of life she carried inside, she would be free to change into a bird before their eyes and fly away. But pregnancy, even in her early stage, carried a few restrictions. She must maintain a constant weight and there was no bird she knew which weighed as much as herself. A large, overweight dog would work but it would be best to wait until she was alone --
"Your majesty?" Lady Maura rested her hand on the queen's shoulder, interrupting Lysandra's thoughts. "I am sorry to interrupt your grief but we must leave immediately for seclusion."
"May I explain, your majesty?"
It was Thylda this time. A nice young girl, but one with unfortunate political connections. Her brother is--what? Third in the line of succession?
"I am so sorry," Thylda said. "But you do not yet show signs and there are those --"
Thylda's voice cracked and broke. Her face flushed deep red and when she spoke again, it was in a soft whisper the queen could barely hear.
"There are some who, if they found they were no longer with child, would take a lover to conceive another child quickly so it would not be known the king's child was lost."
"What nonsense!" Lysandra didn't need to feign outrage. The emotion came naturally. "And you would seek to insure an honest inheritance by locking me away until enough time has passed for you to be certain the child I carry is truly the king's?"
Thylda bowed low before her. "Forgive me, your majesty. But it is the law."
Lysandra glanced around the room, taking a close look at every face.
One woman eyed her with a coldness that spoke of great familiarity and hatred yet Lysandra didn't recognize the face at all. Or did she?
Lysandra noted the firm breasts and the small waist grafted onto a rather mannish frame. With a start, her mind connected the woman with the family.
So this is what the great warlord Evald would look like as a woman? She repressed an urge to laugh aloud. This must be his sister, Reva. How convenient that her first visit to court coincides with the king's death.
Lysandra forced herself to speak softly and hesitantly, hoping to continue the pretense of being a powerless woman in a strange land. "Where shall I be during this traditional seclusion?"
"In the east tower upper chamber." Reva answered.
For a brief instant, Lysandra felt the ground falling away beneath her. She'd prepared for every possibility but this one.
Sigeric was handsome, brave, foolish, and vain. Lysandra had known it was only a matter of time until his carelessness led to his own death. She had established secret hiding places in various parts of the castle but the tower had been sealed since Siegric's mother died there years ago.
I don't even know what it looks like!
"Who will be staying with me?" Lysandra asked, allowing fear to enter her voice. "Am I allowed to choose?"
Reva lifted her head high. "Until my brother arrives to join the council, Lord Gylian makes the decisions. He's chosen me, Maura, and his sister, Thylda, to remain with you."
A wise man, our good Lord Gylian. With the king dead and Evald certain to make a try for the throne, he's covering all his bets. The challenger's sister. The king's former whore. And his own sister, of course, who will dutifully perform whatever task he assigns and report back to him.
"I need to obtain a few things from my room --"
"You may take nothing with you," Reva said. "We will personally see to all your needs and bring anything you request from your rooms."
Lysandra forced herself to smile. "How very kind of you. Let us go then."
Reva nodded and motioned to the guards. They led them down a long hallway and up the never-ending flight of stairs. Lysandra took great care to cry freely and occasionally mumble senseless words. To be silent in her grief would attract attention. Let them think her too distraught to plan.
Her performance must have been convincing. Even Reva said nothing as the guards flung open the door to an incredibly filthy little room.
The place stank of bat droppings, and little light managed to filter through the single window within the cell.
A dungeon could hardly be less appealing.
Reva whispered something to the guards and the door closed behind them. Lysandra heard the bar drop into place.
Or so they believe. She looked closely at her companions. How much did they know and how much did they merely suspect?
There were the rumors of her ability to shift shapes but she had never been caught in the act.
A loud knock interrupted her thoughts. The bar drew back and the door opened. A handful of servants raced through the chamber, struggling to keep pace with Reva's demands, sweeping and cleaning the place into respectability.
The moon was rising by the time the fireplace was lit and oil lamps set into place. Fresh reeds and sweet herbs masked the dank smell that had filled the room earlier.
Lysandra stirred the fire as the servants slipped out the door and the bar fell back into place.
The fireplace shaft was larger than usual for this type of castle. A sufficiently slim and agile woman might not have much difficulty scaling it, were it not for the fire burning below. A primate of the type common to her birth land could scale the chimney in minutes; but stones burn long after the fire is out. A desperate woman might try this, but she could never be successful.
No doubt Reva had also thought of this and intended to keep the fire burning through the warm days ahead as well as the cooler nights.
For however long I'm allowed to live.
Lysandra walked to the window and laid her hands against the iron grille.
She spread her fingers. A little more than a handspread separated the bars. This presented a challenge but a not impossible one. She could escape. There was one form she knew that could retain her weight yet squeeze through those bars.
Lysandra waited until the others were safely asleep that night then slipped out of bed. They left no water in the room so she couldn't douse the fire but they hadn't considered the chamberpot.
She stripped out of her clothing quickly, leaving it beside the fireplace before pouring the chamberpot of urine upon the fire. With a little luck, it would be hours before they noticed her absence. If not, they would look in the wrong place for her, thinking she had been desperate enough and fool enough to attempt an escape up the chimney.
A foul smell seeped upwards from the fireplace, threatening to fill the room with the stink of urine-soaked wood.
Fool! Simply escaping wasn't good enough for me. I had to play this little trick and look what it might cost me.
Reva coughed and turned. Lysandra rushed to the window and began changing.
Another cough and then a loud screech filled the air.
"Guards! The fire's out. Guards!"
Lysandra heard the door crashing open as the change was almost complete. Afraid to wait any longer, she eased her head out the window and stretched her body taut. Her tail wrapped itself around the grille until her forebody found a firm grip upon the rough stones of the castle wall.
That was too close.
She would have giggled with excitement had the form of a python allowed such silliness. Instead, she slithered carefully down the rough stones and outcroppings leading to the roof of the kitchen. She reached the ground a few moments later and turned into a dog.
She turned towards the drawbridge and paused, realizing it was up. She could swim the moat but did she really want to leave this kingdom to Evald?
Lysandra turned and trotted into the great hall then down the hallway leading to the staircases. People raced madly about but no one paid any attention to a simple dog.
Except the other dogs.
A hound sniffed her rear end and growled low. She knew how to stand up to him and make him back off but there was no time for that now.
Instead, she whirled about, touching him with her nose before he had a chance to back away.
Rabbits! she thought as she entered his mind. Down the hallway!
The dog took off at a run, knocking one person to the ground and angering a few others.
Lysandra trotted up the stairs and entered the king's chambers. She turned around and leaped against the door, closing it soundly. The rest was easy.
Sigeric was never this thin, but once she had his clothes on, people wouldn't notice. Lysandra dressed quickly and picked up the sword Sigeric always kept by his bed. It was one she'd had made before leaving her kingdom for the long, cold voyage to this land. She'd had it inscribed with both a promise and a warning.
Opening the door carefully, she waited until only one soldier was about.
The man turned, saw Lysandra wearing the form of his deceased king, and stepped back.
"Come here!" she shouted with Sigeric's voice.
"You're not dead?"
"Of course I am," she answered, fighting hard to keep her voice the same pitch and tone as Sigeric's.
"Tell the people I've an announcement to make."
The guard paled, then nodded.
Lysandra followed him down the hall, not even acknowledging all the gasps and whispers as people turned to stare. She waited until they were in the Great Hall, then stood beside the guard as he spoke.
"His Majesty, The King."
All eyes turned towards her. People walking into the room shrieked and turned pale.
"My people," she spoke slowly, pushing aside her grief long enough to carry out this masquerade. "I have died as the result of poison. My dearest friend and closest cousin slipped a drug into my drink that made me ill. Think any of you that I could ever fall off a horse without foul play involved?"
She looked around the crowd, staring fully at each person in turn. Not one of them doubted they saw the ghost of their own king.
Lysandra lifted the sword and handed it to Lord Gylian.
"I pass my crown to you, she said. "Seize the kingdom now, before the traitor, Evald, returns."
"I am honored --" Gylian began.
"Enough!" Lysandra said. "My grave awaits and I've no time for mortal discussion now. Let the queen escape in peace and protect my kingdom from Evald. I leave you now. Rule well and long, King Gylian, so that I may rest in peace."
She stepped back carefully, ever alert for a sign of suspicion but finding none. Turning on her heel, Lysandra walked quickly towards an empty room. People followed her but she sidestepped to the left as she turned a corner
then disappeared behind a secret panel. It was one she'd prepared long ago and there was a small chamber waiting, barely large enough for her to squeeze through the opening.
She shrank slightly, assuming the shape of a young boy so she could remove the clothes. Her task complete, she became a large dog again.
Lysandra felt a sense of satisfaction mixed with her grief as she made her escape. Justice was done. Evald would not gain the throne.
Lysandra shook the water off her coat after reaching the other side of the moat. She started to look back then stopped herself. Never look back. The past was done. It was time to go home.
She smiled, thinking of Gylian sitting on the throne now, fingering the inscription on Sigeric's sword and wondering at the strange inscription on the sword that the queen had given her husband:
Varium et mutabile semper femina. Woman is ever changeable and capricious.
Lysandra turned into a cheetah and disappeared into the woods, homeward bound at last.
Bio:"I have been writing professionally since 1991 and my fiction has been published in various print and ezines as well as anthologies. My most recently publised story was Blackbird, Fly!, published in Women Writing Science Fiction as Men, a DAW publication and my most recent publication prior to this was Meremaid Offerings, published in Sword and Sworcesses, another DAW publication. I work as a computer specialist for a government agency and my hobbies include gardening, knitting, working out at the gym, and sabre fencing."
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