“Witch!” A strident voice cut through the din like a whiplash. “That woman is nothing but a conniving witch!”
Instinctively, the soldiers began to clench around us. Startled faces turned this way and that, seeking to locate the source of the budding rancour.
The men were in a corner of the square. Some of them were armed with swords; a few others wielded clubs, sickles and pitchforks. Their faces were ravaged with the hardship of the streets and the lethality of their purpose.
“Let me guess,” I said in a low tone to Yvonne, “these are the rebels from the MEND.”
Her face had tightened into hard angry lines. “Yes, my lord. And they have no doubt come to ruin my day. I will not have this.” She turned her flinty stare on me. “We cannot have this on this very day. You have to give the order.”
But my eyes were on the gaggle of rabble rousers who were glaring back at us. The one who appeared to be their leader was speaking, spitting out his words and gesticulating wildly, brandishing the sword in his hand in the process. “That woman is not fit to be queen! She has no royal breeding – just a commoner like the rest of us who managed to trap the king’s desire with her wiles –!”
“Your Majesty…” Yvonne seethed at me.
I ignored her still.
“She’s cold and grasping, and sought not to content herself as the king’s paramour,” the rebel leader was snarling at the crowd. “Instead, she schemed to have the one true queen ousted from her position so she could wear her crown! Tell me, my fellow Sartians, is that any conduct fit for a queen –!”
“My lord, stop this…” Yvonne hissed urgently by my side.
I lifted a hand.
The soldiers tensed, battle-ready.
“And our king stands by her side, proudly proclaiming her as his wife and as our queen! Well, we say nay! We say, give us back our rightful queen! And keep the filth of your inner chambers inside there, where they belong!”
“Walter, please…” Yvonne husked.
And upon my signal – a flick of my two forefingers at the rebels – the soldiers let out a collective shout and descended on the enemy. The crowd shrank back, but the rebels met the soldiers’ advent headlong. The tumult of both sides came to grips and clashed amidst sharp clangs of metal against metal. The battle swayed to and fro for a short while, interspersed with the furious roars of fighting men and the high-pitched cries of those who were cut down. Splatters of blood splashed across the ground and bodies fell. The rebels stood no chance against the skilled might of the soldiers and soon, some of them began to fall back, pulling at their wounded comrades as they fled.
Just then, I heard the furious pounding of horses’ hooves on the ground. I turned my head to see three riders gearing their horses in a fast gallop towards us. As they came closer, I recognized the man riding in the lead.
“Sir Nonso,” Yvonne called out to him, “what brings you here away from your post at the castle?”
The riders pulled up before us; the big bay-coloured horses they were straddling reared their heads and whinnied sharply, their snouts flaring at their forceful exhalation.
“Sir Nonso?” I muttered at Yvonne.
She gave me that quizzical look and whispered back, “He is the Chief Imperial Guard of the palace and the royal estate, remember?”
“Your Majesties,” Nonso cut in with a slightly harried voice, “you have to come back to the castle. Quick!”
“Why?” Yvonne and I chorused.
“The sorceress, Eme-orgause sent me. A strange enchantment has been invoked inside the palace. She said I am to bring you both back at once.”
“A strange enchantment?” I asked.
“Invoked by whom?” Yvonne finished.
“She believes it is the machination of the evil wizard, Uzo-einy.”
There was a collective sharp intake of breaths from the people around me. Yvonne turned to me an expression that mixed dread with anger, and said, “Even in his exile, he yet torments us.”
“Your Majesties…” Nonso urged.
The next few moments were filled with a flurry of activities. While some soldiers remained behind to clean up the gory aftermath of the battle with the rebels, the rest of them shepherded us royals back into the carriage. The whip of the coachman lashed out, the horses neighed and the carriage was steered around, following speedily after the riders from the palace.
As we journeyed, my mind tortured me with thoughts of what could possibly await us at the palace. I had read enough Greek myths and Harry Potter novels to know the insidious might of sinister enchantments cast by malevolent sorcerers.
So – a million dollar question – what had this evil wizard-cousin of mine conjured to put everyone in such a dither? A mammoth serpent whose head grew doubly back each time you struck one off with a sword? A screaming banshee with the shrill vocal capability to wreak blood from the orifices of humans? A Medusa-like monster with eyes just waiting to turn us all into stones?
As each possibility fleeted through my mind, I could feel my heart throbbing in my chest and hear it in my ears. I’d just realized that the kings in those stories I’d read never met with a good ending. Jason, the Argonaut. King Midas. King Sisyphus. Achilles. Even Dumbledore – sure, he wasn’t a king, but he was a headmaster – had met with a rather spectacularly treacherous end.
As the carriage pulled up before the impressive stone edifice I assumed was my palace, I felt my panic begin to mount. I tried to control my breathing, but with the tension I was experiencing, it was difficult. Sweat dotted my temples as we swept up a vast flight of stairs into the palace, with Nonso in the lead.
Why are we marching majestically toward this dangerous enchantment? I wanted to ask. Shouldn’t we approach with some stealth? But the words stayed lodged in my throat. They weren’t exactly the utterances of a king.
Nonso led us through commodious marble-floored rooms with rich draperies and overhanging crystal, until he got to an oaken door. He rapped on it.
A female voice bade us to come in.
Nonso reached for the knob.
My heartbeat went into overdrive.
Yvonne stood tense beside me.
The door creaked open.
My blood pounded in my ears.
And then we were in a similarly well-decorated room with a lonesome figure in it. It was a buxomly-built woman clad in a dark cloak, with a hood that shadowed her face.
Before I acknowledged her, my eyes raced around the room. No multi-headed serpents. No hysterical banshees. No slithering monsters. I dared to breathe then.
“Eme-orgause, where is it?” I heard Yvonne begin in a querulous tone. “Where is this sorcery that is so peculiar you had to send imperial guards to interrupt my unveiling?”
I turned to face the woman as she lifted her hood. In spite of myself, I found myself gaping at Emem. Wait, Emem is the so-called Eme-orgause? Interesting.
“Your Majesty.” She arched her head at me. “I apologize for the intrusion, milady.”
“Never mind your apologies,” Yvonne cut in irritably. “Where is it – what is it?”
“There it is.” Emem pointed.
We followed her finger to a screen hanging from the wall in a corner of the room. I was looking at –
A television! In this medieval era?! I shook her head in befuddlement, shut my eyes and opened them. The television was still hanging there, the plasma screen staring blankly back at us.
“What is that?” Yvonne gasped.
I turned an incredulous look to her. “It’s a TV, of course,” I blurted, stifling the urge to laugh at her question.
“A what?” She turned to stare at me. They were all now staring at me, I realized. Nonso. Emem. Edeeth. And the other two imperial guards. And their expressions were a mixture of curiosity, bewilderment and apprehension.
“It’s a television, a – you know…” I gestured with my hands – “that thing you use to watch movies and programmes like Fashion Police and Keeping Up With The Kardashians…”
My hands flopped back to my sides.
Their faces stared uncomprehendingly at me.
And that was when I realized that whatever twist of fate had brought these friends of mine to this medieval era had not endowed them with the knowledge of the 21st century. I was the exception. This lot might as well think of Obasanjo as an ogre from the Forbidden Forest.
“My lord,” Yvonne began, “how do you know –”
“Never mind what I know,” I interrupted curtly. Turning to the sorceress, I said, “Emem – er, Eme-orgause, how did that get here?”
“I was making the rounds in the castle. I entered this room, and it was there” – a fractional shake of her head – “the strangest thing.”
“How do you know it is the handiwork of my cousin?”
“Because he appeared on the screen moments after my entrance” – her expression soured – “and asked to see you.” She shifted her gaze to Yvonne. “And you.”
“Did he say what he wanted with us,” Yvonne asked, piqued.
In that instant, a loud clap, a sound similar to the one that accompanied a flash of lightning streaking across a stormy sky, crashed through the room, startling all of us but the sorceress. She stood stoically, watching, waiting. A slight rumble roiled through the room and sparks frizzed from the sides of the television.
“It seems he’s here to give us the answer himself,” Emem said tonelessly.
The television screen flickered to life, the blankness disappeared and in its stead was a familiar figure. The lean features. The icy good looks. And the eyes…those eyes that were chilling – small, almond-shaped, and giving off the sense that there was nothing behind them, only a cold chasm, windows to a house long abandoned.
“Greetings, my dear cousin.” Uzo’s voice was glacial enough to inflict the Sahara with a snowstorm. “Oh, wait, that is disrespectful of me. It ought to be Your Majesty.” He placed a sneering stress on the title.
“What do you want?” I snapped. In spite of my irritation, I was surprised to see him clad in a grey-coloured bodysuit. It wasn’t exactly the kind of wear you find in medieval times. Neither were the bank of monitors and the blinking electronic lights behind him that made it seem as though he was seated inside some sort of high-tech command center.
What is going on here? I wondered wrathfully, feeling the angst begin to claw its way back inside.
Instead of answering me, Uzo turned his head to look at Yvonne. His lips moved into a slight cold smile. “My, Yvonne, you do settle down into your queenship quite nicely. That crown looks even more becoming on you than it did your predecessor.”
Her lips tightened.
I snapped again, “What do you want, Uzo?”
He turned back to me. “What do I want? What I’ve always wanted – your place as king of Sartia.”
“You’ll have to wait several eternities to have that,” I sneered. “Are you sure you’re willing to wait that long?”
A cold laugh gusted from his mouth. “Oh, my dear cousin, you always were one with a biting sense of humour. It always used to amuse you to taunt me. Always. Like when it delighted you to banish me from Sartia, the land I called home.”
“Why shouldn’t he?” Yvonne cut in heatedly. “You made your disdain for his kingship obvious, the traitor that you are. Banishment was benevolent of His Majesty. I’d have had your head on a stake, if it were up to me,” she spat.
“Well, you know what they say about benevolence. Bestow them on the wrong person and it comes back to haunt you as the worst mistake you’ve ever made.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I seethed.
That cold smile again. There was something ominous about it this time. “Look around me, Your Majesty. I have managed the kind of dark magic no other sorcerer has accomplished. I reached into the Dark and propelled myself several decades ahead of our time. Into an era with the know-how to destroy you and your beloved kingdom.”
“Uzo, now just a minute –”
“You know, in retaliation to your banishment, I wanted to raise me an army of the Dark to storm the castle gates and slay you and seize your crown, imposing my kingship on the people. But then I realized, the people of Sartia love you too much. You have deposed three queens and taken yet another, still they remain loyal to you. No one would welcome me as their king.” Bitterness coloured his tone. “So, I decided not to bother about the kingdom of Sartia anymore. And I changed my idea of revenge. It cost me, oh how much it did. But it will be worth it when I sink you and all you love into the abyss of the underworld.”
“Cousin,” I began, panic joined the other emotions vying for position in my voice, “be reasonable –”
“I am not your cousin, Walter,” he snarled. “I am simply the face you’ll carry with you with the name you’ll call out in anguish when I send you lot to your deaths.” And the most maniacal laugh ripped from his mouth, reached out through the tiny speakers of the television and settled on my skin, lifting on it a horripilation of dread with its clammy touch.
And the television screen flickered back into an impervious blankness. The sorcerer was gone.
“Wait – what – what does he mean to do?!” Yvonne swung a wild look around, from Emem to me and back. “What does he mean to do to us!”
“I do not know, my lady –”
“You have to know!” she shrieked. “You’re a witch with great powers! You have to stop him –”
Her words were cut off by the sound of high-pitched whistling sound that seemed as though it was screeching through the atmosphere towards us, its resonance increasing as the distance shortened. With alarm blooming in my mind, I turned and ran out of the room. A rush of feet told me that the others were not very far behind. We ran until we burst out into the castle courtyard. The courtiers and imperial guards littered on the grounds were all looking up at whatever it was that was carving a path through the sky at us. I turned my face up. The object was very diminutive, increasing however as it whistled closer. I couldn’t make it out very much, but I was from the 21st century. I’d watched enough Hollywood movies and read enough spy novels to guess what my cousin had sent after us from this time’s future.
My blood ran cold.
My mouth turned dry.
And the missile struck the ground several yards away from the castle with a force that caused a violent tremor to tear across the ground for miles around. We staggered on our feet. Yvonne reached out to grasp my arm. Plumes of dust corkscrewed into the air and a low rumbling noise groaned from the bowels of the earth. The noise grew louder and louder, and the dust spiraled outwards rapidly, stretching up like a dirt-brown gossamer-like curtain and tightening its perimeter around us. Some of the people in the courtyard stared, petrified in place, while others, amidst cries of terror, turned and fled for the palace, for what they assumed was safety.
“Your Majesty!” Nonso called urgently when he came to my side. “We have to get inside the castle!”
I stood, unmoving, staring at the moving soil.
Houses crashed to the ground as it swept towards them; trees fell like pins. Everything without was sinking into the earth, getting swallowed by the chasm within it.
“Leave me be,” I answered. “But take everyone else inside.”
“No!” Yvonne cried, clutching my arm. “I’m not leaving your side. Come with us please, Walter…Come with me…”
I turned to look down at her face which had lost its haughtiness from moments before. In its place was an aching vulnerability – lips trembling with fear and eyes misted with tears.
She stared back at me. Her eyes searched mine. She saw. And she whispered, “We are going to die, aren’t we?”
I didn’t answer that. I simply unclenched her grasp from my hand and said in a low tone, “Follow the guards inside. Stay there, okay?”
She nodded, blinked, and beads of tears glistened down her cheeks. She allowed herself to be shepherded back into the castle. I turned and stared at the approaching devastation. The loamy curtain drew closer; it toppled the walls, tumbled across the lawns, and crushed the fleeing people in its path. I stood and looked on. However, just before it descended on me, I dropped to a crouch, shut my eyes and called my cousin’s name with all the wrath I could muster while I waited…
The name was still on my lips when I gasped awake, my eyes blinking open, my skin crawling with a reminiscent feeling of the touch of dust and soil. For a long moment, I simply lay in bed, my heart pounding away erratically, while I soaked in the gratitude that it had all been a dream.
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