It was a coldish day and rainy, and Anyr wished she were home under the warm covers of her bed. She was shivering and upset that her scruffy fur coat did little to keep her warm. She would probably catch a cold. But growing ill was the least of her worries, for a far more pressing matter was at hand.
Anyr watched the pale, dumpy fellow wearing squalid gray robes, who stood just across from her parents near the dais on the far side of the castle square. He was preparing to read a very special letter. There was nothing particular about the man, but he was as solemn a fellow as she had ever seen. His thick white beard only made him appear even more dreadful. Anyr didn’t like the looks of the man and wondered why someone so important would dress so poorly. Perhaps he simply had a bad tailor, she thought. More than anything else, Anyr dreaded the man’s willful attempt to make everyone nervous. How long would he force them all to wait in the freezing rain before he decided to read the letter? Anyr could already feel a sneeze coming on. As if reading her mind, the man cleared his throat noisily and bellowed out in a very loud voice the contents of the letter:
By the powers vested in me, I, Caldor, Minister of Affairs and royal executor to her majesty, Rhiannon Eldess, High Queen of the Northern Realm, hereby summon ye, noble stewards to the throne of the kingdom of Kaldan, King Krüge and Queen Yvora Falinn, to a public gathering at hereby invitation. For to avoid further hostilities on account of prior wars levied against Queen Rhiannon, their Excellencies are counseled forthwith to satisfy the conditions of her said majesty’s treaty by which ye and your subjects are bound. By provision of this lawful institution, their Excellencies shall hereby provide tribute to her said majesty on the sixth day of every fourth month of the year.
In addition to quarterly tribute of no less than one half of all acquired taxes made of Kaldan’s citizenry, their Excellencies must yield as payment to her said majesty ten of their youngest female citizens so as to maintain amity between respective parties. On said date on which summons is to be held, their Excellencies shall form assembly of their subjects for public display of all female citizens currently under the age of fifteen, not withstanding of, or excluding, those of royal office or servitude. Save only for grave illness or death impending, no exceptions shall be made to the attendance of hereby summons. A registry of all Kaldan’s citizens, including their Excellencies’ heirs, shall be made privy to said Minister of Affairs so as to execute her said majesty’s royal wishes. Compliance to these orders shall result in a continuance of suspension of aggression against Kaldan and its respective citizens.
Correspondence to their Excellencies given on this sixth day of the eighth month of the thirteenth year of the rule of Rhiannon, High Queen of the Realm.
Now that he had delivered his edict, Caldor gave instructions to the knights in his charge to scour the assembly. One by one, all the young girls were forced into a huddle in the middle of the castle square. There was much shoving and weeping as Anyr was forced into the ranks of the young girls. She was frightened, but knew she had to keep calm. Anyr had not been allowed to stand with her family during Caldor’s reading of the royal decree. But as this was not the first time Anyr had attended one of these summons, she knew her parents were trying to protect her. For if she had been allowed to stand with her family, she would immediately have been identified and selected to go off with Caldor for some imagined transgression between her parents and the High Queen. At least that was what she was told. However, it did surprise Anyr to find her sister Laris standing beside her. Laris must have noticed that she was afraid, for she took Anyr’s hand and squeezed it.
Anyr remembered asking Laris the night before why the High Queen wanted to take the young girls away from their families. Laris simply answered that the High Queen was an evil woman who did terrible things to the girls she captured. Laris did not explain to Anyr what those things were, but Anyr knew that she did not want to be taken by the High Queen’s henchmen.
“Before the selection begins, I must know from their Excellencies if they have complied with the summons,” said Caldor.
“On your word that no more than ten girls of rightful age are to be selected to become your prisoners, my wife and I have complied with the summons and placed our daughters within the gathering in the castle square,” said the king.
Then Caldor replied, “Your cleverness has ever served you well, King. But your luck has run dry. For on this day, as pleases my lady, I personally shall select who is to be among the chosen. And to guarantee that all goes as my lady wishes, I shall hereby use the Orb of Sight. I need not tell you that your daughters shall not hide from me again!”
No sooner than he had made his threat, Caldor unveiled from his cloak a small glass orb. Anyr could see her mother grow pale with fear. The fact that Caldor was going to select which girls would go with him to the castle of the High Queen was dreadful enough, for rumor had it that he was a sorcerer. That he was also going to use some magical device to seek her and her sister out from among the assembly of girls was more than Anyr’s little heart could take.
Minutes seemed like hours as Caldor searched for unwilling victims. Every now and then his cheeks reddened with delight as he felt himself drawing nearer to the king’s daughters. One after the other, Caldor selected which girls were to be taken to the High Queen. Anguished cries could be heard coming from the crowd as distraught parents watched their daughters become his prisoners. Finally, the moment came when all but one girl was chosen to complete the number of those who were to go off with Caldor. Anyr watched as Caldor approached her and her sister. Suddenly, Anyr remembered the magic gem she had in her coat pocket. Laris had given it to her the night before and told her that it would keep her safe during the summons. Would it really save her life? Anyr clutched the gem tightly in her palm wondering what would happen now.
Caldor took long strides down the procession of girls until he eventually came to a halt before Laris. With deeply scrutinous eyes he observed her reflection through his magic orb and said, “Ah, a fine one, you. And how the orb glows. I perceive that you might just be the one I’m looking for. Come to think of it, my child, save for your flaxen-gold hair and matchless beauty, you have the very look of your father: skin pale as snow, fierce eyes of gray, mood dark as pitch, and a glower to match. Yes. How the orb glows.”
It seemed at that moment that all was lost, and that poor Laris would have to go with Caldor to an undesirable fate. But Anyr could not allow her sister to be taken. While Caldor contemplated whether or not to take Laris as the final girl, Anyr secretly dropped the magic gem into her sister’s coat pocket. Immediately, Caldor’s orb ceased to glow.
“Then again, you may not be the one. Alas, the orb knows best after all. Still, I wonder…”
Laris said nothing, but watched Caldor with hateful eyes. Indeed, thought Anyr, Laris was very much like their father with such courage. Finally, Caldor’s eyes reached Anyr.
“Yes, another fine candidate for the High Queen—and so pretty. Blood-red cheeks on snow-white skin, pale grey eyes like ocean’s deep, moon-shone hair of brightest gold, and fair like spring that brings the rose. You are the right age. Let me guess, 8, or is it 9? Even if you were not the king’s daughter, you should make for a fine treat for my lady. But even now the ruse is up! Here!”
Anyr let out a shriek when Caldor suddenly took her into his iron grasp.
“Too long has your father protected you from the sleepless eyes of the High Queen, little one. But no more! It is done!” cried Caldor, holding aloft his magic orb so that all could see its blinding glare. Another loud shriek came from the direction of the dais where the king and queen stood. The queen was wailing frantically. The king could hardly restrain his wife from flying from the dais to come to Anyr’s rescue.
“Only one daughter remains, King Krüge. And she, too, shall learn most piteously the grim fate that awaits her sister here,” said Caldor.
“Must you take away from me my very flesh and blood? She is but a child!” cried the king.
“It is to the High Queen that all in your country belongs, not you,” replied Caldor. “Every gold or silver coin, cot, rick, hovel, or beloved child of Kaldan is hers to do with as she pleases!”
“Child-eater! I will not let you take my daughter away!” cried the queen, still trying to rip herself free from her husband’s grip.
“You would dare break the writ that has kept your people safe from my lady’s wrath? The very same writ that your husband’s father signed with his dying hands? The lives of your people must mean very little to you for you to speak so boldly against Rhiannon Eldess, Scourge of Kings!”
“We shall not oppose you, Caldor. But some day this evil you have committed against my House in your wicked queen’s name will have to be paid for,” said the king, overcome with tears.
Then Caldor scolded, “Empty threats, King, do little to win back the life of a father’s child. I hope you have made your peace with your daughter, for never shall you see her again, lest it be in the next world!”
No sooner than Caldor spun around with Anyr in hand to join the ranks of his knights and the rest of the captive girls, Laris suddenly lunged after her. So fearful was Laris of losing her young sister that it took more than one of Caldor’s knights to stave her off. Laris might have incurred the lethal anger of Caldor’s knights had her brother Kòdobos not forced his way through the incensed crowd from the dais to restrain her.
“Don’t worry yourself, young princess. I will return for you,” said Caldor, his eyes trained on Laris. Angrily, Laris snatched herself free from Kòdobos and watched helplessly as Anyr was led away from them. Poor Anyr’s screams were drowned out by the lament of the irate crowd that sobbed over the young girls now stolen from them.
An Epic Fantasy Adventure!
THE LEGEND OF WITCH BANE