CECELIA WOKE UP JUST BEFORE dawn and dressed herself in her male garments. The tight breeches fit her just right, though the shirt and coat was a bit loose on her small frame. The tall boots and hat completed her attire. She inspected herself in the mirror. She widened her eyes as she gazed at a young lad staring back at her.
I’ll fit in as a young man just fine, she thought proudly, thankful for her small breasts.
She inserted the dagger and then the smallsword beneath her belt at her waist and then turned to grab for her belongings. All set, she thought as she took a deep breath. She walked to the door and slipped out. She tiptoed across the corridor and then down the grand stairs. All were in quietness, and she was pleased the guards were fast asleep at their post.
The sun was starting to rise when she was standing just outside the palace gate, looking up at her mother’s window from the north side.
“I will bring back the Pearl of Life, Mother. Stay alive,” she murmured and turned toward the sleepy street of Zakynthus City, the capital city of Dardania Kingdom.
It didn’t take her long to get to the harbor. There were people everywhere, all of different color and dressed in different styles of garments. There were many ships ready for sailing that morning—all to different cities and kingdoms. She was thankful she had found a ship boarded to Kingsbridge City of Meridianus Kingdom, a route to the Demon Kingdom.
She bought herself a passage, and not long afterward, found herself in a small cabin with nothing more than a bunk. The bed itself was hard on her back, which was uncommon to her since her bed both back home and at the Van Zandt Palace were made of goose feathers. She sighed and closed her eyes for some sleep. It wasn’t long before she was swayed off and landed hard on the floor. She looked about her, her mind in a muddle of confusion. Where am I? Then her memory rushed back. She was about to get up when the ship swayed again and she was thrown on her backside.
Outside, she heard the ruffling of sea washing up on the floorboards and thunder booming. They were in the middle of a sea storm, she realized. Great, just what I needed. She hoped she wasn’t going to die before she reached her destination.
Staggering to stand, she went back to the bunk and lay still, trying very hard to ignore the motion of the ship rocking and the storm unleashing its anger on them.
It was bright and sunny after the night of horrible tornados. Cecelia found herself out and about, offering her fair and flawless cheeks to the sun to kiss.
On her fifth day, she was on the deck, looking down at the deep-blue ocean, when she heard a group of men talking behind her.
“It’ll have ta be done tanight.”
She glanced over her shoulder and saw five men talking. They were all dressed like commoners: boots, breeches, coat, and hats. Their clothing, however, was well worn, which indicated they had spent much time in the streets and seas. Their very stance was suspicious to her. It looked like they were conspiring.
“I dunno. What if t’ey found out?”
Ah, that certainly confirmed her suspicion. She moved closer to the corner so she could hear better.
“They’ll not find out. They’re dumb beasts,” one said, presumably the leader of the bunch.
Cecelia flicked her eyes to the five men again.
“What abou’ ta ‘reasure?”
“Nay, not talk ‘ere. Dangerous ‘ere. My cabin tonight…” the leader said.
Cecelia turned and saw they had already parted ways. The treasure? Were they intending to go to the Demon Kingdom to steal the Pearl of Life? The object was a rare piece indeed and would fetch a high price.
Cecelia returned to her room, deep in thought. She must find out more about the men. If they were intending to go to the Demon Kingdom, then she would be able to journey with them.
It didn’t take her long to learn of the men’s intentions. Two days later, she found them talking again, in a very secluded spot. Their talk concluded her suspicions. They did intend to go to the Demon Kingdom to steal the Pearl of Life. Knowing this was her only chance to have travel companions, she worked quickly in finding a plan to join them.
The next day, she pretended to bump into one of the five men. She introduced herself as a young lad in the process, traveling to different kingdoms to learn the art of exotic plants and such like. She explained she was particularly intrigued with the Demon Kingdom where various and unknown plants were located. She said she didn’t know how to get there, and she certainly didn’t know any ship that was going there anytime soon, which was true enough.
The man with the thick black beard looked at her, his large ears going quite red and his gray eyes sparked with interest when she mentioned she was quite rich and would offer any amount of gold coins, a universal currency in the nine kingdoms, in order to get there.
“Oh, aye, I do know of some who intended to go there.”
“Do you?” Cecelia smiled. “I would offer any amount as long as I get there and do some study of the plants. Surely you find them interesting, too? Such a mysterious place, don’t you think?” she said further.
“I will ask my people and give you the answer on the morrow.”
“Marvelous, my friend,” Cecelia said and turned to go. “Until the morrow, then,” she said over her shoulder.
It was midafternoon the next day that she saw the man she had approached the other day coming toward her.
“They agreed,” he said.
Cecelia smiled. “Good indeed. How much have they agreed on?”
“Ten gold coins.”
Cecelia raised her brows. The price was expensive indeed. But she wasn’t one to argue when her chance of getting to the island was more important.
“The voyage is dangerous and long. Looking after a wee lad like ye would cost us much.”
“Indeed,” Cecelia said, nodding. “I will pay half when you get me to this ship that is to go to the island, and I will pay the rest once I land there, safe and sound.”
“I can always find another. How do I know to trust you? For all I know, you could be tricking me to steal my gold.” Cecelia narrowed her eyes at him.
“What cabin do you stay in?”
“I will not tell you. What is the answer?” She stared at him sharply.
“’Tis a deal,” he said. “The ship arrives at Kingsbridge City on the morrow. Meet me at the port, and I will take you. We sail then.” He turned to go.
Cecelia sighed with relief. She returned to her cabin and packed her belongings she had unpacked when she’d arrived.
The next day, the ship arrived at Kingsbridge City. She waited at the port. People were everywhere, shouting and cursing, jostling and running, shoving and pushing each other to get to their destination. There were carts loaded with stacks of hay, family’s bags, vegetables, and animals like pigs, chickens, and goats zigzagging hazardously along the so-called roads. There were men on horses making their way toward the city streets. Never mind that they might step on beggars with their begging bowls. There were drunken sailors singing and shouting to whores who happily yelled back with their rusty voice, luring these poor, stupid sailors of their money. Cecelia felt, for the first ten minutes, very confused and dizzy. When she got her bearings back, she looked for the man she’d talked to on the ship the previous day.
“Come this way. The ship’s not far,” he said, leading her through the massive crowd.
He took her for a great long walk, away from the main port, until there was no noise of any kind made by human, except for the waves of the ocean water lapping onto shore. Then she saw a ship. It was small, very easily hidden in the dark and behind cliffs or cave. As she came closer, she saw men at work. They were in the process of packing and setting sail.
Upon the deck, she gave the man her promised five gold coins. He grabbed the currency greedily and showed her to her cabin. As she was about to enter, she saw a man with a thick dark beard and piercing blue eyes staring at her. He was big and tall. What a menacing-looking man, she thought and then shivered.
“How long will it take to get to the island?” she asked, turning away from the imposing stare.
“Three days,” came the quick reply.
Cecelia dreaded the thought of spending that many number of days in the company of these men. She considered changing her plan.
“We travel light and fast. No time to waste,” he said and left her before she could ask for her gold back and run off the ship.
At dinner, she ate some cheese and bread and then went to bed, not wanting to go outside, for she did not want to bump into any of them. After all, she told herself, she only wanted to get to the Demon Kingdom. She didn’t need to make friends with these men.
The rocking of the boat woke her in the middle of the night. She was thirsty. Surely, she thought, the men will all be asleep by now. She wouldn’t meet any of them. She left the room then to find fresh water.
All was in silence as she made her way through the claustrophobic corridor. She was lost for a moment in the darkness. She looked from one end to the other. Then she saw one door slightly ajar at the very end. She went toward it and looked in.
It was dark, though the hint of light from the moonlight shining through the window showed her there were stairs leading downward. The storeroom would be down there, and water, she was sure, would be there too.
She carefully made her way down. Once she landed at the bottom step, she stood for a moment to get used to the darkness.
Cecelia looked around. Her heart kicked in her chest. A cry, as though a child were whimpering for help. She scanned about her and made her way toward where the sound had come from. She found herself confronting a thick old door. The cry of the child was louder. She felt her heart burn in reaction.
Thud, thud, thud…
The whimpering was getting louder. Finding she couldn’t contain herself any longer, she opened the door, and to her horror, witnessed the most disgusting sight she’d ever beheld.
One of the men was whipping a boy no more than five years of age. So disgusted she was that without thought, she rushed to the man, grabbed him by the arm, and smashed her fist onto his face. The man fell against the wall, his lips bleeding from the attack.
He staggered up and stared at her. His eyes were wild. He sneered and shouted, “Out of me way!”
Cecelia knew a madman when she saw one. She cursed herself for not bringing her smallsword with her. However, if things did get out of hand, she still had her dagger.
“Don’t you come near!” she shouted back, moving to stand in front of the boy.
“Ye defend that demon, ye traitor,” he shouted.
Cecelia glanced at the boy behind her.
A demon? But how could that be?
The boy was no different from human. This man was so demented that he needed to be locked away for the safety of others.
“You’re mad!” she said. “May God have mercy on your soul.” She spit. Dismissing him, she turned her attention to the boy, lifting him. “Are you all right?”
“Traitor!” the man screamed and started whipping her with his strap. It slashed on her back, and Cecelia winced. She gritted her teeth and twisted to glare at the man. She jumped up, swiftly and expertly withdrew her dagger from her belt, and swung it across his wrist in one smooth motion. Blood spurted. The man screamed, dropping his strap to the ground.
“Me arm!” he shrieked.
Cecelia inserted the dagger back in her belt, rushed to help the boy up, and they ran to the door.
They were climbing the stairs when the thudding of footsteps reached their ears.
“Who goes there?”
Cecelia felt cold sweat settling on her body. She tried to drag the boy toward the top of the stairs. Just one more step, but the boy was quite heavy for a five-year-old. Once they were at the door, she saw the men appearing before them on the landing. She sighed with relief.
“Quick, that man, he’s mad,” she said breathlessly.
“Traitor!” the man from below shouted.
“Quick, seize him. He was beating this boy.”
When they simply looked at one another, as if they didn’t quite know what to do, she frowned at them for their lack of haste to help.
Finally, she saw the leader, Captain Jeremy Jackson, the one who had been staring at her that first day she climbed on the ship. He nodded in command. A man behind him came to her and grabbed the boy from her arms. The other seized her none too gently. Suddenly, Cecelia felt a coldness deep within her stomach.
“Lock them up and don’t let them get away,” Jackson snapped.
Cecelia widened her eyes. A sickening feeling lurched within her, and she wanted to vomit.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice a mere whisper.
“Don’t let him get away. He’s too precious,” Jackson said. He finally turned to her and glared at her with his malice-filled eyes. “I was hoping ye wouldn’t get involved, boy.”
Cecelia swallowed. She stared at the four men looking at her, their eyes dark.
What are they planning to do to us? More importantly, can I fight with all these men and escape with the boy?
She did some calculation in her head and found it was better to do what they wanted, because the boy, as she glanced at him, was tired and weak after the beating. Besides, where could they run off to in this small ship and the vast sea?
Cecelia heard groaning from behind her. She shifted and saw the mad man appearing from below the stairs.
“And you!” Jackson shouted. “I told you not to beat him.”
There was a low grunt and then, “But, master, he’s a demon.” He stared at Cecelia, his shaking hand was covering his bleeding wrist. “And that bastard, he cut me deep, master.”
Jackson turned to Cecelia. “Ye,” he growled, “ye know our plan. Ye won’t be leaving ‘ere alive. I’ll have to kill ye now.” He drew out his sword.
Cecelia stared at the sharp blade pointing at her. Good Lord, she thought, this is the end of it, and I haven’t even reached the Demon Kingdom yet.
Jackson moved the blade toward her. Cecelia hands reached for her dagger. She was ready to draw it out as Jeremy thrust the blade forward.
“Captain! The ghost birds, they are everywhere!” a man shouted from the door.
At this point, the blade halted near her neck and Cecelia’s dagger was halfway out of her belt.
“What?” Jackson shouted and twisted around. “Out with all the lights. Don’t let them see us,” he shouted. Then he turned his attention to Cecelia. “And, ye two, take them to the prison below,” he ordered as he rushed off toward the deck.
The men hustled off in every direction, blowing out candles in all the cabins and the torches in their hands. The corridor was suddenly almost in total darkness except for the small, flickering lit candle in a man’s hand, coming toward them.
He said, “Down ye two go,” as he pointed a sharp blade at them. “That’s right. Don’t ye struggle, demon, or this sword will cut ye alive.” And then he laughed as though he really liked the sound of that.
Cecelia stared at him and really would like to give a hard knock to his leering face.
“You too, boy, down you go,” he said, shoving the sword’s pointy end at her throat.
Gritting her teeth, she turned and walked back down the stairs, her arms around the limping boy. They were shoved into the wooden prison. The boy fell, and Cecelia quickly rushed to aid him. Once she got him lying down on the ground with his head resting on her lap, she looked up to see the man locking them up.
“Ye won’t live after we deal with the ghost birds,” he said, looking at her as he tested the locked door. “It’ll be a pleasure killing ye.” He laughed as he left them.
Cecelia turned to look at the boy. She saw his young face paled with fatigue.
“Were you kidnapped?” she asked as she stroked his blond hair.
The boy had his eyes shut. She heard his deep breathing and thought he was asleep. So she gave up waiting for his answer and closed her eyes as well.
She flashed her eyes open and noted that he was watching her. She was surprised his voice was still strong after the beating.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m awfully sore before, but I’m better now.”
She knew he was lying. No one could feel better that quickly after such a severe beating. But she said nothing.
“Do you miss your family?” she asked as a way to keep his mind away from the pain. She knew it worked when she thought of her loving family.
Once, she had fallen off Snow, her mare, and broken her ankle. The healer had made a potion for her to drink. It had been so bitter that most of the times she had spat the concoction back out. The healer had also bound her limb with a thick green mixture. The pain at night had been unbearable, but her mother had talked to her of her great ancestors on her mother’s side, of how bravely they had fought in wars, of how they had survived and were rewarded with an island called Rosevalley, of how they had turned that barren island into green, lush vineyard and farmland, and of how they had first built Rosevalley Castle with their bare hands. Her mother had also told her of how she’d met her father, a prince of the Dardania Kingdom, and of how they had fallen in love at first sight.
“I missed Mama and Papa,” the boy said, shifting his head so he lay more comfortably on her lap.
He was being very brave, Cecelia thought, remembering of how vicious the man had whipped him.
“Do you have any brother or sister?” she asked, thinking of Brian.
“No, but Mama promised to have more so I won’t be alone.”
“What’s your name?”
“Lucifer,” the boy said, shifting his head back again so he could look at her. “What’s your name?”
Cecelia thought for a moment. She didn’t know whether to tell him her real name or not. “Brian,” she said finally, using her brother’s name.
“You’re very brave for a human boy.”
Cecelia raised her brows at his statement. “I am not a boy, Lucifer.”
“Really? I don’t believe you,” he said firmly.
Cecelia smiled. “Think as you wish.”
Lucifer turned his face away again and closed his eyes. “Papa and Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick will save us,” he said some moments later.
“I do not know if your papa knows where we are,” Cecelia said, closing her eyes to get some rest.
“Those ghost birds, what could they be?” she said, wondering aloud.
Cecelia opened her eyes to look at him.
“They are birds that appear like ghosts.”
Cecelia was good at imagination. A dead bird was the picture that came to her mind, ones that could fly. But how could the men be afraid of some mere dead birds? She couldn’t imagine why. Then again, she reasoned with herself, she was green to this outside world.
“Thank you,” Lucifer said suddenly.
“What for?” She blinked at the boy.
“Stopping the madman.”
Cecelia smiled. “You’re welcome.”
“When we get home, I will tell Papa and Uncle Drake to thank you properly by giving you a big feast.”
“You must be very rich.”
“Aye, I live in a castle with Papa and Mama, Uncle Drake and Uncle Gerick, and Leon, and ugh, Julius…”
Cecelia saw that he went quiet all of a sudden. “That’s nice. They must love you very much, then,” she said, wondering from what kingdom this boy came from. And why had those men kidnapped him? Apparently, it must be for ransom. Lucifer did say his family was rich. She wondered if he was royalty, like herself.
“Aye,” the boy said proudly.
“I love my family, too,” Cecelia said, thinking about her mother and dead father.
Lucifer turned to look at her again. “Why are you so sad?”
Cecelia blinked. She didn’t know tears were brewing in her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and said, “My mother is very sick. I must find the Pearl of Life to save her.”
“What’s wrong with your mother?”
“She was poisoned.”
“Oh, that does sound bad,” Lucifer said.
She knew he didn’t understand anything about poison or the pain she had within her heart right then. He was just trying to help ease the hurt. But that was still kind of him.
“I was poisoned once,” Lucifer began, “with the white tiger butterfly. It stung so bad, and I cried. Mama kissed me so I wouldn’t feel the hurt. Usually I don’t like her kissing me so hard cos it’s embarrassing in front of my friends. But this time I like it. The witch made me a potion. It was so very bitter. I didn’t like it much, but Uncle Drake said brave warriors like to drink bitter potion, so I drank it anyway.”
“That’s nice,” Cecelia said. “What’s a white tiger butterfly?”
He stared at her, his eyes large. “Don’t you know anything?” he said.
Cecelia shook her head.
“It’s a butterfly,” he began. “They are very big, this size.” He held out his hand in the air as to indicate the size of the insect.
“Lord, that is large,” Cecelia said, looking at the empty space the size of a fat cat.
“Aye, they sting badly, too.”
“You said you were kidnapped. Do they intend to get ransom from your parents, then?” she asked.
The boy nodded.
“We’ll have to escape.”
“I know. I wanted to escape, too. I want to do it myself. I don’t want anyone to save me,” Lucifer said.
Cecelia thought it odd that only a moment ago he had said his father and Uncle Drake would save them.
“I’ll think of a plan before we reach the island. Sleep now, Lucifer, so we can gain some energy for the escape. I am rather tired.”
“I know how you humans tire,” he said, closing his eyes.
Cecelia wasn’t listening to him; she had already turned her attention to the locked door. There must be a way out, she thought. Somehow, once they landed on the demon land, she’d have to find a way out before those men killed her and Lucifer.
* * * * *