Chapter One: The Crime
The night had fallen gently on the sleepy kingdom following a day that had been bright and peaceful. The fields had been mown, the bread had been baked, the floors swept and the linens aired. The soft breeze whispered that tomorrow would be bright and shining as well. The servants of the High King were readying the great house for the night. The King’s household had all retired to their family rooms. In the nursery the nurse sat rocking the young prince. His cry had been unusual tonight, and she was tired from the watch.
Quiet was sitting about the King’s house like a great calm; the sun had shuttered his eyes and darkness was now gathering in the streets and hedgerows. Outside in the deepening colors of the evening a traitor was working his greedy trade.
Every night at sunset the great house closed its outside gates and doors, and drew its bridges. Once the bridges were drawn, and the gates and giant doors were closed, they would not be opened again until after the daybreak. It was the responsibility of the field marshal to walk the doors at each gate every night to see that they were barred; to climb the battlements and look down to see, before the last light had left the sky, that the bridges had been raised. After this he would appear before the King, and make his bow and everyone in the great house would know that they were now safe for another night.
Today, however, the field marshal still sat in his room at the top of the highest tower, his feet on his desk, with his head back against the wall in an unnatural sleep. Shadows were moving silently along the back of the castle wall. The small gate at the back of the castle that opened on the side of the mountain was ajar and the bridge had never been raised. The shadows poured in silently in an unending line, moving soundlessly into the house of the High King.
The fire was started in a corner of the stable. Slowly, insidiously, like a malignant virus, smoke seeped up the walls, along the floors, under the doors and in over the window sills. It was late summer so fires were not in many of the rooms of the castle and even the kitchen fire had been banked for the night. The first warning they had that something was wrong, was the smell of smoke. A knight ran into the hall where the family was gathered and told the King they had a fire in the stable. King Caelestis turned and told everyone to stay in that part of the castle and if the smoke became thicker to climb up the stone steps of the tower to the open air; but not to open the door until he returned. Then stepping out into the hall and through the door opposite leading to the nursery he told the young nurse to do the same.
The stable was below the great house though not inside the main walls. Still the fire would spread rapidly and require all the men and able bodied women in the great house to work hard to extinguish it. The shadows had divided. They were in number, just in case the plan had an unforeseeable flaw. The first group had gone along the wall behind the stable and behind the outbuildings storing the horse gear, and armory. Here they sat quietly, allowing the fire to do its damage. The second group stole silently up the now abandoned center stair into the top floor where the family enjoyed fresher air in the summer. They were not poorly informed; they went straight to the nursery and knocked at the door.
“Who is it?” The question came from inside the door.
“The King sent up fresh water in case the Crown Prince should choke on the smoke,”
“Clearly” she thought, “the fire was not in the passageway if the kitchen servant could stand there with the water,” so she pulled back the bolt. They rushed at her pulling a burlap sack over her head, tying it quickly around her mouth so she couldn’t scream. They bundled her up like a bag of feed, over a hard shoulder and carried her from the room, down the stairs, further down to another level, through the back kitchen, the kitchen garden and pens that held the chickens, piglets, ducks, and goats, though the door in the wall, through the gate, across the bridge, into the wood. She was slung across the back of a horse and jolted till she fainted from the knowledge that she was most certainly going to die.
The king and his men, all the young men of the castle, and the young women formed a bucket chain, and drew water from the well and the animal troughs. Before very long the fire was out. The King, looking around for his field marshal realized his absence and sent someone looking for him.
“When you find him, tell him to report to me,” said King Caelestis, as he went to assure his family that all was well again. He knocked at the door of the hall where the family was, and upon gaining entry assured them that all was well. Then he stepped across the hall to the nursery and knocked. When no answer came, he opened the door and went in. It was puzzling that the nurse was not here, or the young prince, but perhaps she had taken him up to the tower as commanded. The King bounded up the steps to the tower two at a time only to find it empty. He came down, called his knights, and all the servants; he ordered the whole house and all the castle grounds and buildings searched. It was pointless, the young Prince, barely three years old, was gone, as was his nurse.