|Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
The prison door banged open, and my eyelids flew apart. I scrambled to the door in surprise and peered out of the small barred window as two guards and a soldier walked down the rows of cells. I frowned. Meal time was not for another three hours.
I slipped back to the corner of my dark cell. Their arrival couldn't have anything to do with me. I hadn't had a single visitor in the eight years I'd been a prisoner.
My cell door rattled and the light from a torch appeared in the window.
"On your feet," the soldier shouted as my door flew open.
I remained sitting. My first thought was that the king had finally decided to execute me, but I knew that couldn't be true. He'd tried to kill several of my associates before I'd been caught, but he'd failed every time. By the time I was captured, he had given up on executing. Instead, he threw me in a dark dungeon cell.
"The king requires your services," the soldier announced, motioning for the guards to seize me.
My services? The king? I was sure I hadn't heard correctly. The king hated magic more than anything else. Anyone caught using it received a harsher punishment than murderers or traitors. Magic had killed the king's father, and he had hunted those who could use it from that day on.
Despite my misery, I'd never regretted the act that had led to my imprisonment, not even when the meager food made me sick to my stomach or when the constant darkness was almost unbearable. The little girl would have died if I hadn't healed her.
"I'll stay here," I spat, trying to shake off the two guards who were grabbing my arms. Even the thought of leaving my small cell couldn't make me work for the man who had tortured so many of my friends.
"You'll be rewarded," the soldier said in a voice that was supposed to sound convincing.
I snorted, still struggling. The king was too afraid to let me loose, and that was the only reward I wanted.
My face stung as one of the guards hit me. I stopped struggling just long enough for them to seize me. I was shoved to my feet while my hands were tied roughly behind my back.
"I'll never work for the king," I snarled, trying to struggle again. "I'd rather die."
"Not even for your mother?" the soldier asked with the air of knowing something that I didn't.
I stopped struggling as a fear that hadn't been there before crept into my body. My family had been carefully hidden in the Mulee Forest before my capture. I'd made sure of that. How could the king have my mother?
"My mother's dead," I growled, testing to see how much they knew.
"Not yet," the soldier taunted, seeing that his bait was tempting me.
"You have the wrong woman," I snarled. "My mother died before I came here."
"You can't fool us," the soldier jeered. "You look— used to look just like her," he laughed, casting the torchlight on my skinny frame.
Alarm seeped into my bones. I did look just like my mother.
"She has a scar just beneath her right eye that looks like a tear drop," the soldier said, sneering as my look told him that they were right.
"Let her go," I snarled.
"We didn't capture her," the soldier chuckled. "She came to us seeking help for a dying nine-year-old boy."
My head snapped up. My brother Andrew had been a baby when I'd been imprisoned. "Let them go, and I'll do whatever you want."
"I thought you might see it that way."
I was breathing heavily and my eyes stung from the excess light by the time we reached the king's chambers. I hadn't climbed stairs or walked more than the length of my cell in eight years, and my body was reminding me of the fact. The guards shoved me roughly to my knees and forced my head to bow. I was too weak to resist.
Footsteps came closer and slowly stopped in front of me. The end of a walking cane jabbed underneath my chin, pulling my head back. The king stared at me. He had aged in the years since he'd thrown me into my dark cell. Small streaks of silver had crept into his brown hair and wrinkles were showing beneath his dark eyes. His middle buttons strained from too many feasts.
"Aaron the Sorcerer," he mocked. "We meet again."
I wanted to snap something about his strained waistline, but the thought of Andrew and my mother kept my mouth firmly shut.
"I see prison life has tightened your tongue," the king said with satisfaction. "I have a job for you. Do it right, and you will live. Do it wrong, and you and your family die."
"Sickness has entered my kingdom," he explained, pacing in front of me. "A sickness no one has ever seen before. It attacks without warning, taking anyone in its path. My best experts do not understand it. I need you to create a cure."
I didn't answer as I gazed at the king. It must be serious if he was worried enough to resort to the thing he hated most.
"Don't try to tell me that you don't know how," the king continued. "I caught you using healing magic. The victims lie in the Great Hall beneath us. My physicians are tending to them, but there is little they can do."
He met my gaze, and I knew it was my turn to choose to die now or help him. "Take me to them."
The guards pulled me back to my feet, and forced me back out of the room. After descending a few flights of stairs that had me breathing heavily again, we reached the Great Hall. Normally, the spacious room was filled with grand, ball-going nobles, but now the people in the crowd were all lying on the floor.
"I can't examine the patients with my hands behind my back," I snapped.
My hands were untied, and I knelt down next to the first patient. A young girl about eight years old had her eyes shut and breathed heavily. Her face was sweaty and her hands shook. Her skin was rosy, but it felt like ice.
A physician knelt next to me.
"They start with upset stomachs," he explained. "Within a week they are too weak to stand, and their faces turn ashy gray. That's usually when they arrive here. Their faces are gray for two days before they fall unconscious. They usually live for two or three weeks after that, eating nothing and drinking little."
I nodded. "I'll need a cauldron and ingredients," I said, addressing my bodyguards.
"They have been prepared," the soldier said as the guards marched me down another corridor to a small workshop. A large fireplace was built into the wall and a cauldron hung over it. A table was already filled with ingredients that had been confiscated from prisoners like me.
"I need this filled exactly half full of clean water," I ordered, pointing to the cauldron.
I grabbed a large butcher's knife to crush a dragon scale to powder and caught sight of my reflection in the shiny blade. My face was different from the sixteen-year-old boy who had been caught healing a little girl. I looked older than twenty-four. My hair had gone from thick, wavy black to frail, patchy white. I hadn't even had stubble before, but now a matted white beard hung halfway down my chest. My skin was sallow and stretched across my face like a skeleton. My tattered clothes hung loosely over my skinny frame.
I looked away from the knife and began crushing the scales angrily. I'd spent the first year cursing the king, and the last seven learning to accept my place. Now that I was so close to the surface, and to freedom, my anger was hard to suppress.
A guard filled my cauldron with water and started a large fire. I carefully measured beetle eggs and unicorn horn into the large black pot. I added dragon scale, gryphon claw, lythian flower and fawn hair, watching it turn from ocean blue to leaf green. I stirred carefully, sometimes clockwise, sometimes opposite. Sweat poured down my face as I completed the last clockwise turn. My potion was now a royal purple. I put a drop to my tongue.
"It's ready," I announced, startling one of the guards who had drifted to sleep during the long hours of work.
"Bring in the boy."
A new pair of soldiers entered, one carrying a boy who looked just like I had at his age. The second herded my mother behind them.
"Aaron?" she whispered, trying to see the face she knew beneath the scars of prison life. Her own face was lined with more wrinkles than I remembered.
"Two drops," I told the guard who had a ladle full of my concoction.
The soldier opened Andrew's mouth and carefully dropped two drops of purple liquid down his throat. Andrew's blue eyes fluttered open immediately. He sat up, strength flooding into his limbs, and darted to my mother's side.
"Successful test," my soldier announced. "Soldiers, the woman and boy are free to go. Tell the physicians to administer two drops of this tonic to each patient."
"What about my son?" my mother demanded.
"I said that you and the boy are free," my soldier repeated.
We all knew that she hadn't meant Andrew.
"My other son."
"Aaron is a prisoner of the king," the soldier said coldly. "Until the day he dies."
My mother opened her mouth again, but I shook my head. "It's okay, Mother. I'll be fine. Go home. The others need you."
Tears filled her eyes. I smiled to prove that I'd be fine as the soldiers pushed her out the door.
"Your reward is a hot bath before we take you back to your cell," the soldier said as the guards led me away.
I hadn't felt this clean in years. I'd been given new clothes, and my beard was gone. My wispy hair was trimmed, and my pale skin was no longer caked in dirt.
The bath house door opened roughly and my bodyguards appeared with another group of soldiers.
"That's him," one of my guards said, pointing at me.
I frowned as the mass rushed at me. I felt myself being thrown into the air until I collided roughly with a wall. My new shirt ripped along my back and I groaned in pain as I hit the floor. I shook my head and tried to figure out what was going on when I felt a fist connect with my stomach. I doubled over as another one found my face. My head spun and my vision went black.
Every part of my body hurt. My hands found my face, and I quickly realized that my nose was broken. My left eye was swollen, and my head throbbed.
"Get up," a familiar voice demanded, and I realized what had woken me. Three familiar bodyguards were standing over me, holding a torch.
"Just kill me," I muttered, rolling over.
"We will," the soldier assured me. "After you tell us what you did to the potion."
"I put in unicorn horn, gryph."
A sharp kick to my ribs took my breath away. "I don't want an ingredient list. What did you do to it?"
"Nothing," I answered honestly. I had watched it work and I was sure I'd mixed it correctly.
"Why is everyone we gave the tonic to invisible?"
Invisible? I had to be dreaming.
Another sharp kick.
"I don't know," I moaned. "Blue salt is the only thing that can cause invisibility, and there wasn't any of that in the room."
"Liar." Another sharp kick.
"I'm not lying," I moaned. "I can fix it."
"You will," the soldier said, roughly pulling me to my feet again. My body cried out in pain.
A few minutes later I again found myself in the Great Hall. The doors were being carefully guarded to prevent invisible patients from leaving. I could hear them walking around and talking to each other. My tonic had obviously restored them to perfect health.
"I'll need another cauldron and water."
I was escorted back to the work room and a new cauldron was filled with water. I slipped my finger into the water, putting a drop on my tongue. Something didn't seem quite right. I searched through the ingredients on the table and found a long unicorn hair. The water bubbled and boiled when I dropped it in. Shades of color started to appear, swirling among each other, but never mixing. I peered intently at the water. Unicorn hair revealed the substances used in any potion, but reading it could be difficult.
"Tell the king that his water supply is being poisoned, and unless he does something, his entire kingdom will be sick."
A blood-red streak, banana-yellow strip, and lime-green swirl each revealed substances that caused weakness, upset stomachs, and painful unconsciousness. A pale lavender was also swirling through the water, denoting naccilian flowers. The rare lavender flower had no effect by itself, but when combined with seaweed, which the lime-green indicated, it created intense pain. When combined with dragon scales, it acted the same as blue salt.
I grabbed a hair from the tail of a sphinx and dropped it into the water. The colors disappeared.
"What are you doing?" the soldier demanded.
"Purifying the water," I snapped as I found a phoenix feather. "One of the ingredients in the water reacted with the dragon scale that I used to create the invisible effect. This," I dropped the feather into the water, "should counter that."
The water bubbled and turned a pale pink. "A drop each should do it."
"You had better be right this time," the soldier growled, marching me to the Great Hall. The guards followed, carrying my new potion.
One by one, the patients reappeared and left the Great Hall.
"What do we do with him now?"
"We take him to the king," the soldier said.
We made our way back up the long stairs, and I found on my knees again as the king approached.
"You aren't worth the food I generously feed you," the king spat, jabbing me with his cane. "I should have you executed."
"Please try," I taunted, but it was an empty threat. In my weakened condition, I was powerless.
My threat scared the king enough to change his mind. "Throw him back into his cell and let him rot there."
"You can hide me deep beneath your castle, but you can't hide what you've done," I said recklessly. "Invisibility only comes with magic, and the whole kingdom can see that. You have an uprising on your hands, Your Majesty. It may not be to long before I am released from my cell by rebels who have just taken over your rule. Make your decisions wisely."
I got to my feet and began walking back to my cell. War would come, and with any luck, I'd be free soon.