Heaviness hung within the dank castle walls, each brother more distraught than the next.
The cavalry—soldiers on foot—was coming, but who could say how long it would be before help arrived? Would it be a day? A week?
The six princes of Misty Woods knew they did not have such a luxury.
“We are doomed,” Cassius murmured, pausing between the grey slate of the stone to stare into the darkness. “We have called too late for salvation.”
“You must not speak so ridiculously,” Marcus growled, pacing along the hearth, his heavy wolf cape draped about his shoulders. “They will come. We will be saved.”
“We are the sons of King Rui. We have never failed at battle, and we will not commence today!” Anders declared hotly, slamming his sword into the scarred round table and scowling at his brothers. “We bleed royal blood. We carry the seed of Misty Woods in our loins. Cease your doubts and hold your heads high as Father would have had us do! Whether they come or not, we will go into battle and fight for our kingdom!”
His brothers did not seem to be convinced.
“I must go to Nora,” Ansel muttered, turning to flee the room. Maximus stood solidly in his way.
“You will see your maiden when the kingdom has been spared,” Maximus spat.
“And what if the kingdom is not spared?” Titus demanded, undoubtedly thinking of his own love, locked away in the turret with the other women and children for their own protection against the impending battle that loomed not so far away.
“Then we shall all perish together!” Cassius roared.
“You needn’t perish, my lords,” a creaking voice called out to them, and the princes whirled to the source.
From the shadows beneath the cast iron candle holders, the old sage grinned toothlessly at them, her wretched face a twisted compilation of glee and malice.
“You!” Maximus shouted, lunging toward her. “How did you get in here?”
“I come in peace, my lord—lords,” she cooed, seeming unperturbed as the oldest brother yanked her from the wall and paraded her forward. “I have come to offer you safety in this time of terrible peril.”
“You?” Ansel snorted. “You are decrepit and useless. Who do you fight with?”
The old sage cackled, and each man felt a shiver of apprehension slide through them as they realized the crone was not intimidated by the threat of six towering men of power and weaponry.
“As you said, my lord,” the witch demurred, “I am ancient and without benefit. I do not wish to take sides.”
“Put her in the barracks!” Marcus howled. “We are wasting valuable time bantering with this hag!”
“My lord!” she cried imploringly. “Before you lock me away, hear my words, and then decide to do what you will. I only beg a moment of your precious time.”
Her black eyes seemed like hot coals as the brothers turned their attention to her.
“Speak!” Maximus snapped. “We have matters of battle with which to contend!”
“It is of those matters I wish to speak,” she assured them. “You cannot win against the Northmen.”
“Nonsense!” screamed Titus. The princes advanced on her, their swords drawn, ready to behead the her for uttering such treasonous words.
“I beg of you, my lords, hear my words before you strike me dead!” she continued, offering them a nearly toothless smile. Her grin widened, even though she was encircled among the six princes of the kingdom, as though their presence inspired amusement in her rather than fear.
“The soldiers you have requested from the realm will not be here until the day following the full moon,” the sage explained. “And the Northmen will attack at dawn. You know as well as I do that they have already conquered the villages. Their next skirmish will be the castle walls. They outnumber you. It will undoubtedly be a brief, humiliating fight.”
“How can you know that?” Ansel demanded, but even as he spoke the words, he knew the woman had her ways to obtain the knowledge she desired.
“I assure you, my lord, it is so,” she said. “I am offering you a chance to win against the Northmen without fear. You will be regarded as legends, and the minstrels will sing about you for generations to come!”
“We are the princes of Misty Woods,” Anders growled. “We fear nothing!”
“There are already many a ballad about our bravery!” Marcus called.
The old sage shook her head, as if there was little else she could do to change their minds.
“Then you will die,” she told them, her tone flat and certain. “And Misty Woods will no longer be.”
A stillness hung in the air, not broken or interrupted even by a breeze from the open window as the six princes stared at the old witch. Her statement had cut each of them deeply, and they could do nothing but inherently recognize the truth. Without help, their kingdom would certainly cease to exist.
“How can you prevent it?” Cassius asked quietly. He sensed the disapproval of his brothers for asking, and although none of them protested his question, he still lowered his gaze.
“I have the power to invoke the will of Mother Nature and turn you into beasts who breathe fire,” the sage told them. “For three days and three nights, you will sprout wings and fly above your enemies, touting flames from your throats until they have all been sent back to the fiery hell where they belong!”
“Witchcraft!” the brothers yelled. “A spell! Underworld debauchery!”
“It is the will of Mother Nature,” she assured them, demurely lowering her eyes. “It is only a short miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.”
The princes stepped back and glanced at one another, unsure of how to respond.
“If it is the work of Mother Nature…”
“If it is only for three days and nights…”
“If this ensures our victory…”
They turned back to the woman, who waited patiently for their response, her black eyes glittering.
“Why would you help us,” Ansel demanded, “if you claim to have no side?”
“Ah, my lord,” she replied smugly. “Just because I do not choose, it does not mean I do not hate.”
“And what do you have to gain by this?” Titus insisted. They wanted to know why she would willingly help them fight against the Northmen.
The old witch smiled enigmatically. “I am serving my kingdom, my lord.”
Once more, the brothers exchanged a long look. The old woman had been nothing but trouble for them and for Misty Woods, but if she could give them a chance to defend their kingdom… if they could save their people…
Slowly, the six princes began to nod, one by one, their hearts filled with hope once again.
“We shall prevail!” Anders cried, and they all roared in consensus, raising their swords to toast their newfound power.
And in their surge of arrogance, they did not see the witch’s smile grow cruel and cold, for they had not thought to ask her which kingdom it was that she served.
Not until it was much too late.