Chapter Eighteen: Tragedy In Happiness

Knights swarmed the city like cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. The gates leading out of the city had been closed and the guards would not allow anyone to leave or enter its mighty walls. Citizens were not frightened when the knights or guards would enter their homes as they searched for the escaped prisoners. It was not until women and girls with black hair were taken did families start to cry out. Their protests were quickly silenced when the armed men informed them that King Irvin has ordered to have all dark-haired women gathered and taken to the castle to make sure not one of them was the ebony-haired girl, who had escaped with the dreadful beast.

Hours passed and not a single guard, or knight, had found any signs of the gray monster; and all of the dark-haired women in the city had been herded safely behind the castle's protective walls.

Irvin watched from the balcony as carpenters began to tear down the gallows and scaffold, while guards tried to keep the large group of women calm. The whole event had embarrassed himself and in front of most of his subjects, no less! If he could not keep two prisoners contained, then who is to say that his people would see it as a sign of weakness? Surely some rebel group would try to take this opportunity to overthrow him!

A guard joined the cogitating ruler and bowed his head to him. "Your Majesty, all of the women have been gathered."

"About time," Irvin huffed before turning his attention to the armored man. "Now tell all the sentries stationed at the outer wall to come here. I need to make sure not one of them has allowed anyone to leave the city."

The guard bowed one more time before setting out to complete his new assignment.

Irvin returned his attention to the frightened women huddled in the courtyard. Their numbers seemed daunting as all of them looked like the monster's precious wench. It would take a long time to confirm which ones were not the girl and which one was.

But if one of them was the girl, then it would take the creature just as long to find her in the sea of black hair as it would take Irvin's guards. In that time, the creature could slip up, giving the knights the opportunity to recapture him; and when they did, they would not the thing prisoner.

No, the King's men were to cut the beast's head off the moment they found it. Irvin did not want to take a chance and give the monster any chance to escape.

Hysteria bound itself around Aiden's mind the same way a snake suffocated its prey with its powerful coils.

When he had reached his home after he had broken through the stampeding crowd, the servants were rushing around fervently. Some of the male servants pressed themselves against the wall nervously, as if unsure of what to do as the rest of their coworkers rushed through the halls.

Just as his curiosity was about to get the better of him, the midwife had shook his arm, making the knight jump in surprise. The short woman had looked distressed, compelling him to question what was wrong.

"Your wife has gone into labor, My Lord," the old woman had explained. "But if you don't get that wizard here soon, then only one will survive the ordeal."

Those words echoed in his frantic mind as he charged through the streets. He wanted both Heather and their child to live! But as the plates of his armor clanked together from his running, another worried thought ran through his conscious:

Nicholas was missing.

Aiden had thought for sure that the boy was right behind throughout the whole event. When he finally realized the blonde squire was not with him, he could only assume that the boy had gone after the gray beast. The knight knew the boy did not stand a chance against the creature and the thought of finding Nicholas' dead, mangled body flashed across his eyes.

Without realizing it, the knight was running through the castle's shining halls as he realized he could not overlook Heather's birth. If he wanted to find Nicholas before the boy found the beast, he would have to leave his wife and child's fate in the hands of Dmitri.

He was not sure if he trusted the wizard with his family's life, but he had no other choice. If Aiden wanted to save Heather, their baby, and Nicholas, he would have to rely on the magic user.

Thankfully, Aiden was able to find Dmitri without the King hovering over the old man's shoulder. The knight felt some of the weight being lifted from his shoulders, but it was not nearly enough to make him happy. "Dmitri!" Aiden called out to the wizard, who looked frazzled and old for the first time.

The knight slowed to a stop as the old man raised a fuzzy eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be running the King's chores right now?"

Aiden ignored the comment and explained himself, "Heather has gone into labor and the midwife needs your help to keep my wife and child alive. I implore you...go to my wife and save her and the baby!"

Dmitri eyed him sympathetically before letting out a huff. "Fine. I suggest you return from whatever task the King is sending you on quickly. No doubt you will want to see your new family the moment it arrives."

Aiden breathed out his thanks before running through the halls once more. Time was against him and he prayed that Nicholas would still be alive by the time he found the boy.

Before Dmitri could even begin to make his way to the knight's place of residence, Irvin stopped him.

"Dmitri!" The King snapped. He stomped towards the wizard, his brow furrowed so deeply that his forehead wrinkled in quite an unflattering way.

Despite the ruler's agitated mood, the wizard kept himself calm and bowed his head respectfully. "Greetings, Your Highness. Any luck on finding our prisoners?"

Irvin pointed an angry finger at him. "Do not speak to me like I am below you!"

"I apologize, Your Majesty," Dmitri bowed lower, hoping the King would not lash out at him.

He huffed in satisfaction. "Make yourself useful and use that magic of yours to find them!"

Dmitri looked up at his master nervously. The fight with Zephyr had already drained quite a lot of energy out of him. To use a search spell would make him useless to Sir Aiden's wife. "But Your Majesty," the wizard said, "That would require energy that I do not-"

"I only need you to find out if they're in the city," Irvin interrupted.

The wizard sighed in thought. To perform the spell would leave him tired, exhausted even. But he could not go against Irvin's orders.

Dmitri closed his eyes and concentrated. He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled from his mouth. Power began to build up inside of his veins as an electric feeling buzzed around the surface of his skin. He concentrated on the images of both the creature and Zephyr; knowing that if he found one, the other would not be far.

White took over the black that his eyelids created as his soul left his body. It was white for a long time before it began to fade to shades of gray. He was high above the city, practically touching the gray sky. The city was covered in a thick mist, but Dmitri could see the dark silhouettes of citizens, guards and buildings. Not a single soul glowed, telling him that none of them were Zephyr or the creature.

He peered past the city's walls and tried to see what lay further ahead, to find the beacon that Zephyr and the monster's soul would provide in the mist.

Something tugged at the bottom of his soul, the body begging for the soul to return to the shell. Reluctantly, Dmitri's soul followed the tugging and was greeted with darkness.

When he opened his eyes, the wizard was still in the castle's hall with an expectant Irvin staring at his face. "Well?" The King pressed.

"They're...not in...the city..." Dmitri panted. He felt depleted and wanted to do nothing more than sit down for a nap. Pride, however, would not allow him to give up so easily. With a deep breath, he walked down the grand hall the moment Irvin was out of sight.

He would help Sir Aiden's wife deliver the baby; and both mother and child would survive!

It had been difficult for Aiden to convince the sentinel to let him through the gate; but when a guard came to relieve the stubborn man of his duties, the knight was able to persuade the newcomer to let him through.

Aiden found Nicholas laying in the middle of a dirt road. The knight almost tripped over the stirrups as he dismounted his horse. There was no sign of movement coming from the fallen young man; not even his chest seemed to be moving as his lungs took in oxygen.

Fear clenched Aiden's heart as he hovered over his squire's body. A small pool of blood was seeping out from underneath the boy's shoulder, sending a wave of panic through his body. He ripped the mask off his face and started smacking his cheeks. "Nicholas!" He hollered. "Nicholas, wake up!"

Not even a groan rumbled in response.

The possibility of the boy being dead crossed the knight's mind. The thought made his body shake in terror and his heart pump anger throughout his veins. Nicholas may not be related to him by blood, but that did not stop the man from viewing him as a son. Such a bond made it hard for him to accept the possibility that the young man may be dead.

He ripped the armor off his hand, the air feeling cold and nice against his sweating appendage. Despite his best attempts, Aiden could not stop his hand from shaking. He placed two fingers on the boy's neck, right below the jaw, and prayed he would find a pulse.

A single vein pumped steadily against the skin of his fingertips. A wave of relief shook Aiden's body as a smile decorated his face. He put the steel glove back on before lifting the boy in his arms effortlessly.

Very carefully, he positioned Nicholas' sleeping form on the saddle before mounting the horse, positioning himself behind the squire. After reaching around his body, Aiden grabbed the reins and urged the beast to the city.

Screams pulled Nicholas out of the darkness that was his dream. The soft torchlight of the room did not pain him as his eyelids lifted off of his eyeballs. His eyes examined his surroundings, noticing quickly that he was in his room at Aiden's city home. The squire tried his hardest to remember how he had ended up there; but the last thing he could remember was a man with tan skin and purple eyes grinning down at him like a cat.

He could remember the gray beast growling down at him, and his hand reached for neck instinctively. He winced slightly at the numb pain when his fingertips brushed against the bruises and felt furious.

The monster had been in his grasps and the damned girl had yanked it away from him! The damn bitch! If he were to meet her again, he would gut her like the pig she was right in front of the wretched beast!

When he tried to sit up, a shot of pain radiated from his shoulder, making him groan in discomfort. Normally, he would have stayed in bed and wait for Heather to come tend to the wound; but the screaming continued to seep into his room.

He pushed past the stiff feeling of his shoulder as he forced himself out of bed, the blankets falling off his bare chest. There was bandaging over the wound on his shoulder and his pants were still on. The squire would have put a shirt on before leaving the room if the agonizing scream had not grown louder. Suspicious that there was an intruder in the house, Nicholas grabbed the knife he kept under his pillow and proceeded out of the room.

At first he wandered the halls, trying to follow the sound of the repeating scream to the source. Eventually, he ran into a group of female servants. A few of them were rushing towards one end of the house with clean sheets, while the rest were running towards the washroom with blood-covered blankets.

Nicholas stopped one of the servants that had a bloodied blanket and asked, "What's going on?"

The young woman looked frantic as beads of sweat rolled down her worried face. "Lady Forungger is havin' 'er babe, My Lord. But...somethin' is wrong. There's...there's so much blood! So much blood!" She began to sob from the trauma and Nicholas released her arm.

The baby had not even entered the world yet and already it was causing problems! A surge of jealousy and anger made the squire clench his fists. There was no doubt that Heather would focus her attention on the babe, even if a nursemaid was to take care of the spawn for her. No longer would she fawn over his youthful body or feel pity every time she saw his scarred face.

"But I shouldn't worry," the young woman continued. "Dmitri will arrive soon. An' he'll make it all better." She departed with a smile, unaware that she had sparked an idea in the squire's head.

If he could delay the wizard, even for a moment, the baby might die. The servant had even said that something was going horribly wrong. Surely the midwife would do her best to save the mother instead of the babe.

Nicholas jogged through the halls, hoping he would run into the wizard before he could reach Heather's room, excitement fueling his every step. Soon, Heather would pay attention to him! He will forever be her favorite person!

An old man dressed in an old, dirty, brown robe shuffled slowly down the hall, his hand groping at the stone wall for support. As Nicholas approached, he realized the old man was, in fact, Dmitri. A victorious grin spread across his face before stepping in the old man's way.

"Dmitri!" Nicholas tried his hardest to sound relieved without seeming too happy. "There you are! I was hoping you could tell me how I ended up here. See, I was out of the city when-"

"My boy," Dmitri huffed in exhaustion, "I could care less about whatever it is you have to say. Right now, I am needed to save two lives. So either kindly get out of the way or help me get there!" The wizard did not even wait for a response from the young man before he started to shove past him.

Had Dmitri been more patient, he would not have rammed himself into the knife Nicholas still held in his hand.

A surprised gag was the only thing that came out of the old man's mouth as he life seeped from his body, just as his blood flowed from the stab wound. Nicholas pulled the knife out and stared in horror as the dead wizard slumped to the floor in a motionless heap. He stared at the bloody knife, his breathing becoming short and raspy as the irrefutable fact that he had killed Dmitri, dawned on him.

Panicked, the squire knelt down and made three long, deep cuts into the dead body, one of the cuts going over the original stab wound. After he cleaned the blade on the wizard's robes, he stood up and looked down at the three cuts. It looked like an animal had, somehow, gotten into the estate and attacked the poor old man.

Or a monster had done it...

The squire nodded to himself. Of course! He would blame it all on the gray beast! No one would question him if he blamed it on the monster, no one! Now all he had to do was inform someone of the tragic news in order to make himself seem more innocent.

He hid the blade in the closest room before walking away from the dead body hurriedly.

Heather's screams grew louder as Nicholas continued to search for someone to tell the news to. Soon, he saw a woman come out of Heather's chambers, the screaming becoming muffled when she started to close the door, and he ran up to her. The woman blushed at the sight of his shirtless form and even gasped when he grabbed her shoulders.

"The wizard, Dmitri," He began to explain to her, "has been killed by the beast! He lays dead in the hallway further down!"

The lust that swam in her eyes was replaced with dread and tears. She covered her mouth in an attempt to stop herself from sobbing and yanked her arm out of his grip. The woman yanked the door open, Heather's agonizing screams now becoming deafening, and slipped into the bustling room.

Before Nicholas could away with victory in his step, Aiden emerged from the room. A sense of dread filled the squire as the knight stared down at him. Sweat trickled down the man's furrowed brow and his hair had become a tangled mess. Never before had Nicholas felt so intimidated by the knight; he felt like a child awaiting to be beaten by his father for misbehaving.

"Where is he?" Aiden said in a low tone. "Where is Dmitri?"

Nicholas did not speak, only gestured for the man to follow, which he did. The two ran down the hall, both of their hearts racing for two completely different reasons. Aiden's heart raced out of fear for his wife and child; while Nicholas' raced out of nervousness at the possibility of being caught.

The two stopped to stare down at the dead body as it continued to bleed out on the stone floor. Aiden shook his head and wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm. Fury began to build within his body and Nicholas could feel it. The squire did not want to face Aiden's fury. Just the thought of being beaten by the strong knight made the young man quiver in fear.

Out of nervousness, Nicholas spoke out, "The monster did it! The monster killed him!"

"Where did it go?" Aiden growled just as fiercely as the gray creature. Such a sound made the young man recoil in fear. "Where did it go!"

"I-I-I don't know, Aiden!" Nicholas stammered. He did not want Aiden to be angry with him; he wanted the knight to be angry at the monster. "It disappeared. I-in the shadows!"

There was silence among them, and that was what made Aiden forget about the dead wizard on the floor.

It was silent.

No talking, no whispers...

No screaming.

The knight turned on his heels and ran back to his wife's room as Nicholas called out to him, "It was the monster's fault! It killed Dmitri!"

As the squire stared at the three wounds on the fallen wizard's body, his mind began to slowly convince himself that the monster really had killed Dmitri.

One of the female servants had tried so hard to keep Aiden out of his wife's room, but she was no match for the knight's adrenaline-fueled strength. The knight barged into the room, sweat rolling down the side of his face as concern made his eyes bulge from their sockets.

Heather laid in bed, her head lolled to one side as if she were in a deep, comfortable slumber. No clothes hid her beautiful pale form from the world's hungry eyes. He did not notice the blood that stained the end of the bed and her small feet and lean thighs.

All of the women ceased what they were doing to stare at their master sympathetically as he ran to his wife's side.

He hovered over her still form and stared at her beautiful, serene face. Her long, chocolate curls spilled around her head and seemed more vibrant than before against her deathly pale skin. Aiden's fingertips brushed against her cold, stiff cheek. He could felt the moisture left from sweat still clinging to her soulless form.

Soon, the knight's tears joined the remaining droplets of sweat that shimmered on her face.

The sound of new life whining from the sensation of cold air drowned out Aiden's broken sobs. As the baby continued to cry, the knight began to slowly rise, intrigued by the needy call.

Aiden did not even look at the mid-wife, who held the bundle of blankets that engulfed his child, as his quivering hands reached out to take the babe from her. Without hesitation, the mid-wife gave the man his child and watched as the sadness was wiped away with pure pride.

Immediately, the baby ceased its cries and began to make murmuring noises. The father was amazed at how small, red, and wrinkly the child was. A thin layer of bright red hair coated the top of the baby's fragile skin. It was that layer of hair that marveled the knight and caused his chest to swell with pride.

One of its wrinkled hands poked out from the bundle of fabric that wrapped around its tiny body. The little fingers clenched meditatively before curling open slowly. Out of curiosity, Aiden placed one finger into the baby's puny hand. Very slowly, the little fingers curled around his one, seemingly giant, digit and gripped it tightly; so tightly, in fact, that the baby's sheer strength surprised the knight.

A smile crossed his face. "What gender is my child?" He asked the mid-wife, never looking away from the gurgling baby.

"A girl, my lord," the woman responded.

Another swell of pride filled the knight, making him forget, momentarily, about his dead wife just feet away. A sense of protection for the tiny little girl in his arms filled the man, causing him to unconsciously hold the child closer to his chest.

"Adaline," Aiden mumbled as he pulled his finger out of her weakening grip. His smile grew wider as his daughter yawned. "She shall be called Adaline."

"WHAT!" Irvin bellowed at the messenger before him.

The young man shivered in fear and kept his eyes directed at the floor. "D-d-d-Dmitri's dead, Your Highness. The m-m-monster somehow murdered Dmitri while he-"
The King pushed past the messenger and stormed off to the courtyard. He ignored the cries and pleads of the dark-haired women as he marched by the large group of females.

Fury blinded his eyes and clouded his thoughts. How could this have happened? Dmitri was his last resort whenever things got bad. Now, to be told the wizard was murdered by the monster that had just recently escaped, the very same one his entire force was searching for, added insult to injury!

Without thinking, the King grabbed the closest guard in a vice grip and snarled, "Kill them!"

The guard blinked before collecting himself. "I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?"

Irvin pointed an angry finger at the group of frightened women behind him. "Kill them! Every single one! I don't want any of these wenches leaving these walls alive!"

The man looked at his master as if he had grown another head. "But...but Sire! I thought you wanted to interrogate-"

"Do not question me! Kill them!"

For a moment the guard stared at the glaring King. When the ruler showed no signs of remorse for his command, the guard merely nodded slowly. "As you wish, Your Majesty."

As the King turned to walk away, he heard the man holler to the rest of his men to arm themselves and take position. He could not hear the screams of the dark-haired women as he walked casually down the decorative halls of his castle.

It would have taken too long to interrogate all of those women. If one of them was the monster's wench, then the creature would no doubt reveal itself soon after her death.

Sometimes, many sacrifices must be made to save an entire kingdom from the corruption of a single monster.