"Taxes unpaid since…this time last year. You have the payments all ready now, I suppose?" The scribe closed the leather bound book and pushed it up on his desk, revealing a long list of names and numbers.
The couple stood in front of the seated scribe, their three children hanging on the young mother's flour sack skirt. Her chestnut brown hair spilled from its messy braid across her back. Her eyebrows were creased together and her eyes staring straight ahead, as if the slightest word exiting her mouth would immediately cause her to burst into tears. Her husband, on the other hand, tall and imposing, warily watched the small statured scribe in stoic clam as he leaned back in his padded chair, arms loose and at ease.
"This is going to be a problem Borin. And Mira, of course. For your children too, we can't forget them now, can we?" The scribe's drawling did nothing to calm the fear of the Mira. She clasped her hand tightly with the eldest of her young girls. The rest hid their faces in her skirts, unsure of what was really occurring.
"Do not speak of our children. They are not at fault for what we have done." Borin spoke up with a low voice, its treble causing the scribe's eyes to flick up to peer at his square face. "We have chosen not to pay these taxes because we spend what little that we do make on food for them and ourselves. Without us they would starve. Why give our meager earning to the crown when we have barely enough to live on? The famine is hard on us all, yet you and the rest of royalty seem to be growing instead of suffering with us."
Mira turned a frighten eye to her husband and let out a small sniff. "He does not mean what he says my lord. He only tries to say that-"
The scribe held up a pale hand and closed his eyes. "I know what your husband has said and what he means by what has been said. He believes that he can choose whether or not to pay back his money to the King and queen. He believes that choice is his. He believes that he has the freedom to choose where his money goes and that because he wants to he does not have to pay taxes."
"The Famine is killing us all, scribe. It has taken our friends, families, even our horses and cows. But you wouldn't understand, scribe. We don't expect you too. You live up here, above all us commoners-"
"I understand perfectly well. What you have committed is treason. You are insulting our beloved King and queen and speaKing against their authority. I choose to end this ill advised discussion at once. Payment to the crown is not even such a matter to be discussed. If you have the money you will pay it. Now."
The husband leaned forward ever so slowly, his face still, eyebrows creasing as if on the edge of barely contained anger. "We have no money."
The scribe watched him for a few breaths, not bacKing down or cowering from the man's much larger frame. "Very well." He picked up his quill and scratched furiously for a few moments before placing it back down. He lifted a finger and looked up.
The two guards who had been standing still as stones behind them, at once left their positions, and moved to the couple, each grabbing a hold of one.
The three young girls were separated from their mother as she finally let loose her trapped tears. "No! My children, my children!" She cried out as the knights in silver armor dragged her and her husband out of the small library and down the castle's stone hall. The woman could still hear the small cries of the children as they were ushered back inside the room by two of the castle's ladies.
He husband fought against the hold of the infinitely stronger knights. He muttered oddly shaped words under his breath which slowly grew in volume as they moved farther and farther away from the library and closer and closer to the dungeons far below.
"Your magic won't work here, magician. You know that." The other knight let out a light, carefree laugh.
The husband let out a few choice curses in response.
"Neither will your insults. If you do not hold your tongue we'll have you executed in front of your wife instead of the other way around. How would you like that?"
They unlocked the heavy wooden doors of the dungeon and threw them into the closest empty cell.
The prisoners stuck bony, pale hands out from between their bars. Their bony faces contorted in eruptions of cries mixed with sighs of indifference or despair. Their eyes were glossy and wide from days below the surface as they stared at the two knights. Most were too weak to even speak or yell at the armored men.
The wife and husband stood near the bars, their hands clasped together as the light from the opened door finally closed, the knights gone.
"The children, Borin, the children." She kept repeating the words over and over until her husband placed a hand around her shoulder and pulled her tight. He hushed her and covered her ear to protect her from the cries and moans of the prisoners around them.
"They'll be alright. They are not to be punished. We are. They will live. The King and queen will find them another home."
"No they won't." Her voice was muffled from his shirt. "You know as well as I. They will starve. Just as our friends did and the rest of the Kingdom along with them. At least our deaths will be quick." She looked into his eyes, tears streaming down her face and catching in her hair.
He wiped them tenderly away. "I'll find a way to help us. You know we'll get out of this. You me and our little girls."
The couple had passed three weeks in the dungeons of Halburn. News of the Famine's victims came in with the newest prisoners who managed to be convicted with nearly the same crimes. Crimes of treason and thievery seemed to be most popular.
Again and again they asked if any knew of the fate of their three children. They each had nothing to say, consumed with only the thought of revenge and persistent, aching, weakening hunger that the two knew only too well.
Finally, at sometime during the third week, as days were not perceived within the dank chambers of the dungeon, a man came into the prison knowing things about a great many people.
"My sister, what has become of my sister? She lives near the southern walls of the castle with her husband. Do you know how she is?" The woman in one cell babbled, her wild eyes and even wilder hair flickering in the candlelight.
"Does she have a name?" He asked, intent on the woman's ramblings. He seemed almost eager to help, not in the slightest disturbed.
She gave the name and answered that yes, he had heard of her. The woman's sister was indeed fine, but her children sickly. The woman gave a small gasp at that, and immediately sat down.
The questions continued for a time. When finally, the whispers and interrogations began to die off as the women and men fell into fitful dreams.
"Sir, may I ask a question." Borin spoke through the bars at the man now lying on the floor of his cell.
"One, my boy. Yes." He answered with a tired sigh.
"Three girls. My wife and I, we were taken in for not paying our taxes and our children were left in the castle. Have you heard of them?"
"Nay, boy. I cannot say unless I have their names."
"Tessa, Joan, and Roesia." Borin took a deep breath and waited for the man's response.
"I know of a Joan. I saw her only a few days past when walKing the streets in search of some scrap of anything. She said that she was with her uncle's family and they were doing poorly. She said her youngest sister had not gone out of bed for days. The other had past the previous day. I am truly sorry." He retold the tale with no indifference, yet to Borin, the world still felt cold on his ears.
He gave no sign of thanks to the man, but instead walked back to where his wife was curled up sleeping. Her bony form did nothing to comfort him. She was starving like the rest of them. She was starving like he was. She would most likely not last as long as he, for she was already known to be rather. He lifted her to him.
She stirred slightly and peered through sleep filled eyes up at him.
"I have an idea of what can be done to those who have wronged us." He said softly.
"What might you do?" She said slowly, still half asleep.
Her eyes widened suddenly. "You cannot use magic. It does not work within the castle walls, do you remember? You, even a magician as great as you, cannot break the walls."
He watched her and frowned, shaKing his head. "There must be something. We must punish them for what they have done. We must punish them for their evil. The King and queen watch as their people suffer below them. It's the least we can do. They must not thrive while the rest of us perish."
"Did you not hear what I said and the knights along with me? There is no magic within here. You cannot do anything."
He gave her a small smile in return. "How greatly you underestimate me, love."
The husband turned from her to the rest of the prisoners. They too were slowly waKing from their sleep, the faint trace of arms stretching and eyes glinting in the low candlelight. "Fellow citizens of Halburn, how do you feel about our most dearly beloved King and queen?"
It was with that simple question that the evil came in through the crack that the Famine had made in the people's hearts. It was with that pain and suffering that instead of dying, they chose to fight back. In the following days that passed, Borin brought about a curse that would punish not only the evil royal family, but incidentally the entire world around them.
It was the people who built the curse up. It was not Borin and his power only, for that was not nearly enough to break down the anti-magic field that surrounded the castle. Each person's soul was freely placed into the curse, and that was exactly what made it so dangerous. So, on the bitter last day of imprisonment before the day of execution, when the word had finally reached the royal family, it was no surprise that the King threw the doors of the dungeon open and demanded to see the magician responsible for such a great and yet impossible act of magic.
"I suggest you tell me exactly what it is that you have done." His voice boomed from the ceiling of the vaulted throne room. He stood near a pillar, one hand pressed firmly against it, eyes glittering pointedly at the magician standing feet from him. If the magician had been imposing to the scribe, the King was the more aggressive and intimidating to the magician.
Borin simple gave a sad smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. "What good would telling you of it do? For the evils you have committed… I believe that you should suffer the surprise later and the agitation and growing fear now. It's the least I can do for all who have fell under your blind rule."
"This is intolerable. Guards!" The King yelled.
Immediately, the guards grabbed the man by his bony shoulders and held him in their iron grip. Truly, there was no reason for the man gave not the slightest squirm or motion that he planned to escape. "You threaten me, King. What use is it? I'm already a starving dead man."
"Tell me what the curse is." The King approached him and they now stood eye to eye. "Tell me. See the fear in my eyes. See it. That is all you want, is it not? Why waste the effect when you are long gone and can no longer see it? Say it now and watch. Watch it as a mad audience watches a play."
The King's eyes bulged and flitted across the magicians face. The magician viewed his red, bearded face, calmly, inner turmoil and the silence that followed finally moving him to give in. For what use was it, waiting, when he could see the evil man's reaction while he still walked the earth?
"A curse." The magician began softly with a slight edge. "It is not a simple one."
The King hissed. "Tell. Me."
The magician spoke quickly, words tumbling out one after another. "The queen will have two boys, born of the same day. She does not know this, of course, but it is true. Two boys. Two men to teach, one King to rule." He paused for effect. "How do you believe it will turn out, King?"
The King backed off slightly, eyes widening and face slowly losing its rose shade.
"But this is not the only problem they face. That is not of my curse, only natural. No, my curse, it will starve them. They will feel the pain I and my wife and my children and the rest of the Kingdom have felt under the Famine. You killed them, great King. You killed my children, and for that you will pay. You will pay so dearly." Borin's voice shook as he finished.
"Tell me the curse!" The King bellowed once again with frustration and fear.
Borin shook his head. "For I have but told you. They will hunger. They will feel the pain of starvation yet not give in to it's final reward. They do not deserve the reward. It is the reward my young ones received. No, it is not them who deserve. They will live. They will live with the hunger. And, if they try to eat, they will become sicker and sicker until they are not able to move an inch. It will not do, to try to sate something which cannot be sated." He licked his lips. "They will be weak too, hunger will do that to one's own body."
"You evil magician, it is not possible. You do not have the power to do this." The King shook his head steadily, as if assuring himself that it was not possible for the single man to do so much harm to two men, two heirs, who had not even yet been born. "You do not have such power. Especially not within these walls."
"You would not have called me here had you though it was all a hoax. Why question, why doubt now?" The magician smiled again in triumph. "The men and women you have imprisoned for no cause have given their souls into this curse. It is but unbreakable now and powerful enough to take down the Kingdom, if we so wish."
"And you do not. You wish only to reap revenge on my unborn children."
"The Kingdom is fine, it's leaders, however, are not." He responded, chin raised.
"You do realize that I could have you executed on the spot for your treachery?" The King stated evenly.
Borin smiled. "Do you really call that punishment?"
And with a flick of the King's thick wrist, it was over. One of the guards had plunged a dagger through the man's chest. The magician, held up by the two guards, did nothing but gasp for breath as the blood seeped through his baggy clothing. He ceased moving and collapsed against them.
The King growled. "Throw him to the dogs."
The guards did as they were told.
The King wrath did not end with one death. For many months after, he searched across the Kingdom for a magician powerful enough to reverse the curse. When his wife finally gave birth to their two sons, the King brought in a magician of the name Osra, a man specializing in curses and the history of magic.
"I would not advise you to meddle with this foul thing." The man placed a hand on the small child's head. "It will only cause more trouble for your sons."
The young maid who held the child, peered curiously up at him.
The King paced the floor in front of them, lost in thought. "No, there must be a way. There must be a way. Whatever the cost. This curse must be lifted. The Kingdom cannot be ruled by weak King." He mumbled to himself.
"The curse is much too strong and too many lives have been put into its creation. Think of it as an intricately woven tapestry. If one tries to fix a single part, the entire picture may unravel. Do you wish to do more harm to these children?"
The King seemed to awake from his trance. "No. Nothing can possibly do any more harm to them than has already come. But, if they are bound to a curse, how are they ever to focus on ruling a Kingdom? Halburn cannot risk another famine."
"My King, the fami-"
He shook his head furiously. "The famine was my fault. All of it. And so is this curse." He took a breath. "My sons should not have to pay for my crimes."
"It is not your fault. The foolish magician would have done it regardless. He is angry, as many are. His children died." Osra studied him carefully. "You are not a foolish King. Had there been some way to prevent your people from starving, you would have done it. There was nothing."
He did not accept the flattery. "There is something that can be done now. You can cure them, can you not?"
He stepped closer to the King, speaKing in hushed tones as to keep the words from the curious maid. "Bad magic breeds more bad magic. It was the famine that brought hate and pain, and the hate and pain thus reached your family in the form of a curse."
"What is it you say?" The King asked him.
"You must find the cause of the curse in order to find a curse for your sons. It is the only way."
"And how shall I find that source of evil?"
The magician dared place a hand on the King's shoulder as he spoke. "I cannot tell you the exact location. That is for you to discover. All I know is that the origin of all magic lies somewhere beyond the Dust Lands."
"No one has every traveled through that place. It is impossible." The King insisted as the magician turned away.
"It is not. There have been few to cross it. Very few tales are known. The Dust Lands are a place of magic, and it only in magic that one may cross."
"Then you must come with me." The King decided. "We must go there to find the answer and cure the Kingdom once and for all."
The magician shook his head.
"No, you must. I have no magic to protect me. You, however, are filled with it. It is the perfect plan." He spoke quickly, following the statements up with mumblings to himself.
"No, no, my King. That will not do. Who would rule in your place? Your people need you. This Kingdom needs a leader." Osra folded his hands. "Besides, I cannot go with you."
"What do you mean by that?" The King stopped his mad ramblings and studied the magician carefully. "You must go with me. My brother will rule while we are gone. He is a great leader. Greater than I."
"I sincerely doubt it my lord, you are the much better ruler." Osra said.
The Kings waved a hand at him. "Regardless, Orsa. We are setting off at dawn tomorrow. I suggest you prepare your horse and supplies."
"We are setting off for the Dust Lands tomorrow, Orsa. Do not make me order you. I would rather we stayed friends."
Osra chose not to say anything for a moment, debating whether or not to continue to argue with the King. "Tomorrow at dawn it is, then."
Osra gave him a small bow before leaving the room.
The King and Osra did leave at dawn the next day and were never heard from again.
The kingdom did not have the heart to mourn their lost King. Two years after her husband disappeared, the Queen's grief and sickness killed her. Soon, the Famine spread to nearby kingdoms. While the two sons grew up, their uncle, Gaspan, became King. He outlawed magic in Halburn and executed all remaining magicians within its walls. He took his own Queen and promised to relinquish the throne once the eldest twin was old enough to accept the responsibility.
It became clear to the new Queen, as the twins grew, that they were as different as night and day.** One would think that because of the circumstances in the princes' lives, they would be rather close. Rather, each could barely stand the other's presence.
When the princes turned eight years, the Famine had finally ended in all corners of all the kingdoms. Each began rebuilding, and magic was decidedly banned in each of those kingdoms. They believed that it was "for the best", for each believed the magic had been a cause for such suffering and death. As magicians grew more and more rare, the people began calling the following years, The Peace Years. It was a time of struggle, yet also of accomplishment. King Gaspan and Queen Callan were beloved by the people of Halburn. No wars were waged over simple disputes of land. People learned that it was best to forget the Famine and everything that had happened in that time. It was the dawning of a new era.
When the twins turned neared their eighteenth birthday, all of Halburn was in preparation. King Gaspan was to give the crown over to Capron, the eldest, and rightful heir of the kingdom. He would renounce his right as King, and a new one would take his place. However, none of this came to be, because the younger twin, Torin, killed Gaspan, the night before the ceremony.
"The King is dead! Alert the sentry!" Torin announced, running through the castle and out onto the balcony.
Flowers hung from the archway above the man's inky black hair. The purple petal showered down on his broad shoulders as he peered down at the crowd gathered in eager anticipation below him. Minstrels played and children danced. Torches were lit on the ground, showing smiling glowing faces, all which turned to him.
"The King is dead." He said to the people. "Our beloved King…my uncle…is dead."
The people paused as silence swept the masses. The minstrel ceased its playing and mothers hushed their crying children.
"He was killed, that much is certain. I found him in his office, a knife in his back. What kind of coward does not have the fortitude to kill his opponent face to face?"
The people murmured, the sound growing and growing until one shouted out above all.
"Who has done it?" I was a women, her voice shaking in fear.
Torin paused for a moment, allowing the peasants to quiet down once again. "My brother, Torin Blackwell, in his blinding ambition, has done this. I found him with blood on his hands, walking back to his chambers after finishing the deed." Torin took a moment to sweep the crowd with his gaze. "You have known him a long while. Has he not always seemed to be capable of such a thing? I believe he has. He wished to take the throne from me. I believe that he wished to kill me after he killed King Gaspan. Had I not caught him in the act, I would have been dead." Torin smiled inside when the crowd gasped. "What say you, people of Halburn? What shall be the punishment on the killing of the King and the attempted murder of his nephew?"
They screamed and raised their fists in the air. A few picked up torches and raised them above their heads.
"Hang him! Hang him!" They finally began chanting in unison.
Torin nodded, a frown planted on his face on the outside. Inside, he continued to smile.
The sentry brought in a struggling, nearly identical looking boy out onto the balcony.
Torin turned away from the crowd and whispered something in his ear. The twin finally stopped struggling and stilled, grey eyes focused like steel on his brother.
"This isn't a game, brother." He hissed, voice barely audible above the chanting of the crowd.
Torin laughed. "Do you hear them chanting?" He was silent for a moment, allowing his brother to listen to the screaming. "They want you dead."
"You want me dead. You want the crown." He stated evenly.
"Very, very smart of you, Capron, or should I say Torin?" He gave a small smile and turned back to the crowd.
"It is decided! Tomorrow, at this exact time, Torin Blackwell will be hung for treason and attempted murder. What say you?"
The crowd screamed in reply.
Capron Blackwell, the real Capron Blackwell, was thrown into the dungeon. They were empty, of course, because of The Peace Years. Crime was rather low because life was getting better. People respected the King and Queen and the law. The prince seemed to be the first to break that unspoken vow.
Capron did not lack any sort of intelligence, however. He knew the dungeons by heart, and he knew the castle's every exit and entrance. He broke soon after he presumed his brother had gone to his chambers.
The escape was successful and he made it to a neighboring kingdom. When Halburn's guards went to check on their prisoner and found the cell empty, Torin, presumed to be Capron by the people, explained that the border guards had found his brother and killed him on sight. The matter was over and Torin Blackwell took the throne, reinstating magic into the kingdom and bringing a new sort of rule to the great kingdom of Halburn.
Capron all but disappeared from existence.