The wheels of the carriage rumbled across the rough terrain that led to The Hand. Annabelle travelled alone. She didn’t ask the driver’s name. She didn’t interact with him at all. She didn’t see the point of doing so. King Roman always took time with his drivers. He knew most of the staff at the castle by name and could even go so far as to ask about their children and other relatives. Those who didn’t know he soon learned. Annabelle was just glad to have some time alone. Her whole life had become caught in a storm since following Francesca and leaving their old life behind. Now she was tasked with killing the young child. She didn’t care if Charles grew up and replaced any children Francesa bore the king. Why should she? It wasn’t as if Francesca would allow that to happen anyway.
“He is my gift to you,” Francesca had said. She wasn’t wrong. Children so young were full of pure energy. Annabelle had been deteriorating of late and the flesh and blood of one so young would replenish her strength. Perhaps maybe even make her stronger than Francesca herself. Keeping safe at the castle had weakened the supreme witch.
Lady Millicent Harrington had been appointed Charles’ ward until he came of age and was able to control The Hand himself. She had already taken a special interest in the little boy. She was a close friend of Natalya – the boy’s mother – and they had shared a dream of pairing her daughter, Margaret with Charles in marriage. She spotted the carriage with the Royal coat of arms approach. She brought herself to the door to greet, beaming with pride. Her expression soured to stoic when it was Annabelle who removed herself from the carriage and not the king.
“An unexpected pleasure,” said Lady Harrington. “Welcome to The Hand.”
She couldn’t disguise her disappointment but she offered Annabelle the proper cordiality as a confidant of the queen.
“I’m here to see Charles,” Annabelle explained quickly, unable to bare the formalities her new post demanded of her.
Lady Harrington pursed her lips and became colder still.
“His Grace is not receiving guests.”
Annabelle frowned. “Not receiving guests?” she repeated. “He’s three years old! Sit him at a table and make him see me.”
Lady Harrington’s sharp features sparked like thunder.
“He may be young, miss, but he is still Lord of the Hand and the Count of Hargov.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to get anywhere unless she played some of the formalities.
“I am at the behest of Her Majesty, Queen Francesca. She is keen on me reporting on the health and well being of her beloved nephew.”
Lady Harrington eyed her suspiciously. The king’s new bride had never shown any interest in Charles. However, if the queen requested it she couldn’t refuse.
“Very well,” groaned the noble woman. She turned and made her way to the tallest of the five towers that made up The Hand. “Follow me,” she barked.
Annabelle followed on. Portraits of Countess Natalya were still hanging. There was another woman too who looked a great deal like her. Annabelle assumed it to be Natalya’s mother.
Annabelle was led to a large study. It was empty except for the black marble fireplace which was stocked well with wood and burning happily, and a large table at which, in a red wing back chair sat a small boy with Roman’s dark curls and warm eyes. He had been playing with wooden soldiers. He stopped the moment he saw Annabelle standing over him.
“A lady from the castle to see Your Grace,” announced Lady Harrington.
Charles stared back at Annabelle with eyes full of life but without acknowledgement.
“I’ll just see to the staff before I leave,” Lady Harrington dismissed herself.
“I knew your mother,” Annabelle said to the toddler.
Charles was still unsure of her. She leaned over the table and tapped his forehead so he could communicate more clearly.
“You frighten me,” the boy told her in a voice only she could hear.
“I should frighten you,” Annabelle said. “I’m here to kill you.”
The boys lips parted but he didn’t scream, nor did he cry.
“You can’t kill me,” the boy’s mind told the witch with all the self assurance of an adult. “I’m Lord of the Hand.”
Annabelle smiled. “That means nothing to me,” she said.
Charles was frozen in fear. Annabelle’s face wasn’t like it had been before, handsome and framed with cherry gold locks. It was longer, the mouth wider and full of malice. Still Charles didn’t scream. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway.
“Get out of here. I will have you burned!” the little boy’s mind insisted. He showed such resilience for one so young. Annabelle was impressed. Her need to feed battled with her conscience.
The boy was Roman’s flesh and blood and although he would forget him entirely in time it was Annabelle’s affection for the king that stayed her hand that day.
“I’ve changed my mind.”
Annabelle felt the presence of Francesca behind her. She turned to find the queen carrying a self satisfied grin. Charles was silent. He stared at the both of them with wide, mistrusting eyes but he didn’t move from his chair. He didn’t make a sound.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Francesca repeated when she noticed Annabelle showed no signs of relenting.
“He was my gift. You said …” Annabelle protested. “I need flesh and blood. I can’t protect you when I am weakened so.”
Francesca clicked her fingers. The little boy fell forward and was fast asleep on the table. His toy soldiers fell to the floor.
“It occurred to me,” the raven haired witch began. “My child will need flesh and blood to grow strong too. Not only will they be the ruler of this kingdom but they will be Premier of our own people. They will need to be strong. This boy is of good stock. He is of Roman’s own seed so my child will have a plentiful supply of strength.”
“None of our people remain. What exactly would the child be Premiere of?” Annabelle asked.
Francesca’s smile widened. Her blue eyes sparked.
“You’re still here aren’t you?” she remarked.
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “If I am all they have to rule over that is a sorry excuse for a Premiere.”
Francesca laughed. “We’ll build our numbers again.”
They left the boy asleep. Annabelle wondered if Francesca hadn’t come would she still have gone through with it? Would she have killed Charles? One thing she knew for certain was she should have killed him. The fate that Francesca had planned for him was much worse.
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