The Key

By: Jennifer Anne Davis

Mako

Screams of the dying echoed throughout the castle.

As Mako made his way toward the stairwell, he kept to the shadows cast by the setting sun. A deep, throaty laugh carried down the hall. Mako slid into an empty room, pressing his body flat against the wall next to the door.

“That way,” a man ordered. “This section has already been taken care of. Go to the east wing. Check every room. No one is to be left alive.”

A group of enemy soldiers dressed in battle gear marched past without noticing Mako. They carried weapons—swords and daggers—all dripping with blood. Mako’s fist tightened around the hilt of his sword, his muscles tense and ready to attack. He held his breath and forced himself to remain still instead of charging the soldiers. When the last man stepped around the corner at the end of the hallway, Mako crept out of the room.

A deafening rumble shook the castle, causing small pieces of the ceiling to cascade down like snow. An hour earlier, the fearless king had led his soldiers to the docks to fight the invading army. A messenger arrived ten minutes ago with news that the king and his sons were dead. As commander, it was Mako’s duty to protect the remaining royal family.

Mako ran up four flights of stairs and down an empty corridor. At the tapestry depicting a castle shrouded in clouds on a mountaintop, he shoved it aside and entered the secret passageway. Darkness and a musty smell engulfed him. Feeling along the rough walls, he counted as he moved through the tunnel. After thirty paces, he turned left. Then at fifty paces, he stopped. There was supposed to be a door directly to his right. His hands came across splintering wood, and he pushed the door open a couple of inches. Mako peered into the royal wing. It was silent. Slipping out of the passageway, he unsheathed his sword and entered the main sitting room, which was used only by the royal family.

A baby cried from a room on the right, the sound similar to his daughter’s, making his chest tighten with concern. Were his baby daughter and wife still alive? Or had the enemy gotten to them too? Mako took a shaky breath and progressed toward the doorway, limiting his steps to the rugs and avoiding the stone floor. Glancing inside the room, he realized it was the royal nursery. Mako raised his sword and held it ready, then counted to three and stormed inside.

Movement came from a curtain across the room. “Who’s there?” he demanded.

The queen stepped out from behind the heavy fabric, her face red, hair wild and untamed. “Commander!” she cried, clutching her wailing baby tight against her chest. “We’re under attack! Where are my husband and sons? Are they all right?”

Unable to look her in the eyes, Mako said, “Queen Kayln, we must get you and the princess into the tunnels.”

Mako took hold of the queen’s elbow and led her back through the passageway. When they reached the stairwell, it was still empty. Mako and the queen hugged the wall while they descended to the first floor, the baby princess squirming in her mother’s arms.

As they neared his bedchamber, Mako prayed his wife and baby daughter were hiding safely inside. He rounded a corner and saw the door to his quarters hanging open. Bloody footprints led away from his room and down the corridor.

Mako tensed and forced himself to step through the arched doorway. His wife lay twisted awkwardly on the floor, her glazed eyes staring up at him. Her throat had been slit. Blood pooled around her body, its metallic smell thick in the air. Mako’s legs buckled, and he fell to his knees, feeling for her pulse. It was too late to help her.

Perhaps no one had noticed his baby daughter, Tabitha, tucked inside her cradle in the corner of the room. Mako ran over to her. The white blanket she was swaddled in was crimson with fresh blood. The baby’s round, chubby face looked peaceful—but a knife with a silver sun on the hilt protruded from her chest. Slipping his large hands under the damp, red cloth, Mako picked Tabitha up, choking back a sob.

Everyone he loved was gone. He swore to kill those responsible for the blood spilt today.

He placed his daughter back in the cradle, kissing her forehead gently. Then he ran over to his dead wife, kneeling next to her. He closed her eyelids and removed her wedding ring. Tears dripped from his cheek onto her lifeless face.

“I’ll always love you,” he whispered.

A woman screamed and heavy footsteps pounded across the bedchamber directly above, followed by a loud thump. Mako stood, remembering the queen and princess still standing in the corridor.

“There isn’t much time.” Mako pulled them inside. He closed the door and shoved a dresser in front of it.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, tears streaming down her face.

Unable to speak, Mako just nodded. The lives of the queen and princess depended on him. He rummaged through his wife’s clothes until he found a brown cloak.

“Your Majesty, please put this on.”

“No,” the queen answered, her eyes fixated on Tabitha. She squared her shoulders, and then looked at Mako. “Emperor Hamen sent his army to kill us. He won’t stop until they do.”

“I promised the king I would protect you and the princess.”

Her eyes widened. “My husband and sons?” she asked.

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