I can hear Mother and Father whispering about them when I’m supposed to be sleeping. Their room is several doors down from mine but I can hear them as clearly as if they were standing right outside my room. They whisper about how they will come in the night for us all, how they get closer and closer all the time. Mother says that their favorite thing to eat is baby brains. They like to bash their heads against the stone walls of men and gobble the goo right out of their skulls. Father says to hush, that she’ll wake us up, but her whispers quickly turn to screeching about how it should have been him who died instead of my Uncle. That usually elicits a firm slap from Father and they quiet down once more. I try to go to sleep but I always dream about lizardmen with baby brains dangling from their lipless mouths.
I sit at my Mother’s feet, a carved wooden knight clutched in my chubby fingers. Mother and Father sit on their thrones, listening as a man drones on and on. His lands have been beset upon by raiders or lizardmen or some such and he has come to beg for my parent’s help. Men come from far and wide to beseech the King and Queen for men or food but all of it is so dreadfully boring. I would much rather be back at the nursery but Father says that we must learn the ways of the court. My brother, the future King, pretends to listen but he sneaks a hand out to pull at my braids, making me yelp loudly. The court falls silent as my cry echoes off the stone walls and everyone turns to look at me. I turn bright red and stare at my lap, too terrified to even blame my brother for the outburst. Father glares at me for a moment before motioning to the man to continue. Mother waits until all eyes have returned to the man before leaning down to whisper viciously to us both.
“If you two don’t learn how to behave at court, I’ll slit both of your throats and make two more just like you.” It’s her favorite threat and it never fails to chill me to the bone. My brother, however, only rolls his eyes and turns his attention to the man who is still going on and on about mutilated cattle. I make a mental note to ask Master Balthus what mutilated means at our lessons later. Mother pretends to listen as well but I follow her gaze to the statue of my Uncle on the other side of the throne room. She gives an audible sigh as she always does when she looks at my Uncle’s statue.
I turn my attention to the man who is still speaking. It seems as though he has been talking for hours, holding his dirty cap in his hands. His clothes are cleaner but roughspun and his hair is thin at the top, a pink scalp peeking through.
“We fear that the lizardmen have been getting to them, Sires,” he concludes at last. The court erupts into mocking titters of laughter, making the man’s face turn red. Even his pink scalp seems to turn the color of blood. Father raises a hand and everyone turns silent as though the laughter that had just filled the room has been chopped in two with a great big sword.
“I grant you a dozen men at arms to investigate the cattle mutilations.” With that decree, the audience comes to an end. The man bows and backs out of the room slowly. I pick up my wooden knight once more and pretended that he was Uncle Ailen, slaughtering the cattle mutilations all by himself, protecting the kingdom once more. I imagine them as having great big horns and scaly green scales but Uncle Ailen rides them down fearlessly, dispatching them with a single swipe of his sword.
It is late and the wind is howling just outside the stone walls, the cold seeping in through the cracks. I try to move closer to the fire but Mother jabs me in the side with her elbow and tells me to stop fidgeting.
“A lady never fidgets,” she reminds me, her own back rigid and her posture as stately as if we were in the throne room. In my short life, I have never seen her disheveled. My brother is not held to any such standard. He slouches on the soft settee closest to the fire, his face slack as he stares sleepily into the flames.
“What happened next, Mother?” he slurs, although we both know very well what happened next. We’ve heard this story a thousand times.
“Your Uncle Ailen, brave and true, drove the lizardmen underground again. He chased them out of every corner of our kingdom, leaving only the old and the frail to seek refuge in their ghoulish crypts and the kingdom was safe once more. The peasants sang his praises as it was once again safe to travel the roads without fear of ambush and the farmers no longer feared having their cattle maimed. Word reached the capital that one region was still plagued with their foul infestation and so, your Uncle kissed me farewell and rode off to do his duty.”
Her face always looked drawn suddenly at this point in the story. Even after all these years.
“But it was a trap.” Her voice wavered ever so slightly though her back remained as rigid as ever. “They had secretly been gathering their strength in the craggy hills of the north. The treacherous reptiles lay in wait and slaughtered Ailen’s outfit until he was the last man standing. Only a small servant boy was left alive, they sent him back with Ailen’s head and a warning. Your cowardly father was too weak to give them what they deserved for such a disgusting display.”
She spat and stared angrily into the flames. Ailen’s eyes drooped, on the edge of sleep. The vitriol in her voice made me feel ashamed of my father. I stared at my dirty fingers and waited. The wine glass tipped up and the ruby liquid vanished. Her voice grew steady and quiet once more.
“The boy said it took ten of the lizard men to bring him down. He was so brave and strong. There will never be another like him, not even your brother, I’m afraid. He is tainted, as are you.”
Ailen was no longer conscious of Mother’s words, his soft snores rose and fell in a serene ignorance.
“Your coward father wanted to give the boy back to his mother but I had him hanged. Why should he live when his king did not?”
She went to drink from her glass again and, when she saw that it was empty, tossed it angrily against the hearth. The tinkering glass made Ailen twitch in his sleep but he did not rouse. The muscles in her jaw worked as she refused to look at me.
“Go to bed. I grow weary of your company.” As quietly as I could, I slid from my seat and made to wake my brother. “Leave him,” she barked and turned to her bed. I let myself out as quickly as I could before her mood soured even further.
Little Countess Lillia says that lizardmen are just a faerie tale, something to scare children but I set her straight and tell her how they killed my Uncle. She looked at me down her nose as if she couldn’t believe how stupid I was for believing such a thing.
“My mother says that your father killed your uncle because he wanted the throne all to himself,” she says so smugly that I push her. She falls backward and hits her head on a table on the way down and there is so much blood that it scares me. I scream and the room suddenly floods with people who whisk Lillia away.
“Do you have any idea how powerful her father is?” Mother screams at me later. Father is standing by the window, staring at me coldly. I stare at my feet and wish I could find a hole to disappear into. “If you have just murdered his eldest daughter, he will raise an army against us, starve us out, and put all of our heads on spikes. Is that what you want?”
I know that if I speak, I will only start sobbing so I shake my head. Father despises tears.
“Then you had better hope that little shit wakes up or I will make you regret it, do you hear me? I’ll put your worthless head on a spike myself.”
She shakes me by my shoulder, slapping me around the face and neck while I sob and try to tell her I’m sorry in between blows. Father watches for a moment before turning his face to the window.
Mother makes me visit Lillia’s bedside every day to demonstrate my contrition. As I sit and watch the light travel slowly across Lilia’s gray face, I imagine my own face will be grey as they raise it up on a spike. Grey and bloated, with flies eating my eyeballs. One day, Lillia’s eyes open and my head is safe once more.