Once upon a time, in land not so far away, the dawn was yet to break. With each passing moment, however, more and more emerged from the shadows of the night. Fruit trees in full bloom now stood where a veil of darkness had just hung, and a mist hovered above the surface of the lake.
Yes, the time was indeed at hand, and all eyes were trained upon the mist. For no one wanted to miss the ignition of the fire cloud.
No, it is not that the mist was about to actually catch fire, but it was still aptly named. For it would go from a swirling mix of gun metal blue and battleship gray to a hundred different shades of red, orange and yellow in a twinkling of an eye if everything was just right when the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon a few days each year.
Adding all the more to the wonder was the reflection of the fire cloud upon the surface of the water. For every ripple would take on the appearance of a tongue of flame, and one could even see the apparent fire race across the lake from the east to the west if they stood in the right spot.
Still hardly seems adequate to describe the atmosphere as the sun crept ever closer toward the breaking of the dawn. For it was as if all of nature held its breath in eager anticipation, and the silence was deafening.
Finally, a collective gasp could be heard as the fire cloud began to erupt. This was followed by the sounds of singing birds, croaking frogs and the hearty cheers from the throng of people in attendance. Fish jumping out of the water added some rhythm to the chorus. Be assured that joy abounded in the hearts, minds and souls of all who had been given eyes to see such a spectacular sight.
Right on cue, the piercing cry of an osprey soaring high overhead signaled the end of the show, which had lasted but for a moment or two. Nonetheless, it was a memory that would surely last for a lifetime, and no one left disappointed.
Calvin was certainly glad to be there, but it was not just in regards to the fire cloud that he felt that way. In fact, he paid less attention to it than anyone else in attendance. For his eyes were trained upon what he considered to be a much more beautiful sight.
Although, he did appreciate how much the fire cloud complimented the brilliance of her eyes. For it literally took his breath away when its spectacular display of reds, oranges and yellows reflected off of their emerald green centers encircled by a deep blue sapphire ring.
He also appreciated how much it enhanced the natural iridescence of her hair. For each strand varied from reddish-brown to honey blonde, with light brown and strawberry blonde mixed in for good measure, and in the light of the fire cloud, her hair appeared to glow.
Her name was Cassandra, and she was indeed quite a sight to behold. For from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, she was a vision of physical perfection, and the most beautiful part about her was her heart!
It was Calvin’s duty to protect her from harm, but he did not see it as such. For he had fallen madly in love with Cassandra, and there was not another place he would rather be than by her side.
“Stop staring,” Cassandra whispered. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Just doing my duty, my lady,” Calvin answered with a twinkle in his eye.
Cassandra’s efforts to stifle a giggle failed miserably, which caused some heads to turn. She scolded Calvin under her breath, “See what you’ve done!”
Calvin just grinned, and Cassandra shook her head as if thoroughly disgusted for the benefit of the crowd. Nonetheless, she actually delighted in the attention Calvin constantly lavished upon her. For he always made her feel so very special—even almost worthy of her station in life, which was to be the future queen of the land.
To be the future queen had been her station since birth. For her marriage to Prince Victor had been arranged long before she came to be, and in accordance to the custom of the land, he would become king and she would become his queen, as soon as they took their vows.
To her credit, she did not take her destiny for granted. If anything, Cassandra took it more seriously than she should.
No, it is not that she considered it a burden, but she did have her concerns. For she had not even met the prince yet, and she worried about what he would think of her when it was time for them to meet for the first time—not to mention in the years to come.
Logic would dictate that she had a good reason to have her concerns about him, but she had an equally good reason to be rather confident of what she would find in Prince Victor. For Calvin’s other duty was to serve as a bodyguard for the prince, and she had been told that one of the main reasons for him being chosen for such a great honor was on account of how similar he was to Prince Victor—both in appearance and mannerisms. In fact, it was said that the only thing different about them was a heart-shaped birthmark in the center of Prince Victor’s chest.
Yes, Cassandra understood that it was what was on the inside that really counted, and that being similar was not the same as being identical. After all, the prince might not see her in the same light as Calvin appeared to. She had hope, however, and that hope was in the possibility of Prince Victor being as much like Calvin on the inside as Calvin was supposed to be like Prince Victor on the outside.
True to form, Calvin had been watching her the whole time, and he could see that Cassandra’s mind was no longer on where they were. So, he leaned down and softly asked, “A token for your thoughts?”
With an impish grin and a subtle slyness to her voice, Cassandra asked, "A token of what?"
“My esteem, of course,” Calvin answered with a furrow in his brow.
Without missing a beat, Cassandra shot back, “But is that not already freely given?”
Feigning exasperation, Calvin answered, “That it is, my lady, but how much more can you want?”
With a broad smile, Cassandra closed her eyes and half-sighed in replay, “I want it all.”
This brought an equally broad smile to Calvin’s face, and he hated having to tell her that it was time for them to go. On the other hand, the call of duty was paramount. Therefore, he was obliged to tell her, “The others have all gone, my lady, and there is much to do.”
“Alas, the burden of my responsibilities is indeed great,” Cassandra sighed.
Calvin immediately let out a laugh that could be heard on the other side of the lake, and he was still chuckling as they made their way back to the mansion that had been prepared for Cassandra to reside in before the wedding. Cassandra just smiled, which added even more to Calvin’s delight.
The path they were taking was near the bottom of a deep hollow. Mighty oaks dominated the hillsides, and weeping willows hung low over a babbling brook.
Nary a word was uttered from neither one of them as they walked, but this is not to say that Cassandra and Calvin traveled in complete silence. For a murder of crows sounded out with what someone with enough imagination could consider as being like a procession march.
Several squirrels in the area also had their part to play, but from the tone of their barking, they did not appear to be very happy about it. Squirrels can be rather cranky at times, I am told.
Cassandra’s abode soon came into view, and the captain of the guard was waiting on them at the front door to announce, “Prince Victor has requested the pleasure of your company, my lady, and he would like to see you as soon as possible.”
Cassandra fainted dead away, but Calvin caught her before her head could hit the ground. He then carried her inside and laid her gently upon her bed.
Immediately upon regaining consciousness, Cassandra could tell that something unusual was going on, and a quick look around the room confirmed her suspicions. For Calvin was not sitting next to the door, which is where he had always been when she awoke since before she could remember.
A knot was steadily growing in the pit of her stomach. For it appeared to be dark outside now.
An eerie silence hanging in the air like a pall was not helping any. For the big house was usually buzzing with activity at all hours of the day and night.
After taking a moment or two to collect herself, Cassandra made her way down the hallway that led to a small alcove located near the kitchen. For this is where the servants liked to gather when they were taking a break, and she figured that anyone still around would most likely be there.
She was overjoyed to finally find someone when she first saw the captain of the guard and four of his soldiers sitting at a table in the center of the room, but her euphoria quickly faded. For they did not look very happy to see her.
Cassandra blinked, and when her eyes refocused, the scene was quite different. For the captain and his men were now standing at attention. Furthermore, they were all now looking at her with deep concern, and she knew that this was concern over her welfare instead of their own.
The captain asked, “Would you like to sit down, my lady?” Cassandra nodded her head in agreement, and he walked over and pulled out a chair for her to sit in.
When she was seated, the captain asked, “Would you like some hot cider?” Casandra again nodded her head in agreement, and the captain motioned for one of his men to go get her a cup.
Cassandra eagerly reached for the steaming cup when he returned, and after taking a couple of sips, she started feeling a little better. This too quickly faded after she asked, “What has happened?”
The captain answered, “Do you remember fainting when I informed you of Prince Victor wanting to see you as soon as possible, my lady?”
Cassandra responded with a meek, “Yes.”
“Well, the prince was very upset when you did not arrive that evening, and Calvin has taken your place in prison,” the captain told her with an ever so slight tremble in his voice.
His mouth had not yet closed from speaking when Cassandra leapt to her feet and demanded, “How could this have happened?”
The captain of the guard took in a hard gulp of air before answering, “It is the law of the land, my lady.”
In a voice an octave or two higher than normal, Cassandra asked, “What law?”
“I am sorry, my lady, but I am under orders not to discuss that with you,” the captain replied in almost a whisper.
Undaunted, Cassandra demanded, “Take me to Calvin now!”
“It is very late, my lady, and it would be better if we waited until after sunrise. In fact, it would be even better if you did not go until sometime in the afternoon,” the captain informed her.
“I don’t care!” Cassandra exclaimed with a very uncharacteristic sternness to her voice.
“Surely you must be hungry, my lady,” the captain countered. “For it has been almost three days since you have eaten anything that I am aware of.”
Visibly shaken, Cassandra managed to stammer, “What are you talking about?”
The captain took in another hard gulp of air before answering, “It was almost three days ago when I first informed you of the prince wanting to see you as soon as possible, my lady.”
The color drained from Cassandra’s face, and she gingerly sat back down in her seat. Then she gathered her resolve, stood back up and told the captain in a very stern tone, “No, I am not hungry! Now, if you and your men are unwilling to escort me, I will just have to go there by myself.”
Without hesitation, the captain motioned for two of his men to lead the way. He walked alongside Cassandra, and his other two men trailed behind.
On a good night, a walk to Victor Castle from there would be a very pleasant experience to most. For it was not all that far away, and the sight of its four ivory watch towers gleaming in the moonlight is nothing short of spectacular. This was anything but a good night, however.
The four ivory watch towers were not the only spectacular things about Victor Castle—be assured. For it is said that its front gate was carved out of a single pearl that was 30 feet in diameter, and the outer walls were constructed of white marble slabs too large to be handled by conventional means.
Panes of solid amber lined the main hall, and each interior room was a different wonder in and of itself. As to be expected, there is one part of the castle that was not so well adorned.
Cassandra sorely regretted refusing to eat something before they left when the putrid stench of the dungeon invaded her nostrils. For dry heaves always make bad situations worse.
Monstrous rats watched Cassandra’s every move, and they seemed to be daring the soldiers to kick at them before scurrying off in every direction. She burst into tears when she saw Calvin chained to the wall inside of a cell that was made of heavy iron bars covered with a thick greenish-black slime that also coated the walls of the entire dungeon.
“Please do not cry, my lady,” Calvin softly told her.
“I don’t…understand…why this is happening,” Cassandra replied in between sobs. “I know…that I upset the prince, but…why are you in chains down here?”
“I am down here doing my duty, my lady. For I am charged with protecting you from all harm to the very best of my abilities,” Calvin answered.
“But how can you protect me from anything in that cell?”
With a look of great pain upon his face, Calvin answered, “I am taking your place in here, as I will also being doing at dawn.”
“What happens then?”
“I would rather not say,” Calvin replied.
“Please, do not seek to protect me from this. For not knowing would surely do more harm than good,” Cassandra pleaded.
“I will be placed in a pit where I will be stoned to death, and then hogs will be let in to feed upon my carcass,” Calvin calmly answered.
Absolute horror would be the best way to describe the look upon Cassandra’s face after she heard Calvin’s explanation. She tried to speak, but no words would come.
When she found some more resolve, she asked, “Surely Prince Victor could not be so vain and vindictive—could he? For I can understand how he could feel insulted when I failed to show up for dinner that night, but considering the fact that I took ill, can he really justify such a harsh punishment?”
Calvin quickly answered, “Be assured that the prince does not need to justify anything to anyone. That is, except to his father, the king, of course, and since they are as one in heart, mind and soul about everything, there is never any question of him always doing just exactly as his father would have him to.”
“Woe is me,” Cassandra moaned. “For both my prince and his father, the king, are monsters.”
Calvin responded rather harshly, “You should never think in such a way. For it is just not true!”
Again, Cassandra burst into tears, and then let out a mournful wail that should never be heard coming from such a lovely young lass. For it was a sound that should only be heard coming from a wild animal on a lonely mountaintop and echoing down deep canyons in the middle of dark nights. It even brought tears to the eyes of the battle-hardened soldiers standing guard on the outside of Calvin’s cell.
Calvin stifled a wail of his own enough to gently reply, “Be assured that it is not their fault. For they both love you very much, and neither one of them has any desire to harm you.”
Having again collected herself somewhat, Cassandra managed to ask, “So, why must this sentence be carried out?”
“The problem is that one of the ministers knew of a statute that had been enacted long ago when such rules were necessary in order to promote order. The statute decreed that anyone found guilty of disrespecting a member of the royal family would be stoned to death and then have their remains fed to hogs in order to add all the more to their disgrace.”
In a much steadier tone, Cassandra asked, “Being the supreme ruler over all of the land, why couldn’t the king just do away with such a law—especially since it is no longer necessary?”
“Under normal circumstances, the king would just forgive the penalty, but since this involves his son and his future daughter-in-law, he did not want any accusations of impropriety to tarnish the union.”
Cassandra pleaded, “Could I go and speak with them before it is too late?”
“No, that is not possible. For they are both indisposed at this time,” Calvin answered.
Cassandra let out another wail, and then fell silent when she heard the sound of heavy boots headed their way. For she knew what was about to happen.
“The time has come,” the captain of the guard announced.
Cassandra then turned toward Calvin, and when their eyes met, she said, “I love you, and I will always love you.”
Calvin collapsed in a heap when they unchained him from the wall, but it was not because of the confinement, nor the thought of what was about to happen, that he did so. For it was hearing what Cassandra said that so overwhelmed him. For it was something that he had longed to hear since the first day they met.
The soldiers standing guard helped Calvin to his feet, and then they led him out of the dungeon to a pit about a half of a mile outside of the castle. Following behind was Cassandra, with the help of a couple more soldiers.
No, she did not want to be a witness to the death of her beloved Calvin, but Cassandra couldn’t get her legs to work. Adding all the more to her horror was a thought about her being at the mercy of the circumstances at hand.
Then another thought crossed Cassandra’s mind, and this one was about how she could still save Calvin by taking his place, which made perfect sense to her. For it was, after all, her debt to society that he was paying, and as long as it was paid, no one could accuse the king of being unjust.
Cassandra quickly discovered that she was indeed trapped in something that felt like a nightmare that would not end, however. For not only were her legs not working, she found that she could not say a word, nor make a sound of any kind. Neither could she wave her arms in order to get someone’s attention.
When Calvin reached the center of the pit, he turned to face Cassandra. Their eyes met and locked in an intense gaze that seemed to peer into the very depths of the other’s soul. He then told her, “I love you. I have always loved you, and I always will.”
Their eyes remained locked in that intense gaze until a fist-sized stone struck Calvin in the temple. He reeled backwards, but managed to remain on his feet. He doubled over when several larger stones struck him on both sides of his rib cage, and then an even larger stone sent him to his knees after smashing the lower part of his right leg.
After a hail of smaller flint stones succeeded in shredding his shirt, along with portions of his skin and flesh, a well-aimed toss of an incredibly sharp obsidian battle disc by the captain of the guard mercifully hastened the end of Calvin’s suffering by severing both the jugular vein and carotid artery on both sides of his neck. This brought a howl of protest from the minister who had forced the issue by bringing up the matter of that arcane statute, but he quickly quieted down and slithered away from the pit after it looked like several of the soldiers were about to start chunking stones in his direction.
Arterial spray covered the chalky-white clay soil at the bottom of the pit for about six feet around Calvin before he collapsed on his back, and this made the imagery of the scene complete. For it could be clearly seen from the top of the pit that what the arterial spray had painted was an exact match for the heart-shaped birthmark that could still be clearly seen in the center of his chest. All in attendance seemed frozen in place, and hogs could be heard squealing nearby.
Cassandra awoke in a really good mood. For aside from some lingering thoughts of a very disturbing nightmare she had just had, she felt generally refreshed.
As was her custom when first waking, Cassandra stretched her arms out wide and arched her back while yawning loudly in an exaggerated fashion. This was as much meant for Calvin’s benefit as it was for her own. For he seemed to always get a big kick out of her carrying on so, but when she looked over at his chair by the door, he was not there.
Cassandra let out a blood-curdling scream when the thought hit her that her nightmare just might have been real. This brought servants and soldiers rushing into her bedroom from all directions.
“Has something bad happened to Calvin?” Cassandra pleaded.
“That is yet to be determined, my lady. For it all depends upon what you want,” a familiar voice spoke from the back of the crowd that had formed at the foot of Cassandra’s bed.
Cassandra called out with a shaky voice, “Calvin?”
When he stepped to the front of the crowd, Cassandra leapt into Calvin’s arms, and he held her oh so very tight as she sobbed quite uncontrollably. After a few moments, she leaned back and looked deeply into his eyes as he leaned down and kissed her in the way that troubadours sing songs about.
By the time the kiss had ended, they were alone in the room. Without saying a word, Cassandra stepped back a little and started unbuttoning Calvin’s shirt. When she saw the heart-shaped birthmark in the center of his chest, she gasped, “Prince Victor?”
“Yes, it is I,” he gently answered.
Cassandra immediately recoiled, but he caught her by the shoulders before she could get more than an arm’s length away. Tears welled up in her eyes and were soon streaming down her face.
For what seemed like an eternity to her, Cassandra could not do anything but cry and look at him in horror. For she had no idea if any of this was real or just a continuation of the nightmare about the stoning she thought she had awakened from.
Cassandra finally asked him, “Was any of it real?”
“Oh yes, it was all very real,” he answered.
“Even the part about Calvin being held in the dungeon, and you being stoned to death?”
“Well, not exactly. For Calvin and I have always been one and the same person,” he answered.
Cassandra was instantly overwhelmed with shock and disbelief, and all she could manage to mumble was a meek, “What?”
“My full name is Prince Victor Calvin. Well, at least that is what it is at this time. For it will change to King Victor Calvin if we wed, of course, but I much prefer being called just Calvin,” he replied.
Cassandra did not say a word. She just stared at Calvin, and then slowly turned her head to look out of the window near her bed.
As if on cue, a couple of bluebirds landed on Cassandra’s windowsill, and started singing. Quickly afterward, a bright red male cardinal landed on a branch of a dogwood a few feet away and joined in. The choir was fully assembled when three yellow canaries announced their presence from a magnolia in full bloom just to the south of a stand of silver leaf poplars, and Cassandra felt herself being lifted above her troubles.
All too soon, a knock on her bedroom door brought Cassandra crashing back down to earth. Fortunately, it was not the bearer of more bad news. For it was just one of the kitchen staff bringing breakfast, and Calvin took control of a covered cart she had rolled down the hall.
“I know that you have many questions, but it would sure make me feel so much better if you would sit down and eat something first. For it has been quite some time since you last ate anything,” Calvin told her with great concern in his voice.
Cassandra was about to motion for him to take it away when she caught a whiff of what was on the cart, and her stomach immediately sounded its approval. For the cook had prepared little cornmeal cakes stuffed with sliced ham, onions, green peppers and three different kinds of cheese.
In accordance to her prerogative, Cassandra changed her mind. For it was, after all, one of her favorite dishes.
When Calvin saw that Cassandra was going to try to eat some, he exclaimed with a big grin, “Good! For I was sorely dreading having to tell the cook that I had her go to all that trouble for nothing.”
That brought a smile to Cassandra’s face, but she was not really in the mood for conversation yet. So, they enjoyed the cakes, along with a carafe of freshly-squeezed orange juice, while listening to the delightful concert being held in their honor.
They continued to just listen to the songbirds singing for almost an hour after they had finished eating. Cassandra also watched a pair of very young bunnies played tag on a lush green carpet of Bermuda grass under a massive live oak that was covered with Spanish moss in the middle of the yard. Calvin kept his eyes glued on her.
Suddenly, Cassandra’s eyes welled up with tears once again, and with a voice cracking with emotion, she asked, “How is it possible for you to still be alive?”
“When the hogs were let in, they refused to approach. My body was then brought before my father, and he brought me back to life,” Calvin answered.
“How can this be?”
“Nothing is too difficult for my father to accomplish, but would it not be better to ask about the reason why rather than how?”
“Okay.” Cassandra’s voice was little more than a whisper now. “Why?”
Calvin took a deep breath and answered, “It has to do with obtaining something truly special for the both of us.”
“Well, I wanted you to know beyond any and all reasonable doubts that I loved you enough to die for you. For with our marriage being prearranged, I did not want you to have any concerns about just how much I truly loved you.”
“So, this was all about you wanting to prove yourself to me?”
“Not entirely,” Calvin answered. Cassandra just stared at him.
After clearing his throat, Calvin continued, “Please understand that I know that your character is beyond reproach, and there is no questioning of your resolve to always honor your marriage vows to the best of your abilities. Furthermore, I know that you do indeed genuinely love me, and that your love goes far beyond any and all reasonable expectations of honor and duty. I have always wanted to receive a very special kind of love, however. For it is relatively easy to love someone who can provide everything you desire—both materially and emotionally, but it takes a very special kind of love to want to stay with someone who has wounded you deeply. After all that I have subjected you to, that would be the kind of love I would be receiving from you if you would still have me as your husband.”
After taking some time to absorb what she had been just told, Cassandra asked in a distant tone, “So, this was also about me proving myself to you?”
“That is certainly one way of looking at it. Can you forgive me?”
Cassandra again looked out of the window and spied the two tiny bunnies still romping about under the huge live oak. She sighed out of envy over their apparent innocence.
Then Cassandra saw a rather large snake on a low hanging branch just above where the bunnies were playing, and her heart filled with terror when the snake slid off of the branch and landed a few feet behind them. She was about to cry out in an attempt to warn the bunnies of their impending doom when they scampered off before the snake could move close enough to strike.
Cassandra continued to watch as the snake slithered off into a patch of big blue stem grass, and she thought of the minister who had brought the charges of royal disrespect against her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the two bunnies kicking up their heels like nothing traumatic had just happened, and this made her wonder about what the future may hold for her and Calvin.
In the same distant tone she had used before, Cassandra asked, “Whose idea was it?”
“My father and mine,” Calvin answered.
With the tone of Cassandra’s voice becoming a little chillier, she asked, “Was the minister also in on it?”
“Unwittingly,” Calvin replied.
His answer caught Cassandra slightly off-guard. So, it took a few seconds before she could ask, “What do you mean?”
“My father and I were well aware of the treachery the minister harbored in his heart, and this is why we made sure of him knowing about the arcane statute, which had been left standing in order to facilitate our plan. Therefore, it can be said that the minister did indeed have his part to play, but the truth is that he had no idea about what was really going on,” Calvin explained.
“I cannot imagine going to such great lengths,” Cassandra replied with her voice trailing off ever so slightly.
“What I have always wanted for us both was well worth paying any price, and you have already said that you wanted it all.”
Cassandra then knew what she should do, and without saying a word, she leapt out of her chair and landed in Calvin’s lap. The next step in her plan was to engage in a kiss that would make the one they had shared before look like a simple peck on the lips.
Their wedding took place at the time it had been previously scheduled to later that summer. Both the bride and the groom looked radiant, and the festivities lasted for days. Needlessly to say, theirs was a love for the ages, and they lived happily ever after as two hearts beating as one and never missing a beat.
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