The carriage slammed into a rut. It careened on its side, threatening to pitch over, but fortunately didn't. The driver cracked his leather whips, spurring on the horses. Mihai wasn't sure who was following them or why, he only knew they were after his momma, whatever the cost.
He glanced out of the side window of the carriage as it shook, hoping for a glimpse of his pursuers. Instead, he spied the setting sun casting golden shadows over the treetops of the surrounding woods. In the distance, he noticed the torches ablaze with tall flames as they lit up the turrets of his ancestral castle overlooking the Black Sea. He prayed they could make it far enough up the road to find the protection of his father's soldiers.
His momma withdrew from the rear window. "Mihai, come here."
He sprang into his mother's arms. She ran her hands over his thick, wavy hair and cupped his cheeks. She looked scared.
"I know you're young, but you must be brave."
He stiffened his shoulders and held up his head. He was the crown prince of Moldavia, and he would not let his mother be hurt. "I am, Momma," he announced, knowing this was a grave situation. He just didn't know why.
"Mihai, you are just a boy."
"I'm old enough to protect you!" he protested. He was ten now. Why did she still think of him as a boy?
The carriage shook violently. It took another sharp turn and barely righted itself.
"She's close." Mihai's mother gripped his shoulders.
"Momma! Who is it?" Mihai asked.
"My dear sweet Son, I am not truly Alice deBusch, Princess of Weisgarten. My given name is Esmeralda Vacay, and I was raised Roma - a gypsy," she began.
Mihai stared at her, confused. What did she mean? His father was the King of Moldavia! He would never marry a gypsy.
A loud pop thundered in his ears. The carriage jerked, stopped, then thrust forward, tumbling end over end before landing upside down. Mihai was cushioned in his mother's arms.
He crawled out from under her, clutching her hand. "Momma!" He didn't feel very brave anymore.
She squeezed his hand back, gasping for breath as she attempted to get to her knees on the overturned ceiling of the carriage.
"I'm a gypsy witch, Mihai. Your father knew precisely who I was when we fell in love. He came up with the identity of Alice deBusch so we could marry," she continued between deep, hurried breaths.
"But witches are bad, Momma," Mihai said, recalling the tales and legends he had overheard from the servants in the castle.
"No, Mihai, not all witches are bad, believe that," she replied. "I have never used my power darkly. I did, however, incur the wrath of the witch who follows us because I wouldn't do her bidding. I wouldn¡¯t do it because she is a dark witch," his mother explained, ripping her skirt. She tied it around her bleeding leg.
The carriage rattled as if a heavy stick had prodded it.
"Son, I am far too impulsive for my own good. Guard your heart, be strong yet -" "Get out, Esmeralda! Get out and face me, cowardly snit," demanded a cold, crackly voice.
Mihai hugged her again, unwilling to let her go. She pushed the upside down door open and forced her way out of the carriage. He sat there, shaking with fear. Slowly, he dared to raise his head level to the window.
"I've finally found you, Esmeralda, hiding behind the skirts of a queen no less. Well, I'll have from you now what you wouldn't give then," the nasally voice bragged.
Fear was replaced with courage, and Mihai scampered out of the carriage, his own neat, Venetian clothes now torn and dirty. He ran to his mother, who knelt before an old haggard woman. Their pursuer wore a dark cloak, and her face was lined with deep wrinkles. The knife in her hand glowed an eerie shade of obsidian fire. Her hateful eyes stabbed into the growing darkness, bent on revenge. A quick glance in the direction of the driver told Mihai that he was severely injured. He couldn't help them, and the two horses that were pulling the carriage were absent.
"Leave my momma alone!" Mihai yelled.
His bold declaration only brought his mother's hand down on his shoulder, she squeezed it hard, making him flinch. Why did she do that? He was a prince. He had to save her.
"Be quiet, Son!"
"Why, Esmeralda, you dared to spawn," the old witch taunted. "Well, no matter. If you don't pay your debt, I'll force your boy to pay it."
"Don't insult my son, Hecuba. He seeks to protect me, like any son would his mother."
"He's a pretty one, Esmeralda. Shall I have him pay for your cowardice?"
"No," Mihai's mother snapped. "I will not use my power to curse another living being."
"You owe me, Snit. I did as your father wanted. He promised me your service. You were in no position to forsake your family's debt," Hecuba rattled. Her voice was as cold as the night air.
Mihai swallowed. The witch's evil glare made him afraid.
"I will not do evil on your behalf."
"Then, I'll take what's owed to me - your son."
Mihai felt his mother push him to the ground, and he drew in a mouthful of dirt. Coughing and choking, he raised himself up on his elbows, the growing twilight now taking the place of the sunlight. He watched in horror as a powerful blast of lightning shot out from the old witch's knife, only to be parried quickly by his mother while withdrawing her own dagger from her torn skirts. Its bright white fire splayed the obsidian lightning just inches from his body.
He stayed on the ground, frozen. Cold sweat ran down his temple, but he was a prince, and a prince would show no weakness. His father had taught him that.
The old witch reached into the pocket of her cloak and withdrew a sharp pointed dart. His momma's eyes grew wide. Hecuba flung the dart directly at Mihai, his momma directed her dagger's fire at it, knocking it away.
"I've had enough of this game, Esmeralda," the witch said.
Mihai heard the witch chant words he had never heard before. His eyes cut to his mother and he saw her stiffen her back. A dirty blue flame sliced the air, striking his mother in the chest.
Hecuba took a step forward. "Now, I will cancel out your debt to me, Esmeralda," Hecuba said.
"No!" cried his momma. She slithered in front of Mihai, taking a second blast of blue flame.
Her eyes rolled back in her head, and blood dripped from the corner of her mouth. Drawing a deep breath, she scrunched up her body, summoning all that she could she released a blast of her white energy, causing the old witch to fly off the ground, her back striking the hard bark of an oak tree. Hecuba slid down the trunk, her back awkwardly crooked against the wood. The roots then lunged out of the ground, fastening her wrists to the dirt.
"Mihai, Son, I love you."
He couldn't stop his body from shaking. "I love you, Momma! Don't die!"
She turned to face him. He was overwhelmed by grief and threw himself into her arms. It felt so good to be held by her again.
"My father asked her for the gravest of sins - to kill another for revenge, promising his firstborn child into her service as repayment for the debt. I learned the ways of the witch as a young girl and when I came of age, I refused, leaving my family without honoring that debt. Shortly after that I met your father. You understand, don't you?" she choked.
"I do! I do! Don't die, Momma! I love you!" he cried, hugging her tighter. He hoped that his hug would make her live.
"My death will pay the debt. Be a good king, Mihai. Don't be impulsive or reckless like me. Guard your heart. I could have made better choices," she gasped.
His lower lip trembled. What did she mean? Why would she tell him about things he didn't understand?
She nodded her head and stopped. Her hand jerked forward, finding his. Her grasp was hard and icy. "It is too much for you. Go to your father and tell him what has happened. He will understand."
"Momma, don't die," Mihai sobbed.
"Tell...I love him still..."
She hung her head and grew limp in his arms, the light in her eyes slowly fading. Deep inside his wounded heart, he knew his mother was dead. It was just too much to handle. Filled with rage, he grabbed his mother's dagger. It bled drops of white light onto the ground. He ran up to Hecuba, placing the blade against her neck.
The old witch's eyes snapped open, making Mihai jump back.
She struggled to get up. "Think to kill me, snitty boy?" she taunted. "If you kill me, my coven will haunt your family forever."
Mihai's hand shook. "Shut up."
"From a witch you were born," Hecuba began. "Witch'¯s blood runs in you."
"To witch a wife you'll take," she continued.
Mihai clenched the knife in his hand, his knuckles turning white.
"You'll forever be in debt to a witch, sweet prince."
Mihai lunged out, daring winning out over his fear. He sliced Hecuba's neck just deep enough to draw blood. The sight of it unnerved him and he backed away, shaking. What was he going to do? Blackness surrounded him. The sounds of the night seemed to thunder in his ears. Owls hooted, hogs grunted as they skirted the wood line. His only hope was the flames from the torches on the castle's turrets. He turned around and sprinted up the road, clenching his mother's dagger. It seemed like he ran forever, with Delfin Castle coming into view by bits and pieces. When he finally ran up the steps and entered, he went directly to his father's study and collapsed.
His father was stunned to see Mihai, but Mihai told him how the old witch had found them in Constanta and given chase. His father reacted immediately, taking his best soldiers and racing down the road from which Mihai had just come. When his father returned less than an hour later, he was carrying his dead wife's body in his arms.