A fanfare rang out across the kingdom. Peasants toiling in the fields looked to the castle’s tallest tower. It had happened then; the Queen had retired to the birthing chamber.
The drawbridge dropped across the moat. Soldiers on horseback spilled out and spread to the surrounding villages. Criers took their places in village squares to make the proclamation. It was a great honour, they said, to be chosen!
Guards ushered young people into carts. Most went willingly, their faces alight with pride and expectation. Some were passive, resigned to their fate. One or two were openly reluctant, clinging to their parents. Soldiers intervened, threatening with their pikestaffs and in one instance, cudgelling the reluctant youngster into unconsciousness.
“It’s the greatest honour!” they snarled, spitting in disgust at this rebellion.
The carts trundled over the drawbridge into the castle courtyard. The Chancellor inspected the youngsters, the first born of every family. They’re a skinny bunch, he observed, undernourished. The peasantry shouldn’t be so quick to reproduce if they can’t feed their offspring properly. But then again, he tugged at his starched collar, if it wasn’t for the peasant children, the guards might come calling at his house.
The youngsters were marshalled into line and led towards the base of the tallest tower. At the top was the birthing chamber. The Queen was in there now, releasing eggs from her ovipositor. One by one the youngsters were shoved through the door. The others waited outside in silence, holding their breath for the inevitable scream.
Next in line was Wesley, a tall youth and the son of a turnip grower. His head was still hurting from where the soldier had walloped him. The door opened and the point of a poignard pushed Wesley forwards. Wesley dug his heels into the dirt. He would not go.
The Chancellor signalled to two guards. They seized the errant knave and threw him over the threshold. Wesley landed in a heap at the foot of the spiral staircase. The door slammed behind him, plunging him into darkness.
Wesley got to his feet and listened. A chittering sound echoed from above, amplified by the stairwell. The air was thick and humid; a cloying foetid stench grabbed Wesley’s throat like a demonic claw. Wesley covered his nose and mouth with one hand. Steeling himself, he put his foot on the lowest step and began to climb. Round and round he went as he ascended. The stone walls were slick with condensation and ahead there was a faint sickly glow, growing stronger as he approached the luminescent eggs.
Wesley reached into his jerkin, reassuring himself that the salt cellar was still there. No one had searched the young people apart from a quick glance for the more obvious weapons. If what his father had told him was correct, the same method he used for keeping slugs off his turnips might just save Wesley’s life and put an end to centuries of tyranny.
“Step into my parlour,” said an eerie voice, rasping and high-pitched.
Wesley entered the birthing chamber, keeping his eyes averted from the Queen’s mandibles.
“Majesty,” he bowed, reaching into his shirt, “this is a great honour.”