The prince awoke to cannon fire. He sat up and stared at the curtains over the windows. More cannons went off. Voices shouted. Something exploded.
The prince kicked the blankets away and ran to the windows. Nudging the curtains aside, he saw his castle walls alight with torches as his knights aimed bows and cannons. Beyond the walls lay a sea of men clad in metal and fur. They stabbed torches and swords into the sky and let out horrendous shouts.
A knight rushed past, shouting, “They breached the gates! Someone let them in!”
The prince’s blood ran cold. A coup? He couldn’t believe it. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stay here.
He hurriedly dressed, putting on a mail shirt under his tunic and strapping a short sword to his side. He donned boots and a coat just as someone pounded on his chamber door. “Your highness!” shouted the man.
The door swung open, a pale-faced servant and a few guardsmen filled up the doorway.
“Is it a coup?” the prince asked before any of the others could speak.
They exchanged glances. “We are not sure, sire,” said the servant. “It is the army from the Eastern Kingdom. But someone within the castle made sure the gates were unguarded when they arrived.”
“So there is a traitor,” the prince concluded.
“Sire, the safe room,” prompted one of the guards.
The prince tucked his sword closer. “Yes. Posthaste.”
Together the group moved swiftly through the halls toward a protected vault that was meant to keep the monarchs safe in case of a siege. The prince largely remained silent, listening to the battle outside and for the presence of intruders. He asked, “Where is Sir Aaro?”
“Indisposed, sire,” said a guard. “He went to secure the gates.”
“Something troubles you?”
“Yes.” The prince’s grip tightened on his sword, and he glanced behind them to make sure they weren’t being followed. “If the traitor has knowledge of the castle, I fear he knows the location of the safe room and how to get there.”
An acknowledging silence passed between them. The prince soon spoke again. “Send for Aaro as soon as you can. I trust him to defend the safe room.”
“I will fetch him,” said the servant. He swerved down another hall, out of sight. Hardly a moment passed before a pained shriek echoed from the direction he went.
Everyone tensed. One of the guards pointed at another. “You, with me. Keep going, sire.”
Two guards stayed behind and two more ushered the prince along even as he tried to see whatever the danger was.
A sharp metallic tone rang out like a bell violently struck. An instant later the air itself cut through the two guards. Their armor split like paper as blood soaked the stones where they fell.
“Run!” cried an escorting guard. One stood his ground as the other ran behind the prince as they fled. The prince forced himself not to look back even when another metallic ring prompted another strike. The guard didn’t cry out, but his body made two sounds when it fell.
“Keep going, sire,” said the last guard.
A third ring. Air as solid as a cannonball struck the guard. His arm and the greater part of his shoulder vanished in a fine pink mist. He collapsed. The prince stopped. He unsheathed his sword and turned to face whatever threat had been striking from a distance.
A group of eight men stood in the hall. Two stood apart from the rest, one a tall, grinning man whose figure was made bigger by a coat of fur and feathers. Another man, cloaked and shadowed, held a broad sword that glowed green on the blade. He lifted it with one hand straight over his head, tapped the blade with the gauntlet on his other hand to make it ring, then let it fall in an arc.
The air glinted as it shot forward according to the stroke of the sword. The stone in the ceiling and floor split in a perfectly straight seam that only stopped after plunging into the far wall.
The man in the coat stepped forward with a loud and rhythmic laugh. “Are you impressed, little prince?”
The prince’s hand tensed on his sword hilt. He glanced to the side, measuring an escape route down an adjoining hallway.
“It wasn’t easy getting an enchanted sword,” the big man gloated. “Had to cut my way through nearly three miles of Fae woods in order to get it.”
A spark of anger rolled through the prince’s chest. He never met the Fae in person, unlike his father, but even he knew not to disturb them, much less steal from them. This irreverent man invited bad fortune.
The prince took a step back, then another, angling toward the hall. A nod from the man in the coat prompted the swordsman to lift his weapon. The prince bolted, holding to a small hope that he could make it around the corner before the sword struck.
The swordsman rang his blade and swung with the flat side. A blunt pillar of air hurled the prince and his sword across the floor. He rolled to a stop and hurriedly collected his weapon despite the pain throbbing across his body. He brought up the blade just in time to dodge a grab from one of the invading soldiers. The soldier only wore leather armor and fur. A quick thrust from the prince’s sword cut his neck.
He parried a short sword from another, who knocked his hand aside and swiped at his torso. The mail shirt prevented a fatal wound but not without pain. The prince staggered away and managed to injure the soldier’s arm, then put the point of his blade through a seam in the leather chest piece.
The enchanted sword rang again. The prince’s sword was cleaved in two. The rest of the soldiers closed in. The prince tried to fend them off but was soon sent to the floor by a heavy fist to the face.
By the time he shook the stars from his head, he had been forced on his knees with his arms held outstretched by two soldiers.
The big man laughed again and approached the prince. The prince noticed the coat first and, upon taking a closer look at it, concluded it was a ridiculous piece of clothing. The man underneath was thin and tall; the coat contributed most of his size. It was made of fluffy furs and a variety of feathers. Strings of gold and silver chains hung from it, and small jewels embellished the collar and sleeves.
For all its sickly glamour, the coat did nothing to make its wearer’s face any less ugly. The nose was too big, the eyebrows too bushy, teeth were missing, and the cheeks sagged.
The prince struggled against the ones who held him and resolutely held the gaze of the horrible man above him. “Who are you, and what purpose do you have in this mockery of a conquest?” the prince demanded.
The man laughed. “I am King Ban of Ukestoy, and now I am king of your little slice of Earth. Call this conquest a mockery? You flatter me. I only had a bit of help getting in the gates,” he said as he gestured to the swordsman. “Who would have known a few promises and a fancy sword would turn one of your own against you?”
The prince bared his teeth at the cloaked swordsman. “You helped him? Show yourself, traitor! Show your face to the one you choose to betray!”
The swordsman remained still and silent.
“Answer your Prince!”
“He no longer answers to you, boy,” said King Ban. He grinned and leaned too close. “I am his king.”
“A king who bribes and steals his way into a peaceful kingdom?”
King Ban grabbed the prince’s jaw. “In this world it is might that rules and might alone. You are too young, and you are too kind. Your people don’t fear you. Your court doesn’t respect you. Even your loyal soldiers come crawling to me seeking an answer to the lack of power on the throne.”
The prince looked at the swordsman. “Is that who you are? One of my soldiers? Were you slighted by Aaro’s presence and thus turned to this . . . peacock?”
King Ban, still holding the prince’s jaw, drove his other hand into the prince’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him. “Here’s what will happen, boy,” said the king. “I am going to kill you and display your body on the battlements. This kingdom will become one of great might, and from this throne I will conquer the continent from one sea to the next.”
“My people will not stand for that,” said the prince.
“They don’t have to. Kneeling is sufficient. And if they don’t do that, blades pierce a peasant’s throat as well as a prince’s.” King Ban grabbed the prince by the hair and forced his head up to expose his neck, then laid the point of a dagger between his clavicles.
The prince’s heart raced. His body shivered with a cold sweat. Yet he kept his eyes firmly fixed on King Ban’s. The awful man might take his life but would not have the pleasure of taking his dignity, not even when the dagger cut into his skin and blood began to run.
King Ban grinned with amusement. He looked at the swordsman. “How old did you say he was?”
“Nineteen,” replied the cloaked figure.
King Ban turned back to the prince, moving the blade under his jaw. “I’ve killed greater men than you who were weeping for their lives by now.”
“I am no more man than them. And for all your might, you are no more man than I.”
King Ban’s grip on his hair tightened. “I am more than you! A king is king because his blood is greater. He can conquer because his will is greater, and his strength is greater. You have no right to lecture me, boy.” He drew back the dagger. “Sadly, you will never become a man.”
The last thing the prince saw was the dagger’s hilt under his jaw, then everything faded away.
Darkness closed in like an intrusive sleep. He tried to stay away from it, to force himself to wakefulness. He struggled against it, then it suddenly broke, and he gasped for air. It was not the cold, heavy air of the hallway, but warm and flowery.
His body felt cold, as if his bones were replaced with ice and his skin was made of metal.
A small, warm finger touched his lips. Somewhere beside him a woman’s voice quietly shushed him. “Sleep, dear prince.”
Something horrible had happened. The prince tried to open his eyes or speak or do something so he could know he was all right. The presence of Sir Aaro would have been the most encouraging.
Yet the woman had told him to sleep, and try as he might he felt compelled to do so.
Darkness approached, gently this time. He sank into it.
When he woke again, he smelled dry wood and roasting meat. He tried opening his eyes but couldn’t.
“Ma’am, he’s awake,” said a small voice nearby.
“Thank you, Goodfellow,” said the woman from before. “You may go. Ensure the charm is woven well.”
The prince heard a light patter of feet, then a hinge squeaked open and closed. He gently worked his hand and lifted it to his face. There he found out why he couldn’t open his eyes. Swaths of thin fabric were wrapped around his eyes and up to his hair.
His clothes were different. They felt light and thin, not like the mail and tunic he wore before. His body ached all over. The mat he was lying on did little to comfort him.
He moved his hand down from his face to his neck. The texture of his skin changed to patches of rough scarring. One scar nearly went all the way around, while smaller scars were all over the underside of his jaw and scattered down to his collarbones.
Images of how those scars happened flickered in the prince’s mind. His heart leapt to his head as he tried to push them away.
Light footsteps moved from one side of the room and stopped beside him. Fabric shifted as the woman presumably knelt or sat down beside the prince. Her warm hand gently curled around his. “Steady, dear prince. The magic is strong, but you must rest.”
“Magic?” the prince echoed. His voice was rough and low. “Why do you say magic? Are you Fae? What has happened to me?”
The woman’s other hand rested on his chest. “Please be calm, dear prince. I will tell you all I know, if you are ready to hear it.”
The prince set his jaw and forced his breathing to steady. “Tell me. Please.”
“My name is Tatiana. I am indeed Fae. You, dear prince, were defeated. The cruel king almost relieved you of your head. My little folk informed me of the horrid happenings, and I resolved to save your life. You are now in a small village on the outskirts of your kingdom.”
The prince remained still and silent, pondering her words. Upon reflection he couldn’t deny any of what she said. He remembered the steel against his neck and the blackness that seized him.
“How long . . . since that day?” the prince asked.
“Nearly a month.”
The prince sighed.
“I am sorry for what has happened, dear prince.”
“It is no fault of yours,” said the prince gently. “And please, ma’am, call me James. It is the name my father gave me, and it is the name I will use until I return to my rightful place.”
Tatiana let out a light laugh. “James. It is a lovely name.”
“You are a lovely woman to save my life,” said James, “and an especially powerful Fae. What favor have I with the Fae? I know my father was friendly with the folk, but I have little to do with them.”
Tatiana laughed again. “But you have! You are a friend and confidant of our king.”
James’s brow creased under the snug fabric on his head. “Sorry, ma’am, but to my knowledge I have never encountered a Fae, much less their king.”
“He turned himself into a mortal man. You know him by the name ‘Aaro.’”
James nearly sat upright with surprise. “My captain of the guard, King of the Fae? Surely not!”
“Is there truly no question?” Tatiana said. “His flesh is divided down the middle, half the color of man and half the color of nightshade. Every time he’s drawn a bow, he’s never missed a target.”
“Yes, he looks odd, and he is exceptionally skilled, but . . . King of the Fae?” James pondered the concept. As he thought of his loyal knight, he grew worried. “Is he still alive? Aaro, I mean. The usurper may not be merciful to someone so loyal.”
“He is alive, of that I am sure,” said Tatiana. “He still holds hope that you are alive. He doesn’t understand the hope, but he holds it tight. He will soon come here.”
A smile lightened James’s face before he realized it. “I am glad. I will need him beside me in order to regain my kingdom.”
Tatiana laughed once more. “A defeated prince and an outcast archer to regain a kingdom from a cruel usurper. One day my little folk may sing hymns about this.”