Tyler Marable studies psychology and creative writing at Jacksonville State University. He hopes to become a good doctor, author, husband and father one day.
The Flowers in the Snow
The land of Verum was most upset. Queen Otina had died and her husband, King Stult, was not long for this world. He knew of no worthy heir to the kingdom except that of his daughter. But of course no princess was to be without her prince. No queen without her king.
King Stult pleaded with his daughter to marry. His poor health grew worse with each new moon. She would soon sit upon the throne of her late mother and would need a king by her side. He begged her to find a groom.
“But, Lord Father,” she said, “what man in the Kingdom of Verum is worthy to succeed you?”
“There are plenty,” his majesty replied. “Prince Illicio of the Mountains Beyond the River. Prince Surde of the Valley of Abalon. These two are more than worthy.”
“What about Prince Modicus of the Plains?”
The king gave a petulant wave of the hand. “What of him?”
The princess ignored her father's annoyance and said with confidence, “Is Prince Modicus not noble enough to succeed you? Is he not worthy enough to call me his queen? I believe he is an able prince of honorable valor.”
“He is a man of questionable integrity—for he is the son of King Virtus.”
“Yes. King Virtus.” The princess bit her thumbnail. “I heard tale of the Slain King of the Plains. For thirty years that land has not known its own ruler”
“And for thirty more years it shall not know its own ruler other than myself,” his majesty said, “as long as this damn heart still beats. The Plains must comply with the treaty.”
“The treaty you drafted so long ago?” the princess asked with a tinge of bitterness in her sweet voice. “I've heard a horrible story told amongst the townspeople: How you slayed King Virtus yourself all those years ago.”
“A horrible story, my child?” His majesty raised a brow. “Oh, yes, I see what you mean. It was most horrible indeed. King Virtus invited me to the Plains that fateful day to celebrate my thirty sixth name day. Little did I know, such an invitation was extended to belittle my royalty. As King Virtus and his guards escorted me through the countryside, touring the Plains, I made a gesture of goodwill to a peasant tilling the rice fields. I nodded my head, acknowledging the worker. The gesture was not returned. It clearly was some scheme to dishonor me, to mock me on my own name day no less. How dare a peasant of the Plains ignore the king of Verum.”
“But, I've heard whispers of misconception. Our people speak of a young king drunk on pride that day. Perhaps the worker did not return your greeting for his labor preoccupied him. Perhaps he did not see you.”
“Oh, he saw me, my child. It was nothing more than a conspiracy fashioned by an illegitimate royal. A man jealous of one superior to him. I challenged the king of the Plains to a duel for such an insult on the very spot. Suffice to say we know who won.”
“Lord Father, as it is spoken in our realm, King Virtus did not draw his blade that day. He begged your pardon for such a petty crime. With his hands at his sides King Virtus was a dealt a fatal blow. You ran your sword through him.”
“Aye, I did, Gloxina. And what of it? How you do speak most strangely to your lord father. Are you the daughter of fair Otina or the love child of a common wench?”
The king rose from his seat. His daughter's inquires kindled a flame in his old bones he'd thought had long been doused out. He clutched his chest. A wrenching in his bosom sent him back to throne of stone. “My heart still beats yet with less urgency. Will it fail me? Lionheart they call me. But in my old age I fear I have the heart of a lamb.” He gazed at his daughter with pleading eyes. “I beg you to find your king as your mother found me.”
The princess of Verum took the king's hand. “What should I do, Lord Father?”
Without hesitation his majesty said, “Choose your king, so it is written in our laws. But I warn you. You must choose wisely, for I believe I do not have much longer in this world. The death of a strong king may mean the death of a strong kingdom.”
Gloxinia stood on the sunbathed balcony overlooking her subjects. She wore regal attire: a flowing red gown, the very dress she would wear on her wedding day. Although sunlight kissed her brunette head, bitter cold bit at her bare arms.
“Vita is dying,” she whispered. She stared at the White Death creeping on the horizon.
King Stult stood by her side, gazing at the spectacle before him. Thousands had came for such an event—the Parade of Royalty. His eyes turned to the blizzard approaching his kingdom. “The Goddess is dying. I've seen as many as ten solstices pass before Her rebirth. How many quarters will pass this time? I fear this is an omen. The White Death has never fallen upon Verum this early in the year. I believe I shall die with Vita this winter, only I will not be reborn with Her in the spring.”
“The White Death did not always plague our kingdom. Not until you slew King Virtus.”
King Stult ignored his daughter's accusation. “I believe the Erlking will visit me before this month's end. May I be reunited with my kin in the Over Realm.”
“Please do not speak of such, Lord Father.”
His majesty sighed. To speak such ills on this day was most unbecoming of a king. This glorious day was his daughter's. She deserved to be happy.
“I have sent word of your choices,” King Stult said. “Ah, I see our eligible bachelors now. Well, two of them. Are you sure Prince Modicus should have been included?”
The princess said without hesitation, “I believe he is worthy as any.”
The townspeople of Verum made way for the Parade of Royalty. Prince Illicio led the procession in his palanquin of platinum, carried by troll slaves. Beautiful drow servants followed his lead, belly dancing and waving the flag of their master's kingdom.
His majesty of Verum stroked his beard in contemplation. Surely his daughter would choose Prince Illicio. The man with slaves abound; the man who tamed drows and trolls.
Prince Surde of the Valley of Abalon followed on horseback, a silver steed bestowed the name Alexandrite, adorned in blue silk. The crest of Abalon, sewed in golden embroidery, flanked proudly the horse’s side. A panache of ostrich feathers rested upon Alexandrite's head.
Two war elephants marched in unison with Prince Surde. Halflings waved to the crowd from atop the exotic animals, dropping rose petals upon the prince's head. A symbol of the ruby rains of Abalon.
The townspeople marveled at such a sight. A horse decorated in such fashion as Alaxandrite was unheard of in Verum, but what were these beasts marching before them? Children—those who summoned the courage—raced between the elephants' legs to kiss Alaxandrite's silk, to steal a touch of his golden stirrups. Prince Surde swiped their hands away with his gem studded quirt.
Bringing up the rear of the parade was the final bachelor: Prince Modicus. He wore no boots. He rode an ass.
Laughter erupted in the crowd as he past. What a prince. One who owned no boots. One who mounted a steed befitting of a serf. Surely he had no chance at winning Princess Gloxinia's heart.
The parade came to a halt. The three noblemen stopped in front of the castle. The crowd grew silent.
His majesty of Verum cleared his throat. His voice boomed in the silence, “My daughter has called you here today for one of your hands in marriage. As in accordance to the laws of my kingdom, Gloxinia shall choose her groom as to her own pleasing. My Otina chose to marry the prince who could slay Malum, the White Lycanthrope of Umbra.”
The king snapped his fingers. “I believe my daughter is cold.”
Two servants stepped forth from within the castle onto the balcony. They draped Gloxina in the hide of Malum. The lycan's head rested atop hers as a momentary tiara.
Cheers sounded throughout the crowd.
“I believe my daughter would not give you all such a daunting task. But I do hope, in order to win the throne, she'd give you a most perilous assignment.”
The king looked to his daughter. “Have you decided on the quest to be taken?”
“I have,” the princess said.
“Then name it,” the king said.
“I will. But first, I wish to know each prince as I know you, Lord Father. Let them stay a fortnight.”
The crowd grew silent. Never before had a princess of Verum proposed such.
“It is as you wish, my daughter,” his majesty of Verum said.
It was an odd decision his daughter had made, King Stult thought. It was the first time such a proposition had been made on that balcony. His majesty of Verum was an old man, and of course, with age comes wisdom. But a man could live to the days of Ragnarok yet not understand the ways of woman.
Why not proclaim the quest to be taken now?
His majesty of Verum was most perplexed by what he had witness that day. And what he was witnessing now. The three bachelors sat at the great table of his throne room, feasting. On his game! Should they not be risking all for the throne? And what spell was Gloxinia under? For nearly one week, each morning, she would go onto that balcony and gaze into the White Death. If not for the hide of Malum she surely would have fallen ill.
Zoran, King Stult's closet adviser, offered the king a plate of haggis. His majesty of Verum gently refused the meal. When Zoran offered a goblet of mead, the golden cup went flying across the throne room.
The king stood with what strength he had left. “Gloxinia! What is the meaning of this? Should these men not be fighting for this throne of stone? Should they not be risking their lives for my kingdom? Who here will take this seat of obsidian? It is your choice.”
The princess said nothing. Only stared into the White Death.
“Aye, I agree,” the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River said. He opened his mouth and let a drow servant drop a grape into it. Troll slaves held torches by their master's side to ward off the cold. “Give us our quest. My servants and I grow weary of waiting.”
He did not look weary.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon wiped haggis from his lips with a silk handkerchief worth more than any tribe of the Plains. “I do look much forward to sitting on that obsidian throne. I agree with you, your majesty. How about this quest? We have waited long enough.”
He looked as if he could wait longer.
“I disagree,” the prince of the Plains said.
The room grew silent. Only the winter wind spoke, whispering through cracks of mortar.
Who was this man? This Prince Modicus? Royalty who rode an ass. Yet he had the nerve to speak against his majesty of Verum.
“You disagree?” King Stult said.
“Aye, my lord. That was my word,” Prince Modicus said.
The mere audacity of the prince's statement stubbed out King Stult's rage. To be shocked beyond anger was rather new to his majesty of Verum. The king did not raise his voice in anger when he said, “You disagree with me? So you should sit here, feasting upon my livestock instead of trying to win the throne?”
Prince Modicus answered, “I believe we should be trying to win Gloxinia's heart, my Lord Father. Not obsidian. Not a throne.”
Modicus's audaciousness did not perplex his majesty of Verum beyond rage any longer. It nearly drew the wrath of King Stult along with the edge of Lionbane.
The king stood, his hand shaking on the hilt of his sword. The king's sword, Lionbane, was not drawn from its sheath quite yet. “Lord father?” his majesty of Verum asked. “You call me father? A bastard who rides an ass into my kingdom as if he's on a new stallion. A varlet who parades around my castle barefooted, partaking of my wine! Of my swine!”
“I want a flower,” Gloxinia said from the balcony.
No one heard. No one listened.
“I ride an ass because you have taken every colt from my people, every mare,” Prince Modicus said. “And I call you father because it is custom of the Plains for one to take in the son of the man he slayed. Whether it be a righteous kill or one over trivial matters. The victor raises the son.”
“I want a flower,” Gloxinia said from the balcony.
No one listened. No one heard.
The king smiled. It was not one of mirth. “The son of King Virtus. I do see the resemblance. You have the same eyes. Round and fearful and lifeless. I do not see you winning Gloxinia's heart. Go home, my child.”
“I will not,” the prince of the Plains said. “I will go get the princess the flower she so desires.”
He had heard? He had listened?
Prince Illicio stood from the table. “What flower does this bootless commoner speak of?”
The prince of the Valley of Abalon rose along with his opponent. “I, too, want to know what this codpiece Modicus means. What flower?”
They all turned to the princess.
She gazed into the White Death, pointed to the west and simply said, “I want a flower.”
A flower? The White Death blanketed all of Verum. Surely no flower could withstand a blizzard. Prince Surde stroked his chin. This was the quest? Bring back some mere flower? No, there was some other meaning. A riddle perhaps.
Although he was a man of only sixteen, Prince Surde was somewhat wise to the ways of woman. When a maiden of the Valley of Abalon asked for cotton she wanted silk. When she asked for dinner she wanted a feast. And when she asked for a flower … she wanted a gem. Women, in all their mystery, in all their riddles, were the same.
The princess of Verum wanted a simple gem. What luck. The Valley of Abalon happened to be the valley of riches.
He would have his princess, but more importantly, he would have his new kingdom. The princess was of plain beauty, but the land of Verum was gorgeous. A gemstone in the rough Gloxinia was, so a gemstone from the rough Gloxinia so shall receive.
“I will get Princess Gloxinia the treasure she desires,” Prince Surde said. “And win Verum.”
“Not if I get it first,” Prince Illicio said. He turned to his servants. “Bryn, Idil. Go fetch the flower for the princess.”
The drow servants did not answer. Terror resided in their eyes. Who ever had seen such? Dark elves quaking in fear.
“We cannot, my master,” Idil said. “Treachery blankets Verum.”
“There is sorcery in the winds outside this castle,” Bryn said. “This 'White Death', as your kind calls it, is not of nature. It is of witchcraft.”
Sorcery? Witchcraft? Dark magic did play about the room and in the realm of Verum. Prince Illicio was sure of it. For how could his slaves disobey him? Why did these drow servants shake so? Was it out of fear?
No, it was out of drink. Out of his foolishness. He must remember in the future to not let his drow mistresses partake of wine. They were lithe creatures and grew more limber with each drop of mead. And how Prince Illicio loved his mistresses to be limber. They did prove to be most entertaining in his chamber the night before.
But no more.
No more wine for Bryn and Idil. No more mead. To lie with a drunk drow was a luxury only reserved for the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River. But alcohol clearly clouded their judgment. He would forgive Bryn's and Idil's refusal of his request … for now.
Prince Illicio turned to the trolls Ekon, Okon, and Ukon. “You three, go get the lady the flower she so desires.”
“Yes, my lord,” Ekon said.
“Right away,” Okon said.
“As you wish,” Ukon said.
And the race to complete the quest began.
Prince Surde sprinted down spiraling granite stairs and out the front gates. The three trolls were not far behind.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon whistled and called, “Come, Alexandrite.”
The horse heard his master's beckon. He reared up on his hind legs; his hooves smashed into the stable door sending it crashing to the ground. The stallion broke free of the stable and trotted towards the prince.
Prince Surde screamed in his sprint. “I said come!”
The valiant steed obeyed. Alexandrite's canter tore into a gallop. He nearly trampled the peons shoveling snow off the street. The horse slowed to his master's sprint. The prince grabbed the reins and in one fluid motion flew into the saddle.
Master and steed were off towards the west, sending sparks off the cobblestone.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon rode for days, breaking free of the White Death. He rode through Pacem, where griffons played with the wandering centaurs. He rode through the Meadow of Beatum, where dragonflies forever chased the monarchs. He rode through Tenebris Forest, where the creeping vines choked the whispering oaks in ivy.
It was there, in those dark woods, Prince Surde met his first obstacle.
Alexandrite came to a halt. Taurus, the Beast of Tenebris, stood in the way of the prince and his steed. The bull pawed the dirt. The sun shimmered through the canopy, glinting off Taurus's horns.
“Go around, Alexandrite,” Prince Surde said.
But the bull gave no chance for passage. After all, these dark woods were ruled by the Beast of Tenebris. Not by some foreign prince who still had his mother's breast milk on his breath.
Alexandrite did not quake, did not take one step back. He awaited Prince Surde's order.
The prince snapped the reins. “Forward.”
Alexandrite tore off towards Taurus, flinging soil. The two beasts raced on a collision path. The bull lowered his head. And how his horns shined in the sunlight!
“Alexandrite,” Prince Surde said, “up!”
The horse did hear the command.
Alexandrite took to the sky above Taurus. Master and steed blotted out the sun for a brief moment. Prince Surde drew Adamus, the blade of diamond. He plunged it into Taurus's neck as the bull passed underneath, his horns wounding nothing but air.
Master and steed came back to earth.
Taurus crashed to the ground with Adamus jutting from his side.
Prince Surde dismounted Alexandrite. The Beast of Tenebris drew his last breath while gazing at the man who had brought his life to an end. Surely this man was worthy of winning the throne of Verum. The prince pulled the blade of Abalonian diamond from the bull.
Before returning to Alexandrite, Prince Surde had one last task. He sliced off the bull's right ear. It was custom in the Valley of Abalon for a warrior to give his maiden a trophy. A testament of his bravery and his love for her. As mentioned before, Prince Surde was wise to ways of woman: When a lady asked for one gift, she desired two.
He placed the ear in his satchel.
The prince rode on. He rode through Maxim, where Fide's Plateau balanced the crescent moon on its back. He rode through Cimeter, where the bones of giants littered an ancient battlefield. The prince rode on until he returned to the Valley. His valley.
Alexandrite's hooves sunk in silver sand. The very sand the forlorn fairies had used to forge the horse with a hammer of eastern wind—a name day gift for their beloved Prince Surde—but of course, a creature fashioned of sand can easily crumble to dust.
The reflection of master and steed raced along the sea of Caligo. A haunting song crawled along the water and snaked its way ashore. Sirens singing of heroes long past, of a lost realm only mentioned in legend:
Race to meet your fate
Prince of the rich land,
Go to Inferno's Gate
Surrender on the shore of sand
The prince rode on, ignoring the song of the sirens. He would not surrender on that shore of sand, as the heroes of old had not in that final fantasy long ago. He would get his gem. He would get his new kingdom. Only half a day's trip was left to the ruby fields of Abalon.
But the prince would not need half a day.
The placid sea of Caligo rippled. The sirens' song no longer whispered across the water. But rushed ashore in screams. The Prince's second obstacle sprung forth from the ocean. A sea serpent towering into the sky.
The fabled Basilisk of Caligo.
The creature of glass became one with the crystal heavens. How would the prince of the Valley of Abalon defeat an invisible foe? A foe from which a single glance would render one a pillar of mica.
“Be my eyes, Alexandrite,” the prince said.
The glass serpent carved through clouds as it ripped downwards.
It lunged forward seeking to sink its fangs into Alexandrite. Of course the gallant steed dodged gracefully. Was Alexandrite not of wrought silver sand? Was he not forged into being with the eastern wind by those who fell from the Over Realm?
The prince kept his eyes closed. One glance into the basilisk's ruby eye meant a life of stone. The prince fought for the throne of obsidian not for a body of mica.
The serpent struck again. The horse of silver sand sidestepped the attack. And how Prince Surde's hair flailed in the wind of the basilisk's strike, his eyes pressed tightly shut.
The demon grew tired of toying with its prey. It lurched forward; its ruby eye glared into Alexandrite's. But the stallion did not turn to stone. For the horse of silver sand bore no soul underneath his saddle.
The Basilisk of Caligo knew not what to do. It had tried brute force, it had tried its sorcery. It had tried to fight for its meal, perhaps now it was time for flight.
No. The fiend did not flee. When was the last time the Basilisk of Caligo feasted upon the bones of a prince? Five hundred years ago? Six? It would not let this opportunity slip from its jaws.
The glass serpent struck again. Its fangs wounded nothing. Alexandrite saw the demon's every move, seemingly before the devil had made it.
Prince Surde's hair waltzed with the wind from the basilisk's strike once more. Although his eyes were closed, the prince knew now was the time to strike.
“Rise, Alexandrite,” he said.
The loyal steed did hear.
Alexandrite reared up on his hind legs. Prince Surde drew Adamus. The horse's front hooves came down. So did the sword of Abalonian diamond. And how easily diamond cuts through glass.
The basilisk's head fell to the shore.
The serpent's ruby eye did not glow with the luster of life any longer.
Princess Gloxinia wanted a gift. She would have two. Trophies worth more than any flower. She would have the basilisk's ruby eye along with the right ear of Taurus. And Prince Surde would have what belonged to him—Verum.
The trolls had watched Prince Surde disappear into the White Death, headed for the city's gate. Surely the prince had not left Verum in search of the princess's gift. What imbecile would voluntarily raise the rigor of his labor? What fool would turn an already laborious task into a near impossible travail? Braving the White Death was an endeavor of indescribable toil.
It was the trolls’ turn to disappear into the blizzard.
The snow fell hard. The trolls trudged on. How could a flower survive such a storm? And if it did, how were they to find it? Was this the right path? Hell, where was the path? Did the princess really desire a flower, or was the quest a riddle? Their minds raced along with the gales of ice.
As the trolls trekked further into the storm’s heart, the wind became harsher. It seemed the blizzard did not want the intrepid creatures to complete the quest. The White Death took the life of Verum each year, and now it sought to take the lives of the three trolls.
A gust of snow screamed past the expedition party. The trolls braced themselves against the assaulting wind.
“Join hands!” Ukon shouted.
He struggled against the storm, trying to find a strong anchor. His hand found a tree. Ukon wrapped his free hand around the tree while holding the hand of Ekon; Ekon held the hand of Okon.
“Be strong, my brothers!” Ekon shouted into the blizzard. And they were strong. If they were anything less, they would not have survived as long as they had.
The White Death whispered, I am much stronger than you all.
A violent gale smashed into the trolls. They crashed into each other. Then a squall ripped in the opposite direction. The wind pulled Okon into the air. Ekon clenched his brothers' hands—both of them—he held tightly the hand of Ukon who gripped the tree. But Ekon's hand clasped even tighter the hand of Okon.
“I got you, Okon,” Ekon said, his brother flailing in the storm. The airborne troll was nearly perpendicular to the ground.
“Let me go,” Okon pleaded.
“I will not.”
“Then I will let you go!”
Okon released his brother's hand.
Ekon's grip slid to Okon's forearm. “What are you doing?”
“Saving your lives.” Okon pried his brother's fingers loose. The White Death seized his body. The wind, now at hurricane speeds, yanked him into the air. The troll was swallowed whole by the storm.
The wind wailed like a troll. Or so Prince Modicus thought. In actuality, it was the scream of a troll. Okon sailed above the prince of the Plains.
It's as if this storm is alive.
The prince waded through blistering snow, his bare feet burning, turning black. He had asked the king of Verum for a pair of proper boots before setting out to complete the quest.
King Stult had said with a sardonic smile, “Every prince must complete the quest only with what he brought. That is the law of this land. A king must be prepared for all. Surely you were aware the White Death visits my kingdom this time of year. What prince cannot acquisition mere boots from his own people? You may wait out the storm if you wish and forgo the quest. To enter the White Death with no boots and no proper overhide will only mean your death, prince of the Plains.”
Prince Modicus had been aware of the blizzard; how could he have not? Who had not heard tale of the scourge which befell Verum each year. The first flake of the White Death had floated to the ground exactly one month after King Stult had slayed King Virtus. So of course the prince knew of the White Death; it reminded him of his father's murder.
So why did he have to brave the storm with no boots and a thin overhide? Why was he not prepared? The day before the Parade of Royalty, Prince Modicus had his own parade. It was arranged without his knowledge by his loyal subjects. They carried the prince around the square on their shoulders. Game was slayed, flayed, and roasted. The most beautiful boars, the most healthy turkeys were passed around.
The cheer was loud. The mirth was aplenty. What a wide smile the prince had as he surfed the shoulders of those who loved him. That smile vanished when Prince Modicus's eyes fell upon those of another: the eyes of a Plainsian child. There had been no festivity in this child's eyes.
“Put me down,” Prince Modicus said.
Without question the royal was lowered from the air to his exquisite boots. The prince placed his hand under the child's chin, raised the boy's eyes to his own. “Why are you sullen, my lad?”
The boy said nothing, only fondled a pebble with his bare foot.
“Say something to the prince, waise!” a voice cried out.
A concerned woman placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Please, answer when royalty speaks to you.”
“I'm sullen because my dad is gone. I'm sullen because I have no boots,” the boy said. “I'm sullen because people call me waise.”
Prince Modicus was a rather intuitive man. Although she was of child bearing age, he knew the woman was too young to be the child's mother, and the worry in her eyes suggested she was not a simple neighbor. It was the boy's sister. “What of your father? Why are you two called waise?”
The sister's eyes wavered, dancing in the festivity's light. They did not shimmer in joy. How rude of her. Royalty asked her a question, yet she had no response, only tears. Did she not just shun her little brother for not answering a prince?
She tried to speak but no words came.
“My father was murdered,” the boy said. His sister, Arina, was glad he had more strength than her. “A masked bandit raided our home. He killed my father and raped my mother then slit her throat. He took all our gold. Even took my father's boots. Mine as well.”
The prince said nothing; what could he say to that?
The child beat his chest. Now his tears fell with his sister's. “What happened to honor? If a man kills another he must raise the son. That is our way.”
It was a foolish law; the prince thought it was, most men thought it was. The man who burglarized the children's home and killed their parents must now raise the two. At least according to law of the Plains.
What man would come forward to admit guilt of such a crime, and feed and teach bastards the ways of the Plains after murdering their parents?
The boy shook his head; tears flung about in the night air. “That's why I'm 'sullen!'”
Arina gasped at such a display of emotion in front of Prince Modicus. “Brother.”
“It's quite alright, milady,” the prince said.
“Milady?” The woman's hand flew to her bosom. “My lord prince, do not call me milady. I am not of nobility.”
“You are tonight,” Prince Modicus said. “What is your name? What is your brother's name. I'm sure it's not waise.”
The boy waited not for his sister's answer. “I am called Meslin. I hate the name the people bestowed upon me and my sister. I have not always been called waise.”
“I am Arina,” the woman said.
The prince bent down to face the lad at eye level. “What's wrong with the word waise? It's the name of the my sword.” Prince Modicus drew his weapon. Although joy no longer stirred there in that town square, it did reside on the blade called Waise, for the reflection of festivity danced on the steel. The fire was bright on the prince's sword. Bright like the child's eyes.
The prince stared into the boy's eyes. “I, too, was called waise once. And now my sword bears the same name. He who caused your family so much harm did not come forward as in accordance to our laws. I feel this is what you resent the most. You are without parents and without justice. It is a low place for a son to be.”
The boy nodded. His nod was low and humble, for the lad understood this prince held a much more nobler title than royalty: intuitive, compassionate man.
Prince Modicus said, “I, too, have been in such a position. I'm in the same position now. And so, I wish to take the place of the scoundrel who slew your parents.”
Prince Modicus dropped to his knees. The last time this custom was witnessed happened seven hundred years ago. Not too many men performed this unique ritual of the Plains.
“I deem you a righteous boy and virtuous young lady,” the prince said. “I have no children myself. I shall take you both as my own. May you two bear the same name as my sword no longer. Your name is not waise. It is Meslin, Son of Prince Modicus. It is Arina, Daughter of Prince Modicus. That is if you will have me as a father.”
The boy and lady knew not what to say, and so, they said nothing. Meslin only nodded.
“Then let it be so,” Prince Modicus said. “Hold out your right hands.”
Meslin and Arina obliged. Prince Modicus ran Waise over his open palm and then gently ran the blade over theirs. Blood dribbled to the ground off their pale hands. The crowd was silent, only the bonfire disturbed the night, hissing and popping.
Prince Modicus pressed his bloody palm together with Meslin and then with Arina. The children no longer had only peasant blood flowing through their veins, but the blood of royalty as well.
“Now people cannot call you waise any longer.” Prince Modicus smiled. “But the son of a prince cannot go without shoes, can he?”
The prince bent down, and with his unwounded hand, removed his boots. He gave them to Meslin.
The boy, still shocked, only managed to whisper, “Thank you, Lord Father.”
“What a prince!” someone in the crowd yelled.
“What two princes!” someone corrected.
And the two were hoisted into the air. They were carried around the crowd. The singing and mirth and drinking returned.
A Plainsian peasant tried to hoist Arina onto his shoulders, but the lady broke away. She did not dance, did not drink, did not celebrate. She knew what the prince had done was a rare act. More rarer than Luna placing her pearl in front of the sun in total eclipse.
Prince Modicus's kindness demanded to be return with an act just as caring. She was a poor peasant girl, but Arina had something no one else in the kingdom had: an overhide. King Stult's men had seized them all in preparation for the White Death, even the royal overhide of Prince Modicus. But they had not found her father's.
Arina raced home.
She returned with the gift. It had been hidden by her father; the burglar had not found all the treasure in that home. As the singing continued, and as the two royals surfed the crowd, Prince Modicus's eyes fell upon Arina's. Her eyes were dancing like the crowd, shimmering with tears. She held the deer hide into the night air, stained with the blood of her wounded hand.
“Wear this when you win Verum!” she cried.
When Prince Modicus passed overhead, he grabbed the overhide. And he did wear it.
It did not protect him from the White Death.
He fell to the snow, his body convulsing in violent shivers. His people had offered him their boots. They had offered to hunt down an elk or lycan, which would have made a more fitting overhide. But the prince of the Plains had refused. He would not take their gifts, he would not take their only boots. Surely the king of Veurm would extend such pleasantries to one who had been summoned to the Parade of Royalty by Princess Gloxinia.
That was Prince Modicus's fatal flaw.
He thought the best of men. He saw himself in their eyes. He believed every man had honor, surely kings.
How he had been mistaken.
King Stult did not give Prince Modicus a more reliable overhide or boots. And Prince Modicus would not return to his land a coward; his honor would not allow such. He elected to brave the storm like a fool. He knew what would become of him.
Now the prince lay dying of exposure.
The storm did not let up.
Many a bard has compared nature to music. The White Death was a symphony of fury...Something lay hidden there in that symphony. Something mysteriously hiding between notes.
Prince Modicus heard it.
With much difficulty, he raised from the frozen ground. “Elochai. Deus, Lord of the Over Realm. Lord of Espearia. Lord of all. Is that You I here?”
The storm called to the prince again. He stood; weakness and pain fled his body. He took a step. His feet no longer ached; with each step the frostbite abated. He no longer shivered. His body was enveloped in warmth.
Prince Modicus knew the hug of King Virtus. “Is that your embrace I feel, Lord Father?”
Centuries ago, in that old epic, Deus parted an entire sea for his chosen people. For the prince of the Plains, Deus parted a blizzard.
“What is this?”
A winding path cut through the storm. The prince walked this new track, his eyes wide with wonder. The trail was peaceful, full of serenity. The blizzard raged all around Prince Modicus. But striding the trail, he only knew the grace and love of Deus.
He followed the path laid before him. It led to a cemetery, to a single grave boasting the only flowers, strangely not covered with foot upon foot of snow. The headstone read: Although Fair Otina is buried here, she does not rest in this grave, but by Deus's side.
Prince Modicus picked a flower from the grave. Surely, this was the flower the princess desired. How could it not be? It had survived the White Death. But even as surprising was the creature laying beside the grave, nearly buried himself.
“Okon.” Prince Modicus dropped by the troll's side.
Okon looked up at the prince with weary eyes; they were on the verge of closing forever. “The flower.” The troll opened his hand, revealing the same gift Prince Modicus had claimed. “Will you get this to my brothers?” With his remaining strength, the troll held his flower to the sky.
Okon knew the question was a ridiculous one. On the deathbed, men asked strange things. They asked for riches in the afterlife, for love, for forgiveness. It seemed trolls were no different. This troll had one last wish: for the rival of his master to take the flower back to the castle. Why did he believe a man would comply with the wishes of a troll? And this man, too, fought for the heart of Princess Gloxinia. Prince Modicus would never take the flower.
Yes, men and trolls asked strange things on the deathbed, and strange beings complied.
The prince of the Plains took the flower to go along with his own. “I shall give this to your brothers.”
Okon wanted to ask why? Why would Prince Modicus oblige such a request? Whose flower was the right one? There was a chance Okon had found the right flower, a chance Prince Illicio would win the throne. If so, then why did Prince Modicus agree to get Okon's precious cargo to Ukon and Ekon?
A sordid trick, the troll was sure. All men were the same, the same as Okon's master: Prince Illicio. Okon wanted to ask the prince of the Plains, why? Why do you torture me so? Why do you take my flower so willfully with stolid eyes?
You taunt me with feigned courtesy.
It is best to speak such things as quickly as one can, especially in the midst of the White Death. The troll had nothing more to say, and yet he wanted to say more than he ever had. No words came, only the cold, only the snow. He died there, his hand outstretched to the sky, his eyes wide with disbelief. Prince Modicus had agreed to give Okon's flower to his brothers.
The prince marched back towards the castle. His skin knew not the wind. His feet knew not the snow's cold kiss. The prince held tightly his two flowers.
He had not trudged far before he heard new notes hiding in that symphony of the White Death.
“We will die out here,” a voice shouted.
“So be it. I rather be ice than stone,” another voice replied.
“What's the difference, Ukon?”
The trolls! Deus almighty. Had the Lord of lords arranged such a timely rendezvous? Prince Modicus fancied He had. “Ekon! Ukon!”
“The wind speaks?”
“No, Ekon, that is the voice of Modicus.”
“Come to my voice,” the prince called.
Why should they?
Ukon yelled through wind and blinding ice, “Nay, prince of the Plains, foe of Master Illicio.”
“Do you take us for fools?” Ekon shouted, fighting a violent gale. “You wish to run us through while we cannot see.”
“I know of your brother,” the prince yelled; this storm would not drown out his call. “I know where he is. Follow my voice.”
Ukon and Ekon did not hesitate to comply, for what creatures were more loyal to their kin than trolls? They followed the prince's calls and soon found themselves in a strange peaceful void. No wind stirred here, no sleet, nor snow.
“What is this?” Ekon said. “The work of a devil?”
“No,” his brother replied, “the work of a god.” He gazed at Prince Modicus with a look somewhere between awe and fear. What god would part the White Death? And for whom? Who was this prince? What were these flowers he held?
The prince extended Okon's flower. “With his dying breath, your brother said to give this to you. It may be the flower Princess Gloxinia desires.”
Ekon reached towards the gift with trembling hands, shaking hands that were smacked away by his brother's.
“Why should we trust you?” Ukon asked. “Why give us the flower?”
The prince simply responded, “Because your brother told me to. He's to the south in the royal cemetery. Follow the peaceful path.”
And with that Prince Modicus handed the flower to Ukon. He began the long journey back to the castle. Ukon just stood there silently, the White Death roaring all around. The troll watched the prince make his way towards the castle.
Who was this man, this prince of the Plains? And why could he have not been Ukon's master?
A man whom Deus parted the White Death for.
Prince Modicus had found Okon. He had carried out the troll's last wish without hesitation. He had given Okon’s brothers the flower.
Ukon stared at the prince's gift. Surely it was the flower Princess Gloxinia desired. Why did Prince Modicus give it to him?
Ukon smelled the scent of Okon; it was faint, but it was there. His brother's scent lingered on the flower. Ukon believed the prince. Modicus had been truthful.
Why couldn’t he have an honorable master such as Prince Modicus? A master whom the gods favored. No, he served an ignoble fool. Prince Illicio did not deserve such an act of kindness. His rival had completed the quest for him. Ukon wrapped his fingers around the flower. He crushed the damned thing in his fist.
“Come on, Ekon,” he said. “Let us find Brother so we may see him one last time.”
The trolls followed the path towards their deceased brother in accordance to Prince Modicus' advice. But they were not favored by the gods. The parted storm converged and crashed upon Ekon and Okon. The trolls found themselves in the crucible of the White Death once more.
“Where are they?” Prince Illicio asked. He sat at the great table, his golden boots crossed on top.
“They should have been back by now. How long have my trolls been gone?”
The drow slaves looked at each other. “My master. We have not been counting the days, for we were not ordered to,” Idil said.
“Must I order you to do everything?” the prince asked. “What's the point of having slaves if they cannot please their master without him holding their hands? Do the plowers await my orders to work the fields? Do the shepherds ask permission to graze the lambs? No. They do their jobs without being told to, for they know it is the will of their master.”
The dark elves had no rebuttal. They only bowed their heads in humility. Drows reduced to this? Warriors shackled by iron, humiliated by one of lesser valor. If only iron shackles could be broken by will alone, by concealed rage.
“We are sorry, my master,” Bryn said.
She was not.
“You talk much ignoble nonsense,” Prince Modicus said. He sat at the great table, holding a single flower. “One who asserts his authority by talking down to those in his service …”
“Ignoble?” Prince Illicio said, “I believe I'm the noblest here. King Stult annexed your kingdom when he killed your father did he not? You are not a royal any longer but a commoner.”
Footsteps echoed off stone. Someone climbed the spiraling stairs outside the throne room with urgency.
“Your apology is accepted, Bryn,” the prince said. “I hear my trolls returning with the princess's gift. All will be forgiven when I rule Verum.”
It was not Prince Illicio's servants who burst into the throne room, but rather a rival.
“I have completed the quest,” Prince Surde said, gasping for air. “My key to the kingdom lies in my satchel. Where is the princess?”
The two princes seated at the table turned to the balcony. Gloxinia still stood there, the White Death kissing her with its flakes.
“Princess Gloxinia,” Prince Surde said, “I have completed my quest. Went beyond the task asked of me.” He pulled the trophies from his satchel. “The right ear of Taurus, I hold in my left hand. In the right, I hold the ruby eye of a creature older than all our kingdoms.”
The princess said nothing. Had she not heard?
“I believe your words have fallen upon deaf ears.” Prince Illicio laughed. “Or perhaps they've fallen upon indifferent ears.”
The sound of thundering footsteps, drumming against the granite stairs outside, did not fall upon deaf ears. “Ah, my servants come this way. With my key to the kingdom,” Prince Illicio said.
The prince was right indeed. Two trolls rushed into the throne room. But they bore no present.
The surprised Price Illicio rose from his seat, nearly spilling his wine. “What is the meaning of this? You brought back no gift. And where is Ekon?”
“I am Ekon,” one troll said.
“Then where is Ukon?” their master asked.
“I am Ukon,” the other troll said.
“Then where is …?” The prince stroked his hair. “What's his name? Where is he?”
What a master. One who could not remember the name of his most loyal servant. And what a servant Okon did prove to be.
“Okon fell to the White Death,” Ukon said.
“Our brother is of ice now,” Ekon said.
The prince threw his goblet of wine at his servants. The cup smashed into Ekon's chest. A weak blow to a troll.
“Your brother is ice,” their master said, “and you two shall be stone. How dare you return without the princess's gift.”
“But we did,” Ukon said. The troll opened his fist. In his palm lay the crushed remains of a single flower. “Okon managed to find this for you, master. He gave his life to secure it.”
Prince Illicio stroked his hair once more but out of relief rather than agitation. “Princess, I have your gift. Give me Verum.”
These words did not fall upon deaf ears.
Princess Gloxinia left her perch on the balcony. The white lycan's hide dropped to the floor. She strode with the grace only known to ladies of royalty. The train of her wedding dress trailed behind. A puddle of crimson silk gliding along the tiles. She took her place by her father's side.
King Stult sat silently on his obsidian throne, resting with his head slumped forward.
“Good,” she said. “You have all returned, except one of the trolls. How I mourn your fallen brother Okon.” The princess of Verum bowed to Ukon and Ekon.
What human would show such humility to trolls? The gesture of the princess confounded Prince Illicio. But no matter. He would have his kingdom.
Prince Illicio smiled his most widest. “I have return with your gift. I—”
“I returned first,” Prince Surde said, stepping before the throne. “I figured rightly the quest was a riddle. I have your 'flower.' I have brought you a ruby: the eye of the Basilisk of Caligo, more redder than any rose. I also have brought the right ear of Taurus. Another trophy for the lady.”
The prince of the Valley of Abalon grinned. He held his head high with pride. He had won Verum.
“You have failed, Prince Surde,” the princess said.
The prince's grin vanished. His pride was fatally stabbed. He had lost Verum.
“But I … I …” the prince grew inarticulate with placid rage. Words did not come to his tongue, for his mind could not conjure them into being amidst the laughter of his rival.
“Two gifts.” Prince Illicio bellowed his drunken laugh. “Two gifts and you fail!”
Prince Surde looked to the princess with wounded eyes. “But why?”
The princess said nothing. She owed no explanation. Did she not?
Prince Surde would have Verum. He was mistaken before. Princess Gloxinia did not want the right ear of Taurus, did not desire the ruby eye of that ancient basilisk. But the prince was wise to the ways of woman. No woman had ever refused him. What did she want? Money?
Prince Surde poured gold from his satchel onto the great table. “In my land, gold is as common as weeds. I will give it all to you if you let me have Verum.”
The princess shook her head.
“In my land, spice is treasured beyond all gems. Do you want salt? Pepper? Thyme? Cinnamon?” Prince Surde shook his satchel. Spice rained to the floor. Surely she would marry a man who could summon gold and spice from a mere leather bag.
The princess shook her head.
“What can I give you?” the prince asked. “The land? Do you want my land?” And he reached into that enchanted satchel once more. He retrieved the deed to his land: the Valley of Abalon. “If I signed over all that I own, will I win Verum?”
The princess shook her head.
Prince Surde had given his valor when he defeated Taurus. He had given his courage when he slayed that glass basilisk. He had offered all his gold, his spice. He had offered his land. He had offered what most princes were not willing to part with. But Prince Surde still had one treasure left to give. He offered his tears.
And how his tears beat upon the stone tiles.
Even tears were not enough.
“I did not ask for saltwater,” the princess said. “You have failed, Prince Surde.” Her words were not spoken cruelly. She was a wise princess. She knew it was difficult for a man to part with his tears, whether he be smallfolk or royalty.
Of course his rival's failure elicited Prince Illicio's laughter once more. In his fit, he managed to say, “I have the gift you asked for, princess.” The prince snapped his fingers. “Ukon, show her.”
The troll stepped before the throne, cradling the crushed flower in his palm. He bowed before Gloxinia. “For the princess.”
“You have done well, Ukon.” The princess stroked the troll's head. She turned to the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River. “But you, Prince Illicio, have failed.”
Suffice to say the prince was rather shocked.
“But why?” he echoed the words of his rival.
The princess said nothing. Could not Prince Illicio see? Was he blind?
Ah, he did see. The princess had asked for a flower, not a crushed one. He had lost Verum because the stupidity of his servants!
“Ekon, cut off Ukon's head,” the prince said.
“But, my master. He is my brother. I have already lost one brother in pursuit of this sordid dream of yours. You own so much. Must you have Verum, too?”
“I will have the world, Deus be willing. And I will have all of Verum,” Prince Illicio said. “But for now, I must have Ukon's head. He has failed me. He crushed the flower.”
The prince drew a stiletto and handed it to his servant.
Ekon took the dagger with a tremulous hand. Who had ever witness the steady hand of a troll shake so? “I cannot, master.”
“You must.” Ukon dropped to his knees, a sly smile playing about his lips. He had kept Verum from Prince Illicio. “Do it, Ekon. Lest we both fall here today. Take my head so you may keep yours.”
Ekon did take the head of Ukon, and what a horrid scene.
Ineffable screams filled the chamber. Even if one had heard the wailing of a thousand banshees, he or she could not withstand the cries of Ukon. The stiletto had not been fashioned to behead a troll. When Ekon had started the execution, the sun was high with much spirit. When the troll had finished, the sun was low and weary.
Ukon lay on the floor. His head lay by his master's golden boots. “Is this not enough, princess? Did I not prove my worth? Drows become my whores if I declare it so. Trolls behead trolls if I whisper the order. Am I not worthy of that throne of black stone?”
“You are not,” the princess said. “I said it once before. You have failed, Prince Illicio.”
The princess turned to the only prince left: Modicus. “Step forward, prince of the Plains. Let's hope you did not fail. It would be a first for the kingdom of my lord father. How horrible it would be for my people if I did not find a worthy groom today.”
Prince Surde and Illicio smiled to each other. If they were not worthy, surely Modicus would not be.
Is a worm worth more than the silk it spins?
Nothing of value came from the Plains anymore. Not wheat. Not rice. Not even a prince.
Prince Modicus of the Plains stood from the great table, holding tightly his gift. He did not bare the arrogance of Prince Surde. He did not wear the sanguine grin of Prince Illicio. His face was plain as the lands he hailed from.
He stepped before the throne. “I retrieved the flower as you had asked, milady.”
He offered it to her.
“Yes, you have,” the princess said. She took the gift with care. “I shall take you for a husband.”
“What?!” Prince Surde said. “King Stult, you assured me I'd win the throne.”
His majesty of Verum said nothing. He had been most quiet.
“The king said I was the only worthy one to rule Verum,” Prince Illicio said. “How in Deus's name you choose this bastard over me? The king said I would win this land!”
His majesty of Verum sat there silently, his head slumped forward.
“Say something!” Prince Surde shouted. “The king owes us as much.”
It was at this moment the room realized all was not well in Verum. King Stult was not known for being silent. Yet there the king sat on his black throne. Quiet as death.
Zoran was always at the king's side—he was called King Stult's most closet adviser for a reason—he placed his head on his majesty's chest. No life beat there on that throne of obsidian.
“The king is dead,” Zoran said. “Modicus is the princess's choice. Take your throne, my king.”
Prince Illicio would not have this. “I demand an explanation.”
“I, too, seek reason for this nonsense,” Prince Surde said. “We deserve such. Tradition dictates it.”
Princess Gloxinia looked to Zoran. She had no knowledge of this matter.
“Aye, they are correct,” Zoran said. “By law, the princess owes an answer to each.”
The princess wasted no time explaining why these fools had failed. She turned to Prince Surde, stared the prince in his wounded eyes.
“You failed, Prince Surde, for you heard but did not listen. I asked for a simple flower. You did not return with it.”
This answer did not subside Prince Surde's quiet rage. He grabbed the hilt of Adamus. “Your quest was a riddle. I am wise to the ways of the fairer sex. I have courted many. I demand a better answer.”
“A man could live to the days of Ragnarok yet not grow wise to the ways of woman,” Zoran said. “The princess has given you her answer. That is all required of her.”
“I will give you a better answer, Prince Surde,” Princess Gloxinia said. “I commend you for your bravery and honor. You went beyond the call of the quest, but I cannot reward you for that. My lord father overreacted the day he slew King Virtus, as you overreacted when bringing me a ruby eye and the right ear of a beast. My lord father did not listen to reason. Did not listen to the people of the Plains. Did not listen to King Virtus as he ran the royal through. The king of Verum must be able to listen. You did not, Prince Surde. I asked for a single flower, not trophies.”
And the prince gave his tears again, silently.
The princess of Verum turned to Prince Illicio. “And you, Prince Illicio, listened but did not hear.”
“What in Inferno is that suppose to mean?” Prince Illicio asked.
“The princess gave her answer,” Zoran said. “She owes not another.”
Although no further explanation was required of her, Princess Gloxinia went on. “You were correct. All I wanted was a simple flower. You had listened. But I asked you to bring it, not your servants. You listened but did not hear. The king of Verum must be able to do both, as Modicus has.”
The princess turned to his late majesty's most loyal adviser. “Zoran, go fetch the servants. Remove my lord father. Prepare him for burial, so King Modicus may sit upon the black throne.”
“Aye, milady,” Zoran said. He was off to complete the orders.
The two crestfallen princes, nay—questfallen princes—did not wait for the princess orders to be carried out.
Prince Illicio turned to his trusted slaves. “Bryn, Idil. Kill Modicus.”
“I will do no such thing,” Idil said.
“These chains make it a bit hard to fight, master,” Bryn said. “Dark elves cannot slay while shackled.”
What a day for Prince Illicio. Not only had he lost Verum, but now it seemed he was losing his servants. “If you don't do as I order, I will have you two executed once we returned to my land.”
“As I said.” Bryn held up her shackles. “I cannot fight in chains. Truth be told, if you free me, I might slay you, master.”
Prince Illico snarled. “So be it. You two will be slaughtered when we return to my Mountain. But I know my troll will not fail me. Will you, Ekon?”
The troll gave no answer. He merely gazed at his brother's remains. Ukon's eyes stared at Ekon's. How some creatures' eyes say more in death than in life. Ekon had looked into those eyes how many decades? And they never had spoken to him. Not one word. But now, lying on that cold floor in death, the beheaded Ukon's eyes screamed, Kill Prince Illicio!
The troll bounded towards his brothers' murderer. The White Death had not slayed Okon. He had not executed Ukon. It was Illicio. Ekon saw Illico was no prince, but a devil.
The troll charged not King Modicus but his own master. Ekon's rage was his battleaxe. The memory of his brothers was his war cry.
The troll screamed for his fallen kin and threw a fearsome fist.
The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River saw the blow careening his way. But he did not move. He stood there, with that sanguine smile playing about his lips. “Saxum.”
Ekon's eyes grew wide. Were his master's threats true? How many times had the prince threatened to turn his troll slaves to stone?
Ekon's blow stopped short of his master's jaw. Marble wrapped around his fist, crept down the troll's arm. It wound around his torso. The stone crawled its way up the troll until Ekon was no more but that. Stone.
Prince Illicio stared into the marble eyes of his servant. “Most unfortunate. I did love you trolls, for you carried my palanquin. Now you die here today. How selfish of you all.”
The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River drew his sword Chrysus. The golden sword did shine most brightly in that gloomy throne room. “I need no servants to defeat Modicus. No trolls. No drows. Chrysus will run the king through. And I will win the throne not by quest, but by combat.”
“Can he do such?” Princess Gloxinia turned to Zoran. But the adviser had left to fetch the burial servants.
“Aye, Prince Illicio is well within his rights,” Prince Surde said. He drew Adamus. “As I'm well within my rights.”
The two approached King Modicus with shaking swords, their hands trembling with eager. He who slayed the new king would have Verum.
Prince Surde struck first, swinging his diamond sword. The king ducked under the attack and drew his own blade. Adamus returned for another strike. King Modicus brought up his sword Waise. Adamus cried against Waise. The two swords were not acquainted long before one tore into the other.
King Modicus fell to the floor. Waise twirled end over end, ripped in twain like the heart of its master's master so long ago. The broken sword landed beside the new king.
King Modicus crawled backwards. Prince Surde crept forward. The tip of Adamus pointed at the king's chest. “I will have Verum.”
But Chrysus objected.
A glint of golden light caught Prince Surde's eye. Adamus staved off its desire to run King Modicus through and returned to its master's aid. Adamus caught Chrysus before it bit into Prince Surde's throat.
Prince Illicio steadied his weapon against Prince Surde's. “Have you've forgotten me, prince of the Valley? Have you forgotten the mountain that looms over you?”
The two swords parted. “How could I forget a mountain?” Prince Surde said. “Just one more obstacle in my way. One more obstacle to cut down.”
And the two swords clashed again.
It is easy to lose sight of one's goal while locked in battle. Combat always makes turbid the minds of men. But it did not cloud the wills of Adamus and Chrysus.
The two swords turned towards their mutual enemy: King Modicus.
The new king pulled himself from the floor. He backpedaled weaponless. Would King Modicus meet the same fate as his father? Ran through with his hands at his sides?
Princess Gloxinia drew Lionbane from the dead King Stult. “Modicus!”
She tossed the sword. The new king caught it. Lionbane felt at home in King Modicus' hands.
Adamus and Chrysus were not as confident as they once were.
Prince Surde hesitated. Lionbane was said to be forged from the femur of Magna, a demonic lion King Stult had slayed long ago. Could Adamus spar with such a blade?
“You afraid, great prince of the Valley?” Prince Illicio said. “How indecisive. Stand back and watch me win Verum.”
“As you wish.”
He was not wise to the ways of woman as previously thought, but Prince Surde was wise to the ways of battle. How long had it been since Prince Illicio saw combat? How long had he let his trolls and dark elves fight his wars? The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River was weighed down, not only by his decades of sloth, but by his very boots.
The barefooted king had no trouble dodging Prince Illicio's strikes. The prince was slow; his golden sword was slower; his golden footwork was sloppy. The prince tripped over his own golden boots.
And Prince Illicio's head did lop off more easily than Ukon's.
“Thank you, my king, for cutting down that so called 'mountain,'” Prince Surde said. “I no longer have to listen to that arrogant laugh.”
The dark elves Bryn and Idil were thankful as well. They searched their fallen master's body, found the keys to their shackles. And were off towards freedom.
Prince Surde ignored the drows' exit. He strode forward with alacrity, Adamus shaking with delight. The prince of the Valley of Abalon would become the king of Verum. All it would take was one slash of his blade. One thrust of the point. Adamus was of diamond; Prince Surde was of valor. What other prince tamed beasts such as Alexandrite?
The prince dashed forward. He sliced at King Modicus's torso. His majesty of Verum parried the attack with ease, but Lionbane was not left unblemished. A small crack crept through the blade, nearly to the fuller.
It was as Prince Surde had thought. Lionbane had not been fashioned from the bone of Magna. If it had, then why did the sword crack so? Because Adamus was stronger than any weapon in all the world, that's why.
Prince Surde's confidence swelled; it grew to scab over his wounded pride. He was not worthy enough to take the throne of obsidian? He who had slew Taurus? He who had beheaded that fabled glass basilisk? He the prince of the Valley of Abalon?
Adamus returned to kiss Lionbane. The king's sword cracked once again. One more strike and Verum would be Prince Surde's.
The prince raised his weapon to the heavens, brought it down with the fury of the sea serpent. How magnificent the sword of Abalonian diamond was in the air! It was said diamonds from Abalon could cut through any material, so what could cut through Adamus?
The sword of Lionheart could. Nay, the blade of Modicus could.
King Modicus slashed his weapon upwards in a mere attempt to parry Adamus. Lionbane did more than deflect Adamus. Lionbane tore into Adamus rendering the sword useless.
Prince Surde had been correct.
Lionbane had not been forged from the femur of Magna—a fairy tale told by the late King Stult to conceal the true origin of his weapon—Lionbane had been forged from a single fang of Divum: the dragon that guarded the gates of Inferno.
The dragon's fang crashed into the sword of Abalonian diamond.
Prince Surde's sword shattered to the floor, a shower of riches.
And now it was his majesty's turn to creep forward with a shaking sword of eager.
Prince Surde backpedaled, staring at the tool promising to end his life. He whistled and called, “Alexandrite!”
A laughable attempt to prolong his life. The stallion was still in the stables. Was he not?
A neigh echoed outside the door. Hooves pounded on granite. The valiant steed tore into the throne room.
Modicus somersaulted. The horse would not trample this royal. Alexandrite thundered past the king.
Prince Surde took the reigns and was in the saddle with ease. He reached into his enchanted satchel once more. What did he have in that bag of sorcery?
Hand over hand, the prince drew out a pike ten feet long! “Let us slay a king, Alexandrite.”
One knows the steed did hear his master.
Alexandrite raced towards the king of Verum. The king of Verum raced towards Alexandrite. The pike's diamond spearhead aimed steadily at the king's chest.
But what was this Prince Surde heard? He often had heard nothing in battle, only the wails of the vanquished. But seldom, he heard the songs of fiends older than the seas they inscribed their lyrics on.
Race to meet your fate
Prince of the rich land,
Go to Inferno's Gate
Surrender on the shore of sand
Why him? Why did they sing to he of the Valley of Abalon? Why did this song play in his mind? Why here? Why now?
Prince Surde ignored the sirens' cry. “Verum is mine!”
The diamond spearhead pierced the air. That was all the pike cut.
King Modicus slid underneath the spearhead, underneath the horse of silver sand! Alxandrite thundered by above. Lionbane ripped into Alexandrite's underbelly.
What a beautiful stallion Alexandrite was. What a pity such a steed was wasted on a child of Abalon. Flesh and bone became nothing.
Alexandrite crumbled to dust. Prince Surde fell to the floor, rolling a myriad times before coming to a stop; his shoulder shattered from the fall. But he of valor, he of courage, he of diligence, did not lie there on that cold tile.
The prince rose from the floor. He hoisted his weapon in awkward fashion with his one good arm. One last thrust this prince had in him. And one last thrust he gave of the pike.
King Modicus did not even sidestep. The strike was not an accurate one. The spearhead whispered by the king's cheek. In one quick slice of Lionbane, the pike was torn in twain.
Prince Surde fell to his knees along with his broken shoulder, along with his broken spirit, his broken weapon. He knelled there in Alexandrite's silver remains. It was over. His eyes grew heavy. They once again gave saltwater.
And how his tears formed an ocean, lapping upon the silver sand of Alexandrite.
“Will you show mercy?” Prince Surde asked.
The king of Verum answered the question with one of his own. “Would you have shown me any?”
Prince Surde said nothing.
His heart had been broken when Gloxinia told him he'd failed. Now his heart was skewered, bit by the dragon's fang. Prince Surde surrendered his life on a shore of sand, which he had fashioned himself.
King Modicus pulled Lionbane from Prince Surde's chest. The prince fell face-first into his sea of tears, into the sand of Alexandrite.
With one quick swipe, the king of Verum shook Prince Surde's blood from Lionbane.
Zoran returned to the throne room with too few servants. He had not known he would have to bury so many. “They requested the throne by combat?”
“Aye, they did,” King Modicus said. “I triumphed but not without causality. Lionbane has been wounded.”
Zoran smiled. “Lionbane is no ordinary sword.” The crack in the dragon's fang sealed. The sword reforged itself. “It is your blade now. It deserves a new name.”
“I shall call it Waise,” King Modicus said. “It means orphan.”
“A great name.” Queen Gloxinia bowed, extending Waise's sheath with both hands.
The king took the sheath; the dragon's fang went back into hiding.
“How did you manage to survive the White Death without boots, without so much as an overhide?” Zoran asked.
“I know not the answer,” his majesty of Verum replied. “I was sure I would die. But it was as if I was impervious to the cold. In fact, the snow felt warm as spring. Warm as a father's embrace.”
“How did you find the flower?” Queen Gloxinia asked.
The king of Verum simply said, “Only by the grace of Deus.” He added, “I'm rather curious how the flowers survived the White Death.”
“The plant you picked the flower from has grown there for many years. My lord mother named me after the flower. In our culture the gloxinia represents love at first sight. We decided to bury her underneath it since the world has loved fair Otina since the day she was born. By Deus's will alone, the gloxinia plant survives the blizzard while all else perish.”
King Modicus nodded his head in agreement; the flower had an apt name, for it was indeed love at first sight.
The dead were removed from the room. The stone troll was left as a monument, a marble testament to his majesty's rise to power. King Modicus took his throne and sent for his children. The queen took her own throne by her husband's side. The White Death vanished and never returned to Verum.