SAM EVANS - THE CRIPPLED PRINCE
Sam Evans lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He has had several short stories published and is currently working on a book.
The Crippled Prince
Prince Edric could feel his father’s eyes on him as he stepped closer to his brother Gareth. He tightened his grip around the handle of his wooden sword. As always during times like these, he was painfully aware of his stump, conspicuously useless at the end of his right forearm.
The sky was a creamy blue, without a single cloud to shield them from the sun or from the almighty Succor who lived there in eternity. It was the type of day that Edric’s father would declare auspicious, a day when they were closest to their God. Edric was not hopeful. He would never dare say it to his father’s face (he was not so foolish as to voice his doubts to the High Prophet), but he had found his luck seemed to fluctuate quite regardless of how bright the sun was shining.
They were circling around the center of the training yard, Edric carefully matching his steps with Gareth’s so that they were always a full diameter apart. Their father and mother, along with a few assorted wards and servants, were watching from under the roofed perimeter of the courtyard, their faces grey and grim in the shade.
Gareth was smiling, occasionally twirling his own wooden sword in his wrist with a well-practiced flair. He wore a full set of steel armor, the edges glinting in the sunlight. Edric wore a studded leather jerkin, accompanied by a chainmail skirt. This was by Edric’s own choice. His one advantage over his brother was that he was faster, and without armor to slow him down, he could often manage to dance around Gareth and give him a few hard whacks before the elder boy struck a blow that sent him into the dirt. The bruises were far worse than they might have been, but this at least allowed Edric to put up some resemblance of a fight, which his pride demanded he do.
“You ready, little brother?” Gareth asked with a playful smile.
Edric nodded, afraid that if he spoke the words would come out in a high-pitched squeal. Gareth swung first, not very fast or very hard, and Edric blocked easily. Edric slid his blade down, quickly and forcefully, angling it so that it smacked into Gareth’s forearm with a dull ring. Gareth grunted, unfazed, and then moved his sword up in up in a circle with both hands, twisting Edric’s wrist and forcing the sword from his hand.
All this happened in a matter of seconds and Edric imagined that it ended with him looking rather pitiful. That made him angry, and before Gareth could move to put his sword at his throat, he raised his right foot and kicked him squarely in the belly, sending them both onto their backs.
Edric scrambled wildly, using his stump to help him to his feet while his hand snatched up his sword. Gareth’s armor had made him slow to get to his feet, and when Edric looked up he was only on his knees. Edric felt a flash of hope and rushed at his chance.
By the time he got close, it was too late to stop. Gareth raised his blade, holding it steady with both hands, and Edric ran into it, the point right at his belly.
The next thing Edric knew, he was on the ground. The blade hadn’t broken the skin— it was wood after all, and dull wood at that— but it felt as if it had. He was coughing and he felt a sharp pain deep inside his stomach, which began to turn into nausea and an unnatural and sickening urge to move his bowels. His eyes watered, but he would let them do nothing more. He knew his father was watching, and the crippled prince had more than enough pity already.
He pushed himself up with his left hand, his stump hanging helplessly at his side. The coughing slowly subsided. When he was standing, his hand moved to gently hold his belly.
Gareth was looking at him with concern. He started to say something, but Edric answered before he could.
“I’m fine. Leave it alone.”
Gareth nodded. He knew better than anyone how much Edric hated condescension— particularly pity— and made an honest effort to avoid it. For that Edric was more grateful than he could ever say.
The spectators were clapping politely. Their mother was looking at Edric, her lips pressed together anxiously.
Edric refused to meet her eyes as he limped his way out of the courtyard, wanting to be out of sight when the vomit erupted. He’d had enough embarrassment for one day.
When Gareth found him it was late afternoon, and he was in the library. His stomach ached still, though not so severely as long as he kept his movements to a minimum. He had started out reading, but his mind churned about like wisps of smoke, and mostly drifted around in tendrils of thoughts which dispersed or dissolved into nonsense soon after they began to form. Mostly, he just sat staring at the stump of his right forearm, running his fingers over the nubs which had, at a time long before he could remember, extended up into fingers.
Edric did not notice his brother until Gareth spoke. “Hey.”
Edric looked up. Gareth’s dark hair was matted to his face with sweat. He had spent the rest of his day in the courtyard continuing to train after Edric had left.
“Did you find yourself a worthy opponent?” Edric asked.
Gareth hesitated, unsure how to answer. Eventually he decided to ignore the question.
“You’re getting better. I would have found you sooner but—”
“But you figured I’d be in a foul mood after being jabbed with a wooden stake?”
Gareth hesitated again, before eventually nodding.
Edric smiled weakly. He was feeling better and did not blame Gareth for what had happened. “That was probably wise.”
The friendly gesture convinced Gareth to come closer.
“You know not everyone needs to be a great warrior.”
“Yes,” Edric replied with a mocking tone of practicality, “If some people didn’t die easily, wars would drag on for a terribly long time.”
Edric looked back at his book, not reading, but waiting to see if Gareth had anything more to say. He wanted him to say more but in his current mood was adamant to not let him know.
“Look… you probably know this, but I’ve never said it and... you’re cleverer than I am. You’re probably cleverer than anyone I’ve ever met, except maybe Father. When I’m High Prophet, the country will need your guidance as much as mine. Maybe more.”
Edric didn’t say anything. The words had filled him with a giddy pride, but he did his best to hide it.
Gareth continued. “I was born to sit on the High Prophet’s Chair. I was born to sit and look strong.”
He paused for a moment.
“You’re less kind than I am too. I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. You’re more honest and less kind. Like a ruler needs to be. I’ve actually been thinking about it. Maybe the Succor… maybe with your hand— maybe that’s why. Maybe he didn’t give you a hand, so that you’d have more room for your head.”
Edric thought about this for a moment. The giddiness was gone; the mention of his hand soured his mood once again. He responded with sarcasm that lacked humor.
“Someone should probably tell the Succor that hands and heads are in different parts of the body. For future reference.”
Gareth looked around nervously, as if some omniscient being was about to jump out from behind the stacks of books. “You shouldn’t say that.”
Edric rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes. Don’t worry, I would say this morning absolved me of my sins in advance.”
He picked up his book and began to get up to leave. His conscience made him stop at the doorway. He did not hate Gareth. None of this was his fault, least of all his hand.
“Sorry. I am not angry at you. I am just in a foul mood, as I said.”
Gareth nodded, giving a half smile in understanding.
Edric spent most of that night staring up into the ceiling above his bed, the gears in his head grinding together. He did not remember when he fell asleep, but he knew he had done so with a smile spread across his lips. His emotions had finally given way to more rational thoughts, and he had decided Gareth was right. A clever mind was nothing to spit at, and if his plan worked as well as he hoped, it would prove more valuable than a legion of fingers.
The next morning the sky was a grey expanse, and the entire courtyard was bathed in a dim, pale light. The High Prophet was looking up into the clouds, and Edric did not have to guess how he felt about the weather.
Gareth was already wearing his armor. His eyes would not meet Edric’s, and his face was pale, glistening with fresh sweat. It had not occurred to Edric until then that yesterday’s beating might have been an even more traumatic experience for his brother than it had been for him. The knowledge gave him a twinge of guilt. It also made him angry.
A page attempted to hand Edric his sword. “Not a sword. Not today.”
“With all due respect, my lord, axes and spears are better for those…um… in possession of, um, two...uh...” the page trailed off, suddenly fascinated by his boots. Edric knew what he meant, and in fact agreed with him.
“Get me a shield.”
“But, my lord—”
Edric met the page’s eyes, unflinching. The page scurried off and then returned. Edric walked into the courtyard.
He was not used to the shield's weight, having never used one before. Gareth gave him a sad look, which turned quizzical when he looked Edric in the eyes.
They began circling each other, just as they had the morning before. Gareth held his sword steady in the palm of his hand, his mouth pressed together tightly.
Edric charged at Gareth with a shout, raising the shield over his left shoulder as if preparing to strike. As he expected, Gareth raised his sword to block the blow.
At the last moment, Edric dropped his shoulder and ducked so his shoulders were level with Gareth’s knees, pulling his shield close to cover his head and chest like barricade.
After they collided, Gareth’s armor did the rest. He clattered to the ground onto his back with a groan, steel clattering against the stone. His sword flew out of his hand, little more than an arm’s length away.
Edric stood up, dazed, his limbs still trembling from the impact. He let the shield fall from his forearm, stumbled, and bent to pick up the sword. Rasping breaths wheezed from between his teeth, which he bared in a wide grin.
Gareth had begun to move as if to get up. Edric put his boot on his chest, pushing him back down. Then he raised the wooden blade to his brother’s throat.
They remained like that for a moment, the younger brother over the older. Then Edric stepped back and offered his hand to help Gareth to his feet. As he did their eyes met once more, and for perhaps the first time in their lives, each understood the other perfectly.