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Fantasy Drama Horror

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

The setting sun cast a final glow into the Main Hall of the castle, illuminating the inside with a blinding orange. The gold-laced tables and chairs made the light ten times more striking. The tables held freshly-carved ham, minced meat pies, candied oranges and lemons, and cakes of all shapes and colors. And then, there was the wine. Dark red liquid poured into silver and gold cups and down the throats of a hundred guests. Women swayed their maroon, evergreen, and marigold dresses as the band played on. Men accompanied them in matching suits, along with ivory-colored masks. Anyone who looked upon the scene would think that they were in Heaven itself, celebrating the return of a fallen brother or sister. One however, standing among the ladies and dancers, was not smiling, not laughing, and he stood at the very front of the Grand Hall. He barely noticed as a shadowed figure came up to him and whispered one phrase.

"The King's heart is not where the father's is"

King Cassander was celebrating the anniversary of his wife's death. Today, one year ago, he'd gone to their bedroom to see her, wondering why she'd retreated from her courtly duties so early, only to find her strewn across the bed, with a diamond-encrusted dagger plunged into her chest. It had taken the guards three weeks to finally catch the culprit, only to be met with even more tragic news. The murderer of Queen Melina was none other than her son, Prince Rhys, who had threatened to come for his father next and seize the throne, and had taken off for the forest right outside the kingdom. The guard set out to find him, led by none other than the prince's younger brother, Prince Kane.

They searched the forest furiously for the traitor, and they did. Prince Rhys had strung himself up on a tree that was as lifeless as he was.

Rhys' body was taken down and burned upon a pillar in the palace courtyard. Even as a traitor, he remained a prince, one that was still well-respected by many people in the kingdom.  The only ones who did not attend the ceremony were Prince Kane, who retreated to his own bedroom shortly after his return, and King Cassander, who sat upon his throne, pondering his next few weeks.

He would attend the week-long feast in celebration of the defeat of another enemy of the kingdom. He needed to. The presence of the King at those celebrations was the core to the people's faith in the Royal Bloodline. However, the fact that this enemy was his own son would greatly alter his enjoyment.

King Cassander turned to the voice behind him. "A father's duty comes second to a king when his subjects outnumber his children."

Deborah, the oldest and wisest woman in the kingdom, smiled in return. She had known the king when he was a young prince, and she sat in the front row of the chapel at his coronation, as well as his wedding.

"My King, the people will be grateful for you as they would any of your grandfathers, but your children will only know you in their lifetime."

As soon as she'd arrived, Deborah descended the steps of the throne and joined the array of decorated dancers. For a woman in her early hundreds, she could still sway better than a maiden of sixteen.

>--------<

In his bedroom, above the party, Prince Kade sat on his silk-laced bed, polishing his sword. The steel of the blade reflected the prince's olive face almost perfectly in the moonlit room. Kade placed it beside him as he lay on the deerskin that covered the bed.

He had killed that deer on his very first hunting trip. In a trade deal with a neighboring Kingdom, the two princes had each received new hunting stallions, one gold, and one a pure white. The very next week, both brothers found themselves in the forest, accompanied by a few guards. Rhys had hunted before, but never came back with anything grand. Knowing this, he had lended his little brother his own bow. Minutes later, the younger prince had taken down a mighty stag. As the party retreated back to the castle, the heart of a hunter and warrior had made itself known in Kane.

Kane immediately rose from the bed. He didn't want such a blatant reminder of his brother touching him. If he had noticed a light grimace from Rhys, or a jealous look as their father congratulated him on his very first kill, he would have seen the past events coming. But he didn't. Rhys had looked at him with as much pride as an older brother could give his younger sibling. He even requested the specific type and build of armor for his brother in order to assist in the guard. The young prince's eyes began to burn.

Prince Rhys had never been the physical type. He could shoot an arrow semi-accurately and properly hold a dagger to defend himself, and that was about it. His main strength was in that of a quill, and in the art of trade. The Kingdom had faced many enemies in the past, only for them to become partners and allies under the prince's words. There had even been rumors that spies who had snuck into the kingdom to exploit its weaknesses happily turned away after speaking with the prince. What also stood out about him was his undying loyalty to both his father's and mother's kingdom. For years, Rhys had pledged to honor his parents, as well as their places of birth, which made it all the more shocking when he betrayed both of them.

Prince Kade stood in the center of his room for a few moments. Or hours. He wasn't sure. He thought of his mother, lying peacefully in her bed, with such beauty and grace that she may as well have been asleep, if not for the long blade sticking out of her bosom. He still remembered the shocked faces  of a dozen armored men as they each read over a confession of their Crown Prince. He thought of Rhys, his big brother, hanging lifeless from a dead tree like an executed slave. He could barely look at the sight long enough to look into his hazel eyes. He opened his eyes, then, taking a long, shaky breath, he exited his room and trudged down the hall.

Rhys' room was about the same size as Kane's, but appeared smaller due to the disorganized papers strewn about his desk and even on the floor. For fifteen years, the prince's room had been left unchanged. 

Eventually, Kane moved himself enough to sit on his brother's bed. Despite the two beds being exactly the same, Kane believed that his brother's bed was warmer than his own. He could still recall one particular night when he was seven, and had crawled into Rhys' bed on a particularly stormy night. Rhys sat at his desk, not saying anything. Then, when the placement of the moon being directly above the view of the window marked it as being 'enough for today', Rhys simply slid into the bed next to his brother and curled his arm around him.

Then, for the first time in almost nine years, the new Crown Prince cried.

>------<

Prince Rhys stood at his desk, breathing heavily. He could hardly bring himself to write anything with the quill, so he just settled for stroking it.

He remembered for sure that his mother had died. He had heard from a written letter and the mouths of the guards that her carriage had been overtaken, and that she had been killed. But if that was the case, who was the woman he had just seen in the throne beside his father?

Rhys had a book on ancient lore of the kingdom in front of him. The cover looked slightly new, with the leather stitching appearing brand new. That was honestly the only clue that the book had been so rarely opened, for the pages inside were just as yellowed as that of the other books in the library.

Changelings: The truest form and identities of these creatures is unknown, but all accounts point to them being the purest of evil. By killing an individual and sucking their blood, a changeling can take on that individual's shape, voice, and demeanor. Despite this, changelings are known to be much faster and more agile than human beings, so it is best to take one by surprise.

Rhys was unsure. Could his mother have been overtaken by a changeling? Such an occurrence had not been heard of for years. Just as well, his father and brother had just felt the relief of seeing that she was safe and well. If he exposed her, the grief of such an event would send his father straight into the grave. Before he said anything, Rhys had to know for sure.

Rhys exited his bedroom deep into the night. A dagger hung from his waist, deep below his nightshirt. It was low enough to never be seen if not needed, but just in case.

The Queen's study was in the West wing of the hall, across from her and the King's bedroom. It would be quite a journey for the prince, who's bedroom was on the opposite side of the castle in the East wing, but as long as he kept his head up and smiled at any passersby, he could go unnoticed.

Then, a voice called out to him.

"Up in the late hours of the evening again, are we, Crown Prince?"

Deborah, the wise old woman who acted as the king's advisor, popped up behind him.

"I just need to speak to the Queen, Deborah. It consists of…personal matters.”

“I understand, my lord. I spoke with your mother earlier. Forgive my sight, it's not what it used to be, but I could've sworn her hair was a deep oak brown. I must be mistaken, for it seems her majesty's hair is a light chestnut."

Rhys stopped in his tracks. His mother's hair was a deep oak brown. He remembered that exact color on her family members when the Royal family visited her kingdom.

Well, that was a bit of confirmation. But he had to make sure. With a shaky breath, Rhys climbed the staircase leading to his mother’s study and opened the door. 

“Mother, can I speak to you for a moment?”

“Yes, dear. In a moment.”

The queen stepped out of her chambers. She was a fair and tall woman, her hazel eyes almost parallel with her son’s crystal ones. “What is it, my son?” 

“That necklace I gave you, for your last birthday. The silver one with the amethyst. May I see it? It's been long since I’ve seen you wear it.”

“Darling, I’m sure you understand I don’t always have to be wearing it to show you that I am thankful. But if you insist..”

She led him to her bedroom, where she pulled an intricately carved box. Inside, there lay a silver pendant that held a large purple jewel in the shape of a heart. “You see” she chuckled, pulling it out and dangling it around her fingers. “Here's your necklace, right here.” 

“Father gave you that necklace for your anniversary.”

It was for a split second, but the Queen’s face changed. It showed an expression of sudden terror mixed with quick contempt. She immediately dropped the box and lunged for the prince, but he had already shifted to the right of her. In her sudden movement, she hit the mirror right behind them. In the reflected moonlight, Rhys could see her arm fizzle in and out of focus, as if she were unreal “So I was right.”

“What are you gonna do, kill me?” The thing jerked as it moved toward him. Rhys responded by grabbing it, whirling it onto the bed and pinning it down. “You killed my mother. Not only am I going to kill you, I’m going to make sure your kind are never found in this kingdom again.”

And with that, he pulled the dagger from his waist and plunged it into the thing’s heart. Now, he had to move fast. 

People would notice the blood dripping if he tried to bring the dagger back with him, so he left it in the changeling’s body. Even in death, it still held onto the form of his mother. He couldn’t walk out the door, because someone who would enter would discover the body later and would surely question him if he were caught. So, he turned to the window. The whole palace held one story that spanned at most twenty feet. He could probably survive it if he landed correctly. 

For now, he’d have to play dumb. Pretend the assassination was a complete shock for the next couple of weeks. Then, through a written letter, he would confess to her murder. He needed to wait until he could find the home of the changelings. Then, once the guards were on his trail, he could lead them to the changelings’ home and somehow destroy them there. 

It took a while, and some added effort to keep everything a secret, but eventually, he tracked down the changeling breeding place in the woods beyond the kingdom. The book mentioned that their natural habitat was among nature and away from man, and he had just so happened to spot a brood chatting amongst themselves. They were slimy little creatures, whose bones shone through their gray skin, which had been withered and stretched on their bodies like paper. Silently, he moved toward them, and put up his hands. 

“I don’t intend to fight you.” He said. 

“The Crown Prince! This would be great news to tell our King! Let’s take him dow- Ow!” Another changeling rudely bonked the primarily stupid one on the head.

“Not so loud, meathead! Not when he’s right in front of us!” 

“Oh, but I am here to deliver a message to your King! Tell him that if he's willing to meet me at dusk tomorrow by the tree in the middle of the meadow, I shall hand over a cup of my own blood. Then, he may tread the palace halls in my place!”

The other changelings looked intrigued, almost joyful, but the bigger, more rude changeling stepped forward. “How do we know you're telling the truth?”

Rhys immediately pulled out a knife and sliced his palm, hoping the quick motion would lessen the pain. It didn’t. He let no more than three drops of blood fall down before the creatures began hungrily slurping at the ground. One gained the olive tone of the prince’s skin. Another seemed to grow the prince’s dark brown hair. 

“Tell your king to meet me at the tree tomorrow night.” The prince then left the laughing creatures to run to their king.  

That night, Rhys forged a confession claiming he was his mother’s murderer and planted right in the middle of his desk. He wanted little delay in them finding it, but he’d need to buy as much time as possible before the following night. On his way out, Prince Rhys caught a glimpse of his brother’s room, and found the door still open. 

Prince Kane was sound asleep. He had been training extra hard with the soldiers today. That was fine with Rhys. He wanted Kane to have the strength to hunt him down, yet still be alert when approaching the woods. In a moment of unintellectual compassion, Rhys snuck into the dimly lit room and stood by his brother’s bed. He bent down til he was right above his little brother’s forehead, and kissed him, as if to silently say, “I’m sorry brother. Goodbye for now.” 

He left that night. Rhys headed for the meeting place with the changelings. He arrived in the morning. He began the excruciating process of losing a cup of his blood. It didn’t help that he brought one of the palace’s chalices to make the offer more appealing. He felt like he ws going to faint when it was over. Finally, the sun began to set, and the Changeling King arrived. He was just as grotesque and harsh as his underlings, with long, jagged fingernails and wrinkled skin that looked black and sick. 

“You’ve brought what you have promised, my Prince?” The monster nearly lurched as he spoke. 

Rhys wordlessly gave him the cup. The king gulped it down. Within moments, he was an exact replica of the crown prince. “I say, my friend, you really make good on your promises. I can see why your people like yo-”

The King was caught off guard by the prince throwing a rope around his throat. With great might and speed, Rhys tied the rope into a knot and pulled it tight. He had to put his knee under the clone’s chin in order to pull harder. After several minutes of struggling, the king’s body went limp. The rumbling of hooves signaled that the guards were coming close. All Rhys had to do was tie the corpse to the tree. It was at this moment that the rest of the changlings jumped out. It seemed as though the larger changeling was not the only wise one. Immediately, they all grabbed at him, clinging onto his arms, legs and torso. Rhys wasn’t built to take on a monster of this strength and speed, let alone this many of them at once. They began to drag him, possibly back to their lair. Perfect. Prince Rhys had flint and steel in the fold of his coat, and was more than ready to set the entire population ablaze. He had made sure to leave a note explaining everything for Deborah in her chambers the night he killed the first changeling. He was sure she’d explain everything to his family at the right time.

September 16, 2022 21:36

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