Contest #238 shortlist ⭐️

The Boy with Frozen Wings

Submitted into Contest #238 in response to: Write a story including the line “I can’t say it.”... view prompt

37 comments

Fantasy Coming of Age Crime

"You have my attention," says the Grand Assassin. "Who?"

"He…" The boy drops his gaze to the Varos gold coin on the tavern's backroom table, his guarantee of safe audience, then looks back up at the man.

The Grand Assassin's wrinkles and white hair may or may not be real, but the eyes are. Pinprick pupils caught in stillwater stare back at the boy.

"I can't say it."

"Have you heard the story of the little bird with the frozen wings?" the Grand Assassin asks.

"Are there two birds and a stone in it?"

"No, lad, it's the one about the bird flying south for the winter. The air's so cold that his wings turn to ice and he falls into a meadow. Do you know what happens to this bird?"

The boy shakes his head, platinum hair peeking out despite his hood's concealing efforts.

"A cow comes by and drops some dung on the frozen bird. And in this steaming pile of crap, the bird's wings begin to thaw. He's ready to fly again, but now he's stuck. So, he chirps for help."

The boy watches the Grand Assassin's bare hand hover over the Varos coin as the man whistles a plaintive tune that ends in a soft squawk.

"Finally, a passing cat hears the bird's cry and comes over to investigate. It digs the bird free, cleans him in the grass, and eats him."

"What does it mean?" asks the boy, willing the Grand Assassin to touch the gold coin.

"First, not everyone who shits on you is your enemy. Second, if you're in deep shit, it's best to keep your mouth shut. But most importantly, it means that not everyone who gets you out of shit is your friend… so do you want my help?"

"Yes." The boy throws off his hood and says the name of the Crown Prince.

The Grand Assassin's hand drops under the weight of that name. His fingers touch the Varos coin on the table, and some reptilian part of his mind notes that the coin is slick, oily even, but his higher consciousness is focused on the face before him.

He is staring at the Crown Prince's exact likeness.

"Yes, I'm his decoy…" the boy pauses, hoping the man will fill in the rest.

"But?"

"But I don't have to be."

The Grand Assassin sucks in his breath once he realizes the lookalike's audacity. Steal the life of the Crown Prince then slip in to take his place. Can he do it?

"How will you explain his missing decoy then?"

"Fire," the boy says matter-of-factly.

The man opens his mouth then closes it again. He's used to watching men squirm in the wake of what's left unsaid, but this boy makes him feel like the talkative one. He watches the boy for any sign of uncertainty, but all he gets in return is a polite blank stare.

Finally, he slides the coin of Varos into his leather purse. As an afterthought, he wipes his oily fingers on his jerkin.

Then, the boy tells him when and where.

Their audience concluded, the boy pulls up his hood and leaves the tavern's backroom. He weaves through day drunks then through the city Azemal's maze of alleyways.

He stops at a bustling market place and takes in his surroundings. He doesn't think the Grand Assassin has changed his mind and decided to follow now that their safe audience is over. No, the man thinks himself a cat poised above the future king.

Still, a diversion wouldn't hurt. He listens to the different voices then joins the crowd.

"There's a pretty lass," he says in a baritone voice and pinches a fishwife's arse on his way past. The fishwife accosts a nearby man who's speaking in that same baritone voice to his friends.

The man stumbles against a cloth merchant's stall. "Thief. Stop thief!" the boy cries in the bewildered shopkeeper's own voice.

Then, he nabs a new cloak to throw over his own as he melts away into the pandemonium. Along the way, he tears off the tainted gloves that he used to touch the Varos coin.

***

Back in the castle confines, the boy is in another backroom of sorts, a half-remembered guard tower. There's nothing to guard here because this edge of the castle wall ends on a cliff, a chasm forged centuries ago when the gods threw Varos down from on high.

The inside is lined with scrolls and manuscripts bound between boards. This is the record keeper's domain. The record keeper lost his tongue for some long-ago unspoken crime. From the way the man walks, the boy knows that was not all that has been cut from him.

The Crown Prince never comes here because he is a cow whose bovine brow cannot bear the burden of reading, but the boy loves the record keeper.

He is his greatest friend, his greatest teacher, the one who showed him the scrolls on poisons long forgotten.

At first, the boy thought poison alone would be his answer, but the best one, Auria's kiss, takes time to act. There would be no guarantee he'd be positioned to take the Crown Prince's place unnoticed once the kiss called him home.

Silent but ever listening, the record keeper had shown the boy a manuscript on Varos and his assassin cult.

Yes, the coin, the Grand Assassin, it's all coming together, but there's still time to talk yet.

The boy and the record keeper have their own way of speaking. The boy blasts through his repertoire of voices while pausing to the listen to the tongueless man's eyes.

They sit now facing each other with an imaginary coin in between them.

"Have you heard the story of the little bird with the frozen wings?" the boy asks in a perfect imitation of the Grand Assassin.

The record keeper's eyes brim over with pride, with adoration for the protégé who gives him voice.

Late in the night, he will bar the servant's quarters and start a fire. There will always be more servants, and no one will count bones to make sure the Crown Prince's decoy is among the last lot.

For now, he watches as the boy climbs the crumbling guard tower then jumps to the nearby hemlock tree. The boy balances on the end of a branch, then he's over the castle wall. The record keeper says a silent prayer that the boy will return riding the Crown Prince's horse.

***

Deep within the hardwood forest, the boy waits at the appointed spot.

He cannot see the Grand Assassin, but he can hear horses in the distance.

The Crown Prince is foxhunting with his retinue, an outing among sycophants.

The boy shouts out a fox's warning call, a vixen's scream to draw the dogs.

He throws his voice and steps behind a tree as the foxhounds bumble past him.

The Crown Prince, whose horse is by far the fastest and whose friends dare not outpace him, is close behind with no other riders in sight.

Something detaches itself from the undergrowth and the Crown Prince falls from his saddle. He has time to low once in pain before the thing is on him. The now-never king jerks once then falls silent.

The Grand Assassin is caked in mud. Only his stillwater eyes are recognizable. They watch as the boy pulls off the Crown Prince's pinkie ring.

A knife touches the boy's throat.

The Grand Assassin is saying something, but his words are cut short by the sound of approaching hooves.

The knife vanishes. So does the Crown Prince's body as the Grand Assassin pulls his prey into the undergrowth.

With feline grace, the boy hops onto the Crown Prince's horse and turns to meet his retinue.

Later that night, as fire burns away the memory of the decoy, the Grand Assassin will stare at the night sky. The stars will shimmer and merge into one bright light as the numbness in his fingertips creeps up his arm and seeps into his heart. That will be Auria's kiss, courtesy of Varos's coin, calling him home.

The Grand Assassin won't curse the new Crown Prince, the future king who would've owed him everything. No, he'll be too busy staring at the sky and trying to take flight.

As for his words cut short in the woods, the new Crown Prince remembers them perfectly:

"Remember this moment, and you will—"

And what will the boy of many voices with only the tongueless to know his secret do?

Well, some things are better left unsaid.

February 24, 2024 04:52

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37 comments

02:15 Feb 27, 2024

I would buy this as a longer, drawn out novel. Happily. There's just so much to explore in this world you've crafted.

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Robert Egan
00:20 Mar 01, 2024

Thank you LeeAnn! You've put a bug in my ear, and now I'm wondering if I could combine this with a previous story then keep going from there.

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Yuliya Borodina
17:39 Mar 01, 2024

The start of the story reminded me of Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather" and it's one of my favorite books. I like that you managed to create and execute a multi-staged assassination in just under 3k and keep the intrigue up the entire time. Very impressive!

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Robert Egan
00:15 Mar 02, 2024

I've read a few of the Discworld books but can't recall Hogfather, so it's definitely in the next round of books for me with your recommendation. I really appreciate your compliment, Yuliya!

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Marty B
22:30 Feb 29, 2024

I love the language, this line stands out 'The boy blasts through his repertoire of voices while pausing to the listen to the tongueless man's eyes.' The intrigues and the short descriptions make this story ring. 'He's used to watching men squirm in the wake of what's left unsaid, but this boy makes him feel like the talkative one.' Good luck in the contest!

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Robert Egan
00:24 Mar 01, 2024

Thanks Marty! I'm a fan of your stories (though I need to start leaving comments). Good luck to you as well!

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Michał Przywara
23:52 Feb 26, 2024

Great title on this one. But the intrigues - magnificent! The boy definitely seems like the bird in the story - in way over his head - but it turns out he's a ruthlessly cunning operator. Hmm… does that bode well or poorly for the kingdom? I wonder. I suppose that's another story :) That mimicry skill is a useful one indeed, and very much unexpected. The ending is ominous too, for the silent man. I get the sense this was all his plot originally, as perhaps revenge for what was done to him. But the kid's tying up loose ends now. On the ...

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Robert Egan
01:35 Feb 27, 2024

Yeah, running along a knife's edge for some lovely backstabbing! Thanks for your comments, Michal. They always make me feel great about what I was trying to do. I don't know what will happen to the tongueless man either, but I like how you saw that he probably had a personal interest in pointing the boy in a certain direction. The boy might be able to pull it off if the Crown Prince happens to have an ailing father, but it's still anyone's guess. Personally, I'd hate to be royalty, but it's fun to write about those who covet power over freedom.

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Michał Przywara
23:25 Mar 01, 2024

Congratulations on the shortlist! This was a fun story, and it's good to see it get some recognition :)

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Robert Egan
00:04 Mar 02, 2024

Thank you sir!

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Trudy Jas
03:18 Feb 26, 2024

Great story in the style of Aesop and Grimm. Gave us just enough detail to keep going to the next line. Masterful.

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Robert Egan
01:16 Feb 27, 2024

Thank you, Trudy! I guess Aesop and Grimm never really go away, do they?

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Samara Minnow
17:23 Feb 25, 2024

The Grand Assassin didn't know who he was dealing with. Too many years at the top might make you feel untouchable, but it will never make you invincible. Favourite part - ' The boy and the record keeper have their own way of speaking. The boy blasts through his repertoire of voices while pausing to the listen to the tongueless man's eyes. ' Smart ending; you've certainly taken your own advice.

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Robert Egan
01:17 Feb 27, 2024

Glad you liked that line, Samara, as I had fun writing it. I knew there had to be a tongueless character somewhere in there. Thanks for checking out this story!

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Mary Bendickson
20:44 Feb 24, 2024

Slick. Thanks for liking my 'Alyce's Restaurant'. And 'Hammer Down '. Congrats on the shortlist. Well deserved! Thanks for liking my 'Blessings Tree '.

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Robert Egan
01:14 Feb 27, 2024

Thanks to you, Mary!

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Stella Aurelius
15:54 Feb 24, 2024

Lovely job, Robert. Great job in building tension between the prince and the assassin. Very powerful descriptions too.

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Robert Egan
01:15 Feb 27, 2024

Thanks for your kind words, Stella. Glad you enjoyed this one!

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Isabel Jewell
20:49 Apr 07, 2024

Wow, I really enjoyed this!!

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Robert Egan
00:22 Apr 08, 2024

Thanks Isabel!

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Dustin Gillham
07:37 Mar 18, 2024

What was your biggest accoompishments in writing this?

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Robert Egan
04:12 Mar 30, 2024

Thanks for asking this nice question (and sorry for the late reply). I'd say that it was being able to take a detail (the bird-cat-cow fable) that I heard in a regular conversation and turn it into a story. Easier said than done for me!

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Story Time
07:20 Mar 06, 2024

I found a kind of depth in the story that was so potent. It had me returning to certain lines and reimagining what was going on underneath the surface.

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Robert Egan
04:08 Mar 30, 2024

Thanks for your kind words, Story Time (and awesome name)!

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John Rutherford
09:28 Mar 03, 2024

Congratulations Robert

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Robert Egan
01:18 Mar 05, 2024

Thank you John!

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Trudy Jas
21:35 Mar 02, 2024

Congratulations on getting the shortlist!

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Robert Egan
01:18 Mar 05, 2024

Thanks Trudy!

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Ty Warmbrodt
18:32 Mar 01, 2024

Congrats, Robert, on the short list. I sincerely thought you were going to win this one though.

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Robert Egan
00:05 Mar 02, 2024

Thanks Ty! I'm just happy to have achieved shorty status 🤓

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David Sweet
17:45 Mar 01, 2024

Congrats on the well-deserved shortlist. Look forward to seeing more of this story or others.

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Robert Egan
00:09 Mar 02, 2024

Thanks for your continued encouragement. I'll try to keep them coming!

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David Sweet
12:52 Feb 25, 2024

Very well done! The story is well-paced. I also appreciate the irony of the frozen bird story. I was hooked from the beginning.

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Robert Egan
01:21 Feb 27, 2024

Thanks for the high praise, David! The frozen bird + cow + cat tale was a joke that my father-in-law told earlier this month (he has a lot of them), and I knew there was another story somewhere in there.

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David Sweet
01:44 Feb 27, 2024

It's always nice to have those rich wells to draw from. I have a brother-in-law that is a rich storyteller. Many of my stories and ideas come from just listening to the many storytellers in my family.

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David Sweet
01:44 Feb 27, 2024

It's always nice to have those rich wells to draw from. I have a brother-in-law that is a rich storyteller. Many of my stories and ideas come from just listening to the many storytellers in my family.

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David Sweet
01:44 Feb 27, 2024

It's always nice to have those rich wells to draw from. I have a brother-in-law that is a rich storyteller. Many of my stories and ideas come from just listening to the many storytellers in my family.

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