I couldn’t stop pacing in the stables. Bastian was grooming Balder and shooting me nervous looks, but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge him, as I was still fuming over my brother putting my invitation to his wedding in with the traitors. I thought, not for the first time that morning, about how different things would be if Priamos hadn’t been killed.
My oldest brother had never understood me, much like the rest of my family, but unlike them, he made an effort to connect with me, and he loved me despite my apparent lack of princeliness. He would ride with me in the mornings to check how the perynga population was coming along. They had been almost hunted to extinction by my great grandfather and the other nobles during his reign as king, and I was deeply invested in seeing the return of the magnificent creatures.
Priamos also always listened to my thoughts on the war. When it first began, it was mostly just skirmishes, fights breaking out between the guards at a lowly noble’s house and some people who had disagreed with something the king had said recently. But as the number of attackers grew, the uneasy mutterings amongst the servants in the castle became harder to ignore.
Then the first death happened. The attackers had grown in number enough to overpower the guards at one noble’s home, and they stormed in and killed him. The castle was in an uproar for days, my father sending his best assassins out to hunt out the killers and see them put in the ground. Not a single assassin ever returned to the castle.
After a week without a word from the assassins, an uneasy silence began to fall over the castle. I went out riding more often to get away from the silence, and Priamos came with me less and less, having to attend council meeting, along with Warrick. I was the only Prince not invited. It was during this time that I befriended Bastian. I was spending so much time in the stables, that we eventually became friends.
One day, Priamos managed to go riding with me, and I mentioned that I wish I was in the meetings. I told him all the ideas I had about how to push back the attackers, who had killed three more nobles in the previous days. He told me he would present them at the next meeting, but not to get my hopes up.
The next noble that was attacked was saved by my plan. No one ever said a word to me about it. Priamos swore he told everyone it was my idea, and I believed him. He wasn’t the type of man to take credit for someone’s ideas, that was Warrick. But after that attack, Priamos was no longer allowed out of the castle. Neither was Warrick. The princes had to be protected from the traitors. No one ever told me to stay in the castle.
I told Priamos about my ideas as often as I could, and some worked. Not enough. More nobles were being killed every day, the attackers still striking by night, trying to kill a path to the castle. When my father’s cousin was killed, he declared war. Dozens of our soldiers died in the first battle. It may not seem like a lot, but my father was trying to put a quick end to it. He sent out his best soldiers. He also underestimated the number of traitors. He sent eighty-four soldiers to put a swift end to the war. One returned, and only to give a message. He was poisoned at dinner that night.
Weeks dragged on, the war escalating until it was almost to our doorstep. Hundreds were dying every day, and it showed no sign of slowing. We had taken a few prisoners, hoping we could ransom them for peace, but to no avail.
It was one night after a grim battle that left my father’s top advisor in critical condition that I was called to the council chambers. When I walked in, the entire council was gathered. They were arguing about what to do. I was unsure of why I was there; I knew no opinion of mine would be counted.
I said nothing for the duration of the meeting. I listened carefully, making note of everybody’s ideas and trying desperately to think of which one would get the fewest people killed on both sides. At that time, I was still hoping for a peaceful solution. That was the last night I wanted peace.
Since I was the only one not yelling, I was the only one that heard the small whoosh. I felt something whiz past my head, and before I could jerk my head around to see what it was, my brother crumpled to the floor.
Without hesitation, I leaped from the chair where I was sitting silently and rushed to his side. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was already gone. His brown eyes were empty, and his skin was already paling. I ignored all the obvious signs though, ignored what I could feel in my heart, ignored the fact that no one was coming to help me, ignored the fact that no one had gone for a medic, ignored it all.
“Pri. Pri, what happened, why’d you fall?” I shook his shoulder, as though desperately hoping that this was some sort of joke and he would roll onto his back and sit up, laughing at his poor, gullible brother who believed his terrible act. “Pri? Pri, look at me, can you look at me? Did you hit your head when you fell? Priamos. Priamos!” My voice had risen to high, panicked pitch, but still, he didn’t respond.
“Why aren’t any of you doing anything!?” I shouted, looking up at the generals and advisors gathered around the room. “Someone get a medic! He must have hit his head when he fell, he must have… must have…” I trailed off, unable to think of any logical explanation as to why he would collapse so suddenly. I knew I looked crazy, my eyes wide, my face flushed, my breath coming in labored gasps. Still, no one moved.
Finally, the tears came as my brain caught up to what my heart already knew. An agonized scream was ripped from my throat, my vision blurring until I could barely see the horror in front of me. I clutched my brother’s body, already feeling the heat slipping away as the cold settled into his corpse. The tears fell freely, landing on Pri’s face, on his white shirt, on the floor. I screamed again, a terrible sound that made several of the most stoic generals turn away, and a couple of the softer hearted advisors left the room to get away from the heart wrenching scene before them.
I don’t know how much time had passed when I felt a hand clap onto my shoulder roughly, pulling me up. I complied, listless, and was steered through the corridors to my room, where Warrick, his face more sympathetic than I had ever seen it before, settled me into my bed and left me for the night. Before he left, he hovered in the doorway, opening his mouth as if to say something, then shook his head instead and lightly closed the door behind him.
The next day, I begged my father to let me join the army.
“Please, I want for nothing but to kill whoever responsible for my brother, His Royal Highness, Prince Priamos.” I kept my head bowed and thoroughly ignored Warrick, already settled into the seat of the crown prince, as though Priamos was already forgotten.
“Yes, go ahead. Join the army if you must, just try not to lose.” My father waved a hand at me, dismissing me, and on my way out of the room, I heard him say to the advisor next to him, “Double security on Warrick, we need to make sure the last prince is well protected now that that one’s off to die.”
I had been hearing things like that my whole life, but this time, it felt worse. Perhaps I had been deluding myself before, that the only reason I was ignored was because I was the third prince, and I wasn’t very necessary to the throne. But now there were only two princes, and I was still being cast to the side.
“Thorin.” Bastian snapped me out of my thoughts. “Are you all right? You look like you’re ready to make yourself the last prince.” He sent me a smile, but it faltered quickly.
“I’m fine, Bastian. Just my brother being my brother. Same as usual.” I glanced at Bastian’s leg, wondering how he managed to be such a successful stablehand with a permanent limp slowing him down.
He had joined the army along with me, and we both quickly rose through the ranks. Me, because I was a prince, him because he had several great ideas that gave us many victories. They were really my strategies, but I knew that if I wanted him to stay with me, that I would have to sacrifice my own intelligence. With Priamos dead, Bastian was my only friend. No one in the army wanted to talk to me, I was the prince, and I unnerved them.
One afternoon, with the sun blazing overhead, Bastian and I were leading an exercise with some new recruits. I heard a bird call from the bushes to my left. Then another bird call, the same one, from the trees behind the recruits. Then a third. This one, right from the center of the recruits. Before my brain could catch up to what was happening, a recruit turned and stabbed another recruit right through the heart. Before anyone could move, he had turned and slashed the through of the recruit on his other side. Instantly, fifty traitors materialized from the bushes and behind the trees. There were only about twenty recruits. The traitor that had been amongst them joined his comrades, and it was quickly an all-out battle. Fortunately, the recruits had almost finished their training, so they weren’t completely helpless, but this was the first battle they were seeing, and they were clearly in over their heads.
I was separated from Bastian, and I was trying to fight my way toward the recruits. Several men had gone straight for me, likely wanting to be the one to kill another prince. I swung my sword diagonally, before discovering that my rivals were too close to me to fight with a sword. Without bothering resheathing it, I dropped it in the dirt and drew my knives. My uniform was equipped with several pockets for knives, and I was fortunate enough to have packed all of them that morning. A whisper in the back of my head reminded me that Bastian had only packed two, but I shrugged it off, knowing he was a proficient fighter, and it was unlikely that anyone was targeting him.
Knowing I didn’t have time to pull the knives from my victims, I just kept slashing and stabbing, whisking more from their pockets as needed. Before long, I was by the recruits, defending them, protecting them best I could. It wasn’t until after the dust had settled that I realized that the attack must have been solely an attempt to kill me, as the recruits had been fighting only enough people to keep them preoccupied, while the rest went for me. I took out a large number of them, but enough escaped that I knew the next attempt on my life would be much more heavily armed.
I did a head count on the recruits; it wasn’t too bad, we only lost four, not including the traitor and the two he killed at the start. We… I realized Bastian hadn’t joined me yet.
I spun around, searching the clearing for any sign of my friend. There, half in the bushes, I saw him. My heart stumbled, recalling the way Pri had laid on the ground. I knew Bastian would have joined me unless there was a reason he couldn’t.
“Stay here,” I barked at the recruits as I strode across the clearing toward my friend. I ignored the pitiful sounds of the couple of men that hadn’t yet died that were too badly wounded to escape. They killed my brother; they deserved every bit of pain that was sent their way.
Reaching the bushes, I took a deep breath before looking down, terrified of what I might find there. I lowered my gaze until it reached my friend’s face. He was grinning up at me like an idiot.
“Took you long enough to remember me,” he chortled.
“What are you smiling about,” I muttered, allowing my gaze to travel lower. He seemed fine- until I got to his left thigh. Blood was pulsing slowly out of it, a pool already surrounding his leg. I almost had to turn away to be sick as I saw the wound that had been inflicted.
I didn’t know what weapon was used, but I could see bone, a deep gouge in the bone itself. His leg had been almost entirely severed from his body, but the blood… the blood was moving far too slowly for a wound of that caliber.
“What happened? How is your leg healing itself?” I demanded. Even as I spoke, the bleeding had slowed to a stop.
“I’d love to explain this to you, but there are thorns digging into my back and I really need a drink, this sun is scorching.” I rolled my eyes, but knew he was right. It would a while to return to the base with the bodies and Bastian in his condition. If we didn’t leave as quickly as possible, we risked having to travel by night, dehydrating to death, or, worse, the traitors returning with reinforcements.
I turned to order the recruits on what to do, but my mouth dried up as I took in the full scene. I had been in battles before, but something about this one… the fact that I was the target and the only other official soldier with me was laying in a pool of his own blood… something about it struck me. For the first time since joining the army, I looked at the traitors the way I used to, before Pri died. As people who didn’t deserve death. I had gone feral in this battle, killing at least four men, with two more on their way to joining them. This had been a sandy clearing, with pretty trees along the edges, the sun shining down on the warm sand. Now it was stained red, bodies littering the ground. The red swam before my eyes, and I began to grow dizzy. I saw recruits looking at me with wide, worried eyes, then everything went dark.
“Thorin. Thorin!” I was shaken out of my thoughts again by Bastian waving a hand in front of my face. “You were thinking about it again.”
I wasn’t supposed to think about that day. The reason I had passed out was due to the fact that I had not made it out of the battle unscathed. I had a knife wound that just missed my heart, and I almost died that day. Every time I thought about that day, something about the wound would activate, and I would start feeling faint again. I looked down at my shirt and saw red seeping through it.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know,” Bastian called from in the tack room while I grabbed the gauze labeled ‘idiot’ and wrapped it around my torso under my shirt. “You had to get to the recruits, or they all would have died.”
I ignored him. Blood, other than my own mysterious wound, always left me feeling queasy, and I woke up often from nightmares that involved spotting bone through torn flesh.
I couldn’t help but suspect that tonight, my dreams would be featured around someone’s bones peeking through their neck, the head lolling at an angle.
Would I have killed her if not for that battle, regardless of how little she remembers? I would, right? I thought, thinking of Emihly. I was unsettled to find that I wasn’t sure.