On March 31, 2021, P.T. Wyant posted at ptwyant.com a Wednesday Words prompt involving a lost prince, a windstorm, and laundry.
This freebie story for my Work in Progress Trouble at Caerac Keep was the result…
You’re a lost prince, Ansel.” He could hear the sweet, warbling voice of the other boy whispering to him over the howl of the windstorm. Only it was no ordinary storm. This wind had the many eyes, teeth, and claws of the Dark Circle. It ripped at the residents of Gwyneth Keep, ignoring doors, locks, and sometimes wards, searching for a particular prey.
“I don’t know why Xylanthe would want me.” He’d never heard the name until the boy said it, gesturing to a terrifying picture of a woman with many arms and eyes. Xylanthe had once been an Aethyrian witch, part of the Circle of the Thirteen which guided and governed the secretive land of Aethyria. It was said to be a land of women whom separated from the broken empire to follow their own ways. Not that he was sure if Aethyria was any more isolated than Rowenda, divided into walled cities of varying security. Gwyneth Keep was supposed to be most civilzed of the lot. Not any more.
He wasn’t sure what the boy with the bright blue eyes and silky strawberry blond hair said next as he pressed his hand. Reassurances or warnings? Only these words surfaced from his memories over the howl of the wraiths riding the wind:
“Never forget that your mother is a direct descendent of Gwyneth herself. Gwyneth was not only the founder of this Keep, but the daughter of a daughter of Serena Jasior, former Imperatrix, the one whom held the empire together with her dying breath. Your heritage is a proud one, leaving you many hopes to live up to.”
“You shouldn’t.” He pressed the boy’s fingers in his own, aware that he was dreaming, his head lay upon the bar counter, yet he still wanted to reassure the other youth. That howling was only part of his dream, yet it felt so real. “Mother may make much of our heritage, hers and mine, but you look far more like a prince than I do, Kevin.”
Kevin. Yes, this was his name, the lazy bartender who’d fallen asleep. Why was he calling someone else by this name?
“You’re a fool for thinking so, but I’m hoping others will make the same foolish assumption.” The boy softened his words with another squeeze of his hand. Tears swam in his eyes. How prettily his curls embraced the side of his face, the nape of his severe mage’s collar. Kevin’s soft hands might have been a lord’s, but also a scholar or a magician’s. “That’s why I’m going to take your place and you’re going to take mine. When the Dark Circle comes for you, they’ll find me instead.”
There was a bright flash of light, erasing everything…making Kevin blink at the reflection off the mugs and glasses behind the counter. He was himself, plain old Kevin, bar hand at The Tipsy Hedgehog in Caerac Keep, not Gwyneth Keep. He’d never even been to Gwyneth Keep. Visitors to Maggie’s tavern claimed it was twice as big, had at least three taverns, several shops, more than one wealthy merchant…and was a lot more dangerous than Caerac Keep. After all, the southern walled city might have close to Kalanthia, and a port to other lands, but it was an easy creep to the legendary Dark Circle where all sorts of monsters gathered.
Only Kevin wasn’t supposed to call them monsters. Not everything that Maggie had once founght and hunted with her sword when she’d been an adventurer, not a tavern mistress.
Maybe her tales were going to his head, along with all the other tales the patrons were telling. Otherwise why would he dream about some pretty wizard calling him a prince and putting a spell on him to persuade him he was a humble tavern hand?
Except Kevin didn’t remember much of his past. Not before Maggie had found him.
Was it possible he’d just experience a memory? Oh, it was too fantastic. He, Kevin was a lost prince. Only his name hadn’t been Kevin. Kevin had been the wizard’s name. The wizard who’d taken his place during some sort of an unearthly windstorm involving wraiths.
Wraiths. They’d become almost as mythical as vampires. Except Maggie swore they existed.
What if what he’d dreamed truly was real? What if this other Kevin was in some sort of trouble, trying to protect him from whatever danger had threatened…oh, what had been his name?
“Kevin?” Maggie’s call brought him back from his thoughts.
“Sorry. I seem to have fallen asleep.” He watched Maggie come in the backdoor, hoisting what appeared to be a basket of laundry.
“Most of the flowers outside died from the chill but a few struggled to stay on the vines a little longer.” Maggie carried the basket to the private rooms behind the bar which she and Kevin occupied.
“I’m not surprised.” Maggie’s flowers were hardy much like she was herself. She was one of the shortest women in Caerac Keep, so short people whispered she had nonhuman blood. Regardless of her height and careworn face, her arms were solid muscle. Maggie had been an adventurer once and didn’t bother to hide it, no matter how much it might shock people. Yes, she used to make a living via her sword. Yes, she had killed kobolds and goblins, taking their treasure. You should have seen what they kept their lairs and whom they’d stolen it from. No, she wasn’t apologizing for anything she’d done, no matter how much people might whisper murderer, thief, thug behind her back. If Lady Ylynessa herself came to The Tipsy Hedgehog with Herm the Goblin, having Herm recite his tale of woeful cruelty at the hands of adventurers, she’d tell him a tale or two herself. Or twenty. Lady Ylynessa and Herm had learned the error of even trying to shame the tavern mistress for her past as an adventurer. They’d never returned to The Tipsy Hedgehog after their first attempt. Herm might badmouth Maggie to whomever would listen, but he hadn’t slown down business at the tavern. The food and the ale were too good, plus Maggie’s controversial past made visitors all the more eager to hear her tales. She’d traveled all other Rowenda far from Caerac Keep and had visited Gwyneth Keep several times.
“Maggie, have you ever heard the name Ansel in connection with the nobility at Gwyneth Keep?” Kevin ventured. “Someone descended from the Imperatrix herself?”
“That sounds like the son of the Duchess of Gwyneth Keep.” Maggie frowned a bit, narrowing her eyes at Kevin. “Sickly lad, much like his mother. Only pride keeps the Duchess on her two feet, pride in her descent from Gwyneth and Serena Jasior. Not she’s got much else to be proud of. Gwyneth Keep is a dangerous place nearly overrun with monsters.” Maggie never bothered with the word ‘nonhumans’. “Even before Lord William made this place safe, Caerac Keep was never as bad as Gwyneth Keep. Far too close to the Dark Circle, that place. Its corruption ate at the very foundations Gwyneth lay. Once a Keep’s walls are corrupted, it’s done for.”
Kevin shivered a bit at his boss’s words. “And this Ansel lives in the middle of all that bad.” He recalled the howls of the wraiths in the windstorm, how they seemed to call and laugh with the voices of the dead. “I feel sorry for him.”
He visualized the delicate youth with the light in his hands. The other Kevin. Only Kevin found it easier to imagine him as the lost prince. That young man had the same fragile beauty as Rhodry. It was hard to think of someone like him in such a terrible place.
“When the Dark Circle comes for you, they’ll find me.” The words floated to the surface of what might be his memories, uttered with the other Kevin’s voice.
Those words made him shiver again. If he existed, what had happened to this other Kevin? Was he in trouble?
He might be if he’d taken Kevin’s place. If Kevin actually was a lost prince, suffering from memory loss because of a spell this boy had cast upon him. It was enough to make him laugh, except Kevin couldn’t remember most of his life. Trying to was like a painful itch he couldn’t scratch, a wound he needed to leave alone. He’d never questioned this itch, leaving it alone…until now.
“Maggie, where did you find me?” He’d never asked this before because of the itch. “Was I in Caerac Keep itself?”
“At last you’re curious. I’d wondered at you not asking before.” Maggie chewed on her lower lip. “The sorcerer Daeric found you wandering near his tower.”
“He wouldn’t like that.” The sorcerer didn’t want strangers near his lair or his apprentice. It was one of the reasons Kevin had only seen Rhodry at The Tipsy Hedgehog, never the tower he shared with his master. “I was pretty hopeless at everything when I first started working here.”
“You learned fast, even if you acted like you hadn’t done a day of manual labor before. You were willing to do what I asked, in spite of your clumsiness at the start.” Maggie reached over to pat Kevin’s arm. “I’m proud of how far you’ve come, Kevin.”
“Yes, but don’t you worry about where I came from?” he persisted. “I could have been in some kind of trouble or have been trouble myself.”
“Not from what I’ve seen.” Maggie shook her graying head with emphasis. “You’re a good lad, Kevin. Your past only matters to me if it matters to you.”
This was just another sign of the tavern-keeper’s stubborn loyalty. Once she decided you were one of hers, she wouldn’t budge. This was both touching and worrying.
“Do you think my memories will come back?” he wondered out loud. “Especially if someone, well, enchanted them away?”
Now she was the one looking at him with concern. “Do you think your memories were enchanted away?”
“Perhaps.” Kevin touched the bar, looked down at his roughened hands. Hardly the hands of a nobleman, let alone a prince, but perhaps those of an adventurer. “I had a dream. It might have been a memory if somone took my memories, making me someone else. Only I think it was done to protect me.”
“If someone did that to protect you, you’re going against your protector’s wishes in trying to get them back.” Maggie squinted at him with even more worry.
“Only my protector may be in trouble himself.” Kevin bit his lower lip. “I’m not sure if I should leave him in it.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, lad.” Maggie heaved a slow sigh. “If you’re right, you’ve got a hard choice ahead of you. To accept his or make your own.”
She shuffled away to the backrooms, leaving Kevin to gaze at the bar’s counter, his own reflection in its polished surface. Even if he wasn’t sure whom the young man gazing back at him was anymore.