Prince Wilhelm Reinhardt, heir to the throne of IronWall, rushed down the hallway. His dark blond hair fell over his eyes, and he shoved his hand through it, pushing it back. Behind him he heard his nanny yelling, and this only served to increase his speed. He was fourteen now. He didn’t need a nanny, particularly one who yelled at him.
He rounded a turn in the hallway. And slid to a stop. His Uncle Corrado was standing in the hall, speaking in low tones with Commander Ritter Sheridan. Ritter was young for a military leader. Wil had always liked him, but was intimidated by him at the same time.
“Wil,” Corrado called. “Come here.”
He walked over to them. Corrado put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder and gave it a hard squeeze. Wil didn’t flinch. “Commander Sheridan and I were just talking about my plans for our kingdom,” Corrado told him.
“Plans?” Wil frowned. He focused on Ritter’s face. The commander’s blue eyes revealed nothing. “What plans?” Wil asked, looking up at his uncle. He would one day rival Corrado’s height, but for now was stuck having to tilt his head back a little to see his face.
“Big plans, son,” Corrado said. Wil’s frown deepened.
“Wilhelm!” The nanny finally caught up with him, and Corrado laughed.
“You ran away?” he asked, looking at Wil.
“I’m too old for a nanny, uncle,” he said, shrugging.
Corrado regarded him for several long, searching moments. “Perhaps you are, at that.” He looked over Wil’s head at the puffing woman. “We no longer require your services, madam. Please see yourself out, and do not return.” He waved a dismissive hand in the air.
“But, sire, please,” the woman sputtered. Her brown eyes widened in her thin face.
“I’ve made my decision. You are dismissed.” Corrado’s voice grew cold. “Leave. Now.”
She gave a smooth bow and turned to go, but not before shooting Wil a scowl. He watched her go, and a spark of anger lit in his chest.
“Uncle, that’s not fair to fire her,” he argued.
“You didn’t have need of her anymore,” Corrado told him. His deep brown eyes narrowed. “You are far too old for such nonsense now.” His tone dared his nephew to continue arguing.
Wil had no pretenses about that. “That doesn’t mean she couldn’t serve in some other way here in the castle.” His tone was respectful, but iron filled it.
“I’ll be on my way, then,” Ritter said, taking a step back from the two blondes. He paused for a moment. “It’s uncanny, your similarities.” He bowed his head and left.
It was true; uncle and nephew were the same in their blonde good looks and strong faces. Corrado had height on Wil, but that wouldn’t last long. Corrado was Wil’s father’s younger brother; the boy had lost both parents to illness when he was but ten years old. Corrado had graciously stepped in to take care of the boy, employing numerous nannies in an attempt to corral the boy’s wild adventures. This one was the last in a line of long-suffering women.
“You should employ her in a different job,” Wil said, keeping his uncle trapped in the conversation.
“We have no use for any more staff, son,” Corrado told him. He started walking down the hall. “It’s time you grew up, and became a man.”
Wil followed his uncle. “I’ve already mastered the crossbow and sword,” he said. “Does this mean you’re putting me in the Shade?” The Shade, army of IronWall, was a well-oiled machine beneath the watchful tutelage of Commander Sheridan.
Corrado chuckled. “No, of course not. You’re the crown prince, Wil. Your place is here, in the castle stronghold, learning to control your kingdom.” His voice was low and purposeful.
“So what are your plans, then, uncle?”
Corrado glanced at him. “They’ll be revealed to you as we go,” he said.
A messenger approached them. “Sire,” he said, bowing his head. He held out a scroll. “This is from the King Alaric of Stormsurge.”
Corrado’s expression soured as he took the scroll. The messenger scampered off and Wil waited for his uncle to unroll the paper. “You know, Wil, why don’t you go practice your swordsmanship now,” he said. He sounded distracted.
“I’d rather see what King Alaric has to say,” Wil told him.
Corrado frowned. “It’s nothing, son.”
“Then it won’t hurt to let me read it,” Wil said. He folded his arms over his chest in the way he’d seen Corrado do a million times. “I am the crown prince, after all,” he added. He kept his tone even. He’d learned long ago that his uncle didn’t tolerate orders.
“That you are,” Corrado said, after a long pause. “Come along then.”
Wil followed him as he headed to his office. It was really Wil’s office, but the prince didn’t mind so much. He didn’t need it yet, and it hadn’t felt right to either of them that Corrado use his deceased brother’s workspace. The room wasn’t large. It held a big oak desk and three chairs. Corrado took a seat behind it and Wil pulled out one of the other chairs.
His uncle undid the scroll and read over it. His mouth tightened. Wil edged forward in his seat. “What does it say, uncle?” he asked.
Corrado set the parchment face down on his desk and set his hands over top of it. His eyes met Wil’s. “Alaric isn’t happy with our patrols,” he said. His voice was calm and devoid of emotion.
“Why? They don’t cross the border into his lands,” Wil said. He watched the skin around his uncle’s eyes tighten. “Right? They respect Alaric’s borders?”
“They go where they need to,” his uncle finally said. He sat back in his wooden chair. His dark eyes never left his nephew’s face.
“Why? Stormsurge respects the border. We should as well.” Wil frowned, not liking this information. Even at his young age, he knew it wasn’t right for their forces to be stepping over the boundary lines.
Corrado smiled. “You wanted to be rid of your nanny, Wilhelm. You wanted to grow up,” he said. “This is part of that.”
“No, it’s not,” Wil argued. “Uncle, we can’t have our military lurking into their territory. That’s not right. We’re at peace with Stormsurge. We have to be respectful.” He leaned forward and put his hands on the desk. “You have to apologize.”
His uncle laughed. “Apologize? Kings do not apologize, son.”
“And you are not IronWall’s king,” Wil shot back. He pushed up out of the chair. “If you will not apologize, I will.” He turned to leave the room.
“You will not.”
Wil froze at his uncle’s harsh voice. He slowly turned to face Corrado, who was up and around the desk, a few scant feet away. “You are not on the throne,” Corrado told him. He raised his chin. “You are not making decisions for this kingdom.”
“I could make better ones than you are,” Wil told him. He too lifted his chin, mirroring Corrado’s pose. “What is the purpose of the Shade going into their territory, anyway?”
“Scouting,” Corrado said. “Making sure Alaric respects the border.” His voice was low and icy.
“But we don’t,” Wil said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re young, Wil. It will make sense in time.” His uncle pushed a hand through his dark blonde hair. “Now, go on with your swordsmanship drills. A king needs to be adept with weapons.” He waved a hand toward the door. “Go.”
Anger mingled with irritation at his uncle’s dismissal, but Wil left the room. He knew his uncle’s temper, and it wasn’t worth incurring it right now. He strode down the hall, nodding to one of the young servant girls as she walked past. She blushed and bit her lip, and he glanced after her. He didn’t know her name, and realized he didn’t know any of the servants’ names, except for his nanny.
That’s sad. What kind of king doesn’t know the names of the people serving him? Not that he was king yet. That wouldn’t happen until he turned eighteen. If your uncle lets it happen, his mind whispered. He frowned. Corrado had been trusted to raise him by his late father’s council, so obviously they’d seen something good in him. And Corrado had always treated him well. There was a nagging doubt, though, that his uncle would relinquish control of the kingdom to him when he had his eighteenth birthday.
Stepping out of the castle, he pushed aside the doubts and headed toward the practice field. He could see Ritter practicing with some of his soldiers, and hurried to meet with him. The commander saw him approaching and waved, a smile crossing his face.
He handed Wil a sword and said, “I was wondering if you’d be out.”
“Nice day for it,” Wil told him. The weather in IronWall could be warm, but it was often cool and breezy, and there hung a constant mist along part of the border with Stormsurge. Wil made a few practice swings, and then squared off with Ritter.
The commander lunged. Wil stepped back and to the side, parrying the blow. Ritter grinned and thrust again. Again Wil stopped the blade. The soldiers paused in their own practice to watch, and Wil focused on his fight. If he hoped to gain the trust and respect of the Shade, he had to show that he was competent enough to be their king.
They fought for several minutes, until Wil’s left foot slipped. His blade dropped a fraction, and Ritter drove his sword in to touch’s the prince’s throat. Wil inhaled sharply. Ritter immediately dropped the blade down and bowed his head to him.
“Excellent, your Highness,” he said. “But you must remember to be aware of your surroundings at all times. You focused so much on the fight itself, you let yourself be driven into the marshy part of the field.” Ritter jabbed his sword into the ground to prove his point. “Unstable ground makes for an unstable fight.”
“You’re right,” Wil said, nodding. He glanced at the soldiers; they were watching with rapt interest, and a couple of them were muttering amongst themselves. His face got hot. Did they think he was too young to handle a sword? Too inexperienced for a fight with Ritter?
Ritter saw him looking at the soldiers. “All of you, go on. You’ve got your own training to do,” he called out. They shuffled off, and he turned his attention to Wil. “You did well, Wil. Don’t let them bother you. They have more experience than you.”
He knew this, but it didn’t really make him feel better. The sun was starting to sink lower in the sky, and the air had cooled. “Do you know of the plans my uncle has for IronWall?” he asked, deciding to see if Ritter would tell him anything.
The commander sheathed his sword. He glanced toward the soldiers, who had moved off a considerable distance, and then focused on Wil. “He’s not told you anything?”
“No.” Wil plunged the blade of his practice sword into the damp ground.
Ritter released a slow breath. “He has shared only a few minor things,” he said.
“Like?” Wil brought his gaze up to the commander’s.
Ritter shifted on his feet. “I think its best you ask him.”
Wil considered him. Ritter was older than him by at least seven or eight years, yet they’d always gotten on well. He thought of the commander as a friend, as well as his protector. But this was crossing into territory Wil was unfamiliar with. “I want you to tell me,” he said. He kept his voice even, not wanting to sound demanding.
His uncle’s yell had him turning toward the castle, and he heard Ritter mutter something beneath his breath. Wil sighed.
“You’d better go on,” Ritter said. Wil thought he sounded relieved.
He walked toward Corrado, who was waiting, one of his hunting hounds sitting next to him. “Yes, uncle?” he asked, once he was within closer earshot.
“How was practice?” Corrado asked.
“Fine.” Wil glanced over his shoulder at Ritter, who was now working with his soldiers.
“Are you sure?”
Wil faced his uncle, and saw a speculative look in his eyes. “Yes, uncle. It was fine.”
“Glad to hear it. Come along.” Corrado turned back toward the castle.
“What was it you needed?” Wil couldn’t help but feel that Corrado’s intervention in his conversation with Ritter had been planned.
“Nothing. I just wanted to see how training was going.” Corrado looked over at him. “Did there need to be a reason?”
It felt like a trap to Wil, and he shook his head. The wind was coming up now, blowing his thick hair around, and he ran a hand through it. The red hound trotted alongside them, its nose twitching in the cooling air. He looked up at the round and square towers of his ancestral home, and a warm feeling filled his chest. No matter what was going on his life, IronWall was always here, always watchful.
They ate dinner in the kitchen, two girls scurrying back and forth with food and drink. Wil wondered what their names were. He slipped a piece of beef to the dog, which licked his hand in thanks. Corrado ate fast, head bowed over his ceramic plate. Wil speculated if Corrado had a meeting or something; normally, his uncle ate with leisure.
Corrado got to his feet and signaled one of the girls. She hurried over. “Take care of these,” he ordered. Wil frowned. The girls always cleared the table; he wasn’t sure why his uncle was in such a mood.
“Yes, sire,” she said, bowing her head. She took the plate and cup away.
“You don’t have to be so harsh,” Wil told him as Corrado started to pass by him.
His uncle stopped. He settled a hand on Wil’s shoulder. “You would do well to remember, son, that they are nothing more than servants. You don’t need to be kind with them.” He spoke in a soft voice, but Wil shuddered nonetheless. Corrado squeezed his shoulder and walked out of the room.
Wil slumped in his chair. Had his uncle always been so callous? Or was he seeing this side of him now because Corrado was letting him see it? Was this part of his “growing up” Corrado talked about? If it was, he wished he didn’t have to see it. There was no reason to treat anyone the way his uncle did.
He finished eating, and offered the girl a smile as she approached to take his plate and cup. She bit her lip but didn’t smile back. When I’m king, everyone will feel free to smile, he thought. He left the kitchen and went in search of his uncle.
He found him in the council room, along with Ritter and two of the highest-ranking councilmen. Before he could enter the room, he heard one of the councilmen say, “Are you sure about this, Corrado?” There was a tremor of unease in the man’s voice that stayed Wil’s feet. He pressed his back to the wall outside the room and leaned his head in as close as he dared.
“Yes I’m sure,” his uncle snapped. “My plans for this kingdom do not include him.”
“So what do you propose, then? Are you willing to kill the boy?” the other councilman asked. His voice was sharp.
Wil’s heart beat faster. Of course his uncle wasn’t entertaining that idea. It was absurd. But it was several more seconds before Corrado answered.
“No, I don’t want to harm him,” his uncle finally said. “There’s no need for that. But he must be removed from the castle, and people must be made to think he’s dead if they are to accept me as king.” His voice was firm. “Ritter, I want you to take the boy out hunting tomorrow.”
“And then what?” Ritter’s tone was cold. “You don’t want him harmed, so what is it you wish for me to do?”
“Not bring him back.” Corrado’s voice was low. “There are some wild boars causing havoc in the town of Graysham. If he were to be killed during a boar hunt, no one would think it odd. Everyone knows how vicious those wild beasts are.”
“But what does he do with the boy?” one of the other men asked. “Surely if left out in the wilderness by himself, he’d find his way home. He’s not a child.”
The men were silent. Wil fought to control his breathing. He pulled away from the door for a moment, clutching his stomach with his hands. Don’t retch. Don’t retch, he told himself. A low murmur of voices stirred in the cool air, and he moved closer to the door again.
“Well, then perhaps the best course is to actually take care of him,” Corrado was saying.
“I’m not harming the boy.” Ritter’s voice was defiant. “He is our future king, and under my protection as such.”
A rush of warmth filled Wil’s chest. At least he had an ally in the room.
“I am your future king,” Corrado snarled. There was a thumping sound, and then the scrape of chair legs against the stone floor. Wil peeked in to see his uncle pacing. “And you will do it if I order you to.” Corrado stopped and turned to face the table. Wil eased his head a little further in, making sure no one could see him.
Ritter’s face was lined with tension. The two councilmen were frowning, and one of them kept tugging at his collar. Wil wanted to burst into the room and defend himself, but knew to do that would only hasten his uncle’s decision to be rid of him.
“I don’t like this,” the man tugging on his collar said. “We entrusted you with Wilhelm’s care, Corrado, and now you want to murder him?”
Corrado waved a hand in the air. “It will look like an accident.” He turned his gaze to Ritter. “Won’t it?”
“I’m not doing it.” Ritter shook his head. His brown hair, shaggy, swung close to his handsome face.
Corrado grew still. “Then I’ll find someone who will. They won’t have to make it look like a hunting accident. The boy’s fond of the lake; wouldn’t it be a shame if he were to drown?”
“You wouldn’t.” Ritter sat straight in his chair. Disbelief shone in his eyes. “Wil is an excellent swimmer. No one would believe it.”
“Of course they would. They’d gossip about poor Corrado, how he lost his older brother and sister-in-law, and has now lost his nephew. Really, what a horrible thing to happen. It’s only right that he now take control of the throne.” Corrado’s voice was soft and sugary. “You see, Ritter, people will believe anything if you enforce the lie. And after they saw the boy’s wet, swollen corpse, of course they’d believe it.” His tone grew hard and cold. “If you refuse to take the boy hunting and do it there, I will have him bound and thrown into the lake.”
Wil’s breath caught in his throat. How could his uncle be so cruel? He thought of being tied up and pitched into the crystal blue waters of Granite Lake, and his lungs tightened. Surely no one would be party to such a heinous act, would they? Did his uncle know people who would do such a thing?
He forced himself to look in again. Ritter’s face was a mask of stony horror. The two councilmen stared at Corrado with shock. None of them seemed capable of speech.
Corrado laughed. “If only you see the looks on your faces.” His voice, rich and deep, and usually a comforting sound to Wil, now caused his chest to constrict with fear. “Come now. Surely you three see this is the best way. I’m going to take the throne, and Wil, if left to his own devices, will try to fight me for it. I don’t want to kill the boy.”
“Yet you would have him murdered, drowned,” Ritter growled. “I will not stand for that.”
“Then you will do as I order and take him on a boar hunt and slay him there in the woods.” Corrado glanced toward the door, and Wil ducked back out of sight. “After all, would it not be better coming from you than someone he doesn’t know?”
“It would be better to leave the boy alone,” Ritter said. His voice was heavy with reluctant acceptance. “And if I say no?”
“Oh, I think we both know you won’t.” Corrado’s voice was harsh. “And I’m sure you’ll do it as kindly as you can.” He moved toward the door. “Meeting adjourned. Ritter, I’ll have Wil ready for you early tomorrow morning.”
Wil rushed down the hall, away from the council room. He rounded a turn and ran into the small library. He sat down in the only chair in the room, covered in crushed velvet. It had been his mother’s chair. She had loved to read, and Wil’s father had brought the chair back from the kingdom of Frayfight.
He’s really going to have me murdered. The thought echoed through Wil’s mind. His dinner threatened to climb up his throat again, and he sat forward in the chair, putting his head down between his knees. He drew in deep, quiet breaths. Ritter had taught him the technique to help him cope with the loss of his parents. Now, Wil was dealing with the potential loss of his own life. He sucked in a lungful of air, coughing. Would Ritter really do it? Could Ritter do it? Murder one whom he was sworn to protect?
“Ah, Wilhelm, there you are.”
His uncle’s jolly voice froze the cough in his throat. Wil sat up straight and forced himself to his feet. He turned to look at Corrado. His uncle grinned.
“I’ve planned a boar hunt for you tomorrow with Ritter,” he said. Nothing in his voice gave away the horror of his plan.
“O-oh good,” Wil sputtered.
Corrado frowned and stepped closer. “Are you all right, son? You look peaked.”
His concern rang hollow to Wil. “I’m fine, uncle. Is there any special reason for the hunt?”
“The town of Graysham has been having trouble lately with the boar population. I thought it would be a good bonding exercise for you and Ritter to hunt them together.” Corrado nodded to himself and started to go. “Meet him at the stables at five.”
His uncle wanted his death done early. Wil swallowed back the panic in his throat and said, “You aren’t going?”
Corrado stopped, but didn’t turn around. “No. I have matters to attend to here at the castle.” He left the room then, and Wil sat down on the stone floor and put his head in his hands.
At five sharp the next morning, Wil waited at the royal stables. Ritter had yet to show, and Wil wondered if perhaps the commander’s grisly task had gotten to him. But as Wil’s grey gelding was brought out for him, the commander came around the edge of the stables and saluted him.
“Prince Wilhelm,” Ritter said, bowing his head. “It looks to be a good day for a hunt.”
It was a beautiful morning; the sun was just coming up to the east, peeking out behind the Swelters, the massive desert. The air, though chilled, wasn’t unpleasant. It was, Wil decided, a good morning to die. His stomach clenched.
Ritter mounted his massive grey gelding and turned the horse to the west. The town of Graysham lay beyond Granite Lake, a good eight miles from the castle. Ritter wasted no time putting his horse to a canter. Wil followed, clutching the reins in one hand. He was a good rider, but this morning the motion of the horse turned his intestines, and it was all he could do not to fall off.
They rode at a canter for a half-mile, and then Ritter slowed his mount. He waited for Wil to catch up before looking over at him. Wil swallowed back the bile rising in his throat.
“I have an unpleasant task I must attend to this morning,” Ritter said. His voice was hard. “It was asked of me by your uncle.”
Do I tell him I know already? That I overhead the whole conversation? He was afraid to say anything.
Ritter stopped his horse. “Your uncle wants me to kill you.” His words were blunt, and though Wil knew what was coming, they stunned him. He turned his horse to face Ritter’s. “You don’t look surprised,” Ritter told him. “You heard our conversation last night?”
“I did.” Wil nodded. The motion was slow and heavy. “Are you going to do it?”
Ritter surprised him by laughing. “No, Wilhelm, I am not going to murder you.” His laugh died out. “I have a plan that I think will work to keep you safe and to make your uncle believe it has been done.”
“What?” Wil’s terror began to fade into curiosity.
“Not here.” Ritter urged his horse on. Wil rode beside him. “There’s a place we can talk without drawing attention. We’re meeting someone there.”
Wil frowned but said nothing. Who could Ritter have contacted in such a short time? IronWall used bat hawks for sending messages, and the birds were fleet, but who was close enough to send a message to? He doubted King Alaric would want to help him. He might even believe I’m the one ordering our patrols over the border. The thought angered him. What else had Corrado been doing behind his back?
Ritter turned his horse off onto a faint trail. Wil followed, unfamiliar with where the path led. They rode into the woods. Dew clung heavy on the leaves and bushes, and droplets of water fell onto Wil’s head whenever he disturbed a branch overhead. When the weeds overtook the trail, Ritter dismounted and dropped his mount’s reins to the ground. Motioning to Wil to follow, he headed into the thick undergrowth and tall bushes.
What they found on the other side brought Wil up short. A man with a neatly-trimmed beard sat on a big bay pony. He led another pony, and Wil recognized them as Crags. They ran wild in the Crag Mountain Range, east of IronWall, in the old Barrens kingdom. He stretched his hand out to the bay, which sniffed his hand and snorted.
“Father Amory, thank you for meeting us here on short notice,” Ritter said. He reached out to shake the older man’s hand.
“It isn’t a problem.” Amory looked at Wil. “We can’t let this young man be disposed of by his overambitious uncle.” His voice was firm, and there was a friendly twinkle in his eyes. “I’ve brought a pony for you to ride. It’s best if you saddle up and we head back to Blackmore.” His gaze switched to Ritter. “It wouldn’t do to get caught by your patrols in your territory.”
Ritter nodded. “No, as I wouldn’t be able to vouch for you without raising suspicions.” He held his hand out to Wil. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Wilhelm. If there was any other way, I would do it.” Sorrow clouded his voice. “I pray that we will meet again.”
Wil shook his hand, his chest filled with pain. This was Ritter’s solution? To send him off to the kingdom of Stormsurge to live with Father Amory? He wanted to say something important, something an adult would say, but there was nothing. “Thank you, Ritter,” he finally said. His voice was strained.
Ritter nodded and turned away. “Go now,” he said over his shoulder.
Wil moved to the side of the chestnut pony and mounted. He briefly wondered how the ponies got through the thick vines and weeds that crowded the forest floor. Ritter turned back once and gave a single wave, and then walked out of their view. Wil almost called out to him, but held his voice. There was nothing more the commander could do for him – he’d done more than Wil could’ve hoped for as it was.
Amory nodded to him and they started off into the wild thickets. Wil, numb and overcome with fear and apprehension, let his pony have his head. He wished desperately to be back at IronWall, to see its familiar walls and turrets. A small part of him even missed Corrado, though he didn’t understand why.
As they rode further and further away from his home, though, Wil made the resolve to become the man he would need to be to take back IronWall and his throne. One day, Corrado Reinhardt would rue the day he’d decided to have his nephew murdered.