The White Stag

A small grove of trees, planted by kings of ages past, grew in a large circle in the woods. Their branches traveled far to provide protection from the sun, and their thick trunks offered the royal family shelter from prying eyes.
Margaret poked among the plants and flowers. The boys ran and shouted without fear of alarming the guards. Galephy headed a hunt, setting his temper loose on some poor creature, leaving the family in a few hours of relative peace.
Though a few guards monitored from a distance, Remarr was the only servant allowed to join the family, though even he slacked his demands on the boys. Darshon’s only rules were to stay within sight and not hit anyone. Kael’s time was more restricted, spending the morning in an outdoor study. Remarr exchanged books and numbers for history, but had eventually given up storytelling and resorted to pointing to things around them and pronouncing their names in T’erish.”
“Du kar esh shon terg, meh shouth,” Master Remarr said.
Kael smiled weakly and translated. “The prince is quite tired, I think.”
“Very good.”
Kael leaned against a tree trunk and eyed the clearing. “I am tired.”
“Why is that?” Remarr asked in T’erish again. “Are you not getting enough sleep?”
“I fall asleep,” Kael answered, switching to the language of their enemies, “but I never stay asleep long. I have too many dreams that wake me up.”
Remarr shifted an aching knee to his chest. “What sort of dreams?”
Kael’s eyes stayed on the ground. “Father ran over a little girl once. She was in the road. He didn’t even try to stop. I dream about it a lot. I always try to pull the reins or push her out of the way, but I never manage to save her. One time, I thought I could save her in the dream, but then I fell and the carriage ran over me, too. And Father just laughed.”
Remarr’s jaw tightened. “Well, you know dreams can’t hurt you or anyone else.”
“But they scare me,” Kael whispered. “And then I can’t sleep anymore, because I think of all the others.” He shifted toward Remarr, searching his face. “He will change, won’t he? He’ll see he is wrong someday?”
Master Remarr’s mouth closed as he took a breath. “No one can change your father, except himself. But Kael… I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Help!” Darshon’s voice made them both jump.
Away from her husband, Margaret had reverted back to the child most of them had forgotten and the rest of them missed. She sprawled among the grass and leaves, tickling her youngest son.
“Let me go!” Darshon howled with laughter as he squirmed from beneath her tickling. “Kael, help! Stop it! Mother, stop it!”
The tears in Kael’s eyes retracted as he laughed.
“I think perhaps you’d better go help your brother.” Master Remarr waved him away. “We’ll come back to lessons later.”
Kael’s grin grew. “My brother? I’m going to help my mother!”
He abandoned Remarr to race across the clearing, landing beside his mother to assist the torturing of Darshon until Margaret betrayed him, turning to tickle him instead.
“Hold him down, Darshon!” she cried.
As Master Remarr watched the family, his smile faded and his eyes closed. He, too, had nightmares where he could never save a boy. It was one of his secrets: the brother whom he’d buried. But Kael was his charge now. If he could lead the one boy into a long and prosperous life, he could hope to atone for his failure with the other.
It was a rare, sweet sight of the queen and her boys, alone and happy together, surrounded by heather. Remarr swallowed, wishing he could make things remain this way forever.
But too soon the voices of the hunting party broke the spell. The royal family scrambled to their feet, brushing the debris from themselves and each other with a mixture of glee and fear.
“Boys!” King Galephy’s voice boomed. “Come! See the game that I have shot.”
Darshon sprinted over with eager interest while Kael followed reluctantly.
“It’s white!” Darshon called. “You caught a white deer.”
“It’s a stag,” King Galephy corrected.
“Why did you shoot it, Father?” Kael asked. “The white stag is a legend, and it may be the last one.”
“And where would a legend belong except in the castle of the Castallions?” King Galephy asked. “Come, boy. Look closer. See its horns? It’s an old one.”
“Can I go with you sometime?” Darshon asked. “I want to find one.”
“You must learn to aim first.” King Galephy chuckled. “The way you shoot now, you’d never hit your mark unless you shot three feet over.”
Darshon’s face pinched.
King Galephy tussled his hair. “Don’t worry. You will learn, lad. “You’re my son. You cannot help but be deadly with an arrow.”
“Show me how to shoot it!” Darshon said.
King Galephy studied him, before motioning for the servant to fetch his bow. “What do you wish to shoot?”
Darshon’s eyes darted around the clearing.
Margaret pressed her lips together. “You’d best not shoot here, sir. Setta and Tehveor are still in the woods. The arrow may fly amiss and hit one of them.”
“My arrows never fly amiss.” King Galephy knelt beside Darshon to unpin his clasp from his cloak. He handed it to Kael. “Go, Kael. Pin this to that branch over there.”
Kael hurried to obey, and King Galephy’s hands enveloped his son’s as he guided Darshon’s fingers onto the string. After Kael ran safely behind them, King Galephy helped Darshon raise the arrow, providing the strength behind the feat.
“See your target?”
Darshon nodded, one eye scrunched together to focus on the shining object in the tree.
“No. Keep both eyes open,” King Galephy instructed. “Now. Pull back. Harder.”
Darshon’s arm trembled from holding the heavy string even with his father’s help.
Darshon opened his fingers. Galephy let go. The arrow shot ripped into the branches like an animal fleeing the hunt.
“I missed it.” Darshon’s arms fell in defeat.
King Galephy shrugged. “Perhaps,” he replied lightly. “Go fetch it.”
Darshon’s shoulders dropped as he walked over to unpin it from the tree.
“Would you like to shoot, Kael?” King Galephy asked, turning to his oldest son. Kael shook his head.
“Look!” Darshon rushed back. “Look! I hit it. It’s missing a piece.”
“Of course you hit it. You are a Castallion,” King Galephy answered, surveying the hole in the broach, “and the arrow was tipped with a diamond.” He pinned the brooch back onto his cloak. “When we return home, I’ll get another for the cloak and you may keep this one.”
Darshon’s eyes sparkled.
“It will remind you that a Castallion always pierces right through the heart.”
“When I grow up,” Darshon almost slipped his hand into King Galephy’s before withdrawing it. “I’m going to be like you.”
“Darshon,” Margaret interrupted. “I think that it’s time that we headed back. Since your father’s taken the life of such a noble beast, there’s no use letting it spoil as well.”
King Galephy’s good mood lasted much longer than anyone thought it would, though they all tread lightly, afraid of breaking the spell that the deer had placed on his emotions. Everyone except Darshon, who chattered to his father, who only half listened.
During the evening meal, Kael’s eyes hovered between the sparkle of hope and the darkening of experience. Growing bored with chatter, Darshon dipped his finger into his water glass to rub it lightly around the rim. The family ignored him and he glanced toward Kael with a devilish smile. A high pitched ring echoed from the glass as Darshon leaned forward, entranced by the music he made with his finger. Kael eyed him with a shake of his head. Darshon raised his eyebrows, challenging him to protest.
King Galephy reached over to slap his hand down, crushing it against the table.
Darshon yelped in pain, but when King Galephy turned back to his food, Darshon’s glass disappeared under the table. A moment later, the noise continued very softly.
Galephy shoved back from the table. “Who wants to see how they are progressing on preserving the stag?”
“Me!” Darshon almost dropped the glass as he jumped to his feet.
“Kael?” King Galephy asked.
“I need to study,” Kael answered, eyes flickering to his hands.
“Come along then!” King Galephy called. “Since your brother hasn’t the stomach for it.”
Darshon giggled and danced alongside his father. Tehveor trailed the pair from a distance, curious to see the stag, for he had only heard about it. On the way toward the servants’ quarters, however, he glanced at the dungeon as a new idea seized him. He spun around to run upstairs to fetch his ink and paper. Hiding the implements as he hurried to the dungeon smuggled the things to Everra’s cell.
“Hello!” Tehveor hopped to a crouch near the bars, giggling as Everra jumped.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” She laughed, hand over her heart. “What are you doing back down here? If His Majesty finds you, he’ll be angry.”
“He’s in the castle yard,” Tehveor replied. He passed the paper and ink through the bars. “I thought you could write a letter to Mauran, and I’ll take it to him.”
Her eyes lit before fading. “I don’t know how to write.”
“I do,” Tehveor replied. “What do you want to say?”
She scooted as close to Tehveor as the bars would allow. “Mauran…” she hesitated. “I was never good with words. Not like him. He could talk wood into chopping itself.”
“Just say what you would say if he were here.”
“I wish I could see you,” she continued. “I want you to know I’m fine now. The Cause was worthy, and I am no longer fearful of what may happen to us. I will always love you.” She giggled as Tehveor scrunched up his nose. Then she leaned forward to see the letter. “Those are my words on paper. My own words. You are a clever boy.”
Tehveor rocked on his heels. “I am not really clever. Lord Lesonna made me learn to write. Nobody ever made you learn.”
“Peasants aren’t allowed to learn in Eirlerre.”
Tehveor bit his lip. “Merra? Do you ever dream about it?”
The woman cocked her head. “About… well, yes. Often, I suppose.”
“And it feels real?”
She nodded, whispering, “Yes. Perhaps a little too real.”
“And what if the dream said you couldn’t talk about it?” Tehveor asked.
Merra blinked, wiping her mouth with the back of a dirty hand. “I don’t know, Tehveor. Usually I pay no heed to dreams, but with you… some of the others claim that Fate speaks to them through dreams.”
“I’m confused,” Tehveor said.
“We all are,” Merra whispered. “It’s not like any of us thought. Some people are wrong about Sentarra and what they think it should become. Sometimes the secrets are dangerous to tell, so be sure not to repeat anything until you are sure that to do so is safe.”
Was that why his mother insisted on holding his hand when they had returned to the caves? Did the secrets spur the fear that kept her peering around corners? He’d been hoping to ask more questions, but fear dried them. “I’m going to take this to Mauran now,” he whispered.
Keeping the kingdom in the caves a secret didn’t make any sense to him, but the adults all said that it must remain secret. He wondered, as he slipped down the hallway, if Galephy would destroy it and take them all prisoner if he discovered that Tehveor was a king.
“Tehveor.” A deep voice spoke his name again.
Tehveor’s heart thumped and he hid the sheet of paper behind him as Galephy stepped from the shadows.
The man’s eyes flickered. “Have you been visiting Mauran and Everra?”
Tehveor swayed, remembering to look at the king when he spoke, “Yes, My King.”
“And Mauran has been ill, has he not?”
“Yes, My King.”
“Did you ever think you could be taken by the same illness?”
Tehveor shook his head.
King Galephy sighed. “Mauran is a convicted criminal. As a king bound under the law, I cannot help him. But there’s no need for him to suffer.” He held out a wooden cup. “This is wine to help him sleep. No one must know I helped Mauran, am I clear? You are to give this to Mauran telling him only that it is from you.”
Tehveor nodded, afraid to speak.
“No one, understand?” King Galephy whispered.
Tehveor sighed. Secrets made his heart hurt and his mind jumpy. He’d rather not have any. “No, My King.”
He held his breath as the king glanced around, then wordlessly turned to slip through a side door.
Tehveor balanced the cup, careful not to spill the liquid inside on his way to the cell. Mauran lay propped against the wall, shaking with deep coughs.
“I brought medicine.” Tehveor passed the cup of red wine through the bars. “It will make you better.”
Maruan’s head rolled toward him, but despite the gift, he panted a moment more before he rolled weakly onto all fours to crawl over. Hot fingers brushed the cup, spilling some before he managed to bring it to his cracked lips.
He flinched when he spoke in a raspy whisper. “How—how is Everra?”
“She is well. She wrote this for you.” Tehveor passed the note between the bars.
Mauran’s hands trembled as he scanned the contents, blinking and lifting his chin several times to hold himself aloft.
Tehveor offered the ink bottle. “I can write, if you want a reply.”
Mauran flipped the page over, reaching for the pen. “No. If you write it, she may think I’m more ill than I really am.”
Tehveor settled against the wall, wincing as he watched the man labor, breathing harder with the task.
“You look very ill,” he said. “I think you need a physician.”
The man laughed, then coughed, gulping for a shallow breath before he replied, “I think so too, but don’t tell Everra.”
He managed to scratch another five letters before he paused as though searching for the proper word. A quizzical look crossed his face as he dropped the pen, slowly moving his hand to his throat. His throat pumped, eyelids squeezing together.
“Mauran?” Tehveor asked, reaching through the bar to try to shake the man’s arm.
“Tehveor…” Mauran’s wheezed. “Where… the wine?”
The wine? Tehveor glanced at the empty goblet, then shook his head. “I can’t tell you.”
Mauran grasped for Tehveor’s hand, pressing the paper firmly into it before he threw is head back, gasping for air.
“Mauran?” Tehveor stumbled back, watching the man’s breath grow ragged and short.
Then it stopped, leaving a gaping mouth and wide eyes that snapped to Tehveor’s face. His chest heaved, his body shook, but not one sound escaped his lips.
Tehveor screamed as the man slumped lower and lower to the ground.
“Sire!” Heavy footsteps echoed down the chamber as a guard with a torch responded. “Are you hurt? What are you doing down here?”
“What happened?” another voice called.
The first guard followed Tehveor’s pointing finger and peered into the cell before moving to unlock it. Tehveor sprung inside as the door opened, kneeling next to Mauran’s body.
“He can’t breathe.” Tehveor stuttered, shaking Mauran’s shoulder.
“Stop it.” The guard pried his hand away.
Tehveor shook him off, shouting, “Breathe, breathe, breathe!”
“Don’t touch him,” the guard said. “He’s sick and he’s dead.”
“He just talked to me!” Tehveor cried. “Make him breathe!”
“I can’t make him breathe, boy, he’s dead!” the man snapped. “You’re not supposed to be here. Run along upstairs.”
Tehveor clung to the paper, hiding it in his pocket as the guards gathered up Mauran’s body. He tore out of the prison like a frightened animal, passed his abandoned ink, passed Merra’s cell, past the axes that crossed at the wall.
Pain shot through his hands and knees as he tripped on the stone steps and crawled up the last few. His heart lurched as Everra’s scream echoed down the hall as the men dragged her husband’s body passed her cell.
Tehveor curled into the corner of the hall, hiding his face in his arms until his stomach ceased to lurch. He stumbled against the wall, sinking down to rock back and forth.
Back and forth
Back and forth.
Everra’s anguished cries floated up from the prison as a shadow darkened the floor around Tehveor’s feet. He raised his eyes to glare at the king.
“You said it would make him better!” he choked.
King Galephy’s tilted his head. “It did. He is better now, isn’t he?”
“You killed him!” Tehveor’s voice began in a yell and ended in a whisper.
“I?” Galephy’s eyebrows shot up before he shook his head. “I didn’t kill him, Tehveor.”
The room dipped around Tehveor as Galephy knelt, leveling their faces. The man smirked. “You didn’t know you were capable of hurting someone, did you? It grows easier with practice.”
Tehveor screamed, bolting past the man. He stumbled up the stairs to his room and slammed the door behind him, shoving against it, as though his weight could keep out all evil. The door rattled as he slammed his foot again and again until his toes hurt too much to continue.
“Tehveor?” Setta’s voice carried from the other side. “Tehveor, what’s the matter? Let me in!”
He didn’t want to let her in, but his key was on his desk near the other door that he’d locked, and his mother pushed her way in anyway.
“Tehveor! What happened?”
“I want to go home,” he sobbed, burying his face in her shoulder. “Please! Please, take me home. I don’t want to stay here! I want to go back to Lord Lesonna’s.”
“What?” Setta asked.
Tehveor panted, shaking his head. “Pl-please. You can come, too. We—we will live there and—and he won’t come there… will he?”
Setta clutched his arm. “Who? What happened?”
Tehveor choked. He could not tell her what had happened. He could never tell anyone.
“Is it the king?” she hissed. “Are you hurt? What has he done?”
Tehveor shut his mouth.
“Tehveor, tell me! Did he hit you?”
“He… he…” Tehveor crumpled into tears. “Where are you hurt?”
“It wasn’t me. He said… it would make him better and… she screamed. She screamed, Mother!”
“Who screamed? Margaret?” Setta searched his face.
“I didn’t mean to…”
Setta’s skirts gathered on the floor as she knelt and pulled Tehveor to lie against her. “Shh. Don’t think of it.” She stroked Tehveor’s hair. “The king is ill. Don’t think of it. Try to forget.”
Forget the drink. And the letter. And the man who had called him a king.
“I—I don’t want to be evil. I—want to be a good.”
“Shh.” She kissed his head. “You are good, Tehveor.”
“I’ll st-stop him!”
Her arms tightened around his waist.
“One day,” she said, “You will be a king and all of your people will be safe from Galephy. And one day, Kael will also be king. And you both will be kind and good.”
Tehveor closed his eyes. That day was a long, long way off, but he whispered, “Mother?”
“Yes?” she asked.
“Can we go back to Sentarra soon?”
Setta hesitated, letting out a slow breath before she nodded and replied, “Yes.”