A tale of a baker’s apprentice and his quest to free the love of his life from a dastardly spell…
(Originally Published in the “Fantastic Realms: A Fantasy Anthology” on January 9th, 2020. “My Prince” is 8,773 words.)
by Scott King
Entwise stank of soured vrull milk. It had only been two hours since he had escaped the beasts’s den and still the green ooze had already fermented in his dark curly hair, while leaving crusted splooges on his worn leather armor. He was desperate to see the princess, but there was no way he could go to see her looking like this.
He had tried to rinse the filth away in a stream, but the water did little to wash away the fetid remains. He needed soap and a way to scrub his skin. With his family long dead, and the master baker retired, he knew no one in the city who he could turn to for a favor, and unlike in Kelsam or Gara, which had public bathhouses, Lockhaven had none. If he wanted to get clean before seeing the princess he would first have to break into the palace’s bathing quarters.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t go to the gate of the palace and be allowed entry, but if he did, especially after being gone for so long, it would become a whole ordeal. He could spare fifteen minutes to get clean, but didn’t have hours to waste on pompous tradition and ceremony. He needed to get the counterspell to the princess.
With the setting sun to his back, Entwise scaled the cyclopean wall near the north garden. It was never watched and although one could not go from the garden to the residence without passing through a guarded gate, it offered easy access to the servant bathing quarters.
His boots squished as he landed on a manicured section of grass near the duck pond. To think, this was where they had met so long ago. He had only been eleven, and she a year younger. The baker had tasked him to make a delivery to the palace kitchen, but Entwise had felt insecure about his appearance. He had stopped at the pond, to try and smooth his hair, when a horned goose had startled him and he had fallen off the bridge that crossed it.
He splashed, struggling to keep his head above the water, sure he was going to die. He was a city boy. What did he know of swimming?
That was when the princess, had come.
She pinched a pressure point under his arm, to stop his flailing, and pulled him to the shallow edge of the pond. Gasping, they both collapsed on the grass.
“Next time,” the princess said, “if you don’t know how to swim, maybe don’t go in the pond?”
“Easy for you to say.” Entwise’s cheeks warmed with embarrassment. Here he was trying to make himself presentable to enter the palace kitchens and now the gorphing princess was saving his arse while sure enough he had to look like a mix between a drowned rat and a fallen soufflé. “You probably have like ten different tutors who taught you how to swim. I’m just the baker’s apprentice.”
“Don’t be silly.” The princess nudged his arm. “I had fifteen swim tutors.”
He raised a brow and the moment he did, she rolled onto her back cackling with laughter.
The memories swirled and it was surprising to think how even at such a young age the princess was so much herself. Even after the magician queen had spelled her, she had never lost her sense of humor, or the ability to laugh. She was the strongest person Entwise had ever met.
Upon reaching the bathing quarters, Entwise used his teeth to pull the strap loose on his right gauntlet. Piece by piece he threw his armor to the ground. He could have taken it inside, but that felt wrong, as if doing so meant the dank leather would somehow contaminate the cleanliness of the bathhouse. Each component, scratched, stained, or beaten, told a story and when laid out, it was a summation of the horrors he had faced over the last three years.
Many prices had been paid. He had thought the biggest was his left ring finger, but now he suspected it was the invisible, but very real stain he felt on his soul. Though if he had to do it all over again, he would. The princess was worth it.
Would she even recognize him? Would she still love him? He didn’t know.
Entwise supposed that was what Gurt had warned him about.
He hoped Gurt was okay. Gurt had been a friend, or at least the closest thing Entwise had to one. One of the few people outside of the baker and the princess that had helped him without ever asking for anything in return.
Tomorrow, he would send word to Gurt, but that would have to go on his long list of things to do. For now his only priority was getting clean so that he could visit the princess.
The warm water of the bath licked Entwise’s legs as he waded into the circular pool. The cuts on his thighs from the vrull claws stung as he submerged, telling him the water was salted. That was good. The salt would help break down the curdled vrull milk, making it easier to scrub.
He dunked his head, and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to pull out all of the dirt and grit. He imagined the water around him must be turning a murky brown, but when he surfaced, it was nearly as clear as when he had entered.
Entwise retrieved a bar of spiced apple soap from a basket along with a flat piece of pumice. He did his arms first, lathering the soap and then scrubbing until his light brown flesh had a hint of red. Like his armor, his body was a tapestry that told the tale of his sojourn. The stringy discoloration on his calves from the kirin he faced in the Anber Mountains. The scars on his chest from when he was jumped by the bandits and thrown into the sea. His broader shoulders and slightly less rounded face from hauling in fishing lines, and his missing finger, the final price he had paid for the princess’s counterspell.
He was so different from the boy he had been when he had first met the princess, and even when he thought back to the night she was spelled, he had changed so much…
* * *
Three years ago, when Entwise had walked into the ballroom, he had thought the formal pants and suits would help him blend, but apparently they were dated in style and all they did was make him stand out more. Heads of not just the high lords, but the neighboring monarch from Arwyn and his whole entourage all turned to stare. Entwise’s stomach bubbled like yeast in warm water, and it took all of his effort to stop himself from vomiting out of nervousness.
To the side of the room, where the light of the candle chandeliers didn’t fully reach, he heard snickering and laughter. This had been a mistake. He knew he shouldn’t have listened to her, but it was her twentieth birthday, how could he have refused?
Only a heartbeat before he was about to turn and flee the floor, the crowd parted and he saw her. She was beautiful. Her mahogany hair was short on one side with the top longer so it flopped over like a fallen peak of frosting. She didn’t wear a dress, because she never wore dresses, but instead had tight pants that showed off the shape of her legs and backside. She wore a simple cream shirt, that was high in the front, reaching her neck, and open in the back.
The high lords seemed confused, not sure what to make of her outfit. Entwise heard mutterings of “political statement” and “making a point,” but he shook his head, because the princess wasn’t dressed the way she was for them. She was dressed the way she was for herself and it made the whole ensemble that much more beautiful.
The princess wore a contagious smile that forced the corners of his mouth to curl upward. She reached a hand out to him, and he took it. “You look amazing.”
“So do you,” he said.
“Dance with me?” She leaned in close so only he could hear. “I’ve spent the afternoon with the high lords. Only finally snuck away when I told them I needed to get ready for tonight. Drones. Every single one of them. All they want to do is impress me in the hopes I will say good things to my father.”
“Did any of them manage to actually impress you?” Entwise asked.
“No.” The princess pulled him close, pressing her body into his. “But I think I convinced a few of them to back me on my housing initiative plans.”
“You’ve been working on that for months,” Entwise said. “If a few hours of sycophants gets you that, then this party has been well worth it.”
“It’s already worth it.” She rested her head against his chest and he kissed her forehead.
Their bodies swayed to the The Shifter’s Melody and for a brief moment it was like the rest of the world faded away.
She smelled of hickory smoke, most likely from spending time near the roasting pit, and when he brought his gaze to her face, their eyes locked. By gorph, her eyes were deep, like rich pools of coffee, speckled with slivers of hazelnut.
A mighty gust blew the doors to the ballroom open and the music screeched to a stop.
An eerie silence took the party goers and the only sound that could be heard was a sharp thudding, like stone slapping stone.
“Happy feast day, princess,” a woman, Entwise didn’t recognize, said. She was clad in armor, but it was shiny and purple, something worn for showiness rather than for battle. “It was so kind of you to invite me. I so rarely am welcome outside the north.”
The princess let go of Entwise and stepped in front of him, as if to protect him. “Your ladyship, I am honored to have such a wondrous guest. It has been decades since you have graced our halls, and I thought it was time that changed.”
“Your father knows you invited me?” The purple woman asked.
“I told him this feud between the two of you needs to end,” the princess said. “The only ones who end up suffering are our people. I hope you and I can forge a new peace between our two kingdoms.”
Now, Entwise understood. This was the magician queen who ruled in the mountains. Long before the princess was born, a rift had occurred between the magician queen and the princess’s father. Rumors had it that the princess’s mother and the queen had been a thing until the princess’s father had come along. Entwise didn’t know if that was true, but that was what nearly all the rumors suggested.
“There is not only wisdom, but sincerity in your words.” The woman’s sharp chin bent down in what almost could have been considered a nod. “I appreciate them and I wish to honor you with a gift.”
A black fog rolled from the magician’s mouth. It rose like a wave, the top crashing onto Entwise and the princess.
There was a sizzling sound, like butter dropped into a hot pan, and when the cloud faded the magician queen was gone.
“Princess?” Entwise knelt beside the love of his life. “Are you alright?”
She wasn’t. She had been spelled.
* * *
The princess’s father and mother had little resources when it came to magic. Lockhaven was not a scholarly kingdom in those kind of things, so Entwise took it upon himself to find a counterspell. In the middle of the night, he slid a note under the princess’s door and went seeking a way to undo the spell.
He left the mountains and headed south, past the plains. The first few months made his sojourn feel pointless. Even when he found those with knowledge of magic, they said there was little to be done, but still he persisted and that persistence paid off when a trapper told him of Gurt.
Gurt was… well Gurt. And although he was now fond of Gurt, he hadn’t been upon their first meeting.
“You wish to save the princess from the spell?” Gurt’s silky grey eyes had gone wide as they poured a cup of lavender tea.
“It’s what she would do for me,” Entwise said. “If the situation were in reverse.”
Gurt set the tea mug on the small wooden table and sat, staring at the swirling liquid, as if trying to decide what to say.
“Please?” Entwise begged.
“Spells are not crumbs on a table that can be brushed away.” Gurt spoke in a graveled voice that didn’t match their age. “They are like deep gorges cut through a table’s grain. Lifting one is not so much the problem as is trying to rebuild the damage.”
“So you can help me?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“But you’re a witch!”
“Witches do not exist, and I am no magician,” Gurt said. “I am more of a loremaster, though I hardly make a tenth of my income from it, so I’m not sure if it’s even fair to claim to be a loremaster. Maybe I’m more of a hobbiest loremaster?”
Entwise rolled his eyes. “Can you help me save the princess or not?”
“Funny you come asking about that,” Gurt said. “I heard what happened and for my own curiosity I’ve been looking into replicating the spell. I have had no luck, but I think I know how to break it.”
“Why would you be looking into the spell?”
Gurt laughed. “The princess keeps you around for your looks, and not your brain?”
Entwise stood, threatening to leave. At the time he hadn’t understood. He had been offended and acted irrationally. That was his fault. Now though, he understood who Gurt was and what Gurt wanted.
“Oh sit.” Gurt sipped their tea. “I’ll help, but it won’t be easy and you will need the skills of a master baker.”
Entwise grinned. He had spent his whole life learning about baking. It was the only thing he felt confident about. If baking was all that was required to save the princess, he could basically already count her saved. “That’s fine. Just tell me.”
“There is a creature known as a baxter,” Gurt said. “Been hunted to near extinction, but a few still roam the wildest parts of the forests. It holds the secret to the counterspell, but the tricky part will be to lure it out. You’ll need to bake a specific kind of bait made from the rarest of ingredients.”
“Sounds easy enough.”
“One would think,” Gurt said. “But the road to a counterspell will be long. Are you sure this princess is worth it?”
“She’s worth everything.”
“In my experiences,” Gurt said, “…princesses rarely are.”
* * *
Clean once more, Entwise climbed out of the bath and put on a plain shirt and pants, the kind that all of the palace staff wore. Not only was it nice to wear something soft against his skin, but it would also allow him to sneak into the residence area unnoticed. Giving the princess the counterspell was something he wanted to do with just the two of them. Not with her parents or after a long ceremony thanking him for his work.
He stashed his reeking armor behind a shrubbery, and gave the guards a slight nod as he entered the main section of the palace. The guards didn’t even notice him. To them he was nothing, and just like that he had access to where he shouldn’t.
Entwise passed a hallway with smoke stains on the ceiling, from the time he and the princess had tried to build a brick oven. He spotted a granite column with a missing chip along its base, from when they had hatched a dragon’s egg. It hadn’t been intentional. They had thought it was a crenzel egg. Finally, he passed the stairs where he and the princess had their first kiss.
It truly felt like coming home.
His heart pounded, even harder than it had when trying to flee the vrull den. When facing the vrulls, it had just been his life on the line. With facing the princess, it was his soul.
He rapped his knuckles on the door to the princess’s quarters. When he heard no movement from inside, he lifted his arm to knock again, only before he could, the door swung open. She stood on the other side. Her mouth gaped and a stunned look was in her eyes.
“Entwise,” she whispered. “Is that really you?”
“May I enter?”
She cracked a smile. “You aren’t a darkling now who needs permission to do so, are you?”
He forced his eyes to widen and let a scared expression wash across his face.
“Oh, gorph.” She covered her mouth. “Are you really a darkling, now?”
He winked and smiled.
She burst with laughter and stepped aside, so he could enter. “I’ve missed you.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“It has,” she said. “And there are things we should talk about.”
“Wait.” He held up a hand to stop her. “I have something to share.”
From around his neck, he lifted a silver chain. Dangling from it was a green vial that glowed like leaves backlit by sunlight.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The counterspell,” he said. “I did it. Drink this and your spell will be undone.”
“How?” the princess asked.
“I paid a price or two…”
* * *
The final ingredient Entwise needed involved a nusrat and for that he needed Gurt’s help.
With his free hand, Entwise banged on Gurt’s round door.
“Two and half turns go by and you show up out of the blue like The Destroyer come to finish his job. What in—” Gurt looked down at his left hand. “What did you do, you foolish boy?”
“I did what I had to.” He held out his gnarled hand with the nusrat attached to it.
“I can’t save your finger.”
“I suspected as much,” he said. “Can you get what you need from the nusrat?”
Gurt mumbled something he couldn’t understand. Then they ran into the other room. He heard clunking sounds, like pots and pans being thrown about. A moment later they returned, holding a copper syringe. “I need to take the extract while it’s still alive.”
“The pain will get worse when I do.”
“Do what you have to.”
Gurt gave him a leather belt, and he smashed it between his teeth.
The nursrat, twice as big as his whole hand, had a bottle snout with it’s lips clamped around Entwise’s left ring finger. If it had just been teeth it wouldn’t have been so bad. Teeth are designed to cut through things, but nusrats don’t have teeth. Instead they suckle everything they eat, releasing a digestive enzyme that breaks down their food. The process is usually slow, but if startled they can release a massive dose as a defense mechanism.
Gurt held the syringe near where the nusrat’s head met its spine.
Entwise couldn’t help but consider the creature to be cute. It had big eyes, no claws, and its body was shaped a bit like a weasel. It cooed as it nursed on his finger, reminding Entwise that it was a dangerous animal and not something to cuddle with on a cold winter’s day.
In a gentle motion, Gurt parted the nusrat’s fur, and pricked it with the needle.
The pressure of the creature’s suction increased, but the pain, like that of a severe sunburn, was no worse than it had been.
“This is it,” Gurt said. “Hold tight.”
Gurt drew the lever on the syringe. A viscous pale liquid filled it.
The sucking sensation inside the nusrat’s mouth exploded.
Fire. Heat. Burning… like shoving not just his finger, but his whole hand into red hot coals.
The world faded away, replaced with pain.
Entwise could hear Gurt say—no, yell— something.
It didn’t matter.
He didn’t know if he was sitting, standing, or what was happening. All he knew was pain. Every nerve in his finger erupted as if each had a searing needle jammed into it. He tried to remind himself that he wasn’t dying, that this was but temporary, and he just had to push through it, but as the pain seemed to increase past where his imagination thought possible, he realized he wanted it to stop.
He tried to tell Gurt to end it, but his mouth wouldn’t work.
Still the pain increased!
He wished for death. Not because he wanted to die, but because he thought it was the only thing that might end his suffering.
But wish as he might, The Devourer did not come for Entwise.
The only thing that came, was more pain.
* * *
Entwise woke three days later. When he did, Gurt filled him in on what had happened. Gurt had successfully extracted what was needed from the nusrat, but they had also been forced to amputate his finger, describing it as a shriveled cucumber that had molded after being left on the vine for too long.
It took him four more days to fight off an infection, but when he finally left the bed, he was healed enough to get to work. He gathered all the ingredients he had collected from across the continent. Luckily, the only one that had been perishable was the nusrat brain juice, and Gurt had kept it on ice.
The secret to enticing the baxter was to bake the perfect item that would merge all of the ingredients together without compromising them. At the same time, Gurt’s loremaster books suggested that the baked item should be airy and fluffy, like a cloud and strike a delicate balance between sweet and sour. That was how Entwise settled on deciding to make a sourdough pondoro. He had made hundreds of them when apprenticed to the baker and he knew of no delicacy better suited to lure out the baxter.
After years of running from monsters, and fighting for his life, the simple act of making a sweet starter dough was like returning to his roots. He opted to mix sunvine milk, honey, and yeast, sealing them in an airtight jar. He shook the jar and let it rest for five days. On day six he added dried yorkberries, sugar, flour, and ollip milk and then let it sour for four more days. On day ten he added the final ingredients and baked the pondoro. It left the oven with a golden sheen and once cooled he topped it with a whipped cream infused with the nusrat brain juice.
That night, he picked a stump in a large clearing, deep in the forest, and left the pondoro on it.
Well after midnight, a lumbering creature strode forth. Twice the size of a barn, it stood on long wobbly legs that let it glide over the tree tops without stirring a single leaf. Its body had two distinct sections, reminiscent of an ant or spider, but instead of fur it was covered in bright feathers, that seemed to sparkle. A hollow tentacle extended from the baxter’s underside. It seemed to taste the air, slowly drooping closer to the pondoro.
A slight humming sound radiated from the baxter. A heart beat later, the entire pondoro was sucked into the tentacle. The baxter shimmied like a bird doing a mating dancing, as if the baked treat had caused it an immense amount of pleasure.
This was the key moment, when Gurt had said he needed to make his move!
Stepping from his hiding place, Entwise raised a glass hand fan. He flicked his wrist back and forth, brushing the baxter’s nearest needle-like leg with spurts of air. The feathers twinged and when they did a sack on the baxter’s abdomen burst, releasing a cool mist.
Entwise swept the fan through the air as the mist fell around him. Warm droplets formed on the cold glass of the fan, and ran down its sides collecting in a vial stored in its handle.
This was the counterspell for the princess’s spell, but it wouldn’t keep. He needed to get it to her as fast as possible.
Home was but a week’s journey if he cut through the plains, but doing so put in him vrull territory. Gurt had warned him that the counterspell was a known aphrodisiac to vrulls. The last thing he’d want to do is face off against a horny pack of them, but he was willing to risk it if it meant saving the princess.
* * *
Entwise held the glowing vial out for the princess to take.
She recoiled, stepping backwards as if he were trying to poison her.
“It’s the counterspell,” he said.
“I heard you, but…” she shook her head. “We need to talk.”
“We will. I swear, but the counterspell is perishable. You need to take it!” He uncapped the vial’s wax seal, releasing a sweet scent not too different from freshly baked blueberry scones. He pushed the vial toward her, as if offering a drink and she swatted at it with the back of her hand.
She didn’t actually make contact with the vial, but it was enough to startle Entwise to the point that his four fingered grip slipped.
He tried to catch it, but his run in with the vrulls had left him stiff and sore.
The vial clattered onto the floor, and he watched in horror, as the counterspell, that had taken him three years to hunt down, seeped into an imported lavender silk rug, leaving a wet spot no bigger than his palm.
Every scar. Every stain on his soul. Every action he had taken had been leading up to this…
He had faced monsters. He had faced death. He had given his finger up for her… and now it was all for nothing.
Entwise kneeled over the damp carpet, holding his gut, as if he personally had been wounded. Years of his life, gone, thrown away…
She knelt beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
He pulled back from her touch.
“Do you know what I had to do to get that?”
“I’m sure…” she shook her head. “No, actually, I’m confident that no matter how hard you try to explain, I can’t truly know what you’ve gone through. For that, I’m sorry.”
“But the spell!”
“That’s just it.” She squatted so they could be eye to eye. “It turns out the spell was truly a gift. It was done in… well done for show, but not malice. It was meant as a peace offering for the future of our kingdoms. It brought out my inner desire.”
“But the magician queen turned you into a man!”
“I know,” the princess said. “But never the less, I feel confident that this was always who I was meant to be and as I grew to like the idea of outwardly being a man, the spell took hold, completing itself. Had the change been against my will, the spell would have unraveled. This is me. The real me.”
Although the princess’s face was now covered in stubble, the shape of it, was still the same. The curve of her smile, the lines along her cheeks when she laughed, and even her mannerisms hadn’t changed in the slightest. Her body was similar too, the only noticeable change was that her breast had flattened, though he could hardly tell, for she wore the same kind of button up shirt she always wore.
“Princess, please be honest,” Entwise said. “You are truly happy as a man?”
“Yes.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “And I’m no longer a princess. I am a prince. Please don’t use my old title or refer to me as being a woman. You can call me Carlist.”
Entwise’s shoulder sank.
“I’m not trying to be harsh it’s just…” Carlist sighed as he dropped to sit beside Entwise. “You’ve been gone a long time, and it’s not been easy. Gaining this body has been like going through puberty again, and even though I am a man, some don’t consider me to even be a real man. Some of the high lords still refer to me as ‘princess’ behind my back. Not to mention I’ve come to realize that as lucky as I was to receive this gift, there must be others out there who don’t feel at home in their own bodies. I’ve been trying to help them, but I’ve not been doing a good job…”
So much time had been lost and it was impossible to get it back. And what of the prices he had paid? …were they all for nothing? He could have stayed and taken over the baker’s shop like his former master had wanted and the outcome from that to now would be no different, except he wouldn’t hurt on the inside or be covered in scars. His breath wouldn’t shorten when he thought someone was walking behind him. He would still have his ring finger… and what hurt the most wasn’t those things. It was the loss of the future.
The loss of the life he had dreamed of having, a life that would never come to be.
He was supposed to return to Lockhaven to save the love of his life. They would then be together, not just in the present, but for forever. They would wed and his best friend would become his true life partner….
Now that wouldn’t happen.
“You should know, I’m still me.” Carlist rested his hand on Entwise’s. The touch was familiar. Their fingers still fitting together in the same way that they always had. “I still love to dance. I hate Garan music. I think my father is a nob, and my mother too overbearing. Teal is still my favorite color, and there is nothing more I want to do on a cold rainy day than snuggle in my blankets while reading a good a Hemmingwell book.”
Unable to look Carlist in the face, Entwise kept his gaze low, staring at their entangled fingers. “And I suppose you are seeing someone? Or have I been gone so long that you have already found a wife?”
Carlist pulled his hand away. “I don’t think you understand… or at least I’m not explaining right.”
“What does it matter? I get the main idea.” Entwise stood, facing the door. “I wasted the last three years of my life and if that weren’t bad enough, I’ve lost my partner.”
“That’s just it,” Carlist said. “You’ve not lost me. Who I am hasn’t changed.”
Entwise’s chest tightened. Was there a chance they could still be together? He hadn’t fallen in love with Carlist because Carlist had once been a girl. He had fallen in love because Carlist was the most amazing human Entwise had ever met. Could Carlist truly still feel the same way about him, now that he was a man?
“Tell me,” Entwise said. “What is your favorite part of the palace?”
“The peninsula that stretches into the garden pond.” The prince smiled a sweet smile. “In the spring, it is where the ducks nest. In the summer, it offers the most spectacular views of the city. In the fall it is a reminder of where I lost my virginity. In the winter it marks the anniversary of where I met the love of my life, when I saved him from drowning.”
“You still feel that way? Even now. Even though you are… different?”
The prince reached out, placing his warm palm against Entwise’s cheek. “I’ll always love you and I still want to be with you, but I’ll understand if you no longer feel the same way toward me.”
Entwise closed his eyes, unsure of what he felt.
He thought he might be angry, but not sure at who or what.
For a moment Carlist seemed to vanish, and Entwise was back, clinging to driftwood in the sea. His money and all his possessions stolen by bandits. Bleeding out from the stab wounds, he was certain he was going to die. He mocked The Silver Lady, but deep down he was sad. Sad that he would never finish his quest. Sad that he would die and the love of his life would never be saved.
And yet here he was, back home and his soul mate was not only safe, but seemed to thrive, shining with a new light. Maybe his quest had been for nothing, but if Carlist had found happiness, then was that all that mattered?
“Entwise,” Carlist said. “Say something. Please—”
A deep gong echoed down the hallways of the palace.
“That’s the east wall alarm,” Carlist pushed Entwise to the side. “The palace is under attack!”
* * *
Entwise regretted leaving his armor in the garden. Not because he wished he had been wearing it, but because the vrull had clearly been tracking it.
The creature’s lanky body was crouched so low it looked nearly human height. Its face, made of sharp angles, was hunched forward, sniffing in the bushes along the bathhouse.
One of the guards who had been stationed at the entrance to the residence quarters had left to sound the alarm while the other, a portly man with thinning hair, had gotten into his head he would be a hero. The guard moved to thrust the tip of a halberd into the soft space behind the vrull’s arm, but he wasn’t quick enough. The creature spun, taking the blow on its slate colored chest. The metal made a scraping sound and deflected to the side, doing no harm.
A shrill scream fled from the guard’s lip as he turned to run, but before he could, the vrull scooped him up like a doll and dangled him below its bulbous nose.
It inhaled a long slow breath.
The deep folds on its face spread, as if it were wincing, and with a simple flick, it sent the guard flying halfway across the garden. The man crashed into the pond and by the amount of splashing he made once submerged, he was mostly unharmed.
“It shouldn’t be here,” Carlist said. “I’ve never heard of a vrull entering the city, let alone getting this deep.”
“It’s my fault,” Entwise said. “The counterspell… it’s a bit of an aphrodisiac to vrulls. It’s hunting me.”
“I guess I understand. You always were good in bed.” Carlist paused. When Entwise didn’t react Carlist rolled his eyes. “You always were such a prude.”
The words were said in such a familiar way, even the mocking at his prudeness.
“Go get the rug we spilled the counterspell on,” Entwise said. “I’ll keep it distracted, until then. I bet if we have the rug, we can lure it back out of the city.”
Carlist leaned in, and gently patted Entwise’s cheek. “As if I’d let you risk yourself anymore than you already have.”
Before Etnwise could stop him, Carlist dashed toward the vrull. “Get the rug! I’ll distract the vrull.”
Cursing, Entwise thought for half a heartbeat that he should chase after Carlist, but there would be no point. This was who Carlist was and who he had always been. The only thing Entwise could do was get back as fast as possible with the rug.
Reaching the prince’s room, Entwise rolled the throw rug, doing his best to keep the wettest parts on the inside. He did not think the liquid was harmful to him, still, he dare not take chances.
Not wanting to waste time running through the looping corridors of the palace, Entwise climbed the stairs to Carlist’s bedroom and dove out a second story window. He landed on the first story roof. He hadn’t taken this route in years. It had been Entwise’s go-to escape route to sneak out of the palace, back before he and the prince had been openly dating.
Their secret relationship hadn’t lasted long. Carlist was not big on secrets and so once the two of them knew what they had was real, Carlist had told his father. Catlist had always been unapologetic about who he was and what he wanted. Once he had decided that he wanted Entwise, Carlist let the world know and made sure everyone knew there was no shame in being in love with a baker’s apprentice.
As proud of their love as Carlist was, Entiwse always felt a bit insecure. How could he ever be worthy of Carlist? He supposed that was part of what drove him to find the counterspell. It was his chance to prove he was good enough… and if anything it had just proved that he wasn’t. The whole thing had been a gorphing failure.
Clay shingles cracked under Entwise’s boots as he bolted toward the garden. Torches, held by reinforcements, now lined the palace walls, lighting up the area around the pond.
The squads of soldiers seemed dumbfounded, unsure of what to do. That made sense, Entwise supposed. Vrull were tough creatures, only the perfect wound to a few specific locations were enough to kill them. Hurting a vrull without it being a mortal blow would draw upon a rage so devastating that a single vrull could easily knock down the stone walls of the palace.
Carlist and the vrull were on the bridge that crossed the pond. It was such a little space that the vrull looked as if it were walking a tight rope. Carlist on the other hand was graceful, ducking, moving, dancing as the vrull kept trying to grab him, but somehow he always managed to stay out of the creature’s reach.
There was an elegance to the way Carlist moved. Each side-step, and roll, taken with confidence. It wasn’t much different from watching Carlist spar words with the high lords. Carlist was in his element and it was beautiful. It also scared Etnwise to the point of nearly crapping his pants. If anything happened to Carlist because he had led a gorphing vrull into the city, he would never forgive himself.
Licking his finger, Entwise held it up, testing the cool evening breeze. It blew from the north.
He shuffled across the roof, reaching the north side of the pond, and when he did, he unfurled the rug. It flapped like a flag in the wind.
Almost instantly, the vrull’s body went stiff and then it whipped around, turning toward Entwise.
The creature’s nostrils flared and its bubble like eyes bulged.
Entwise smiled, realizing for the first time, that this plan might actually work.
The vrull completely turned its back to Carlist and pounced, launching itself from the wooden bridge to the shore of the pond.
Entwise heard Carlist yelling… something. It was too hard to make out over the loud gargling sound that emanated from the vrull’s throat.
Four soldiers, armed with spears, rushed the vrull. It batted them away, as if they were insects, never lowering its gaze away from Entwise and the rug.
“Oh, gorph.” Entwise dropped to his butt, and slid off the roof, landing onto the wall that surrounded the garden. It was nearly the same spot he had scaled earlier in the night. It was the spot he and Carlist had shared so many kisses as they watched the city below.
It was nearly a seven story drop from where Entwise stood on the wall to the rocky stream that surrounded the palace. Entwise didn’t think such a fall would kill the vrull, but at the very least it would get it away from where it could hurt innocent people.
Entwise knew he had to time this perfectly. Flapping the rug, he waited, as the vrull grew closer. The creature’s pace picking up ever so slightly as it grew nearer.
At the last possible moment, Entwise tossed the rug over the wall.
He expected the vrull to go after it.
The vrull didn’t.
The creature tackled him and together, they fell into darkness.
* * *
Entwise awoke in the vrull’s den.
He didn’t know how much time had passed. He hurt, but not in a dying way, more like he had been stepped on by an ollip kind of way. Breathing caused sharp pain to spiral across his chest. He didn’t think he had a broken rib, but at the very least he had several bruised ones.
Blinking, he tried to make out details of the cavern, but the poor lighting wasn’t adequate for human eyes. The best he could tell is that near the back of the cavern was a source of running water, and to the right, several beams of sunlight protruded through what looked like a makeshift vent. He was aware that vrulls could make fires and liked to cook their food, but it was strange to see something like a vent for smoke. The concept alone seemed more advanced than what he’d ever seen of the creatures.
Struggling, he tried to get up, but discovered that he couldn’t move. He was bound, but not in the usual way. No shackles or ropes held him in place. Tilting his head he tried to see what held him and was surprised to discover that he was wrapped—no swaddled—in an animal hide blanket.
Why had the vrull wrapped him up? Did they plan to eat him? As far as he knew vrull did not eat human. Was it a way to keep him from escaping? If so it was working. His arms were pinned to his side and the wrappings folded over his shoulders, preventing him from breaking free.
He must have made too much noise, because a heart beat later, the vrull appeared at the entrance of the den. It carried what looked like a large tree stump and he was sure it was the same vrull that had been at the palace. Now, once more captured, he guessed it was the den queen.
The vrull made a shushing sound, which was strange because vrulls had no spoken language.
Entwise opened his mouth to speak, but the vrull placed a single finger on his face, silencing him.
The vrull set down the tree stump and a bit of puke green liquid sloshed out of the side. Apparently, the stump had been hollowed out, like a big vrull sized bowl.
Leaving Entwise fully swaddled, the vrull scooped him up, and dunked him head first into tree stump.
At first he thought the vrull was drowning him. This is what it had attempted to do the last time he had been captured, but last time he hadn’t been swaddled, and had managed to escape. This time he simply did his best to hold his breath as the sour vrull milk seeped into the fur of the animal hide and coated his skin.
The vrull lifted him out of the bath and he sputtered, trying to spit out what he had already swallowed.
As if taking it as a sign of him choking, the vrull flipped him onto his back and gave him gentle pats… that was when it all clicked for him. This was not some weird mating thing. This was a parenting thing. The vrull was treating him as a baby!
That would be a twisted end to his sojourn. Gone for three years. Traveled the world. Faced bandits, monsters, storms, and darklings… but the thing that finally got him was a vrull who accidentally smothered him while trying to get him to burp.
* * *
Three nights later and Entwise was sure that prisoners in the king’s dungeon were treated more fairly. It wasn’t that the vrull was trying to harm or do bad things to him, it was that baby vrulls must have completely different needs than a human. For starters, if he fell asleep she woke him within an hour or two, making sure he was fed and on the off chance that she slept, one of the other vrulls would wake him and feed him the horridly sweet milk.
As the hours passed and he received more and more burpings, the bruising on his chest spread and worsened. He was never given a chance to go to the bathroom, but they were quick to clean him after he soiled himself. During the reswaddlings post-bath, he caught glimpses of blue and black splotches that covered his arms and legs.
The imprisonment gave Entwise plenty of time to think and his thoughts always went to Carlist.
On the fifth morning of waking up in the vrull den, Entwise thought he might be loosing his grip on reality. After days of smelling nothing but sour vrull milk, he could have sworn that he caught hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The sweet fragrance reminded him of fall, and making honey cinnamon buns on those days when you needed to wear a cloak to work to keep warm, but by midday you were sweating.
Maybe this was dying? Instead of pain or suffering, one was greeted with smells the brought upon warm memories.
He closed his eyes and thought of Carlist.
Their first meeting by the pond. The first kiss. The first time he ever whispered, “I love you.”
And with the good memories came the bad, but now maybe because so much time had passed or maybe because the acceptance of death brought about a better understanding of one’s life, he realized he had been a fool.
Carlist had never asked him to get a counterspell. Entwise had gone to find one on his own, being so cowardly to leave a note instead of telling Carlist to his face. Three years of his life had been wasted, for what? Entwise could see now it was never about lifting the spell. He loved Carlist no matter what Carlist’s gender was. It had been pride and the desire to prove himself worthy that had driven his quest. He had no one else to blame for his pains.
The sweeping smell of cinnamon shifted, growing so strong that Entwise sneezed.
It was enough to wake the sleeping vrulls.
One by one the pack of nearly a dozen vrulls rose and looked about. Their heads tilted upwards with their noses wrinkling. It was then he realized the smell of pastry was not a kindness brought to him by death, but something real.
The den queen scooped Entwise into her arms, cradling him, she led the other vrulls to the entrance of the den.
A light mist blocked out the forest, but between it’s edge and the entrance to the den were four wooden carts filled to the brim with pastries. There were cinnamon yeast buns, pecan braids, a puff pastry that looked to be stuffed with some sort of blueberry custard, ginger cookies, sun cakes drizzled with salted caramel, it was a baker’s delight of delicacies.
The vrulls showed no restraints.
They attacked the carts.
Each creature stuffed their face with pastries. Creams, custards, and jellies, filled the deep wrinkles on their faces, and they seemed to not even notice. It was a frenzy and no matter how much the vrulls ate, it seemed as if the carts were bottomless.
Even the den queen gave in, seeming to take favor in the cinnamon buns.
Entwise expected the sugar to get to the vrulls. Their bodies were not used to so much of it, and he didn’t have the capacity to imagine what one of the creatures would act like when on a sugar high, but oddly enough the sweet treats had an opposite effect. The vrulls’s eyes grew dreary and the more they ate the more lethargic they became.
By the time the vrulls finished the first cart, more than half of them were on their backs sleeping. Not five minutes later, and only the queen still stood on her feet, though she seemed dazed not even noticing a dangling tendril of blueberry sweet cream that hung from her chin. A moment later, her eyes rolled backwards and she fell onto her knees.
It was as if some instinct told her to protect the baby, because as she fell, she gave Entwise’s swaddled body a slight toss so as not to crush him with her own body.
Entwise hit the rocky ground, and every bruise on him panged as he rolled and came to a stop.
“Sorry it took so long,” Carlist’s voice said from somewhere in the thick mist. “The pack queen was easy enough to track, but it took time to get the right dosage made in the pastries. We wanted them knocked out, but didn’t want to kill them. You alright?’
Entwise tried to speak, but his voice was dry from dehydration or the lack of using it. He wasn’t sure which.
Carlist knelt and delicately unswaddled him. “Easy. Take it slow.”
Entwise tried to sit, but couldn’t focus. He just felt so weak.
Looking over his shoulder, Carlist barked a few commands. A moment later a soldier appeared, handing him a water pouch. Carlist held it up to Entwise’s cracked lips.
Although he wanted to take a full swig, Entwise drank just enough to wet his mouth and to allow a little to trickle down his throat. Any more and he risked vomiting.
“You came.” Entwise didn’t mean those to be the first words he spoke, but they just slipped out.
“Of course,” Carlist said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Entwise didn’t have an answer. He had just assumed that when the vrull had taken him that no one would be able to find him. It hadn’t occurred to him that after all this time, someone out there would come to help him.
“And you didn’t kill the vrull?”
Carlist shook his head. “They are mostly harmless. We even have two more carts of undrugged pastries we plan to leave. Hopefully that will keep them distracted so they won’t come looking for you.”
“How did you know how to drug them?”
“A friend of yours, Gurt, helped us out” Carlist said. “They had come to check on you, heard what happened, and they sort of took charge. I think I might offer them a job. My father has been looking for a new loremaster.”
The chance to be a full time loremaster was easily one of Gurt’s biggest dreams. Even then, it wasn’t repayment enough for the friendship and kindness Gurt had showed Entwise over the past few years. He would need to do something to show his appreciation, but how do you repay someone who saved your life?
“You are doing that thing,” Carlist said.
“That thing you do where you scrunch up your nose cause you are thinking about something.”
Entwise rolled his eyes, half expecting the motion to cause his bruises to hurt. “I’m just happy to be alive and grateful that you both came for me.”
“I’ll always come for you.”
Entwise knew then what he wanted. He wanted Carlist. He did not care if Carlist was a man or woman or both or neither. He just knew Carlist was the love of his life and nothing would stand in the way of that.
“Come,” Carlist braced his legs to help Entwise stand. “Let’s get you cleaned up. You have… well no nice way to say this, but you have a smell about you.”
* * *
They stopped in a nearby town and Carlist paid to rent a private bathhouse. Entwise went in alone, and this time, as he scrubbed the stench of vrull milk off his skin, it felt different. This time he wasn’t washing away a story that had left him scarred. This time he was washing away the grime to reveal something new that was beneath it.
Cleaned once more, Entwise rose out of the steaming hot pool. Carlist was there, a towel in hand.
“Feel better?” Carlist asked.
Carlist raised a brow. “You are acting weird.”
“There is something I want to say, but I’m not sure how to say it.”
“Just say it.”
“I was wrong. I never should have left three years ago.” Entwise took the prince’s hands into his own. “I loved you before you were granted this gift, and even now, my prince, my heart yearns to be near you. Nothing will change that.”
The prince’s cheeks flushed. “Are you sure?”
Entwise answered with a kiss.
“My Prince” is set in in the same world as Scott King’s Elderealm series. Want more tales of adventure, magic, and twisted monsters?
Check out Elderealm Book 1: WRATH OF DRAGONS!