SynopsisCrown Prince Stephan Eugene of the Royal House of Schweitzen goes out one winter evening in the capital city of Kronenberg to sow some oats with an impending arranged marriage scheduled days from then. After watching a captivating gensipk (gypsy) maiden dancing to her male relatives accompanyment on musical instruments for earning coins at the prince's favorite inn, he is captured by assassins determined to slay him for their unknown employers to thwart the royal succession. Stephan discovers the young maiden from the Inn, Mariskka Pechova, is also a captive of these six brigands to provide them unwholesome entertainment before his execution. Left chained inside the gensipk's wagon (her relatives already slain by the assassins earlier, using the vehicle to get Stephan out of Schweitzen), the prince overhears a creature intervene to slay those men but leave Mariskka unharmed. The handsome heir befriends the young woman and is forced to trust her to get him home, but they are inside an enemy nation east of Schweitzen and the prince has heard the assassins hint at a plot inside his country for this murder. Stephan then asks Mariskka's help in seeking out the consipracy against him before he can return home, starting in the assassins' base in the port city of Venetzia. Disguised as a gensipk at times, Stephan traces the plot across the Plaropean continent of the Wycherealms from Venetzia, to Romulus City and the Universal Church's seat there, and finally into the Elepine mountains back to Schweitzen. At various turns he is aided by the same unseen creature that slew those assassins, while gradually falling in love with Mariskka on their journey. At their final encampment before reaching his homeland again, Stephan discovers the woman's dark terrible secret (hinted at in flashbacks and from certain clues) of her curse by a werewolf's bite six years earlier. Almost slaying her after she kills the ogre menacing their wagon shelter, Stephan nurses Mariskka back to health from his silver ceremonial sword's wound and realizes he is also cursed from her bite. Together, they return to Kronenberg and confront the prince's best friend as a traitor who betrayed him weeks earlier, along with their marriage disrupting his arranged wedding to the Duchess of Aarnd, bringing the wolf's curse into Schweitzen's royal bloodline.
Our Hero is kidnapped in Kronenberg.
The prevailing winds blowing through the Elepine Mountains lessened and permitted the snowfall’s gentle blanketing across cobblestone roads and all stone or wooden structures to the idyllic mountaintop walled city of Kronenberg, capital to the small Kingdom of Schweitzen, one of the lesser states in central Plaropea’s human and demi-human nations. Lights were on from fires and lamps lit inside various small to medium-sized buildings spread across neighborhoods of every quarter as smoke arose through chimneys of varying heights or widths to mix with the falling snowflakes.
One particular drinking and lodging establishment to the Demi-Human and Foreign Quarter along the city’s southeastern sections had most of its patrons’ horses secured inside a large oval-roofed barn attached to the rear leading into an alley that intersected Sovereign Road at a right angle, the wider street passing a front entrance door of heavy iron-bound wood beneath a pointed archway. The Svord Inn was visited by one special patron among its five-dozen seated inside its common room heated by three large fireplaces and also lit with a dozen wall mounted lanterns. This important man’s carriage waited just inside the barn, since he was only there to drink, living in far more opulent surroundings in the city’s central castle/fortress, but the patron insisted the owner and staff treat him like any other ordinary Kronenberg inhabitant when visiting here.
“Blast!” Dursten Lars Brandt marveled at his drinking companion’s prodigious consumption, despite possessing alcoholic tolerance as a Ranger Lord of Schweitzen’s army many considered respectable. The dark-blonde man, green-eyed man rubbed a small beard and shook his head in amazement. “You’ve bested me at this yet again. Are you certain that you’ve learned no dark secrets back in our student days, Stephan?”
Seated at that short rectangular table across from Brandt within a booth inside the cozy inn’s common room, the Crown Prince Stephan Roderick Eugene of the House of Schweitzen now admired the metal stein in both hands inches above that table, the container now emptied of his favorite red sturmbrew.
“I’ve just had considerable practice in consuming spirits, old friend; a result of our misspent youth frequenting Schweitzen Academy’s surrounding tavern establishments.”
The twenty-eight-year-old, dark-haired, violet-eyed highborn nobleman wished to remain in Otho Svord’s inn warm confines provided by the three roaring fireplaces positioned triangularly around this large room on the chilly winter’s eve. The other patrons at various nearby tables, booths or seated along a short row of barstools in view to their booth’s right held conversations in Continental or other regional Plaropean dialects. This room’s air was also hazy in places from pipe smoke, competing with aromas of food or drink orders served by the four wenches in their long colorful skirts over slippers or boots and modest-cut long-sleeved blouses. The heir to this small mountain kingdom wiped brew foam from his grinning mouth framed by the moustache and small beard, as he tried forgetting the impending arranged marriage only days away now that others at the kingdom’s court or across its lands considered a happy occasion.
The Duchess of Aarnd believes as her family does in temperance, so I shan’t be permitted drinking in establishments such as this any longer by such a stern-minded wife.
“Aye, ye won fairly enough,” Dursten looked at his own metal stein one-quarter still filled, before finishing it with a single gulp. “But shall we try just one final round to save my stout reputation tonight?”
“If Halle could discern my sorcery where I sit now, she’d never let me out of her sight from the moment our union is sanctified by Archbishop Ranke.” Picturing his short, honey-blonde and severely-beautiful bride-to-be, Stephan shook his head and then took the ranger’s right hand across the table after setting the stein down as a parting gesture. “And all my senses are already growing dim enough to seek rest from our rare revelries tonight, Dursten.”
“Aye,” Brandt retrieved his green alpine hat and matching fur-lined cloak to cover the brown leather casual attire, and then patted his former roommate’s left shoulder twice in standing from the booth’s U-shaped bench for that table to depart. “And even though the lost twenty crowns of the evening’s bet are trifling, methinks I’ll not envy your head tomorrow.”
“I feel just inebriated enough,” Stephan assured him with one nod, “not to waste the wager on more drink now.”
Knowing his old university friend also envied him neither any future crown nor the arranged marriage scheduled for six days hence, Prince Stephan waved at the Ranger Lord strolling across and through the room toward that heavy front door. The people and leaders of Aarnd practiced temperance ever since converting to the Universal Church five centuries ago, but the Duchy’s religious zeal and military discipline were desirable traits for Schweitzen in seeking allies against the sometimes menacing neighbor to their east – the Holy Serelethian Empire. Stephan was also not alone here now, spotting his two disguised bodyguards in black and gray attire, along with two coachmen similarly camouflaged from their usual fancier blue and white formal uniforms. The quartet sat together at one nearby round table five yards from their sovereign’s booth.
Ah, yes, the shadows father assigned my protection won’t allow their prince any chance to stray into the cold snowy night for additional fun elsewhere at any bawdy house tonight.
Stephan picked up and then turned the emptied stein in both hands, its ornate pewter surface decorated with legendary creatures such as dragons, elves and orocs. Dragons had been extinct across skies above these lands for generations, and Orocs no longer inhabited mountain passes or cavern-accessible valleys, but various Elves lived in Schweitzen or nearby nations. The pointed-eared creatures like their demi-human kindred Dwarves or Gnomes were tolerated by some men and mistrusted among others. Kronenberg’s Svord Inn would be the last part of the prince’s fun as a bachelor tonight, Stephan knew already, and being good friends with proprietor Otho Svord for five years he received treatment like everyone else here despite dressing in fine purple, gray and black attire on this occasion.
I plan to rule Schweitzen with benevolence and mercy like my father, but now I’d best be off to rest my aching head a few hours in my final night of freedom.
The prince arose slowly from mild impairment after four full tankards of sturmbrew, raising a left hand to signal his bodyguard he did not require help with the simple tasks. Leaving two gold crowns on the table from Dursten’s wager in its pouch to pay the bill, Stephan collected the long sword (with his coat of arms engraved on its hilt) in the scabbard on a pouch-laden black belt, the fur-lined gray cloak and round hat to leave. Straightening and steadying himself in tall black boots, he was drawn to new music being played by patrons entering minutes earlier.
’Tis a pleasant melody to be sure they make, so perhaps I’ll tarry a bit longer here.
The musicians were two Gensipk men playing a wooden stringed balalaika and pan flute seated together on one bench near the room’s largest fireplace hearth Stephan now faced as he took Brandt’s former seat inside the booth to observe their performance.
Ah, they are a trio I see.
The first man appeared middle-aged at the right and the second to his left not yet old enough to shave. They were accompanied by a Gensipk dancer, her captivating natural beauty and two jingling tambourines soon appealing to every watching male patron present here.
Hmm, yes, this entertainment is promising.
Settling into the booth once more, Prince Stephan had an excellent view of that fireplace, recognizing Gensipks by their colorful attire, a misunderstood shunned people never truly feeling at home anywhere in the Wyche-Realms. This trio probably owned a distinctive festive wagon parked somewhere nearby.
“Aye, girl, dance to chase away this foul season’s gloom!”
From his right eye’s corner, Stephan spotted the brown-bearded heavyset patron two tables away nearer his shadows encouraging the female performer. The maiden certainly dazzled her appreciative audience in the traditional Gensipk costume and Stephan was already captivated by the raven-haired beauty. Her curly, shoulder-length locks were held under a metal spider’s web-style cap, and both lobes adorned by disc-shaped bronze earrings, all sparkling in the firelight’s glow. She displayed a simple gold charm necklace across cleavage in the low-cut, long-sleeved white embroidered blouse, complemented by the flow of her red and green pleated ankle-length peasant skirt while dancing. The maiden twirled to reveal a brief glimpse of bare legs for her audience at various points. Patrons responded with thrown coins or shouted encouragements, but she continued smiling while seeming oblivious toward that appreciation and wrapped up within her performance.
She’s quite the graceful beauty. Stephan decided before recalling his betrothed’s personality and religious convictions. Halle would rebuke me for viewing such common loveliness.
The dancer’s skin appeared golden tan in this room’s fire lit glow. Copper anklets rested above red slippers adorning her narrow feet. She shook the tambourines vigorously in each hand while working around the room. The green-eyed maiden held everyone’s attention soon enough, even the female patrons or servants. Tapping his left boot to the Gensipk vibrant melody, Prince Stephan nodded to her as she passed his table briefly.
The lady almost seems one with the music’s flow. I hope there’s not some bewitching spell at play here, aside from her natural beauty.
The Gensipks continued performing inside the common room for close to a half-hour, until the men concluded with a swelling energetic crescendo and the maiden bowed low after a final clockwise twirl in front of them. The prince then tossed the older Gensipk Brandt’s coin pouch with its remaining eighteen gold pieces jingling inside and that man bowed once out of respect, almost as if recognizing the patron’s importance, without examining the purse’s contents as the younger man and the maiden collected other money off the floor they had just earned. As the trio met with Otho Svord for a few minutes, counting him out part of their evening haul, and then departed through the room’s kitchen door leading into a rear alley exit, Stephan approached the balding redheaded, portly innkeeper as he placed those coins into a grease-stained brown apron’s pocket over white shirt and tan breeches, asking about tonight’s impromptu entertainment.
“Far as I know, Sire, they’re just a small family of Gensipks passing through.” The short man answered his important customer’s inquiry jovially enough. “They needed coins for travel, but I insisted on a partial cut to allow them performing here. I saw you gave them a generous pouch. At least while dancing and playing they couldn’t pick any pockets. I don’t care how cold ’tis outside, their filthy kind get no lodging in any decent establishment like mine.”
They’re probably used to such hospitality across the Realms, I’d assume.
Thanking Svord, the prince rejoined his shadows in heading toward the front exit, glimpsing the innkeeper saying something to the bearded heavy man that had shouted a generous share of encouragement to the dancing maiden. Stephan donned a pair of tan gloves with his gray hat and cloak, the last item’s silver coat of arms serving as the man’s outward rank badge, and led the other men also well-bundled against the freezing temperatures awaiting them outside in fur-lined coats or cloaks and alpine or square blocked hats. They descended the slightly ice and snow-dusted wooden steps to the stone walkway beside Sovereign Road with care, turning right and heading into that nearby alley for the barn and the prince’s coach with its four hardy charcoal and black horses awaiting them there. Walking through the brick-paved alley in wagon wheel paths left through the snow, the five men were surprised when four black-clad figures wearing hooded black cloaks emerged from the inn’s kitchen exit and the nearby barn’s wide doors.
What manner of treachery is this?
The strangers faced the prince’s party in a row, their boots crunching fallen snow within the deserted alley as the bodyguards and coachmen drew long swords to confront this unexpected menace. The intruders then opened their cloaks to reveal small crossbows and fired them into Stephan’s advancing servants. Each metal bolt found its target in torsos covered by clothing and on each bodyguard the leather armor, followed by those wounded men convulsing and falling far more quickly than expected from sometimes hits in non vital places, soon all lying still across the snow. Alone, Stephan was now completely exposed.
The missiles must have been poisoned – something fast acting from the evidence. Perhaps I can still get aid from inside the inn rather than risk taking them…
Behind him two more black-clad strangers stepped into view, blocking any retreat toward the main street and moving toward their target as the four other men also advanced upon Stephan.
I’m boxed in now. The prince drew out his silver-coated ceremonial long sword from beneath the cloak, taking a classic fencing stance despite being outnumbered. But they’ll never take me without a fight.
The four forward attackers drew shorter swords after replacing those hand-held crossbows on belts beneath the dark cloaks, and Stephan spotted the other pair behind him reaching for hidden weapons as he slashed at the nearest sword wielder with alcohol-impaired reflexes and the snow falling increased from overcast skies. Before he could recover, the prince was suddenly struck from behind by a blunt blow across the skull and fell face down into the sticky accumulation on this alley.
Blast it all, there’s too many of…
Stephan sank into darkness as he initially felt his body being lifted and the dropped sword taken from beside his gloved right hand. The dead royal guards and coachmen would not be discovered for almost an hour, as the six men in hooded cloaks carried their precious cargo across Sovereign Road to a colorfully-decorated square wagon with four gray and white steeds hitched to its front, now parked in an opposite alley facing the inn.
Argh, I feel as though my head is falling off – from the drink and – whatever happened in that alley.
Prince Stephan awoke sometime later inside an enclosed wooden structure with four strangers seated or standing around him while he lay on its floor. Both his wrists and ankles were secured by chained iron manacles bolted to that floor. He could also feel this location was moving from vibrations and sounds of hooves coming from somewhere outside.
“What is the meaning of this? Where in the Realms am I now?”
The prince’s demanding tone elicited a hard, sharp kick into his right ribs from one of those men, the greasy, scarred and unshaven stranger soon holding one short sword at Stephan’s throat with a malevolent grin and the contemptuous tone.
“You’re not in charge around here, Your Highness, so keep silent and enjoy the journey. We guarantee it will be your last.”
That foul-breathed man then turned and inspected three human-shaped burlap sacks stacked against the wall behind him on a colorful quilt-covered bed concealed by the red silk partitioning curtain. Two of those contained dried blood stains across them. Stephan rubbed along the spot where he had been kicked, realizing again this was a moving vehicle from the sounds of wheels turning across the ground beneath here. He then quickly felt his body to discover the belt with its pouches and sword and even the royal cloak had all been removed earlier.
At least they left me my clothes and boots, if mere thieves who took everything else of value committing simple robbery. But why kidnap me, except for some ransom?
The unshaven man opened the one unstained sack across that bed and revealed it contained that Gensipk maiden from Svord’s Inn last night. She appeared unconscious and was gagged with a red scarf, but otherwise unharmed from the neck upwards. Stephan soon suspected her two companions from the other evening were stuffed inside the sacks behind hers and probably both dead. This wagon’s windows were all closed off by their festive embroidered thick curtains depicting woodland scenes. Two hanging oil lamps overhead and a wood-burning stove right of an exit door to this cozy space provided the only illumination and heat. When Stephan began to speak again he was preempted by a different thug’s boot grazing his head. The first attacker then rebuked his comrade’s action.
“Don’t ruin the face. We’ll need to identify him before being paid.”
Paid – but by whom?
Stephan kept that question to himself, deciding discretion was better than suffering another kick, but kept his eyes open and shifted his seated position when considering these four captors. The man that seemed to be in charge he had already noted sported a few days stubble across a pockmarked face, foul breath tainted by fish odors and a balding pate of shaggy brown hair. He answered to the name Karl when addressed by the other bandits here. The shortest man to this group was even balder with thin silver hair around the head. He smiled menacingly through the obviously wooden teeth and exhaled rancid food odors. The two remaining men looked equally disreputable but thinner than their leader and taller than the second man, one wearing salt-and-pepper neck-length hair and the other slicked black locks with sweeping bangs. They were all dressed in black or other dark brown and tan attire bundled by layers or with some fur portions to protect against this season’s frigid weather.
I’ll not get much more out of them, the prince decided as he relaxed so far as possible when laying across that floor, noting the men’s body odors mixing with stenches from the nearby dead bodies, the wagon stove’s burning wood aromas and some preserved meats stored on shelves along the walls or in hanging nets from the ceiling alongside wicker jugs. One of those latter items the quartet soon sampled and gave obvious approval to the alcoholic contents within as the wagon continued on its journey to some unknown destination, driven, Stephan assumed, by the other two accomplices to his kidnapping. He also then realized another discouraging fact.
Wherever we are, it must be some distance from Kronenberg. This action was obviously well-planned, even down to smuggling me out one of our walled city’s gates.
Sighing as he tried resting without falling asleep, Prince Stephan prayed for an opportunity to turn the tables on his captors and possibly escape whatever scheme they intended upon him.
Stephan was aroused to a seated position once more when he felt the wagon slow and then completely stopping sometime later. The two leaner thugs forced him to his feet as the short man unlocked the prince’s chains bolted to that floor and the leader shoved their captive toward the wagon’s one exit. After a few more seconds, the door opened from outside to admit the other kidnappers, both clad in colorful Gensipk outfits as disguises. The first thug was a burly young blonde man, and the second the brown-bearded patron Stephan had noticed cheering on the girl dancer at Svord’s. Gaining his first glimpse outdoors in what seemed several hours, the prince saw it was late afternoon under an overcast sky hanging heavily above this mountain pass. The two to his front then stepped down along an attached set of steps to the snow-covered road, and Stephan saw his first chance at freedom.
Now, if I can surprise them and get clear, my woodland skills should be sufficient to survive on the run alone.
Stepping onto the top step of that attached stair, Stephan sprang and tackled the duo awaiting his descent, hitting their heads together once as the three men fell into that snow. As he arose again, the prince then slipped in icy trails left by hooves and wheels before able to dodge into trees at either side of this narrow road. The other men inside that wagon soon leaped down to surround their prisoner with drawn short swords or loaded hand crossbows covering him before he could even stand.
Blast, they are too many. I’ve gained nothing!
The taller thugs from earlier dragged Stephan across a snow-blanketed dirt road, tossing him onto one flat rocky surface at the wagon’s right. The gang’s leader then knelt beside the prince and pressed the sword to his throat with a menacing tone.
“Don’t act the hero again, Your Highness, or I promise you’ll only die slower here.”
The short man kept his crossbow trained on the prone prince after the brigand leader moved off with the others to set up their campfire with some dry firewood and kindling from within the Gensipk wagon. Giggling, the wooden-toothed man taunted their captive, as Stephan looked away from that whiny-voiced killer with a small stitched scar over the right hazel eye.
“You’ll not become king of that puny mountain kingdom after all. No one will find the body until after spring thaw.”
Heat rising around his frilled cuff violet shirt’s collar, Stephan refused to remain silent any longer and regained his regal persona when speaking.
“Who are you men to dare meddle in Schweitzen’s internal affairs?”
“Let’s just say,” the brown-haired leader answered from nearer a fire two of his men were bringing to life on the rocky ground, as the other henchmen, changed from their earlier Gensipk disguises to dark fur-lined or heavy wool clothing, now dragged Stephan closer to that campsite, “we’ve been hired to change your monarchy’s destiny.”
The man called Karl then made a slicing motion with his left thumb across the throat, evoking knowing laughter from the other five brigands here, and leaving Stephan no remaining doubts as to their intentions after he was left near that fire.
“All you need know is we’re getting the job done,” the short man keeping his crossbow aimed on their prisoner as the others prepared the camp, including two of the men preparing the supper from the Gensipk wagon’s supplies.
“Why did you harm that Gensipk girl? She has no part in this madness, and I assume the two other sacks inside are her dead male kin from Svord’s Inn in Kronenberg.”
The half-dozen men all laughed at his concern for those shunned strangers from the wagon.
“We needed the wagon to spirit you out of Kronenberg.” The brigand leader’s next words were punctuated by his men’s renewed laughter. “But she’ll serve as tonight’s entertainment in a different way from the inn last night.”
“So, you men brought me here at great difficulty and risk, simply for an execution?”
“Not merely just to kill you,” the man in charge corrected him, “but we’ll also secure your severed head, royal cloak and personal weapon as proof our job is completed.”
Stephan’s eyes briefly widened as he realized their group’s identity.
“You’re from the Assassins Guild of Venetzia.”
“Guilty as charged,” the small man guarding him acknowledged with one nod.
“And you can save any threats, Your Highness.” Karl pointed toward the captive with his sword when making a boast. “We’ve got protection for this assignment.”
Protection, but by whom – is Serelethia’s Imperial Court behind this treachery as I suspect?
“Enjoy your last meal, Prince of Schweitzen,” the blonde man brought him a wooden bowl minutes later as the assassins now largely ignored their captive, except for keeping weapons at hand to deal with him if seeking escape again. The prince was staked to the ground during their meal further from the fireside, eating from his steaming soup bowl by slowly drinking it. Those killers ate with wooden spoons during that next half-hour, making small talk among their seated circle but never revealing more about any employers behind this killing as dusk approached.
So, this is how it ends for me at twenty-seven, murdered by assassins beside a remote road far from home. I never imagined my death would be such a cold and lonely one.
Staring toward the parked Gensipk wagon and considering the young woman secured inside, Stephan felt even more sorrow for her and the murdered kin, but remained seemingly powerless to change what would come after dark here.