The Three Invincibles

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Three InvinciblesThere was a proclamation sent out on the day of the prince’s birth.  The king and queen wanted no harm to come to him and challenged their subjects, noble and commoner, merchant and beggar and royal alike, to find a way to make their son invincible to all harm.  No sword or arrow should pierce him.  No illness befall him.  For the king and queen had already lost twelve children before him.

Their eldest child and first heir was a grown woman, a skilled diplomat and peacemaker, when she was killed by her host on a visit to the southern kingdom, a country with whom she sought alliance and peace with her kingdom.  Next were the twin boys, who became warriors, and who were killed in the battle to avenge their sister.  The next four never lived past the first year of life.  The eighth was strong and reminded her mother and father of their eldest.  She was careful too, for even when she was still very young, she was wise enough to know how pained her mother and father were at having lost their first children.  She took care of herself and yet, she too met the fate of an early death, one day when out in a carriage ride, she was caught in a terrible storm.

The ninth tried a different tack.  He was reckless and merry.  He loved the sea and died upon it.  Then came another pair of twins, a boy and girl, and they were thick as thieves, and they too loved their mother and father and wished them no pain.  But they were not meant for rule.  Like the brother who came before them, who died at sea, they were adventurous.  They did not die, or at least there was no proof of it.  There was a new ruler in the southern kingdom, the same kingdom that their eldest sister had died trying to make peace with.  The twins made it their purpose to finish their sister’s work.  They traveled to that kingdom and were never heard from again.

The king and queen were watched by their advisors, watched for the madness of such a deep grief from the loss of so many children, and all of them worthy children.  The royal couple kept watched as well.  They kept a close eye on the twelfth child.  She was a quiet child and not much of a wanderer and that gave them great relief.  For she liked to spend all her time in her tower, reading and painting and eating good food.  But danger and death found her as well.  She was only a child yet when she was found.  And it was never known for certain, but believed that she was bitten by some venomous creature.  Some accounts say there were marks on her arm.  But others said it was some curse on the royal family.  They were pitied but also doubted.  And while grieving for all their lost children, the king and queen had also to fear that their advisors were planning to overthrow them and install a new royal family in their place.  A family who could produce hale and hearty heirs.

***

So when the queen became pregnant a thirteenth time, she and the king become strict even severe about protecting themselves and their child-to-come, who was, perhaps their last hope for…everything.  Their family, their rule.  The queen would not trust anyone to prepare her food and she would go down to the kitchen and make her own meals.  She didn’t know how, as that was not one of the skills she had to master, though she did impress the common folk in the kitchens with her determination, her fierce protectiveness of her child, and even the skill she developed in cooking.  She needed guidance and chose to receive it from the head cook.

The head cook, like many in the kingdom, pitied the king and queen for their loss and felt pride in her king and queen for their fortitude.  The people had heard the rumors of usurpation.  The cook had seven children of her own, all of them still alive and well.  And the youngest a still-suckling babe.  She longed to help the queen by doing more than just teaching her how to cook.  She suspected the queen had chosen her, trusted her despite her southern origins, for that very reason.  To do more.

So one day, the cook worked up the courage to tell the queen about a legend heard among master cooks of an enchanted food that when eaten could protect the eater from injury, and in some cases even make the eater invincible.  It was said that if eaten within the first year of life, a person would be resistant to all injury, be it a fall from a height, the sting of an insect, a poisonous plant, or an invisible sickness.  The queen was intrigued, until she heard the description of the food and the holy and secret way it was prepared.  The milk of a rare and sacred animal that lived in the highest mountains of the world was collected and fermented and mixed with rare herbs and powders and aged for many a year.  It was a cheese.  Some sorcery was involved.  But it was a cheese.  And it sounded like something the queen might have eaten at a feast in her youth, quite delicious, and magical in its own way, but not capable of what the cook said.

The queen politely thanked the cook, but rejected the idea of searching for the sacred cheese.  Yet the idea stuck in her mind that she might search for some other way to protect her child from harm.  Like the mothers in the ancient myths, who begged boons of the gods, or washed their babes in waters of immortality.  One such legend did claim that an ancient hero left in the woods to die by evil kin suckled from a kind deer before he was found by his parents.  The deer and all her kind were granted protection from harm thereafter by all in the hero’s family.  And the hero was granted some extraordinary powers from the deer’s milk.  Perhaps that was where the strange story of the cheese had begun.

***

So the queen spoke to the king about making the proclamation to all in the kingdom to find some way to make their child invincible.

Many came with many a false promise.  They were all made to prove their claims, and they all failed.  Then came before the king and queen in private audience their own head cook.  She had obtained some of the enchanted cheese.  She had made it herself long ago, when news of the first princess’s death came to the kingdom.  But it had needed all that time to age.  So it had not been ready to save the other royal children.

The queen was near ready to give birth.  She challenged the cook to prove her claim, and the cook did so by bringing forth her child, her daughter, her youngest, who was almost one year old.  The cook was nervous.  Though she was confident of her preparation, having tested it on a few of her animals, she was fearful at using her child to test the cheese.  She almost changed her mind, for why should she risk her own child to save another’s?  But when she saw how the queen was disarmed by the baby’s laughter, the cook’s resolve returned.  She showed the king and queen how to feed the child the cheese by mushing it up into milk.  The baby drank.

***

The queen gave birth.  She watched her newborn son.  And she also watched the little baby girl who had drunk enchanted cheese, who lived in the castle, lived and thrived.  It would have been cruel to intentionally harm the girl to see if the cook’s cheese worked.  The queen wondered if she should just feed her son the cheese as it seemed to be doing no harm to the girl.  And yet, others continued to come before the royals with their own solutions.  One sorcerer almost succeeded in convincing the king and queen, until he was found out to be a fraud and not even a practicing sorcerer.  The little prince seemed healthy.  The king and queen were cautiously happy.  But their advisors sowed more doubt, by claiming that the king and queen had put themselves in the position to be taken advantage of by any charlatan who was clever enough to convince them that they could guarantee no harm to the prince.

One day news came to the queen from her servants.  They said that something wondrous had happened.  The little girl, Fripp, had fallen from her mother’s arms during a disturbance in the marketplace and had been trampled in the confusion.  When the panicked cook found the child, Fripp was covered in boot marks and smeared with mud.  But she was none the worse for wear.  Her swaddling had not survived, but the girl, and even every hair on her head, was completely unharmed.

The king and queen gathered and interviewed all who were present at the market riot.  They could come to no conclusions, for none were eager to admit that they had been so caught up in frenzy that they hadn’t noticed the baby on the floor, or worse yet, that they had been one of the people who had trampled her.  Some admitted to stepping on many an item that had fallen to the ground, including soft fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and plums.  There was no way to tell if they had stepped on the baby Fripp.

When the cook was brought in for questioning, she was both happy and frightened.  Though the cheese had worked to protect her baby, she had still suffered the worst fright of her life.  Knowing the king and queen had suffered as much twelve times over, she begged them to forget any tricks or spells for protecting Prince Oliver.  She begged them just to keep watch over him themselves as they had been doing.

But the queen was now convinced that she must try the cheese.  She gently asked the cook to bring the cheese forth.  And they fed it to Prince Oliver.  Every last bit of it.  They forbade the cook by royal order from making any more cheese or revealing the secret even to the royal council.  The cook told them she would never again make the cheese, for the process was not as she had described it to the queen, but far more difficult and dangerous.  As a reward for protecting their son, they assured the cook that she and her family would thenceforth be treated as members of the royal court.

***

Ten summers later, Prince Oliver was still alive and more than well.  He had fallen and tripped and been as careless and carefree as any child while playing, riding, and just milling about.  The cheese had worked.  He had never grown ill, never suffered a scratch or a bruise or broken bone.  On the contrary, he was often caught challenging his friends to shoot arrows and throw rocks at him, for not only could he not be harmed, but he also felt no pain.  Though he was a good enough lad and did forbid his friends from harming each other, since they were not invincible, he was still often punished for such stunts.  There was only one person who could understand Oliver’s condition.  And that was the one person who shared it.  The head cook’s daughter, Fripp.

Her true name meant “fair-pipe,” for when she was a baby, her crying sounded almost sweet, and sure enough, when she grew older, her song was fair.  But it was a fanciful name, so people took to calling her Fair-pipe, which was quickly shortened to “Fripp.”

As tots, Fripp and Oliver became fast friends.  They tumbled down hills and pushed each other off ledges.  Fripp always helped Oliver elude the eyes of his watchers.  And Oliver helped Fripp elude her cooking lessons.  They were never sick or hurt.  The only thing they suffered was punishment when caught challenging their invincibility.  But the punishments of elders were as nothing to the worst that they suffered, a thing that they never spoke of once it was over.  A humiliation at the hands of their own peers.  The two invincible children weren’t afraid of being hurt and could not be bullied, until one particularly wicked pair of children realized that invincibility did not mean greater strength.  To prove that Fripp and Oliver were nothing special, that they could be defeated, brought down, those children formed two gangs.  A gang of boys confronted and overpowered Oliver.  And a gang of girls overpowered Fripp.  The gangs carried Fripp and Oliver to either side of the market road far outside the capitol, stripped them of their clothes, and laughing ran off and left them miles from home.

Fripp and Oliver saw each other and took comfort in not being alone, but they had to run, eyes averted, naked and shivering, away from the road to the open fields, searching for a tree or a bush to hide behind.  Or some rags to cover themselves with.  They found such shelter in a thorny bush, both trying not to cry, not knowing how to comfort themselves or each other.  They could not count how long it was before the dog found them.  It was a shepherd’s dog and he fetched his master to come and look at the strange thing he had found.  Though they were still children and Fripp had no more or less to hide than Oliver did, the prince stood up and stood before her to cover her from the shepherd’s view.  The shepherd had already began to hand over his coat and shirt to the children as Oliver explained they had been tricked by bullies.  While the shepherd did not recognize the prince, he did note that the thorns had not left a single scratch on either child.  He brought them home and he and his wife gave them clothes and shelter for the night.  Two days later, after bearing the wrath of a distraught king and queen, who thought he had merely run away,  the prince returned in regal attire, with his thanks and enough riches from his own share of the treasury to last the shepherd and his family for generations.   The shepherd and his wife were aghast.  Fripp was with Oliver, and neither asked for the shepherd to keep the secret of their humiliation, but the good shepherd offered and kept it secret nevertheless.

Fripp and Oliver no longer reveled in or boasted of their invincibility.  And they decided not to take revenge upon their tormentors.  At least, they decided not to take any action.  They whispered together, but smiled when their tormentors looked at them, and they let the other children believe that some vengeance was forthcoming.  None could boast of what they had done to the prince, not without suffering terrible punishments.  Oliver’s silence and Fripp’s silence was their protection.  Many a night of fright and torment did the wicked children suffer anticipating vengeance that never came.

Fripp and Oliver vowed to be humble and to rescue each other and watch over each other from then on.

***

When they grew older, Fripp for a time fell in love with the prince and began to act so strangely toward him that he wondered if girls made poor friends when they became ladies.  He spent more time with the sons of nobles and kept his distance.  A year hence, after lamenting lost love and then becoming angry at being abandoned by her friend, Fripp found that she had quite gotten over what was an infatuation.  She found Oliver one day and partly in vengeance for her embarrassment and partly in hopes of winning back her best friend, she began to tease him mercilessly as he practiced his fencing.

And Oliver, cautiously but pleasantly surprised at the familiar and long-forgotten ribbing, began to return her quips.  Before long, he was teaching her to fence, and they sparred fiercely and with real blades, for neither could be hurt by the blades.  She showed such impressive skill that he asked his teachers to teach Fripp.  The prince always had a personal guard, for the king and queen had always known that even though he could not be hurt, the prince could still be kidnapped and ransomed.  And it was likely that he could die of thirst or starvation.  Oliver was clever and had always managed to elude his guard when he as a child.  He knew he needed someone to watch over him now that he would go out among the people more and more and meet with nobles and royals from other realms.  He argued to his king and queen that having Fripp by his side instead of a hulking man in armor might make him seem even stronger to the people and even the ever-doubting royal council.  So while it was most unusual and while royal advisors balked at the idea, Fripp became the prince’s favored guard.

The king and queen and prince received visitors from many a realm, all save the ones that were the coldest of enemies.  And the prince traveled the country demonstrating his invincibility.  Many thought it was a trick, for his demonstrations were modest, but Oliver was so charming and Fripp only made him seem moreso, that they loved their prince anyway.  The royal advisors were silenced.

***

In his seventeenth year, Oliver began to feel an aching in his heart such as he had never felt before and it was thought he was falling ill.  The queen and king thought so too and worried that his invincibility was at an end.  They summoned Fripp one day to ask if she was all right and were shocked when they saw she was trying to hold back laughter.  For the aching Oliver felt was his heart’s longing for the object of his affection, a noble girl from a neighboring kingdom whom he had met at a ball.

The king and queen rejoiced at that welcome news.  For the realms found Oliver to be strong.  And if he married and bore an heir, they would deem his family to be strong and worthy to still reign.  Though the girl was from a lower-ranking noble’s family, the king began negotiations with her father.  But when Oliver heard that his secret desires had become a princely duty, he went to the girl and asked her to run away with him.  Fripp warned him that the girl was not the kind to do something so reckless and romantic.  That she did not share Oliver’s feelings.  But Fripp helped him in his plan nevertheless.

They went to the chambers in the castle where the girl and her family were staying.  The girl, while excited to be wooed by the prince, grew horrified when he asked her to run off with him.  She rebuffed Oliver and cast most disgusted looks toward Fripp.  The prince left, defeated.  He knew that the girl’s father would make her marry him.  The only way to stop it was for Oliver to refuse her.  And though he still ached for her, loved her, he told his mother and father that his feelings had changed.  That he refused her and should marry a girl from a more powerful and worthy family.

For days afterward, Fripp guarded her prince, her friend, by listening to his lamentations and trying to cheer him by stabbing him in the heart with her dagger.

***

Oliver had many times in his youth asked to visit the southern kingdoms.  He dreamt of defeating the enemies of his family.  Those who were responsible for the deaths of sisters and brothers he would never know.  While he had fulfilled his duties as heir apparent, and had always known he would be king one day, he became more restless about that fateful day the more his mother and father aged, and the older he himself became.  And thoughts of the southern kingdoms filled his mind again.

The southern routes were difficult to guard against bandits and villains, for the southern kingdoms were said to be full of magic-makers and illusion-weavers.  Dangers both real and false lay in wait for those who traveled south.  He spoke with Fripp about making the journey, and she of course, would go with him to the end.  But he had still to approach his mother and father.  He spoke to them in the formal language required of such a serious request.

“I am thirteenth in line of succession.  It was not for me to rule.”

“And yet, you must rule, for there are no others,” said the king.

“What of my brother and sister who went to the southern kingdom?  They might be alive, locked in a dungeon somewhere, or lying in enchanted sleep, or trapped in some other realm by sorcery.  I long to go search for them.”

“You are forbidden.”

Oliver was not deterred.  “If they are dead, I will recover their remains.  If they live, I will rescue them. If they live and I cannot not rescue them, I will return home and assign the task of rescue to others, while I do as the king and queen wish, marry whom they wish, and become the sovereign ruler.”  He turned to Fripp, who stood behind.

She stepped forth and curtsied deeply.

“I will hold the prince to his promise and give my life if need be to bring him back.”

The king and queen were conflicted, for the thought of regaining their other children by the hand of their youngest was a sweet one.  But they knew their duty and they knew their fears.  They forbade Oliver his request.  Even if he rebelled against them all his days, it was worth the cost when measured against losing him.  His mother gave him a strange last look as he left the chamber.  A question was in her eyes.  She was wondering what made Oliver so confident that he could do as he said he would.

***

When Oliver told Fripp that he was set on going south, she brought him to her mother.  The head cook was ill and had been bedridden for almost a year.  She was still in good cheer and her seven children and ten grandchildren took turns caring for and amusing her.  She would likely never leave the bed again and so she had called Fripp forth one day.  She told Fripp that should the prince ever mention going to the southern kingdoms, Fripp should bring him to her right away.

Fripp’s mother was from the southern kingdom.  The cheese of invincibility was a most incredible magic, one that few could manage, for almost all attempts led to the creation of a poison so deadly that its vapors could kill any living creature within fifty leagues.  Only if made properly would the cheese ferment into the stuff that granted invincibility.

Fripp’s mother had made the cheese once and only once before, in her youth, for another prince.  This prince was the lawful heir to the southern kingdom, but his jealous uncle usurped the throne.  Knowing the prince was invincible, the uncle could not execute him in the usual manner.  The prince could not be pierced by arrows, or run through with swords, or burned, or battered, or poisoned, or torn limb from limb.  So the usurping uncle threw the prince in a dungeon and let him lie there without food or drink or sunlight or company.  After a year, the usurper went to the dungeon, hoping to find a corpse.  But he found the prince still alive, though he was a pitiable creature, wasted away, and barely moving.  The cheese had given his body the ability to live and survive far longer than any normal person could have without water at the least.

So it happened a prince and princess of a northern country were visiting, and they learned the story of the usurper and tried to dethrone him and restore the rightful heir.  They managed to free the prince and get him to safety, but they were themselves captured.  They were not seen again, at least not by any who would speak of it.  Most believed the usurper had tortured and then killed them.  This was the news that reached Oliver’s mother and father.  Many fled the southern kingdom then, especially those known to be loyal to the lawful heir, like Fripp’s mother.  She was honest with the northern king and queen about her origins and about what she knew of their children.  The king and queen tried to send envoys to recover their children’s remains.  The king even tried to travel south himself.  But the roads into the southern kingdoms were rarely traveled and only safe for those who were approved by the usurper.  The king and queen had no choice but to make peace with their loss.

***

For the first time in many a year, Oliver plotted to disobey his parents.  The southern kingdom was a bane to the north and their allies.  Once Oliver became king, he would have to recognize the usurper as the sovereign of the southern kingdom, or else risk war.  But as prince, he could yet be reckless, for his family and his country.  He eluded his guard using decoys, all but the one guard who would go with him.  Fripp met the prince at her mother’s cottage.

The cook—the sorceress—gave her daughter and the prince a shard of enchanted glass through which they could look to see through illusions, for the southern kingdoms were swathed in web upon web of illusions.  She warned them to use the glass sparingly for it had a side effect.  She gave them boots that could walk upon the sinking sands that bordered the southern realms.  And she gave them a tiny scroll upon which was written a merry song she loved well, telling them it might help lift their spirits when they were on their perilous journey.

They set out and before long, they came upon the cries of frightening beasts in the wild.  Using the glass, Fripp could see which creatures were real and which were not.  They found their way to the ruined road that led into the southern kingdom.  Beside the road were the sinking sands.  The sands stretched far beyond where their eyes could see and they had but one pair boots.  Oliver wondered if they should try the road, for it seems unwatched.  They looked through the glass and found that the road was not harmless after all.  There were various and deadly magical traps set over and upon it.  They had never tested their invincibility against magical harm.  Oliver offered to wear the boots and carry Fripp on his back.  But they would not be able rest or stop until they crossed the sands.  Oliver was invincible, but he was not indefatigable.  Fripp had an idea from a game they played as children.  Each would wear one boot and place their unbooted foot on the other person’s boot.  They would clasp each other around the waste and walk carefully across the sands.  Oliver thought the idea ridiculous.  They practiced on solid ground and it was indeed clumsy and tiring.  There was too much danger of tripping.  Oliver wanted to go on ahead himself and leave Fripp to keep watch for him.  But she would not let him go alone.

They argued and discussed for a while and then decided that Fripp would take the glass and try the road, while Oliver would take the boots and walk the sands.  Fripp would escape any physical harm and had only to fear magic or capture.  She should be able to avoid magic using the glass.  And if she was blocked and could go no farther, she would turn back and wait for Oliver at the border between the kingdoms.  So Oliver told her to take the song scroll with her as well, should she be captured and in need of comfort until he could rescue her.  For she was more likely to be waylaid than he.  Fripp agreed and they separated.

***

Oliver walked and walked, even as his feet burned and his muscles ached, and then his bones ached.  He longed to stop, but he could not sit anywhere and rest or he would sink into the sands.  After many hours, he saw the shimmer of a different terrain, and soon saw solid ground and the hazy shapes of trees from a forest beyond.

He had traveled alongside the road, but without the glass, could not see Fripp behind the illusions that shielded the road.  He found Fripp waiting for him at the end of the road.  She was distraught and told him that she’d watched him struggle and called out to him to come upon the road, for she found that the dangers were not great for ones who were invincible as they were.  But he couldn’t hear her through the illusions.  They rested awhile and Oliver put away the hard and heavy boots for his own comfortable boots.

Then they continued on into the forest.  It was dark and close, the trees seemed bent with the weight of grief and torment, their limbs twisted and flaking.  Oliver was tired.  His mind began to fill with doubts and his heart with fear and sorrow.  Even if they reached the southern kingdoms, how would they make it to the capitol without being found out?  How would they learn the fate of his brother and sister?  And how would he recover their remains if they were dead or rescue them if they still lived?

Fripp’s mother had told her daughter to try and find out what had happened to the lawful heir.  The first of the invincible children that she had created.  For if he still lived, and if they could dethrone the usurper, Oliver had a better chance of finding his brother and sister.  And of turning an enemy nation into an ally, if not a friend, depending on how grateful the southern prince would be.  But Oliver began to wonder about the prince.  No one knew where he was.  How would Oliver find him?  Perhaps he was dead.  And if he wasn’t dead, perhaps he was still wasting away somewhere, driven mad by a year in a dungeon with no one and nothing.

Their pace had begun to slow and at last they sat down to rest.  Oliver felt so weary and dejected.  He knew he must turn back.  He had done wrong in disobeying his mother and father, his king and queen.  And yet, he could not turn back.  He did not deserve the rule of his kingdom, reckless and foolish boy that he was.  He was unworthy.  Unworthy of his people.  Unworthy of his family.  Unworthy of—

A clear and sweet note broke through the murk of his mind.  Another followed, and another, notes that formed words, words of comfort, words of strength, of hope, of resolve.

Fripp was singing.

Oliver turned and saw that she held her mother’s song scroll before her.  He felt the relief, the startling and disturbing relief of something heavy being lifted from his shoulders.  Startling and disturbing because he could not see that there was anything to lift.  And he felt the sensation that something that was pulling at him had stopped pulling.  He took out the looking glass and peered through it at Fripp.  He gasped when he saw that there were creatures, like invisible gray leeches, stuck all over her.  As she sang, she seemed to glow green and the creatures were burning away.  He looked down at himself and saw the same.

And he listened to the words she was singing.  The song was about despair and lethargy that could twist about the heart and mind like foul undead creatures, draining one’s spirit, and about the fortitude one must summon to fight such creatures.  He realized that it wasn’t just a song.  It was a spell.  A spell of protection.

Oliver and Fripp both learned the song by heart and sung it as they made their way through the rest of the forest.  Even the trees seemed to profit somewhat from their spell-song, brightening just a bit into the green and brown that was their natural color.

***

The southern kingdom was not as they expected.  It was bustling and thriving.  None seemed worse for wear.  Fripp’s mother had warned them to use the looking glass sparingly, for even as they looked through it, someone or something might be looking back through it to them.  She warned them not to use it in the kingdom at all.  But Oliver and Fripp felt something was amiss.  They looked through the glass and found that the kingdom was indeed bustling and thriving, but not happily so.  People moved not with purpose, but with fear and caution.  There were guards and watchers everywhere.

They had tried to wear what they thought was the garb of the southern kingdom.  But so changed was the garb, so strictly ruled, that Oliver and Fripp were quickly found out in the first town they entered, far from the capitol.  A guardsman called them out and they tried at first to obey, but when they found themselves becoming surrounded, they tried to flee, but were blocked.  They began to fight the guardsman, but there too many of them.  Fripp and Oliver would soon be overpowered.

But suddenly, there appeared beside them another figure, fighting with them, against the guardsman.  The figure was a man in a black hood and he raised the quarterstaff he was fighting with and yelled for Oliver and Fripp to drop down.  By instinct, they heeded him and dropped.  A great surge of…something knocked down all the guardsman.  The figure leapt over the fallen guards and called for Fripp and Oliver to follow.  They weaved through the streets, ducked into alleys, climbed up roofs, climbed down from roofs, moved through shops and stalls and at last, they came to a hidden door in the wall of a tenement, and they followed their rescuer in.

In a small but well-lit room furnished with a table and chairs and shelves of books, their rescuer gestured to the table as he threw back his hood.  He had dark hair and brilliant but strange green eyes.  And before he spoke his name, Fripp and Oliver knew it.  He was Gunnar, the lawful sovereign of the southern kingdom.

Gunnar smiled as he offered them some refreshment.  “You were fools to use that looking glass without a reflection spell on it.  If I found you so easily, my uncle will surely find you as well.”

He spoke kindly enough, but there was indeed something behind his eyes that spoke of the terrible torment he suffered.  The humiliation that Fripp and Oliver suffered when they were children seemed pale in comparison.

After his introduction and the mild scolding, the next thing the prince told them was that Oliver’s brother and sister still lived.  It was his uncle too who had killed Oliver’s eldest sister, igniting the hostility between north and south.  His uncle feared the northern royals.  Moreso after he usurped the throne.  He let Oliver’s brother and sister come into the southern kingdom so that he could capture them and use them against the northern king and queen.  He did not expect them to be noble enough to care about Gunnar.  After they helped him escape, Gunnar was taken in by those loyal to him.  It took him months to recover enough to even understand what happened.  His uncle, enraged at the northern royals, forgot his original plan and tried to kill them.  One of the court sorcerers managed to cast a spell on them, putting them into an enchanted sleep.  But they appeared to be dead.  He secreted them out of the castle before the usurper could order their corpses to be displayed.

For years afterward, Gunnar recovered and he learned sorcery so that he could keep the northern royals in the enchanted sleep and perhaps even find a way to heal their wounds so he could wake them and deliver them back to the north and ask for aid to defeat his uncle and reclaim his throne.

Oliver and Fripp pledge themselves to help Gunnar if only he would give them back their prince and princess.  But the southern prince laughed and told them that they need do nothing for him.  He had amassed enough supporters and enough power through his sorcery to overthrow his uncle.  He needed only one thing, the one thing that would ensure his victory would be as bloodless as it could be.  He had been trying to forge some of his own, but had failed, and thought it would take him several more years to master the task.  But now, Fripp and Oliver had brought him what he needed.  He asked only for the boots that Oliver had worn, the boots that had walked across the desert of sinking sands.

Puzzled and suspicious, but eager to find his brother and sister, Oliver surrendered the boots.  Gunnar gave no explanation of what he would do with them or why he needed them.  Gunnar suddenly embraced Oliver and then Fripp.  He had a glint of longing in his eyes and then of merry resolve.  He told them where the northern royals were and how to get to the place.  He looked sad then and told them he regretted that his powers were not great enough to heal their wounds.  They would surely die if the enchanted sleep were removed, unless there was a sorcerer more skilled than he was who could save them.

He told them to return to the royal road.  When he regained his throne, and he would do so within the next day, or never at all, he would have the court sorcerers remove the traps and illusions.  Then Oliver and Fripp would be able to travel the road safely with his brother and sister.

Gunnar then pulled out a dagger and stabbed his hand with it.  He drew out the dagger and looked at Fripp and Oliver, who seemed to understand without words.  They held out their hands and let him stab each of them in turn.  They were not completely invincible.  All three knew this.  But they did have an advantage that others did not.  And they were bound by that advantage.

***

When Oliver first saw the northern royals, he was filled with fear and excitement and doubt about Gunnar and dread at the sight of the wounds upon the man and woman who were supposed be his brother and sister.  They had the proper sigils and dress.  But he didn’t know if he saw his face in their faces.  Fripp examined them more closely and she was convinced that Gunnar had told them the truth.  They should have been old, but frozen in sleep, they were of an age with Oliver and Fripp.

They could tell that the rebellion had begun before they reached the road.  Guardsman had no time for a commoner man and woman with a cart.  They were scrambling to defend their kingdom from danger.  In the confusion that followed, Oliver and Fripp escaped.  By the time they reached the ruined road, they could see the spells breaking through the glass shard.

Oliver took his brother and sister home.

***

Fripp’s mother was ill, but Fripp still begged her to heal the prince and princess.  The king and queen had yet to realize that Oliver was gone.  His decoy had traveled to one of the western kingdoms to meet with the princess there.  Oliver didn’t want to bring the prince and princess home on the verge of death.  That seemed to him a worse blow to his mother and father than bringing home the corpses or remains of their children.  The more he looked at his brother and sister, the more he inexplicably loved them.  His mother and father had told him stories of all his lost siblings.  And he had had his favorites.  And two of them lay barely alive before him.  He could not save the others.  He had to save them.

Fripp’s mother wept for the prince and princess, but she could not heal them.  Fripp asked if they could make of the cheese.  They would have time, for they could find a sorcerer to preserve the enchanted sleep.  And Fripp promised to learn it and do it herself, far enough away from any living thing that she could try again and again until she succeeded.  But her mother explained that the cheese could not heal, it could only prevent injury.

Fripp and Oliver asked if their invincibility could be transferred to the prince and princess.  But that too could not be done.

“Wake them,” Fripp’s mother said.  “Do it slowly so you have time to tell them what has happened, to say goodbye, and to ease their passage.”

So they do.

Oliver brought his brother and sister to the royal palace.  He doesn’t present them to the king and queen in the throne room.  He gathers his mother and father and tells them all he has done.  And when they ask to see their other children, Oliver brings his brother and sister to the royal bedchamber.

Fripp’s mother had given her the spell of waking.  One need not be a sorcerer.  The spell was made so that anyone could perform it.  Shuddering with sorrow and grief for Oliver, for her king and queen, her people, herself, Fripp sang the enchantment.

And the prince and princess began to wake.

It was Oliver’s face they saw first.  He was not weeping.  He was grinning.  They saw him and then they turned to search for each other.  Thick as thieves they had been in life.  Even before Oliver spoke, they remembered what had happened to them.  The reached for each other’s hands.  They looked up at Oliver.

“I’m your brother,” he said.  “Your little brother.”

He told them all, as briefly as he could.  They felt some pain, but they quipped about it.  And they asked their mother and father why they stood so far apart.

The king and queen were heartbroken, but also heartened, for their only living son had that moment with his elder brother and sister.  And they with him.

They all clasp hands, Oliver reaching back for Fripp, and the queen taking Fripp’s other hand.  The stayed that way, speaking, smiling, weeping, and laughing until the prince and princess began to grow tired and closed their eyes and passed into the next world.

It was the king who wept over the bodies of his children.  The queen kept her hand clasped with Fripp and looked at Oliver.

“The royal advisors will make much of our newest pain,” she said.

“Let the advisors say what they will,” Oliver said, rising and taking his mother’s free hand.  “Our family is strong.”  He turned to look at his father, who was kissing his children’s foreheads.  He turned to look at Fripp.

“We are invincible.”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.

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