HEART OF A PRINCE

by Ashley Mills


Once, in a land so far away, you wouldn't believe it existed, and so beautiful if you stumbled upon it, it was rumored by many to be the mystic Isle of Avalon, there lived a prince. His name lives still on the lips of minstrels: Alan, and his mother was the Empress of this forgotten land. Day after long day, the prince watched and learned. He learned how to deal with underlings with a nobility and majesty from watching the Empress talk with elegance and act with natural grace. The Imperial guards taught him to be wary of enemies by training his eyes to be sharply keen. He watched the pageboys treat the ladies of court kindly and with respect, and learned to be chivalrous and courtly. But his father, his father was a savage, warlike man. He lived for battles, smiled at bloody feuds, took pleasure in hearing dying men's cries and rejoiced in the clashing and clanging of steel. How he ever married the Empress was beyond most of the courtiers, each of whom had their own petty theories. This man taught Alan to fight. He would spar, fence, joust, and hunt with his young son. For he, like his father and grandfather before him, believed fighting was the only way to live and that power was the only thing worth fighting for.

But it no matter how hard he tried, the man could not beat into Alan the ruthless, primordial savagery of a war hero. It was not of his nature. It seemed the young prince had inherited a gentleness, kindness even, from his mother. And by the time he was sixteen, his father could see what kind of ruler this boy would make: a weak one, in his opinion, weak and soft. And the prince could no longer sense any love, any warmth from the man he called father. Little did he know what that coldness would lead to.

His father was a vile, greedy, and secretive man. If the heir to the throne were weak, he would not let him take the Imperial crown. And come to think of it, the Empress isn't the best either; he plotted. This country needed a strong leader, one who would conquer and build this nation into a nation to be feared. He would be that leader; he would seize the crown and title. It was in the best interest for the nation, right? With this mindset, he began to think up ways to rid himself of the Empress and Alan.

* * *

"Prince Alan, come quick!" The courier called to him. He turned around to find the aide looking slightly out of place in the wheat fields with his silks and satins. Alan stopped running. It was two years later, and the once quiet heir loved to run outside, galloping faster than the stags that dotted the forest. "What is it?" he asked, agitated.

"Her highness has taken sick, deathly ill, the doctors say. Come quickly my prince!"

 

Alan huffed inside. By his crown, someone was always telling him not to do this or calling to him to come inside! Who made up such a stupid rule as 'dignified persons such as princes should not be seen out of doors.' anyway? He had heard that one more than one time too many in his young life.

But when he reached the Empress' chambers, she had already passed. The doctors still lingered over her pale and sickeningly thin body. They were confounded, she had perfectly healthy all of her still fairly young life. But the servants knew; they had seen the vials of poison imported by sly hands into the palace. But fear of death's cold hand kept them silent as to who was responsible.

Now Alan was paled as he stood by his deceased mother’s side, who was to take the crown? He prayed not him. But his father stepped in before chaos could erupt within the nervous masses. In light of the fact this was a matriarchal kingdom, and Alan had no sister, he crowned himself Emperor. Then he, with his eloquent, fluent speeches, promised the people power and glory abundant, exactly what the people wished to hear. Alan hung in the shadows, not believing his people fell for the lies. To him the speeches were stiff and forced. Anyone oppressing this new era was advised to flee, and let the stronger dominate. And flee they did, Prince Alan with them. He had always despised the flashy clothes the court nobles wore and, to tell the truth, he was frightened by power. Even in his childhood dreams, his worst nightmares were of he bearing the crown and the people blaming him for anything that went wrong. His whole life, he'd seen the numerous counts, dukes and what naught arguing in front of the Empress for money, or lands or something as trivial as that. What if they should turn on him? And even with all the training bestowed upon him, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to fend them off. They would destroy him. For years he asked himself why he'd been born into this life. But in the deepest shadows of his mind, where no one could snatch it away, he harbored the secret, forbidden thought of escaping. This was his chance. He could finally live a free live a life free of all responsibilities. So he left the kingdom in his father's blood stained hands.

Alan took the first boat away from his island home, shrouded in an aura of mist. Many of the passengers shook their heads in woe and wept in grief when they realized the imperial prince was aboard, no matter how many times he denied his identity. He was their last hope for peace, for they better than anyone, knew what the Emperor's empty promises would lead to: war and bloodshed.

* * *

Once Alan reached the nearest coast, he stepped off. He had no idea what this country was, but from now on, it was his home. Thick, vine-filled forests surrounded him and the seaside village to which the boat had anchored. "Prince Alan, please come back to us! We need you to save our world, please Prince! Prince Alan...." the desperate cries of his countrymen and their wives floated to him on the mist that surrounded everything. "...Prince Alan..." the voices echoed long after the boat disappeared.

"Are you really a prince?" a timid villager asked.

"Our prince is dead." he replied and wrapped his cloak closer around him, and pulled his cowl lower. “They mistake me for someone else.” For he indeed spoke the truth. Prince Alan no longer existed. He would never return, for now it was too late. Even if he did retrieve the crown, the people would only see his cowardice and despise him. No, he'd never let that happen. To further prove this fact, he changed his name from Alan to Evan.

Alan, or Evan, for they are one and the same, searched the thick forest for a clearing in which to build a hermitage. He found one, blocked by a high mountain on one side and shaded by dense trees on the other, and as green and lush as a slate of jade. Here he felled trees and built a humble housing, not like the rich palace he'd lived in. Logs and dirt replaced the jewels and silk he knew too well.

But living in this wilderness was not at all easy. There were none of the comforts he had grown accustom to. In fact, on his first night, he built not a towering inferno, but a small, modest fire, over which he cooked berry soup. As soon as the last red rays of sun dipped into the everlasting waters of the horizon, animals were on the prowl. A wolf circled him, just beyond the light of the flames. Alan through a flaming stick towards the beast, and it howled in pain, scampering off to join its carnivorous companions. But he still retreated to his cabin when he saw the masses of eyes waiting for him. Waiting for him to let his guard slip and strike.

For five long years Alan stayed in this wilderness, by day hunting or relaxing in the green shade, or perhaps traveling to the nearby market for supplies.

"Evening to you." the shopkeepers would say. "The usual for you, Ev?"

"Yes, please." he would reply in a low voice and place in the opened hand a silver coin, take his goods and leave, letting the townsfolk rumor about him.

And by night, he slept safely in the log cabin, away from hunger jaws and glistening white teeth, dreaming of his forgotten life.

 

Some time later, a very strange event occurred that would change his destiny. He was in town, as usual buying groceries when a rough looking man tugged at his worn cloak. "Prince Alan, is that really you?" he asked when Alan turned.

"I'm sorry sir, you must be mistaken. My name is Eva-"

"You don't fool me, your highness!" the man cut off. "I've known you since you was a baby."

Now a crowd was eagerly gathering around the two.

Alan pulled him close, whispering: "just follow me, okay?"

"Anything you say, your highness."

"Do you have a place to sleep? I shouldn't think so. Why don't I show you to an inn, hmm?" Alan asked louder to confound and quiet the restless, spirited townsfolk and led him to his hidden cottage.

* * *

"Prince Alan, it really is you! So this is where you been hiding out. Not all like the palaces you are used to, eh?"

"No, not in the least." Alan answered quietly. "You seem familiar, distantly. Who are you?"

"Why it's me, Bryan! Cap'n of the Imperial guards for her majesty, I was. You used to clutch to me robes as a little boy."

Alan faintly remembered grasping someone's long, ceremonious gown and watching his mother.

" You don't know how much the Isle's changed."

"You're right, I don't" Alan replied in a low tone with an icicle’s warmth.

"Lemme tell you lad, it isn't like when you were a child. No more golden fields, wide spread ancient forests, nothing. Your father moved the palace to the other end of the island. Its horrible, hideous, a monstrosity even. No one dares go near it. Not like the beautiful and regal estate of the Empress. The land is ravaged, ransacked. No crops will grow, and babe's cries for food haunt the night."

"Is there no one to stop him?"

"Course not. Everyone able was sent to conquer the world. Hardly a soul came back. Don't you see? Our beautiful land is being stained crimson by greedy hands. If it does not cease soon boy..." Bryan's deep voice trailed off.

The prince knew what would happen: his homeland would be destroyed.

"But I can't go back Bryan. I wish I could, but I just can't ...not now, not ever."

"Why not?"

Alan crossed over to a chest he'd built and pulled out a small box. He opened the lid and removed a gilded circlet, seemingly made from light itself. His mother had given it to him, his only reminder of his second life.

"This is why,” he said, letting it shimmer in the light. "And what would happen when I did return? Yes, at first they may hail the conquering hero and be dazzled by the gold, but then what? What happens when the cheering voices fade into the past, and they find their hero was a coward, abandoning them when times were rough. The gold fades, and you see the brass hiding beneath. They'd see right through my heritage and into the cowardice inside. That's why I can never return...never." The halo seemed to dim.

"But your highness, you don't know that! Your people would only see that their prince, not some foreign stranger but their imperial prince by right of birth had come back to them. Right now, anyone is better than the Emperor, right?"

The prince was silent.

"Think of it this way," Bryan continued. "What will happen to the land you love? You can’t tell me you don’t love it. You may not know it right now, but you are of the Royal house. There is an inborn feeling of admiration for it. Answer me this: what will happen to it? You are the only one that can restore it."

"What do you mean?"

"There is a legend that our ancestors have told for thousands of generations, to this very day. It says the land chooses the next leader. If a despicable person were crowned, the land would become a barren wasteland, refusing to produce crops for the Emperor or his people to eat. But when someone of higher birth claimed right, the land was happy to serve. Beauty abounded when this noble being ruled. So we, through the sudden uproar of hardships, have protected the flickering candle of hope from the wind of injustice, whispering in the shadows: "Prince Alan will return, the prince will come home..." Your subjects remember you. They long for you."

"But I..."

Alan cut short when caught Bryan's eyes, imploring his soul. These were the eyes of one who had suffered heart-wrenching agony and still endured, because he recalled the glorious days and believed in the one who could restore it.

"I will," Alan answered. For what else could he do, shatter the poor man’s heart yet again?

* * *

Alan shivered as the boat slowly drifted through the fog, heralding that his home was near. He wrapped his cloak around him tighter and sighed. His childhood nightmares were one step away from reality, and getting closer with every stroke of the oars into the cool waters. Images of hissing peasants awaiting him on the shore filled his mind. But it was too late to turn back now. The boat's bottom scraped against the sand, sign that they were ashore. Alan lifted his eyes to look at the rocky landscape. His face paled in horror, this was not his birthplace! This was some godforsaken desert, not lush forests! The trees were dead, and the land barren and scorched. Alan let a single tear roll down his face, what had happened to this place? But even more painful was the fact that deep recesses of his soul, he knew it was his fault. This land would not have retrogressed into a wasteland, had he not left the crown for his father to seize. What a fool he had been, such a cowardly fool.

Bryan led him to the remnants of the palace, and his heart wrenched within him. A fire had seared most of it, save the armory, throne room, and a few select inner rooms. Alan quietly opened the door to the elegant throne room and stood silent beneath the silken curtains. Everything was just as he remembered it, except there was an empty hollowness that blanketed everything. Suddenly, a rage threatened to choke him. He swore revenge to whoever destroyed the beautiful place he knew so well.

While passing the armory, he stopped for a moment. Memories if his early fighting lessons flooded back to him. What was his father had said about dueling? He pressed a hand to his forehead and tried hard to remember...

An eight-year-old boy stood in a white fencing suit, helm and sword in hand. A black giant towered over him, challenging him. For a few minutes they parried back and forth, until the boy's sword snapped. Immediately he rushed to get a heavier battle-ax, when a bellow rang out: "Stop! D’ya want to be killed?"

The black demon pulled off the helmet, revealing his father's scared face. "Never ever use a war weapon in a duel. Never. It will do you no good. Your enemy will have the lighter sword, and will run circles around you and strike you down."

"Yes father..."

The boy faded, leaving adult Alan in his place. He reached for a fencing sword and a longer battle one, knowing he'd need both. He may not agree with his father, but he knew when it came to battle, he spoke the truth. Now he would use that knowledge against him.

* * *

"Bryan?"

"Yes my liege?"

"How far away is the Imperial Palace my father built?"

"Not but a morning's ride, provided we can find some decent horses." Bryan looked around at the black walls surrounding them.

"Should we check the stables?"

"T'would be a good idea."

Bryan and Alan both briskly walked to the beat up stables. Wooden beams were rotting on the ground wherever their feet fell. They were about to give up when a distant whinny reached their ears. Alan ran ahead to find three stallions tied to a post, eagerly stamping to get free.

"Bryan! Bryan! I found some!" he called eagerly.

The older man rushed in. "Well, so you did! It's not too late to ride, you know."

"Then let's go," Alan answered, with just a hint of regret.

* * *

Early the next morning, Alan awoke beneath a vast oak tree. His bed of fallen leaves crinkled when he sat up, trying to orientate in himself. The ashes of last night's fire were white as chalk. The horses were happily munching on apples. He stood up, and walked to the nearby hill for a better look of the land they were to cross. A breeze lifted up his hair, toying with it. His sky-colored eyes searched for the Imperial Palace, not very hard to find. It lay in the middle of a scorched valley, an ugly pockmark scaring the beautiful island. Dark, gothic towers rose to brush up against eternity.

Who am I fooling? How can I dare face my own father? There he was, caught on the limbo between his mother’s heaven of the past, and his father’s hell of the future, created by his own selfishness. No, righting the wrong he’d performed would be the only way to even try to make this up. Pressing one hard foot in front of another and a clenched jaw, he pressed onwards. The wind howled and pushed him back. It whispered his dreads, cutting straight to his core as he pushed onward.

 

Alan pushed the immense door at the bottom of the endless tower. The entire structure was jet black, ominous and gothic. Inside, he tread down a long corridor, clutching his sword. He traveled on for a lifetime until he found the throne room, at the massive heart of the palace. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the prodigal son coming for redemption?” His blood ran cold. That voice. It was not changed, and still had the cold hard edge he came to despise. His father stepped into the halo of light. “You will find no forgiveness here. You are a weak, pathetic boy with foolish hopes and naivety!” His father pulled out a long sword from his back, and held it before him, a silent challenge. Alan breathed in deeply, and raised his own sword, trying to hide the trembling in his hand. His father lunged, forcing him back against the shadows. The man parried and thrust, forcing Alan to retreat up a hidden staircase.

“You thought you could usurp me? You honestly believed you had that kind of power?”

Alan kept silent, and fought harder as the sweat dropped into his eyes.

“And, foolish boy, even if you did posses that power you could never rule. You are too weak, too soft.” The man narrowed his black, soulless eyes. “That is why I stopped your training. I stopped showing you compassion. You had a gentleness I could never banish, no matter how hard I pushed you. Didn’t you ever wonder why your father stopped talking to you? Stopped caring about his ‘darling’ son?”

Alan’s head rushed with the painful nights he racked his brain with ways to gain his father’s love again. He eventually gave up, thinking it a futile dream.

They were almost to the top of the tower now, and his opponent’s fighting was getting fiercer, and he slashed at him with an animal savagery.

“You were too much like your mother to be of any use.”

“No,” he whispered. They arrived at the end of the stairs, and Alan pushed against a door leading to the top. The battle continued in all its intensity.

“Pathetic, gentle, weak, trusting, everything a good ruler should not be! Why do you think I killed her? Think boy! Power. Sheer, ultimate, unopposed power.”

“NNNOOOOOO!!!!” Alan released a soul-wrenching scream. He had not realized before now how dear his mother had been to him. This, this demon before him murdered her in cold blood. Every fear he had was banished and he suddenly fought back with a vengeance. He had no thoughts of his father’s power, and the only thing that mattered right now was justice. The Emperor was forced against the ramparts.

“You are stronger than even I supposed.” He said darkly. “Then prove your strength! Kill me now!” He challenged. Alan paused. Even if he was a monster, within and without, he could not kill him.

“I knew it! I knew you were too weak to do it! No one shall ever kill me!” Suddenly his father’s voice was stopped dead when a thunderous crack resounded. The parapet was crumbling. The man tumbled to his feet and grasped the edge. “Here, take my hand!” Alan dropped his sword and reached for him. “Accept defeat? Never, I will die a warrior.” The man let go.

“FATHER!!!” Alan could only watch as the black shadow descended, toppled by his own arrogance and greed. A tear fell after him. The wind whipped at his black cape as a change undertook the land. Green replaced orange as fruitfulness took over the barren desert. Alan stood tall in the wind and slowly walked down the stairs, leaving the two swords where the lay. The battle was finally over. The battle that rampaged two hearts and an entire land.


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Heart of a Prince, 28 October 2001