AN: I don't even know what I'm doing anymore, guys. This story came at me hard, so here I am. My other incomplete stories WILL be finished eventually, but right now this one won't leave me alone. As always, thanks for stopping by, and please leave your thoughts!
Trigger warnings for the story: eventual male/male relationship, but it's slow burn. Violence, language, there's a death right here in the prologue that the characters will mourn throughout the story. Childhood abuse in flashback scenes. If I think of any others I'll include them in the later chapters.
King Olaf and Queen Ingrid were distraught. The Queen's keening cries could be heard through the winding stone hallways of the castle, and sent a chill down Sir Vidar's spine. He stood frozen in the doorway, staring at her crumpled figure. Around her, the room looked eerily ordinary. Without the noticeable absence of its owner, and the grieving mother, one might not realize anything was amiss.
The blankets on the large four-poster bed were tossed back, and the stained glass door to the balcony was cracked. That was it. That was the only sign that something had happened. But it told enough of a story to Vidar's sharp eye.
Someone had come in through the balcony. He didn't know how, as they were in one of the castle's highest towers, at least a hundred feet above the ground. They had picked the lock on the balcony door, swept the blankets off of six-year-old Prince Otto, and disappeared with him sometime in the night. No alarms were tripped. No guards alerted. They had no idea how long ago it happened. But when the Queen went to wake him this morning for breakfast—a morning ritual she had always elected to do herself, rather than allowing the nanny to take care of it—she had found his bedroom empty.
The guards had leapt into action immediately, sounding the alarm and alerting the knights asleep in the bunkhouse on one of the lower levels. Captain Vidar and Lady Ragnhild had rushed across the castle—it had been their night off, but none of the knights ever went far when they were off-duty, just in case—to aid the royal family.
In the Prince's playroom, the first room in the Prince's private quarters, Vidar had stopped with a gasp. Lying on the floor, in a congealed pool of his own blood, was the En Quinus, Benedikt. He had been the Prince's personal bodyguard, one of the best fighters Vidar had personally ever seen. He had trained with Vidar and the knights for the last fifteen years, since they were all children apprenticing for knighthood. Now, Ben was facedown on the floor, and the Queen was already mourning for her missing son, despite the fact that the guards and knights had rushed off to search the castle and lower town.
A mother knows, after all.
"He… He didn't fall," King Olaf says, wiping his face in an effort to maintain composure in front of his knights. "Ingrid was always worried about the balcony, you know. But the guards looked, and searched below on the ground. There's no sign of Otto down there. Whoever… whoever did this… they made it safely off the balcony with him."
"How did they get in?" Ragnhild hissed behind Vidar, keeping her head turned from Benedikt's body like she couldn't bear to look at it. Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears.
"My boy," the Queen moaned. "My baby boy."
Vidar turned his head to quietly reply to Ragnhild. "In and out through the balcony somehow, it looks like."
He didn't know.
He jerked into motion, easing past the King and Queen to step out onto the balcony. Ragnhild was quick on his heels, as discomfited by the King and Queen's hysterics as Vidar, no doubt. Perhaps more so.
The balcony was large, with one set of double doors that led into the Prince's chambers. There was a small table and four chairs, with a three tier candlestick in the middle. A box of chalk sat up against the wall by the door, and some of Prince Otto's colorful chalk drawings of the En Quinus and knights still decorated the stone floor. The Queen was known to sit out here when she could afford to get away from her duties, sipping tea with the nanny, and watch her son play.
Ragnhild headed straight for the railing, glancing first down and then out. "I don't get it," she said plaintively. "No one could've done this. Not without an airship. And the guards should've heard an airship. It's impossible."
Vidar joined her at the edge. Directly below was a cobblestone courtyard. There were no excessively tall trees or other buildings or towers that could be used as a jumping-off point. And, he thought with a glance up at the roof, he didn't think anyone had dropped down. At least, there was no sign indicating that's what had happened. He was as confused as Ragnhild.
"It should be," he agreed. "But somehow it happened. Now, we just have to focus on finding Otto."
"How do you intend to do that?" The King asked, and Vidar turned to see him stepping out onto the balcony with them. The Queen's cries had quieted for now, but grief came in waves. They wouldn't be the last tears she shed.
The King and Queen weren't much older than Vidar himself. They had tried for nearly ten years to have Otto, and their private physician had warned against having anymore children after him, for the Queen's health. The King's hair had begun turning gray ten years ago, lending him a more regal look, but now the stress lines on his face made seem aged and world-weary.
Vidar searched for the right words. He needed to reassure his king, but what could he say at this point? They had no idea where to even begin looking for Otto.
"I don't know," he admitted, because King Olaf had always valued honesty over false bravado. "But we will not stop until we bring him home, you have my word as a knight."
Olaf nodded absently, scratching his fingers through his short beard. "Do you remember—gods—do you remember what Benedikt told us, years ago? About his brother?"
Yes, Vidar remembered. It was a distant, hazy sort of memory. Ben had mentioned his brother in Vidar's presence exactly once, though, so it could be the only one to which the King referred.
They were getting ready for a Yule celebration. The castle's staff were busy decorating, hanging garlands and holly. Somehow the conversation turned toward families, and the King had asked En Quinus about his.
"No family, Your Majesty. I have one brother that I haven't spoken to in years. He sends me letters occasionally, but I've never responded. Besides, he's kind of a nomad. I wouldn't even know where to send one."
"What could've happened to break the bond shared by brothers?" The King had asked.
"He did something. Something that made both our lives infinitely harder. He thought he was protecting us, but all it did was ruin us."
"You don't speak to him at all anymore?" Vidar asked.
Ben shook his head. "No. We're as estranged as it's possible to be. He's not really a family-oriented person, in the traditional sense."
"What's the non-traditional sense?" Vidar asked.
Ben had laughed. "Well, he doesn't come around for holiday celebrations, but I'm sure he'd avenge me if something happened to me. He's probably the only one who could, to be honest."
"Hey," Vidar protested. "We've been shield-brothers for near fifteen years now. You don't think I'd avenge you?"
Ben squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sure you would. But Nikolai… He's done things I can't imagine any of the knights ever doing. Last I heard, actually, he was working as a mercenary. Sounds like the right line of work for him."
Ragnhild glanced between Vidar and Olaf. "Should we… notify next of kin?" Something mulish crossed her expression, because Ben was like a brother to all of them. They were his next of kin, where it counted.
"No," the King replied. "I think we should consider bringing in outside help."
"Your Majesty…" Vidar began.
Olaf raised a hand to halt his protests. "I know. I remember what Ben told us about him. But he may have contacts that we don't. If… If my son is alive, whoever took him will get as far away from anyone wearing a royal crest as possible. His brother isn't affiliated with us, and may just be the only one who can find who took my son and killed Benedikt. And… yes, I think he deserves to know what happened to his brother. No matter what happened in their history, Ben did admit that his brother has attempted to reach out over the years. He does still care about Ben. It was Ben's choice not to pursue a relationship, for whatever reason. But he still deserves to know."
"We don't know how to find him," Vidar protested. Weakly. If anyone had the resources to find one man, it was the royal knights of Arcadia.
The King tsked and gestured for Vidar and Ragnhild to follow him inside. The nanny, Isabella, was sitting in the floor with the Queen, holding her hands and speaking softly to her. Ingrid barely glanced up at her husband and the knights as they passed.
Vidar and Ragnhild exchanged a grim look.
The King led them into the En Quinus quarters. Vidar shuffled uncomfortably. The room was dark, the blankets tossed back. One corner of the rug was overturned, and a sword scabbard lay forgotten in the middle of the floor, like Benedikt had drawn it and rushed out of the room so quickly he'd abandoned it.
"Your Majesty," Vidar began again.
"Calm yourself," Olaf said. "I wouldn't have brought you in here without a good reason."
Olaf went right to the trunk at the foot of the bed and opened it on squeaky hinges. He dug around inside for a moment, and came up with a folded paper.
"Read this," he said, handing it over to Vidar.
Ragnhild nudged him with one bony elbow, so Vidar cleared his throat and began to read aloud.
You never respond to these letters, but I suppose this is better than the alternative. You'll be happy to know I've hung up my blades and have found a small cabin to call my own. It is a few miles outside a small valley village named Fjell. They are hardy people here, surviving off the land and the kindness of their neighbors. Perhaps I can make a life here, at least for a while. You know what happens when I get too restless.
Whether a blessing or a curse, I don't get much in the way of news here. Without the occasional mention of the Prince and his En Quinus in the paper, I will truly be cut off from you. I don't even know for sure if you'll receive this. Perhaps you've moved on from your En Quinus duties by now, and are no longer residing at the Arcadian palace. I don't think so, though. You seem content there.
Happy birthday, brother.
"How'd you know this was there?" Vidar asked the king.
"He showed it to me, three months ago when he received it," Olaf replied. "He told me he always reads the letters, keeps them, but never responds. His brother doesn't seem bothered by his silence, as it's been fifteen years, and he still sends them at least once a year."
Better than the alternative, Nikolai's letter had said. Better than Ben not hearing from his brother at all? Would Ben think Nikolai dead if he suddenly stopped receiving the letters?
Probably. And Nikolai has no returning acknowledgment through which to gauge Benedikt's state. Except the newspapers that mentioned sightings of Prince Otto and his En Quinus, which Nikolai admitted he couldn't get in Fjell.
"Fjell," Ragnhild said, as though reading Vidar's thoughts. "That's in Sirillia, right? In the Skag Mountains."
"Yes," Vidar said. "It would take us a few days to get there," he warned the king. "And there's no guarantee he will be able or willing to help us. He and Benedikt hadn't spoken in fifteen years."
"But they were family," the king said. "He should know."
"Then send some of the guard," Vidar argued. "Let us begin the search for Otto."
"Where? How? Whoever took him left behind no evidence," Olaf said bleakly.
Vidar floundered. "Well… there's… there's got to be something. They couldn't have just vanished with him into thin air."
"You would fan out into the city, am I correct, Captain?" Olaf asked. "Search the inns, the taverns, find some of your criminal contacts who may have heard anything useful?"
"The guard can do that. Leave some of your knights here, if you're worried they can't handle it on their own. Just take a handful of your people with you to track down the brother. But bring him here. I truly believe that he can help us."
Vidar sighed. A glance at Ragnhild was no help. Her expression was carefully unreadable. She would follow whatever he ordered.
"Okay," he relented. "We'll take an airship. Ragnhild, please pack a bag and tell Aksel and Einar to pack one as well. We've got a mercenary to find."
AN: Thanks for reading, guys. I've got quite a bit of this one written, so it shouldn't take me too long to post each chapter, assuming life doesn't completely get in the way. Thank you for reading, and please leave your thoughts!