“Father, can you tell me about Drinian please?”
High King Nernon smiled at his tired son with gentle eyes as the boy struggled to stay awake a little longer.
“Again? I just told you his story last night?”
Despite his sleepy eyes, the young prince Drinian, named after the legend of old, struggled to raise himself up.
“I know, but I like it!”
Nernon reached out and ruffled the prince’s hair, his mouth twitching upwards as his son ducked away from his hand.
“If I do, then will you go to sleep?”
Drinian nodded and Nernon settled a little further into his chair. Following his example, Drinian laid back down in his bed and pulled the blankets over him. His eyes stared up at his father in anticipation.
“Once upon a time…”
Nernon hesitated just to see his son squirm. With a chuckle he finally gave in.
“Once upon a time there was a great hero who saved humanity from the destruction of our former planet.”
Prince Drinian had fallen asleep far before the end of his father’s story, but he had heard it so many times that it didn’t matter; he knew the story by heart. A young man lead the remnants of humanity in fleeing from the destruction of the Old Planet. They landed here, on Clarion, where they made peace with the other species, and then the hero Drinian became the first High King.
His father always ended the old legend by explaining that he and Drinian’s mother named him after the great hero because they hoped he would become just as strong and wise as his namesake. It was a statement that the seven-year-old boy took to heart in honor of a mother he didn’t remember and to make his father proud.
His nursemaid interrupted his musings.
“Prince Drinian, you must get up.”
Drinian scowled at the ceiling before throwing off his blankets and crawling out of the bed. The tile floor was cold beneath his bare feet, and the nursemaid caught his shiver.
“Let’s get you dressed,” Martia said as she led him to where she had already set out his clothes for the day. The brown trousers would hopefully hide any minor scuffle he had with the dirt during the day, the brown shoes were sturdy enough to survive any rough-and-tumble, and the green shirt would was easy to mend.
Drinian hopped from foot to foot as Martia studied him with a practiced eye. He knew better than to run off before she let him. She took the small crown that she had placed on the dresser and placed it on the boy’s head. Drinian would take it off before too long, but for that moment, he looked like a prince. At her pleased nod, Drinian slipped past her and out the door before she could change her mind.
After sneaking a meat pie from the kitchen for breakfast, Drinian made his way to the library. It had become a habit for him to go there in the mornings when his father’s words echoed too loudly in his mind. If he was to become a great king like his father and his namesake, then he must study.
It also helped that his father was prone to delay or even cancel Drinian’s lessons if the prince was busy in the library. All he had to do was look like he was reading.
This morning, though, he found a few books that looked like they might have enough pictures in them and brought them to his favorite corner couch that he sank into happily. The first one he tossed onto the side table after flipping through a few pages. There were plenty of pictures, but the words were in a small print and even his small perusal had shown there to be too many big words.
The next book seemed to have a good balance of pictures and words he could read. There were a few that he needed to look up on his dash on his left forearm, but not so many that he would become bored. He curled his legs up beneath him and began to read.
At midday, he put his second book down and rubbed his eyes, a yawn escaping him. His young mind was only able to handle so much information. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes to let them recover.
In his mind, he pictured himself as a man with shining armor and a gleaming sword negotiating with the Arbisks, an aviary species that lived to the East. In his imagined world, the Arbisks had been stealing the human’s crops and it was Drinian’s duty as king to settle the issue before both sides came to blows.
“No, you can’t take their crops,” he would say. “Stealing is wrong. How about we trade instead? We will give you crops and you will give us candy.”
No, that was too childish. Try that again.
“We will give you crops and you will give us fish.”
Yes, fish was much better. He stretched his arms above his head and relaxed back into the couch.
A loud snort of laughter came from a nearby table where a few soldiers were chatting in hushed voices before they had to report to their superior officer. He recognized most of them, having either kept them company during their long boring hours of watch or as instructors for his weapons practice. He waved at them, grinning when they waved back.
He took the two books he had read into his hand and was about to stand up to return them when the doors to the library slammed open. Drinian jumped at the sound, his eyes widening as he caught sight of the cause of the sound. A massive Zarboxi soldier, fully armed with a battle axe in each hand and a gleaming purple jewel set in his breastplate, stepped past the debris into the room. His dark fur seemed to absorb all the light in the room as his dog-like face scanned the room for its target. Two other Zarbox followed behind him, one short and lean, the other bulky and with a slight hunch.
Drinian froze as those black eyes landed on him and stayed there. It was as though his muscles were paralyzed as the Zarboxi came close and closer.
Four figures blocked Drinian’s view of the creature coming toward him. The soldiers had reacted immediately to the threat and now stood between their prince and the attacker with swords drawn. Drinian felt himself relax. He knew they would protect him. After all, nothing could beat his father’s men.
The first soldier fell the ground, his hand grasping weakly at his chest. Two more quickly joined them. The last soldier stood firm, but against three Zarbox, he stood no chance. Drinian screamed as the soldier fell back.
The lead Zarboxi sheathed one of his axes to pick up the screaming boy. Drinian struggled, but the creature didn’t even flinch as he and his companions darted out of the library and up the stairs to an upper room. The room was empty, but the reason they chose it was for the balcony overlooking the outerwall. Drinian screamed again and shut his eyes shut as the Zarbox vaulted over the edge and onto the battlements below.
Three soldiers met them with spears, but they were forced to pull up short when the Zarboxi swung the prince in front of him to act as a shield, his forearm easily keeping the young prince suspended. The soldiers took slow steps toward the creatures with their spears ready, determined to find a way to free the prince. Drinian scrabbled at the arm holding him with weak fingers. If he didn’t do something, then the soldiers couldn’t get him away.
He shouted in panic as he was swung back around, suddenly facing the edge of the wall and the Zarboxi still holding tightly onto him. It was a long drop to the bottom, but with a sinking feeling, Drinian remembered that the Zarbox were mountain dwellers. The jump would be easy for them. He renewed his struggles to no avail.
The Zarboxi sprang down to land heavily on the ground below and immediately began running, slinging the prince over his shoulder for easier movement. Drinian could see the two other Zarbox land and dart after their leader. The soldiers on the wall shouted something, but they could not make the jump. For the moment, the Zarbox were free.
Drinian curled his hands into the dark fur to keep himself steady as he tried to think, but panic blurred his thoughts. His father must have been caught completely by surprise if he hadn’t shown up yet. But that couldn’t be right. His father was invincible!
It took a few minutes, but Drinian finally heard the braying of kornans in the distance, steadily getting closer. He twisted, trying to get into a position to see better.
There! It looked like there were four of them, no, five! He couldn’t see who was on them yet, but it didn’t matter. They would rescue him.
The hand holding Drinian against his shoulder fisted into the prince’s shirt, pulling him to the chest of the Zarboxi once more. The reason why became clear when Drinian looked to where the Zarbox was heading. It was an abandoned tower that had been used during the initial war by the humans. Despite his young age, Drinian could see that the tower looked much more sturdy than when his father had brought him there a few months earlier. Some of the gaping holes in the walls had been filled and the door had been reinforced. Drinian shivered as they approached the tower.
The young prince flinched as the Zarboxi warrior ran through the door into the tower. Immediately, the braying of the kornans faded as the walls of the tower blocked out the sound. It was harder to believe that his father would rescue him without that sound.
The prince was carried up the stairs to the top of the tower while the two other Zarbox remained to guard their passage. From his visit, Drinian remembered that there was a command room and a holding cell at the top of the tower that had fallen to ruin from years of neglect. It wasn’t unreasonable to believe that the Zarbox had fixed that up as well. They reached the top and the Zarboxi through the boy down.
Drinian hit the stone floor on his left shoulder, his head slamming down and sending spikes of pain through his head. He turned to see his attacker flick on the control to the lasers that separated the cell from the rest of the tower. If anything alive touched that laser, it would disintegrate.
As the Zarboxi disappeared back down the stairs, Drinian pulled himself to sitting position with shaky hands then gently touched the back of his head. His fingers came back red. Drinian panicked, his breaths leaving him in desperate sobs, his fingers digging into his knees as he pulled them to his chest. This wasn’t supposed to happen! He was supposed to grow up and become king!
He swung his head around the room, looking for anything that could help him, but there was nothing. The lasers would kill him and there were no windows he could climb out of. He was trapped.
There was a surge of noise and movement coming from the bottom of the stairs. It calmed Drinian enough to remember that his father was coming. If anyone could save him, it would be his father.
He fought to calm his heaving breaths, wanting to look strong when his father saw him. With a final clench of his fingers into the fabric of his trousers, he pushed himself into standing position and immediately staggered, a wave of dizziness overwhelming him before he shook it off. He would be fine. His father was coming.
He didn’t have to wait long. High King Nernon raced up the stairs, having slipped past the three Zarbox on the ground floor while his men engaged the creatures. He turned the corner and his eyes immediately flew to where Drinian was sitting against the wall.
“I’m coming son!”
He reached for the switch to the doors, but inches before he could turn the lasers off, he was forced to duck, hearing the whistle of the axe as it barely missed his head.
“Father!” Drinian cried out in fear, jerking forward momentarily before flinching back as the Zarboxi who had carried him there approached his father. The king held his ground, sword held ready to defend himself and his son, and absently noted the purple jewel glinting off the axe the Zarboxi held in a loose grip. A silent moment passed as each warrior considered the other, and then they moved.
The high king was one of the most skilled warriors in the human kingdom and it showed as he leaned to the side to let the axe swing past him then pressed forward to force the creature back. But even so, it quickly became clear that he was no match for the Zarboxi. Or rather, the jewel in the Zarboxi’s breastplate. With each blow dodged or parried, the jewel glowed brighter and the Zarboxi moved faster. The king struggled to avoid injury, barely able to keep up and growing more desperate with every passing second.
Nernon jumped back as the Zarboxi warrior suddenly leapt forward swinging his axe in a high arc and then dodged to the left as the Zarboxi kicked out toward his side. There was no time to attack. The king was forced to focus completely on defending himself as the Zarboxi’s speed only increased, his own breaths coming in silent gasps and his limbs shaking from exertion. He glanced around him, hoping to find something that could turn the battle but there was nothing. Looking back at the Zarboxi, he raised his sword to parry. The axe was coming again from above. No wait!
But it was too late. The Zarboxi’s feint fooled the king long enough for the Zarboxi to turn the weapon and thrust the end of the handle into the king’s side, cracking two of the king’s ribs. Nernon dropped his sword from the force of the blow and fell to his knees in pain. Drinian screamed in agonized horror, darting forward toward the laser door.
Nernon caught himself with a hand and grabbed the handle of the axe with the other as it came at him again. He looked up at the Zarboxi, rage and determination glinting like fire in his eyes. The king would not let his son be taken by these creatures.
The Zarboxi grabbed his axe away from the king and stepped forward to strike the final blow. It came whistling down and slammed into the stone floor, barely missing the king who had lunged to the side and grabbed his sword as he rose. Nernon used the momentum of his movements to thrust the blade at the Zarboxi’s side. The creature, still off balance from the failed attack, moved out of the way at the last moment then snatched a knife from his belt and swiped at the king, opening a shallow wound above the king’s left eye. Nernon reeled back from the blow then caught himself, ready to continue the fight.
A metal clanging upon the stone floor echoed from the prince’s cell. Both warriors halted their actions and turned to the cell. The prince was nowhere to be seen, but his crown rolled lazily by the lasers where it had fallen, the grinding sound of metal against solid stone seeming to penetrate the very air. The two warriors stood frozen, the same thought running through their minds. Had the prince fallen into the lasers?
The moment broke. The Zarboxi howled in rage as Nernon dropped to his knees, stunned. His son, his last connection to his wife, was gone.
Outside, the howls of the Zarboxi echoed in the night as a man in black carried a precious bundle away from the tower into the darkness.
In the days after, the king recovered from his injuries, but he always bore the scar over his eye and a shadow over his heart.