Sir Harlan of Keyes paused as he tromped through the village, rubbing his sore knees. He was nearly through his sixtieth year and his armor had started to weigh heavy on him of late. He’d taken many an arrow to the knee in his years serving the Kingdom of Raki, and now every single one seemed still embedded in his flesh.
“Are you well, Sir Harlan?” One of the palace guards approached, bending as if to inspect a flaw in the knight’s knee.
Harlan straightened, patting his swollen joints. “No trouble, but there’s rain coming. We need to find the prince before it breaks.”
The guard paled. “Will rain make the curse worse?”
“No, you dolt, it’ll ruin his clothes!” Harlan huffed waving his hand in the guard’s face. “Take your men, go check the livery.”
Adam wouldn’t be in the livery, Harlan knew, but it would be better if the palace guards with their gruff ways and ignorant superstitions didn’t find him first. Harlan watched as the guard gathered his troop and ran north, swords brandished.
He rolled his eyes. All this fuss over a boy.
In truth, it annoyed him that King Raki had sent the guards at all. Harlan had been wrangling the prince since the village healer declared the boy cursed at the age of seven. Harlan had never seen much to the curse.
The boy was peculiar, yes. He’d throw hell-raising fits if he was touched too much, or his food wasn’t right. Screaming and beating himself about the head until his crying mother and father fled the room, leaving Harlan to hold the boy until he calmed.
Though the fits were frightening, they got less frequent as the boy aged. By nine, Harlan could spot the fits as they formed, and had even begun to stop them before they escalated. Still, the king and queen wanted a prince to present at balls, not a quiet son who preferred old books and would loudly complain that the ceremonies of the kingdom were silly superstitions.
When the queen died trying to give birth to a normal heir, King Raki became obsessed with curing his son. Virgins were thrown on pyres, blood was smeared across the prince’s screaming face, and leagues of shaman and healers were brought to the palace only to be banished when the prince showed no improvement. Every healing treatment from potions to ointments were forced upon the boy until his screams and fits became legendary throughout the castle, only growing the murmurs about the cursed price.
And that’s what had finally stopped the king’s quest – the murmurs. It was one thing to have a son who couldn’t behave properly, quite another to have his subjects know about it. Maids were threatened, knights menaced until the stories of the prince’s oddities were merely castle legend. To those living outside the palace, there was nothing wrong with the heir to the Raki crown.
Personally, Harlan preferred it that way. Prince Adam was a sweet boy when his father wasn’t fussing at him, and as long as he and the other prince’s guards maintained a routine, there were no problems. The days weren’t exciting, but Harlan found he didn’t mind eating the same meals day in and day out if it meant keeping his little prince away from the horrors of trying to heal him. Adam, to Harlan’s mind, had always been a good boy.
Today, as Harlan trudged through the village, getting muck on his good cloak and feeling every ache in his old bones, he had to admit Adam was a acting like a little shit.
The boy had been desperate to go to the meeting hall; an astronomer was giving a lecture about the earth revolving around the sun. Normally, as long as Harlan promised to keep Adam out of sight, he could take the young prince to the hall to hear all the science lectures he wished. Adam loved the poorly attended events, and he was content to sit in the balcony while Harlan snored softly. But the clergy had been upset about this lecture, it challenged one of the beliefs they preached and it wouldn’t do to have a prince or a royal guard spotted at the hall.
Adam had tried to argue his point, stammering and tapping his way through his request. But his ‘fits’, as King Raki labeled them, only served to provoke the monarch. He had banned Adam from going to any lectures at all, telling him his clergy tutors would have to suffice since he couldn’t act appropriately in public.
Harlan had soothed Adam through the fit that followed. He listened as the boy stuttered out all his reasons for going, gently catching the hands that tried to smack at their own flesh. When Adam was calm, Harlan had promised to go to the lecture himself, to stay awake for once and report back to the prince all that was said.
Apparently, Adam hadn’t had much faith in Harlan’s ability to recount the lecture. The boy snuck out of his rooms just as the guards were changed. An alert was raised and now, as Harlan moved toward the hall, he hoped Adam had remembered the way properly and hadn’t stopped to talk to anyone.
“I’ll fucking kill you, you fuck!”
“Grab the satchel!”
Harlan frowned at the sound, his heartbeat speeding. Please, oh please.
“N-no! I- I-”
Harlan’s heart stopped. Adam. Ignoring the protests in his old joints he ran down an alley that lead to the docks. He only prayed he had enough fight in him to save his boy from whatever had him.
When Harlan reached the mouth of the alley, he paused, trying to assess the dangers to Adam. He frowned when he finally spotted the boy, cowering against a wall. To Harlan’s surprise, however, the men at the docks weren’t upon him, they were being held at bay by a mangy boy wielding a plank of wood.
The boy snarled at three grown men, swiping at them and landing blows as he dodged their swords. There was a wildness to the child, he looked like the feral children that the nuns on the hill fed and clothed. They usually died on the streets before reaching their teens, their small bodies trampled by carriages before the street cleaners could dump them in a large grave.
But this one, with the fierce curl of his lip and the inelegant aggression of a street fighter, had apparently thrived in the dirty alleys of the village. Harlan reached for his sword, prepared to help the boy when he heard a solid thwack. He looked up to see that the boy had felled the largest of the men. Instead of turning to the other attackers, the boy leaped upon the downed man, smashing the board into the man’s leather breastplate and head.
The two other men moved to step around the boy, hoping to get at Adam while his filthy protector was distracted. Adam shrank lower to the wall, still hugging his satchel to his chest. Before the men could reach Adam, the boy darted between them, holding a bloody piece of wood aloft.
“Run or I’ll drive this through your fucking heart.” Though the boy was smaller than both men, they seemed to take his threat seriously. Turning, they ran toward the wharfs, leaving their friend to bleed out on the wooden walkway.
Harlan knew he should approach, grab Adam and look him over for marks, but something rooted him to the spot. He watched in fascination as the mangy boy flopped next to Adam on the wall, spitting out blood before turning to the prince.
“So, what’s in that fucking satchel?” The boy nudged it, causing Adam to flinch and curl harder around the bag. The boy studied Adam before scooting away a bit. He didn’t leave, merely offered Adam a bit more room.
“I-it it…It’s mine!” Adam was still curled, his face turning purple. Harlan ached to go to the boy but made himself remain hidden.
“Didn’t say it wasn’t.” The kid replied, apparently ignoring Adam’s gasping breaths and rocking. He used the bloody wood he still clutched to pick at his teeth. “I asked what was in it.”
“We’re not getting nowhere with this,” the boy said, tossing the wood aside. He kneeled, moving before Adam. When the prince looked up, the boy held his hand in supplication. “If I was gonna hurt you, I’d have done it after I beat that one, don’t you think?”
Adam blinked, face still purple as he hyperventilated. The boy watched him for a moment before tapping the prince to draw his attention. “Try this, take three deep breaths, and on the fourth, just blurt out what’s in the fucking satchel.”
Adam frowned, but he drew a breath and held it.
Finally, Adam drew in air and said, “A book of star charting.”
The boy frowned. “Did they hit you in the head before I got here?”
Adam shook his head. Harlan noted the prince was still rocking, but the color was receding in his face. His fingers flexed, stopping their frenetic tapping to reach into the bag and produce his book. The boy had spent ages making notes and sketching in the pages. He rarely let it out of his sight. Harlan still didn’t quite understand all the markings in the book, but Adam loved trying to explain them.
“A book?” The boy snorted. “They would have killed you if they knew that was all to be found in that fancy fucking bag.”
Adam tried to hand it to him, but the boy shook his head. “Can’t read.”
“But you’re so old!” Adam said with a frown, his rocking now just gentle shifts.
“Nearly sixteen, I think,” the boy said with his chin in the air. “Never needed to read.”
“I-I could show you.” Adam moved until he was pressed against the boy, holding the open book. He tapped the page. “This says observations about the constellation Cassiopeia in the winter sky.”
The boy’s brow furrowed. “You draw all this?”
“Yes.” The boy moved to take the book, Harlan’s mouth fell open when Adam allowed him to. Carefully, the boy began paging through the sketches.
"The stars move,” he murmured, flipping from page to page. “They move in the sky.”
“Yes!” Adam’s whole face lit up. “The stars move throughout the night and, depending on the season, the stars we can see change.”
Harlan’s whole body flushed warm. The last time he’d seen Adam this excited was when he snuck him out of the castle to watch the shooting stars in the spring. His knees had ached from the cold and the damp for a week, but it had been worth it for that bright smile.
“Adam!” Harlan called out. The prince looked up and waved, the boy next to him tensed, his lip already curling. “You’ve got three guard patrols out looking for you, boy!”
“Leave him alone!” The boy was already brandishing the wood, he either didn’t care or didn’t recognize the king’s guard armor.
Adam’s hand reached out and touched the boy’s wrist, stilling him. “Harlan’s my guard, please don’t hurt him.”
“Your guard?” The boy frowned, but dropped the wood. “What did you do?”
“He ran off when the king told him not to,” Harlan huffed, finally reaching the boys. “And now I have to get him back to the castle before his father starts beheading people.”
“I missed the lecture.” Adam’s dejected voice made Harlan smile. “I took a wrong turn and-”
“And I told you not to go alone.”
“But I wanted to talk about my charts. I think that-”
“Adam,” Harlan tried again gently. “We have to go.”
Adam nodded. Harlan glanced over to the grubby boy standing next to the prince, frowning. Up close, Harlan could see dark, fierce eyes peering through his greasy hair. His cheeks and chin were caked with dirt, and he could certainly use a few good meals, but the boy looked like he’d be sturdily built if anyone ever fed him. An ugly scar ran up the left side of his throat, and Harlan wondered how the boy had survived a wound like that.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“What’s yours, old man?”
Harlan felt his lips twist into a half smile. “I’m Sir Harlan of Keyes, captain of the prince’s guard.”
“Hell of a job you’re doing,” the boy sneered.
Harlan laughed, in spite of himself. “You think you could do a better job?”
“Did today.” The boy pushed his chin up, a proud little urchin.
“Well, then maybe you should come with us, give me some tips.”
“What?” The boy faltered, his eyes lost their flinty glare for a moment as confusion set in.
“I need a squire, I’m getting too old to run after this one.” Harlan gestured to Adam, who was smiling at the boy. “You work hard, you’ll be a knight in the prince’s guard by the time your balls drop.”
“You’re fucking with me.” The boy’s guarded expression had returned, full of spite and fire.
“You got a better offer? Maybe you need to stay here, collect more fleas ?” Harlan plucked at the boy’s ragged shirt and sure enough a few little buggers leaped from the moving cloth.
“What do I have to do?” The boy rubbed at his throat, and Harlan felt something cold creep into his stomach. The lives of children weren’t kind outside the palace walls.
“You train. You keep your smart mouth shut. You keep this one company.” Harlan looked him over. “And you bathe. At least once a week.”
The boy opened his mouth, but Adam stepped forward. “I could teach you to read and tell you more about the stars. I could watch you train too, I’ve studied three books about swordsmanship.”
The boy looked over the prince, his mouth crumpling as he gnawed on his lip. “Yeah, OK.”
“Welcome to the prince’s guard…” Harlan held out a hand.
“Your first duty, Nigel, is to help me get Adam back to the palace without making a fuss. You know a good way back?”
Nigel thought for a moment, before nodding and leading them along the docks. Adam followed immediately after the boy, no hesitation in his steps for once.
Harlan smiled. He’d have to chase after two boys now, but somehow, he didn’t mind the extra work.