Chapter 3: This Way and That Way

The next morning, Prince Romm awoke with a terrible headache. He turned his head, and something weighty fell off of it. There was the Coin, in the dewy grass of the forest. Oh, no. He hadn’t meant to sleep out here! Now it was dawn, and the whole castle would be in an uproar, looking for him!

Romm stowed the Coin in his pouch and ran towards the palace. The forest seemed so different in the daytime, it actually made it harder to find his way. He hadn’t slept in the forest for almost 5 years. What an embarrassment this would be. His mind started to work through all sorts of excuses he could make, and he realized he had a whopping headache. It occurred to him that sleeping with a highly magical item on his head, although he had slept with it under his pillow or in a pocket before. He felt around for the golden Coin now. Yep, still there.

Just as the palace was coming into view, Romm decided that the best excuse was that he had woken up early and snuck into town. That would get him in just enough trouble that no one would suspect it was a cover. So, he changed direction.

Two hours later, Prince Romm was wandering through the market square, having various goods thrust into his face by eager vendors. Not one of them recognized him, of course. They’d only ever seen him from afar, standing on a palace balcony with crossed arms behind his father. They could tell someone wealthy when they saw one, though, and they offered him bread, fruit, vegetables, meats, spices, jewelry (for the wife or fiancee he must surely have), wine, shoes, clothing, and all sorts of other fineries — “Special price just for you!” they all told him. Romm, who had only been here once or twice before, just smiled and shook his head. He was slightly awestruck, not by the quality or quantity of the goods, but by the people. They were crass, cheery, and doing the business of the kingdom. Romm imagined what it would be like to be a city merchant, and thought it seemed an exciting enough life. Haggling, making sales, making an honest living… Then Romm’s pragmatic side caught up with him, and he stopped thinking about it.

Pragmatic Romm figured that he had two choices: Go back to the palace, or wait to be found. Certainly they would be looking for him. And as he’d be in the same amount of trouble either way, he figured he may as well choose a suitable place to be discovered… somewhere fun, but also somewhere they’d be likely to look. That was how Romm found himself sitting in the meeting house, eating a sandwich, surrounded by people discussing the news of the day. Romm listened in, glancing at the door every few moments for someone to rush in, searching for the lost prince. He was just thinking that someone ought to have found him by now, when the door burst open and an excited looking boy of about 13 stumbled a few steps, drawing everyone’s attention. “They caught a wizard! In the butcher’s quarter!”

This created a huge stir. Wizard was the term for a self-trained magic user, one who had defied the Magnolium order’s monopoly on magic. Those who submitted themselves to the Order’s strictures practiced a limited, focused form of magic, and were universally called Mages.

“This way!” said the boy. A throng of people stood up to follow. Romm was not the sort of person who joined throngs, but this was a special case. Apart from the mages of the Order (and they didn’t count), Romm had not seen a wizard since that day 10 years ago, except in the mirror. Even though he didn’t know a single thing about this wizard, not a name, age, or gender, Romm felt a sense of kinship. He needed to see what would become of this person.

The throng surged towards the butcher’s quarter, which was not far away. In a city square, a large number of guards had formed a circle around three people, their drawn swords preventing any escape. This explained why they weren’t searching for him, Romm thought. It was too hard for Romm to see what the three people in the center were doing, or who they were. Having been the last to join the surge, he was at the back of the crowd.

Suddenly, there was a terrible shriek, inhumanly high pitched and enormously loud. Romm clutched his ears along with everyone else in the square, including the guards, who dropped their swords. In a flash, a young man only a few years older than Romm himself broke into a run. He wore street clothes and nothing else. He had straight black hair as long as a girl’s, white puffy shirt, brown pants. Romm couldn’t see his face, but he could see that the man was charging directly at the crowd of people. Though this man had no weapons, a wizard was always armed. He barreled through the throng, knocking several people over with magically augmented strength. “There goes the wizard!” thought Romm, though he could barely hear himself think it.

The shrieking noise subsided in a few short seconds, and the guards looked around to see where the wizard had gone. “After him!” someone cried. Two more men, dressed in the white robes of the Magnolium Order, ran through the path in the crowd that the wizard had cleared. The guards weren’t as quick. The onlookers closed ranks as they all tried to give chase at once. And now the front of the crowd was the back, and the back was the front, and the guards were trapped behind the morass of people while Romm had a clear field.

He broke free, and charged after the wizard and the two mages. He could see the chase a block ahead of him. The wizard, running in the center of the road, turned left. His pursuers didn’t miss a step, and nor did Romm. The wizard cast a powerful gust of wind ahead of him to knock a cart out of the way, and leapt into an alley. The mages followed. Prince Romm followed too, but not before the cart landed in his path. Casting  a spell he didn’t know he knew, Romm jumped high into the air, clearing the cart by a good 5 feet, and hit the ground running again. Romm didn’t know this part of the city as well as he did the area by the palace, but he was pretty sure the wizard was leading them to a part of the city wall with no gates. Maybe the wizard didn’t know his way?

They ran past commoners going about their business. All four of them were moving so fast, buyers and sellers, and their respective pack animals, all blurred together. One of the Magnolium pursuers ahead cast a spell of radiant light in an attempt to knock the wizard down, but he missed and blew out all the windows on the side of some building. The other mage conjured a grid-like wall of bright energy to stop the wizard’s progress, but he just turned another corner, back towards the butcher’s quarter. As he ran, he cast a spell to turn the ground behind him to ice, and the mages were forced to slow down their pursuit until they were across. Romm heated the ice with a fire spell, got his shoes wet in the resulting puddle, and gained on the others.

Streaks of flame, ice, and electricity flew by the mages when they rounded the next corner, but they conjured shields to absorb the energy. Romm, who knew no such shield spell, had to duck behind a horse to avoid a bolt of lightning. The bolt hit the horse, which whinnied in agony, reared, and trampled off, so Romm just lay flat on the ground, hoping not to be hit. It took a few moments for the wizard to realize his backward volleys weren’t slowing down his pursuers, so he gave that up and took another turn, right this time. They had all gotten ahead of Romm by this point, and it took several moments of frantic running for him to catch up. He didn’t think he’d run this fast in his life.

Finally, Romm turned that same corner, and lurched to a halt. He was in a dirty little yard with meat hooks hanging on lines, and several tarps lying rolled up against a wall. This was a slaughterhouse yard, and the path they had all taken was the only way to get in, as it was walled otherwise. Something must have happened before Romm got there, because now the wizard was lying flat on his back, the mages standing over him.  Evidently the wizard had tried to climb a wall using magic, but had been shot down by one of the others. If anyone had noticed Romm chasing after them, they gave no sign of it.

“Now, then,” breathed one of the white-robed men. Romm couldn’t see his face, but he had brown hair. The other mage had white hair and a long beard. “Where is Daven, you evil piece of slime?”

“Where you’ll never find him,” returned the wizard. He sounded hoarse, and was in too much pain to get up.

There was a moment’s pause. “Perhaps a foretaste of the Hell you’re about to go to will convince you to repent,” said the Magnolium mage. He made a crushing motion with his hand, and the wizard clutched at his heart and gasped in pain. “Tell us,” said the mage. The wizard spat at his feet. The spell was repeated, and the wizard actually screamed, and writhed on the ground for a moment. It looked like the mage was somehow squeezing his heart.

“He’s not going to talk,” said the other mage. “You’ll probably kill him that way before he’ll say anything.”

“Probably,” agreed the first mage. He repeated the spell, and the wizard screeched in agony.

“Hmph. Best show him what Hell is really like,” said the second mage. The wizard’s pants and shirt started smoking, and as Romm watched, they caught fire, along with the wizard’s long black hair. He was really screaming now, rolling around in a vain attempt to put out the fire, and still clutching at his chest, trying to do anything at all about the pain in his insides…

Romm couldn’t take any more. “Stop! Stop!”

The brown-haired mage whirled around. “What have we got here, another one?” he sneered. He raised his hand again, and held it at the level of Romm’s heart.

“Raaa!” Romm charged headlong at the mage, who sidestepped easily. In a split second Romm knew he had only one choice. He thrust out his palms and issuing forth from them, a plume of bright orange fire engulfed the mage, white robes and all.

The other, bearded mage turned away from the dying wizard to gape at his compatriot. Romm didn’t give this mage even a moment’s chance. He sent a bolt of flame at the mage which caught him in the leg, and followed it up with another bolt that got his side. The man retaliated with a burst of light that sent Romm flying backwards. Romm hit a wall, landed on his feet, and conjured a heavy stone, which he flung at the mage. It hit him square in the forehead. Eyes wide, the mage stumbled backwards, fell over, and stopped moving.

“P-Prince Romm?” The brown-haired mage was on his feet again, gaping open mouthed at him. Romm froze on the spot. He had been caught! He would have to kill this man, too, to keep the secret! But Romm still couldn’t move. He didn’t move, until the mage picked up his companion’s limp body, slung him over his shoulder, and ran out of the yard, as far away as he could go.

No time to chase. The wizard was still on fire. Romm hurried over to him and kneeled down. With a little quick thinking and some magic, he doused the flames with conjured water.

The charred young wizard groaned. His long hair was ash. He looked very old, now. “Can you stand?” said Romm, hurriedly. “We’ve got to get out of here!” Not that Romm had any idea of where to go, not now…

The man on the ground grabbed at Romm, and got a hold of one of the pouches on his belt. “Who… ah…?” he croaked, eyes still shut tight.

Romm couldn’t bring himself to answer. “Come on! I can carry you!” said Romm, which was probably untrue. He stood up, and as he did, the pouch opened. Instinctively, Romm reached inside, and felt the Coin. It was white hot. Romm pulled it out to look at it.

As if he could sense the artifact, the wizard lifted his head and opened his eyes to stare at the thing. The diamond center of the Coin sparkled in his pupils, and his blackened lips parted.

“Do you know what this is?” asked Romm, excitedly, showing it to him.

The wizard grabbed Romm’s wrist. “Luc… ana… son.”

“Lucana? The one who the king killed? Amicen’s heir! She has a son!?”

The wizard let go, and shut his eyes forever.

For the next five minutes, Romm stood there, demanding information from a charred corpse. In his later years, during his moments of deepest doubt, Romm would look back on these five minutes with regret. In that time, Romm could have made his way back to the palace, and made excuses. He could have claimed he was under the wizard’s spell, and that it was the wizard who cast that magic. Or he could have said he’d been kidnapped, and what the mage saw was another wizard, pretending to be him. Or he could have tracked down the brown-haired mage and silenced him. He could have done something, anything to avoid blame, instead of wasting time at the scene. If he had, perhaps he could have spent the rest of his life in comfort, living in the castle as though nothing had happened.

As it was, the sixth minute after the wizard’s death saw Romm climbing up the wall of the slaughterhouse, same as the dead man had tried to do, frantic to escape the march of footsteps pounding in his direction.

Romm found himself on a low roof. “There he is!” A soldier pointed at him with his sword. Romm jumped down the other side of the building, used magic to land on his feet, and took off at a sprint. “That way!” cried the guards. They gave chase, shouting at him to stop, right up until Romm passed the gates out of the city. Then the prince ran over a hill, vanished from sight, and was gone.

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