Morteus leapt off his horse and led it by its reins as he neared the main street. Vast plains surrounded the castle so that it was impossible for attackers to cross without being noticed.
He plodded through the narrow, cobbled streets as the shock began to sink in. Pain ripped him furiously apart from the inside out.
He had no father. He had no mother. He had no brother.
A tear ran down Morteus’ cheek.
Majesty whinnied and snorted, sensing something amiss in its owner. Morteus patted its mane, only dimly aware of his surroundings. On a normal basis, he would’ve been thrilled to be out of the castle, this only being his second time.
Morteus vaguely remembered the day of his thirteenth birthday, when he had been brought out of the castle for the first time. He was followed by a procession of soldiers, of course. Most people strayed away from his path, but he still saw the wide diversity of people that lived in the kingdom.
“Wow. I never knew people looked so different from each other,” Young Morteus looked eagerly out his carriage window.
“This is a different world from the one you live in,” Captain Vailos replied offhandedly.
Morteus nodded, taking all of it in. He jumped in his seat excitedly as he saw a group of boys around his age staring agape at his carriage.
“Can I go talk to them?” Morteus eyes sparkled, and he bounced up and down. Darren was the only companion he had that was remotely close to his age.
Captain Vailos glanced at the people on the street. “No, Morteus, I’m sorry. If you want to get off the carriage, it’s fine, but any close contact with strangers is dangerous. It’s for your own safety,” Morteus pouted, pulling a face.
Morteus continued looking out the window of the carriage, intrigued. He spotted a small commotion at a corner. A young man was wrestling with a few of the soldiers.
“Stop the carriage!” Morteus ordered and leaped off the vehicle, and strode towards the man.
The soldiers around him bowed and restrained the man. The man was looking down, blond locks covering his face. His clothes were worn and tattered.
“Who are you?” Morteus asked.
Silence greeted him.
“Why are you attacking us?” He remained a few steps away from the man for safety’s sake.
The man didn’t answer.
“What do you want?” Morteus glared impatiently at the man.
He shifted his legs, still looking down.
“Look at me!” Morteus shouted, frustrated.
The man looked up, his eyes blazing.
He was staring at his own face.
In a matter of seconds, Captain Vailos had pulled Morteus back from the man and chastised him. “What did I tell you about getting off the carriage? It’s dangerous,” he glanced at the man, but he had already covered his face with his hair again.
“Who is this?” Captain Vailos asked in a stern voice.
“We don’t know, sir,” The soldiers around chorused in unison. “What do we do with him?”
“I don’t mean you any harm,” The man mumbled, his voice indistinct. “Let me go,” he tried to turn around, out of the soldier’s grip, but he was held firm.
“Let him go once we’re past,” Captain Vailos’ eyes flashed, then he hauled Morteus back onto the carriage. Morteus was placed down again in his seat, and he looked out the window as the man passed and became a small figure a distance behind and disappeared.
Morteus sighed. At the time, he had pitied the man. He looked like himself, only fifteen years older. Morteus couldn’t imagine himself walking through the streets in tattered clothes.
Now it seemed like he was on the path to that destiny.
He walked as if he was in a trance, avoiding the avid gazes that passersby cast at him. He cursed himself inwardly, realizing that he hadn’t changed out of his royal robes. And his red eyes sure didn’t help.
Morteus walked faster now, as the realization of danger dawned on him. It was clear as day that he was of royal birth, being swathed in magnificent red and purple robes. There were a few rebellions here and there, sometimes, against the king. He needed to keep under cover to avoid being attacked. Morteus dove into a small alley, where there wasn’t anyone at all in sight.
With each step, Morteus grew more and more panicky. Every sound seemed to make him jump.
“Shh…” Morteus patted Majesty, who was braying loudly, frightened by the sudden darkness.
Morteus’ imagination began to take control of him as he became more and more terrified. The row of buildings seemed to weigh down on him; every shadow seemed to move towards him threateningly. The pitter-patter of Majesty’s hooves on the floor made Morteus flinch every few seconds.
Morteus started running, hoping there wasn’t anyone following him. Majesty neighed, and despite the narrow alley, Morteus bestrode her and darted forward.
He stopped at a shop hidden in the shadows. Resting just above the door was a sign bearing the word ‘Boutique’ in slightly faded block letters. Morteus tugged at his robes and decided to go in to get some commoner’s clothes. He pulled on the reins and leapt nimbly off the horse, careful as to not make a sound.
He drew his sword and ventured into the shop, listening to his heartbeat grow faster and faster.
The shop was dimly lighted. There were clothes strewn all over the wooden floor and boxes stacked high. The whole place was a mess, with badly painted cream walls, and a crooked painting of an oddly familiar-looking man on the wall. A long candle was hung on the wall, flickering. There’s someone here.
“Hello?” Morteus took a step forward, and the floorboard creaked loudly. “Anyone in here?”
“Who is it?” The voice came from behind him.
Morteus whirled around, raising his sword higher.
A hooded figure came out of the shadow cast by the stacked boxes. “Whoa. No need for theatrics. We’re not at war here.”
Morteus lowered his sword. “Sorry. Can’t be too careful.”
“Not a surprise,” The shop owner nodded at the red and purple robes. “A royal, eh? No such thing as too cautious for a person of your status. The first time someone of your ranking cared to grace my store,” He chuckled, a dry tone in his voice.
Morteus tugged at his robes. “Precisely why I came here. I want some normal clothes.”
“I would say so,” The shop owner muttered. “Would a tunic and wool pants do?” He crouched a little and flipped open one of the boxes, pulling out a loose tunic and blue pants. He eyed Morteus and said, “It’ll fit you.”
“Thank you very much,” Morteus replied, taking the clothes.
“You can change over there,” The shopkeeper pointed to the dressing room.
Morteus uttered a word of thanks and went into the small closet-like space. He pulled off his robes and breeches, and got dressed.
“Thank you,” He said when he came out. “You don’t know how much you have helped.”
“You’re welcome. Now that would be three shillings and-” The shop owner’s voice cut off, and he gaped at Morteus in shock.
“What?” Morteus cocked his head to one side, puzzled.
“I didn’t notice just now, what with the dim lights and the swirly robes…” The shop owner muttered to himself. “It can’t be… Not possible…”
“What’s not possible?” Morteus asked.
“Nothing. Just give me three shillings and five pence,” The shopkeeper snapped, his thoughts elsewhere. He scuttled over to Morteus and glared, holding out his hand.
“Oh. Well…” Morteus shifted uncomfortably. “I… don’t have any money,” He drew back, expecting the shopkeeper to shout at him or lose his temper. “You can keep these robes,” He held out his silky red robes, eager to get rid of them.
To his amazement, the shopkeeper waved it off.
“Never mind,” He said, motioning for him to keep his robes. “Don’t insult my intelligence- you’ll definitely be able to pay me back. You’re Morteus, aren’t you?”
Morteus jolted, his eyes widening. “What- what did you say?” He asked, his voice shaking. “How- how do you know my name?”
The shopkeeper chuckled hoarsely, gripping a chair for support as his laughter shook him. “Of course I know you. You’re the prince! Would people ignore the names of the heirs of the throne?”
“Oh,” Morteus said, a little disconcerted. Of course. Everyone in Andasern knows my name. “How would you know what I looked like?”
The shopkeeper raised his eyebrows questioningly, a smile playing on his face. “You came into town at the age of thirteen. I was just ambling along the streets then, and when I saw the crowd, I joined them and saw your carriage pass by. It was your birthday, wasn’t it?” His eyes twinkled, though Morteus couldn’t see them under the hood.
I see. Looks like people know my appearance as well. “Why would you know so much about me?” Morteus demanded, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say I know much about you. I just happen to listen out for information, and you never know when a little information will help. The only thing I know about you is that you’re the adopted son of King Periphral, and that you’ve only left the castle twice- once on your birthday, and now today…”
An electrifying shock ran down Morteus’ spine. “Adopted son of King Periphral?” Apparently everyone knows I’m not the son of King Periphral. Only I was kept in the dark. Why? Was that why I was never let out of the castle?
“You can’t possibly not know you’re adopted,” Blank shock radiated from the shopkeeper. “Everyone knows that. When King Periphral conquered the kingdom, he adopted the newborn son of the deceased king and his family. It caused a little bit of a stir, as you can imagine. No one knew you even existed- and in the midst of all the mayhem about having a new king- well, it was quite… unnerving.”
Morteus drew back a little and squinted at the man, not knowing whether to trust him. He seemed friendly enough, but you could never know. King Periphral- father- had wanted to kill him. Is he working for the king? Does he want to kill me too? Doubt and confusion filled his mind and he decided to put his suspicions aside for the present.
“I didn’t know I was adopted. That’s why I ran away.” He stated bluntly, trusting the man.
“Ran away-” The old man spluttered. “Is that why there’s no soldiers surrounding you? It was nagging at the back of my mind- but why would you run away?” He shook his head, muttering to himself as he lifted a box up onto a stool.
Morteus shook his head slightly as he remembered what King Periphral and Darren had said. “I think I’ve said enough for today. I should be heading back for the castle,” he looked at the shopkeeper, whose face was hidden under the hood.
“Don’t lie, boy,” the shopkeeper said in a lower tone, bending down to pick some clothes off the floor. “I am honored to have you in my shop, but I won’t have you leave so soon. You’ve nowhere to go. You just said you ran away- now you want to return to the castle,” he turned to Morteus, his cape whirling around his body.
Morteus gulped impulsively, and his eyes darted to the door of the shop.
“Don’t worry, Morteus, I won’t harm you,” the man turned his back to him to prove his point. “In fact, I may consent to helping you.”
Doubt besieged Morteus. “Help me? How?” He inched forward toward the door, still facing the man’s back.
“By showing you how to survive in this world. Maybe by even finding out more of the past for you. That’s why you ran away, didn’t you? Because you realized you weren’t the son of King Periphral,” he shook his head, back still to Morteus. Before Morteus could question him on how he knew, he spoke. “It’s not so hard to add two and two together.”
Morteus’ back was facing the door now, and with one more step he would be out of the shop.
The shopkeeper turned back to face him, whipping off his hood. Morteus gasped as he saw the face of a wrinkled old man. A wispy silver beard curled down his face and a gnarled brow shadowed his deep, contemplating eyes. A long scar stretched from the corner of his left eye down to his jaw.
“Who are you?” Morteus asked, a little impolitely.
“Someone who keeps hidden most of the time,” he answered brusquely. The old man’s eyes flickered to Morteus’ hand that rested on the doorknob. “I wouldn’t leave if I were you. If you are running away from the king, I’m sure there’ll be soldiers after you.”
“All the more reason to leave, and not get you into trouble,” Morteus retorted, feeling somewhat annoyed as he gaped at the old man. The ugly scar that made his face looked rugged and old was intimidating, but the eyes of the old man were trusting and benevolent.
The man pulled off his cape, throwing it into one of the boxes. “That’s very considerate of you,” he said sardonically. Underneath, he wore a light brown robe, a leather belt around his waist holding it in place. “But where would you go?”
Morteus faced a painful dilemma, and he struggled to give a decent answer. “Nowhere,” answered Morteus after a second’s pause.
The old man’s voice rasped as he trotted towards him. “Ah, I thought so,” and he grabbed an unlit candle from the wall, lighting it with a few sticks. “Well, I suppose you would like somewhere to stay?”
The question hung in the air and Morteus couldn’t believe his ears. This man was offering him help, even though he knew he was a runaway? “I don’t need help,” he answered stiffly, then reconsidered. “But help would be welcome.”
“I could offer you a place to stay for a few nights,” the old man answered. “But what are you going to do now?”
Morteus pondered for a few seconds, releasing his firm hold on the door. What do I do? My family has forsaken me; my world has been ripped apart. They want to kill me, and I have no idea who my real parents are. “I have to find out more about my past,” he replied, then glanced suspiciously at the man. “Who are you? Why do you want to help me?”
“That,” The old man said, “I will keep to myself. As for who I am, I’m Marlin.” The words sent a tingling down Morteus’ spine, for some unfathomable reason.
“Well, you already know my name,” Morteus said rather lamely. “But as for who I am,” he shrugged a little. “I don’t even know myself. And I’m still not sure whether I trust you.”
“You have to,” Marlin was solemn. “And you will.”
“Why would that be?” Contempt for him rose, and Morteus felt bewildered by what he faced.
Marlin looked at him, his eyes sparkling.
“Because your father trusted me.”