Hjalmar had spent the rest of the short day wandering around the castle, silently saying goodbye to the walls he had grown up between. He also methodically went to each member of his family, save his father, who he could not face.
His little sister was first. Cicila was sat in her chambers, sewing a dress and chatting to her handmaidens brightly. They were laughing away at something when Hjalmar walked into the room.
“Giggling about boys again, sister?” he asked, taking note of her company.
“Girls, actually,” replied Cicila without missing a beat. “I was wondering this morning when you mentioned Ingrid Björnssen. What it would be like to be with a woman.” She gestured at one her handmaidens, a skinny dark-haired girl. “Kajsa has been telling me all about it.”
The girl, Kajsa, went as red as a beetroot. Hjalmar, with a pang of sympathy, understood why – homosexuality was still illegal under Krovan law, unlike its neighbouring kingdoms to the south and east.
“Do not worry, Kajsa, my brother will not care,” said Cicila. “When he becomes king, he’s going to change the law. Is that not right, Hjalmar?”
“Absolutely,” he smiled, feeling a terrible guilt in his stomach. He only hoped that Ansgar would make the legal amendments instead. “Anyway, I do not wish to disturb you, sister. I came only to say hello. I shall see you at dinner, yes?”
Suspicion was written all over her face; out of Hjalmar’s two siblings, Cicila knew him the best. Perhaps that was because she was not trying to outdo him. Their brother had always been jealous of Hjalmar, and was constantly trying to better himself. Cicila just took both her siblings as they were, and for that, Hjalmar always loved her. Leaving her was difficult.
“Always, brother,” she said, furrowing her brow. “You sure there was nothing you wanted?”
“No, nothing,” he said, and planted a kiss on his sister’s forehead.
“You really are acting strange,” she commented, giving him a curious look as he left the room.
“No, I am not,” said Hjalmar in what was probably the most unconvincing tone imaginable. “Until later, then,” he said, and exited.
Ansgar was in the courtyard, practising swordplay with the castellan, Vincent. Both Stenvarg brothers had been raised to use swords since an early age, but Ansgar had an extremely competitive streak to him, and thus practiced every day for three hours. When the royal boys had become teenagers, it was clear Hjalmar was going to pale in comparison to his younger brother’s skills. Still, they liked to spar occasionally, and it was the only time they truly spent together, aside from meals.
“You seem slower today,” joked Hjalmar as he approached Ansgar and Vincent. “Been eating too many pies, brother?”
Ansgar struck angrily at Vincent with a practice sword, then gave his older brother an annoyed look. “I am in excellent shape, thank you very much.” He spat on the ground. “Why don’t you come find out?”
“Oh, very well,” said Hjalmar, knowing it would be the final time they crossed blades.
“Here you go, my prince, you can use mine,” said Vincent the Castellan, tossing him his practice sword. Hjalmar caught it adeptly, and gripped it tightly as he approached his brother.
Snow began to fall again as the brothers took swipes at each other. It fell into their eyes, and Ansgar was quicker to blink it out. Hjalmar was laughing all the way through their fight, yet Ansgar’s face was stoic.
“You need to take this seriously, brother,” he said after his blunt blade connected particularly painfully with Hjalmar’s arm.
“Why? It’s just me and you,” grinned Hjalmar, trying to enjoy the spar. He did not want his final memory of his brother to be that of anger.
“When you fight for real, your opponent won’t be so lenient,” said Ansgar through gritted teeth.
“Lucky we’re not fighting for real, eh?” retorted Hjalmar, and put his blade down. “Okay, I think that is enough for today. Shall we drink some mead together by the fireplace?”
Ansgar looked at the sky, judging the time by the sun’s location. “I still have another hour and a half to go. Another time, perhaps. And try to take our next fight more seriously, please.”
“I shall try, little brother,” said Hjalmar, proffering his hand, which Ansgar smacked away. “Goodbye, Vincent,” he nodded in the castellan’s direction, and then headed back to the castle.
Approaching his mother’s personal daytime chambers, which were separate to his parents’ bedchamber, he took note of the guard. It was the Captain of the Royal Guards himself, Theodore. He was a tall and stocky man with short blonde hair and a scar across his face; the result of his younger days as a frontline soldier, Hjalmar had heard.
“Good morning, Prince Hjalmar,” nodded the Captain.
“Quite the morning, right?” said Hjalmar, wondering why the weather was the first topic of conversation he went to. Conversations about the weather always bored Hjalmar; it was the talk people had when they had nothing else to say. “I presume my mother is in?”
“Ja, go right ahead, my prince,” said Theodore, stepping aside.
His mother was, as usual, drinking wine by the fireplace. She looked up and smiled when her eldest walked in. The queen did not often spend time with the king, apart from at mealtimes and during the night. Hjalmar often felt sorry for her.
“Good day, Mother,” he said. “What wine is that?”
“I had it imported from the Jade Isles,” she said, gesturing for her son to sit down. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I just wanted to see you, Mother,” said Hjalmar, knowing his mother would think this a lie.
“You saw me at breakfast, and you will again at dinner,” commented the queen. It was not an antagonistic statement, rather a probe seeped in curiosity.
She studied him silently, and then took another sip of wine. Hjalmar felt the familiar stab of pity for his mother. It was widely known in the castle that the king and queen’s marriage was loveless – it had been a political marriage set up by Hjalmar’s grandfather, King Holger. Brigetta had done her duty by producing an heir, a spare, and a daughter to marry off into future political alliances. Hjalmar often wondered how unhappy his mother was with her life, and whether she might have turned out differently were she allowed to marry for love. It was one of the reasons that spurned him on to elope with Lina. I will not turn out like my parents, he had constantly reminded himself over the past few months.
“Very well,” she said at last. “Have you spent time with your siblings today too?”
“Yes, I have seen them both,” said Hjalmar, eyeing up the wine. “Cicila is with her handmaidens. Ansgar is continuing his attempt to be the mightiest swordsman the realm has ever seen.”
“The boy has ambition,” said Brigetta, pouring her son out a cup of wine to stop him drooling over it. “When will you get some?”
“I have ambitions, Mother,” retorted Hjalmar. “They just do not happen to align with Father’s.”
The queen gave him a passive stare. “Your father will always get what he wants, in the end.”
If he wants an heir who submits, then so be it, Hjalmar thought privately. Ansgar can go through the madness of ruling, whilst Lina and I sail away.
Everyone will be happy.
Night fell, and it was time for Hjalmar to leave.
He had returned to his personal chambers, and spent an hour packing, unpacking, and packing again. Many items he fretted over, such as the book of a fictional pirate Ansgar had given him for his twentieth birthday, or the small hunting knife Magnus had gifted him upon becoming a man. He eventually decided on practicality over sentiment. The family gifts will be just memories of a distant life, he conceded to himself, but the knife might one day save me.
Eventually, he had decided on the final contents of his only bag. A spare pair of boots, two knives, ten thousand runas (he wondered how many kingdoms accepted that currency, but decided to push those concerns to the back of his mind), three sets of spare clothes, and dressings for any wounds he or Lina might incur in their new peasant life.
A rush of excitement filled him. He was finally leaving the castle, the prison that he had lived in his whole life, to be with the woman that he loved. They would be out on the open road, with songs of adventure in their hearts, and the world at their feet.
He took one last look at the bedchamber he had grown up in. The large bed, of which he had enjoyed many encounters in before. The desk, where he had penned letters to Lina (he would never sign them, for fear of others spying through her possessions). The shelves, where many books of knights, sell-swords and sailors going on adventures.
Turning towards the door, he took a deep breath, unlocked and opened it, and stepped outside.
Only to be confronted by two castle guards, dressed in pink.
They were both clearly stationed at his door, though he could not recall asking for guards directly outside his door. Crossing their spears and blocking his way, they looked at him dispassionately.
“Sorry, my prince, but it is dangerous for you to go out tonight,” said the guard on the left. “King’s orders.”
“What?!” spluttered Hjalmar. How could he be so close, and yet so far? “Under what cause?”
“The King did not share that information with us,” explained the guard on the right in a monotone.
“To hell with that,” said Hjalmar, and attempted to push past the guards.
They both put their hands on his chest, and shoved him back inside the room.
“How dare you lay your hands on me!” he cried. “I demand to see my father.”
“I am afraid that will not be possible at the moment,” said the guard on the left, who seemed more apologetic than his colleague. “We are under strict instructions to keep you in your room until his majesty says otherwise.”
“Then this is no better than a dungeon!” cried Hjalmar. “I refuse to be locked away in here without explanation!”
“I am sorry that you feel that way, my prince,” said the guard on the right, and closed the door in Hjalmar’s face. A key turned in the lock, and Hjalmar was shut in.
Fuck, he thought. Fuck! What in Ozma’s name is going on?! Did his father know about Lina? How could he have found out? They had been so careful, and Hjalmar had told no-one. Lina assured him she had told no-one either. Had someone been spying on him? Or her? Had Lina let something slip one evening to a close confident that had then betrayed her?
He paced up and down for the best part of twenty minutes, his mind in utter turmoil. Everything was a disaster. He had to get to Lina through some means, but how? His first thought was to climb out the window, but it was too high up, and the wet snow meant the walls could be slippery. One false move and he would plunge to his death. The door was guarded, and the men outside would be impossible to get past. There was no way out.
Lina was probably waiting for him by the Absalon statue, wondering where he was. Would she give up, and return home? Would she think he had abandoned her? Would their unbreakable bond be broken? Dark thoughts almost consumed Hjalmar, and he was fraught with desperation. He cursed against the God Ozma, for cursing him with bad luck on the very night he needed everything to go smoothly.
The sound of the door unlocking snapped him out of those thoughts. He felt a thrill of fear when his father stepped inside the room, looking grim. Closing the door behind him, the king looked at his son.
“Father, what the hell–” Hjalmar started, but that was as far as he got.
“Is it true?” Ingmar demanded in a soft but firm voice.
“Is what true?” asked Hjalmar, trying to sound as innocent as possible.
“Do not play games with me, Hjalmar. Have you been taken by madness?”
“Not as far as I’m aware, Father,” the prince replied, trying his best to stop shaking. His lip was quivering, and he felt his face grow hot with panic.
“You are as unfunny as you are unwise,” said Ingmar, his voice getting progressively more aggressive. “You are my son. A Stone Wolf. I would have thought you possessed more sense.” He grit his teeth, and what he said next made Hjalmar’s blood almost freeze. “I have sent Captain Ragnar and a patrol party down into the city. To the statue of Absalon.”
“And why would you do that?” said Hjalmar, failing to feign calmness.
“I wonder if my men will find anyone there. A young woman, perhaps, waiting for a prince she believes she has ensnared.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hjalmar, his heartbeat racing.
“Is that so?” His father shook his head. “Should they find a woman there, she will be brought back to the castle. She will be punished severely for her crimes, and you will learn a valuable lesson – peasants will never want you for love, or even companionship. They seek nobility for power alone.” He walked towards the door, and turned his head back to his son. “You must never give in again to that temptation, Hjalmar. You are my heir. The future king of Krova. You must comport yourself better from now on, to the end of your days. Do you understand me?”
“I still have no idea what you are going on about, Father,” said Hjalmar, though the shaky tones of his voice gave him away. His father almost smiled, and it was a terrifying sight to behold.
“We shall see,” said the king as he left the room.
Hjalmar sat down on the bed, in shock.
Lina was in danger, and there was nothing he could do about it.