Each month I will write an original short story (around 1000 words) based on a prompt from one of you. Today’s story is from a prompt by W and K Gregory. The prompt was “Down’s Syndrome character”. Thank you!
The Price of Peace
King Otto massaged his temples, his ermine robed elbows pressed against his desk. The crumpled parchment lay in front of him, its red wax seal broken beside it. A declaration of war from Hesse. If riches could buy peace then he’d give half his treasures to purchase it. But even the most prosperous kingdom on the continent couldn’t purchase peace at such a cost.
The door to his study slammed open.
“Blast you, why—” he bellowed and then stopped as he realized who had entered.
His fifteen-year-old daughter stood open-mouthed. Wilted flowers scattered across the floor at her feet. More stuck from the large side pouch she always wore.
Otto dropped his hands with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Angelika. I shouldn’t have yelled.”
Her lower lip trembled as she bent over and gathered the flowers with clumsy, blunt fingers. She wasn’t like her younger siblings. The royal physicians didn’t know why she had a flattened face and a tongue that tended to stick from her mouth, or why her speech was still like that of a small child. But perhaps it was a blessing. She’d never bear the burden of ruling. That would pass to her younger brother. Instead she’d always be his little girl, no matter how many years passed, though the physicians said the years would be short. Her heart was weak.
He knelt next to her and slipped one of the flowers, a daisy, behind her ear. “You found my favorite again,” he said.
She giggled and handed him the bouquet with half the flowers upside down. “I always find your favorite, Papa, because I love you.” She kissed his cheek then ran from the room again with her wobbling gait.
If only love was enough to find the solution to this war, thought Otto. But peace is never that simple.
Months passed with messengers galloping between borders, bearing offers and counter offers, threats and counter threats, between the two kings. Armies trained. Blacksmiths kept their forges burning late into the night. And Angelika continued to bring her father flowers each day, then autumn leaves, then melted snow flakes.
As winter drew to a close and the first crocus pushed above the frozen ground, an ambassador arrived from Hesse. It had been almost a year since the last ambassador, by an unfortunate accident, had died, and the declaration of war arrived on the king’s desk. Perhaps, thought Otto, as he prepared to speak with the new ambassador, perhaps we can reach an agreement for peace. Perhaps, but not likely. The last ambassador had been the youngest son of the king of Hesse.
Otto settled on his throne. “The ambassador of Hesse may enter.”
Guards escorted in a tall skeletal man. A black cloak of mourning concealed most of his red ambassadorial uniform. A trimmed grey beard did little to fill out his gaunt face and sunken eyes. It was as if the king had sent Death himself as his messenger. Otto steeled his back against a nervous shiver as the ambassador strode across the marble floor.
“Welcome.” Otto motioned for the ambassador to take a seat ten feet from the throne. “I thank the heavens that King Alfons would honor us again with an ambassador after the tragedy last year. What can I give for our kingdoms to be at peace again?”
The ambassador raised a gloved hand. “The cost is a simple one. The king asks for an equal exchange.”
“An equal exchange? What does King Alfons count as equal to his son’s life? I’ve offered him land, gold, and a share of our mines. He’s refused them all.”
“None of those are an equal exchange.” The ambassador met Otto’s eyes and his grim face split into an awful grin. “One of your sons for my son.”
The chill from earlier froze Otto. This was no ambassador, but King Alfons. His face had changed from when they first met two years before. The Alfons then had round laughing cheeks and eyes that crinkled at the edges of a constant smile. It was at that banquet that Otto boasted he could take any ruffian and make a nobleman of him. And Alfons had pleaded with him to help reform his youngest son. Otto agreed and received the prince as an ambassador. But his kindness failed to make a difference in the young prince’s attitude, so Otto attempted the change through tighter and tighter rules, and the prince fled the palace. He was killed by bandits. All this flashed through Otto’s mind as the now skeletal king leered at him. A son for a son.
“Alfons,” pleaded Otto, “My eldest son is only eleven and my youngest is but three-years.”
“Then you will have less memories to be pained with the loss.”
“Never.” Otto stood from his throne. “Never will I give you one of my sons.”
Alfons shrugged sharp shoulders. “Then war will come, and thousands will die because you wouldn’t keep your promise, nor pay your debt.”
Otto had to stop the war. But how? Not with one of his sons. No one could ask a father to sacrifice a son, not even for a kingdom. King Alfons was unreasonable. No, he was insane. He must have been insane to enter, unguarded, the country he’d declared war against. Relief rushed over Otto. He could end the war before it started. He could imprison his foe and force a peace treaty. “Guards,” Otto commanded. “Bind our enemy.”
Alfons laughed, a shrill, broken sound, as the guards surrounded him. “My other sons will carry on this war. I only came so I could see your face before I died, for I have not much life left in me.”
“Papa?” Angelika stood, barred from entering the throne room by the crossed lances of two guards. “Papa, why is the man so sad?”
Alfons turned his crazed gaze toward her. “I am not sad. I am angry. Your father took my son, Ludwig, and won’t give him back.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re Ludwig’s papa? You came. You finally came.”
Otto and Alfons stared as she reached into the large pouch hanging over her hip. She pulled out and dropped ribbons, dried leaves, a carved wooden bird, and then withdrew a folded paper. “He wants you to have this.”
Otto motioned for a guard to bring the paper over to him, as Alfons stared hungrily at the parchment.
“No.” Angelika stomped her foot. “It’s for Ludwig’s papa.”
A paper from his daughter wasn’t a weapon. He could allow this grace. “Give it to the prisoner.”
Alfons unfolded the paper to reveal an ink sketch of a family. A father and mother sat under an oak while four sons clambered in the branches above. Alfons’ eyes filled with tears as he traced the face of the youngest son.
Angelika leaned over the lances. “Papa said that Ludwig’s in heaven now, and someday I’ll go there too. When I get there I’ll tell him I gave you the drawing. He made it because he loves you. I’m really happy you came. Ludwig was my best friend.”
Alfons knelt, clutching the paper to his chest, his angular features transformed from sinister despair to aching hope. “Will you tell me stories about my son?”
Otto motioned for the guards to let his daughter approach. Perhaps peace could be purchased.
Author note: Angelika means “Messenger of God.”