Clark Gillian

The Enchanted Deer and the Dreams of the Fool


Chapter 16.
As long as everyone is who they want to be.

With urgent hissing, the serpent whispered words into the ears of those receptive to his message. He sought the barons, high priests, guild leaders, anyone with a say in matters of state. At his instigation, ever more opulent towers, grand palaces, and fortified castles rose from the ground, becoming not symbols of prosperity, but citadels of fear.

"Far away," the serpent hissed, his voice laced with paranoia, "far away from those so-called Enchanted Deer and their… togetherness. We must build! More! Towers, walls, anything to hide behind! Now!"

Driven by his anxieties, he slithered into the Imperial Palace, slithering through forgotten nooks where candlelight didn't reach. He witnessed the pomp and ceremony in the throne room, the grand pronouncements made with beautiful big words. But he also saw the whispers in the back rooms, the true cost of his influence. He saw the medals and badges bestowed in lavish ceremonies, yet also the dark alliances forged in hidden corners and shadowed chapels.

Despite enjoying his reign in the human realm, the snake couldn't ignore the unsettling number of cats. They watched him with knowing eyes, not just in the Imperial Palace but throughout the City of Stars.

"Why so many?" he wondered, slithering unseen through the city streets. An instinct told him a powerful presence beneath the city drew them, like guardians protecting something hidden.

Reaching the Emperor directly remained out of reach, thanks to the ever-watchful King of Cats, the Emperor's feline companion. But the snake smirked. "No need to fret," he hissed. "This pompous court teems with ears itching for whispers of advantage. There's always someone willing."

As luck would have it, a young squire named the Prince of Coins, hailing from the balmy Kingdom of Coins, was tasked with attending to the daily affairs in the vast throne room. Here, matters of great import, relevant to all, were openly discussed. Every word uttered within these white walls, adorned with banners and flags, became instant fodder for gossip. News from the Emperor and his wise advisors spread like wildfire, carried by word of mouth, letters, pigeons, and messengers, reaching even the remote villages where town criers rang their bells.

Despite attending the final hours of the day's discussions in the vast throne room, the Prince of Coins remained distant, his mind drifting between wakefulness and sleep. Perfect timing, the serpent thought, slithering onto the sturdy shoulder of the young prince who stood tucked in a darkened corner behind a banner. His voice, barely a whisper, coiled around the prince's ear:

"They plan to steal everything from you, isn't that right? To force you into a miserable marriage, deny you your swordsmanship, and chain you to their obedience. They want you voiceless, powerless."

These whispers mirrored the anxieties already swirling in the prince's sleepy mind. He'd recently been abandoned by his closest friend, the Prince of Spears, who vanished mysteriously, leaving their planned escape together unfulfilled. The betrayal burned deep, leaving him both alone and deeply suspicious of the very court they intended to flee.

His unmatched skills in every swordfight brought him accolades and medals, but without his equal, the Prince of Spears, the victories felt hollow. The challenge, the camaraderie, the shared dream of escape - all lost.

Thus, the serpent seized the prince's haunting thoughts, weaving them back into his slumbering ears with a hiss. Restlessness snaked into his being, mirroring the serpent's own.

"Crown prince, truly," the serpent's voice slithered through the night as the prince tossed and turned. "Royal blood indeed. Accustomed to castles and grand narratives, inheriting a legacy of greatness. Tales of valor woven with threads of power..."

The door creaked open. A chambermaid entered the Prince of Coins' chamber, flinging wide the curtains. The serpent darted into the shadows like a black ribbon unfurling.

"The great throne room awaits, Your Highness!" she exclaimed. "And how am I to clean your chambers with you still abed?"

Sunlight speared through the window, stabbing the Prince of Coins' eyes. He scrambled upright.

The chambermaid's gaze lingered on him, wide and searching.

"What troubles you?" she asked, her voice soft yet firm. "My! Are you injured?"

"Injured?" the prince echoed, bewildered. "I am not injured."

She sank onto the bed beside him, her voice dropping to a concerned whisper. "Then explain the black eye and the hastily bandaged wound." Bloodstains peeked through the rough cloth like accusing eyes.

"Oh, that," he dismissed with a wave of his hand. "Mere trifle. Nothing to concern yourself with."

He yanked his arm away, the anger simmering beneath his words. The chambermaid saw it brewing, a storm she remembered all too well in their once-easy camaraderie.

"Sneaking out for tavern brawls is reckless, Your Highness," the chambermaid chided. "No royal treatment there. You could lose a limb, or worse."

"That's the point," the prince retorted, a glint in his eye. "I crave a real fight to test my skill."

"But be careful, Your Highness. At court, you're untouchable. No blade dares wound you."

"That's exactly the point? Delicate duels teach nothing! A true swordsman embraces every challenge, conquers every foe!" He leaped from the bed, his voice echoing in the chamber.

The chambermaid met his gaze, unfazed. "Danger isn't a trophy, Your Highness. She lowered her eyes, smoothing the rumpled sheets. "Perhaps a true swordsman doesn't chase danger, but prepares for it, knowing one day many will rely on his strength, as prince, as king. He practices because the need might arise, not for mere conquest."

Rage contorted the prince's face. "You dare lecture me on the burdens of royalty? Only another prince, an equal, could understand!"

A flush crept up the prince's neck at the mention of the Prince of Spears, his face burning a fiery red. Shame tugged at him, heavy and suffocating. He muttered, "He's gone, leaving me a butterfly among caterpillars."

The chambermaid bowed her head, busying herself with tidying the room. His words struck a deep chord, resonating with the loneliness that gnawed at him, a cavernous emptiness he desperately tried to fill with fleeting thrills.

"My apologies, Your Highness," she said, her voice laced with genuine regret. But the prince wasn't through. The serpent's insidious whispers wormed their way into his own voice, twisting his frustration into venomous barbs.

"Silence! You don't understand! You are not of royal blood, not born into castles and palaces, not raised on a legacy of grand stories and expectations. You cannot comprehend the burdens a prince carries, the responsibilities that weigh me down! They want to strip me of it all, don't they?"

"Who seeks to take it from you?" the chambermaid asked, her voice trembling slightly.

"Everyone!" the prince roared, his voice echoing in the chamber, his frustration erupting like a geyser.

But his outburst met with an unsettling silence. The chambermaid, her face etched with a mixture of sorrow and understanding, slowly walked out of the room, leaving behind a chilling emptiness that the prince's anger couldn't fill.

Only the snake stayed, a satisfied smirk twisting its scaled lips. The prince ripped off the bandage, wincing as the wound reopened, crimson staining his skin.

"Damn them all," he snarled, the words laced with a deeper despair than mere anger could express.


A bone-chilling hail rattled against the wagon's canvas roof, roused from slumber by the grumbling thunderclaps above. Inside the cramped space, the Prince of Spears and the Witch sat in tense silence, illuminated only by the occasional flash of lightning. The icy rain beat a relentless rhythm on the wooden boards, the only sound besides the witch's shallow breaths.

Her gaze was fixed on the polished tip of his spear, its gleam seeming to mock her predicament. Bound hand and foot, her mouth silenced by a harsh gag, she resorted to desperate gestures. Her fingers danced a silent plea, conveying the gnawing hunger in her stomach.

"Not a chance," the Prince's voice echoed coldly in the confined space. "The Emperor's banquet is no place for the likes of you."

Time stretched on, the only movement the flicker of the torch casting long, twisted shadows. The Witch met his gaze, unflinching. The Prince had honed his focus during his years at the Imperial Court, learning to keep his eyes glued to his opponent, anticipating their every move. He stared back, unwavering, until she finally looked away.

But her defeat was momentary. Reaching down, she snatched a stray ember from the flickering torch and, with surprising dexterity, began to sketch on the rough floorboards. Like a possessed artist, she alternated between frantic strokes and piercing glances into his eyes, her message carried not by words, but by the cryptic symbols forming beneath her touch.

A cold sweat pricked at the Prince's skin as he noticed the Witch wasn't sketching his face at all. Confusion morphed into intrigue as he saw the frantic lines forming on the floorboards, depicting something far deeper than his own features. Her gaze flickered up again, locking onto his with an intensity that sent a tremor through him. Back and forth she went, charcoal smudging across the rough wood, each stroke carrying a silent message that gnawed at his composure.

The first flicker of recognition dawned on him. His own coat of arms, the familiar spears dancing across the surface, emerged from the frantic scribbles. A nervous tremor ran through his hand. "What are you doing?" he rasped, his voice strained.

The Witch met his gaze unflinchingly, then pointed to her gag with a sly wink, as if daring him to decipher the unspoken words hidden within her drawing. Undeterred, she continued, the coal scraping out a rough shield, a young man, a helmet. Then, a chilling image: a tombstone shaped like a grotesque pumpkin.

Fear, icy and sharp, clawed at his throat. "What do you know about my brother?" the words tumbled out, laced with desperation.

But the Witch remained silent, her expression unreadable. He repeated the question, his voice barely above a whisper, yet the only response was a shrug and a helpless gesture towards the gag.

An internal battle raged within him. The urge to rip the gag away, to force an answer, warred with a flicker of caution. In the end, his fist collided with the wall behind him, a muffled boom echoing in the confined space.

"Stop!" he roared, the sound jarring in the sudden silence. The wagon lurched to a halt. Without another word, the Prince flung open the door, escaping the oppressive atmosphere and the Witch's cryptic symbols.

The first rays of dawn peeked through the dispersing clouds, painting the rain-soaked world in an ethereal light. He had been locked in that silent exchange with the Witch for longer than he cared to admit. The rain continued to fall, but his focus was solely on the pounding in his chest, the chilling questions burning in his mind.

"Where's he going?" the Bard's voice, laced with concern, sliced through the air.

"No clue," the Fool muttered, watching the Prince's retreating figure disappear into the mud.

A tense silence descended upon the wagon, broken only by the rhythmic patter of rain. The Bard and the Fool exchanged confused glances, the Witch's unsettling drawing hanging heavy in the air like an unspoken curse.

“Avoid hiding under trees!”yelled the Bard.

Intrigued by the commotion, the dwarves emerged from their own covered wagon, their curiosity battling with the chilling wind. "What now?" one rumbled, peering through the downpour.

"The Prince just... hopped off," the Bard replied, gesturing towards the empty seat. "Left without a word."

"Ran off?" another dwarf boomed, scratching his beard with a puzzled frown. "Didn't he want his horse back?"

"Something else troubles him," the Fool chimed in, a knowing glint in his eye. "I best go see what spooked him so."

The dwarves grumbled amongst themselves, the Prince's disappearance adding another layer to the already confusing journey. With a shrug, they unfolded the roof of their wagon, seeking solace from the storm's fury. A cheery melody soon filled the air as three dwarves launched into a spirited tune on lute, drum, and pan flute. The Bard, ever the storyteller, settled by the crackling fire, his ears drawn to the music.

Yet one dwarf remained silent, his gaze fixed on the open door of the Prince's abandoned wagon. It was the quiet one, the one who preferred solitude. Now, he found himself locked in an unspoken exchange with the gagged Witch within, their eyes holding a dialogue deeper than any words he'd ever shared with his companions.

Compelled by this silent conversation, he slipped unnoticed into the wagon, leaving the dwarves and their music behind.

Meanwhile, the Fool found the Prince huddled beneath a tree, his head buried in his hands. Defeated seemed the best way to describe him. Seeking to lighten the mood, the Fool plopped down beside him, steering clear of the Witch who had sparked the outburst.

"Any idea how long until we reach the capital?" he asked, hoping to distract the Prince's gloomy thoughts. "Ever been there yourself?"

"The capital?" the Prince mumbled, wiping away the rain with a weary hand. "Yes," he finally muttered, a flicker of longing crossing his face.

"Indeed, I have," the Prince replied, his voice carrying a hint of wistfulness. "A dazzling tapestry of stone and crystal, polished to gleam like a million captured sunbeams."

The Fool closed his eyes, picturing the city bathed in radiant splendor. Buildings shimmering in unison, reflecting the sun's brilliance even during the starlit hours. "How do they achieve such wonder?" he asked, his voice filled with awe.

A faint smile played on the Prince's lips. "Each wall meticulously buffed, catching every stray sunbeam and amplifying its light. Even under the cloak of night, the city remains aglow, guiding its inhabitants along moonlit paths."

The Fool swallowed, speechless at the image painted with words. "And mosaics?" he finally managed, his voice barely a whisper.

"Jewels of countless colors, meticulously arranged to tell stories across walls and pavements. Each house, a testament to artistry, vying for the title of most dazzling."

The Fool simply hummed in response, his imagination ignited by the Prince's vivid descriptions.

"Waterfalls cascade from distant mountains, channeled through aqueducts gracing the city walls, feeding magnificent fountains that dance in the sun. A spectacle unparalleled in the Empire!" the Prince's voice thrummed with excitement.

The Fool felt transported, drawn into the vibrant city by the Prince's passionate words. He could almost see the starlight shimmering on the water, feel the cool spray on his face.

"And at night," the Prince continued, his voice dropping to a hushed reverence, "the stars themselves seem to bathe within the city's mirrored heart. Reflected in countless fountains and pools, transforming the night sky into a breathtaking tapestry. Thus, they call it the City of Stars, a beacon of beauty under the heavens."

"A slice of paradise on earth," the Fool breathed, his heart filled with wonder.

The Prince nodded, a melancholic smile lingering on his lips. "Truly, it is breathtaking upon first sight."

As if on cue, the rain clouds parted, sunlight spilling through like a benediction. The world shimmered, cleansed and renewed.

A cold wind whipped around them, carrying the lingering scent of rain. Huddled beneath a lone tree, the Prince stared towards the distant horizon, his brow furrowed in thought. The covered wagon he'd abandoned moments ago remained parked on the muddy road, its open door like a gaping maw.

"Strange weather indeed," the Fool chimed in, his voice laced with a hint of amusement. "And quite the eventful day, wouldn't you say?"

The Prince turned, a ghost of a smile flickering on his lips. "Eventful is one way to put it," he chuckled, his voice raspy from the wind. "You mentioned the Emperor's palace earlier. Have you ever been there?"

"Never been closer than this very path," the Fool admitted, his eyes wide with curiosity.

"I used to call it home," the Prince said, a wistful note creeping into his voice. "For many years, I was part of the Imperial Court. Learned the art of swordsmanship under renowned masters, though even they found me a challenge." He stopped abruptly, a fleeting image of the Prince of Coins flashing in his mind, quickly dismissed.

"And the art of ruling, I presume?" the Fool prompted, eager to hear more.

"Indeed," the Prince nodded. "Preparing me to someday take my father's place as king, that was their ultimate goal. But what they truly desired was for me to find a wife, a princess to solidify alliances and secure the kingdom's future."

The Fool listened intently, his brow furrowed in thought. The world of royalty and courtly affairs was entirely foreign to him.

"Surprised, are you?" the Prince chuckled, studying the Fool's expression.

The Fool stammered, unsure how to reply. These matters were far beyond his simple life.

"One day, the crown will be mine," the Prince continued, his gaze fixed on the distant city veiled by the haze. "And when that day comes, I must be ready."

The Fool nodded solemnly, the weight of the Prince's words settling in.

"If you ever receive an invitation to the Imperial Court," the Prince continued, his voice low and conspiratorial, "you'll be treated like royalty. Quarters fit for a lord, served by the finest attendants. But remember, at the Court's threshold, all titles are left behind. There are no princes, no princesses, only ladies and gentlemen, bound by the same rules and expectations."

The Fool absorbed the Prince's words, his mind struggling to grasp this unfamiliar world. "And these ladies and gentlemen do?" he finally asked, his voice barely a whisper.

“Ladies and gentlemen help the Emperor and Empress to be the Emperor and Empress. It is because they are Emperor and Empress, the ladies and the gentlemen can be ladies and gentlemen to them. And so the inner court is happy with how it all works, as long as everyone is who they want to be,” said the Prince. “Allowing everyone to be who they want to be, that is the Emperor and Empress’s task.”

“Right,” said the Fool.

The sun began to break through the clouds. He was glad to see a full smile on the Prince’s face again.


The shy dwarf and the gagged Witch stood face-to-face within the cramped wagon. He met her gaze, the same intense stare she had used on the Prince, with a boldness uncharacteristic of his usual quiet demeanor.

"If you were free," he whispered, his voice barely audible, "would you take me with you?"

The Witch held his gaze, her expression unreadable for a moment before a slow nod confirmed his hope. Her eyes held a flicker of understanding, perhaps even admiration, for his unexpected courage.

Taking a deep breath, the dwarf stepped closer, bridging the gap that separated them. With a tremor in his hand, he reached up and, in one swift motion, ripped the gag from her face.

Gasping for air, the Witch coughed and sputtered, her chest heaving with the release. But quickly, her voice returned, strong and vibrant as she muttered words of power under her breath. The ropes binding her wrists dissolved like smoke, leaving her free.

A wide grin split her face as she pulled the dwarf into a tight embrace, tears welling up in both their eyes. The world outside might rage with storm and uncertainty, but in that moment, they found solace in their shared defiance.

"We'll show them," she declared, her voice thick with emotion. 


The Prince’s voice drifted low as he talked and talked with the Fool, weaving a tale of sacrifice and unspoken burdens. The Bard’s melody strummed like a gentle counterpoint whilst waiting for them to continue the journey. The dwarves had built a cosy little fire, meanwhile.

"I had to leave," the Prince confessed, his gaze fixed on the dancing flames. "Any warning, and they would've hindered my departure."

The Fool tilted his head, his ever-present curiosity glinting in his eyes. "You just…left?"

"Like a thief in the night," the Prince admitted, a flicker of regret crossing his face. His thoughts drifted to the Prince of Coins, their shared laughter and secrets whispered under cloaks of starlight. Their bond, forged in equality, not titles.

"But why?" the Fool pressed, sensing the story was far from over.

The Prince sighed, the weight of his burden settling in. "My brother too vanished without a trace. All he said was that he sought to find the fabled Princess, stolen by the Wicked Enchantress to her untraceable tower."

A shiver ran down the Fool's spine. He glanced towards the covered wagon, where shadows shifted within. Unknown to them, a Witch and a Dwarf plotted their escape, their fates unwittingly intertwined with the Prince's quest.

"The Witch," the Prince's voice dropped to a hushed whisper, "offered answers about my brother in exchange for a single act…removing her gag."

The Fool shook his head slowly, his voice laced with concern. "We both know where that path leads."

Meanwhile, within the wagon, the Witch and the Dwarf whispered their daring plan. Gone were the outbursts, replaced by quiet cunning. A clean escape, before the unsuspecting travellers raised an alarm.

"Standing out has never served me well," the Witch confided in the Dwarf, her voice surprisingly gentle. "So we remain calm, shadows in the night, until we slip free…"

The dwarf went and sat in the driver's spot, grabbing the reins. Bitten by a pang if fright, he mumbled to the hidden Witch, "I... I don't know what to say."

"Then let me do the talking," she said, her voice barely a whisper yet strong enough to cast a subtle spell on his mouth.

Suddenly, the Bard's gaze snapped towards the wagon. The horses were picking up pace, urged by unseen hands. He called out to the Dwarf, who trembled like a leaf in the wind.

"Worry not, Master Bard," the Witch's voice, surprisingly smooth and articulate, flowed from the terrified Dwarf's throat. "Merely fulfilling my usual duty, taking it upon myself to perform the tedious tasks you so despise. Gathering wood, weaving baskets, sanding those dreadful wheels – all the tiresome chores that would surely dampen your spirits. But fear not, I, accustomed to such tedium, relish the chance to be disgustingly useful! Just a short distance down the road, I shall complete these tasks and return in due time. We are in agreement, are we not?"

Stunned silence greeted the Witch's unexpected eloquence. One Dwarf gaped, muttering, "Never heard him speak so much in one go."

"Simply brimming with zeal for work, wouldn't you say?" the Witch's voice echoed, laced with amusement.

Sweat beaded on the Dwarf's forehead like glistening pearls, his smile strained against the mounting terror in his eyes. The Bard's voice, though still wary, cut through the tension.

"Don't stray too far, friend," he warned. "Remember, we have a very...special passenger aboard."

The Dwarf offered a nervous giggle, trying to mask his fear. "Of course, dear Bard! Rest assured, a mighty Dwarf like myself requires no help in handling even the most...spirited of witches. In fact, you should consider yourselves fortunate to have witnessed my unparalleled skills! From this day forward, whenever a fearsome witch needs subduing, remember who you call on! The Dwarf who single-handedly tamed the fiercest witch in the land! Worry not, my friends, I shall return shortly. Just a short jaunt with the wagon, so as not to disturb your precious music-making…no offense intended, of course."

With a hesitant flick of the reins, the horses trotted down the muddy road, the wagon bobbing like a precariously balanced boat. The Bard and the Dwarves watched in uneasy silence until the wagon halted far down the road. Then, they were startled by a loud yell.

"Friends! Friends!" the Dwarf's voice echoed, strained and unnatural. "Carry on with your...instruments! Make merry with that…melody you so enjoy! It's...delightful...pig-in-mud delightful, wouldn't you say? Splendid entertainment indeed!"

Hesitantly, the Dwarves resumed their music, their eyes darting towards the distant wagon. Only the Bard remained fixed on the covered form, his brow furrowed in suspicion.

"He's not looking away," the Dwarf whispered, panic creeping into his voice.

With a frustrated sigh, the Witch muttered words of power towards the sky. The ominous muttering echoed amidst the rumbling clouds, growing darker and angrier. Suddenly, a deafening clash resonated as two behemoths of cloud collided, sparking a bolt of lightning that ripped down towards the earth. Naturally, the only tall object in the vicinity was the very tree where the Prince and Fool sat, unaware of the brewing chaos.

With a flick of her wrist, the Witch snagged the lightning mid-air, directing its fury towards the covered wagon. It struck with a bone-rattling boom, jolting the vehicle and infusing the Witch with the raw power of the storm. The Dwarf whimpered, paralyzed by terror as the Witch's eyes crackled with electric energy.

"Is that Bard fool still staring?" she demanded, her voice crackling with newfound power.

"He can't miss this!" the Dwarf yelped, his voice trembling. "You just...blew the roof off!"

Unfazed, the Witch snatched the reins, urging the horses into a frantic gallop. Even that wasn't enough for her electrified impatience. "Faster! Faster!" she cackled, her eyes scanning the road behind them.

Then, in a move as surprising as it was destructive, she shoved the reins back to the Dwarf and propelled herself onto the shattered remains of the wagon's roof. With a mighty heave and a splintering groan, she tore the entire wooden structure free, leaving behind a mangled skeleton of wheels and floorboards. Everything else - luggage, supplies, instruments - lay scattered as broken debris on the path.

The Bard stood speechless, witnessing his beloved wagon reduced to firewood in moments. The Prince and the Fool joined him, their faces etched with shock and disbelief as the Witch, perched precariously atop her makeshift chariot, drove into the distance, leaving behind a trail of destruction.

Whispers of witchcraft swirled amongst the Dwarves, accusations thrown like scattered debris. "Bewitched, he must be!" one boomed.

The Bard, however, stood resolute, though his voice betrayed a tremor of disbelief. "Impossible. Her magic was bound, hands tied. That…thing she did…it wasn't of her own doing."

"But who else?" The Prince's voice echoed the gnawing question.

Silence descended, heavy and thick. The realization settled like ash in their hearts – their companion, their trusted friend, had become a pawn in an unseen game.

Shamefaced, the Bard waded through the wreckage of his life, each salvaged trinket a shard of trust shattered. Clothes, instruments, memories – a lifetime scattered along the dusty road.

The Fool, ever silent but never unobservant, placed a comforting hand on the Bard's shoulder. "At least," the Bard choked out, his voice raspy, "we know where she's heading."