A tankard slammed on the bar. “Give me another ale!”
“Aye, Prince Andreas,” said the barkeeper while reaching for a jug.
The Prince’s scantily clad companion thumped his arm, “Hey, Prince, is your father the King as sick as they say?”
“Poor geezer’s got less than a year, they reckon,” said Andreas nonchalantly.
She moved closer, “So, you ready to be King?”
Andreas laughed, “Bring it on! How hard can it be?”
“You gonna marry a Princess, too?” she pressed.
“Oh, yeah - a marriage of political convenience to Princess Katharina of Giselbrecht. I haven’t seen the skinny cow for ten years. She was eight then.”
On impulse, the woman pulled a ‘wanted’ poster off the wall, “Look, Highness. The guy on this ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ poster’s your spitting image. ‘Heidenrich Pankratz - wanted for high treason.’ Weird stuff!”
The tavern door suddenly burst open and a dozen soldiers rushed in. The patrons, woman, and bartender all fled out the back.
“It’s Heidenrich Pankratz – grab him!”
Too drunk to run, the Prince was seized and dragged towards the door. “Hey, simpletons! I’m Prince Andreas, not that other fellow!”
“Nice try, traitor! Off to the dungeons!”
A month passed. All attempts to convince the jailer of his identity had failed. At first, he had been angry. That turned into shock as the days fled by, and now he was lost in a maze of denial. This could not be happening!
Sitting on rat infested hay in a dark, dank dungeon that stank of human body waste, the Prince stared vacantly into space, a chunk of bread clutched forgotten in one hand.
A fist struck flesh and a girl screamed.
Andreas turned to see muscle-bound Mathias leaning over Ursula; a slim teenage girl dressed in filthy rags. “Hand over the bread, wench!”
Andreas stood slowly, “Leave her alone.”
Mathias smashed him against the wall, “Disappear!”
Unable to resist such might, Andreas held out his bread, “Then take mine.”
The brute stalked off. Andreas knelt and tended to Ursula’s dirty, bruised face. The other three dozen prisoners watched on in amazement. Someone had found the courage to stand up to Mathias.
Another two months passed, and although Mathias and his henchmen continued to bully the others, the Prince had not been idle.
When old Lukas’ leg was infected, he nagged the jailer into giving them cleansing herbs. Frail Ludolf descended into hysterics every time Mathias hit him, but Andreas found ways to calm him. He even found he could help resolve those endless disputes between the twin brothers, Hanke and Nicklas.
Every second day he surrendered his food to Mathias to keep the ruffian away from Ursula. Now she was his best friend.
Three weeks later matters finally came to a head.
Andreas awoke to find Mathias pinning Ursula against a wall and about to shove a wooden stick through her throat. All the other prisoners had gathered around, their faces reflecting the horror that he too felt.
“Leave her alone, Mathias!” Andreas ordered.
“Disappear, boy. I’m having some fun.”
“Not today, mister,” he said firmly.
“Look. Either I kill her, or I kill you,” Mathias hissed.
Though buffeted by despair, Andreas answered without hesitation, “Then kill me, but promise me you’ll never hurt her – or the others –again.”
Without warning, Mathias stepped back and knelt before Andreas. All the others did the same. Mathias spoke slowly, “I am the Captain of the King’s Guard. It is my honor to inform you that you have passed the final test and are ready to be King.”
Andreas looked about in confusion. “Final test? Who are you people?”
“General of the King’s armies,” said Lukas.
“King’s Advisor,” Ludolf whispered.
“The King’s Chief Administrators,” Hanke and Nicklas added.
“Everyone here is part of the King’s retinue. We are the ones who will serve you as you reign, Highness.”
“My father?” Andreas croaked.
“Death is close, but he wishes to see you, Highness.”
The jailer stepped through the now open door, “Prince Andreas, baths have been prepared for you and your retinue.”
Moved to tears, Andreas spoke, “Before you people threw me in this dungeon, I thought I could be King. However, I now know I would have led the kingdom to ruin. All I cared about was myself – and I had no experience in making tough calls or in resolving disputes. Now, thanks to you, I am ready.”
On impulse, Andreas turned to appraise Ursula. “And where do you fit into this?”
The girl curtsied elegantly, and said, “I am your betrothed, Princess Katharina.”
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