The royal family of Katolis owned a number of cabins, retreats, and secret hideaways across their country.
Callum, “Step-Prince” of the kingdom, was at none of them. Instead he and his aunt Amaya were out in the forest somewhere, ages from the nearest town. It was a tradition, one that had started before his mom had married King Harrow.
Callum loved and hated it in equal measures.
He loved spending time away from the titles of the castle or the army. He loved living off the land, working hard to find food and make shelter. He loved being able to simply talk to his aunt without fear of being interrupted. He loved spear fishing, running through the forest, as the two journeyed across the wilds.
He hated that Amaya enforced a single rule. Her rule was theoretically simple, and he knew that she did it for his benefit, but he hated it nonetheless.
“No hiding Callum,” She’d say, “Not even from yourself.”
And so he was forced to, in her words, stop hiding from himself.
“Stop griping.” He spotted her sign over the campfire that night. He’d been nearly as silent as her so far, but that was nothing new, he was always quiet when these trips first started.
“Why do you make me do this?” He asked, subconsciously making sure she could see his lips clearly. A lifetime living around a deaf person caused one to develop a few habits like that, as well as a near instinctive talent at translating signs.
“Because I care about you.” Well, that explained nothing.
“Then why not respect my decisions?” He demanded, his anger flaring up for a moment.
“I do respect your decisions. Anywhere else I would not ask this of you, but for as long as you keep agreeing to come on these trips you will respect mine.” She looked him dead in the eye, perfectly serious.
And she had a point. He could have said no, could have told King Harrow that he didn’t want to go on this trip.
But his aunt was just about the only family he really had left, and he couldn’t say no to the first trip since…
Well, he couldn’t say no.
“Fine. Can I… can I do it tomorrow though?” It wouldn’t be easier tomorrow, but at least he could put it off for a bit longer.
“Fine. But you are not having breakfast before it’s done.” And Callum knew that she’d hold him to that.
Amaya sighed as her nephew crawled into the tent.
“Oh Sarai, what do I do?” She asked, looking up at the stars as if they would answer her.
Her sister hadn’t even been dead a year yet, and she already felt so lost. Sarai had been her rock, her hero, and Amaya felt lost without her.
When the news had come she’d not been allowed to mourn, not at first. Her nephews, Sarai’s sons, had needed her to be strong. And so, she had. For three days she’d kept the wave at bay, knowing she’d be swallowed whole by it when she did finally allow it to overcome her.
She’d been right. As soon as she’d been able she’d grieved, she sobbed, and raged, and swore, and very nearly did a number of things she regretted. But something stopped her hand and pulled her from the dark pit that she had nearly succumbed to.
Years before her death, not long after her marriage to King Harrow, Sarai had written two letters, and entrusted them into Amaya’s care.
“Just in case.” She’d said at the time. And Amaya had been under no illusions as to what they were: her final words. The memory of the notes stopped Amaya, and she’d raced to find them.
They’d been exactly where they’d been since that day: hidden away in a secret chamber within a secret tunnel within the castle. They were both intact, both looking just how she’d remembered them.
One letter was to Callum, to be given when Amaya thought he was ready. The other was to Amaya herself.
There was much in that letter, much that caused the hardened soldier to nearly weep again, but two lines had stood out amongst all others.
“Do not trust Viren. Should he ever learn The Truth he will kill Callum.”
“Save him. Save him in all the ways I never could.”
And thus, months later, Amaya asked her nephew to accompany her on their regular camping trip. It was hard, but Amaya was ready to do what she could to save her nephew, from both Viren and himself.
She knew he’d be difficult, would fight her every step of the way, but she was determined.
She would save Callum.
“I hate this.” Callum muttered the next day, glaring at his aunt. “I hope you know that.”
“Get to it, your breakfast is getting cold.” Amaya signed, not looking particularly impressed.
And so, with a great showing of effort, Callum readjusted his hair, letting his ears be seen clearly, much to the obvious approval of Amaya.
Callum hated them. Hated how they were just a bit too pointed to be normal, hated how they were a sign that he was a freak, hated how he could never truly hide them.
“Are you happy now?” He demanded, more than a little upset. He hated that Amaya made him show this, refused to let him hide this part of himself away. He was perfectly happy pretending to be normal, so why didn’t she just let him ?
“All of it.” She commanded, holding out a hand with her palm facing up, as if expecting something to be placed on it.
“...Fine.” He said, unclipping his earring from his right ear, where it was normally hidden by his hair, and passing it over. Where his mother had gotten it he didn’t know, but the magical trinket hid his more… obvious features.
It was hard to decide what part of this he hated the most. The small horns that seemed to pull themselves out of space on his forehead, the strange discoloration of his skin that appeared across his body, or how right it felt not to be hiding.
It felt wrong to feel so right.
After breakfast Amaya produced a pair of training swords, and Callum proved to be… not totally useless. He’d hesitate to say he was good , but he was certainly a few steps up from his normal showings.
“Maybe not a sword.” Amaya commented later, a calculating look in her eyes.
“Yeah, maybe not.” Callum muttered, panting from the brief exercise.
“Knives maybe? Moonshadow Elves use-”
“No!” He bit, his cry cutting over her signs. “I will never touch an elven weapon.”
“Never say never,” Amaya warned, a seriousness in her movements that would be evident in tone for anyone else, “If it meant saving Ezran’s life, would you hesitate?”
“Of course not!” He cried, appalled at the mere thought. He might hate elves, might hate everything about the monsters, but if it meant saving Ez he’d do whatever it took.
His brother was one of the few things he had left, for however long he had left until King Harrow got bored of him, but Callum knew he would die for Ez.
“Then we have to find a weapon for you.” His aunt declared, as if her word alone was enough to make it fact.
It was, and Callum knew it.
“What’s it matter? I can barely hold a sword when wearing my earring.” His body just felt… wrong. His limbs too long, but too short at the same time. He couldn’t move quite right, like his weight was in all the wrong places. Sometimes it felt like someone was pushing down on his chest, making it hard to breath, and some days he felt like just looking at himself would cause him to throw up.
But without his earring he felt right, like some missing piece had finally been found. He hated that feeling, because he didn’t want to be like this, he wanted to wear his earring and just be normal .
“Life is unpredictable.” Was all Amaya said.
A week later and Callum was putting his earring back in place, sighing as he felt the magic ripple across his body and hid everything away.
It was over. He’d suffered through a week without it, and now he could put it back on and not take it off again until next year, when he would be invited on another trip.
“I think we should invite Ezran along next time.” Amaya suggested as they ate their last meal before he went back to the castle.
“If you invite Ez, I’m not coming.” Because his aunt would insist he remove his earring, and he refused to let his brother see him like that. “Besides, I’ll probably be gone by next year anyway.”
“Why do you say that?” She asked, apparently ignoring his first statement.
“Mom’s dead, so it’s only a matter of time before King Harrow gets bored of me and starts focusing on his real kid. If I’m lucky he’ll find some nice lord or lady to raise me. But then, I’m not really family, so maybe he’ll just toss me out onto the street, let me be a beggar.” Callum rambled, the fears that had been born the night his mother died finally being given a voice. “Or hell, he knows that I’m a freak, maybe he’ll just decide to toss me to my “elf brethren”! Who knows what they’d do to a freak like me!”
“He won’t send you away. I promise.” Amaya signed.
“Oh, and how can you promise that?”
“I won’t let him.”
There were few people that could angrily march through the halls of the royal castle, glare at everyone in sight, and then kick in the doors to King Harrow’s private quarters without the guards so much as twitching.
Sometimes it paid to be the King’s sister-in-law.
She wasted no time in taking stock of the sleeping form of her king, who was far too used to her kicking in his door to wake because of it. Seeing as how she needed him awake she decided to act, tossing something from the dresser at him after making sure it wasn’t important. It was that ugly glass vase that Queen Neha of Duren had given him for his birthday three years ago, so she felt no shame in chucking it at him.
“Wh-wha?!” The great King of Katolis spluttered, flailing madly for a moment at the abrupt awakening. “Oh, Amaya. Can we do this later, I was up late last night.”
“No. We’re doing this now or I’m throwing you over the balcony.”
“You know, most people would consider that treason.” The sleepy monarch pointed out, untangling himself from his sheets and rising to his feet.
“Like the guards would stop me.” Amaya pointed out. Harrow pauses for a moment, considering her, before simply nodding at her assessment.
“What did I even do this time?” Hallow asked, clearly deciding to just get to the point.
“Let’s talk about Callum.” She began.
The king straightened, sleep-ridden features melting away in favour of a sober expression. Amaya had his attention.
Callum wasn’t sent away. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Callum, can we talk?” King Harrow asked, standing in Callum’s door. Callum paused for a moment, but he didn’t exactly have a choice, did he?
“Yes sir.” He allowed, standing from his desk to face his King.
“Come, sit.” He was told, King Harrow moving to sit on Callum’s bed. After a moment’s hesitation he followed, taking his place at his King’s side.
“Callum, I want you to know that I’m not going to send you away.” He was bluntly informed. “You are staying right here, for as long as you want to stay.”
“I… I understand sir.” Callum replied, confused at what he was being told.
“No, I don’t think you do. So let me make this perfectly clear.” King Harrow began. “You are my son, and as such your place is here, with me and Ezran. I am not sending you to live in the country so that you can’t embarrass me, I’m not throwing you out onto the streets to be a beggar, and I’m certainly not giving you to the elves. You are going to stay here, with your family, for as long as you want to stay.”
The words caused Callum to stop, to think. It was clear that his aunt had spoken to the king, had done as she had promised and ensured that he wouldn’t be sent away. He was torn, briefly, between joy that his fears were apparently unfounded and anger that she’d told King Harrow of his fears.
In the end joy won out, and Callum nearly collapsed as he felt like a great weight had been taken from him.
That wasn’t the end of it, not for Harrow.
Because he’d learned far more about the situation than Callum’s fears, and he would now have to address the other major concern.
Some of it was easy. The lesser offenders would find themselves reassigned to locations away from the castle, where they would have no chance to interact with Callum. Then there were those that required his… personal attention.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” He began, glaring down from his throne. His clothes were immaculate, his crown perfectly placed, his Threatening Sword sharp. He appeared, to be blunt, about as terrifying as a king could be.
“If I ever learn that you have insulted my son in such a manner again, I will throw you to General Amaya and let her have her way with you. If there's anything left of you after that, I will then see to your fates personally . Am I understood!”
He was understood.
As time went on things became… easier, at least a little.
Amaya held true to her thought, and invited Ezran the next year for the camping trip. Callum stayed true to his declaration, and let his brother go alone.
“And remember: you can tell Aunt Amaya anything , she’s great at keeping secrets.” He had told Ezran before they set out, giving his aunt a look as he spoke. She’d not reacted, but Ezran had shown no signs of knowing what Callum really was, so he decided that she’d gotten the message.
That had been the first year since the camping trips had started that he’d not gone, and he had honestly found himself quite confused as to what to do with himself. He’d milled about a fair bit, but eventually decided to spend his time in the royal library, reading whatever topic caught his eye.
It was possibly the most boring week of his life.
When Amaya suggested that the two go on a camping trip two months later, just the two of them, he leapt at the chance. Despite how much he hated handing over his earring to Amaya, he did love their time together.
As the years went on he never quite grew into himself. His body always felt awkward, ill fitting, like it wasn’t sitting right on his bones. He suffered in combat practice because of it, proving that he was right when he said he could barely hold a sword while wearing his earring, but Harrow never seemed to much care.
“I was even worse than you were when I was growing up.” His dad told him one day. “Don’t worry about it too much. One day you’ll find your way to fight, and it’ll all make sense.”
And then one day it all came to a head, in the worst way possible.
It was entirely possible that Callum, who held no particular aptitude for combat, would never end up in a scenario that would put him in a position to allow him to meet an elf. He could have become a scholar, he could have helped manage the royal treasury, he could have helped plan civilian affairs.
He was a smart boy, there were any number of things that he could have done with his life that held zero chance of meeting an elf.
But fate was a cruel thing.
“I am Prince Ezran.” He lied, planting his feet. He would die for his brother, had known that would be willing to do so for years now. To die by the hands of an elvish assassin was far from the way Callum had wanted to die, but there was little he could do about it. If his life was the price he had to pay, then so be it.
He glared at the elf as she tried to make it sound like she’d show him mercy, that it’d be quick and painless.
He didn’t believe her for a second. What did elves know of mercy? Nothing. He was living proof of that.
But that wasn’t the end of it, and Ezran led them to a secret chamber with an egg, the Dragon Prince the elf named it.
And then they were running from ghostly wolves, and planning their escape, and apparently they’re going to Xadia now?!