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“Prize” – short story

Albert’s chest swelled with joy to the point where he thought he would break the buckles of his battered harness. Such a fight! Such a victory! Even the King was content at last! Albert had won many a tournament like today’s, but never before had his father’s approval been among his prizes. The King hadn’t smiled since the elder of his sons had exiled himself, but after today Albert would no longer be the runt, only suffered in his brother’s stead. Today, his skills and speed had been the downfall of the strongest knight on the field.

Divested of his armour, Albert retreated to his chambers to prepare for the customary banquet in the victor’s honour. His honour! He held the defeated knight’s sword, by right of tournament rules now his, close to his chest. Years ago, as a boy and his brother’s knave, he had carried Gerhard’s prize swords. Now the honour was his own, as was his growing collection.

Pride filled him as he approached the blades mounted on his wall, their edges gleaming in the candlelight. Following his victory in last year’s tournament, there had been four. Tonight’s success made them five; each one a marker on his road to earning respect.

The first was a simple broadsword, won from an experienced but impoverished knight. That victory had been a stroke of luck, he admitted in the privacy of his mind. Had the poor man’s armour been in better condition, Albert would not have been able to make that kill.

The second he had won the year his brother had left the castle in anger. The King had never spoken of Gerhard again, but young Albert had recognised his father’s disappointment in both of them. Winning this sword had been his first step in proving his worth to the King.

The third sword he was particularly proud of: it bore the mark of the famous mastersmith of the North. The knight he had won it from had been rich enough to buy the very best equipment, but even that proved to be insufficient to compensate for the man’s age. Albert had considered letting the brave old man live, but the disdainful glare of the King had made him change his mind. That night his father had openly acknowledged him for the first time since his brother’s departure.

His victory last year, his fourth, had almost been a matter of course. Perhaps the other contestants had been subpar, or perhaps his opponent in the final match had made it that far by sheer luck. If so, luck had run out for the man when he found himself pitched against Albert. The blade was as bland as their fight had been, but his father had nodded in approval when Albert retrieved it from his opponent’s dead fingers.

And now his fifth triumph had earned him true appreciation! The blade was still soiled with blood, very little of it his, but Albert cherished it as the embodiment of his father’s love. The foreign knight had refused to show his face, but anonymity hadn’t saved him and this magnificent sword was now Albert’s. Tonight at last, the King would recognise his second son for the champion he had become.

He ran his hand over the pommel, appreciating the peculiar floral shape. Yes, this sword would mark his ascension as a true prince of the realm. Perhaps he should carry it rather than making it a mere trophy. It was a good sword, much like the one Gerhard used to—

Memory struck like lightning. In his mind, the stick-thin fingers of his younger self polished the carving of this same flower bud, down to these same curved leaves gracing the sword guard. In the present, his thumb felt notches he didn’t recall, but every rounded corner of every familiar ornament sparked images that made his heart cringe. The blood he had spilt to gain his father’s approval obscured the monogram at the base of the blade, but he didn’t need to read the letters to recognise the name they spelled.

 THE END

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