Prince Lewin has to spend his days walking two steps behind his brother, the future king of Bavaria, and pretending to enjoy it. His life is a series of dull days of being the spare and not the heir. He has resigned himself to the fact that no one prefers him, when they could have someone else. Until he meets Krampus. The God from the Alpine tribefolksâ€™ winter stories is alive and well in the Bavarian mountains, and has set his sights on the younger prince. Lewin soon finds himself falling for the man who is supposed to be a myth. But it has its own set of consequences. And with the Black Plague spreading fast across the continent, can Lewin and Krampus find some middle ground to grow their love?
"Come on, slow poke, keep up."
If Prince Lewin could have rolled his eyes he would have. Instead, he kicked his horse and tried to catch up with his big brother.
"Lewin, at your fastest you are still the slowest," Prince Bjorn cried.
Lewin finally managed to roll his eyes, even though this made him miss the puddle and get splashed by galloping hooves. He could hear Bjorn's laughter as they broke through the forest and entered the palace's farmlands.
Bjorn, the crown prince of Bavaria, was talented at very little outside of a stateroom. A great future king, but frankly terrible at everything else. And so, everyone in the kingdom was surprised when the clumsy prince seemed to have quite the aptitude for riding. The queen had then encouraged her sons to traipse the mountain trails in order to show the kingdom their future monarch was a smart and handsome man, talented at horseback, and kind to his younger (more useless) brother.
Bjorn loved this exercise and soon it became a daily ritual. Lewin, on the other hand, wasn't so fond of it. Riding the same trails every day, in every weather, trying to keep up with the erratic rider, was a chore. He had begun to compare it to a rotting tooth.
Especially on those cold mornings where it was late autumn in the sun, and winter chill in the shade.
"Bjorn, let's go back now," Lewin called, "I'm cold, and hungry."
"So are the people, brother, so are the people."
Bjorn slowed down, thrust his hand into his satchel, pulled out several gold coins, and threw them to the farmers. Lewin halted his horse and did the same. Little children working in the fields ran up and collected the coins.
"Take them to your parents," the prince ordered. "They are a gift from the palace."
"Thank you, You Highnesses," the children said and bowed.
Lewin nudged his horse and made his way to his brother.
"Home, Highness, I beg of you."
"Yes, yes, little brother. To the palace we go."
Lewin was hoping for a leisurely stroll, hoping but not expecting. Bjorn kicked his horse and in a torrent of mud and puddle water, he was off towards the palace. Beneath him, Lewin's horse sighed, as though feeling exactly as the prince did.
"Your Highness, there is a shorter way to the palace."
Lewin looked down to the little peasant standing in the mud. The boy turned to point to a break in the mountains.
"There is a path there, Highness, follow it all the way back to palace grounds."
"Thank you," Lewin said and dug for one more coin.
He tossed it to the boy who caught it, bowed and ran off excitedly.
"Come on, Hexan," Lewin said to the horse. "Let's go home."
Thoughts of grand fireplaces and grander meals filled his head as he made his way to the mountains. He'd only been there once in his life, as a small child. He didn't recollect much, only a fear of the shadows and the barren, craggy land. He sometimes dreamt of the caves. In his dreams, a dark creature lurked behind the boulders. Lewin shook his head of the memories and illusions and wandered up the path, away from the farmland. Away, it seemed, from the light.
The land was not as he remembered. The ground was marshland instead of stone. He assumed much had happened in the fifteen years since he'd passed through last. Had someone broken through the stone and tilled the soil?
Was that even possible?
Lewin shrugged, of all things he was, a farmer wasn't one of them.
"Come on, Hexan, let's get back."
On his own, the horse sped up, taking them through the marsh and closer to the caves at a brisk walk. Lewin sat deeply in his saddle at the quicker pace, blinking away the water in his eyes as the wind whipped around his head.
Hexan suddenly shied sideways, making the prince over balance, forcing him to grab the pommel to stay upright.
"Whoa, boy, it's okay."
Through his heavy breathing Lewin heard a faint growling, the horse jolted again.
Lewin swivelled in the saddle to look for the source of the noise. The horse bolted forward, nearly unseating the prince again. He struggled to get Hexan under control. He needed to find the growling or risk running straight into a wolf pack. Being torn to pieces wasn't on his list of things to do that day.
Hexan had taken them towards the very caves which had haunted his dreams for years. Lewin's heart quickened at the sight, his senses sharpened to any movement within the shadows. But the cave remained still and quiet. The prince shook his head at his fear and nudged his horse, guiding him back to the path.
He kept a hand at his sword, ready for wolf or warrior. Ready to defend himself from whatever was in the cave.
From the corner of his eye, he could see movement near the boulders. He swung around quickly, taking everything in. The land around him was strangely quiet, an eerie sort of silence, as though not even nature wanted to disturb whatever was hiding in that cave.
As much as he did not want to investigate, Lewin knew he had to, or he risked being the subject of an ambush. The prince pulled his sword from the scabbard and kicked his horse, guiding him towards the boulders. He half expected to come upon a pack of wolf cubs, or some other such less dangerous predator. But the boulders were empty of wildlife. The pair walked all the way around and back out onto the path without seeing so much as a sparrow.
"You are spooking at your shadow," the prince scolded himself.
He sheathed his sword and continued his journey, his gaze sweeping the landscape for wolves. But seeing none.
Long grass moved in the wind, making it difficult to see enemies; trees bent down, their bark cracking at the pressure on their branches. Lewin jumped at every snap and swish. He cursed himself for taking the boy's advice. He bit his lip nervously at his own foolishness.
And they call you the smart prince?
Although he had to admit, ambushing the second son was probably not the best idea for anyone trying to cause trouble in the kingdom. Even taking out Bjorn was hardly cause for concern as the Bavarian throne was well and truly secure: a healthy king, two princes, three princesses already married with sons. Lewin was sure he was safe.
The horse shied again.
Or at least, he hoped he was.
The kingdoms to the north had stories of mad descendants of past kings thinking they had a right to a throne occupied by a distant cousin. Lewin glanced around, half expecting to see armies of men he shared an ancestor with. Only the gently blowing wind greeted him.
And yet, he had the distinct feeling he wasn't alone.
There was something hiding, perhaps ready to pounce.
He halted Hexan and swivelled in the saddle to get a good look. Because he had to stare directly towards the sun, his vision was blurred, his brain not recognising the images being sent to it. The shadows seemed longer and a deeper black than they'd ever been before. The prince's heart hammered as they appeared to be moving with the wind.
He rubbed his eyes, trying to get them to focus. When he opened them, all was still. The wind had ceased, as had the movement of the trees. In the stillness, the prince was conscious of only his racing pulse and heavy breathing. Starting low, the growling returned. Beneath him Hexan twitched, ready to bolt at a moment's notice. Lewin gripped the reins tightly, his other hand on the hilt of his sword. Somewhere in that barren land the growling got louder. But it made no sense, wolves hunted in packs and were anything but stealthy. A wolf big enough to make that growl would be seen a mile off. And yet, where was he?
Slowly, Lewin pulled his gaze from the grass to the dark shadows of the cave. He tightened his hold around the sword, ready to use it given half the chance.
The growling suddenly stopped. And yet, the atmosphere hadn't changed. If anything, the silence was more terrifying. A cloud drifted across the sun, bathing the area in shade. Lewin blinked his eyes and tried to get them used to the new view, but with Hexan stamping and snorting beneath him, it was becoming impossible to concentrate. He calmed his horse and squared his eyes at the carnivorous entrance, there was something there, breathing almost as heavy as he was. Lewin wanted with all his might to believe it was a lone wolf, hiding in terror, but his mind wouldn't let him. Whatever it was, it stood on two legs.
It's a bear. It has to be a bear.
But Lewin knew it wasn't. No bear was that shape. The creature was tall and thin, appearing to have horns coming up from its head. Lewin watched as it took a small step forward, walking just as a man would. The cloud moved and sunlight blinded the prince. When he opened his watery eyes, he tried to find the creature, but it was lost in the shadows. Hexan awaited no instruction, he shot off like a bolt of lightning, quickly putting as much distance between them and the creature as was possible to do on such craggy land.
Lewin struggled to stay on, so frantic was the movement of his horse. His mind turned over and over what he'd just seen. The way it had been too small for a bear, too human for a wolf, too endowed with horns to be anything of this world.
He kicked Hexan harder and raced for the palace. He should have never come this way. It would be the last time he'd ever follow the advice of peasants.
The land soon flattened out and turned to crops, farm workers dotting the landscape. Lewin began to feel calmer, safer, almost sane again. Hexan slowed too, as though agreeing the danger was behind them. For the first time, Lewin released his death grip on the sword.
As the peasant boy had promised, the path soon led to the palace grounds where he quickly made his way to the stables, throwing the reins at the groom and giving Hexan a last pat. He hurried through the gardens and into the palace, careful to avoid any members of his family, or their paramours. His heart still hammered at the memory, and he hadn't the courage to speak of where he'd been without his voice shaking. Once in his room, he stripped down to his underclothes and threw himself onto his bed, letting the scent of freshly washed wool fill him.
What on earth had he just seen?
One of the hardest roles for Lewin as the spare prince was always walking behind his brother. As children, they'd been equal in the eyes of their family, but things had changed once Bjorn had reached the age of maturity. With their crown prince at an age where he could rule the kingdom without a regent should his father suddenly die, the rules of the game had changed. The heir was now able to marry and create his own heirs, the spare needed to know his place in the pecking order. At the age of fourteen, Lewin had detested being two steps behind his brother, now at twenty-two it was beyond unpalatable. Bjorn should have married and had children already, following behind a future queen and mother of future kings wouldn't have been such a burn to the ego. Strolling behind his foolhardy brother made him feel like a servant.
As he watched his brother's back the night of his ordeal, he felt his temper start to rise. He had wanted to spend the evening dining alone in his room, away from anyone who'd ask any questions, instead his mother had ordered him to attend the feast. His mood hadn't improved as his brother strolled on ahead, dawdling at a snail's pace and making Lewin stop every few steps to wait for him.
He was starting to understand why the princes in the northern kingdoms had snapped and gone for the throne.
"His royal highness, Prince Bjorn," the crier announced.
The hall filled with the sounds of chair legs scratching against the stone floor as the nobles quickly stood up in respect of their heir. Bjorn walked through the throng of aristocrats and sat down at his father's table.
The crier glanced sideways. "Prince Lewin," he called.
The nobles watched their second prince scamper through the hall, their silence having less to do with respect and more about protocol. Lewin hated the moments where he was begrudgingly afforded the same respect so happily given to his brother.
He would have preferred to be ignored.
"Good evening, Highnesses," he said as he sat down.
His mother smiled at him, his father didn't even raise his head from the meat platter.
"Where did you disappear to?" Bjorn asked his brother. "I got to the palace and you weren't behind me."
Lewin's heart skipped a beat at the memory of what he'd seen at the cave.
"Did my baby brother fall behind?" Bjorn mocked in an infantile voice. "He can't keep up with his big brother?"
Lewin smiled thinly but refused to be drawn into an argument. He was still recovering from his ordeal and Bjorn's dopey grin would surely make him snap.
"Your dinner, Your Highness," a busty servant said as she leaned across Lewin to put his plate down.
He sighed and ducked out of the way of her breasts. As much as he loved his homeland's distinct outfits, he had to admit he'd prefer the women to wear more clothes. He glanced sideways to the king's guards: if he was wishing things, he'd love the men to wear less. The captain caught Lewin staring at him, forcing the prince to bury himself in his plate, his gaze never leaving the schweinebraten and knodel.
"We have to meet with the Bulgarian princess soon," the queen said between bites. "She is waiting at Burghausen Castle."
The king finally looked up. "What is she doing there?"
"Waiting for me father," Bjorn said with a salacious smile. "Waiting for some...royal...attention."
Lewin rolled his eyes, Bjorn assumed every princess was there for him and not the right to be queen of Bavaria by batting her eyelashes at the right person. Which was surprising; seeing as Bjorn was hardly the epitome of a swinging bachelor. As much as Lewin loved him, he knew the prince had nothing to offer but a throne.
"I mean," the king growled, "Why is she at Burghausen Castle, when she should be at Coburg Castle? Why should my prince change castles because some foreign wench is at the wrong castle?"
The queen gave her husband the smile she reserved just for him, a smile Lewin had come to interpret as an intense desire to commit treason by braining the monarch.
"Dear, this is not a foreign wench. This is the eldest daughter of the king of Bulgaria--one of the richest kingdoms in Europa. If our son could just behave like a civilized human for once in his life, we may see an alliance with the one kingdom which has evaded us for three hundred years."
"I behave," Bjorn said.
The king snorted.
Lewin hid his smile.
"The Bulgarian king has requested that his daughter be met at Burghausen Castle. And we are granting him that request to keep on his good side," the queen said in a tone which allowed no arguments.
"What do we know of this princess besides having a demanding father?" the king said.
"She's rich, that's all we need to know," the queen said, "If she is the next queen we'll have an alliance with a country on the Silk Road."
"Don't I get a say in this?" Bjorn demanded. "It's only my marriage you are deciding."
The monarchs stared at him as though he spoke in tongues.
"It doesn't matter what you want," the king said, "If we have an opportunity to get to the Silk Road, we will take it."
Bjorn looked ready to storm away. Lewin felt the need to dump a goblet of ale on him.
What was it about crown princes that made them so adamant in their beliefs of being hard done by simply because they had to marry the royal which brought the best dowry and blood lines? As though any pauper in the kingdom wouldn't jump at the chance to marry a stranger just to be king. Lewin sighed, rubbed his hand across his eyes and went back to his dinner, forcing the food down. He was usually more patient with his brother, but he could chalk his irritations up to the creature in the cave.
Memories of the mysterious creature surfaced, and Lewin struggled to push them back down.
It was only a bear. A skinny bear. With horns?
He grabbed the ale and downed it, throat burning, eyes and nose watering.
The family paused to gaze at him wide-eyed before returning to their discussion. "The Silk Road is more important than who you want to marry," the queen said, "Imagine what we could do with an international road which links Europa with the Orient."
Lewin leaned back and thought of the infamous Silk Road--an imaginary path from the Orient, through the desert and into the Mediterranean Sea where the ships from Europa were ready and waiting to trade their goods for treasures from far off lands.
Bavaria, landlocked and hidden in the mountains, very rarely made any use of the Silk Road. Lewin hadn't known this was a problem.
"Do we absolutely need a connection to the Silk Road?" he asked as he ordered more ale.
It was Bjorn's turn to scorn. "Yes, little brother. We absolutely need a connection to the Silk Road, or else we stand the risk of being left in the dark ages while the rest of Europa moves forward."
"Moves forward in what? The merchants on the Silk Road bring fabric and spices. Enlighten me how that will make our kingdom better?"
"They also bring gunpowder. And weaponry the likes of which we have never seen," Bjorn said, "If the rest of Europa arms themselves against us, what are we to do? It is in our best interest to utilise the Silk Road."
"So then why won't you just shut up and marry this princess?" Lewin snapped.
"She is not the only way to make a connection with the merchants on the Silk Road," Bjorn whined. "We can find other ways."
"Until you find that other way, you are going to Burghausen Castle and wooing that princess," the queen commanded.
"What if she looks like a hog?"
"Then you become a lover of bacon," the king said.
He stood up, forcing his subjects to stand whether they wanted to or not.
"I shall be retiring for the night," he said to the occupants of the hall. "I bid you all a good sleep."
Lewin watched his father strut off, giving one last nod to a bar wench before he left the room. Not long after, she followed him out. Lewin ground his teeth in frustration. His father's philandering was the stuff of legends, almost as though it was something to be praised. But let Lewin be caught in the presence of one man and the king threatens to excommunicate him. How was any of it fair?
The family finished their dinner and Lewin excused himself. Only to be accosted by his brother minutes later.
"We need to somehow sneak Gertrude into the carriage," he said with a glance around as though the very walls were spies.
"The carriage to Burghausen Castle?" Lewin asked. "You want to take your mistress with you when you go meet a potential wife?"
"Well the potential wife isn't going to fuck me, is she?"
Lewin shook his head and shrugged his brother's hand off. "Can't you keep your dick holstered for a few days?"
"Of course not," Bjorn said with a chuckle.
A headache slowly spread across Lewin's forehead, and he bit back on the need to strike his brother.
"Do whatever you want. I need sleep."
He shoved past Bjorn to get to his room, only to feel his brother's fingers digging into him, "What's wrong? Where did you go this afternoon?"
Bjorn's squared his eyes, and Lewin prepared himself for another lecture from a proud philanderer. His only option was to jump in before the tiresome complaints started.
"No, I was not with a man," he said with gritted teeth.
Bjorn let his breath out in a whoosh. "Then where were you?"
Lewin knotted his eyebrows, images of the creature surfaced, making his stomach twist.
"I took another way home. A peasant told me about a path through the valley."
Bjorn's eyes widened. "And you just took it?"
Lewin felt shame for the first time, he slowly nodded.
"Are you crazy? They could have ambushed you and killed you, and none of us would have been any the wiser."
The sound of the creature reverberated across his memories and Lewin had to lean against the stone wall.
Bjorn ran his gaze over his brother. "What happened? Did they do something to you?"
Lewin pushed his brother out of the way and stormed into his room. He threw himself on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Bjorn followed him in and collapsed next to him, making annoying noises with his tongue, just as he had done as a child when trying to irritate his sibling.
"Stop!" Lewin finally cried.
"Then tell me what happened out there."
"I saw something..." Lewin's heart began to race at the memory... "Something strange."
Lewin hoisted himself up onto his elbow and looked down at his brother. "It was a beast. It was an animal but stood on its hind legs. It had horns."
Bjorn began to laugh, making Lewin search the room for a weapon to use.
"Goats can stand on their hind legs, Lewin."
"No, this was not a goat. This was a man with horns."
"A second ago it was an animal."
Lewin fell back down. "It was animal-like. But it was also man-like."
"It sounds like you were hallucinating," Bjorn said with a grin.
"I was doing no such thing. It was real. Even the horse was terrified."
Bjorn frowned at his brother. "The horse? Am I now to believe the testimony of a horse?"
Lewin pushed himself off the bed and went to the window. "Forget it all."
Bjorn chuckled and climbed off the bed. "So sensitive, brother. Fine, let's pretend you weren't hallucinating. And really did see this goat-man-beast. Describe him properly."
Against his own wishes, Lewin closed his eyes and tried to remember exactly what he'd seen.
"The light was in my eyes, I couldn't see properly. From what I could see, the beast was tall and skinny, with hair all over his skin. And horns shooting up from the top of his head. He walked just like a man."
"How certain are you that it wasn't a man wearing a fur? Perhaps a goat hide."
Lewin opened his eyes, could it have been?
Bjorn shrugged under his brother's intense stare. "If you were in the barren valley, there may have been men living as beasts in those caves. They'd wear furs. What if it was merely a man who'd left his cave to go hunting? And you saw him in strange light and made him scarier than he really was."
Lewin began shaking his head. "No. It couldn't be so. I wouldn't be terrified of a man in a goat fur. Even the horse was scared."
"A horse is not a barometer for intelligence," Bjorn snapped.
Lewin made his way to the bed and thought about what he'd seen. "It couldn't have been merely a man. It was something far more sinister."
"Then it was a man staging an ambush," Bjorn said, "Why else would the peasant have told you to go that way unless they wanted to attack you?"
"Why?" Lewin cried, "Why would they want me?"
Bjorn's calm and rational answers were beginning to grind on Lewin. All he said could easily be true. But it also made a complete mockery of everything Lewin had been feeling at the time and since then. He had been scared of man wearing a goat fur? A prince of the realm had galloped off in fear of a man dressed as a goat? It beggared belief.
"Next time, do not take the advice of peasants," Bjorn said, "We aren't allowed to marry them for a specific reason."
Lewin rolled his eyes and fell back onto the bed.
As much as he hated to admit it, his brother had a point.
There had been nothing in that cave to fear except a peasant's plot on his life.
Frankly, he wasn't sure which was worse.