Free Fantasy Feature August 2022 | Wayward Scribe: A Fantasy Short Story

Wayward Scribe fantasy short story cover

An invading empire. A fallen kingdom. I watch from the shadows at our usurper’s side as history repeats itself.

In a game of power and thrones, only a nameless, royal scribe stands to make the difference between the kingdom’s uprising or complete submission. Death lies on both sides of the knife’s edge.

And in this game, only the victor can claim to know hero from traitor.

A twisting, stand-alone fantasy story by the author of the World of Lasniniar series, Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Rubicon Short Story Collection.


Wayward Scribe: A Fantasy Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

How will I be remembered? Will I be reviled as a treacherous villain, or hailed as a clever servant? The victors will decide.

As a scribe, I know this all too well. Perhaps it would be better not to be remembered at all. The chances of my survival seem better that way. If I am forgotten, it means I somehow managed to escape this impossible situation.

My gaze flickers over the sand table displaying the formation of the conquering army that surrounds the captured capital city. It is not a large force. How were we defeated so easily?

We were complacent; complacent and foolish. The Empire had conquered us once before, so long ago, the event had faded from memory. But I knew. I had read the records of the ancient invasion. Years of tyranny had passed before we managed to expel them. Could we manage it a second time?

Such thoughts are dangerous in my position.

The conquering prince looks up from the sand table. I school my features into a properly subservient expression. This man is my master now. His cunning, green eyes take in my discomfort and a smile tugs at his lips.

“Well? Is it as I requested?” he asks in his own tongue.

His personal scribe raises his head from his examination of my missive. “I believe so, Highness.” He hands the parchment back to me.

Can the old man decipher our script? I doubt it, or they would have no need of me. Since the slaughter here at the palace, I am the only scribe left in the city who can speak both the native and Imperial tongues. I have never learned the Imperial script, but I have seen it. It has nothing in common with our own.

“Seal it.” The prince pins me beneath his gaze.

Ink-stained fingers trembling, I pull the golden ring from my right hand. Despite being a bastard, my father always treated me as well as his legitimate, noble-born children. Now one of my half brothers will most likely be the recipient of this duplicitous message, sealed with our family crest.

What would Father do in my situation? How I long for his counsel. But he is dead, slaughtered by the first wave of the invading army, like the king and all the other nobles who once dwelt in the palace.

How long before I join them? Unless I can ingratiate myself with the prince, my days are surely numbered.

* * *

I sit in the Great Hall, the lilting tones spoken by the off-duty soldiers washing over me, taking me back to another place and time.

At first, the Imperial Tongue had come slowly to me. Its cadences are so unlike our own. Instead, I had been forced to make myself understood with simple gestures, picking up what phrases I could as I traveled the foreign countryside. The common folk were kind and patient with me, and I soon found myself at home among them.

A hunger for knowledge and a desire to forge my own path in the world had driven me to see what lay beyond our borders, but once I made the crossing, I did not get very far. For almost a year, I lived comfortably in a small fishing village near the river until my money ran out and I was forced to return home to ply my trade as a scribe once more.

Even among the river folk, I heard of the prince. Third in line for the throne, he had already earned a reputation for his cunning ambition.

Now he is here.

What does the Emperor think of his son’s bold move? Like his forefathers, he has honored the peace between our nations since we claimed our independence. Yet I cannot believe he could be ignorant of his son’s actions.

No. A third son is expendable. He will wait to see how the chips fall before reacting.

A shadow passes over me, scattering my thoughts like windblown leaves. I look up. A member of the prince’s retinue looms overhead. A knot of anxiety forms in the pit of my stomach.

I have been summoned.

Once more, I find myself standing before the prince as his scribe squints over a roll of parchment. I can only assume it is a response to my missive. Will deciphering it be the last task they require of me? I have tried to curry the prince’s favor, but there hasn’t been much time. The palace servants despise me for it, and I am in no one’s good graces.

After several long moments of silence, the prince’s scribe thrusts the parchment at me, his brow furrowed in frustration. My heart leaps to my throat.

The letter is written in my half brother’s hand.

My eyes scan the page as the prince taps his foot. The words manage to fill me with both hope and dread.

“What does it say?” My head snaps up at the prince’s words, my eyes wide. I feel like a rabbit, caught in a hunter’s snare beneath his gaze. I swallow before speaking.

“It is as you hoped. The Lords of the South believe our message was sent on behalf of the king, summoning them to court. They will arrive in a fortnight with only a small retinue for each household.”

The prince smiles. I do not like the look of it. Our kingdom is vast, and news of the invasion has been carefully contained to the conquered North. The prince has used me to lure the Southern Lords here to slaughter them and secure his place. With all the ruling nobles wiped out, the people will be leaderless.

“Anything else?” His countenance becomes serious once more.

“Ah, yes.” I clear my throat to read what I consider the most important part of the message. “Although the lords believe they should arrive within one fortnight, there is much country to cross. They will send another bird if necessary to inform us of any delay.”

The prince frowns and for a moment, I fear the logical caveat will not change my fate. Then he nods.

“Very well. In the meantime, I wish you to serve me more closely. You will attend to me while we wait for the next message.”

I silently bless my half brother for granting me this reprieve. I will have to make use of it.

* * *

Even under the prince’s constant watch, the days pass all too quickly. No other messages have arrived from the Southern Lords, and tomorrow marks their scheduled arrival. If the prince has his way, I doubt I will live through the night. He has not softened toward me, and the guards assigned to shadow me even while I run their master’s errands have allowed me no chance to slip away.

Now the prince wants a feast prepared to celebrate his impending victory. And of course, as the only native servant fluent in the Imperial Tongue, I have been ordered to oversee the preparations. It is a demeaning task for someone of my skills, but I seize the opportunity. It is likely my last chance to prove myself.

I have already procured some ground spice from the invading army’s cook that while a staple in their land, is nowhere to be found here in the kingdom. It will no doubt remind the prince of home.

As I bear my precious burden to the palace kitchens, my guard follows a few steps behind me wearing a bored expression. I do my best to ignore his presence and march over to the head cook.

“Here.” I hand her the large pouch of spice. “Add this to tonight’s roast for the prince’s feast.”

The cook hefts the pouch in one thick-fingered hand, feeling the weight. “How much?” she grunts.

“All of it. And make sure to have it served with our best vintage of spiced wine. The flavors should go together nicely. But have it poured for the prince and his men only. Everyone else gets watered wine.”

“Even you?” she asks, her voice full of scorn.

I suppress a sigh. “Yes, even me. I want my instructions followed to the letter. Everything must go smoothly with this feast, or there will be consequences. Is that understood?”

Now the rest of the kitchen staff has stopped their work to watch our exchange with barely-concealed contempt. I have made no friends here. They don’t understand. I am not like them. If I were, things would be so much easier. Instead, I am caught between two warring cultures.

Sensing their hostility, my guard steps up beside me, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. I decide to use his presence to my advantage.

“I said: Is that understood?

“Aye.” The cook grumbles under her breath before looking away.

The others slowly resume their tasks with eyes averted. But as I turn to leave, I swear I can feel their gazes burning a hole in my back.

* * *

Here I sit, next to the prince’s own scribe in a mockery of my position, despite the presence of my trusty satchel of ink and parchment. No one present could mistake me for his equal with my jailor guard seated to the other side of me. The prince is in a fine mood, revelling in his impending success.

As the timid palace servants bring in the trays of roast and the pungent aroma of Imperial spice fills the banquet hall, the prince’s smile deepens.

“How clever of you, good scribe. You have been a useful servant to me these past few weeks.”

His underlying meaning is clear; he has no further use for me now. This is to be my last meal. My stomach is in knots, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I can do nothing but give a polite nod.

Large casks of spiced wine are rolled in and their seals inspected by the prince’s men before being breached. I watch the servers carefully, a nervous sweat forming on my brow. It is only poured for the prince and his men. I sip at my watered wine, trying to soothe my frayed nerves.

The prince stands, raising his flagon. “Tonight, I am a third-born prince, but tomorrow, I become a king! To victory!” He downs the contents in a single gulp. His men cheer and do the same while the servants watch nervously, unable to understand his words, but guessing at their meaning.

The drinking and toasts go on for some time while the servants chosen to be the prince’s tasters test his food. All the Imperial generals have been included in the feast, so there are many accolades to celebrate.

Nearly an hour later, the meal is finally served. Although the dish is one I enjoyed in my past on festival days among the river folk, the sight of it now, congealing in a lukewarm mess on my plate, disgusts me. I force myself to eat, chewing each spicy mouthful to a pulp before washing it down with watered wine, forcing it past the lump of fear in my throat. I must not let the prince know I suspect his plans for me. Let him think me the spineless fool for at least a while longer.

My hands tremble as I lift each forkful to my mouth. The men sitting around me seem too drunk to notice. For a mercy, the first course is almost over.

Beside me, my guard companion slumps forward in his seat, his head lolling onto his folded arms with a startling thump. I bite back a yelp and try not to draw attention to myself. Moments later, the prince’s scribe sitting to my right does the same.

Neither man is breathing.

I remain motionless in my seat as the other men around the table begin to suffer the same malady, their lifeless faces falling into their plates, one after the other. The palace servants are starting to back away in confusion.

From somewhere outside, the sounds of battle are approaching. Fierce cries and the ringing of steel fill the air. Nervous hope flutters in my chest and I find myself rising to go to the nearest window.

“You.”

The gasping voice of the prince stops me in my tracks. I turn to face him. He is the only one at the table still living, but the contorted expression on his face tells me his condition is temporary. His hands grip the edge of the table, every muscle rigid. His green eyes narrow in hatred.

“How?”

I shrug, seeing no reason to stay silent now. “It’s that spice the Empire is so fond of. When consumed with a particular spice that grows here, the combination is lethal. Some of our physicians discovered this generations ago when your people last tried to subjugate my own. Our cultures have lived apart for so long, the knowledge was forgotten, except by those who have read the histories. I simply made sure you were served spiced wine with your roast.”

I take a long swallow of my watered wine, savoring his discomfort. “It was more of an afterthought, really. Even though you did not know it, I had already done my part to ensure your downfall, but you were still going to kill me, weren’t you? And now, with the death of your generals, your army is leaderless. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

The sounds of battle grow louder and the prince utters a strangled groan, no longer able to articulate his thoughts.

“The fighting outside?” I ask, guessing his meaning. “It’s the arrival of the Southern Lords. I told them all about your plan in my first missive. You really should have found a scribe of your own who could read our script. Why you thought I could be trusted, I have no idea. I suppose my subservient posturing was sufficiently convincing. Oh yes, and I also told you they would be arriving tomorrow. That was obviously a lie. I do hope you’ll forgive me.”

In one last feat of mental will, the prince hurls himself from his seat in my direction. I hastily back away and he lands in a crumpled heap at my feet, glaring up at me. I watch as the light fades from his eyes before looking away with a shiver.

I reach over him to grab my satchel, which in addition to my scribe tools, also holds a waterskin and some pilfered food. I remove the prince’s purse from his belt and add it to my own. It is time for me to go.

The bewildered servants say nothing as I weave through them to leave the silent hall. The rest of the palace is held by a fearful quiet while fighting rages in the streets. No one notices as I slip out of a servants’ entrance. Getting out of the city will be challenging, but who will notice one wayward scribe in all the chaos?

* * *

How will I be remembered? I have decided it matters little. By the time the dust has settled and the Southern Lords put their information together with that of the palace servants, I will be long gone. All I know for certain is I have done what I believed was right and necessary to save my kingdom and my own skin. Now I leave all the ensuing politicking and intrigue behind to make my own destiny, away from those who will only attempt to make me another tool, as the foolish prince had done.

No. I will return to the river folk, who live in blissful ignorance of matters of the world outside their domain. I will learn their script and I will transcribe their stories for the ages. They will accept me as one of their own, asking nothing in return.

That is all I have ever wanted.

* * *

Wayward Scribe: A Fantasy Short Story

Copyright © 2022 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Nelli Valova/Dreamstime


Recommend, rate, and review:

Posted by Jacquelyn

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.