Wyrn knew one truth. It was the only truth his father’d ever tell him. Most nights, he bustled around the long wooden table, as his father’s ale-reeking tall stature came stomping in from a hunt. The old man scanned his seven sons with pride until his eyes settled on Wyrn. And most nights, his father dropped the pelts on the floor but did not look as his wife hurried to snatch them up. Instead, he’d allow his gaze to linger on Wyrn for a long minute before speaking.
He never mentioned Wyrn’s uneven top lip, born looking as if it was cut clean through and healed that way. He never talked about Wyrn’s deep blue eyes, arguably, his only charming feature He never even mentioned Wyrn’s small size. He was five to five though his brothers all towered over most men—well above six.
No. By the fading sunlight at his back, he’d say but one thing—the one truth.
“Hmp. If you’re to get a wife—you’d have to steal one.”
A hush fell over their small house. When he entered, no one spoke unless spoken to. No one but Wyrn who did not speak even then.
Wearing his hair long was Wyrn’s only revenge. As his father had hardly a strand above his ears, despite the remnants of his once strong red mane now clinging to the sides and back. Wyrn’s brown hair hid most of his unpleasant features. With its length, it even hid his mouth at times. It did not, however, hide his size.
Those meals were a long ways off now as Wyrn, riding his small cart, watched the head of his donkey as she pulled him through the dank city. Smooth cobblestones led the way from the main highway. A myriad of awful smells mixed with one another were the least of his worries. He had but one aim, the palace.
A number of carts filled with apples bustled beside him then veered off to market. From his own rickety wagon, his eyes followed one, curious.
He’d never eaten a fruit. Mother never allowed it. The one time he’d made the attempt, she’d snatched it away; her voice followed him even now.
“And when you lose your teeth on top of everything else, what will you do then? Hmm, Wyrnol, what will you do then? Who will love you then?”
Reins in hand, he flicked them once and the ass picked up speed. Animals were easier to be around. They were pleasant.
The tournament would end today but he could travel no faster than he moved now.
Besides, he wasn’t going to the palace with victory in mind, only…self-assurance.
This was his life, he’d known, and his mother never asked anything of him but this.
“Why don’t you try? You need but try at least,” she’d said.
Perhaps she knew something about him he did not. He reached the drawbridge and instantly regretted his foolish decision to honor his promise to her.
The moat seemed deeper than the very deepest pit of hell.
When he urged the donkey on, several men, walking tall with their swords on their backs, glanced at him now and then. More than one laughed but that didn’t matter so much.
He was only here for a promise. Once inside the palace walls, the houses and shops impressed him. This wasn’t the farm but the city.
“Hunchback,” someone called. “Hunchback!”
Wyrn ignored whoever it was.
It was best not to engage others.
He tried to dismount is cart, but something grabbed him by the back of his shirt and dragged him to the ground. The cobblestone hurt but he did not even wince.
Upon standing and brushing himself off, he was greeted with a handsome face. It donned a grimace but this man, though bigger and taller than he, did not compare to the terror of the drunkard Wyrn had to endure for the last twenty years so he turned back to his donkey and pulled the animal on.
Wyrn decided to follow the crowd; maybe that would be enough.
He arrived in front of several guards who looked him up and down then scoffed. At least they didn’t laugh.
With a bow, one held out his hand and indicated the path he should take. Five minutes later, Wyrn found himself staring down at the pigpen. The animal staring back at him now was far more pleasant than the swine who had tricked him into coming here.
He hove a sigh.
“Well, Bluebell,” he told the ass, “at least we tried.”
After maneuvering the donkey to turn, he decided to hold his head high as he walked out of there. An ass was temperamental, and he couldn’t risk her giving him trouble as he tried to leave. So rather than ride the cart, he resolved to depart on foot.
What he met up on was the rude man from earlier.
“Hunchback,” he called. “I will have you respect the words of a prince.”
A prince, huh? That was unlikely as nobility rarely did anything on their own. Royalty moved with power and protection at their backs. Only one up to no good or an outcast did otherwise. Wyrn would know because here he was, entering this city alone. The air of entitlement did reek of a prince, but what sort would approach someone he deemed beneath him—a hunchback—directly? Someone else would have to find out. Wyrn cut him one glance then walked by. The gasp to leave the so-called prince wasn’t his imagination.
“Come now, hunchback. How dare you ignore my words?”
The man ran to catch up, but Wyrn had made up his mind. He’d go home, and on the way there, he’d buy an apple. He’d buy two—no ten. Hundreds.
“Hunchback,” the man said, closing in. “I will have your attention.”
He would not. However, when a sword scraped Wyrn’s throat, he came to a stop.
Perhaps this ‘prince’ would get his attention after all.
“Good. So you have some sense.” The prince walked to stand before him and said, “I have a proposition for you.” He leaned in close, grinning wide. “How would you like to leave this place…with a treasure far greater than you’d ever imagined?”
Wyrn stared into those dark brown eyes then answered, “Shove it up your arse,” and walked on.
He left the man stunned but then it happened—Bluebell planted her feet and refused to move.
Inside, Wyrn cursed whatever Fate or deity that refused to give him at least one pleasant day.
The prince regained his composure and sauntered to stand before him once more. “Well now, my dear fellow, it appears you have all the time in the world to listen to my proposal.”
Wyrn stared him in the eye for some time then took a step back, planted his left foot and used his right to kick the man between the legs as hard as he could.
A sharp wail had the birds taking flight. And down he went. Wyrn walked back to Bluebell and patted her neck while cooing, “Let us go. We have no business here.”
The ass finally moved but Wyrn didn’t get far. This time when a hand grabbed him by the neck, a sword rose in the other, fit to strike.
“Oi! Oi!” someone called.
“Halt. Halt!” said another.
Wyrn’s rescue came from an unlikely duo, the bastard guards who had guided him to the pigsty moments earlier.
“Your Highness, you cannot be serious about striking down a hunchback. It’s cruel.”
The other one chimed in, “And look at him. What could you possibly do to him that nature hasn’t already?”
Wyrn dropped the reins of the donkey and turned to face both guards. They looked pleased with themselves until he flicked his wrist and the whip on his hip caught them both across the face.
“Why you little….”
But the other guard stopped his colleague and muttered something under his breath.
The enraged guard gasped then stepped back.
Whatever their reasoning, no one approached, therefore, Wyrn took hold of his donkey and started his journey home.
“Why did you stop me? Haven’t you seen what he’s done?” the prince demanded.
“Yes sir, but….”
The rest came in a whisper and Wyrn didn’t reach the drawbridge before footsteps closed in.
Not yet fully recovered, the prince, hobbling at an incredible speed despite his injuries, was tentative in his steps when he caught up. “Good man. Good man. I am very sorry. You came for the tournament, did you not?”
Wyrn’s feet failed to step on that bridge and take him home. His promise.
Everything in him said to leave.
It was a scream that caused him to turn around and see what the fuss was about. A young woman, with luscious black hair and a lean face struggled in the clutches of the guards who led her down the street.
“Unhand me! Unhand me this instant! You tell my father he can go to hell.”
No one paid much attention to her vitriol, but Wyrn watched on, waiting for someone to come to her rescue. Whatever he found there, he could not define. And then the woman was gone and Wyrn’s eyes continued their path until they came to a terrible creature. The prince.
Still watching him with a wide grin, the prince asked, “About my proposal. You haven’t yet heard it. How would you like to win yourself…a wife?”