"Ack! Ow! Fern. Fern! Hey!"
He pushed through the crowd, trying with every opportunity he could get to catch a glimpse of the companion he had lost the moment they had arrived.
Somehow they had the misfortune of getting to the town on market day, and within moments, an old woman had bumped into Fern, sending the boy into the crowd as someone else collided into the prince, sending him into the opposite direction.
He had never been around this many people before, and as various people of all ages pushed past him, he found himself heavily disorientated. Just trying to read the flow of traffic had his head spinning, sending his nerves on edge.
"Fern!" he called, trying his best not to get in anyone's way and failing miserably as someone's fleshy elbow collided with his face.
He covered his stinging nose with a scowl, cursing Fern for his quiet nature and cursing the crowd that seemed to be slowly suffocating him. Already he wanted desperately to leave. Leave and never come back to civilization ever again.
And the smell. The castle never quite smelled like this. The closest he had ever come to smelling anything like this was that one time the stablemate had entered his chambers, and even then it had never anything this strong. So many stenches mixing together- human waste, flowers, manure, rotting garbage, fresh-cooked food, and the natural smell that comes with days without bathing- that they overpowered each individual scent and instead combined and became something entirely different. He pinched his nose and dove once again into the crowd.
"Fern?" he shouted once again, expecting nothing in return. To his surprise, he felt a hand close around his upper arm and pull.
The other boy's worried expression was already fading to a mildly irritated one as his grip tightened around the prince's arm.
He gave a long sigh, holding his arm up for appraisal. "Yes, Fern, I suppose we should be careful not to lose each other in the first town we've come to," he murmured, deciding not to shake the other boy off. "Well, what now? Shall we look for an inn to stay at?"
He started walking, but Fern stayed put. A long sigh escaping his lips, the prince turned back and said, "Well? What is it that I'm doing wrong now?"
A cryptic smile spread across Fern's silent lips as he pointed behind himself, at the inn that the prince had failed to spot.
"Oh sod off!" he exclaimed, fuming as he walked again, this time in the right direction.
As it turned out, the inside of the inn was almost as bad as the streets outside. The poorly lit building, which seemed to be doubling as a tavern, carried a strong smell of ale with it, and the prince felt the urge to cover his nose once again. The looks he was getting though stayed his hand.
"There are other inns, aren't there?" he whispered to Fern. The other boy stared at him with an unreadable expression, and proceeded over to the counter, the prince in tow.
"What'll it be?" the innkeeper, a short man with a gentle smile unfitting of his surroundings, asked as soon as they reached the counter. Despite the man's pleasant countenance, the prince hesitated, his gaze going to the door that they had just walked through. Losing his patience, Fern gave him a harsh jab in the ribs.
"Ow!" the prince yelped, rubbing his side. As soon as the noise left his mouth, he felt a dozen eyes on the back of his neck, a feeling that was growing more and more unsettling as he kept silent.
He gathered his courage and spoke, "Ah, um, I was just wondering if you've, um, if you've heard of anything about princesses in a tower?"
The innkeeper raised an eyebrow. "Oh, aspirin' to be a knight, aren't you? I wouldn't have taken you for the kind by your look."
"My look?" the prince said, ignoring Fern's glare and the elbow that was currently threatening to stab him in the ribs again. Yes, he was quite aware that he was failing to get a room for them to stay in. No need to be reminded of it.
"Err." The innkeeper's smile froze on his face before he spoke again. This time, his words were a bit rushed. "Ah! Now that I think of it, I did hear about a princess! A fellow here mentioned something about one. Now, what did he say his name was...ah! Franz! Franz, I see you drinking there! Would you mind coming to sit here? Yes, yes you can bring your drink too!"
The prince turned to see who the man was waving and calling to with such an enthusiastic voice, and his face immediately paled. From his side, he caught Fern's sharp intake of breath as a hulking wall of a man got up from his seat, a mug of what he could only assume was ale in one hand, and made his way over to them. His steps were heavy, but deliberate, as he weaved around the crowds of people at their seats, people busy in their conversations, people who paid no attention to the foreboding figure that was navigating his way around them.
And when he finally reached them, the prince craned his neck up to look at his face, only to wish he hadn't. Cutting right down the man's permanently closed left eye and reaching the bottom of his chin was a gruesome-looking, bumpy red scar. Other less severe scars marked the exposed surface of his skin, browned by days spent in the sun.
The man named Franz stopped in front of them, and he turned his gaze down to the prince, eyeing him with uncannily piercing eyes. The prince avoided his gaze, choosing instead to look at Fern. The peasant boy looked back with narrowed eyes, but even his fiercest look paled in comparison to the leer that Franz was currently giving him.
"Pull up a seat, Franz!" the innkeeper said cheerily, patting the countertop. "These two boys want to hear about the princess!"
"News travels fast in this town, huh," Franz grunted, setting his drink down on the counter and taking a seat. He propped his head on his elbow, and looked the prince over once again.
He fidgeted under the man's scrutinizing eyes. "Um, about that princess?"
"Franz here just came back from rescuin' 'er!" the innkeeper exclaimed, humming as he wiped the inside of a mug with a rag.
"You rescued her?" the prince half-exclaimed. Had he been too late?
His relief left him quickly with Franz's next words, only to be replaced with an unsettling guilt. "The princess of Miula, yes," the man muttered, raising the mug to his lips. "Killed her guardian dragon, and managed to get her down from the tower before she ran off screaming." A grim smile spread across his lips as he pointed to his scar.
"It's almost not worth the reward money. Almost." And with that, he tilted the mug back and downed its contents in a mere matter of seconds.
Miula. The prince had heard of its princess having been carried off by a dragon long ago. He counted himself lucky that he had only been sent off to rescue one without a dragon. He could barely survive this long journey, much less a real fire-breathing dragon.
"There, is that an exciting enough story for you, boy?" Franz grunted, setting his drink back down with an audible clink. "You should get your mind off these dragons and princesses. They'll do nothin' for you. You're better off concentratin' on helping your father and your mother."
"I'm on my own journey to rescue a princess!" the prince declared out of outrage at being treated as if he was a naive village boy. Fern smacked his forehead, letting out yet another drawn out sigh.
Oh, maybe he shouldn't have said that so loudly.
"Really now?" Franz replied, and the lack of sarcasm in his tone sent a chill down the prince's spine.
"Uh," he began, looking to Fern in hopes that the other boy would offer him a valid excuse. The silent boy made a gesture in front of his open mouth: keep talking. The prince swallowed before raising his voice with faked bravado. "Yeah! I've already rescued so many princesses! A lot more than you have!"
Franz gave a soft chuckle, pushing his empty mug towards the innkeeper. "Maybe another drink will make it easier for me to believe you, kid."
The prince was indignant, but there was no use in trying to convince Franz that he was more than he appeared to be. Fern nudged his side and nodded to the door.
"We're heading off! To rescue the princess!" the prince said in a rushed voice before turning around and quickly making his exit. Fern rolled his eyes, looking incredibly miffed.
"Nice thinking, Fern. It would have looked weird if we had stayed and asked the innkeeper for a room since they both think we're from this village," the prince said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry for running my mouth. Maybe I should learn from you, and just not say anything."
Fern reeled his hand back, and smacked the prince in the back of the head.
"Ow! Hey, I didn't mean it! How dare you raise a hand to your prince!" he exclaimed, sending the peasant boy a glare and stepping forward with his hand raised.
Fern stomped a foot, not faltering one bit. The prince dropped his hand with a sigh. "Though I suppose I can barely be considered a prince on this journey. No fancy clothes, no servants. I have no power over you or anyone else we happen to meet. You're more of a leader than I am. It's daunting, to say the least. And that man, Franz. He spoke of rescuing a princess as if it were a thankless task."
Fern wrapped an arm around the prince's shoulders, making him realize that he had involuntarily been slouching.
Straightening his back, he said, "Fern, to be locked up in a tower is a horrid thing! I swear I'll rescue her even if I lose all my limbs trying! And it's not as if she'll run at the sight of my face. Now come! Let us find another inn. This time, one not so shady!"
At the prince's renewed enthusiasm, Fern rolled his eyes, but he went along with it anyway. He had no other choice, after all.
"Ack! Ow! Fern. Fern! Hey!"