The boy was led to a dining room while his guards were led to the servant’s quarters. Like the rest of the palace from what he had seen, the walls were woven from living trees. Small branches shot out from the walls, it made Cren feel as if he were sitting in a small forest. He was sat down at a table that appeared to be made from a giant oak hewn in two and sanded smooth. Cren ran his hands over the grain and looked around for any signs of life. There were none, not a peep. He was beginning to think he would be left to sit in this dining room alone for a long while yet when a sudden flood of shouting came from the doors he had entered through. Cren turned to watch the steadily increasing flood of noise until it burst through the doors in the form of children. They ranged from around his age to barely out of diapers. All of them had the same flaming red hair, and all of them had the same dark skin. They tackled and tumbled, shouted and guffawed. That was, until they saw the pale stranger sitting at their table then all the exclamations of joy stopped. They rose from their tangled piles and stared at this new boy.
“What is et?” Said a boy closer to his age. He rubbed the back of his hand across a snotty nose and snorted. The boy next to him, who was identical right down to his snub nose and long toes walked up to Cren and leaned in. He stayed there a moment, looked him up and down, and then sniffed deeply.
“Smells like grave dirt and pond scum. What is et?”
Cren’s pride bristled and he was about to retort but a loud rumbling growl drove all the snarky remarks straight from his head. Instead of being terrified, the children began to shout in an odd language that sounded like growls and groans. Through the doors bursted a beast of a man. He held out his arms and the twins barreled into them along with the youngest. The ones that couldn’t fit crawled up the man’s legs and onto his shoulders. They shouted joyously as they covered the man. Surprisingly, even under all that weight, he was able to keep his balance. He stumbled over to the long bench on the right side of the table and dropped the toddler into a seat. And then twins next to him, and continued on until all of the children were in seats. The man stretched his back and with a grunt fell into the seat at the head of the table. It was as large and intimidating as the owner.
In fact, it slightly resembled a throne.
Cren was speechless as he took in the man. His hair was a flaming red and ran wild down his back in a mass of curls, a tail of the same color, but lacking the curl, hung limply down to the floor. A beard of the same color covered his chin. Unlike his hair, it was trimmed close and well groomed. Each of his arms was bigger than Cren. By the gods, if the man flexed they would probably be bigger than two of him! For a king, he was dressed simply. Almost like a day worker. A dark green tunic, much patched, but of good material, hung to about mid-thigh. His pants were of loose cotton and tucked smartly in a pair of the biggest boots he had ever seen. No wonder people followed him. Saying no might get your head popped off!
“So you’re Itharia’s son.,” Rannon said as he leaned on a hand. His voice was surprisingly cultured. Cren had been expecting a rough growl or poor people’s speak. “ Just what I was expecting. You have the same look as your father about you. Which is to say, you both have a stick shoved up your asses.”
Cren’s face must have been priceless because it sent the entire table into a round of laughter. “E-Excuse me?” he asked tartly.
“You heard me, boy. Don’t try to play the ‘haughty noble’ card here. It won’t work. In this kingdom, especially in my palace, we say what we think. Moonlightin’ around everyone as if they’ll break like a fancy dish at a mean word won’t get anything done.”
“Well. Maybe you should rethink your policy. Seems to me that there’s no difference between the poor and the rich in your kingdom!” Cren retorted and immediately regretted it. This was a man who had with his own hand, killed hundreds if not thousands. One more boy would probably not bother him in the least.
“Oh, so he does speak. A point for you, boy.” Rannon clapped his hand and then several servants bearing trays appeared from seemingly nowhere. They laid platter after platter in the middle of the table and Cren grew sick to his stomach. Each platter was a made of animal flesh. There was not a single vegetable in sight.
“Dear Barna,” Cren said as he watched the family of wolven tear into each entrée. How could they eat something that had once been as alive as they were? Cren felt that morning’s breakfast rise and stumbled away from the table and out the double doors. He stumbled madly through the halls looking for a place to vomit in privacy. When he reached a small garden, he retched into the grass until his stomach was empty. Back in the dining room, Rannon smiled and called a servant to his side.
“Mary, tonight’s dinner was so excellent that I would like you to tell the cooks to prepare only meat dishes for the next couple of weeks.” Mary bowed and disappeared through a cleverly hidden hallway. Rannon leaned back in his chair-almost throne and smiled. The oldest of his children who were present, a 9 year old dressed in a boy’s tunic and leggings, tugged on Rannon’s tunic sleeve to get his attention.
“Ama, that was a real mean thing of you to do.”
“Oh hush, child. It needed to be done.”
“Why? Making a 6 year old boy who is far away from home and all alone feel even stranger? Why did that need to be done?”
Rannon shook his head and fondly stroked his child’s straight red hair. She was so like her mother, so kind and worried about everyone. He could only hope that she wouldn’t try to save the world just as she had.
“Oh June. You see I have to teach him how to be strong. If he can not even eat meat, what will he do when he’s a king and can’t possibly say no to any food offered?”
“You could still be nicer about it. Couldn’t you see how scared he was?”
“Yes. When I’m done with him, he’ll never show fear again.”
June rose from her seat at her father’s side and ran from the room. The giant of a man heaved a great sigh and turned back to the meal set before him.
Maybe, he thought. Just maybe I went too far this time. But Rannon was not one to admit his mistakes. Even in the face of a 9 year old with a natural sense of justice. Ripping the leg off of a great fowl, he took several large bites and thought.
Irathia, the stuffy old coot, had told him that his son was brilliant, but had several odd quirks. His nursemaids reported that he could not stand the taste or sight of meat. It had been so since he had been weaned. And in a culture of carnivores, their son’s preferences for leafy things did not bode well. A monarch who couldn’t stand the taste of meat in a society of meat eaters would do nothing but convince the people of Eastland that a weakling led them. On top of that, the boy was antisocial to the point of being mute. He refused to talk to anyone below him and even when met with someone of the same class as him, had be prodded into talking. Personally, Rannon would have chalked it up to being an awkward 6 year old boy, and waited for him to grow out of it. But oh no, that wasn’t an option for Irathia.
That’s where Rannon came in. They had met a fortnight earlier and discussed the terms of Rannon fostering his son. He had been given leave to be as harsh as was necessary, Irathia even hinted that he wouldn’t care if the wolven dished out a few beatings. Of course the idea disgusted him. Seeing as a man with fists the size of his could easily break a child that scrawny in two. Now what he did plan to do was give the boy as much leeway as his own children. Which is to say none whatsoever. He would work Cren just as hard as his children. Not only would he get some needed muscle mass from it but after dealing with Rannon for 6 years, he’d be able to take on anyone.
Rannon gnawed on the cleaned bone with a carnivore’s teeth and grinned. What a fun few years this would be!
“Hey, are you ok?” Cren was curled up in the fetal position among some trees in the small garden he had found. When he heard a voice that sounded like it had at least a shred of decency in it, he was almost driven to tears.
“I’m fine.” Cren snapped as he sat up to look at the person addressing him. She had the same flaming red hair as that wretched man, but instead of crazed curls, it fell straight as a rod to halfway down her back. He blinked in surprise at how…friendly she looked. She was even closer in color to his pale skin. A wash of freckles splashed across her snub nose. She must have been a little older than him, because even if she was squatting, he could tell that she was taller than him. Cren felt a pang of…Something in his heart as he looked at her. And like many 6 year old boys before him who felt that pang of…Something when looking at the opposite sex, he reacted in exactly the wrong way.
He roughly shoved the girl and watched in satisfaction as she windmilled her arms wildly in order to keep balance.
“Why the heck did you do that?”
“Because I don’t like you! You’re ugly. You don’t even have a tail!” He expected her to cry like the other girls he had been mean to at the palace. What he got instead was a face full of grass and a surprisingly heavy girl on his back.
“You are an silly goose, do you know that?”
“At least I’m not an ugly!”
“Well, I’m going to just make myself comfy right here on yer spine until you get some sense in that funny looking head of yours.”
And so the two sat like that for awhile. Cren would try to rise, but the boy was weak. So there they stayed. Every time he moved, June would grind his face into the grass. And every time he tried to say something mean, she shoved something in his mouth. Few great loves had started in the manner theirs had, but a great love it would eventually be. Many years later, the two would look back on that day and laugh. But at the moment, cren’s dignity and face was feeling rather bruised.
“I’m sorry.” He mumbled.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“I said, I am sorry! Will you get your fat butt off of me now?” Cren expected his face to meet grass but his back was suddenly lighter. He looked up to find the girl kneeling before him, impish grin plastered on her face. She stuck a hand out for him to shake.
“I’m June, want to be friends?” And against all reason, Cren found that he would very much like to be friends with this weird girl who was as tough as any boy.
“I’m Cren. And Yes, I would. Very much.”