Peter and the Wolves by Merry Farmer

1

There was absolutely nothing wrong with basic table manners. Especially when one had guests. But apparently, my brothers had never heard of the concept. Which was shameful, considering our father was the Duke of Novoberg and we were entertaining two of the most distinguished families in the city. Our servants were doing their best to make the presentation of the meal exquisite, and our chef and kitchen staff had outdone themselves with delicacies. The very least my brothers could do was eat at a moderate pace and not converse with their mouths full.

I didn’t have to worry about conversation. As usual, I was seated at the far end of the table, as far away as possible from my father, Duke Royale, and the lords he was entertaining at the center of the table. Father would probably have preferred that I took my meal in my room, far away from the guests who viewed me as a queer aberration, in the same way my family did. Effeminacy was seen as weakness in the rough world of the frontier, and I epitomized everything city-dwellers despised. I maintained my composure with perfect dignity all the same, even though I knew I wasn’t wanted and didn’t fit in, sitting perfectly straight, handling my utensils delicately, and taking small, careful bites.

Presentation was of the utmost importance, particularly when entertaining. But my brothers believed otherwise.

“Look at him,” Rudolph murmured to Hans farther down the table and across from me. “You’d think he was a girl, looking the way he does.”

“He should have painted his face, like our sisters, before joining the rest of the party,” Hans sniggered back.

“Wait, he’s not wearing cosmetics?” Oscar, one of Lord Beiste’s sons, joined in the teasing.

The three men laughed at me, which was childish, considering they were in their twenties, but the behavior was exactly what I would have expected. I was well aware that my skin was as pale and smooth as the porcelain plates we were eating off of, and even at twenty, I had trouble growing any sort of facial hair. Worse still, the more they teased me, the pinker I could feel my face growing.

“He’s like a precious little lily,” Hans told the other two in a mocking voice.

“And look at the way he’s dressed,” Oscar said.

I was dressed in a manner perfectly befitting a formal supper at the palace. I always dressed with impeccable care. My suits were expertly-tailored—mostly because I did the work myself when confined to my room for fear of teasing if I stepped one foot out said room—and the bowtie I wore was silk and matched the soft grey of my waistcoat. And yes, I’d embroidered green ivy on that waistcoat. It brought out the blue-green of my eyes. Perhaps my brothers disliked my soft, neatly coifed brown hair because none of them seemed to know what brush or comb was. All six of them dressed without care, in plain black or navy blue, and grew their hair fashionably long. The styles didn’t suit any of them, though.

My disdainful thoughts of them were interrupted as Rudolph flicked a steamed carrot at me with his fork. It bounced off the side of my face and landed on the floor beside my chair. He, Hans, and Oscar laughed as I glared at them.

But it was my name that Father barked from the place of honor at the center of the table.

“Peter! What in the devil’s name are you doing?”

“I have done nothing, Father,” I answered, sitting straight and holding my chin up, even though the sound of my father’s voice when he was in a temper would have withered even a mighty man. I was used to incurring his wrath. I could take it.

Rudolph, Hans, and Oscar snorted and dissolved into sniggering laughter. Most likely at the sound of my voice. Father’s voice was deep, booming, and commanding. Mine was high, soft, and often mistaken for a lady. Just the sound of it made my brothers laugh and my father’s face pinch in disgust.

“That’s right, you’ve done nothing,” Father sneered. “Your brothers have captured championship cups and prizes for archery, swordplay, and marksmanship, whereas the last time you were handed a knife, you fumbled it and ran away crying.”

My throat went tight and I lowered my head. The last time I had been handed a knife was when Father had ordered me to slit the throat of the kitten I’d rescued from the stables and kept hidden in my room. I’d had Boots for a month before Father discovered her and ordered her murdered. I had been utterly incapable of doing the black deed myself. Animals were the only friends I had.

“Official records list me as having four sons and three daughters, but the truth is that I have three sons and four daughters,” Father growled.

His guests laughed, sending sneers and looks of derision down the table to me. I was used to those as well. I couldn’t hide what I was, and what I was invited scorn and disgust from city-dwellers who believed all men should be brutish and masculine. All I’d known through my entire life was that disgust. Hans kicked my shin under the table as if to demonstrate how nearly everyone I’d ever know felt about me. I fought to keep a straight face, but I could feel myself losing the battle not to cry.

Father wasn’t wrong. I was as self-aware as anyone, perhaps more so. I was a man in every way that mattered—even well-endowed, for anyone who cared to notice—but I was a different kind of man. I cared more for books and my study of the law, art and beauty than blood and fighting. I took great care with my appearance, unlike my brothers. And yes, I was aroused by men, not women. Very much so. I always had been. And for that, I was cursed. Not by myself, mind you. I knew I could no more change who I was than I could change the stars in the sky, and I’d grown accustomed to my differences. No, I was cursed to be born into a family and a place that reviled men like me as though we were plague carriers.

“Tell me more about these forest-dwellers causing problems for you,” Father said to Lord Beiste, resuming his seat. I wasn’t even important enough to sustain his wrath.

That wasn’t the case for my brothers and Lord Oscar, though.

Hans kicked me under the table again. “What do you suppose he looks like in a dress?” he asked Rudolph, staring at me, eyes narrowed.

“Very pretty indeed, I’d say,” Rudolph replied. “I bet he wears them when he’s secreted away in his room.”

“I bet he’d wear them all the time, if given half a chance,” Oscar added.

“He’ll wear them under his judicial robes when he joins the courts,” Hans snorted.

“Judicial robes?” Oscar snorted in derision. “He’s going to be a Justice?”

“It’s Father’s idea,” Rudolph said.

“He can’t very well sire heirs, after all,” Hans sniggered. “Although since he wears dresses, I wouldn’t be surprised if he managed to get himself with child at that.”

“I do not wear dresses,” I muttered, trying with everything I had to maintain my composure and carry on with the best manners possible while ridiculous things were being said about me.

The young man seated next to me, Lord Neil Beiste, glanced askance at me and inched away. He was around my same age and, while not effeminate, like me, he wasn’t as tough as his brother or mine. He had the same dark hair and eyes as his brother, but presented himself in a more subdued manner. He likely thought that sitting too close to me would cause whatever pestilence I had to rub off on him. I didn’t hold his wariness against him. I’d always liked Neil Beiste, and if I’d ever had such a thing as a friend, it would have been him. Which was why I ignored him for his own good. There was no use in getting Neil in trouble along with me.

Supper continued, and I did my best to be dignified and polite. Rudolph, Hans, and Oscar continued to stare at me and whisper amongst themselves as dessert was served, right before the party broke up so that guests could take themselves off to different parts of the palace for drinks, cards, gossip, or whichever other activity they preferred. I didn’t like the way the three men stared at me. They were plotting something. The closer the time came to stand and leave the dining room, the more anxious I became.

Whatever they had planned, it wouldn’t be the first time I had ended up as their target. At various points in the last year alone, I’d been dunked in the well, had my head stuffed in a privy, been stripped naked and shut out of the palace on a faire day, and had most of my personal belongings dumped out of my bedroom window. And those were only a handful of the indignities I’d been subjected to on a regular basis. My brothers and Lord Oscar had the same look they usually got in their eyes when they were plotting some cruel, new endeavor. It was coming, I could feel it, and there was nothing I could do to avoid it.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” Father said, standing once he finished his chocolate soufflé, “it is time to adjourn for the evening.”

I figured I had only a slim chance of escaping my brothers, and only if I moved fast. As the rest of the guests stood, I rose and immediately stepped away from my chair. I glanced to both ends of the room, mind racing to form a plan of escape. Already, my brothers and Lord Oscar were standing and skirting around their chairs with the clear intent of coming after me. The grand exit to the formal hallway was clear at the other end of the room. The only chance I had was to break for the servant’s entrance.

Attempting to draw as little attention to myself as possible—which wasn’t difficult, as barely anyone in the palace ever bothered to acknowledge my existence—I headed for the servants’ door.

Every hope that I’d been fast enough to get away was crushed as Rudolph, Hans, and Oscar darted around the table and chased after me. As soon as I was fully out of the dining room, I broke into a run.

I was not athletic, but I kept myself fit. I was nimble and had greater stamina than my brothers, so I was able to zip forward, ducking and dodging around servants carrying trays or clearing dishes from the butler’s pantry. I knew the twisting back hallways of the palace better than my brothers too. I had more than a slim chance of being quick enough to avoid whatever cruel plan they had in store for me. If I could just reach—

“Ha!” As I turned the corner into the kitchen hallway, my oldest brother, Frederic, leapt out from a side hallway and caught me. I hadn’t even noticed him in cahoots with the others. I should have known. When one brother ganged up on me, they all did.

“We’ve got him,” Rudolph said, catching up.

The three others joined Frederic, grabbing me and jostling me along to the kitchen.

“What do we do with him this time, lads?” Hans asked.

“Dunk him in the scullery sink,” Oscar suggested.

“That’s not good enough,” Frederic said.

“Toss him in the midden heap,” Hans suggested.

Frederic shook his head, “Too easy.”

They pulled and shoved me along the hall and through the kitchen. The palace staff stopped what they were doing, looking on in helpless alarm as I was kicked, pushed, and dragged out to the back courtyard. They would have done something if they could, but the last time any of them had intervened on my behalf, they’d been sacked and banned from working in any respectable household for the rest of their lives.

“I’ve got it,” Frederic said once we were all outside. The deep of winter was over, the thick snowfall that the frontier received every year had melted, but we hadn’t yet reached the balmy days of spring. It was a cold night, and I shivered without a coat. I shivered at the evil look in Frederic’s eyes as well. He narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth at me. “Let’s throw him to the wolves.”

Fear like nothing I’d ever know sank through me. “Not the wolves,” I whispered, shuddering. I loved all of Nature’s creatures, but wolves terrified me. I’d seen one at a village faire once. It was lean and menacing, even though it had been in a cage. Its fangs were horrible, and its eyes bright yellow and filled with hate. And everyone knew that the deep forest surrounding the city was filled with vicious, wild wolves. It was why no one ever ventured beyond the carefully-maintained boundaries of the cities. To set foot outside of the cultivated areas of the cities was a death sentence, and everyone from Tesladom to Good Port knew it.

I tried to make a break for it, ripping out of Hans’s grip and shooting back toward the palace. My brothers caught me once again, and instead of being satisfied with pushing and kicking me on, they hoisted me above them. It didn’t matter how much I wriggled and fought and squirmed to get out of their grip, the four men carried me over their heads, like a sacrifice being taken to the altar, out of the kitchen courtyard, beyond the palace grounds, and into the city streets.

Novoberg was a small city, but it had a few thousand inhabitants. Those inhabitants all knew who I was, knew who my brothers were, and likely knew what sort of torture I endured at my brothers’ hands. Not one of them, man, woman, or child, lifted a finger to stop them as they carried me through the city as their prize. Even though it was small by frontier standards—let alone by the standards of the Old Realm on the other side of the mountains, far to the east—the city was prosperous and solid, which meant it was surrounded by a high, stone wall to keep vagabonds, thieves, and, yes, the wolves out. There were four huge gates in the wall, all of which were shut and locked after dark, by my father’s decree. Forest-dwellers couldn’t be trusted, or so the rumors went. They would rob city-dwellers blind or kill them without a second thought, so the gates were a necessity. No one—not even my brothers, had the authority to order the gates opened once they’d been closed for the night.

They carried me to the south gate—the last gate to be shut and locked every night. I could see the gatesmen heaving the huge, iron-studded doors closed as we approached. My struggles renewed. I panted, desperate to delay my brothers, willing to do anything if it meant they were too late, that they couldn’t get me to the gate before it was closed. They seemed to feel the urgency as well.

“Hurry, lads,” Frederic ordered. “Run!”

“No! Please, no!” I cried, too frightened to stop the tears from streaming down my face.

It was no use. When my brothers were intent on torturing me, nothing could stop them. Not even the shouts of the gatesmen as we grew nearer. The doors in the gate were so large and so heavy that once they started moving, it took immense strength to stop them. The gap between the doors grew smaller with every second. My cries of fear took on a whole new urgency as my brothers shifted me, ready to throw. There was a good chance that I could be crushed between the doors if they were even a second too late.

“Now!” Frederic shouted.

I screamed, the sound undignified and piercing, as I went hurtling through the air. I felt the brush of one side of the door against my leg a split second before I landed with a thump that knocked the wind out of me. On the wrong side of the gate. A resounding thud sounded from behind me as the gate closed. A second later, it’s great, iron lock was clapped into place.

“No, no!” I shouted, breathless and panicked. I wrenched to my feet and turned around, throwing myself against the door and banging with my fists. “Please, let me back in. Please!”

The only sound I heard on the other side of the door was my brothers’ and Lord Oscar’s muffled laughter.

“Please, let me in, let me in!” I continued to shout and pound, but it was no use. I knew they wouldn’t open the gates. Not for anyone, and especially not for me.

I twisted to press my back against the tightly-shut gate, breathing hard and weeping freely. The cold bit through my thin, formal dinner attire. I hugged myself, staring into the black of the night. The forest started a mere hundred yards from the edge of the wall and extended in every direction. Novoberg was one of several cities that dotted the vast, some said endless, forest on the other side of the mountains from the Old Realm portion of the kingdom. All of our farmland was contained within the wall, on the other side of the city. There was absolutely nothing at all between me, the mysterious forest-dwellers, and the wolves.

The only redeeming feature of the night was the full moon. It shone down on the wilderness like a cold beacon. But that also meant I was desperately exposed, without any weapon, and ill-dressed for the elements. I couldn’t stay where I was, against the bare, stone wall. I had to move forward. My only hope was to find some sort of shelter within the forest, some sort of shrubbery or cave, anything that could keep me out of sight, away from the wolves for the night. I might be able to find wood and kindling for a fire as well, if I was lucky.

Within an hour of walking through dense trees, I knew my luck had utterly run out. It was a forest, there was wood everywhere, but none that could be made into a fire. And that was assuming that I could figure out how to light a fire without a match or tinderbox. There were no caves either. Our part of the forest was verdant, with only a few, sloping hills and no caves or cliffs to speak of. I knew there were geological resources underground from my studies, but gems or gold would be of no use in keeping me warm and safe from the wolves.

The only sign of hope I had as I grew colder and colder, shivering, unable to feel my hands or feet anymore, was the gurgling of a stream. I followed the sound, traipsing through nearly pitch darkness. The tiny slivers of moonlight coming down through the trees were the only guidance I had, though before too long, I could see moonlight reflected off a narrow creek in the distance.

It was so dark, in fact, that I almost didn’t see the man standing facing a thick tree until I was almost on top of him.

“Oh!” I yelped stumbling back from him.

The man turned to me, and only then did I realize that he’d been relieving himself against the tree. There was just enough moonlight to make out the size and shape of his cock.

“Oh,” I repeated, blinking, my throat going dry.

As soon as the man straightened, my eyes drew up to take in how tall he was. He had inches on me. He was well over six feet, with broad shoulders and thick arms. A shiver shot through me—one that was more than just fear. The man was all muscle and sinew. He could have snapped me in half without breaking a sweat. I could tell that much, even though he was wearing a hooded cloak.

He pulled his hood back a moment later, revealing a swarthy, and not entirely unattractive face. He had hair as black as the night, blue eyes, and high cheekbones. He swept me with a glance from head to toe, then broke into a wide, interested smile.

“Well, well. What have we here?” he asked in a gravelly voice.

“M-my name is P-peter,” I said, my voice high, light, and shaking. “Peter Royale. I’ve…I’ve been locked out of the city.”

“Have you?” The man took a step closer to me.

I inched back. There was something vaguely menacing about him. But of course there was. He was a stranger in the forest at night. One who seemed perfectly at home there. Although the menacing thing about him could also have been the fact that he still had his prick out from relieving himself and appeared to be stroking himself as he studied me.

I swallowed hard, suddenly feeling warmer than I’d been moments before. I tried not to look at his prick—it was shockingly large. Instead, I fell back on the one thing I knew better than anything, manners.

“I do hope you can help me,” I said, trying with everything I had to stand straight and maintain a polite, genteel attitude toward the stranger. “It was a cruel joke on the part of my brothers. Me being out of the city after the gate has been closed. As you can see, I am not dressed for the wilderness, and I was hoping you might be able to direct me to some sort of shelter for the night. I would be ever so grateful.”

“Grateful, you say?” The dark man’s eyes lit with…excitement. “How grateful?”

“I suppose my gratitude would depend on the hospitality of the offered shelter,” I said with a breathy laugh, trying to keep things light. The man didn’t reply. He continued to watch me, licking his lips. “If you please,” I went on, still polite. “I wish to avoid wolves. They—” I gulped, not too proud to admit it, “—they frighten me, you see.”

The dark man’s smile grew even wider. “Wolves aren’t anything to be frightened of, boy.”

“Peter,” I reminded him as demurely as possible.

“Peter.” My name on his lips sent a shiver down my spine.

He stalked closer, rubbing a hand over his mouth, still handling himself. I tried not to look. The sensations his activities aroused in me were entirely inconvenient and inappropriate for the moment.

I was ready to turn and run when the dark man said, “I know where you can pass your night, boy.”

“Peter,” I whispered.

“Peter,” he repeated. “I most definitely know where you can pass the night. We’ll keep you nice and warm.”

A surge of relief nearly had me sagging before I asked, “We?”

“My…brothers and I,” he answered.

Disappointment shot through me. I had had very little luck with brothers in my life. But at the moment, I didn’t see many options presented to me.

“I thank you for your kindness,” I said with a slight, formal bow. It could have been more graceful, but I was shivering so hard from the cold—and yes, from fear—and something else I didn’t want to name—that it was stilted.

“Oh, you will, Peter, you will thank me,” the dark man said.

I held my breath, trying not to think about what he could mean by that.

A moment later, the dark man tucked himself back into his trousers and turned, gesturing to me. “Come along,” he said. “The others will be pleased with the results of tonight’s hunting.”