The masked minstrel was putting away his lute when the request came.
“Play the one about the boy from the castle!” someone called.
“I don’t think I know that one,” the minstrel said, after a pause to think.
“What? But it happened just here. I thought everyone knew that story.”
“Why don’t you tell it to me?” the minstrel asked.
“Had to be what, five years ago now, almost to the day. This boy,” said the man nursing his ale. “Pretty thing, worked in the castle. One of the king’s guests saw him serving at the masked revel.”
“Wanted him for some private games,” someone chimed in.
“That happens,” the minstrel said.
“Yeah,” the man said with a foamy guffaw. “But this lad didn’t want to play. So he knifed the bastard ‘n legged it into the night!”
Hot, heavy breath, fingers like sausages slick with desire. The boy struggled, but the fat, greasy nobleman only chuckled with heightened anticipation. The boy looked around for something, anything. The lord shucked his coat, and the boy relaxed. Let the lord climb closer toward him. Reached out for the nobleman’s waist.
“So eager?” the man chortled, low and indulgent.
“Yes,” the boy said. “For this.” He pulled on the jeweled dagger at the nobleman’s waist and plunged it into the man’s chest. The nobleman screamed, and clawed at the boy, branding him with a set of nasty scratches across his face. The boy ran, out the low window and into the darkness.
“And that’s it?” the minstrel asked. “He just ran? That’s the end?”
“Well,” said the drinker, as if caught in a lie. “He got away with it, didn’t ‘e? Lad’s practically a hero, knifing a noble an’ gettin’ away with it, ‘s all I’m sayin’.”
The minstrel nodded.
“He could be, at that.” Then he asked, “and no one knows what happened to him?”
“They strung him up!” one woman cackled.
“They never did!” someone else argued. “Oh, they say they did. But the boy they killed was light-haired, and I heard our hero was dark.”
“But he had the scratches on his face,” someone pointed out.
“Scratches are easy,” the believer said with a haughty sniff. “Could’ve been added to anyone. I say the boy got away.”
He wished on the first star he saw to guide him to safety, and followed it down a forest road until he came to a fire. They were singing and dancing, and they stopped when he came into the light.
“Good gods, boy,” one asked. “What happened to you?” He told them. “You’ll be needing to hide, then?” He nodded. They grinned.
“Your timing is perfect,” they said. “We play the king’s revel every year, but this year’s is done. We leave tomorrow.” They gave him a mask. “You’ll have to learn to play, but it’s a good life on the road and it gets you away from here. Join us?”
The boy put the mask on, wincing as it stung his bleeding face. He nodded.
“Say,” one of the drinkers asked. “How come you’re wearing a mask? I thought that was just for the posh nobbies up at the castle.”
But the minstrel had already gone, slipping out while they argued, back into the cool night, his mask set securely over his scarred face.