Deformity. The word had always bothered me since I was old enough to understand its meaning. No, even before then… I remembered hearing the court ladies and servants whispering it often when I walked by as a small boy. Deformity. They spat the word like it was a foul-tasting poison in their mouths. They murmured it pityingly under their breath every time they saw me. And they shook their heads in remorse in many of my memories. From their tones, I understood that it was a bad thing, even if I knew not its exact definition.
It was a strange word really. It held so many momentous implications and told so many sinister stories. That word, repeated so often around me, was like an invisible cage for a bird who had lost all its feathers. Everything about me was strange and different. I was an aberration with no place in the world, my deformity growing to be a part of my identity and begetting a pervasive isolation from my fellow men.
“When you were born,” my mother said to me when I was three or four years old, “you were sickly and weak. That night, the palace was somber…” It was the steady fear of death that crept into their hearts. She told me I had hardly cried and hardly moved, and this worried them too. The midwife cried, thinking I would not make it through the night.
While all those around me were dark-haired, I had bright copper hair. As if that was not strange enough, I also had misshapen, deformed ears, pointed at the tips, as if the cartilage had been pinched together. My mother told me that when they saw me, many of the castle occupants were afraid that I was deaf.
“I thought you were beautiful,” she told me, cupping my cheek with a smile. “Your hair like fire and your round white face.” She pinched my cheek once. “How small and tiny you were, with hands the size of plums. I was afraid to hold you, thinking you might crumble and break into pieces like a fist of sand.”
Boys never want to be told that they are small and weak. Boys, and later men, must be strong and reserved with their emotions. Yet, when my mother told me this, I couldn’t help but wonder, was something delicate to be treasured?
“You have your father’s eyes, you know. A king’s eyes, just like his father, and the father before him.” It was true. Our deep blue eyes had been passed down for generations, a trait all full-blooded royals shared. My mother, Ia, had not inherited them, for she was not pure-blooded in the line.
“While your deformity scared me, the Royal Priest said that you were blessed to achieve greatness some day, and you would live a very long life.” There was that retched word again, like a curse or bad omen. Even my mother couldn’t refrain from saying it, even as she praised me as her precious son. I was a mutant.
“Izrekiel,” she called to me, drawing me closer to her, “Do you know the origin of your name?”
I shook my head. My name sounded foreign even in my own ears. Izrekiel. Saying it felt wrong and disjointed in my mouth. There were too many syllables, and writing it in our complicated script was a chore.
“My little Izka,” as she had fondly referred to me since before I could remember, “has a special name. As is the tradition, the Royal Priest chose your name to serve you all your life. And your name is from the old myths.”
Being small and curious about such silly things, I shifted my position on the hearthrug and leaned my chin on the silken fabrics of the front of her dress. “What is the myth about, Mother?” I asked, my eagerness uncontainable. I used to always love when my mother told stories, and stories about my namesake were the most fascinating of all.
“It’s a long story,” she said, brushing back the messy, red locks of hair from my forehead. “Perhaps another time, when it’s not so late.”
“But I’m not tired,” I said, sitting up and straightening my posture to prove it.
It didn’t take long for Mother to give in to my pleading; I knew that she loved me dearly, and she rarely denied me anything, even though she was a queen and she had much more important things to worry about instead of her silly, curious son. She always made time for me. After sitting me upon her lap and adjusting her position on the ottoman so she could easily comb her delicate fingers through my hair, she began her tale:
“Many years ago, when the sea touched the mountains, and the people lived in many different and small kingdoms, there lived a great warrior…”
Stories always began thusly. There was always some great warrior, defending his people from the evils of the world, or fighting off demons or other supernatural beings. After all, a story couldn’t start with a small girl, or a man who tilled the fields. Such people were unimportant in the eyes of bards and scholars.
“This great warrior,” my mother went on, “was the leader of a small kingdom, and the time he ruled was one of prosperity and peace for his people. The land remained fertile and rain kept the crops alive, and any enemies that came to challenge them fled in fear as soon as they saw him standing atop the ramparts. For twenty years it was thus, without any wars, and the crops and rain abundant.
“Until one day, when the warrior king was upon the evening of his youth, an army came marching through the forest and entered his kingdom. The army slew thousands of his warriors within the short span of two days, and slaughtered many helpless civilians too, before the warrior king received word of the tragedy. With as many men as he could rally, he charged toward this new enemy, but as he and his remaining warriors approached, he saw that the enemy army was not human. They were beasts, half man, half animal. These ghoulish creatures slew half of the warrior king’s remaining men in less than an hour.”
My eyes grew wide, and I twisted my fingers in unease. “Do the beast-men exist? Have you ever seen them?” My small voice wavered a little, and Mother rubbed back my hair again with a comforting touch.
“Never with my own eyes,” she said. “But that is how the story is told. Do not be afraid, my little Izka.”
I nodded vigorously. “I am not afraid, Mother. I was just curious is all… I would have to defeat them if they came. Because Father said it’s my duty to protect those dearest to me. That is the re… resonsability of men.” My wee trembling voice was full of confidence, as if even as a small four-year-old of approximately three feet tall I could take down an entire army.
The Queen covered her mouth to mask her giggling. “Well, you are hardly a man yet, my child. And it is ‘responsibility,’ not ‘resonsability,’” she corrected me.
“Responsibility,” I repeated.
It made me smile when my mother applauded my good work. I loved to please her. It was like… receiving a gift somehow.
She continued the tale:
“Where were we? Oh, right… The monsters slew half of the warrior king’s men, and he could do nothing to stop them. In his desperation, the warrior king prayed to the gods for help and mercy. Aruna, Devanim, Giranii, Harumai, Tosiuku—none of the great spirits heard him. But one spirit god, Orato, that had very few followers then and even now, heard his pleas and descended upon him in the visage of a small white-masked starling.
“The starling spoke to him and determined that he was a brave, kind-hearted man, and merged his spirit with the warrior king’s. Power surged through his bones. Suddenly, the warrior king was strong enough to defeat the entire army of beasts by himself.
“The last one hundred enemies he did not kill, and instead told them to leave his land forever, or to die a coward’s death. As they ran off back into the dark woods, the warrior king’s men cheered louder than even a pack of wolves.
“Since that day, the kingdom was peaceful once again, until the warrior king died an old man. No one remembered the original name of the warrior king, or if he even had one, but after that great battle, he was then known as Izrekiel, which means ‘brave divinity’ in the old language. And that is your namesake.”
I tilted my head to the side, puzzling out the story I had just heard. I felt noble because of it, for some reason, as if I myself had defeated an army of gruesome men at my front door, as if I had been chosen by the gods too.
Mother kissed my forehead.
When she sent me to bed that night, I dreamt about a white-masked starling swooping down and landing on my windowsill. The bird clicked its beak, fanned its wings, and disappeared in a shower of blue light, and I just about forgot about the dream come the morning...