‘Not a forester, then.’ Jane kept her sword raised, ready to strike if others stepped from the cave.
‘No,’ Robert lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the light. ‘My apologies for the deception. I wanted to take your measure.’ He looked younger out here in the harsh sun, her senior by no more than ten years.
‘I should have broken your leg in the tavern, instead of simply bruising it.’ Jane took a step back from the cave entrance as the man straightened and stretched his arms.
‘I deserved the bruising,’ he laughed. ‘Or perhaps it was the character I played who deserved it.’
‘You behaved like a common drunkard, yet I smelt no ale on your breath. Your hands were clear, no scuffs or blistering, and no smell of resin. Every forester I know carries the smell of wood in their hair and clothes. A good smell. You smelt of herbs and soft living.’
‘You saw through my theatrics?’
‘Survival is in the details. A quote from Sir Theodore.’ Jane kept her blade held out between them, its tip at the man’s throat. ‘Are the other foresters with you?’
‘Only me. I conscripted the woodsmen and paid them for their part in my little drama.’
‘So. If not a forester. What are you, then?’
‘I am what you see. A man with a bruised leg and a raging thirst from climbing a thousand steps to reach this cave in time to greet your arrival. It was a long ride through the night to reach here.’
‘In a meadow at the foot of these mountains. What an odd question to choose. You must have a dozen for more pressing.’ He paused, then smiled. ‘No, I withdraw the remark. Concern for the horse is a mark of character for a knight.’
‘A mark of common sense. Would a forester neglect his axe?’
‘I have no idea. I am not a forester.’
‘We are back full circle to my question. Who are you?’ Jane gave a small jab with her blade. It kissed the man’s throat and drew a bead of blood.
‘Ow! Are we defined by our station in life; by out trade?’
‘A King is a King,’ said Jane. ‘A rogue is a rogue.’
‘Perhaps, but a King is defined by his actions, is he not? Kind king, fair king, just king, or cruel king.’
‘Yet a rogue is a rogue by any measure.’
‘This is a strange conversation to be having with someone who has redefined her status and place in her court.’
‘Sweetly spoken. You use words with ease, bending them to your purpose like a diplomat.’
‘And you use your blade like a darning needle. I am not your needlework. All I have are words, no weapons, look.’ Robert lifted both hands. Jane frowned. The man appeared to be unarmed, though he could be hiding any number of daggers under his clothes.
‘Unbutton your tunic.’
‘You wish to count the freckles on my chest?’ Again the smile. It was a handsome smile, with a full set of very white teeth.
‘No,’ said Jane. ‘Do you wish to count up to ten on your fingers, or only up to nine?’
‘Nine? Ah! You mean to subtract one? A threat packaged as a jest, you do spar very well, Jane.’ Robert laughed again, measured the look in Jane’s eye, sighed, and removed his tunic. Then he lifted the tails of his undershirt and turned a complete circle to show the waistband of his breeches. There were no daggers.
‘I am not here to hurt you, Jane. Or to be your pin cushion. I am here to offer you my help, if you will have it, and to seek your help in return.’
‘Well forgive me for being slow in matters of diplomacy, but this conversation could have taken place in the comfort of the tavern. Not here, countless furlongs from the castle. So until you prove otherwise, I shall assume the worst from you.’
‘Perfectly reasonable,’ Robert tucked his undershirt back into his waistband. ‘Yet there lies the problem. How do I prove otherwise?’
‘You cannot,’ Jane kept her blade up, pointing it at the man’s throat. Her arms felt solid enough, for now, but she knew that in time the blade would tremble. Dragon had better arrive back before then. ‘My friends say I have a unhealthy distrust for sweet prose. So pretty words will not support your cause, and neither will that smile you keep flashing at me.’
‘That is a pity,’ Robert spread his arms as if in apology. ‘My mother says my smile and my honest face will tear down any gated walls I encounter.’
‘Then your mother is an idiot.’
‘Perhaps. Honesty and diplomacy make poor bedfellows.’
‘Another one of Sir Theodore’s?’
‘No,’ said Jane. ‘One of Jester’s, you met him. He was seated beside me in the tavern. He has more wisdom than most men three times his age.’
‘In defense of my mother, she said many foolish things. All of them well intended.’
‘And your father?’ said Jane. ‘What does he say of you?’
‘I have no idea. He chose adventure over his family. I hardly remember him. Perhaps Sir Theodore and Haroldus could tell you what his wise words would have been. They knew him better than I.’
Jester closed the door to the throne room and let out a long, irritated sigh. He had just wasted an hour singing softly to a sleeping audience of one – his king. At least a snoring audience only assaults my ears, he though, as he tiptoed away down the corridor. His mind started to play with that notion. Perhaps he could expand on it, a tale to share at tonight’s supper. A snoring audience injures my heart, thrown fruit merely injure my face.
Jester’s irritation was not because he had wasted the last hour, it was because he had been too timid to creep out far earlier when the King had first fallen asleep.’
‘Jane would have left’, he sighed aloud. Jester had long since come to terms with his timidity. In many ways it had shaped him, as a child, his fast mind, and his ability to make others laugh, had saved him from untold scraps and beatings. Older children had taken him under their wing, an entertaining pet, sheltering him from the rough and tumble of growing up.
He set off for the kitchen. Not because he was hungry, but because it was where he was most likely to find Jane. Please let her be back. The knot in his stomach that tied itself every time she went on patrol, would only unwind when he knew she was back.
Jane was not in the kitchens. Pepper was there, cajoling and encouraging her four kitchen staff, and so was the prince. The young royal was seated at a long bench. He was carving delicate petals from raw pastry. He looked up and scowled at Jester.
‘Do not mock me!’ he muttered.
‘Mock you?’ Jester crossed to the bench and stood at the young man’s elbow. ‘Far from it. I applaud you, these are beautiful.’
‘There you are, your little Majesty,’ Pepper called out from the far end of the kitchen. ‘I told you, did I not! You have the talents of your mother.’
‘She must never know,’ scowled Prince Cuthbert. ‘Nor father, no-one can be told, you understand.’ He turned and glared at every face in the kitchen. ‘No-one can speak of this or I’ll have you thrown in the dungeons!’
‘Not a word,’ Jester promised. He glanced up at Pepper, ready to ask about Jane. He didn’t need to, Pepper had read his face the moment he’d entered the kitchen.
‘Still not back,’ she said.
‘Then I shall return to my duties,’ he glanced at the prince. ‘Do you know where I can find your sister?’
‘She went to check on the pig egg.’
‘Garden boy has made a nest for it in the stables.’
‘Yes,’ Jester exchanged a smile with Pepper. ‘I find it almost reassuring, when so much is in flux all around us, that some things remain at a constant. Dear Rake, he is as predictable as the coming of spring.’
‘Jester,’ said the prince. ‘You really do talk a lot of gong.’
‘Indeed.’ Jester grinned at the prince, bowed his head, and set off for the stables where he found Rake and Princess Lavinia sitting beside a mound of hay. Lying between them was Smithy’s pig. The creature seemed content enough. Lavinia was whispering in one ear and Rake was scratching the thick tuft of hair under her chin.
‘So, when can we expect good news?’ asked Jester. ‘She seems content enough. Is it the loving instinct of a mother for her unborn egg, or is it the chin scratching?’
‘I suppose this looks a little odd,’ said Rake.
‘Just a little, yes. Be sure and pin an announcement on the posting board when the happy moment arrives.’
‘We will do no such thing,’ Lavinia looked up and waved a finger at Jester. ‘The entire court will crowd in here and poor Pig will get no rest. It is very, VERY tiring to be a mother you know. Mother says so, and she’s a queen with a whole castle of willing helpers.’
‘Helpers, certainly,’ Jester agreed. He left them to their nursing duties, and walked on through the stables. He wanted a moment to himself, and his favourite spot was outside the main gate where he could sit in the shade of the tavern walls and watch the bustle of the wharf below. At the far end of the stables he stopped and stared at the large oak doors which led out to the reception yard and the castle gates.
Over the years, the stables had become a common thoroughfare for the castle staff, a convenient and sheltered passage from the front gate to the less formal areas of the castle: the training yard, forge, and kitchen gardens. No one could remember when the custom had first started, but for at least two generations the large oak doors at this end of the stables had become a posting board for any matters that might concern the castle staff. Many had mastered their letters. Literacy had been encouraged by three successive kings, and tuition between staff had become the common place.
Jester stared at the doors and the scraps of parchment that were pinned there, it spurred an idea. He turned on his heels and set off for the knight’s quarters. They were off limits to anyone who was not of the castle guard. Sir Theodore was relaxed about such matters of protocol, but some of the guards were less tolerant.
Jester paused at the door and listened. A medley of snoring came from within, the night watch were asleep in their hammocks. He felt rooted to the spot, unable to open the door, yet unable to turn away. Seeing the small squares of parchment pinned to the stable doors had propelled him here. In the knight’s quarters there was a more formal board where every guard pinned a short report when they returned from patrol. Sir Theodore had started the practice, one he had adopted from his time in the East, one that ensured critical information was available to the whole guard in the event that their leadership was compromised.
If Jane had returned from her trip to the Rust Mountains, she would have come here first and recorded her safe return. Then she would have read the other reports and gone in search of Sir Theodore to seek his instructions for the rest of her day.
Jester closed his eyes, clenched his fists, and summoned his courage. What are you? Lion or lamb? Had Jane returned and then been sent off on a fresh errand for Sir Theodore? He had to know, and pushed open the door.
It was a vast vaulted room. The knights stayed here when they were rostered for duty. Some had homes in the village complete with wives and children, and some, like Sir Ivan, had rooms in the tavern. But all stayed here when they were on roster.
The report wall was hallway across the vast open room. The guards slept in hammocks or on pallets along the side walls. The room was shuttered against the bright sun, but Jester could see the posting wall, and crept towards it. Floorboards moved beneath is feet, but the snoring from the guards drowned any creaks and squeaks. He peered at the reports pinned to the wall, searching for Jane’s writing.
‘Lost, are you?’
‘Ow!’ Jester was so startled he jumped forward and struck his head on the wall. A hand grabbed his elbow and stopped him from falling.
‘Steady,’ said Gunther, as he turned Jester round to face him. ‘And before you invent some silly tale for being here, please spare us both the prattle. You have come to see if Jane has reported back.’
‘Yes, and has she?’
‘No.’ Gunther still had both hands gripping Jester’s shoulders, partly in friendship, partly to show the royal entertainer that muscle, not mind, were the currency of this room. ‘Listen my friend, you are worried. So am I. You think Haroldus is playing out some nonsense. So do I. However, that is no excuse to..’ Gunther broke off as one of the reports caught his eye. He prised it from the wall, read it, and handed it to Jester.
Nothing of note as far round as Sweetwater Bay. There is a knarr anchored there. The one Haroldus came in. No signs of distress. No activity on deck. No one answered my hail.
‘Haroldus left at dawn,’ Gunther took the report back and pinned it on the wall. ‘The man was departing on his next great adventure, was he not?’
‘He made a great show of it,’ said Jester. ‘The sea is calm, the wind is fare, he should be halfway to Normandy by now.’
‘So what is his game? I should seek leave from Sir Theodore to investigate this.’
‘He’s not here,’ one of the sleeping guards was awake and glaring at them. It was Sir Ivan. ‘He left a while back, shortly after reading those postings. Now get the gong out of here before I give you both a bruising!’
‘Your father knew Sir Theodore?’ Jane took a step backwards. The conversation had taken an unsettling turn.
‘Yes,’ said Robert. ‘Haroldus too. The three were colleagues in arms for many years.’
‘Is that right?’ Jane tried to mask her confusion. ‘Now I confess to being intrigued.’
‘Good. Intrigued enough to follow me into the cave?’
‘Intrigued, not stupid. And stop trying to circle me. Sit there, with your back to the wall and your face to the sun.’ The young man shook his head, as if in sadness, but did as instructed.
‘I can hardly see you with the sun in my eyes like this.’
‘Exactly, so why all the subterfuge and theatrics? Clearly you have spent a great deal of time and money planning this escapade.’
‘I have. In truth, it was more time than money.’ Robert raised one hand to shade his eyes. ‘Could you at least move forward a little so that your head casts its shadow across my face?’
‘No. So why me? And why here, at this cave?’
‘Why here? Because this cave contains a secret you will want to see. And why you? Quite simply I wish to test you.’
‘Test me?’ Jane covered her surprise by looking irritated. ‘Well in that you are succeeding quite brilliantly. You have been testing my patience these past minutes.’
‘And your arms too, they begin to tremble.’
‘Perhaps I should exercise them by chopping your grinning head from your body.’
‘You have made a pledge to your dragon, have you not? You have pledged to help him understand his history.’
‘If I have, why does this concern you?’
‘I believe you have no idea of the unspoken nature of your pledge. Nor do Haroldus and Sir Theodore, though they may have guessed part of it.’
‘What!’ Jane lowered her sword and paced a full circle. Robert remained sitting, his back to the rock wall beside the cave. ‘You have discussed this with Sir Theodore?’
‘No, I have never met with the man. Aside from last night in the tavern. But Haroldus has discussed this with him. All three, my father included, have a slight understanding of the pledge.’
‘There is no pledge!’ Jane realized she was shouting, and tried to steady her voice. ‘Dragon and... we agreed to help each other… nothing more.’ Suddenly she felt sick, her legs unsteady.
‘No, Jane. You might not understand the pledge but you both feel it, you are connected. Even in your dreams you are connected.’
‘Stop it!’ Jane stumbled backwards, slicing the air in front of her as if warning Robert to keep his distance.
‘There is a cord between you, like the cord between a mother and her child. But unlike that cord, it cannot be so easily severed. Yet there is still time.’
‘Time. To do what? To cut this cord that binds us?’
‘Precisely.’ Robert got to his feet.
‘No, you have to hear this, Jane. If you sever your bond to the dragon it will certainly hurt you both, very deeply. But it’s will not kill you. Not yet.’
‘One day, perhaps. For now you are blind to all of this; to the commitment; to the consequences. Yet how can you make a choice unless you understand the true nature of this pledge?’
‘No! If you take up a burden, if you agree to carry something unforgivably heavy for your whole life, it seems only right that you should peer into the sack and understand the true nature of this burden. Unless you are a donkey. I don’t take you for a donkey.’
‘No, you take me for a fool.’ Jane could hear her voice as if it was coming from far away. ‘You would have me step into this cave with a complete stranger on the promise of a great revelation? Well, sorry, Robert the Pretender Forester, your mother has mislead you, your beguiling words lie broken at my gates.’
‘You think I am romancing you? No Jane. And please sit down before you fall down.’
‘I mean to catch you if you fall, not embrace you. My chosen path does not allow for romance. You understand this well enough. Does your path allow for romance? Your dragon would never tolerate sharing your affections, would he? No need to answer that, your eyes betray you.’
Jane stared at him, her mind scrambling like a drowning puppy, desperate for some secure purchase; then she was lying on the ground with Robert standing over her. The dragonblade in his hands.