Jester shook his head as he climbed the last few steps and left the kitchen. Jane thought about following. Her friend looked so glum and confused; so beaten down. Part of it, she knew, would be the torture he inflicted on himself regarding his feelings for her. So be it. There was nothing she could do about that, except to be honest, to focus on their strong and abiding friendship, and to keep reminding him it was too precious a friendship to risk damage through talk of romance.
Yet that was not the whole of it. Something else was weighing heavily on her friend, and if Gunther’s expression was any guide, he was privy to the cause.
‘Maggots!’ She cursed under her breath. Whatever it was, it would have to wait. Her immediate duty was to see Sir Theodore and untangle the day. She had problems of her own to sort out, Jester would have to carry his alone a while longer.
‘Thank you.’ Robert looked up at Pepper and smiled. She had been winding strips of cloth around his burnt hands, and was tying off the last piece.
‘Most welcome,’ said Pepper. ‘Now we must feed you. Healing starts from the stomach. Good food makes for good mending.’
‘You are a very lucky fellow?’ Robert looked up at Rake and smiled. It was a warm and genuine smile, and seemed to touch everyone gathered there in the kitchens. ‘Hold on tightly to this one young gardener, what was your name again.’
‘Rake. Least ways, that’s my spoken name amongst friends. And you’re right, I count myself the luckiest man in the whole of Kippernia.’ He edged towards Pepper and placed an arm around her waist. She laughed, gripped it warmly, then slapped it away.’
‘Jane!’ Everyone looked up. Sir Theodore was standing in the open doorway. ‘Come with me. And the rest of you, have you no duties to attend to? If one injured guest can bring our castle to a complete standstill like this, then we are ill prepared for a more formidable challenge.’
‘I have!’ yelled Lavinia. ‘I must see if the pig egg has hatched.’
‘A vital duty indeed, set to it young lady.’ Sir Theodore kept a straight face, beckoned to Jane with a slight tip of his chin, turned, and left the kitchens.
Jane grinned at her friends, then hurried after her captain, calling out an apology as she raced to catch up. She fell in beside him, and they walked in silence through the castle. The silence had been requested by a simple gesture. Sir Theodore had raised a hand. It was a gesture Jane knew well from her many years training under the old knight. When he raised his hand, everyone attended to the signal, even the king himself. The room always fell silent.
She followed to the throne room where Sir Theodore eased himself onto a bench that ran the length of the great table.
‘Sit Jane, we have much to discuss.’
‘Yes, we do,’ Jane sat opposite and did her best to look calm and collected. ‘I fear much of it will be uncomfortable for us both.’
‘To be comfortable is to be complacent. Complacency breeds certainty, and certainty is the bane of new learning.’
‘So we should invite discomfort?’
‘At all times, Jane,’ Sir Theodore spread his arms as if to draw attention to their surroundings. A full belly, a warm fire, soft furs to wrap around ourselves and those we hold dear are admirable goals for a king or a fisherman. In fair times such dreams can be rewarded for the mainstay who follow that path.’
‘Our path is different?’
‘You need to ask?’
‘No,’ Jane shook her head but kept her eyes locked on her captain’s face. ‘But what has this to do with today’s events?’
‘Everything. Your choices, your independent thinking and the actions which follow, plus the repercussions that follow from those actions. No one set you on a different path, you chose it. You chose not to settle for the comforts destiny laid at your feet. Here you sit, the only child of two senior courtiers. Did you settle for that destiny? No. A greater journey lies ahead of you. How do you know this? Did someone provide you with this thinking, plant this notion deep in your ear as you lay sleeping? Some forest goblin, perhaps?’
‘No,’ Jane shook her head and laughed. ‘Though who knows where we journey in our dreams and what conversations might take place there?’
So, Captain,’ Jane folded her arms on the table in front of her and leant forward. ‘Is this one of your famous diversionary tactics, or a passageway to the conversation we must have.’
‘Context is everything. You said this conversation will cause us discomfort. I am simply agreeing with you. We are warriors seeking truth like a bee seeks nectar. So let us embrace the discomfort. Ask what questions you need to ask.’
‘Very well,’ Jane hardly knew where to begin, her head was spinning with so many tangled questions. ‘Did you know Haroldus was up to something?
‘Yes, we have long history together and his behaviour can be very transparent. What, exactly, he was up to, and why he thought to send you on a fools errand, all that was a mystery.’
‘Did you believe I was in danger?’
‘No. No more than for any patrol duty. Though I had planned to caution you against going. But you know that, which is why you set off so early. Before breakfast!’
‘Did you and Haroldus know Robert’s father?’
‘Yes. We were close, the three of us. Pledge brothers.’
‘What does that mean?’ Jane had never heard the term before. ‘Is this some custom from your time in the East?’
‘No. The idea arose between us, though we numbered four back then. We were in a dungeons under difficult circumstances, we had festering wounds, little food and were awaiting execution.’
Jane watched his face, and waited. She had come to know him so well through these years of training, to know and recognise the ebb and flow of his need for privacy. To know how to wait patiently for an anecdote from his past that would illuminate some point he was making, some life lesson he held to be of value. But this? She recognised the way a milky film seemed to build across his eyes, as if he was retreating into a world of memories, a lonely world few were given access to.
‘What had you done?’ She kept her voice steady, careful to remove any trace of concern or hint of judgment.
‘Our crime was to be on the wrong side of a long standing squabble between two lords.’ He smiled at her, the glaze on his eyes retreating like morning mist under bright sunlight. He was back with her in the throne room. ‘We were four young adventurers, fresh and foolish. We had found employment as an armed escort for something rather precious, a peace token being gifted between the kingdoms, a marriage token to be precise - a young bride.’
‘It went badly, clearly?’
‘For we foolish four, yes, very badly indeed. A group of rebels thought the peace would not be in their interest. They attacked our party, took the young bride for a hostage, and sent the four of us back as messengers to her father. He took out his anger on us.’
‘He blamed the messengers?’
‘The failure to protect his daughter fell to us, though he went further and announced that we were complicit with the bandits. He planned a gruesome death for us in front of his soldiers.’
‘A demonstration of his displeasure.’ It was a statement, not a question.’
‘Yes. He was a brutal excuse for a man who used fear to hold his kingdom together; the tool of a weak and simple leader.’
‘This needs to be written up as a ballad.’ Jane looked up at the huge tapestries that lined the walls of the throne room. ‘Or depicted in a tapestry. It has all the parts and players. Even a happy ending since you sit before me and Haroldus is alive and well in the cellars.’
‘I can think of no fate more unbecoming that being packaged into a song. The only reason for telling you this now, is because it is the foundation stone on which our own story is built, Jane. Yours and mine. It is what brought me here. It is why I have made it my duty to prepare you for whatever future lies ahead of you. By hearing this part of my story, will be better informed, better equipped, to draw a conclusion about today’s events.’
‘You need me to understand the pledge you made to Haroldus and the other two men.’
‘Precisely so. In that dungeon, with no hope of escape, we devised a plan. One of us would claim to be responsible, that they alone had worked with the rebels to organise the kidnapping. They would swear to have no knowledge of the other three.’
‘How could this have worked?’
‘Clearly it did?’ Sir Theodore smiled and spread his arms. ‘For here I sit. Unless you count me a liar.’
‘No! I just want to understand. You said the lord who held you was brutal and stupid. Why would he release the other three on the word of a self-proclaimed criminal?’
‘Our hope for success lay not in the ignorance of this lord, but in the compassion of others. The execution was to be a public affair, held in front of courtiers, soldiers and the common townsfolk. How would they react if all four of us were brutally executed when doubt had been cast on the guilt of three of us. It was a slight hope, born of desperation, but it was all we had.’ Sir Theodore pushed himself up from the bench and began to walk the great hall, as if sitting still was causing him discomfort. The pantomime didn’t fool Jane. Her old captain was giving himself a moment’s pause from the bitter pain this memory was causing him.
‘So, there in that dank cellar, we became Pledge Brothers. We made a solemn commitment, an unbreakable oath, to honour the wishes of whoever drew the short straw that night. We told each other of our dearest hopes and greatest dreams; of promises we had made to families and loved ones; of apologies we wanted to make, unspoken apologies for acts we carried like small scars in our hearts. All this we shared, and together, in that place of desperation, we vowed to hold true to our pledge, and also to hold each other true. Whoever died the next day, the rest of us would undertake to honour and fulfil their wishes, no matter the price, and no matter the years it might take.’
‘And this pledge still matters now?’
‘And I am caught up in it somehow. It’s why Haroldus has made visits through the years. He is holding you to your pledge.’
‘Yes. Our colleague who drew the short straw that night, he had been adventuring in those parts because he had heard runours of the sighting of a dragon.’
‘He was a dragon slayer?!’
‘Quite the opposite. He wanted to offer his services to protect this dragon should he find it. He was very focused on the idea. He had collected dragon lore as a youth, and had developed a notion that every dragon chose a shortlife as a companion and protector. He was driven by the notion that it was his destiny to be such a companion.’
‘How long ago do all this happen?’
‘I had black hair, a spring in my step and a straight back.’
‘Many centuries, then?’
‘Yes,’ Sir Theodore smiled for the first time in the conversation. ‘Though forty years would be a kinder observation, and nearer the mark. So the three of us who survived, we have kept the pledge we made to that young man on that day. If ever we heard rumour of a dragon being sighted, we vowed would investigate. If the sighting proved true, we would stand watch and commit ourselves in service to whichever shortlife it chose for its companion.’
Jane stared at Sir Theodore. The full impact of what he saying becoming clear.
‘This is what brought you to here to Kippernia It wasn’t to help end the siege at all. It was the dragon sighting?’
‘Correct, but that is a tale for another time. Right now, I need to know what drove young Robert to contrive today’s complicated drama. Whatever he wants, it must be something myself, or the King would have refused, or else Haroldus would have encouraged him to come to me openly.’
‘I asked the same question of Robert and he gave an answer of sorts. Part of an answer, anyway. There is great deal to understand.’
‘Then tell me everything that happened today.’
Gunther stood in the middle of the training yard and kicked the gravel. Where in the name of sanity had Jester gone? Gunther had wasted a dozen minutes searching for him after he had dragged his slumped shoulders and long face from the kitchens. He wasn’t in his room or any of his usual haunts.
‘Please, not the tavern!’ An intoxicated and melancholic Jester made for a testing companion. He wasn’t much of a drinker, except when he was taking solace. Gunther sighed and set off towards the stables, the quickest path to the main gate.
‘Ah! You’re here.’ Jester was pacing the floor at the far end of the stables. Gunther stopped and leant back against a tall oak beam that divided two of the stalls. ‘Are you ready for that talk now?’
‘No.’ Jester folded his arms. ‘Why would anyone come within a thousand paces of one of your schemes? ‘
‘Self-interest works for most people.’ Gunther grinned and spread his hands. ‘Perhaps we could start there. You are no different from other folk. A little kinder than most, or a little softer, depending on who is using you.’
‘An odd way to charm an accomplice.’
‘On the contrary, you appreciate a spoken truth. Hard to find withing these walls except from your beloved Jane.’
‘No, let that go for the moment, your face looks wretched enough, but if it is of any solace she is no longer in the kitchen tending to your competition. Sir Theodore has taken her aside.’
‘Who is he?’
‘I have no idea, though I think Sir Theodore does. We shall hear everything in due course as the whispers infiltrate their way through these old walls. Right now, you are the piece of gossip I want to discuss. Your strengths and weaknesses.’
‘I have no time and no heart for your games, Gunther,’ Jester turned and made to leave. Gunther strode forward, grabbed his shoulders, and spun him round.
‘You will make time, if not for you, then for the safety of this castle you hold so dear! You go to great lengths to make others feel safe and secure, to make them feel at peace with themselves. Yet these acts of kindness are not for them, they are for you.’
‘Yes. A happy castle makes for a steady castle, a safe castle. This is the firm bedrock for which a little feather of a man such as yourself craves. You are a timid fellow, blown off your feet by the smallest of ill winds. A happy castle gives you some small illusion of safety.’
‘You can be very wrong and very irritating.’ Jester did his best not to turn from Gunther’s gaze. Being gripped by the shoulders helped in that resolve.
‘If you mean a speaker of difficult truths, then yes.’
‘Such as this marriage business with Lavinia?’
‘Exactly so,’ Gunther released his grip on Jester, patting the young man’s shoulders as a maid might bang dust from a chair. ‘My father is hatching a scheme that will give him control of the castle. He is playing the loyal subject, of course, helping to find a secure kingdom in the Near World with a strong army, a kingdom our King can forge an alliance with and a young prince to secure the deal.’
‘Through marriage to Princess Lavinia?’
‘Yes, blood ties are the only knots that have any value.’
‘Then how is this a deception by your father’
‘He has placed himself at the heart of the arrangement. He will have all the tools to undermine it, he will see to it than every one of these proposed arrangements comes to nothing. Then he will step in and propose his own solution.’
‘Marriage to his son and heir, my good self. In return he will forgive all the King’s debts, and will finance the establishment of a new guard. I have to admire him. He will have his son on the throne and full control of an armed guard that he finances. He will be ruler in all but name. Do you think that is a good and true future, one you would like to be a part of?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Then we are allies in wishing to thwart this. I am playing along with my father’s plans for now. He needs to set everything in motion and when he makes his move to salvage the day and makes his proposal to the King, I will show this has been orchestrated from the start, a long hatched scheme to take control of the crown and the castle.’
‘He will be executed for treason.’
‘I certainly hope so. I will inherit his fortune, avenge my late mother, and marry Lady Rose. And you, good Jester, will have a castle home that wobbles along as it does today, dysfunctional and poor, yet strangely content with its lot.’
‘And Princess Lavinia?’
‘What of her?’ Gunther shrugged. ‘It is not for you or me to manage her future. If she is hurt or confused by any of this, then so be it. I will have a provided her with a good reason to question any future proposals of marriage? This is just one of those cruel lessons on the mechanics of the world that is essential for every child’s successful journey out of illusion.’
‘How generous of spirit, to go to such trouble to teach her this lesson.’ Jester closed his eyes and sighed. This conversation had to come to an end. Sarcasm rarely worked on Gunther. He opened his eyes again and tried to organise his thoughts. ‘So, where in this tide of events, are we floating right now?’
‘My father is brokering with prospective families. Portraits arrive every day. They hang in the Queen’s apartments and are ranked by the Princess.’
‘She makes up stories about them,’ Gunther raised a hand and tapped his own face, ‘stories about their faces. Father said it was the Queen’s idea, a way to engage her daughter with the discussion. You know the Princess better than most, you are her tutor. Would she entertain a direct conversation about marriage?’
‘Marriage was never in her own plans.’
‘Which are?’ Gunther spread his hands. ‘No, let me guess, she plans to train as a knight like her beloved Jane.’
‘Train, no. The princess believes she has the blood of a warrior queen and thinks warfare will come very naturally to her.’
‘I fear it will. So, no training?’
‘No. The Princess plans to storm a dozen castles this year.’
‘Dark sinister ones where grim warriors sit in the shadows and plot all manner of gruesome acts. I think the only way to weave a tale of love and marriage into her future is if a handsome prince was being held captive in some impossibly high tower.’
‘I can believe that.’ Gunther nodded. ‘It aligns with how she’s divided the portraits. Prince Cuthbert says Lavinia has created three groups for the rejected portraits. Vain and pretty. Damp and spotty. Grim and dangerous. These line the outer edges of the collection. Clustered at the centre are a few possibles. This group she calls the helpless and hopeless. The one thing they seem to have is common is their eyes.’
‘So it would seem.’
‘And you plan to go along with all of this?
‘At first, yes. At least, I shall give that appearance. I must let my father dig this hole for himself, a deep hole even he won’t be able to climb his way out of.’
‘Well hooray for you, Gunther. But don’t share anymore of this with me. Even stables have ears. I swear the horses tell their secrets to Smithy.’
‘It hardly matters.’ Gunther touched the side of his nose. ‘The betrothal of the Princess is no longer a secret, is it? Lavinia has just now made it the gossip of the kitchen.’
‘And our guest with the burnt hands, is he a prospective suiter from one of the portraits?’
‘Him? Goodness no. I’ve seen all the paintings. The man in the kitchen with the pigtails and brooding eyes is far more handsome.’
‘Must you turn the knife?’
‘Of course I must.’ Gunther stepped forward and slapped Jester on the back. ‘Lighten up! So what do you know of him?’
‘Very little. Last night in the tavern he passed himself off as a forester, he tested Jane at staves and lost. It was all a ruse, clearly. Whatever is going on here has been long in the planning.’
‘With Haroldus in the mix, no doubt,’ Gunther paused and turned his head. He could hear the familiar rattle of Sir Theodore’s chain link footwear. The old knight was approaching. Gunther winked at Jester, put a finger to his lips, grabbed him by the shoulders again and began to shout. ‘No, I will not be a party to such nonsense.’
‘What’s this?’ Sir Theodore stepped into the light of the open doorway. ‘Must you two bicker and bluster about everything?’
‘I believe we must,’ Gunther released Jester’s shoulders. ‘Our royal fool would play me for a fool too, it seems. He has written a bawdy jig about the knights of the King’s Guard and has requested that both Sir Ivon and myself join him in performing it.’
‘What!?’ Jester stared at Gunther. ‘Why in the name of sanity would I set you upon the tender ears of the court?!’
‘It seems a splendid idea to me, Gunther,’ Sir Theodore smiled at them both. ‘Though you will practice in your own time. Right now I need you to attend to our guests in the cellars.’
‘No, Gunther, just encourage them not to wander off. Sir Ivon will be with you, let him do the companion drinking. You keep your tankard lid shut and your eyelids open. Jester, follow me if you will, I need your wise council ’ With that, the old knight turned and ambled from the stables.
‘Hear that? Wise council,’ Jester grinned and patted Gunther on the shoulder. ‘Enjoy your dungeon duty. Oh, I know! You could detain AND entertain. Practice our bawdy new jig on them.’ The young men continued to goad each other as they strode off to their different duties.
Up in the hayloft, Princess Lavina kept very still. She remained staring at the coconut in its nest of straw. She had been lying beside the pig egg, waiting for it to hatch. Behind her eyes, the bright world of her imagination was spinning off its axis. The vibrant pictures that had filled her head for as long as she could remember, the colourful notions she took for real, were melting into a fog of grey.