Jester went to the front of the house. Candlelight flickered from the high windows. He could hear muffled voices but the windows were set too high for him to see anything but shadows dancing about on the ceilings within. Then he heard footsteps approaching on the far side of the door. He jumped back, pressing himself behind one post of a small veranda that protected the front door from sun and rain.
The door swung open, spilling light into the street. Jester pulled his arms to his sides and glanced down to make sure his whole body was hidden in the shadow of the post. It was. One of the Merchant’s men stumbled out, lurching a little and repeating something aloud to himself, an instruction perhaps? Jester strained to hear.
‘Harness the pony. Pony, not horse. Right, easy. Not the wagon. Cart. Get the cart, back door. Easy.’ The door slammed shut, the man swayed for a moment, regained his balance, and stumbled away down the lane beside the house.
Jester watched him go. What was this all about? A night errand? A cart of goods to be smuggled to the wharf after dark? No doubt this was a common enough practice for the Merchant. Jester closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the wooden post, as if it would help him to think.
Had he really seen Dragon flying down here earlier? Or had it been wishful thinking? Perhaps the princess was still up at the cave with Dragon, sitting by a fire, safe and sound, with Jane riding up there to bring her back down. All would be well. It was a comforting thought. Jester wanted to believe it, but Sir Ivon’s remark was still ringing in his ears. ‘The princess, she is your full duty now. D’you understand?’
Jester did. If there was any chance Lavinia had come to speak to the Merchant, then his duty was to find her, stay with her, and keep her safe until Sir Theodore or Jane arrived. He stepped away from the door and set off down the side of the house.
The passageway was a mess of obstacles. Stacks of timber were everywhere, along with crates, barrels, and coils of rope. They were a hindrance to Jester’s progress, but they also allowed him to follow the man unseen. He made it to the far end of the passage. It opened up onto a cobbled storage yard. Jester crouched behind a stack of crates. The Merchant’s henchman was untying a pony from a hitching post. A second man appeared by the far wall.
‘Hey!’ he bellowed. ‘What ya doing there?’ Jester pulled his head down, then realised the man wasn’t yelling at him.
‘It’s me, you dolt,’ said the man with the pony.
‘Yes! Ox! Now keep ya noise down.’ The man stumbled, regained his balance by leaning on the pony, then cursed as the animal threw its head back in alarm. ‘Get yourself over here and give us a hand. I got me a delivery to make, nice and quiet.’
‘What delivery? Nothing said to me!’
‘Nothing to be said. This is my job. Just me!’
‘You’re legless with grog! Pony will dig her feet in and you’ll never hitch her!’ The second man strode across the yard and took the halter rope from Ox. He was rewarded with a punch to his head and dropped unconscious to the ground.
Jester was so startled he took a step back, almost knocking over a stack of kindling. He stared around for somewhere to hide as Ox lifted the unconscious man over his shoulder and began walking towards the side alley – directly towards him. Jester found a pile of sacking and crawled under it. The smell was disgusting, the sacks damp and rotten. He pressed a hand over his mouth and lay still, trying not to breath as the man’s footsteps shuffled towards him.
‘This’ll do,’ Ox said, his voice a low grumble as the footsteps came to a shuffling stop beside the pile of sacks. ‘Your bed for the night!’
Jester guessed what was coming and clenched his teeth against the impact as the body of the unconscious man came thumping down on top of him.
Gunther was shaking so badly he could hardly speak. His father grabbed him by the face, squeezing his cheeks together, and pulled him forward to better study his eyes.
‘Fear? Is that all I get from you? Five years paying that bag of old bones at the castle to train you and this is all I get, a quaking child too scared to speak?!’ He pushed Gunther away. ‘Not that anything you say will make a farthing’s difference.’
‘It is not fear!’ Gunther found his voice and stuck his chin out in defiance. ‘It is anger! This is NOT who we are father!’
‘Ha! It is EXACTLY who we are. You and me both, you are of my blood. So listen to me well and know what part you must play, your reward for your betrayal.’ The merchant took a deep breath, combed his fingers through his beard and fixed his eyes on Gunther. ‘I have offered Ox more riches than any man of his nature deserves, and to undertake a task no man of sound mind would dare to undertake. Yet Ox will do it, for fear of me and for love of gold, he WILL do it.’
‘Father..’ Gunther pressed his hands against the wall behind him to steady the shaking that wracked his body.
‘You have something useful to add?
‘You know Ox. One day, too much ale will make him boast of this.’
‘So you ARE thinking, good! Ox will certainly let slip of this, the fool will spend his fortune for all to wonder where he came by it. Which is where you enter the picture. You will follow behind and take care of him when his work is done.’
‘Kill Ox? You will have me kill Ox?’
‘Of course! No one but you and I will ever know of this deed. We succeed in this together, or together - we hang for it.’
‘We have to think this through father, killing the princess.. it’s unthinkable, we..’ Gunther was silenced by a slap to his face that set his head ringing.
‘She was always going to die, not right now, but once you were married, once you had an heir. Her mewling brother Prince Cuthbert would be dispatched as well, leaving you as Prince Regent, controlling the entire kingdom till your child comes of age!’
‘Quiet!’ The Merchant closed his eyes and took a deep breath in an effort to control his rage. ‘It was within our grasp. All of it. All you had to do was follow my instructions. Now everything is lost.’ He opened his eyes, turned away from Gunther and started pacing the room, his arms flapping like wings at his sides, his fists pounding his thighs with every beat. The behaviour was familiar to Gunther. His father was using his rage to beat the world like metal, bending it to some new shape only he could see.
‘Our future must be reworked and it starts with silencing everyone who knows of this thanks to your weak-minded prattling!’ He stopped pacing and poked a finger into Gunther’s chest. ‘So listen to me now. Tonight you leave your spoilt, comfortable childhood behind. Tonight you step across into the real world where the strong must be ruthless to survive, and where the cowardly grovelling masses are but tesserae in the mosaic beneath our feet! Tonight you take a life. You kill Ox.’
Moonlight flashed off Dragon’s scales as he dropped towards Jane and Robert, his wings beating like carpets to slow his descent.
‘What happened?’ His feet struck the track and Dragon thrust his head forward, his eyes burning into Robert’s. ‘What have you done?!’
‘Not him, wolves,’ Jane got to her feet. ‘Turn your flames down and thank him, Dragon. I would be their dinner if not for Robert.’
‘You’re hurt, I felt it. I felt the pain! You need..’
‘Where’s The Princess?’
‘In the town. Climb up, we have to get you fixed.’
‘You left her alone?’
‘No. She left me, marched off and dismissed me! That girl is three times the irritation you are.’ He lowered his head and stretched out a foot as a climbing ramp. ‘Now get up here! I will not ask you again.’
‘I am!’ Jane stepped on to the back of his giant paw. ‘First we land in the village and find the Princess.’
‘NO! you are more important.’
‘I agree,’ said Robert.
‘Oh do you?’ Jane started to pull herself up onto Dragon.
‘Yes,’ Robert moved to assist her, taking hold of her waist and
boosting her up on to Dragon’s neck.
‘We don’t need your helping hands, or your opinions,’ said Dragon, doing his best to look indignant. Then he realised Robert was agreeing with him. ‘See Jane. Your friend with the shiny teeth agrees with me. We get the kitchen girl to fix you right away. She’s good at that.’
‘She is,’ Robert raised his hands and waved them at Dragon. ‘My hands are starting to mend, the hands YOU scorched. So we fly Jane to the castle.’
‘We?’ Dragon flapped his wings. ‘You’ve suddenly grown invisible wings, have you?’
‘You fly us both down. You drop me where you left the Princess and you take your Dragonblade to see..’
‘Later!’ Jane glared at Robert. ‘Now is not the time for all that. Get up here, we go to find the princess right now. All three of us! Now!’
‘Jane, I take back what I said,’ Dragon stretched out his paw for Robert to climb. ‘You ARE as irritating as that girl!’
‘In that?!’ Lavinia stared at the pony and cart as Ox drew up next to the back door of the Merchant’s house. ‘I shall walk back to the castle, thank you. Tell Gunther he can escort me.’
They were standing in the open door, Lavinia and the Merchant, two silhouettes against the warm firelight spilling out onto the yard.
‘Walk? Our precious young majesty? No, I would not countenance such a thing. Ox is a good man and will drive you to the gates himself.’
‘What’s that?’ Lavinia pointed to a stack of canvas on the back of the cart.
‘Sailcloth,’ said Ox, then, remembering his place, he added, ‘..your young majesty. All patched, ready to take to the wharf at first light.’
‘How exciting, creaking masts and billowing sails. How I envy your freedom to go to sea.’ She turned to the Merchant. ‘Tomorrow, you and Gunther will come to the castle as agreed.’
‘Good, together we will talk to mother and father, and this foolish misunderstanding will be forgiven and forgotten.’
‘Tomorrow it is,’ the Merchant dipped his head. Lavinia raised her arm, offering the back of her hand to the Merchant, who took it, dipped his head, and kissed her ring.
It was only then that Lavinia saw the blood. It leaked from the fine cuff at his wrist, a thin trickle that ran down the back of his hand.
‘You’re bleeding!’ She looked from his hand. The thick sleeve of his velvet tunic was soaked. The Merchant didn’t reply, he simply sighed, then Ox jumped down behind the princess and put a sack over her.
‘Keep a hand clamped over her mouth as you pass the gates.’
‘Let me out!’ The sacking was no match for Lavinia’s high pitched scream. Ox felt for her mouth and wrapped his hand over it.
‘Where’s the fee?’ he growled. The Merchant pulled a leather bag from his waistband, shook open the neck and showed Ox the contents.
‘Enough here to buy yourself a fleet of boats. Get it done. And be sure to tip her out of the sack when you drop her. It has to look like she fell from that dragon.’
Jester saw and heard it all from his hiding place behind the crates.
Shock overcame any sense of fear. He had to act, he was Lavinia’s best hope. Yet act how? He suppressed a naïve desire to rush across the yard and intercede, it would be a disaster, he would be overpowered in a second and of no use to Lavinia.
He knew the layout of the town, every alley and backstreet. The cart had only one route to access the main street, yet there were any number of side alleys he could use to get ahead off the cart. So, should he run to the castle gate and alert the guards to come out and stop the cart before it set off down the causeway? What if he was wrong? What if Ox drove the cart to the other end of town, to the labyrinth of salting yards and packing sheds perched high above the wharf where goods were hauled up the cliff face in cage hoists?
He watched the Merchant hold the pony steady as Ox climbed up onto the cart with his wriggling package. He watched as the Merchant went back inside and closed the door.
‘Get on with ya!’ Ox tapped the pony with a long switch and the cart started forward. Jester made a snap decision. He broke from his hiding place, skirted the yard, keeping to the shadows below one wall, and reached the exit as the cart passed through. Then swung himself up on the back and lay still. Had anyone seen him? It didn’t appear so.
‘Have courage,’ he whispered it to himself like a command, then he crawled forward over the cargo of sailcloth, keeping his movements small and fluid, as if wind might be ruffling the load. He reached the front. Ox was sitting on the bench seat in front of him, so close that Jester could have planted a dagger in his back – if he had possessed a dagger, or the will to use one, or the strength of arm to keep pushing if his blade encountered a rib.
For years Jester had watched Jane and Gunther practice their skills with sword and bow, mostly from the safety of battlements overlooking the training yard, but occasionally as a reluctant actor, an accomplice in one of Sir Theodore’s demonstrations.
How he wished he had paid more attention I those moments, instead of closing his eyes and shrieking every time a dummy blow had swept close by him. One thing Sir Theodore had stressed was the element of surprise, how it gave an assailant, no matter their strength or size, a narrow window of advantage. Surprise is a coin spent once. Spend it wisely.
They were approaching the crossroads at the base of the statue. He could see the castle gates at the top of the slope to his left. Too far for the guards to see anything amiss, to them it would be a distant cart heading down to the wharf with a drunkard at the reigns. Would they come if Jester cried for help? Would they recognise his voice at that distance, or leave their posts to investigate.
It was like a game of chance, a game of dice. And I always lose at dice! Jester felt his heart beating and his wits freezing. Screaming out would not be enough, somehow he had to slow the cart and buy time. He looked about for a weapon and saw nothing heavy, nothing to crack down on the man’s head. Could he get one arm around his throat? Pull him off balance? No. Ox would simply lean forward and Jester would be flipped over the man’s head.
There had to be a way. Think! Think! Then he had it. Jester pulled himself to his knees behind Ox. The man didn’t hear, he was singing a bawdy drinking song at the top of his voice to mask the muffled cries of Lavinia in her sack. Ox was sitting on her like a cushion. He had one hand on the reigns, the other over her mouth. Lavinia’s cries of protest were being choked by the sacking that pressed against her teeth.
Jester took off his floppy hat and held it open like a bag above the head of the henchman. Lavinia chose that same moment to bite down onto the sacking in her mouth, and onto the thumb that held it there.
‘Aarhhgg!’ Ox roared with pain. He tore his hand free and curled it into a fist, a hammer to slam down on his prisoner. The blow never fell. Instead, Ox had to deal with the Jester’s hat which now covered his face. He lifted both hands to grab the hat. Jester hugged the rim tight around the man’s neck, and started yelling at the top of his voice.
‘Jester!’ the Princess stared up at him, her head shaking its way up through the gathered opening of her prison sack, tossing it from her hair like a dog shaking off water.
‘Crawl out!’ screamed Jester, then he heaved with all his strength, pulling his hat and the henchman’s head back towards him. The move bent Ox backward, lifting his weight off the Lavinia who wriggled free like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
The chaos proved too much for the pony. It reared, throwing Ox and Jester backwards into the cart. Then it set off in panic down the causeway, dragging the cart behind it. Ox tried to get to his feet, but the cart was careering out of control, swinging one way and then the other as it rattled and bounced behind the pony. So Ox crawled across the sailcloth to get his hands on Jester who was pressing himself as flat as he could, for fear of being tossed out.
‘You little gong rat,’ Ox pulled a knife from his waistband. ‘Going to carve you up for this!’ He sprang at Jester, lost his balance as the cart lurched sideways, and was gone, his roar of surprise cut short as he struck the road.
‘Hold on Jester!’ yelled Lavinia, who had grabbed the reigns and was trying her best to slow the pony. Jester crawled forward to help, grabbing the back the bench seat for support as the cart lurched from side to side. The entire road was a little more than a track cut directly from the face of the cliff to their left. To their right it plunged in a sheer drop to the rocky shoreline below. It was an easy approach to defend, a hot climb in summer and a grinding ascent in the snows of winter. Descending the road was always taken at a measured pace. Sorry tales accompanied every bend in its length, and one corner in particular had collected the most stories for the lives it had stolen. The Widow’s Bend was marked with small standing stones and carved offerings, each a private memory of a love lost.
Jester stared ahead. There it was now, a simple turn in the road he had passed a hundred times or more, a place where he hugged the left side, never looking across at the steep drop to the ocean. In that moment, he knew with absolute certainty, the cart and pony would never make it around the tight curve. He put a hand on Lavinia’s shoulder.
‘We have to jump!’
Lavinia didn’t reply, she stared down at the road, then back up at Jester. Her eyes were wide with fear, yet her jaw was jutting out with raw determination. Jester forced a smile.
‘One jump, both of us together. We can do it Princess!’
‘No!’ Lavinia’s expression changed in an instant, the mask of fear transforming into a look of joy and elation. ‘Look!’
Jane had been descending towards the town square when she spotted the cart thundering down the causeway. Instinct and training took over. She didn’t need to think. She reacted, turning Dragon’s head as she screamed into his ear.
‘The Wagon! Grab it.’ They were high up. Dragon dipped, turned, and folded his wings. Robert wrapped his arms around Jane, holding tight against the sudden drop. Jane didn’t notice, all her attention on the cart and the corner it was thundering towards. She had acted on instinct, the safety of all the King’s subjects were her responsibility, a life needed saving. Then she saw who was in the cart.
Jester looked up as Dragon dropped towards them.
‘Hold tight to something!’ he screamed to Lavinia. The Princess threw herself flat on the driving bench, wrapping her arms around the slats of the back rest. Jester dived backwards into the sailcloth and grabbed one of the ropes that bound the folds together.
Dragon swooped overhead as both pony and cart careened off the edge of the road. He extended his powerful front paws, grabbing the terrified pony with one, and the side of the cart with the other.
His speed was so great, and the arc of his ascent so steep, that the cart’s load slipped from the back. Jester scrambled to let go of the sailcloth, to grab the side on the cart, and found himself tumbling end over end, the world around him a confusing swirl of moonlight and crashing surf.
Jane hadn’t seen him fall. In the last moment of their dive towards the cart she had spotted both Lavinia and Jester. Now she was yelling in Dragon’s ear, telling him to set the cart down carefully. Only when Lavinia was safely on the ground did Jane realise Jester had gone.
For a moment she was transfixed by a cold terror, a stab of pure emptiness she had never felt before. The world fell silent around her. She yelled round at Robert, telling him to climb down and look after the Princess. Then she was air born again, swooping down to the rocks below the causeway.
They found him easily enough. His face shining in the moonlight, a bright circle amongst the dark rocks on which his body lay. Dragon landed close by. Jane leapt down, ran to Jester and knelt beside him. His eyes were open and he was singing softly.
‘Jane, Jane, Jane, what became of you? Racing your dragon and chasing your dream.’ Then he saw her, and his face lit up.
‘Jane? There you are.’
‘Yes, here I am’ She glanced quickly down the length of his body. It was broken in so many ways. His limbs were twisted, blood leaked across the rocks beneath him, and shards of bone poked up like sticks through one side of his tunic. No amount of loving attention or exotic herbs would make a difference today. She moved her eyes to his face, and kept them there.
‘Is she safe?’ he whispered.
‘Yes, quite safe, thanks to you.’ She reached her hands under his head to cradle it from the cold rocks.
‘I was a hero,’ he laughed.
‘You were. You must put it in a ballad when your recovered.’
‘Ha! Who could have imagined?’ His voice was feint, and Jane had to lean close to hear him.
‘I wrote one about us, you know. More than one I must confess. Foolish dreams mostly. Silly nonsense.’
‘I should like to hear one,’ Jane tried to keep her voice steady.
‘If it doesn’t tax you too much.’ She watched as he managed a smile. Watched the way his cheeks turned his eyes to crescent moons, eyes that found a gentle humour in almost anything. Eyes so precious and so familiar.
‘I have the opening by heart I think.’ He hummed quietly for a moment, then started to sing.
‘Holding on tight
Through wide-awake nights
Frightened of what I might see,
So many might-have-beens
Falling like dreams,
All that I wanted to be.’ He stopped and gave a soft snort of laughter. ‘It does get more merry, I promise.’
‘Enough for now. Help is on its way.’
‘I hope not. These last few minutes should be ours to share, don’t you think?’
Jane tried to reply, but the words caught in her throat. So she simple nodded.
‘Two things Jane. Find Gunther and keep him safe. I saw blood on his father’s hands. Promise me?’ Jane nodded again. ‘And don’t let them lay me underground Jane. No dark catacombs. Let Kings gather dust if they may.’ His eyes drifted from hers, losing their focus.
‘Jester?’ she leaned in, her hair falling across his cheek.
‘A fire boat perhaps,’ he whispered. ‘Like Northmen, no sword at my side, my quill pen will do.’ His eyes started to close. ‘All my friends waving farewell from the battlements.’ Suddenly his gaze was back. His eyes locked on hers as he reached up and touched her hair. ‘Dragon fire. Let me leave by dragon fire, Jane. The colour of your hair.’ He let out a long breath, part sigh and part laughter. ‘I would have brushed it every day you know. Old as we might have become. Every single day.’
Jane lifted his head gently and kissed him. Perhaps he felt it, she would never know. She hoped with all her heart that he had. Then she let her tears come.