Jack thought to himself, now what? He lifted his head slowly looking into the distance towards the noise that had awakened him. Couldn’t have napped long, his thinking was slow and lazy. The sun was directly over the spreading canopy of the massive oak tree. It was shady and cool where he lay stretched out in the soft summer grass. Every blade seemed a different shade of green. Leaves fluttered gently. He could smell the horses and wagon driver before he could see them.
Sitting up and yawning, Jack saw two lathered old draft horses pulling a flatbed wagon, which was cresting the high knoll. The driver, a portly fellow with short arms and big hands, wore a grimy, sweat-soaked blue velvet toque and smelled so strongly that Jack exhaled through his nose several times as he got to his feet.
The wagon slowed to a creeping stop next to the solitary tree where Jack stood. Panting, squint-eyed, he felt a twinge of fear wash over him. There was nothing but grassy hills that rolled like ocean waves; trees were scarce. He had never felt so isolated.
“Whatcha doing here lad?” said the man, looking directly down at him with a friendly smile. Shaking his head, saying nothing, Jack struggled to maintain his urge to run. Why fear this peasant cur, he said to himself.
“Well get in, guess I can’t leave you out here. Come on lad, I haven’t got all day. Stepping forward, Jack opted to ride in the back of the wagon being somewhat leery of the feisty Welsh Corgi who sat on the far side of the wagon seat. There was time enough to wheedle his way later, his current need, for some reason, was sleep.
In a kind voice only “haw” was said; no rein touched the horses’ flanks, and the wagon moved with a slight jerk forward. The Corgi curled around, resting his head on the stocky man’s lap. Feeling safe, Jack stretched out and soon resumed his earlier nap.
It had all seemed so long ago and so very far away. Jack twitched and trembled and whimpered as he fell deeper into sleep.
* * *
The day had begun like any other:
“Good morning, Sire,” Thomas had said as he placed the heavy silver tray on the carved table next to the Prince’s bed.
“GO AWAY! I’m still sleeping.”
“Yes Sire, but its late and you’ve a full schedule this day.”
“Hang the schedule and so to you, if you don’t leave me be. GET OUT!”
Thomas, gaunt with sharp features, ferreted his way around the elaborate sleeping chamber. “I’ll just pour your tea, Sire, and perhaps open the drapes.”
‘I’ll open you,” Jack mumbled as he burrowed his head deeper into his satin pillow.
“The Queen’s specific command, Sire, is that you must be up and in the Great Hall before the arrival of Lady Jayne.” Thomas, almost whispering, said, “Her escort Sire, is the Woman of FetchWood.”
Jack slid one foot from under the lightly quilted silk comforter and then the other foot followed. He stood stretching, first his arms high over his head, then his right leg then his left, all the while muttering curses not fit to be spoken out loud. “When I am King, I’ll do as I please, go where I please, see whom I please.”
Thomas pulled back the velvet, bone-coloured drapes. “Yes Sire, your coronation is only weeks away, thus your hurried schedule.”
The FetchWood hag here, at Huntington Castle, Thomas thought to himself as he admired his image from the mirror. If the stories are true, no, not possible, just silly superstitious trap. Jack choose a dark burgundy paneled satin tunic, finished his toilette and swaggered leisurely towards the Great Hall.
Those he passed bowed low; few spoke, but he could hear murmuring as he passed through the dimly-lit corridor into the high, vaulted hall. His mother smiled but looked worried. “Now Jack you must be civil, your best savoir vivre. The Woman of FetchWood is no joke, and your Aunt the Lady Jayne attests to her power of the arcane.”
“Yes, Mother,” Jack said with a devilish grin, its cryptic content not recognized.
Lady Jayne’s golden barouche clattered crossing the drawbridge into the courtyard. It was drawn by a matched pair of dappled Percherons. The horses still pranced after the carriage had stopped and caused the Dalmatian dog that ran with the coach to bark with excitement.
In a gentle voice the FitchWood matron commanded, “Be still Henry, sit, be a good boy.” The Lady Jayne stepping from the gilded barouche, adjusting her white linen wimple. Henry wiggled and whined unable to contain his enthusiasm; he was clearly waiting for the FetchWood woman to exit the coach as well.
Two rows of attendants stood attention in military fashion descending the courtyard steps. Jack stood with his Mother on the uppermost step, in front of two massive ironwood doors that were swung fully open to greet their guests. It was a most dazzling of summer mornings. With a pompous gesture, Jack reached for his Aunt’s outstretched hand as he twirled sideways down the steps.
“Dear Jack, I pray you’ve been minding your manners.”
“Of course, Lady Jayne.” Another evil grin, this time looking directly at the Woman of FetchWood, who returned a toothy grin of her own. Little else was said. Jack noted the knurled greenwood cane the old woman leaned on, as she hobbled up the steps and through the great doors. The spotted dog at her heels with its tail in a nonstop wag.
“This is going to be fun,” Jack thought. He was notorious for being a prankster and cruel to all; none were spared his senseless, self-centered, sick humor. The late King and his mother were just and kindhearted souls loved by all even when stern decisions had to be made as matters of State. The Prince was even more handsome than his father the King, if such a thing could be, but inside, his heart was twisted.
In the Great Hall where Jack’s father’s throne sat empty, Jack couldn’t help but smile, knowing the power of his father’s kingdom was soon to be his. Many dreaded the thought of the kingdom passing to the young prince — for obvious reasons.
There were few people at Court, Jack noted, probably more silly superstitious fear of the harmless old hag. The Queen, Lady Jayne and the FetchWood Woman were huddled in an intense conversation; others ambled about. Slowly, young Jack became more aware of the greenwood cane, which the old woman tapped gently against her thigh, in a metronome of rhythm. Tap, tap, tap, he could feel the fluctuation in his own heartbeat, tap, tap, tap. What was it with that knurled stick? Was it a witch’s wand of some sort? Idiots and their superstitious fears. Smiling at the thought of her managing the long courtyard steps without her cane, Jack knew he had to get it. The minutes slowed to hours, his heart keeping time, his gaze never leaving the cane, waiting his chance to snatch it away.
Suddenly, the hag flung back her arm and arched the stick through an open window. Jack didn’t think twice, clearing the iron railing of the low window before the Dalmatian could scramble to its feet. The wand lay only a few yards away on the courtyard lawn, Jack had to have it for his own, but the spotted dog was faster on the ground, snatching the stick just out of his grasp.
* * *
“Found him standing under the old oak tree miles back,” said the weary driver, stiffly twisting his chin over his shoulder and nodding to the wagon bed. He’s been sleeping all the way. “I’m starved. Supper ready?”
The woman wrung her hands on her soiled apron, then lifted the short-legged Corgi off the wagon seat. Smiling and with an encouraging voice she said, “Feed the horses first. I’ll help you unhitch, them.”
The man nodding in agreement stepped to the ground with a jolt saying, “Handsome lad isn’t he? You hungry laddy boy?”
“What’s his name? Ask the woman. Call him Prince if you like.”
Jack sat up straight, scratched and wagged his tail. “Of course I’m the Prince, you twit.”
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author