Fool Chapter 8
A WIND FROM FUCKING FRANCE
Hunter was right, of course, he wasn’t able to feed Lear’s train. We imposed on villages along the way for fare and quarter, but north of Leeds the villages had suffered bad harvests and they could not bear our appetites without starving themselves. I tried to foster good cheer among the knights, while keeping distance from Lear – I had not forgiven the old man for disowning my Cordelia and sending away Drool. Secretly I relished the soldiers’ complaints about their lack of comfort, and made no real effort to dampen their rising resentment for the old king.
On the fifteenth day of our march, outside of Lint-upon-Tweed, they ate my horse.
“Rose, Rose, Rose – would a horse by any other name taste so sweet?” the knights chanted. They thought themselves clever, slinging such jests while spraying roasted bits of my mount from their greasy lips.
The dull always seek to be clever at the fool’s expense, to somehow repay him for his cutting wit, but never are they clever, and often are they cruel. Which is why I may never own things, never care for anyone, nor show desire for anything, lest some ruffian, thinking he is funny, take it away. I have secret desires, wants, and dreams, though. Jones is a fine foil, but I should like someday to own a monkey. I would dress him in a tiny jester’s suit, of red silk, I think. I would call him Jeff, and he would have his own scepter, that would be called Tiny Jeff. Yes, I should very much like a monkey. He would be my friend – and it would be forbidden to murder, banish, or eat him. Foolish dreams?
We were met at the gate of Castle Albany by Goneril’s steward, adviser, and chief toady, that most pernicious twat, Oswald. I’d had dealings with the rodent-faced muck-sucker when he was but a footman at the White Tower, when Goneril was still princess at court, and I, a humble jongleur, was found wandering naked amid her royal orbs. But that tale is best left for another time, the scoundrel at the gate impedes our progress.
Spidery in appearance as well as disposition, Oswald lurks even when in the open, lurking being his natural state of locomotion. A fine black fuzz he wears for a beard, the same is on his head, when his blue tartan tam is humbled at his heart, which it was not that day. He neither removed his hat nor bowed as Lear approached.
The old king was not pleased. He stopped the train an arrow-shot from the castle and waved me forward.
“Pocket, go see what he wants,” said Lear. “And ask why there is no fanfare for my arrival.”
“But nuncle,” said I. “Shouldn’t the captain of the guard be the one – “
“Go on, fool! A point is to be made about respect. I send a fool to meet this rascal and put him in his place. Spare no manners, remind the dog that he is a dog.”
“Aye, majesty.” I rolled my eyes at Captain Curan, who almost laughed, then stopped himself, seeing that the king’s anger was real.
I pulled Jones from my satchel and sallied forth, my jaw set, as determined as the prow of a warship.
“Hail, Castle Albany,” I called. “Hail, Albany. Hail, Goneril.”
Oswald said nothing, did not so much as remove his hat. He looked past me to the king, even when I was standing an arm’s length from him.
I said: “King of bloody Britain here, Oswald. I’d suggest you pay proper respect.”
“I’ll not lower myself to speak with a fool.”
“Primping little whoreson wanker, innit he?” said the puppet Jones.
“Aye,” said I. Then I spotted a guard in the barbican, looking down on us. “Hail, Cap’n, seems someone’s emptied a privy on your drawbridge and the steaming pile blocks our way.”
The guard laughed. Oswald fumed.
“M’lady has instructed me to instruct you that her father’s knights are not welcome in the castle.”
“That so? She’s actually talking to you, then?”
“I’ll not have an exchange with an impudent fool.”
“He’s not impudent,” said Jones. “With proper inspiration, the lad sports a woody as stout as a mooring pin. Ask your lady.”
I nodded in agreement with the puppet, for he is most wise for having a brain of sawdust.
“Impudent! Impudent! Not impotent!” Oswald frothing a bit now.
“Oh, well, why didn’t you say so,” said Jones. “Yes, he’s that.”
“To be sure,” said I.
“Aye,” said Jones.
“Aye,” said I.
“The king’s rabble shall not be permitted in the castle.”
“Aye. That so, Oswald?” I reached up and patted his cheek. “You should have ordered trumpets and rose petals scattered on our path.” I turned and waved the advance to the train, Curan spurred his horse and the column galloped forward. “Now get off the bridge or be trampled, you rat-faced little twat.”
I strode past Oswald into the castle, pumping Jones in the air as if I was leading cadence for war drummers. I think I should have been a diplomat.
As Lear rode by he clouted Oswald on the head with his sheathed sword, knocking the unctuous steward into the moat. I felt my anger for the old man slip a notch.
Kent, his disguise now completed by nearly three weeks of hunger and living in the outdoors, fell in behind the train as I had instructed. He looked lean and leathery now, more like an older version of Hunter than the old, overfed knight he had been at the White Tower. I stood to the side of the gate as the column entered and nodded to him as he passed.
“I’m hungry, Pocket. All I had to eat yesterday was an owl.”
“Perfect fare for witch finding, methinks. You’re with me to Great Birnam Wood tonight, then?”
“Aye. If Goneril doesn’t poison the lot of us.”
Ah, Goneril, Goneril, Goneril – like a distant love chant is her name. Not that it doesn’t summon memories of burning urination and putrid discharge, but what romance worth the memory is devoid of the bittersweet?
When I first met her, Goneril was but seventeen, and although betrothed to Albany from the age of twelve, she had never seen him. A curious, round-bottomed girl, she had spent her entire life in and around the White Tower, and she’d developed a colossal appetite for knowledge of the outside world, which somehow she thought she could sate by grilling a humble fool. It started on odd afternoons, when she would call me to her chambers, and with her ladies-in-waiting in attendance, ask me all manner of questions her tutors had refused to answer.
“Lady,” said I, “I am but a fool. Shouldn’t you ask someone with position?”
“Mother is dead and Father treats us like porcelain dolls. Everyone else is afraid to speak. You are my fool, it is your duty to speak truth to power.”
“Impeccable logic, lady, but truth be told, I’m here as fool to the little princess.” I was new to the castle, and did not want to be held accountable for telling Goneril something that the king didn’t wish her to know.
“Well, Cordelia is having her nap, so until she wakes you are my fool. I so decree it.”
The ladies clapped at the royal decree.
“Again, irrefutable logic,” said I to the thick but comely princess. “Proceed.”
“Pocket, you have traveled the land, tell me, what is it like to be a peasant?”
“Well, milady, I’ve never been a peasant, strictly speaking, but for the most part, I’m told it’s wake early, work hard, suffer hunger, catch the plague, and die. Then get up the next morning and do it all again.”
“Well, if you’re a Christian – on Sunday you get up early, go to church, suffer hunger until you have a big meal of barley and swill, then catch the plague and die.”
“Hunger? Is that why they seem so wretched and unhappy?”
“That would be one of the reasons. But there’s much to be said for hard work, disease, run-of-the-mill suffering, and the odd witch burning or virgin sacrifice, depending on your faith.”
“If they are hungry, why don’t they just eat something?”
“That is an excellent idea, milady. Someone should suggest that.”
“Oh, I shall make a most excellent duchess, I think. The people will praise me for my wisdom.”
“Most certainly, milady,” said I. “Your father married his sister, then, did he, love?”
“Heavens no, mother was a Belgian princess, why do you ask?”
“Heraldry is my hobby, go on.”
Once we were inside the main curtain wall of Castle Albany, it was clear that we would go no farther. The main keep of the castle stood behind yet another curtain wall and had its own drawbridge, over a dry ditch rather than a moat. The bridge was lowering even as the king approached. Goneril walked out on the drawbridge unaccompanied, wearing a gown of green velvet, laced a bit too tightly. If the intent was to lessen the rise of her bosom it failed miserably, and brought gasps and guffaws from several of the knights until Curan raised his hand for silence.
“Father, welcome to Albany,” said Goneril. “All hail good king and loving father.”
She held out her arms and the anger drained from Lear’s face. He climbed down from his horse. I scampered to the king’s side and steadied him. Captain Curan signaled and the rest of the train dismounted.
As I straightened Lear’s cape about his shoulders, I caught Goneril’s eye. “Missed you, pumpkin.”
“Knave,” said she under her breath.
“She was always the most fair of the three,” I said to Lear. “And certainly the most wise.”
“My lord means to accidentally hang your fool, Father.”
“Ah, well, if accident, there’s no fault but Fate,” said I with a grin – pert and nimble spirit of mirth that I am. “But call then for a spanking of Fate’s fickle bottom and hit it good, lady.” I winked and smacked the horse’s rump.
Wit’s arrow hit and Goneril blushed. “I’ll see you hit, you wicked little dog.”
“Enough of that,” said Lear. “Leave the boy alone. Come give your father a hug.”
Jones barked enthusiastically and chanted, “A fool must hit it. A fool must hit it, hit it good.” The puppet knows a lady’s weakness.
“Father,” said she, “I’m afraid we’ve accommodation only for you in the castle. Your knights and others will have to make do in the outer bailey. We’ve quarters and food for them by the stables.”
“But what about my fool?”
“Your fool can sleep in the stable with the rest of the rabble.”
“So be it.” Lear let his eldest lead him into the castle like a milk cow by the nose ring.
“She truly loathes you, doesn’t she?” said Kent. He was busy wrapping himself around a pork shoulder the size of a toddler – his Welsh accent actually sounding more natural through the grease and gristle than when clear.
“Not to worry, lad,” said Curan, who had joined us by our fire. “We’ll not let Albany hang you. Will we, lads!?”
Soldiers all around us cheered, not sure what they were cheering for, beyond the fact that they were enjoying the first full meal with ale that they’d had since leaving the White Tower. A small village was housed inside the bailey and some of the knights were already wandering off in search of an alehouse and a whore. We were outside the castle, but at least we were out of the wind, and we could sleep in the stables, which the pages and squires had mucked out on our arrival.
“But if we’re not welcome in the great hall, then they are not welcome to the talents of the king’s fool,” said Curan. “Sing us a song, Pocket.”
A cheer went up around the camp: “Sing! Sing! Sing!”
Kent raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead, lad, your witches will wait.”
I am what I am. I drained my flagon of ale, set it by the fire, then whistled loudly, jumped up, did three somersaults and laid out into a back-flip, wherefrom I landed with Jones pointed at the moon, and said, “A ballad, then!?”
“Aye!” came the cheer.
And ever so sweetly, I crooned the lilting love song “Shall I Shag My Lady Upon the Shire?” I followed that with a bit of a narrative song by way of a troubadour tradition: “The Hanging of Willie Wagging William.” Well, everyone likes a story after supper, and by the one-eyed balls of the Cyclops, that one got them clapping, so I slowed it down a bit with the solemn ballad, “Dragon Spooge Befouled My Bonny Bonny Lass.” Bloody inconsiderate to leave a train of fighting men fighting back tears, so I danced my way around the camp while singing the shanty “Alehouse Lilly (She’ll Bonk You Silly).”
I was about to say good night and head out when Curan called for silence and a road-worn herald wearing a great golden fleur-delis on his chest entered the camp. He unrolled his scroll and read.
“Hear ye, hear ye. Let it be known that King Philip the Twenty-seventh of France is dead. God rest his soul. Long live France. Long live the king!”
No one “long lived the king” back at him and he seemed disappointed. Although one knight did murmur “So?” and another, “Good bloody riddance.”
“Well, you British pig dogs, Prince Jeff is now king,” said the herald.
We all looked at each other and shrugged.
“And Princess Cordelia of Britain is now Queen of France,” the herald added, rather huffy now.
“Oh,” said many, realizing at last at least a glancing relevance.
“Jeff?” said I. “The bloody frog prince is called Jeff?” I strode to the herald and snatched the scroll out of his hand. He tried to take it back and I clouted him with Jones.
“Calm, lad,” said Kent, taking the scroll from me and handing it back to the herald. “Merci,” said he to the messenger.
“He took my bloody princess and my monkey’s name!” said I, taking another swing with Jones, which missed its mark as Kent was dragging me away.
“You should be pleased,” said Kent. “Your lady is the Queen of France.”
“And don’t think she’s not going to rub my nose in that when I see her.”
“Come, lad, let’s go find your witches. We’ll want to be back by morning in time for Albany to accidentally hang you.”
“Oh, she’d like that, wouldn’t she?”