Fool Chapter 18




We entered Castle Gloucester in stealth, which does not suit me, as you might guess. I am better suited to entering a room with a series of somersaults, a clack-stick, rude noise, and a "top o' the mornin' to ye, tossers!" I'm fitted out in bells and puppets, for fuck's sake. All this sneaking and subterfuge was wearing on me. I followed the Earl of Gloucester through a secret hatch in the stable and into a tunnel that passed under the moat. We waded through a foot of cold water in the dark, making for a slosh in my step as well as a jingle. I'd never fit Drool through the narrow passage, even if I could chase the dark with a torch. The tunnel opened through another hatch in the floor of the dungeon. The earl took his leave in the very torture chamber where I had met Regan.

"I'm off to arrange the passage for your master to Dover, fool. I still have a few servants who are true to me."

I felt indebted to the old man for helping me into the castle, especially given his former bitterness toward me. "Steer clear of the bastard, your grace. I know he is your favored son, but not rightly so. He's a villain."

"Don't disparage Edmund, fool. I know your conniving ways. Only last evening he stood with me in protest against Cornwall's treatment of the king."

I could tell Gloucester about the letter I'd forged in Edgar's hand, about the bastard's plan to usurp his brother, but what could he do? Likely he'd storm into Edmund's quarters and the bastard would murder him on the spot.

"Right, then," said I. "Be careful, my lord. Cornwall and Regan are a four-fanged viper, and if they should turn their venom on Edmund, you must let him go. Do not come to his aid, lest you, too, are scratched with poisonous pricks."

"My last true son. Shame on you, fool," said the earl. He scoffed and hurried out of the dungeon and up the stairs.

I thought to prevail upon one god or another to protect the old man, but if the gods were working in my favor, they would continue unbidden, and if they opposed, there was no need to alert them to my cause. It pained me, but I took off my shoes and hat and tucked them into my jerkin to still the bells. Jones had remained back at the hovel with Lear.

The laundry lay in the lower levels of the castle, so I made my way there first. The laundress with the aforementioned knockers of the smashing persuasion was hanging a basketload of shirts by the fire when I entered.

"Where's Drool, love?" I asked.

"Hidden," she said.

"I know he's bloody hidden, otherwise asking would have been superfluous, wouldn't it?"

"Just want me to give him up, then? How do I know you're not out to kill him? That old knight who brought him here said not to let anyone know where he was."

"But I'm here to get him out of the castle. Rescue him, as it were."

"Aye, you say that, but - "

"Listen, you bloody tart, give up the git!"

"Emma," said the laundress.

I sat down on the hearth and rested my head in my hands. "Love, I've spent the night in a storm with a witch and two raving nutters. I've a brace of wars to see to, as well as the summary violation of two princesses and consequent cuckolding of a pair of dukes. I'm heartbroken, aggrieved for the loss of a friend, and the great drooling lummox that is my apprentice is evidently wandering the castle in search of a mortal chest wound. Pity a fool, love - another non sequitur may dash my brittle sanity to splinters."

"My name is Emma," said the laundress.

"I'm right here, Pocket," said Drool, standing up in the great cauldron. A pile of laundry on his head had been concealing his great empty melon as he lurked in the water. "Knockers hided me. She's a love."

"You see," said Emma. "He keeps calling me Knockers."

"It's a compliment, love."

"It's disrespectful," she said. "My name's Emma."

I will never understand women. The laundress, it would seem, dressed in a manner that accentuated, indeed, celebrated her bosoms - a tightly cinched waist pushing bits up until they bloomed out of a swooping neckline - yet a chap notices and the lady takes offense. I will never understand it.

"You know he's a complete nitwit, don't you, Emma?"

"Just the same."

"Fine. Drool, apologize to Emma for saying how smashing her knockers are."

"Sorry about your knockers," said Drool, bowing his head so his laundry hat dropped back into the drink.

"Satisfied, Emma?" I asked.

"I suppose."

"Good. Now, do you know where Captain Curan, the commander of King Lear's knights might be?"

"Oh yes," said Emma. "Lord Edmund and the duke consulted me this morning on all the military matters, as they are wont to do - me being a laundress and having access to all the best bloody tactics and strategies and the lot."

"Sarcasm will make your tits fall off," said I.

"Will not," said she, her arm going to a support position.

"It's a known fact," I said, nodding earnestly, then looking to Drool, who also nodded earnestly and said, "It's a known fact," note for note in my voice.

"That's bloody spooky." Emma shuddered. "You lot can get out of my laundry."

"Very well, then," said I. I motioned for Drool to climb out of the cauldron. "I thank you for looking after the Natural, Emma. I wish there were something I could - "

"Kill Edmund," she said.


"The son of a guild builder were going to marry me before I came to work here. A respected man. Edmund took me against my will and bragged about it in the village. My lad wouldn't have me then. No one worth his salt will have me, except the bastard, and him whenever he wants. 'Tis Edmund who commanded that I wear this low frock. Says he'll set me out with the pigs if I don't give him service. Kill him for me."

"But lass, I'm just a fool. A clown. A small one at that."

"There's more to you than that, you black-hatted rascal. I've seen them wicked daggers at your back, and I can see who's pulling the strings round this castle, and it ain't the duke or the old king. Kill the bastard."

"Edmund beated me," said Drool. "And she do have smashing knockers."


"Well, she do."

"All right, then," said I, taking the laundress's hand. "But in time. We've things to accomplish first." I bowed over her hand, kissed it, then turned on my heel and padded barefoot out of the laundry to set history.

"Heinous fuckery," Drool whispered to the laundress with a wink.

I hid Drool in the gatehouse among the heavy chains that I had used for my escape when I pursued Lear into the storm. Getting the lummox up on the wall and to the gatehouse undetected was no small task, and he left a dripping trail on the stones until we gained the castle exterior, but the guard was light in the tempest, so most of the way we went across the top of the walls unseen. My feet felt as if they'd been set in ice by the time I came back in to a fire, but there was no other way. Drool in the tight space of the secret tunnel, with his fear of the dark was not something I would wish on an enemy. I found a woolen blanket and wrapped the lout in it to await my return.

"Guard my shoes and my satchel, Drool."

I made my way, dodging from nook to cranny, through the kitchen, to the servants' entrance into the great hall, hoping I might get a moment with Regan there. The hall's massive fireplace would be an enticement for the princess on such a frigid day, for as much as she took to the activities of a dungeon, she was drawn to heat like a cat.

Because Castle Gloucester had no curtain wall, even the great hall was fitted with arrow loops, so the edifice might be defended at all levels from an attack by water. The arrow loops, while shuttered, were notoriously drafty, so arrases[40] were hung over the alcoves against the wind - the perfect place for a fool to watch, warm himself, and find his moment.

I slipped into the room behind a brace of serving girls and into the alcove nearest the fireplace. She was there, by the fire, in a heavy, hooded, black fur robe, only her face revealed to the world.

I pulled the tapestry aside and was about to call to her when the latch was thrown on the hall's main doors and the Duke of Cornwall entered, wearing his usual finery with the red lion crest on his chest, but more pointedly, Lear's crown - the one the old man had thrown on the table that fateful night at the White Tower. Even Regan seemed startled to see it on the head of her husband.

"My lord, is it prudent to wear the crown of Britain when our sister is still in the castle?"

"Right, right, we must keep up appearances as if we don't know that Albany raises an army against us." Cornwall took the crown off and hid it under a cushion by the hearth. "I am to meet Edmund here and lay a plan for the duke's undoing. One hopes that your sister can be kept out of harm's way."

Regan shrugged. "If she throws herself under destiny's hooves, who are we to save her brains from being pulped?"

Cornwall took her in his arms and kissed her passionately.

Oh lady, thought I, push him away lest you debase your lovely lips with villainy. Then it occurred to me, and perhaps rather later than it should have, that she would no more taste villainy than a garlic eater will taste the stinking rose on another. The lady had evil on her breath already.

Even as the duke held her tight and professed his adoration of her, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve behind his back. She pushed the duke away when the bastard Edmund entered the hall.

"My lord," said Edmund, only nodding to Regan. "Our plans for Albany must be delayed. Look at this letter."

The duke took the parchment from Edmund.

"What?" said Regan. "What, what, what?"

"France has landed forces. He knows of unrest between ourselves and Albany and has hidden forces in coastal cities all over Britain."

Regan snatched the parchment out of Cornwall's hand and read it for herself. "This is addressed to Gloucester."

Edmund bowed in false contrition. "Aye, milady, I found it in his closet and brought it here as soon as I saw its contents."

"Guard!" called Cornwall. The great doors opened and a soldier looked in. "Bring me the Earl of Gloucester. Give no deference to his title, he is a traitor."

I looked for a way back to the kitchen, to perhaps find Gloucester and warn him of the bastard's treachery, but Edmund faced the alcove where I was hiding and there was no getting out undiscovered. I opened the shutter to the arrow loop. Even if I could manage to wiggle through it, the wall was a sheer drop to the lake below. I palmed the shutter closed and latched it.

The latch on the main doors clanked again and I returned to the gap between the wall and the tapestry, from which I saw Goneril enter, trailed by two soldiers who held Gloucester by the arms. The old man looked as if he had given up already and hung between the soldiers like a drowned man.

"Hang him," said Regan, turning to warm her hands by the fire.

"What is this?" said Goneril.

Cornwall handed her the letter and stood looking over her shoulder while she read.

"Pluck out his eyes," she said, making an effort not to look at Gloucester.

Cornwall took the letter gently from her hand and put his hand on her shoulder in brotherly support. "Leave him to our displeasure, sister. Edmund, keep our sister company and see her safely home. Lady, tell your duke we must unite against this foreign force. We'll send dispatches quickly between us. Go now, Earl of Gloucester, you do not want to see the dealings with this traitor."

Edmund couldn't conceal a smile upon being addressed by the title he had lusted after for so many years. "I will," said Edmund. He offered his arm to Goneril, who took it. They started out of the hall.

"No!" said Regan.

Everyone stopped. Cornwall stepped between Regan and her sister. "Lady, now is the time when we must all be united against the foreign power."

Regan gritted her teeth and turned back to the fire, waving them away. "Go."

Edmund and Goneril left the hall.

"Bind him to that chair, then leave us," Cornwall commanded his soldiers.

They tied the old earl to a heavy chair and stood back.

"You are my guests," said Gloucester. "Do me no foul play."

"Filthy traitor," said Regan. She took the letter from her husband and threw it in the old man's face. She grabbed a pinch of Gloucester's beard and yanked it out. The earl yowled.

"So white, and such a traitor," she said.

"I am no traitor. I am loyal to my king."

She pulled another pinch from his beard. "What letters do you have late from France? What is their plan?"

Gloucester looked at the parchment on the floor. "I have only that."

Cornwall charged up to Gloucester and pulled the old man's head back by the back of his hair. "Speak now, to whose hands have you sent the lunatic king? We know you've sent him aid."

"To Dover. I sent him to Dover. Only a few hours ago."

"Why Dover?" said Regan.

"Because I would not see your cruel nails pluck out his old eyes or your sister tear his flesh with her boarish fangs. Because there are those who would care for him there. Not put him out in the storm."

"He lies," said Regan. "There's a smashing torture chamber in the dungeon, shall we?"

But Cornwall would not wait. In a second he was sitting astraddle the old man and was digging his thumb into Gloucester's eye socket. Gloucester screamed until his voice broke and there was a sickening pop.

I reached for one of my throwing daggers.

The main door to the hall cracked and heads popped up in the stairwell from the kitchen.

"Why Dover?" said Regan.

"Thou carrion bird!" said Gloucester with a cough. "Thou she-devil, I'll not say."

"Then you'll not see light again," said Cornwall, and he was on the old man again.

I would not have it. I drew back my dagger to cast it, but before I could, a band like ice encircled my wrist and I looked to see the girl ghost right beside me, staying my throw, in fact, paralyzing me. I could move only my eyes to look back on the horror playing out in the great hall.

Suddenly a boy brandishing a long butcher knife ran out of the kitchen stairwell and leapt on the duke. Cornwall stood and tried to draw his sword, but could not get it clear of the scabbard before the boy was on him, plunging the knife into his side. As the lad pulled back to stab again Regan drew a dagger from the sleeve of her robe and plunged it into the boy's neck, then stepped back from the spray of blood. The boy clawed at his neck and fell.

"Away!" Regan shrieked, waving the dagger at the servants in the kitchen stairwell and the main door and they all disappeared like frightened mice.

Cornwall climbed unsteadily to his feet and plunged his sword into the boy's heart. Then he sheathed his sword and felt his side. His hand came away bloody.

"Serves you right, you scurvy vermin," said Gloucester.

With that Cornwall was on him again. "Out, foul jelly!" he shouted, digging his thumb into the earl's good eye, but in that instant Regan's dagger snapped down and took the eye. "Don't trouble yourself, my lord."

Gloucester passed out then from the pain and hung limp in his bonds. Cornwall stood and kicked the old man's chest, knocking him over backward. The duke looked on Regan with adoring eyes, filled with the warmth and affection that can only come from watching your wife dirk another man's eye out on your behalf, evidently.

"Your wound?" said Regan.

Cornwall held his arm out to his wife and she walked into his embrace. "It glanced across my ribs. I'll bleed some and it pains me, but if bound, it'll not be mortal."

"Pity," said Regan, and she plunged her dagger under his sternum and held it as his heart's blood poured over her snowy-white hand.

The duke seemed somewhat surprised.

"Bugger," he said, then he fell. Regan wiped her dagger and her hands on his tunic. She sheathed the blade in her sleeve, then went to the cushion where Cornwall had hidden her father's crown, pulled back her hood, and fitted it on her head.

"Well, Pocket," said the Duchess, without turning to the alcove where I was hidden. "How does it fit?"

I was somewhat surprised (although somewhat less so than the duke).

The ghost released me then, and I stood behind the tapestry, my knife still poised for the throw.

"You'll grow into it, kitten," said I.

She looked to my alcove and grinned. "Yes, I will, won't I? Did you want something?"

"Let the old man go," I said. "King Jeff of France has landed his army at Dover, that's why Gloucester sent Lear there. You'd be wise to set a camp farther south. Rally your forces, with Edmund's and Albany's at the White Tower, perhaps."

The great doors creaked and a head peeked in, a helmeted soldier.

"Send for a physician," Regan called, trying to sound distressed. "My lord has been wounded. Throw his attacker on the dung heap and cast this traitor out the front gate. He can smell his way to Dover and his decrepit king."

In a moment the chamber was filled with soldiers and servants and Regan walked out, casting one last look and a sly smile to my hiding place. I have no idea why she left me alive. I suspect it's because she still fancied me.

I slipped out through the kitchen and made my way back to the gatehouse.

The ghost stood over Drool, who was cowering under his blanket in the corner. "Come on, you lovely brute, give us a proper snog."

"Leave him be, wisp!" said I, although she was nearly as solid as a mortal woman.

"Balls up[41] your jaunty murdering for the day, did I, fool?"

"I might have saved the old man's second eye."

"You wouldn't have."

"I might have sent Regan to join her duke in whatever hell he inhabits."

"No, you wouldn't have." Then she held up a ghostly finger, cleared her throat, and rhymed:

"When a second sibling's base derision,

Proffers lies that cloud the vision,

And severs ties that families bind,

Shall a madman rise to lead the blind."

"You've said that one, already."

"I know. Bit prematurely, too. Sorry. I think you'll find it much more relevant now. Even a slow git like yourself can solve the riddle now, I reckon."

"Or you could just fucking tell me what it means," said I.

"Sorry, can't do it. Ghostly mystery and whatnot. Ta." And with that she faded away through the stone wall.

"I dinna shag the ghost, Pocket," wailed Drool. "I dinna shag her."

"I know, lad. She's gone. Get up now, we've got to monkey down the drawbridge chains and find the blind earl."

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