Fool Chapter 20



As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.

-  King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1, Gloucester



Drool and I slogged through the cold rain for a day, across hill and dale, over unpaved heath and roads that were little more than muddy wheel ruts. Drool affected a jaunty aspect, remarkable considering the dark doings he had just escaped, but a light spirit is the blessing of the idiot. He took to singing and splashing gaily through puddles as we traveled. I was deeply burdened by wit and awareness, so I found sulking and grumbling better suited my mood. I regretted that I hadn't stolen horses, acquired oilskin cloaks, found a fire-making kit, and murdered Edmund before we left. The latter, among many reasons, because I could not ride upon Drool's shoulders, as his back was still raw from Edmund's beatings. Bastard.

I should say here, that after some days in the elements, the first I'd spent there since my time with Belette and the traveling mummer troupe many years ago, I determined that I am an indoor fool. My lean form does not fend off cold well, and it seems no better at shedding water. I fear I am too absorbent to be an outdoor fool. My singing voice turns raspy in the cold, my japes and jokes lose their subtlety when cast against the wind, and when my muscles are slowed by an unkind chill, even my juggling is shit. I am untempered for the tempest, unsuited for a storm - better fit for fireplace and featherbed. Oh, warm wine, warm heart, warm tart, where art thou? Poor, cold Pocket, a drowned and wretched rat is he.

We traveled in the dark for miles before we smelled meat-smoke on the wind and spotted the orange light of an oil-skinned window in the distance.

"Look, Pocket, a house," said Drool. "We can sit by the fire and maybe have a warm supper."

"We've no money, lad, and nothing to trade them."

"We trade 'em a jest for our supper, like we done before."

"I can think of nothing amusing to do, Drool. Tumbling is out of the question, my fingers are too stiff to work Jones's talk string, and I'm too weary even for the simple telling of a tale."

"We could just ask them. They might be kind."

"That's a blustery bag of tempest toss, innit?"

"They might," insisted the oaf. "Bubble once give me a pie without I ever jested a thing. Just give it to me, out of the kindness of her heart."

"Fine. Fine. We shall prevail upon their kindness, but should that fail, prepare yourself to bash in their brains and take their supper by force."

"What if there's a lot of 'em? Ain't you going to help?"

I shrugged and gestured to my fair form: "Small and weary, lad. Small and weary. If I'm too weak to perform a puppet show, I think the brain-bashing duties will, by necessity, fall upon you. Find a sturdy stick of firewood. There, there's a woodpile over there."

"I don't want to bash no brains," said the stubborn nitwit.

"Fine, here, take one of my daggers." I handed him a knife. "Give a good dirking to anyone who requires it."

At that point the door opened and a wizened form stepped into the doorway and raised a storm lantern. "Who goes there?"

"Beggin' pardon, sirrah," said Drool. "We was wondering if you required a good dirking this evening?"

"Give that to me." I snatched the dagger away from the git and fitted it into the sheath at my back.

"Sorry, sir, the Natural jests out of turn. We are looking for some shelter from the storm and perhaps a hot meal. We've only bread and a little cheese, but we will share it for the shelter."

"We are fools," said Drool.

"Shut up, Drool, he can see that by my kit and your empty gaze."

"Come in, Pocket of Dog Snogging," said the bent figure. "Mind your head on the doorjamb, Drool."

"We're buggered," said I, pushing Drool through the door ahead of me.

Witches three. Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary. Oh no, not in the Great Birnam Wood where they are generally kept, where one might fairly expect to encounter them, but here in a warm cabin off the road between the Gloucestershire villages of Tossing Sod and Bongwater Crash? A flying house, perhaps? It's rumored that witches are afraid of such structures.

"I thought you was an old man but you is an old woman," said Drool to the hag who had let us in. "Sorry."

"No proof, please," said I, afraid that one of the hags might confirm her gender by lifting her skirts. "The lad's suffered enough of late."

"Some stew," said the crone Sage, the warty one. A small pot hung over the fire.

"I've seen what you put in your stew."

"Stew, stew, true and blue," said the tall witch, Parsley.

"Yes, please," said Drool.

"It's not stew," said I. "They call it stew because it rhymes with bloody blue, but it's not stew."

"No, it's stew," said Rosemary. "Beef and carrots and the lot."

"Afraid it is," said Sage.

"Not bits of bat wing, eye of lecher, sweetbreads of newt, and the lot, then?"

"A few onions," said Parsley.

"That's it? No magical powers? No apparitions? No curse? You appear out here in the middle of nowhere - nay, on the very fringe of the tick's knickers that sucks the ass of nowhere - and you've no agenda except to feed the Natural and me and give us a chance to chase the chill?"

"Aye, that's about it," said Rosemary.


"Couldn't think of nothin' that rhymes with onions," said Sage.

"Aye, we were right fucked for spell casting once the onions went in," said Parsley.

"Truth be told, beef put us against the wall, didn't it?" said Rosemary.

"Yeah, fief, I suppose," mused Sage, rolling her good eye toward the ceiling. "And teef, although strictly speaking, that ain't a proper rhyme."

"Right," said Parsley. "No telling what kind of dodgy apparition you'll conjure you cock up the rhyme like that. Fief. Teeth. Pathetic, really."

"Stew, please," said Drool.

I let the crones feed us. The stew was hot and rich and mercifully devoid of amphibian and corpse bits. We broke out the last of the bread Curan had given us and shared it with the witches, who produced a jug of fortified wine and poured it for all. I warmed both inside and out, and for the first time in what seemed days, my clothes and shoes were dry.

"So, it's going well, then?" asked Sage, after we'd each had a couple of cups of wine.

I counted out calamities on my digits: "Lear stripped of his knights, civil war between his daughters, France has invaded, Duke of Cornwall murdered, Earl of Gloucester blinded, but reunited with his son, who is a raving loony, the sisters enchanted and in love with the bastard Edmund - "

"I shagged 'em proper," added Drool.

"Yes, Drool boffed them until both walked unsteady, and, let's see, Lear wanders across the moors to find sanctuary with the French at Dover." Handfuls of happenings.

"Lear suffers, then?" asked Parsley.

"Greatly," said I. "He's nothing left. A great height from which to fall, being king of the realm reduced to a wandering beggar, gnawed from the inside by regret for deeds he did long ago."

"You feel for him, then, Pocket?" asked Rosemary, the greenish, cat-toed witch.

"He rescued me from a cruel master and brought me to live in his castle. It's hard to hold hatred with a full stomach and a warm hearth."

"Just so," said Rosemary. "Have some more wine."

She poured some dark liquid into my cup. I sipped it. It tasted stronger, warmer than before.

"We've a gift for you, Pocket." Rosemary brought out a small leather box from behind her back and opened it. Inside were four tiny stone vials, two red and two black. "You'll be needing these."

"What are they?" My vision began to blur then. I could hear the witches' voices, and Drool snoring, but they seemed distant, as if down a tunnel.

"Poison," said the witch.

That was the last I heard from her. The room was gone, and I found myself sitting in a tree near a quiet river and a stone bridge. It was autumn, I could tell, as the leaves were turning. Below me a girl of perhaps sixteen was washing clothes in a bucket on the riverbank. She was a tiny thing, and I would have thought her a child by her size, but her figure was quite womanly - perfectly proportioned, just a size smaller in scale than most.

The girl looked up, as if she heard something. I followed her gaze down the road to a column of soldiers on horseback. Two knights rode at the head of the train, followed by perhaps a dozen others. They rode under my oak tree and paused their horses on the bridge.

"Look at that," said the heavier of the two knights, nodding toward the girl. I heard his voice as if it were in my own head. "Pretty little thing."

"Have her," said the other. I knew the voice immediately, and with it I saw the face for who it was. Lear, younger, stronger, not nearly so grey, but Lear as sure as I'd ever seen him. The hawk nose, the crystal-blue eyes. It was him.

"No," said the younger man. "We need to make York by nightfall. We've no time to find an inn."

"Come here, girl," called Lear.

The girl came up the bank to the road, keeping her eyes to the ground.

"Here!" barked Lear. The girl hurried across the bridge until she stood only a few feet from him.

"Do you know who I am, girl?"

"A gentleman, sir."

"A gentleman? I am your king, girl. I am Lear."

The girl fell to her knees and stopped breathing.

"This is Canus, Duke of York, Prince of Wales, son of King Bladud, brother to King Lear, and he would have you."

"No, Lear," said the brother. "This is madness."

The girl was trembling now.

"You are brother to the king and you may have whom you want, when you want," said Lear. He climbed off his horse. "Stand up, girl."

The girl did, but stiffly, as if she were bracing for a blow. Lear took her chin in his hand and lifted it. "You are a pretty thing. She's a pretty thing, Canus, and she is mine. I give her to you."

The king's brother's eyes were wide and there was hunger there, but he said, "No, we haven't time - "

"Now!" boomed Lear. "You'll have her now!"

With that Lear grabbed the front of the girl's frock and ripped it, exposing her breasts. When she tried to cover up he pulled her arms away. Then he held her and barked commands while his brother raped her on the wide stone rail of the bridge. When Canus had finished and fell breathless between her legs, Lear shouldered him aside then lifted the girl by the waist and threw her over the rail into the river.

"Clean yourself!" he shouted. Then he patted his brother's shoulder. "There, she'll not haunt your dreams tonight. All subjects are property of the king, and mine to give, Canus. You may have any woman you want except one."

They mounted their horses and rode away. Lear hadn't even looked to see if she could swim.

I couldn't move, I couldn't cry out. All during the attack on the girl I felt as if I'd been lashed to the tree. Now I watched her crawl naked from the river, her clothes in tatters behind her, and she curled into a ball on the riverbank and sobbed.

Suddenly I was whisked out of the tree, like a feather on an errant wind, and I settled on the roof of a two-story house in a village. It was market day, and everyone was out, going from cart to cart, table to table, bargaining for meat and vegetables, pottery and tools.

A girl stumbled down the street, a pretty little thing, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, with a tiny babe in arms. She stopped at every booth and showed them the babe, then the villagers would reward her with rude laughter and send her to the next booth.

"He's a prince," she said. "His father was a prince."

"Go away, girl. You're mad. No wonder no one will have you, tart."

"But he's a prince."

"He looks to be a drowned puppy, lass. You'll be lucky if he lives the week out."

From one end of the village to the other she was laughed at and scorned. One woman, who must have been the girl's mother, simply turned away and hid her face in shame.

I floated overhead as the girl ran to the edge of town, across the bridge where she'd been raped, and up to a compound of stone buildings, one with a great soaring steeple. A church. She made her way to the wide double door, and there, she lay her baby on the steps. I recognized those doors, I'd seen them a thousand times. This was the entrance to the abbey at Dog Snogging. The girl ran away and I watched, as a few minutes later, the doors opened and a broad-shouldered nun bent and picked up the tiny, squalling baby. Mother Basil had found him.

Suddenly I was at the river again, and the girl, that pretty little thing, stood on the wide stone rail of the bridge, crossed herself, and leapt in. She did not swim. The green water settled over her.

My mother.

When I awoke the witches were gathered around me like I was a sumptuous pie just out of the oven and they were ravenous pie whores.

"So, you're a bastard then," said Parsley.

"And an orphan," said Sage.

"Both at once," said Rosemary.

"Surprised, then?" said Parsley.

"Lear not quite the kind old codger you thought him, eh?"

"A royal bastard, you are."

I gagged a bit, in response to the crones' collective breath, and sat up. "Would you back off you disgusting old cadavers!"

"Well, strictly speakin', only Rosemary's a cadaver," said the tall witch, Parsley.

"You drugged me, put that nightmare vision in my head."

"Aye, we did drug you. But you was just looking through a window to the past. There was no vision except what happened."

"Got to see your dear mum, didn't you?" said Rosemary. "How lovely for you."

"I had to watch her raped and driven to suicide, you mad hag."

"You needed to know, little Pocket, before you went on to Dover."

"Dover? I'm not going to Dover. I have no desire to see Lear." Even as I said it I felt fear run down my spine like the tip of a spike. Without Lear, I was no longer a fool. I had no purpose. I had no home. Still, after what he had done, I would have to find some other means to make my way. "I can rent out Drool for plowing fields and hoisting bales of wool and such. We'll make our way."

"Maybe he wants to go on to Dover."

I looked over to Drool, who I thought to still be asleep by the fire, but he was sitting there, staring at me wide-eyed, as if someone had frightened him and he'd forgotten how to talk.

"You didn't give him the same potion you gave me, did you?"

"It was in the wine," said Sage.

I went to the Natural and put my arm around his shoulder, or, as far around as I could reach, anyway. "Drool, lad, you're fine, lad." I knew how horrified I had been, with my superior mind and understanding of the world. Poor Drool must have been terrified. "What did you wicked hags show him?"

"He had a window on the past just like you."

The great oaf looked up at me then. "I was raised by wolfs," said he.

"Nothing can be done now, lad. Don't be sad. We've all things in our past we were better not remembering." I glared at the witches.

"I ain't sad," Drool said, standing up. He had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the roof beams. "My brother nipped at me 'cause I didn't have no fur, but he didn't have no hands, so I throwed him against a tree and he didn't get up."

"You're but a pathetic dimwit," said I. "You can't be blamed."

"My mum only had eight teats, but after that there was only seven of us, so I got two. It were lovely."

He didn't really seem that bothered by the whole experience. "Tell me, Drool, have you always known you were raised by wolves?"

"Aye. I want to go outside and have a wee on a tree, now, Pocket. You want to come?"

"No, you go, love, I'm going to stay here and shout at the old ladies." Once the Natural was gone I turned on them again. "I'm finished doing your bidding. Whatever politics you want to engineer I'll have no more part of it."

The crones laughed at me in chorus, then coughed until finally Rosemary, the greenish witch, calmed her breath with a sip of wine. "No, lad, nothing so sordid as politics, we're about vengeance pure and simple. We don't give a weasel's twat about politics and succession."

"But you're evil incarnate and in triplicate, aren't you?" said I, respectfully. One must give due.

"Aye, evil is our trade, but not so deep a darkness as politics. Better business to dash a suckling babe's brains upon the bricks than to boil in that tawdry cauldron."

"Aye," said Sage. "Breakfast, anyone?" She was stirring something in the cauldron, I assumed it was the leftover hallucination wine from the night before.

"Well, revenge, then. I've no taste left for it."

"Not even for revenge on the bastard Edmund?"

Edmund? What a storm of suffering that blackguard had loosed upon the world, but still, if I never had to see him again, couldn't I forget about his damage?

"Edmund will find his just reward," said I, not believing it for a second.

"And Lear?"

I was angry with the old man, but what revenge would I have on him now? He had lost all. And I had always known him to be cruel, but so long as his cruelty didn't extend to me, I was blind to it. "No, not even Lear."

"Fine, then, where will you go?" asked Sage. She pulled a ladle of steaming liquid from the pot and blew on it.

"I'll take the Natural into Wales. We can call at castles until someone takes us in."

"Then you'll miss the Queen of France at Dover?"

"Cordelia? I thought bloody fucking froggy King Jeff was at Dover. Cordelia is with him?"

The hags cackled. "Oh no, King Jeff is in Burgundy. Queen Cordelia commands the French forces at Dover."

"Oh bugger," said I.

"You'll want to take them poisons we fixed for you," said Rosemary. "Keep them on you at all times. A need for them will present itself."

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