Fool Chapter 23




"My fool," said Lear, as the guards dragged me into the dungeon. "Bring him here, and unhand him." The old man looked stronger, more alert, aware. Barking orders again. But with the command he commenced a coughing fit that ended with a spot of blood on his white beard. Drool held a water skin for the old man while he drank.

"We've a beating to deliver, first," said one of the guards. "Then you'll have your fool, well striped as well as checkered."

"Not if you want any of these buns and ale," said Bubble. She'd come down another stairway and was carrying a basket covered with cloth and steaming the most delectable aroma of freshly baked bread. A flask of ale was slung over her shoulder and a bundle of clothes tucked under her free arm.

"Or we'll beat the fool and take your buns as well," said the younger of the two guards, one of Edmund's men and obviously not aware of the pecking order at the White Tower. Bugger God, St. George, and the white-bearded king if you must, but woe unto you if you crossed the cantankerous cook called Bubble, for there'd be grit and grubs baked into all you'd ever eat until the poison finally took you.

"You'll not want to press that bargain, mate," said I.

"The fool's wearing the kit of one of my servers," said Bubble, "and the boy's shivering naked in my kitchen." Bubble threw a bundle of black clothing through the bars into the cell with Drool and Lear. "Here's the fool's motley. Now strip, you rascal, and let me get back to my business."

The guards were laughing now. "Well, go on, little one, get your kit off," said the older guard. "We've hot buns and ale waiting."

I undressed in front of the lot of them, old Lear protesting from time to time, like anyone gave a hot bootful of piss what he had to say anymore. When I was radiant naked, the guards unlocked the door and I crept over to the bundle. Yes! My knives where there, secreted in with the rest. With a bit of sleight o' hand and a distraction from Bubble handing out buns and ale, I was able to secure them inside my jerkin when I dressed.

Two other guards joined the two outside of our cell and shared the bread and ale. Bubble waddled back up the stairs, shooting me a wink as she went.

"The king are melancholy, Pocket," said Drool. "We should sing him a song and cheer him up."

"Sod the sodding king," said I, looking directly into Lear's hawk eye.

"Watch yourself, boy," said Lear.

"Or what? You'll hold my mother down while she's raped, then throw her in the river? Have my father killed later, then? Oh, wait. Those threats are no longer valid, are they, uncle? You've carried them out already."

"What are you on about, boy?" The old man looked fearsome, as if he'd forgotten he'd been treated like so much chattel and thrown in a cage full of clowns, but instead faced a fresh affront.

"You. Lear. Do you remember? A stone bridge in Yorkshire, some twenty-seven years ago? You called a farm girl up from the riverbank, a pretty little thing, and held her down while you commanded your brother to rape her. Do you remember, Lear, or have you done so much evil that it all blends into a great black swath in your memory?"

His eyes went wide then, I could tell he remembered.

"Canus - "

"Aye, your poxy brother sired me then, Lear. And when no one would believe my mother that her son was the bastard of a prince, she drowned herself in that same river where you threw her that day. All this time I have called you nuncle - who would have thought it true?"

"It is not true," he said, his voice quivering.

"It is true! And you know it, you decrepit old poke[44] of bones. A warp of villainy and a woof of greed are all that hold you together, thou desiccated dragon."

The four guards had gathered at the bars and peered in as if they were the ones who were imprisoned.

"Blimey," said one of the guards.

"Cheeky little tosser," said another.

"No song, then?" asked Drool.

Lear shook his finger at me then, so angry was he that I could see blood moving in the veins of his forehead. "You shall not speak to me in this way. You are less than nothing. I plucked you from the gutter, and your blood will run in the gutter on my word before sundown."

"Will it, nuncle? My blood may run but it will not be on your word. On your word your brother may have died. On your word your father may have died. On your word your queens may have died. But not this princely bastard, Lear. Your word is but wind to me."

"My daughters will - "

"Your daughters are upstairs, fighting over the bones of your kingdom. They are your captors, you ancient nutter."

"No, they - "

"You sealed this cell when you killed their mother. They've both just told me as much."

"You've seen them?" He seemed strangely hopeful, as if I might have forgotten to bring the good news from his traitorous daughters.

"Seen them? I've shagged them." Silly, really, that it should matter, after all his dark deeds, all his slights and cruelties, that a fool should shag his daughters, but it did matter, and it was a way to unleash a little of the fury I felt toward him.

"You have not," said Lear.

"You have?" asked one of the guards.

I stood then, and strutted a bit for my audience, plus it was a better position for grinding my heel into Lear's soul. All I could see was the water closing over my mother's head, all I could hear was her screams as Lear held her. "I shagged them both, repeatedly, and with relish. Until they screamed, and begged and whimpered. I shagged them on the parapets overlooking the Thames, in the towers, under the table in the great hall, and once, I shagged Regan on a platter of pork in front of Muslims. I shagged Goneril in your own bed, in the chapel, and on your throne - which was her idea, by the way. I shagged them while servants watched and in case you were wondering, because they asked, and as any princess should be shagged, for the pure sweet nasty of it. And they - they did it because they hate you."

Lear had been wailing while I ranted, trying to drown me out. Now he growled, "They do not. They love me all. They have said."

"You murdered their mother, you decrepit loony! They've put you in a cell in your own dungeon. What do you need, a written decree? I tried to shag the hate out of them, nuncle, but some cures lie beyond a jester's talents."

"I wanted a son. Their mother would give me none."

"I'm sure if they had known that they wouldn't have despised you so deeply and done me so well."

"My daughters wouldn't have you. You didn't have them."

"Oh, I did, on my black heart's blood, I did. And when it first started, each of them would shout Father when she came. I wonder why. Oh yes, nuncle, I did indeed. And they wanted you to know - that's why they accused me before you. Oh yes, I bonked them both."

"No," wailed Lear.

"Me, too," said Drool, with a great juicy grin. "Beggin' your pardon," he quickly added.

"But not today?" asked one of the guards. "Right?"

"No, not today, you bloody nitwit. Today I killed them."

The French marched overland from the southeast and sailed ships up the Thames from the east. The lords of Surrey on the south showed no resistance and since Dover lay in the County of Kent, the forces of the banished earl not only offered no resistance, but joined the French in the assault on London. They'd marched and sailed across England without firing a single bolt or losing a single man. From the White Tower the guards could see the fires of the French drawing a great orange crescent in the night that illuminated the sky to the east and south.

When the captain made the call to arms at the castle, one of Lear's old knights or squires, under the command of Captain Curan, put a blade to the throat of any of Edmund's or Regan's men, demanding they yield or die. The personal guard forces within the castle had all been drugged by the kitchen staff with some mysterious non-lethal poison that mimicked the symptoms of death.

Captain Curan sent a message to the Duke of Albany from the French queen that if he stood down, in fact, stood with her, that he could return to Albany with his forces, his lands, and his title intact. Goneril's forces from Cornwall, and Edmund's from Gloucester, camped on the west side of the Tower, found they were flanked on the south and east by the French, and on the north by Albany. Archers and crossbowmen were dispatched to the Tower walls above the Cornwall army and a herald fought his way through the panicked forces to a commander, carrying the message that the forces of Cornwall were to lay down their weapons on the spot or death would rain down upon them such as they could not imagine.

No one was willing to die for the cause of Edmund, bastard of Gloucester, or the dead Duke of Cornwall. They laid down their weapons and marched three leagues to the west as instructed.

In two hours it was all over. Out of nearly thirty thousand men who took the field at the White Tower, barely a dozen were killed - all of those, Edmund's castle guards who refused to yield.

The four guards lay spread about the dungeon in various awkward positions, looking quite dead.

"Dodgy sodding poison," said I. "Drool, see if you can reach the one with the keys."

The Natural stretched through the bars, but the guard was too far away.

"I hope Curan knows we're down here."

Lear looked around wild-eyed again, as if his madness had returned. "What is this? Captain Curan is here? My knights?"

"Of course Curan is here. From the sound of the trumpets I'd say he's taken the castle, as was the plan."

"All your theater was misdirection, then?" said the king. "You're not angry?"

"Burning, you old twat, but I was growing weary with keeping the tirade up while the bloody poison took hold. You're no less a turd in the milk of human kindness than I have said."

"No," said the old man, as if my anger actually mattered to him. He began coughing again and caught a handful of blood for his effort. Drool propped him up and wiped his face. "I am king. I will not be judged by you, fool."

"Not just a fool, nuncle. Your brother's son. Did you have Kent murder him? The only decent bloke in your service and you turned him into an assassin, eh?"

"No, not Kent. It was another, not even a knight. A cutpurse who had come before the magistrate. It was he who Kent killed. I sent Kent after the assassin."

"He is vexed by it still, Lear. Did you have a cutpurse kill your father as well?"

"My father was a leper and necromancer. I could not bear his misshapen form ruling Britain."

"In your place, you mean?"

"Yes, in my place. Yes. But I did not send an assassin. He was in a cell at the temple at Bath. Out of the way, where no one might ever see him. But I could not take the throne until his death. I did not kill him, though. The priests there simply walled him up. Was time that killed my father."

"You walled him up? Alive?" I was shaking now, I thought I might have forgiven the old man, seeing him suffer, but now I could hear my blood in my ears.

The sound of boots on stone echoed in the dungeon and I looked up to see the bastard Edmund walk into the torchlight.

He kicked one of the unconscious guards and looked at them like he'd just discovered monkey come in his Weetabix.[45] "Well, that's a spot of bother, isn't it?" he said. "I suppose I'll have to kill you myself, then." He stooped and took a crossbow from one of the guards' back, fit his foot in the stirrup, and cocked the string.


(Backstage with the Players)

"Pocket, you rascal, you've trapped me in a comedy."

"Well, for some, it is, yes."

"When I saw the ghost I thought tragedy was assured."

"Aye, there's always a bloody ghost in a tragedy."

"But the mistaken identity, the vulgarity, the lightness of theme and paucity of ideas, surely it's a comedy. I'm not dressed for comedy, I'm all in black."

"As am I, yet here we are."

"So it is a comedy."

"A black comedy - "

"I knew it."

"For me, anyway."

"Tragedy, then?"

"Bloody ghost is foreshadowing, innit?"

"But all the gratuitous shagging and tossing?"

"Brilliant misdirection."

"You're having me on."

"Sorry, no, it's pikeman's surprise for you in the next scene."

"I'm slain then?"

"To the great satisfaction of the audience."

"Oh bugger!"

"But there's good news, too."


"It remains a comedy for me."

"God, you're an annoying little git."

"Hate the play, not the player, mate. Here, let me hold the curtain for you. Do you have any plans for that silver dagger? After you're gone, I mean."

"A bloody comedy - "

"Tragedies always end with tragedy, Edmund, but life goes on, doesn't it? The winter of our discontent turns inevitably to the spring of a new adventure. Again, not for you."

"I've never killed a king," said Edmund. "Do you think I'll be famous because of it?"

"You'll not garner favor with your duchesses by killing their father," said I.

"Oh, those two. Like these guards, quite dead, I'm afraid. They were sharing some wine over maps as they planned strategy for the battle and fell down foaming. Pity."

"These guards aren't dead. Merely drugged. They'll come around in a day or so."

He lowered the crossbow. "Then my ladies are only sleeping?"

"Oh no, they're quite dead. I gave them each two vials. One with poison, the other with brandy. Bubble used the knockout poison on the guards, so brandy was our non-lethal substitute. If either of them had decided to show mercy for the other, at least one would be alive. But, as you said, pity."

"Oh, well played, fool. But, that said, I'll have to throw myself on Queen Cordelia's mercy, let her know that I was brought into this horrid conspiracy against my will. Perhaps I'll retain the Gloucester title and lands."

"My daughters? Dead?" said Lear.

"Oh shut up, old man," said Edmund.

"They was fit," said Drool sadly.

"But when Cordelia hears of what you've really done?" I asked.

"Which brings us to our apex, doesn't it? You won't be able to tell Cordelia what has transpired."

"Cordelia, my one true daughter," wailed Lear.

"Shut the fuck up," said Edmund. He raised the crossbow, sighted through the bars at Lear, then stepped back and seemed to lose his aim, as one of my throwing daggers sprouted out of his chest with a thud.

He lowered the crossbow and looked at the hilt of the knife. "But you said pikeman's surprise?"

"Surprise," said I.

"Bastard!" snarled the bastard. He pulled the crossbow up to fire, this time at me, and I sent the second dagger into his right eye. The crossbow twanged and the heavy bolt rattled off the stone ceiling as Edmund spun and fell onto the pile of guards.

"That were smashing," said Drool.

"You'll be rewarded, fool," said Lear, his voice rattling with blood. He coughed.

"Nothing, Lear," said I. "Nothing."

Then there was a woman's voice in the chamber: "Ravens cry pork from the battlements, there's dead Edmund on the wind and bird beaks water at his scoundrel scent!"

The ghost. She stood over Edmund's body outside our cell, rather more ethereal and less solid than she'd been when last I'd seen her. She looked up from the dead bastard and grinned. Drool whimpered and tried to hide his head behind Lear's white mane.

Lear tried to wave her away, but the ghost floated to the bars in front of him. "Ah, Lear, walled up your father, did you? And?"

"Go away, spirit, do not vex me."

"Walled up your daughter's mother, didn't you?" said the ghost.

"She was unfaithful!" cried the old man.

"No," said the ghost. "She was not."

I sat down on the cell floor, feeling light-headed now. Killing Edmund had made me queasy, but this. "The anchoress at Dog Snogging was your queen?" I asked, my voice sounding faraway in my own ears.

"She was a sorceress," said Lear. "And she consorted with my brother. I did not kill her. I could not bear it. I had her imprisoned at the abbey in Yorkshire."

"Well you damn well killed her when you had her walled up!" I shouted.

Lear cowered at my veracity. "She was unfaithful, having dalliance with one of the local boys. I could not bear the thought of her with another."

"So you ordered her walled up."

"Yes! Yes! And the boy was hanged. Yes!"

"You heinous monster!"

"She did not give me a son, either. I wanted a son."

"She gave you Cordelia, your favorite."

"And she was true to you," said the ghost. "Up to the time you sent her away."

"No!" The old king tried to wave the ghost away again.

"Oh yes. And you had your son, Lear. For years you had your son."

"I had no son."

"Another farm girl you took near another battlefield, this one in Iberia."

"A bastard? I have a bastard son?"

I saw hope rise in Lear's cold hawk eye and I wanted to strike it out the way that Regan had taken Gloucester's. I unsheathed the last of my throwing daggers.

"Yes," said the ghost. "You had a son, these many years, and you lie in his arms now."


"The Natural is your son," said the ghost.

"Drool?" said I.

"Drool?" said Lear.

"Drool," said the ghost.

"Da!" said Drool. And he gave his newfound father a great, arm-rippling hug. "Oh Da!" There was a cracking of bones and the sickly sound of air escaping wet, crushed lungs. Lear's eyes bulged out of his head and his parchment-dry skin began to go blue as Drool gave him a lifetime of son's love all in a moment.

When the whistling sounds stopped coming out of the old man I went to Drool and pried his arms off, then lowered Lear's head to the floor. "Let loose, lad. Let him go."

"Da?" said Drool.

I closed the old man's crystal-blue eyes. "He's dead, Drool."

"Tosser!" said the ghost. She spat, a tiny gob of ghost spit that came out as a moth and fluttered away.

I stood then and spun on the ghost. "Who are you? What injustice has been done that can be undone so your spirit may rest, or will at least make you go away, thou ether-limbed irritation?"

"The injustice has been undone," said the ghost. "At last."

"Who are you?"

"Who am I? Who am I? Your answer is in a knock, good Pocket. Knock upon your coxcomb, and ask that trifling machine of thought wherefrom comes his art. Knock upon your cod, and ask the small occupant who wakes him in the night. Knock upon your heart, and ask the spirit there who woke it to the warmth of its home fire - ask that tender ghost who is this ghost before you."

"Thalia," said I, for I could, at last see her. I fell to my knees before her.

"Aye, lad. Aye." She put her hand on my head. "Arise, Sir Pocket of Dog Snogging."

"But, why? Why did you never say you were a queen? Why?"

"He had my daughter, my sweet Cordelia."

"And you always knew of my mother?"

"I heard stories, but I didn't know who your father was, not while I lived."

"Why didn't you tell me of my mother?"

"You were a little boy. That's not the sort of story for a little boy."

"Not so little you wouldn't have me off through an arrow loop."

"That was later. I was going to tell you, but he had me walled up."

"Because we were caught?"

The ghost nodded. "He always had a problem with the purity of others. Never his own."

"Was it horrible?" I had tried not to think of her, alone in the dark, dying of hunger and thirst.

"It was lonely. I was always lonely, except for you, Pocket."

"I'm sorry."

"You're a love, Pocket. Good-bye." She reached through the bars and touched my cheek, like the slightest brush of silk it was. "Care for her."


She started to float toward the far wall where the body of Edmund lay.

She said:

"After grave offense to daughters three,

Soon the king a fool shall be."

"Nooooooo," wailed Drool. "My old da is dead."

"No he isn't," said Thalia. "Lear wasn't your father. I was having you on."

She faded away and I started to laugh and she was gone.

"Don't laugh, Pocket," said Drool. "I are an orphan."

"And she didn't even hand us the bloody keys," said I.

Heavy footsteps fell on the stairs and Captain Curan appeared in the passage with two knights. "Pocket! We've been looking for you. The day is ours and Queen Cordelia approaches from the south. What of the king?"

"Dead," said I. "The king is dead."

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