Fool Chapter 7




Am I to be forever alone? The anchoress told me it might be so, trying to comfort me when I felt pushed aside by the sisters of Dog Snogging.

"You're gifted with wit, Pocket, but to cast jibe and jest you must stand separate from the target of your barbs. I fear you may become a lonely man, even in the company of others."

Perhaps she was right. Perhaps it is why I am such an accomplished horn-beast and eloquent crafter of cuckoldry. I seek only succor and solace beneath the skirts of the soft and understanding. And so, sleepless, did I make my way to the great hall to find some comfort among the castle wenches who slept there.

The fire still blazed, logs the size of oxen set in before bed. My sweet Squeak, who had oft opened her heart and whatnot to a wayfaring fool, had fallen asleep in the arms of her husband, who spooned her mercilessly as he snored. Shanker Mary was not to be seen, no doubt servicing the bastard Edmund somewhere, and my other standard lovelies had fallen into slumber in proximity too close to husbands or fathers to admit a lonely fool.

Ah, but the new girl, just in the kitchen a fortnight, called Tess or Kate or possibly Fiona. Her hair was jet and shone like oiled iron; milky skin, cheeks brushed by a rose - she smiled at my japes and had given Drool an apple without his asking. I am relatively sure that I adored her. I tiptoed across the rushes that lined the floor (I had left Jones in my chamber, his hat bells no help in securing stealthy romance), lay down beside her, and introduced my personage to the nether of her blanket. An affectionate nudge at the hip woke her.

"Hello," said she.

"Hello," said I. "Not a papist, are you, love?"

"Christ, no, Druid born and raised."

"Thank God."

"What are you doing under my blanket?"

"Warming up. I'm terribly cold."

"No you're not."

"Brrrr. Freezing."

"It's hot in here."

"All right, then. I'm just being friendly."

"Would you stop prodding me with that?"

"Sorry, it does that when it's lonely. Perhaps if you petted it."

Then, praised be the merciful goddess of the wood, she petted it, tentatively, almost reverentially at first, as if she sensed how much joy it could bring to all who came in contact with it. An adaptable lass, not given to fits of hysteria or modesty - and soon a gentle surety in her grip that betrayed some experience in the handling of manly bits - simply lovely she was.

"I thought it would have a little hat, with bells."

"Ah, yes. Well, given a private place to change, I'm sure that can be arranged. Under your skirt, perhaps. Roll to the side, love, we'll be less obvious if we keep the cuddle on a lateral plane." I popped her bosoms out of her frock, then, freed the roly-poly pink-nosed puppies to the firelight and the friendly ministries of this master juggler, and thought to burble my cheeks softly between them, when the ghost appeared.

The spirit was more substantial now, features describing what must have been a most comely creature before she was shuffled off to the undiscovered country, no doubt by a close relative weary of her irritating nature. She floated above the sleeping form of the cook Bubble, rising and falling on the draft of her snores.

"Sorry to haunt you while you're rogering the help," said the ghost.

"The rogering has not commenced, wisp, I have barely bridled the horse for a moist and bawdy ride. Now, go away."

"Right, then. Sorry to have interrupted your attempted rogering."

"Are you calling me a horse?" asked Possibly Fiona.

"Not at all, love, you pet the little jester and I'll attend to the haunting."

"There's always a bloody ghost about, ain't there?" commented Possibly, a squeeze on my knob for emphasis.

"When you live in a keep where blood runs blue and murder is the favored sport, yes," said the ghost.

"Oh do fuck off," said I. "Thou visible stench, thou steaming aggravation, thou vaporous nag! I'm wretched, sad, and lonely, and trying to raise a modicum of comfort and forgetting here in the arms of, uh - "

"Kate," said Possibly Fiona.


She nodded.

"Not Fiona?"

"Kate since the day me da tied me belly cord to a tree."

"Well, bugger. Sorry. Pocket here, called the Black Fool, charmed I'm sure. Shall I kiss your hand?"

"Double-jointed, then, are ye?" said Kate, a tickle to my tackle making her point.

"Bloody hell, would you two shut up?" said the ghost. "I'm haunting over here."

"Go on," said we.

The ghost boosted her bosom and cleared her throat, expecto-rating a tiny ghost frog that evaporated in the firelight with a hiss, then said:

"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."

"What?" said the former Fiona.

"What?" said I.

"Prophecy of doom, innit?" said the ghost. "Spot o' the old riddly foreshadowing from beyond, don't you know?"

"Can't kill her again, can we?" asked faux Fiona.

"Gentle spook," said I. "If it is a warning you bring, state it true. If action you require, ask outright. If music you must make, play on. But by the wine-stained balls of Bacchus, speak your bloody business, quick and clear, then be gone, before time's iron tongue licks away my mercy bonk with second thoughts."

"You are the haunted one, fool. It's your business I do. What do you want?"

"I want you to go away, I want Fiona to come along quietly, and I want Cordelia, Drool, and Taster back - now, can you tell me how to make those things come about? Can you, you yammering flurry of fumes?"

"It can be done," said the ghost. "Your answer lies with the witches of Great Birnam Wood."

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

"Nooooo," sang the ghost, all ghosty and ethereal, and with that she faded away.

"Leaves a chill when she goes, don't she?" said formerly Fiona. "Appears to have softened your resolve, if you don't mind my sayin'."

"The ghost saved my life last evening," said I, trying to will life back into the wan and withered.

"Kilt the little one, though, didn't she? Back to your bed, fool, the king's leaving on the morrow and there's a wicked lot of work to do in the morning to prepare for his trip."

Sadly, I tucked away my tackle and sulked back to the portislodge to pack my kit for my final journey from the White Tower.

Well, I won't miss the bloody trumpets at dawn, I can tell you that. And sod the bloody drawbridge chains rattling in my apartment before the cock crows. We might have been going to war for all the racket and goings-on at first light. Through the arrow loop I could see Cordelia riding out with France and Burgundy, standing in the stirrups like a man, like she was off to the hunt, rather than leaving her ancestral home forever. To her credit, she did not look back, and I did not wave to her, even after she crossed the river and rode out of sight.

Drool was not so fickle, and as he was led out of the castle by a rope round his neck, he kept stopping and looking back, until the man at arms to whom he was tethered would yank him back into step. I could not bear to let him see me, so I did not go out onto the wall. Instead I slunk back to my pallet and lay there, my forehead pressed to the cold stone wall, listening as the rest of the royals and their retinues clomped across the drawbridge below. Sod Lear, sod the royals, sod the bloody White Tower. All I loved was gone or soon to be left behind, and all that I owned was packed in a knapsack and hung on my hook, Jones sticking out the top, mocking me with his puppety grin.

Then, a knock at my door. Like dragging myself from the grave, was making my way to open it. There she stood, fresh and lovely, holding a basket.


"Kate," said Fiona.

"Aye, your stubbornness suits you, even in daylight."

"Bubble sends her sympathies over Taster and Drool, and sends you these sweet cakes and milk for your comfort, but says to be sure and remind you to not leave the castle without saying your farewells, and further that you are a cur, a rascal, and a scurvy patch."

"Ah, sweet Bubble, when kindness shagged an ogre, thus was she sired."

"And I'm here to offer comfort myself, finishing what was started in the great hall last night. Squeak says to ask you about a small chap in a canoe."

"My my, Fi, bit of a tart, aren't we?"

"Druish, love. My people burn a virgin every autumn - one can't be too careful."

"Well, all right, but I'm forlorn and I shan't enjoy it."

"In that we shall suffer together. Onward! Off with your kit, fool!"

What is it about me that brings out the tyrant in women, I wonder?

"The next morning" stretched into a week of preparation for departure from the White Tower. When Lear pronounced that he would be accompanied by one hundred knights it was not as if one hundred men could mount up and ride out of the gates at sunrise. Each knight - the unlanded second or third son of a noble - would have at least one squire, a page, usually a man to tend his horses, and sometimes a man at arms. Each had at least one warhorse, a massive armored beast, and two, sometimes three animals to carry his armor, weapons, and supplies. And Albany was three weeks' journey to the north, near Aberdeen; with the slow pace set by the old king and so many on foot we'd need a crashing assload of supplies. By the end of the week our column numbered over five hundred men and boys, and nearly as many horses. We would have needed a wagon full of coin to pay everyone if Lear had not conscripted Albany and Cornwall to maintain his knights.

I watched Lear pass under the portislodge at the head of the column before going downstairs and climbing on my own mount, a short, swayback mare named Rose.

"Mud shall not sully my Black Fool's motley, lest it dull his wit as well," said Lear, the day he presented the horse. I did not own the horse, of course. She belonged to the king - or now his daughters, I suppose.

I fell in at the end of the column behind Hunter, who was accompanied by a long train of hounds and a wagon with a cage built on it, which held eight of the royal falcons.

"We'll be raiding farms before we get to Leeds," said Hunter, a stout, leather-clad man, thirty winters on his back. "I can't feed this lot - and they've not enough stowed to last them a week."

"Cry calamity if you will, Hunter, but I'm the one to keep them in good spirits when their bellies are empty."

"Aye, I've no envy for you, fool. Is that why you ride back here with we catch-farts and not at the king's side?"

"Just drawing plans for a bawdy song at supper without the clank of armor in my ear, good Hunter."

I wanted to tell Hunter that I was not overburdened by my duties, but by my disdain for the senile king who had sent my princess away. And I wanted time to ponder the ghost's warnings. The bit about daughters three and the king becoming a fool had come to pass, or at least was in the way of it. So the girl ghost had predicted the "grave offense" to "daughter's three" even if all the daughters had not seen the offense yet - when Lear arrived at Albany with this rowdy retinue, offense would soon follow. But what of this: "When a second sibling's base derision, proffers lies that cloud the vision"?

Did it mean the second daughter? Regan? What did it matter if her lies clouded Lear's vision? The king was nearly blind as it was, his eyes milky with cataract - I'd taken to describing my pantomimes as I performed them so the old man would not miss the joke. And with no power, what tie could be severed that would make a difference now? A war between the two dukes? None of it about me, why do I care?

Why then would the ghost appear to this most irrelevant and powerless fool? I puzzled it, and fell far behind the column, and when I stopped to have a wee, was accosted by a brigand.

He came up from behind a fallen tree, a great bear of a fiend, his beard matted and befouled with food and burrs, a maelstrom of grey hair flying about under a wide-brimmed black hat. I may have screamed in surprise, and a less educated ear might have likened my shriek to that of a little girl, but be assured it was most manly and more for the fair warning of my attacker, for next I knew I had pulled a dagger from the small of my back and sent it flying. His miserable life was saved only by my slight miscalculation of his distance - the butt of my blade bounced off his behatted noggin with a thud.

"Ouch! Fuck's sake, fool. What is wrong with you?"

"Hold fast, knave," said I. "I've two more blades at the ready, and these I'll send pointy end first - the quality of my mercy having been strained and my ire aroused by having peed somewhat upon my shoes." I believed it a serviceable threat.

"Hold your blades, Pocket. I mean you no harm," came the voice under the hat brim. Then, "Y Ddraig Goch ddyry gychwyn."[22]

I wound up to send my second dagger to the scoundrel's heart, "You may know my name, but that gargling with catsick that you're doing will not stop me from dropping you where you stand."

"Ydych chi'n cymryd cerdynnau credid?"[23] said the highwayman, no doubt trying to frighten me further, his consonants chained like anal beads strung out of hell's own bunghole.

"I may be small, but I'm not a child to be afraid of a pretended demon speaking in tongues. I'm a lapsed Christian and a pagan of convenience. The worst I can do on my conscience is cut your throat and ask the forest to count it as a sacrifice come the Yule, so cease your nonsense and tell me how you know my name."

"It's not nonsense, it's Welsh," said the brigand. He folded back the brim of his hat and winked. "What say you save your wicked sting for an enemy true? It's me, Kent. In disguise."

Indeed, it was, the king's old banished friend - all of his royal trappings but his sword gone - he looked like he'd slept in the woods the week since I'd last seen him.

"Kent, what are you doing here? You're as good as dead if the king sees you. I thought you'd be in France by now."

"I've no place to go - my lands and title are forfeit, what family I have would risk their own lives to take me in. I have served Lear these forty years, I am loyal, and I know nothing else. My thought is to affect accents and hide my face until he has a change of heart."

"Is loyalty a virtue when paid to virtue's stranger? I think not. Lear has misused you. You are mad, or stupid, or you lust for the grave, but there is no place for you, good greybeard, in the company of the king."

"And there is for you? Or did I not see you restrained and dragged from the hall for that same offense: truth told boldly? Don't preach virtue to me, fool. One voice can, without fear, call the king on his folly, and here he stands, piss-shoed, two leagues back from the train."

Fuckstockings, truth is a surly shrew sometimes! He was right, of course, loudmouthed old bull. "Have you eaten?"

"Not for three days."

I went to my horse and dug into my satchel for some hard cheese and an apple I had left from Bubble's farewell gift. I gave them to Kent. "Come not too soon," said I. "Lear still fumes about Cordelia's honest offense and your supposed treason. Follow behind to Albany's castle. I'll have Hunter leave a rabbit or a duck beside the road for you every day. Do you have flint and steel?"

"Aye, and tinder."

I found the stub of a candle in the bottom of my bag and handed it to the old knight. "Burn this and catch the soot upon your sword, then rub the black into your beard. Cut your hair short and blacken it, too. Lear can't see clearly more than a few feet away, so keep your distance. And carry on with that ghastly Welsh accent."

"Perhaps I'll fool the old man, but what of the others?"

"No righteous man thinks you a traitor, Kent, but I don't know all of these knights, nor which might reveal you to the king. Just stay out of sight and by the time we reach Albany's castle I'll have flushed out any knave who might betray your cause."

"You're a good lad, Pocket. If I've shown you disrespect in the past, I'm sorry."

"Don't grovel, Kent, it doesn't wear well on the aged. A swift sword and a strong shield are allies I can well use with scoundrels and traitors weaving intrigue about like the venomous spider-whore of Killarney."

"Spider-whore of Killarney? I've never heard of her?"

"Aye, well, sit on that downed tree and eat your lunch. I'll spin the tale for you like it was web from her own bloody bum."

"You'll fall behind the column."

"Sod the column, that tottering old tosspot so slows them they'll be leaving a snail trail soon. Sit and listen, greybeard. By the way have you ever heard of Great Birnam Wood?"

"Aye, it's not two miles from Albany."

"Really? How do you feel about witches?"

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