Fool Chapter 9




So why is it that we are going to Great Birnam Wood to look for witches?" asked Kent as we made our way across the moor. There was only a slight breeze but it was bloody cold, what with the mist and the gloom and my despair over King Jeff. I pulled my woolen cape around me.

"Bloody Scotland," said I. "Albany is possibly the darkest, dampest, coldest bloody crevice in all of Blighty. Sodding Scots."

"Witches?" reminded Kent.

"Because the bloody ghost told me I'd find my answers here."


"The girl ghost at the White Tower, keep up, Kent. Rhymes and riddles and such." I told him of the "grave offense to daughters three" and the "madman rising to lead the blind."

Kent nodded as if he understood. "And I'm along because..."

"Because it is dark and I am small."

"You might have asked Curan or one of the others. I'm reticent about witches."

"Nonsense. They're just like physicians, only without the bleeding. Nothing to fear."

"In the day, when Lear was still Christian, we did not do well by witches. I've had a cartload of curses cast on me."

"Not very effective, though, were they? You're child-frighteningly old and still strong as a bull."

"I am banished, penniless, and live under the threat of death upon discovery of my name."

"Oh, good point. Brave of you to come, then."

"Aye, thanks, lad, but I'm not feeling it. What's that light?"

There was a fire ahead in the wood, and figures moving around it.

"Stealthy, now, good Kent. Let us creep up silently and see what is to be seen before revealing ourselves. Now, creep, Kent, you crashing great ox, creep."

And with but two steps my strategy revealed its flaw.

"You're jingling like a coin purse possessed of fits," said Kent. "You couldn't creep up on the deaf nor dead. Silence your bloody bells, Pocket."

I placed my coxcomb on the ground. "I can leave my hat, but I'll not take off my shoes - we'll surrender all stealth if I'm screaming from trodding tender-footed across lizards, thorns, hedgehogs, and the lot."

"Here, then," said Kent, pulling the remains of the pork shoulder from his satchel. "Dampen your bells with the fat."

I raised an eyebrow quizzically - an unappreciated and overly subtle gesture in the dark - then shrugged and began working the suet into the bells at my toes and ankles.

"There!" I shook a leg to the satisfying sound of nothing at all. "Forward!"

Creep we did, until we were just outside the halo of firelight. Three bent-backed hags were walking a slow circle around a large cauldron, dropping in twisted bits of this and that as they chanted.

"Double, double, toil and trouble:

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."

"Witches," whispered Kent, paying tribute to the god of all things bloody fucking obvious.

"Aye," said I, in lieu of clouting him. (Jones stayed behind to guard my hat.)

"Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,

Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

They double-bubbled the chorus and we were readying ourselves for another verse of the recipe when I felt something brush against my leg. It was all I could do not to cry out. I felt Kent's hand on my shoulder.

"Steady, lad, it's just a cat."

Another brush, and a meow. Two of them now, licking my bells, and purring. (It sounds more pleasant than it was.) "It's the bloody pork fat," I whispered.

A third feline joined the gang. I stood on one foot, trying to hold the other above their heads, but while I am an accomplished acrobat, the art of levitation still eludes me; thus my ground-bound foot became my Achilles' heel, as it were. One of the fiends sank its fangs into my ankle.

"Fuckstockings!" said I, somewhat emphatically. I hopped, I whirled, I made disparaging remarks toward all creatures of the feline aspect. Hissing and yowling ensued. When at last the cats retreated, I was sitting splayed-legged by the fire, Kent stood next to me with his sword drawn and ready, and the three hags stood in ranks across the cauldron from us.

"Back, witches!" said Kent. "You may curse me into a toad, but they'll be the last words out of your mouths while your heads are attached."

"Witches?" said the first witch, who was greenest of the three. "What witches? We are but humble washerwomen, making our way in the wood."

"Rendering laundry service, humble and good," said witch two, the tallest.

"All it be, is as it should," said witch three, who had a wicked wart over her right eye.

"By Hecate's[27] night-tarred nipples, stop rhyming!" said I. "If you're not witches, what was that curse you were bubbling about?"

"Stew," said Warty.

"Stew, stew most true," said Tall.

"Stew most blue," said Green.

"It's not blue," said Kent, looking in the cauldron. "More of a brown."

"I know," said Green, "but brown doesn't rhyme, does it, love?"

"I'm looking for witches," said I.

"Really?" said Tall.

"I was sent by a ghost."

The hags looked at one another, then back at me. "Ghost told you to bring your laundry here, did it?" said Warty.

"You're not washerwomen! You're bloody witches! And that's not stew, and the bloody ghost of the bloody White Tower said to seek you here for answers, so can we get about it, ye gnarled knots of erect vomitus?"

"Ah, we're toads for sure now," sighed Kent.

"Always a bloody ghost, innit?" said Tall.

"What did she look like?" asked Green.

"Who? The ghost? I didn't say it was a she - "

"What did she look like, fool?" snarled Warty.

"I suppose I shall pass my days eating bugs and hiding under leaves until some crone drops me in a cauldron," mused Kent, leaning on his sword now, watching moths dart into the fire.

"She was ghostly pale," said I, "all in white - vaporous, with fair hair and - "

"She was fit,[28] though?" asked Tall. "Lovely, you might even say?"

"Bit more transparent than I care for in my wenches, but aye, she was fit."

"Aye," said Warty, looking to the others, who huddled with her.

When they came up, Green said, "State your business, then, fool. Why did the ghost send you here?"

"She said you could help me. I am fool to the court of King Lear of Britain. He has sent away his youngest daughter, Cordelia, of whom I am somewhat fond; he's given my apprentice fool, Drool, to that blackguard bastard Edmund of Gloucester, and my friend Taster has been poisoned and is quite dead."

"And don't forget that they're going to hang you at dawn," added Kent.

"Don't concern yourselves with that, ladies," said I. "About to be hanged is my status quo, not a condition that requires your repair."

The hags huddled again. There was much whispering and a bit of hissing. They broke their conference and Warty, who was the apparent coven leader, said, "That Lear's a nasty piece of work."

"Last time he went Christian a score of witches were drowned," said Tall.

Kent nodded, and looked at his shoes. "The Petite Inquisition - not a high point."

"Aye, we were a decade spelling them all back to life for the revenge," said Warty. "Rosemary here still seeps pond-water from the ears on damp days," said Tall.

"Aye, and carps ate my small toes while I was pond-bottom," said Green.

"Her toes thus gefilted,[29] we had to seek an enchanted lynx and take two of his for replacement."

Rosemary (who was Green) nodded gravely.

"Goes through shoes in a fortnight, but there's no better witch to chase a squirrel up a tree," said Tall.

"That's true," said Rosemary.

"Beats the burnings, though," said Warty.

"Aye, that's true," said Tall. "No amount of cat toes'll fix you if you've all your bits burnt off. Lear had him some burnings as well."

"I'm not here on behalf of Lear," said I. "I'm here to correct the madness he's done."

"Well, why didn't you say so?" said Rosemary.

"We're always keen on sending a bit of the mayhem Lear's way," said Warty. "Shall we curse him with leprosy?"

"By your leave, ladies, I don't wish the old man's undoing, only the undoing of his deeds."

"A simple curse would be easier," said Tall. "A bit o' bat spittle in the cauldron and we can have him walking on duck feet before breakfast. Make him quack, too, if you've a shilling or a freshly-strangled infant for the service."

"I just want my friends and my home back," said I.

"Well, if you can't be persuaded, let us have a consult," said Rosemary. "Parsley, Sage, a moment?" She waved the other witches over to an old oak where they whispered.

"Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary?" said Kent. "What, no Thyme?"

Rosemary wheeled on him. "Oh, we've the time if you've the inclination, handsome."

"Jolly good show, hag!" said I. I liked these crones, they had a fine-edged wit.

Rosemary rolled her good eye at the earl, lifted her skirts, aimed her withered bottom at Kent, and rubbed a palsied claw over it. "Round and firm, good knight. Round and firm."

Kent gagged a little and backed away a few steps. "Gods save us! Away you ghastly carbuncled tart!"

I would have looked away, should have, but I had never seen a green one. A weaker man might have plucked out his own eyes, but being a philosopher, I knew the sight could never be unseen, so I persevered.

"Hop on, Kent," said I. "Beast-shagging is thy calling and thou surely have been called."

Kent backed into a tree and half cold-cocked himself. He slid down the trunk, dazed.

Rosemary dropped her skirts. "Just having you on." The crones cackled as they huddled again. "We've a proper toading for you once the fool's business is finished, though. A moment, please..."

The witches whispered for a moment, then resumed their march around the cauldron.

"Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,

Griffin spunk and monkey hips,

Mandrake rubbed with tiger nads,

To divine undoing for the old king mad."

"Oh bollocks," said Sage, "we're all out of monkey hips."

Parsley looked into the cauldron and gave it a stir. "We can make do without them. You can substitute a fool's finger."

"No," said I.

"Well, then, get a finger from that comely hunk of man-meat with the bootblack on his beard - he seems foolish enough."

"No," said Kent, still a tad dazed. "And it's not bootblack, it's a clever disguise."

The witches looked to me. "There's no counting on accuracy without the monkey hips or fool's finger," said Rosemary.

I said: "Let us make do and gallantly bugger on, shall we, ladies?"

"All right," said Parsley, "but don't blame us if we bollocks-up your future."

There was more stirring and chanting in dead languages, and no little bit of wailing, and finally, when I was about to doze off, a great bubble rose in the cauldron and when it burst it released a cloud of steam that formed itself into a giant face, not unlike the tragedy mask used by traveling players. It glowed against the misty night.

"'Ello," said the giant face, sounding Cockney and a little drunk.

"Hello, large and steamy face," said I.

"Fool, Fool, you must save the Drool,

Quick to Gloucester, or blood will pool."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, this one rhymes, too?" said I to the witches. "Can't a bloke find a straightforward prose apparition?"

"Quiet, fool!" snapped Sage, who I was back to thinking of as Warty. To the face, she said, "Apparition of darkest power, we're clear on the where and the what, but the fool was hoping for some direction of the how variety."

"Aye. Sorry," said large steamy face. "I'm not slow, you know, your recipe was short a monkey hip."

"We'll use two next time," said Sage.

"Well, all right, then...

"To reverse the will of a flighty king,

Remove his train to clip his wings.

To eldest daughters knights be dower,

And soon a fool will yield the power."

The steamy face grinned.

I looked at the witches. "So I'm to somehow get Goneril and Regan to take Lear's knights in addition to everything else they have?"

"He never lies," said Rosemary.

"He's often wildly fucking inaccurate," said Parsley, "but not a liar."

"Again," said I to the apparition, "good to know what to do and all, but a method to the madness would be most welcome as well. A strategy, as it were."

"Cheeky little bastard, ent 'e?" said Steamy to the witches.

"Want us to put a curse on him?" asked Sage.

"No, no, the lad's a rocky road ahead without adding a curse to slow him." The apparition cleared his throat (or at least made the throat-clearing noise, as, strictly speaking, he had no throat).

"A princess to your will shall bend,

If seduction in a note, you send,

And fates of kings and queens shall tell,

When bound are passions with a spell."

With that, the apparition faded away.

"That's it, then?" I asked. "A couple of rhymes and we're finished? I have no idea what I'm to do."

"Bit thick yourself, then, are you?" said Sage. "You're to go to Gloucester. You're to separate Lear from his knights and see that they're under the power of his daughters. Then you're to write letters of seduction to the princesses and bind their passions with a magic spell. Couldn't be any clearer if it was rhymed."

Kent was nodding and shrugging as if the bloody obviousness of it all had sluiced through the wood in an illuminating deluge, leaving me the only one dry.

"Oh, do fuck off, you grey-bearded sot. Where would you get a magic spell to bind the bitches' passion?"

"Them," said Kent, pointing rudely at the hags.

"Us," said the hags in chorus.

"Oh," said I, letting the flood wash over me. "Of course."

Rosemary stepped forward and held forth three shriveled grey orbs, each about the size of a man's eye. I did not take them, fearing they might be something as disgusting as they appeared to be - desiccated elf scrotums or some such.

"Puff balls, from a fungus that grows deep in the wood," said Rosemary.

"In lover's breath these spores release

An enchanting charm you shall unleash

Passion which can be never broken

For him whose name next is spoken."

"So, to recap, simply and without rhyme?"

"Squeeze one of these bulbs under your lady's nose, then say your name and she will find your charms irresistible and become overwhelmed with desire for you," explained Sage.

"Redundant then, really?" said I with a grin.

The hags laughed themselves into a wheeze-around, then Rosemary dropped the puff balls into a small silk pouch and handed it to me.

"There's the matter of payment," said she, as I reached for the purse.

"I'm a poor fool," said I. "All we have between us is my scepter and a well-used shoulder of pork. I suppose I could wait while each of you takes Kent for a roll in the hay, if that will do."

"You will not!" said Kent.

The hag held up a hand. "A price to be named later," said she. "Whenever we ask."

"Fine, then," said I, snatching the purse away from her.

"Swear it," she said.

"I swear," said I.

"In blood."

"But - " As quick as a cat she scratched the back of my hand with her ragged talon. "Ouch!" Blood welled in the crease.

"Let it drip in the cauldron and swear," said the crone.

I did as I was told. "Since I'm here, is there any chance I could get a monkey?"

"No," said Sage.

"No," said Parsely.

"No," said Rosemary. "We're all out of monkeys, but we'll put a glamour on your mate so his disguise isn't so bloody pathetic."

"Go to it, then," said I. "We must be off."


How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child.

-  King Lear, Act I, Scene 4

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