“He’s a try-er, and a liar,” I whispered in my brother’s ear. Scampering down the steps from beside the throne, I pulled a cartwheel in front of the petitioner. Spinning around and sticking out my long tongue, I wriggled it in the man’s face.
“What proof have you of this indiscretion?” The king asked.
“It was the time of the full moon my liege,” replied the man giving a deep bow, Randolph of the Marshes, then attempted to peer around me. “I was ensuring the safety of my hens, for they were creating a fine cackle. I feared that perhaps a fox were amongst them. But it was not to be, I came across Roger of the Fields there, dressed as a wolf, devouring one after the other of them whole and un-plucked. When I shook my blunderbuss at him, and queried his behaviour, he leapt a high surrounding fence, and ran on four limbs for the safety of the woods.
“Would you have my Liege believe that a man should necessarily change his countenance to feast upon your hens, or perhaps you wish us to believe in fairies and hobgoblins?” I shouted under the man’s face.
“My Lord, must I be subjected to this fool’s foul ministrations?” The man wailed towards the king.
“If you wish for a hearing, my loyal and honest jester Pwene, will consider your petition.”
“Which is what?” I demanded, facing away from him and shaking my posterior, which raised a loud guffaw from the watching nobles.
The man stood silent for a moment as he realised his pleas were about to fall on deaf ears….. “Recompense, my dear sir jester, I seek no more than recompense for the loss of my hens and of those few that remain, their subsequent reluctance to lay.” The man whimpered, wringing his hands. His behaviour and deportment reversing instantly.
“Why do you bring this nonsense before his gracious majesty, surely the local magistrate could give a ruling unto you. Now away with you, you are nought but a cheater, and a liar, the king is far too busy to listen to your clap-trap….. for sure, no man can change into a wolf and even should he be able to so do, why should he bother himself with something as paltry as your hens. Be away with you, surely it were no more than a fox as you first thought…… Who has the next petition?” I climbed back up the stairs to stand beside my brother.
The man slunk away muttering darkly under his breath of wolves and men and how the twain should not be interchangeable, Roger of the Fields with the smile on his face almost hidden by his huge grey beard, bowed low to the king, and with a loud whoop, followed the down cast plaintiff from the grand hall.
I am Pwene the dwarf, the king’s brother and counsel, frequently I play the Court Jester, my humped and twisted back, large eyes, protruding tongue and bow legs giving sufficient of a comical view so as to bring a smirk to the lips of those who choose to frequent the monthly open meetings between the king and his subjects. Frequently I would be called upon to arbitrate on the monarch’s behalf, one of two tasks that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Revenge for the countless spiteful remarks piled upon my head as I grew up, is indeed sweet remuneration.
I am the king’s twin brother, albeit the older by twenty minutes. Secretly I am also the father of all of his handsome, tall and well-loved sons and beautiful daughters, for unknown to all but I, the king is impotent.
King Judam, in order to keep his infirmity hidden has persistently refused to take a queen, insisting no one should ever share his throne. He does however maintain a harem of beautiful girls, each sent by eager parents from the far corners of the kingdom on their sixteenth birthday. The successful maiden to join the harem each day, was chosen always by myself…
As custom would have it, a concubine would be called to his bed chamber each night. She knew that it would be the one and only time that she would share the monarch’s bed, following which duty, she would be freed with a handsome dividend to return to her previous life, her vacated position clamoured for by many.
A maiden, knowing it were to be her last night of luxury, dreaded my pointed finger declaring her to be the chosen one. She would be superbly wined and dined by the handsome king, but at the last moment, a soporific drug would be tipped into her nightcap, and the two would retire.
Once the young woman had been tuppled and whuppled by the king, and lay semi conscious, I would complete the deception whilst my younger twin enthusiastically watched on, a flagon of hemp wine close to his left hand, his right otherwise engaged.
No one knew of my immediate relationship to the king, or even from where I might have originated, which subsequently has led to much wild speculation as to my origins – it is widely believed that my origin be ‘The Divine Land,’ indicating belief that my beginnings were in the mysterious city of Punt, secretly believing me to be a wizard or magician.
To my absolute joy I was frequently approached by well to do mothers, some of them ex concubines, who would beseech me to de-flower their daughters. Those maidens who had not been chosen for the king’s harem, on the day before their nuptials, a task I relished and undertook with great enthusiasm…
Mine was indeed a gifted and enjoyable existence.
“Mother how can you request of that butt fugly beast to deflower our sister? Demanded the young squire. “Be fair mother, the market square is full of ribald stories about that fool, why, they all say of him; ‘If he were nose to nose with a maiden, his toes would be in, and should he be toes to toes, his nose would be in’.”
His mother burst out laughing, “Surely is it not also said that he is a kind, tender and considerate love maker, just the right man to transport a young maiden into womanhood, unlike that boorish git your father has promised her to, why I would rather she lost her maidenhood to one of the wild hog-bog men of the forest than that vile beast.”
“Surely you do not believe that rubbish,” spluttered the youth.
His mother laughed again, and drew him close, taking his face between her palms she kissed his forehead and said, “My son, have you not considered why you should be tall and fair of hair like so many of your friends, whereas your sister is short and dark of hair, and favours your father?”
“Mother, it cannot be, tell me you lie,” he yelped, “tell me you make fun of me. Is it possible that…….?” His voice tailed off and he pulled away from her embrace, his face a mask of horror.
“I josh you my lovely son,” she said turning her back on him with a wry smile, “but, truth have it,” she turned back to face him, “he will assist your sister to approach what could be a trying and terrible experience for the poor child.”
It was a fact though that throughout the city, many were the youths and maidens who were tall, fair of hair and countenance and strong and straight of limb, but bore little resemblance to their cuckolded fathers’. Those maids I resolutely refused to honour.
That they resembled the handsome king, none had the audacity to point out.
Even without my misshapen body and lost inheritance, I had no real love for my lot, even though my life be supremely comfortable and fulfilled, every whim or desire ministered to by falsely adoring followers. Each knowing I had the king’s ear, thinking that to be-friend me, the ugly dwarf, the fool, would bring them closer to their ruler… but nothing could be further from the truth… in reality, I hated my brother, the king sat upon my throne, mine by right of first-birth. We’re it not for my twisted back, my stunted growth, my face that bursts from a child’s nightmare – mine would be the head that wore the crown.
For all my failings in stature and of countenance, I fathered beautiful offspring. Oh how I wish that one would turn out like me, ugly and twisted of body so all would know of the king’s deceptions. But, I thought with a sigh, the child would surely be done away with, so that no one should ever know the real truth.
“Pwene, come, haste yourself!” Judam shouted, “by the time you catch up with us, the deer will be too old and too tough to even throw to the hounds.”
I hated horseback riding and hunting, in fact I loathed all physical undertakings bar the one conducted beneath soft furs and quilts.
“Bollocks.” I replied under my breath, trying to adjust my twisted back into a position which would not have me bouncing like a frenzied jack-a-napes in a meadow of stubble. My horse, nay pony, almost as wizened and twisted as myself, for some reason hated me, surely it recognised a kindred spirit? But no, it would spend the day either endeavouring a bite upon any part of me that happened to be available, or attempting to unseat me from its bony back.
I only rode the nasty beast out of a perverse gratification, I hated it more than it hated me, and as I wore the spurs, carried the switch and held the reins, I held the ultimate power.
It was the third time my steed had tumbled me to the forest floor, this time with an unexpected change of direction. Lucky for my bones that I fell into a thick bush, unlucky for those exposed parts of my skin, the bush sprouted thorns, each as long as my little finger and sharper than a seamstresses’ needle.
I lay on my back, cursing the beast which stood with its nose impudently stuffed into a choice tuffet of greenery, As I contemplated the most dastardly deeds I could inflict upon the foul creature masquerading as a stunted brown horse, a lazy bumble wallowed past, its wings straining under the weight of its body and the load of pollen that it bore in the sacks on its legs. Mesmerised by its labours I watched as it made its way across the clearing.
I looked around for my brother and his boisterous party of fellow hunters, but they were nowhere to be seen. The first drops were heavy, crashing through the leaves above. The sky quickly grew dark, a flash of lightning and an accompanying deep throated boom heralded the beginnings of the downpour, I huddled under my erstwhile bush of succour and torture for protection, but within moments my rent finery was reduced to no more than soaking, clinging rags.
Rain poured down upon the forest from clouds crowded close above the treetops. On the now muddy track below, a large black horse, tail and mane matted with wet and filth, trudged toward the nearest sign of life, me. My own mount had left me to my own devices at the first onset of the deluge.
The horse’s rider slumped forward over the pommel of the saddle, one arm hanging limp on either side of his steed’s drooping neck. He was dressed in chain mail, a mud-spattered surcoat plastered atop the links; he had no helmet, and his shield hung by a loose strap, bouncing against his leg in the slow cadence of the horse’s gait. On his left side, where the surcoat was ripped and the chain snapped to make a hole a hand-span wide, blood seeped out sluggishly, easing down his thigh in a rain-diluted wash.
As they approached my position, the horse picked up its pace, perhaps sensing aid. The storm drove from behind the animal, and so came respite from both wind and wet in its lee. Almost beside where I crouched the animal stopped, and bent to drink from a fresh puddle and to crop a mouthful of soaked grass; its rider fell then, sliding off its back and dropping to the mud before me in an awkward noisy clatter.
Cautiously I raised and moved towards the knight, his insignia unknown to me, the marque on his shield a black lion en-passant on a field of yellow not one of my brother’s faithful. I tentatively placed my hand to his neck, there to feel for a pulse of life. A thready response told me how close he was to death. I felt for the hunting horn on my hip and blew a long series of blasts. The tones belled through the soaked forest, echoing back to me after a moment or two.
It was no more than a short while later that the sound of heavy hooves clattered through, silencing the soft dripping of rain as the dark green leaves shed their loads. Judam and his contemporaries thundered into the clearing and leapt from their mounts to surround the knight and I.
“Who is this?” demanded the king.
I looked up at him and shrugged my shoulders, one leaping higher than the other. “He still lives, but not for long,” I announced. “I fear if we do not bring him to the city swiftly, the riddle of his origins will be lost forever.”
“From his dress I would take him for a knight, we shall offer to him that which his rank deserves, place him upon his mount and convey him swiftly to the infirmary. Pwene, as your mighty destrier has vanished, ride you behind me, no doubt we shall come upon the beast on our route.” He mounted, and with one arm heaved me up to sit clinging to the rear of his saddle.
Together we took off at a canter back to the city.
To be continued/concluded at some time in the near future………..
Peter M. Emmerson