Purely as a matter of form, His Majesty had a Royal Wizard. The wizard lived somewhere on the palace grounds, but accounts vary as to precisely where. His counsel is recorded in none of the annals of King Bruno's reign. Perhaps a holdover from the court of Bruno's royal father, Wizard Thrush is not definitely known ever to have appeared in His Majesty's presence or to have done any mighty feats of magic for him. Only once before his death some two years into the exile of Prince Winter did he do anything worthy of being mentioned in a story.
One of the Queen's bedchamber attendants had found a wet-nurse for the tiny maimed Prince. The girl's name was Phyllis. She was a twenty-year-old widow who lived close to the palace walls. Phyllis had recently had the bad luck of surviving a fever that had claimed the lives of her father, mother, younger brother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband, which shows that these things don't always come in threes. Hard on the heels of these tragedies, and with no one left to console her, she had given birth to a stillborn child. What she felt about all this can only be imagined. But the fact that she was still lactating opened a door for her which led to a far more interesting life than she had ever expected to live.
Phyllis was stuffing the last of her meager possessions into a mangy carpetbag with one hand, while jiggling the infant Prince on her shoulder and patting his backside with the other, when her hovel was visited by a very strange man. It was, as you may have guessed, Wizard Thrush.
Phyllis described him later (many times, for example, to the Prince himself) as a rather short, unkempt fellow whose body-shape was concealed by many layers of ragged garments, and whose face was all but obscured by his bushy eyebrows and long, tangled, scruffy beard. He wore a snug crocheted cap atop his head, which made his hair stick out in bunches all around it, and he always seemed to be chewing on his mustaches, or on any bits of his beard that had drifted close enough to his mouth. And oh! how he smelled! Phyllis would sometimes go on for minutes together, rhapsodizing on the deep, complex fug that emanated from this learned person, with its notes of old shoes, overcooked turnips, unwashed dog, stale tobacco smoke, and goat feces, besides a metallic tinge that might suggest herbs burning in a pewter crucible (or so the girl imagined).
"I say," the old man said. He repeated this two or three times, as though warming up his little-used vocal cords, or trying to get used to the sound of his own voice. It wasn't a very prepossessing voice. The only way Phyllis could describe it was "as if he had to try very hard not to cough."
"Who are you?" Phyllis said, now that she was over the shock of such a very strange stranger barging into her hovel without knocking. "And who invited you in, might I ask?"
"I am Thrush the Wizard Royal," said Wizard Thrush.
"Pull the other one," Phyllis suggested.
"I have come to give My Lord the customary wizard's blessing," Thrush added.
"They'll be giving you a blessing if you don't back right out," Phyllis said, brandishing a fire shovel that happened to be closer to hand than the poker she would have preferred.
"It wouldn't be right to let the tyke go without the blessing," Thrush said persuasively, though the effect was somewhat spoiled when a ferret poked its head out of the wizard's sleeve and delivered a vicious bite to his left thumb. "Ye gods!" the wizard screamed, and then he began to suck his thumb.
For some reason, this embarrassing spectacle awakened whatever pity then lived in Phyllis's grief-shambled heart. "All right," she said grudgingly, though she kept her grip on the fire shovel, "make it quick. I've got to catch the post. We've a long trip ahead of us, you know. They're throwing the poor mite out in the cold."
"In that case," said Thrush, thrusting his aromatic presence so close to the wet-nurse that it seemed to her, for a moment, as if she could have pinched the stench of him between finger and thumb and held it out of the way. He placed his grimy hand on the child's head, soiling its bonnet in so doing, and with his eyes rolling back to show their bloodshot whites he chanted: "A contrary nature I give to thee, rejected scion of the King. Whatever boon he grants thee, it shall thereafter turn to bane. Whatever wounds thy father deals, they shall become thy strengths, and double back upon him till he claims thee as his heir."
The hand withdrew, and the odor too. Thrush seemed confused for a moment, pausing to recover a semblance of order. During this moment Phyllis said, with undisguised surprise, "That was sweet, actually."
"Hardly," said Thrush with a decided sniff. "Travel well," he added, meeting the wet-nurse's eyes for a heartbeat, and while the power of his direct gaze still held her, he withdrew. Phyllis recollected herself at the ringing of the post-bell, which meant she had to run flat-out with the royal child in one arm and her carpetbag in the other so as not to miss the post.
The post, at that time, was a two-wheeled chaise with a large trunk, low and aft, for carrying letters, parcels, and passenger luggage, and seats within where up to three adults could sit if they didn't mind being packed together like mackerel. Forward of the passenger compartment was a bench where the driver and guard customarily huddled under cloaks and rugs behind a team of two to six horses (usually four) who were changed at roughly 20-mile intervals. Above and behind the driver's seat was the flat roof of the chaise, surrounded by a low railing, and available for a nominal price to any passenger who valued economy over luxury.
It was there, sometimes with other passengers but often alone, that Phyllis spent the next few days, hunkered down under a motley assortment of rugs, nursing the infant Prince and warming his body with her own. It was there, on the roof of one post-chaise or another (for she had to transfer to other postal routes at several points on her journey) that she learned to change a diaper without looking, both because the rugs were in the way and because the sensibilities of other passengers had to be considered. It was there that she discovered a hardiness she had never known in herself before.
Phyllis was forced to endure relentless, non-stop travel because the posts ran day and night, stopping only for a half-hour out of every three or four to change horses, and once or twice a day for an hour or two when the driver needed refreshment. A passenger could ill afford to stray far from the chaise when it might depart at any time on little notice, or even none, and the next post-chaise would demand a full fare. Until she learned to sleep while cradling the baby while the hard surface beneath her rattled and bumped over every pothole in the road, she had to make do with a few naps snatched in haystacks behind the inns where horses were changed. She learned to bear exposure to cold and wet with stoicism and even, in time, to enjoy the opportunity to gaze down upon the open landscape in the ample solitude afforded by the most uncomfortable seat within the circle of the horizon. And it was, after all, the fastest way an indigent non-rider could travel. She couldn't afford to go any other way; indeed, at her destination she might even have a few pennies left over from the advance on her pay.
Somewhere among the wilds between Green Bay and Marinette, the post suffered the first of a series of accidents that plagued the entire route Phyllis took with the child. Later she couldn't decide whether a horse had become lame, or a wheel had come off the chaise, or a fallen tree had blocked the road; there were so many accidents that they blurred together in her memory. For some reason, however, she remembered each of the fay, cloaked figures who came to the chaise's aid as soon as the problem proved more than the combined exertions of driver, guard, and passengers could answer. She remembered each one with perfect clarity and intricate detail, and she could unfailingly distinguish each from the others. So Prince Winter always felt he knew the six young noblemen who aided them, though many long years would pass before he met them again.
First there was the soft-spoken gentleman with the red-orange hair, wearing a white tunic over blue-gray robes, who arrived providentially with four servants in dusky-orange livery, all on horses, when something needed done that could only be done with the aid of five strong men. Phyllis always fretted that she couldn't remember whether it was to pull a wheel out of a stony cleft in which it had become wedged, or to right the carriage after it had tumbled end-over-end down a grassy slope (happily, when it had already been evacuated and unhitched for some other reason), or to round up a team of horses that had panicked and bolted after the guard managed to unhitch them from the chaise. She was amazed to find, from later experience and conversation, that she had undergone a lifetime's worth of bad luck in that one trip.
Meanwhile, however, the red-orange knight approached her after his work was done and asked to see the child. Flattered by the attention, she had nevertheless tried to demur, hoping to spare herself the sight of the gentleman's dismay, if not horror, at the baby's disfigurement. The gentleman appealed so strongly to her gratitude, however, that she relented and brought Prince Winter out from under her rugs. He seemed not to notice the purple-black and scarlet stains that mottled the infant's skin, making him appear as some unholy thing that ought to be left exposed on the roadside (as one fellow passenger had opined during an earlier leg of their journey). He gazed down at the sleeping child's face with an inscrutable countenance, then wrapped his hand gently round its foot and said, "Thou shalt abhor bondage and love freedom, not only for thyself alone, but for all flesh. I, Sir Altair Westfall, knight of thy father's realm, do salute thee."
The second kind stranger who came to their aid was a lively gentleman with deep black hair who, along with his three attendants, wore dark green livery. They emerged from the great forest south of Escanaba, right on schedule to do something that the post needed exactly four spare hands to do. Though Phyllis couldn't remember whether that had something to do with a broken axle, or a boggy sinkhole that had opened up beneath the chaise's wheels, or perhaps that one prodigiously obese inside passenger who had suddenly come in need of physic, she remembered that after he and his men had rendered service, he had approached her with merry smile and big, interested eyes, and asked to see the child. Without thought, let alone argument, Phyllis had shown him Prince Winter. Whereupon the gentleman had stroked the poor mite's discolored cheek and said, "Love peace and loathe steel. This say I, Sir Baham Aeolian, in thy father's service."
Then there was the strikingly beautiful, sandy-haired lord in light green uniform, whose three companions were dressed likewise. He entertained them by playing his harp and singing, backed by the light clear voices of his two younger friends, while the third and eldest physicked a team of horses that had suddenly, and simultaneously, fallen ill. Phyllis could at least remember that much about their trek through the even greater forest east of Escanaba--a forest that stretched clear across an isthmus in the tapering peninsula that formed that region of the kingdom. It was the type of forest that felt haunted, and it was such a relief to her spirits, not only to be spared being stranded there, but even to have her spirits lifted by sweet music. When the horses were back on their feet, the young lord put up his harp, held out his hand toward Phyllis, and accepted the baby from her. At that point she would have resisted no request of his. "Always the inner beauty see," he chanted to the child, who for once was quiet though awake. "Beware hypocrisy. So saying I, Sir Deneb Saltwell, welcome thee."
There followed still three more visitations like these. A brown-haired lord with two brown-clad men dandled the child on his knee after repairing a broken wheel, or mending a broken harness, or curing the driver's blinding toothache, and said: "I, Sir Markab Elkhorn, bid thee listen to a thousand words, ere thou sayest ten." A pretty young master with flowing red-brown locks and one scarlet-robed aide repelled a robber, or offered the party shelter and stabling when a road block diverted them from the postal route during a night of wild storms and, afterward, while feeding breakfast to the babe, said: "Lord, if thou wilt pardon thy servant Sir Procyon Rosewood, he would bid thee fear neither height nor light, nor things above the earth, so much as things below." And finally a loose-limbed, white-blond youth, clothed in black and guarded by one man in light blue garb, added his team to the chaise's to help it over one last, supremely strenuous hill (which the driver swore had never been there before), then kissed the infant Prince and said with an impish grin: "If thou wouldst grant thy servant Sir Sarin Hawk to speak, he would bid thee learn to dive and swim like a seal, for where there is water enough to bathe in, thou canst not want for fun."
These last two encounters took place out on Manitoulin Island, so recently ceded to the king by his Faerie allies and evacuated of its previous inhabitants prior to settlement by the king's subjects. This stretch was what Phyllis often and very accurately described as "the fag-end of civilization," accessible from the mainland only by ferry and traversed by roads scarcely worthy of the name. At the furthest end of the kingdom's least coveted postal route, to be assigned to which was tantamount to exile, the exhausted nursemaid and her perversely thriving charge had to wait two days before a boat became available to ferry them over to Fitzwilliam Island and whatever grim fate might await him at the hands of Bonnie Prince Arleigh.
The fisherman they had hired for the trip dumped them and their luggage with little tact and less ceremony on a strand of filthy sand, covered in driftwood and other washed-up debris, just out of sight of Sir Arleigh's jetty. The fisherman had explained that any unexpected arrivals at the jetty were supposed to be shot at; and since Phyllis and her princeling had arrived at the same time as the letters ordering Sir Arleigh to expect them, they were unlikely to get a royal welcome.
Phyllis trembled to think about this as she stood on the strand, burdened with a mail bag besides her own luggage and her royal charge. How would Arleigh welcome them? Would he try to dispose of the little prince as a rival for the throne? Would he seek revenge on the king who had, as he could be expected to see it, usurped his kingdom and banished him to durance vile? Of more immediate concern: Did Fitzwilliam Island have a "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy? Would Sir Arleigh's men shoot at Phyllis once she was on dry land?
Before she could gather enough courage to walk up the strand and clamber onto the grassy bank above, Phyllis got her answer. A shadow passed over her. Looking up into the sunshine (for at that hour of the morning it blazed directly into her eyes), Phyllis saw, almost in silhouette, the figures of three men and an enormous dog standing on the edge of the grass above her.
"Isn't this a pretty surprise," said the deep, rich voice of the man on her left, whose figure was taller and broader than the other two. "Or do you, Declan, know of this? Come, now. I won't punish you."
The man in the center, closest to the dog, laughed and said in a loud, coarse voice: "I swear, your honor, you know as much as I do."
"And you, Ludwig?"
This the first man appeared to ask the tough, wiry figure on the right, who replied: "I'm at a loss, sire."
"Then I suppose we'll have to ask the maid herself," said the figure on the left.
"State your name and your business," barked the man on the right, whose name Phyllis understood to be Ludwig.
"I've come from His Majesty's court," she said nervously, managing something like a curtsy in spite of her multiple burdens. "If I may..."
"What's that?" the man in the middle growled. "I can't hear you. Speak up!"
The strain became too much for Phyllis at this point, and she began to see dancing lights. She was a second or two away from fainting, which would not have been proper for the Prince Royal's wet-nurse to do under the circumstances. Luckily, the man in the center darted forward, half-running and half-sliding down the strand, and gripped her by both elbows while Ludwig, following a few steps behind, relieved her of her luggage.
It was the third man, finally, who took the child from her. Phyllis heard him gasp with alarm before the morning sunlight turned into blackness.
The Dragon's Path
1 week ago