THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
April 29, 2017
Greetings, friends and celebrators of the joy to be found in stories—writing them, reading them, telling them, or hearing them. If you enjoy a good story, this blog is for you.
This week, beginning the last Saturday in the month of April, I offer you another installment of my novel The King’s Eye: A Fantasy of the Farther Isles.
In case you missed the last installment, which appeared in February, here’s a recap:
Rodney Trapper the Goatherd’s 17-year-old son on the Isle of Goats stops at Ralf’s Alehouse at the end of the day. There he meets Prince Frogge, who has come to the Isle of Goats looking for someone to join him in his quest to kill the Giant Clobber and return the High King’s crystal eye. Rodney is interested in the idea, as he tells Bromalyn, Ralf’s daughter, with whom he is sleeping. She doesn’t like the idea, but she lets Rodney know she’s heard about this quest from another prince, Tamber of the Isle of Mirth, and she calls Tamber the handsomest man she’s ever met.
That was Chapter One, and this week you will meet Rodney’s ancient grandmother, who mixes herbs with magic and gives Rodney and Frogge some medicines and a crooked broom, which she promises them will come in handy during their dangerous adventure.
THE KING’S EYE
A Fantasy of the Farther Isles
John M. Daniel
Chapter 2: Gifts from Aggie Crone
It was difficult for Rodney to forgive his new companion, Prince Frogge, for having such short legs. It was embarrassing to walk the high road through the town on their first morning as partners, Rodney forced to shorten his long-legged stride as Frogge trotted along beside him, puffing and yammering, and stopping every few minutes to hitch up the pack on his back. “How far is this cottage?” and “Is it dark in the forest?” and “Is your grandmother really a witch?” and “Does she have a broom?” While all this time Rodney could feel the eyes of the townsfolk on the two of them—all of the townsfolk having of course heard the infectious gossip brought home from Ralf’s Alehouse the evening before. Yes, Rodney Trapper, the Goatherd’s son, had been fool enough to sign on for this foolhardy if not doomed adventure, to sail off to the faraway Farther Isle of the South Wind, to challenge the pitiless giant who had slaughtered their own island’s goats seven years before. But that wasn’t the embarrassing part.
What mortified Rodney Trapper, the Goatherd’s son, was being seen in the company of such a fancy little fop, this short, round, over-dressed child who couldn’t keep up and wouldn’t stop talking.
“I say there, Rodney,” called out Cort Butcher, “who’s your new best friend? Or will he be the bait for one of your traps?”
“Rodney Trapper, is it?” added Cort’s wife, Olie Baker. “From now on we’ll be calling you Rodney Nursemaid!”
Rodney tried to laugh them off, but he flushed hot and red and muttered under his breath, “I’m doing this for you, you ungrateful lot. You’ll thank me when I’m finished killing the tyrant. And the only reason I keep company with this boy is because he has the boat to carry me there!”
When Rodney and Frogge reached Aggie Crone’s cottage deep in the forest beyond the far side of town, they found the old woman out in her garden, on her hands and knees, up to her knuckles in the soil, yanking weeds.
“Good morning, Granny,” Rodney called from the lane. He held up his sack. “I brought you a fox.” He whispered to Frogge, “You mustn’t be alarmed by a thing my grandmother says. She speaks her mind, and tells the truth, even if at times what she says sounds peculiar.”
Aggie stood up slowly and stiffly, stretched her back, and shot Rodney a twisted-tooth grin. “About time you got here, Rascal Rodney, and I see you’ve brought along your young friend I’ve been hearing so much about.” She hobbled to the gate and let them in. She offered her hand to the boy and told him, “Hello, young prince named Frogge. I hope you become a man sometime soon, so you can make a man of my foolish grandson.”
Frogge smiled, shrugged the pack off his back, and took the old woman’s hand. She was no taller than he was, but her hands were huge, and her dirty fingers were leathery, with knuckles like rough stones the size of cobnuts. Frogge said, “I’m pleased to meet you, Mistress Aggie Crone. How in the Stars do you know my name?”
Aggie let go of the boy’s hand. “A bird told me.”
Frogge casually wiped his soiled hand on the backside of his purple breeches. “A bird?”
“It’s true,” Rodney said. “She gets her news from the birds.” He handed his sack of game to his grandmother. “Here, Granny. Two weasels, three coneys, three moles, and a fox.”
Aggie Crone took the sack and reached up to pat her grandson’s cheek. “Weasel stew tonight,” she said with a proud smile. “You’ll stay for supper.”
Rodney looked at Frogge, who appeared queasy at the prospect. “You’ve never had a meal so fine as my grandmother’s weasel stew,” he told the boy. “Yes, Granny, we’ll be here for supper, and we’ll stop here for the night as well. Then, tomorrow morning, as soon as Randy the Cock wakes us up at dawn, we’ll be off adventuring. Am I right, Frogge?”
Frogge sucked on his lower lip. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, Mistress Crone. Perhaps I should return to Ralf’s Alehouse for supper and a bed tonight, and then Rodney and I can meet tomorrow, down at the harbor.” He turned to his partner. “Say about noon, so we can set sail early?”
Rodney felt the time had come to establish which of the two was to give the orders. Frogge from The Fens might be a Prince, and he might own the boat, and this whole adventure might have been his idea, but he was just a boy, a spoiled whelp, pampered by privilege. “Frogge—”
“Frogge, you listen to your old Aunt Aggie,” the old woman said. “Don’t you be afraid of weasel stew. Get used to simple fare, lad. And my weasel stew may be the best meal you’ll have for quite some time. You’ll find nothing so tasty on South Wind Isle, I’ll promise you that. Nothing to eat there but grubs, slugs, and snakes, unless Rodney can trap you a vulture. There are vultures aplenty on that windswept island, legends tell, but vultures taste of rot. As for a bed tonight, you’ll sleep in the barn with young Pansy. She’ll keep you warm.”
“Oh, but I couldn’t do that,” Frogge protested. “I’ve pledged my affections to Princess Llanaa, so I—”
“Frogge, Pansy’s a heifer,” Rodney explained.
“And now,” said Aggie Crone, “the two of you can earn your keep by spending the rest of the afternoon in the garden, pulling weeds. Down on your knees, your Highness. You too, Rodney, the would-be hero. If the pair of you can’t do battle with this patch of clover and dock, how do you expect to lay low that Giant?” She nodded fiercely with that frightening face, then let it relax into a summery smile. “If you get hungry while you work, you may eat a few radishes. Not too many, mind. I don’t want you to spoil your appetites.”
That evening, the heat of the day was swallowed by a chilly fog. Supper had gone well; Aggie Crone’s weasel stew was especially tasty, and Prince Frogge, after his first timid spoonful, dug in and asked for three helpings. Now the four of them sat before the fireplace: Aggie, Rodney, their guest Frogge, and Rodney’s pa, Yvor the Goatherd. Yvor hadn’t said one word during supper, and now he didn’t say much more. He rocked back and forth and side to side on his chair, wearing a sad scowl and occasionally muttering, “Goats.”
Frogge had tried and failed to engage Yvor in polite chatter. He turned to Aggie and said, “Your son doesn’t say much, but he seems concerned about his goats.”
“That’s right,” Aggie said. “The poor man lost his spirit and most of his mind seven years ago, when our island lost its goats. My Yvor used to be the Master Goatherd, you see. As was his father before him, and his father’s father before that, and so on back farther than tales can tell. The Master Goatherd was an important man on the Isle of Goats, as you can imagine, and a chief advisor to the King. Now look at my boy. Poor Yvor’s no more important and no more with us than the wooden chair he’s sitting on.”
“That’s right, Sonny. Goats indeed. Prince Frogge, I suppose you’ve heard how our island lost its goats?”
“No, Mistress Crone. I haven’t.”
“Isn’t that just like the other Isles, not to grieve for our great loss. Not even to tell the tale. Well, Your Highness, it was the Giant Clobber, of course. Him and his minions, seven years ago. They arrived in a large boat during the night of the first full moon of spring, and the next day, in broad daylight, they rounded up the herds and slaughtered nearly every goat on the island, and then butchered them in their own slippery blood. The minions did the rounding up, but the Giant Clobber did the killing. And when our good King Noel the Elder bravely walked out onto the scene to stop the senseless butchery, Clobber slaughtered the king as well, and left his body on the pile of heads and hooves and guts, to feed the foxes and the ravens.”
“You said ‘nearly every goat,’” Frogge said. “Did some of the goats escape?”
“Well, yes, there was a herd the Giant didn’t find, in a northern valley near the royal castle. Fifty goats were spared.”
“Well, that was fortunate,” Frogge offered. “Thank the Stars.”
Rodney coughed and spat into the fire. “Damn the Stars, and damn King Noel.”
“But wasn’t King Noel trying his best, doing what he could to stop—”
“Not Good King Noel the Elder,” Aggie Crone explained. “Rodney’s talking about that king’s son, King Noel the Younger, who took the throne upon his father’s death. To celebrate his coronation he slaughtered the remaining fifty goats, and fed them to his royal guests, visiting royalty from the Isles of Mirth and Worth, and the Isles of Thunder and Thorns.”
“I’d like to slaughter our Young King Noel,” Rodney said, pounding his fist into his palm. “But since I can’t do that, I’ll have to kill the Giant Clobber instead.”
“And you’ll return a hero,” his grandmother said. “If you return at all.”
“I have to do this, Gran.”
“I know you do, lad.”
“And,” Frogge pointed out, “when we return triumphant from the Isle of the South Wind and give King Rohar back his crystal eye, you’ll have your reward: half of Blackberry Island to call your own. Blackberry Island is home to hundreds of wild goats, all waiting to be tamed.”
“That’s right, Father, goats. Lots of goats. And you’ll come live with us too, won’t you, Gran?”
“Me? No. I shall live on the Isle of Goats, this Isle of Goats, and in this forest and in this cottage until the Stars call me home. But you’ll have plenty of company, with your pa, and your new goats, and I suppose that woman will go with you? That Bromalynn Alehouse woman?”
Rodney did not answer.
Aggie turned to Frogge and said, “Tell me, Prince, what made you choose this reckless rascal grandson of mine to be your partner in this unwise errand?”
“I didn’t choose Rodney.” Frogge smiled. “He volunteered.”
“You chose him. Don’t lie to me, child.”
Frogge dropped the smile. “Wisdom from the Island of the Stars led me to the Isle of Goats. I was told by the Stargazer that I’d find a goatherd here, and a goatherd’s son, who happened to be a restless fool—”
“A fool for goats,” Aggie said.
“And you, young Prince Frogge?” Aggie asked. “What will be your reward? If you live to claim a reward.”
The boy prince held his hands together as if in prayer to the Stars. “I’ll have my only wish. I’ll marry the Princess Llanaa.”
“Good luck with that,” the old woman said. “From what I’ve heard you’ll need it.”
Frogge nodded. “I know the odds are not in my favor when I fight the Giant, but with Rodney Trapper’s help—”
“I was wishing you luck with that marriage you think you want,” Aggie said. “I don’t know how to wish you luck in your rash plan to kill a brute who outweighs the two of you together, and would outweigh you still if there were four of you. Oh, of course I wish you foolish boys luck, but my wishes won’t do you any good. What will help you will be the potions and charms I shall give you.”
The old woman rose slowly and stiffly from her log stool, lit a candle, and shuffled to her shelves of jars of potions and sacks of herbs. Humming a tuneless song, she took her time assembling her gifts, which she then carried to the table where they had eaten supper. “Come join me,” she told them. “All of you.”
When they were all seated at the table, Aggie Crone handed Frogge a small wooden box. “Here, my young adventurer, is a powder for you to dissolve in clear water. Drink the water daily. It will give you wisdom and wiles, both of which, believe me, you sorely need.” Then she picked up a tied bundle of leaves. “Learn to like this sourmint, because if you chew it each morning upon rising and each evening before you retire, and if you swallow the juice, it will hasten your growth. Soon your voice will drop from a squeak to a rumble, thick hair will sprout in the places that give you pleasure, your hands will become large and hard, and you’ll be blessed—or cursed—with more confidence than is good for most youths, but such confidence may serve you well in battle.”
“Thank you, Mistress Crone.”
Aggie Crone then turned to her grandson. “Rodney, take this tiny blue bottle of fox-tooth powder and keep it with you always. A time may come when you are suffering from an unbearable pain. This fox-tooth powder will take away your suffering forever. You must take it all at one time, and you may use it only once. Do not treat this cure lightly, Rodney the Goatherd’s son. Use it only when you absolutely must.”
“Thank you, Grandmother.”
“And another thing, Rodney. Remember to concentrate. Pay attention. And learn. You’re a strapping young lad, but you’ve never been much good at concentrating. Isn’t that right, Yvor?”
“One more thing,” the old woman said. She walked to the closet behind the stairway and returned carrying a crooked, well-worn broom. She brought it to the table and handed it to Rodney. “Here. To help you in your travels.”
Frogge’s eyes widened. “Is that for flying? May I have a broom, too?”
“This one broom will do quite nicely for the two of you.”
“How does it work?” Rodney asked.
“You’ll know when you need to know. Now off to bed. You young men can both sleep in the barn with Young Pansy. Dream wisely, lads.”
“I’ll dream of the fair Princess Llanaa,” said Prince Frogge. “I always do.”
Rodney said, “I’ll dream of travel, adventure, and battle; and then I’ll dream of the beautiful Blackberry Island, land of—”
“Goats!” cried Yvor the Goatherd. He grinned at his son and said, “Goats.”
Thank you for visiting. I am temporarily posting only occasionally on this blog. I’ll announce these occasional posts as they appear. I hope you’ll drop by then.