"And they lived unhappily ever after," muttered Prince Knight Black as Princess Jennifer screamed at the servants from her bedroom. It was late afternoon of a sweltering midsummer's day in the diminutive kingdom of Retslu. A week of high temperatures and higher humidity had made the prince's wife, not an easy person to live with in ordinary weather, insufferable. To make matters worse, in the last trimester of her pregnancy she was most uncomfortable. The heat only added to her irritability.
"To think what I went through to marry that shrew," Knight Black mused. To become her bridegroom, he had to win a grueling tournament that King Woden had hosted and go on a quest to locate the Fountain of Youth. The first man to return from this dangerous mission in distant, hostile lands with a bottle of the magical water was given the hand of Woden's spoiled and haughty daughter Jennifer. That fortunate man -- Really an unfortunate man, the prince reflected bleakly -- after enduring a multitude of hair-raising adventures and overcoming formidable obstacles was himself.
Nonetheless, the truth be told, those were Knight Black's happiest days. He loved the adventurous life, living off the land, fighting evil men and monsters and using his wits to escape dire predicaments. And, he reminisced, there was Cloridia. Beautiful Cloridia, the Amazon who nursed me back to health when I was near death. At the time their affair had seemed a simple dalliance. But now, as he recalled her wholesomeness, her quiet strength, her tenderness and all that she and he had in common, he realized that he was in love with her.
The irony of his present unhappy state of wedlock was that his original reason for competing for Jennifer's hand would, in all probability, never come about. In those days he had ambitions to be king. Supposedly, the man who married Jennifer would inherit the throne upon King Woden's demise. Although it was true that Woden was an old man (now in his eighty-first year) and that Knight Black was his heir apparent, the restoring powers of the Fountain of Youth's magic water caused the aged monarch to appear and have the health of a vigorous thirty-year-old. Barring an accident or violence, he would likely outlive Knight Black.
How gullible I was when I allowed Dorian to relinquish the prize to me, he chided himself. Nonetheless, he smiled as he recalled that day three years ago. Five adventurers had eluded the infamous red dragon who guarded the entrance to the Fountain of Youth. During the ensuing melee, Mordrake, an evil sorcerer; Sly, a thief and Circe, a wicked witch had fallen into the magic water and were transformed into babies. Although Knight Black's friend Dorian had been the first to retrieve the precious fluid, Dorian was in love with the werecat, Tiger Lily and allowed Knight Black to claim the prize. He and his friends had made quite a sight carrying three naked infants triumphantly through the golden gates of the walls that surrounded the fountain.
Knight Black's woolgathering was interrupted by Jennifer's shrill voice. "Knighty, Knighty," -- oh, how he hated that nickname -- "come here at once."
Wearily he plodded down the hallway to Jennifer's apartment. As he neared her door, a young servant girl burst from the room with tears streaming down her face. In her haste she collided with the prince.
"What's the matter, Mary Anne?"
Mary Anne curtsied and wiped her cheeks with her apron, all in one charming motion. "It's the mistress, Your Grace. She must be feeling poorly, for she's in a foul mood, poor dear."
"I understand. Best you disappear until her spirits brighten. These moods pass as swiftly as they come."
"Thank you, Sire." Mary Anne curtsied again and scurried off.
Jennifer's bedroom was a shambles. Broken crockery lay everywhere, a glass of milk had spilled on the carpet and clothing was strewn about. Jennifer looked rumpled and frowzy as she sprawled out on a divan heaped with pillows.
"Knighty," she screeched, "have Mary Jane beaten."
"Now, now, dear," he said soothingly as he dumped pieces of an expensive vase into a waste can. "What has your maid done so terrible that she must be beaten?"
"Stop that fussing and look at me. What has she done? She brought sour milk. Ugh, the taste will be in my mouth all day."
"Don't be so harsh on the girl. In this weather it curdles rapidly. Besides, it's the cook's fault if anyone's."
"That's it! Defend her." Her tone, however, was a little less harsh as her temper cooled. "She should've tasted it first. But you're right, the cook must also be beaten."
"We can't whip the servants for every little transgression, dear. How would it look? Are you warm? Do you want me to fan you?"
"Yes, fan me. And hand me those chocolates to sweeten my tongue."
As he gave her the candy, he thought, Nothing could sweeten your tongue, Jennifer. He removed an ostrich feather fan from the wall and waved it over her. As he performed this chore, he thought, So this is what it's come to. I'm reduced to an eunuch slave, good only to move the air above my mistress's head. Aloud, he asked, "How do you feel? Any sign of labor?"
"Don't speak of that. I should've never let you touch me, you evil man. I look and feel horrid. Labor should've started weeks ago. You've impregnated me with a monster. I'll have to suffer months more while the awful thing grows until my stomach bursts open like an overripe melon. Fan harder."
"You'll feel differently once our child is born, dear. Won't it be nice to cradle a tiny babe in your arms?"
"Ugh. It'll go straight to a wet nurse. I hate children. Look at those brats you brought home from the quest. Three monsters. And now that they're part grown, they're into everything. You should've let them drown." As she took up another topic, her mood changed to one of almost cheerfulness. "If I'd married Dorian, things would've been different. He'd never let me suffer like this. By the way, where is your charming friend? I haven't seen him all day."
Dorian, always Dorian, Black Knight thought bleakly. What does she see in that mundane youth? He was envious of Dorian, who attracted every woman he met, including Jennifer. I wish she had married him. Then I'd be free. As you can see, he was ambivalent about the situation. But, of course, Dorian cared nothing for Jennifer.
"He's probably telling stories to children or hanging around the kitchen teaching the cook recipes. You know how he loves to experiment with food."
"Why don't you invite him up for a game of chess, Knighty darling?" she cooed in a syrupy tone. "I know you like the game. I'll watch."
Knight Black frowned and his swarthy complexion became even darker. "So that you can flirt with him," he said bitterly.
"What a nasty remark. I was just thinking of you. You seem bored."
"Thinking of me, were you?"
"Yes. Thinking of you."
"How is it Jennifer, whenever you think of me, Dorian's name always comes up?"
At the same time that a stormy quarrel was brewing in Jennifer's bedroom, as it not uncommon on torrid summer days in the late afternoon, a storm of nature was brewing outdoors. Dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Off in the distance the muted rumble of thunder echoed across the valley. A wind gust rattled the shutters and the first few rain drops splattered on the sill. Knight Black dropped the fan and hurried to close the window.
"Leave it open," Jennifer yelled as Knight Black closed the latch. "A little rain won't hurt anything. Perhaps the breeze will dispel the stench in here." Unaccountably she burst into tears.
Now, if there was one thing that disconcerted Knight Black to distraction, it was Jennifer's tendency to bawl loudly in the middle of a quarrel, just when he was making some point or other. It seemed grossly unfair and put him at a distinct disadvantage; he felt simultaneously guilty, pity for her and even angrier.
"Oh Gods, must you cry," he shouted out of frustration. "Stop this instant or I'll leave the room."
Her reply was a cold, "Go then. You have no sympathy for your poor suffering wife." She followed this up by hurling the box of chocolates at his head. It missed his ear by inches and smashed against the wall.
* * *
As the quarrel escalated in Jennifer's boudoir, nature's storm also worsened. Ebony clouds swallowed the sun and lightning crackled across the sky in continuous streaks as though the heavens were splitting like a cracked mirror. A deluge blew horizontally before a driving wind. In the parapet of Castle Klinton's highest tower, a lone guard cursed the gods of weather and donned his poncho before he continued his slow march around the perimeter. In battle this particular soldier was a courageous and fierce warrior and as strong as an ox (hence his nickname, Boris the Ox). His failing, however, was a love of strong drink and brawling when the kingdom was at peace. His penchant for pugnacity had landed him in trouble many times. Thus, although he had been in the Retsluean army for years, he held the lowly rank of private. Even now, as he made his rounds in the torrential rain, his one thought was that once his duty time was over, he would warm the chill from his bones with rum.
As he reached the midpoint of each side of the tower, he would stop and gaze over the wall to see whether anything unusual was occurring. Tonight, because of the bad weather, his view was so limited it was doubtful whether he could have spotted an attacking army if such a force did approach, which luckily was not the case. Yet, it was his duty to check the landscape and that is what he did, without thought.
So it was that, as he peered into the torrent striking him in the face on the parapet's north side, that lightning struck a large oak, splitting it in two. This brightened his mood as he knew that this tree was a favorite of Minister Dorian, a man Boris despised because he had bested the soldier during King Woden's tourney.
Too bad that he's not under that falling limb now, reading his books as he always does, thought Boris. I might be a prince today if it weren't for him and his trickery.
By the light of a second lightning flash out of the corner of his eye, he saw something move. A shadowy figure of an old woman in a dark cloak approached the castle. He squinted, hoping to catch another glimpse of her when the next bolt lit up the sky. Nonetheless, when a streak spider-webbed the night, the person, if there really had been someone, was gone.
Well, if it really was an old woman, he mused, what of it? An old crone like that can do no harm. No sense reporting what I'm not sure I saw.
He lingered at the spot to see whether others would appear, lest it be said that he was derelict in his duties. The person might be a spy. Although the storm still raged, the wind and rain abated, making the viewing better. The lightning and thunder continued as before, giving him flashes of the landscape every few moments.
Behind the fallen oak was the royal churchyard. Boris's gaze took in this area especially, in case someone was hiding among the ornate crosses, statues and mausoleums. Suddenly a strange misty blue glow appeared above a grave. Boris's first thought was that it was some strange ball lightning. It lingered too long, however, and rose towards the tower. Now, as was said before, Boris was brave and fearless in battle. But when it came to the supernatural, his courage failed. As the uncanny glow headed in his direction, he ran around the corner of the tower. There he stopped, pulled back by curiosity and his sense of duty. As quietly as possible he slid along the wall and peered around the edge. What he saw raised the hackles on the back of his neck. The glowing ball, occupying the very spot he had just vacated, changed shape, growing until it resembled in hazy outline a large man. This congealed somewhat and although still translucent into the figure of a man in royal robes and wearing a crown.
"Tis the ghost of some long dead king risen from the grave," muttered Boris. A chill like the cold, dead hand of a corpse touched his spine.
The specter groaned loudly. With piercing eyes, it gazed in Boris's direction. Boris jerked his head back and flattened against the wall. His knees quaked so hard that his bones rattled.
"Boor-is," the phantom called in an eerie hollow voice. "Come here and kneel before a former monarch of this land. I have a message to impart to my great-great-grandson."
The trembling Boris froze at these words and nearly fainted. It was long moments before he could force himself to move. When he did, instead of obeying the wraith's orders, he catapulted towards the tower door and clattered down the narrow stairwell as fast as possible. Because of his panic, he did not see General Eric coming up the steps to inspect the guard and nearly bowled him over.
Eric halted Boris's mad plunge with a firm hand. "What's the matter, Private? You look as though you've seen a ghost."
Coming upon his commanding officer so suddenly shocked some of the nightmarish fright from Boris. With a still trembling hand, he saluted smartly. "Aye sir, 'tis truly a ghost I've seen. And it's after me."
"Have you been drinking on duty again?" The skeptical Eric brought his nose close to Boris's mouth to smell his breath. He hastily withdrew it as a strong stench of garlic issued from it.
"No sir, on my honor. First lightning struck the big oak by the graveyard. Then a witch appeared and disappeared again. Then this awful king of demons rose from his grave and came after me with claws like daggers." The horror that Boris felt had exaggerated the spirit's appearance in his mind.
Eric wondered whether Boris had gone daft. "Slow down Private. I can barely follow your story you're talking so fast. Where is this denizen of Hell now? If it had been chasing you, it should be here now."
Eric's skepticism calmed Boris somewhat. Screwing up his courage, he replied, "General sir, the last I saw of it, it was on the parapet of the tower. Perhaps it's still there."
"Then let's investigate. C'mon Private, you and I shouldn't fear evil spirits. They'll be our constant companions after we die."
Boris reluctantly followed Eric back up the staircase.
* * *
Meanwhile, the quarrel in Jennifer's boudoir had become an all out war of words and missiles. The missiles being almost any object close enough for Jennifer to hurl at Knight Black. Finally the prince retreated from the room in a huff. He once again collided with Mary Anne, who instead of taking the prince's advice, had been listening with her ear to the door. This time he merely brushed past her without a word and went directly to his room where he stood by the window in the blackest of moods. As he stared at the raging storm, he soliloquized:
"To leave or not to leave: that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and crockery of Jennifer's wrath
Or to take legs against a sea of troubles
And by leaving end them. To leave; to go;
No more; and by fleeing to say we end
The heartache, and the wench's shocks
That flesh heir, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To leave, to go
To flee: perchance to meet
Aye the lovely Cloridia."
* * *
When Eric and Boris reached the tower's parapet, the skeptical Eric stepped boldly out on the narrow causeway, sure that Boris had been hallucinating. Boris followed hesitantly, ready to flee at any moment. Immediately upon rounding the corner on the side where he had his frightening experience, the ghost confronted them. "Kneel subjects," the specter commanded in his unearthly voice. "I am the departed King Dunking."
Eric, utterly confounded, did as he was bade, thinking that some trickery was involved, but not sure what. The apparition certainly appeared authentic. Boris also knelt, too terrified to do anything else.
Eric said, "What is it that you want of us, Your Former Majesty? Why have you left the other world to stand before us in such foul weather?" Eric became aware that in his haste to dispel Boris's illusions he had forgotten to don his cloak.
"I have a message for my great-great-great grandson, King Woden," Dunking replied in his eerie hollow voice.
Eric pondered this for a moment. If this was an elaborate prank, apparently the king was to be one of the butts of it. Well, it better be a good one or the perpetrators will be laughing out of body openings they never had before, he thought as he decided to play along with the gag. "Boris, fetch His Majesty."
Grateful for an excuse to leave, Boris swiftly charged down the narrow tower steps to the castle proper, jogged through the anteroom and up the main staircase to the royal family's quarters. He did not stop to catch his breath until he had reached Woden's chambers. On his way he was surprised to see that the front entrance was ajar and that rain had puddled on the marble floor. Somebody's arrived or departed in a hurry, he thought. He was right on both counts.
As he was about to knock on Woden's door, a groan and a shriek issued from Jennifer's apartment. What now? he thought. Is someone harming the princess? He rushed to her rescue, bursting in unannounced. "Gods Princess, has some blackguard attacked you?" he cried when he saw the mess left from her quarrels with Mary Anne and Prince Knight Black. "It must've been a maniac to do so much damage. Are you wounded?"
Jennifer was lying calmly on the settee where Black Knight had left her. At first she was startled by Boris's abrupt entrance. In a moment, however, she saw the ludicrousness of the situation and exploded into laughter at Boris's wild appearance. Nonetheless, she soon resumed her usual haughty manner. "Wounded in the heart only, you boorish peasant."
"Your heart? Oh Gods, the intruder has stabbed you in the chest. You're mortally wounded."
"You fool," Jennifer shouted impatiently. "No one has stabbed me. At least not in the chest. Oh, oh, ow. Here comes another." The last was a gasping sob.
"Another intruder? Where? I'll protect you."
"Not an intruder, you stupid dolt -- a labor pain. Fetch my father. Fetch the prince. Fetch the servants. Now!!! I'm having the baby!! Don't stand there gaping. Do it."
The hopelessly confused Boris ran from the room to do her bidding. He immediately encountered Mary Anne, still lurking in the hallway.
"Mary Anne, the p-p-princess ... she's ... having a ..."
"I know. I heard everything. I'll take care of Princess Jennifer. Go and notify King Woden and Prince Knight Black. Then fetch hot water."
She rushed into Jennifer's room, leaving a stunned Boris scratching his head. "Hot water?" he muttered. "She must've thought I meant that the princess is having a bath."
Nonetheless, he marched to the Woden's apartment and pounded loudly. While he waited, he recalled his original mission. So, when a sleepy Woden appeared in his dressing gown, he bowed low. "Forgive the intrusion so late at night, Your Majesty, but Princess Jennifer is having a ghost and a baby is haunting the north tower."
"Eh, what?" Woden mumbled sleepily. Nonetheless, when he realized that it was Boris who so rudely disturbing his rest, he came to life and yelled, "Drunk again Private? This is the last straw. We've been too lenient with you. It'll be thirty lashes and a month in the dungeon this time. How dare you disturb my slumber?"
Boris fell to his knees. "But Your Majesty, I haven't had a drink since early this morning. I've only come to tell you that Princess Jennifer is in labor and that the ghost of a long dead king has appeared."
"Jennifer is having the baby? Wonderful news. Why didn't you say so in the first place? Are the servants with her?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. Mary Anne is attending her."
"Good, good. And what is the other thing you said?"
Boris, feeling calmer, told his story about the strange happenings at the tower.
"Hmm, a portent. After I dress and see to Jennifer, I'll go up to the tower with you. Meanwhile, tell Prince Knight Black the good news. Meet me at the tower entrance."
Boris waited until Woden closed his door before rising. He went to Black Knight's apartment at the end of the hall. To his surprise, the door was ajar. He tapped lightly before swinging it open. The room was dark and silent. "Prince, are you there?" he called softly. No reply. He called again, louder. Still no answer. He shouted, "Prince Knight Black." Only silence. He stepped inside, felt his way around until he found a candelabra and lit the candles. The room was neat and orderly -- and empty. A glance at the bed told him that no one had slept in it.
Now I'll have to hunt him down, thought Boris testily. What a night. He's probably with that blackguard, Dorian, playing chess. While his lovely wife suffers.
Not anxious to return to the tower to face the ghost and in all likelihood General Eric's wrath at the delay, he slowly tromped down the main staircase towards Minister Dorian's apartment. Halfway there he encountered a strange middle-aged woman in a black cloak that dripped puddles as she headed upstairs. Recalling the figure he had seen from the parapet, he was immediately suspicious. "Who are you?"
"I'm Wortcillia, the midwife. It's my understanding that a woman here has come to term," she croaked in a voice like fingernails scraping a blackboard.
"Oh! It's Princess Jennifer herself who is in labor. Right up these steps and to your left."
She scampered past him holding her skirts from dragging with claw-like hands. As she disappeared around the corner of the landing, Boris scratched his head and wondered how a midwife had arrived so quickly. Nonetheless, he shrugged and continued on his way to Dorian's abode.