The Coward

English: A cleft chin

English: A cleft chin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He had a great black helmet, covered with swirling lines of ocean current.  At the top was a great bush of the creamiest, whitest horsehair.  Below the horsehair were the best curling golden locks that any maid would die for.  He had a sharp nose, thick lips, and a cleft chin.  Below the chin was an enormous barrel chest and arms as thick as your thighs.  His thighs were as thick as your waist.  He had golden armor that gleamed and a great sword that he could swing about and make the air sing.

Stephen looked the very picture of a warrior.  It was such a shame that he was a coward.  Since he was a little lad, Stephen had never been in a fight.  He always gave up or ran.

The trouble was, Stephen was in a military academy.  Every time he sparred, he ran.  But at everything else he was pretty good.  So he was passing.

All the way up through the ranks, Stephen flunked sparring class.  But he got high enough marks in everything else, so he kept getting passed.  All the instructors knew the stories about sparring class, but Stephen was so impressive they had trouble believing them.  His classmates knew Stephen was a coward, but they also knew his father was a major general and kept their snickering to a low murmur.

So it got to be graduation day, and all the instructors knew that Stephen had never been in a fight.  He’d never even sparred.  But he could do sword work, he could throw a spear.  All the coursework was based on Stephen’s ability with a weapon, not on his ability to use that weapon in combat.  So even though the sparring teacher flunked him again.  Stephen graduated.  The academy had never had such a proficient coward before.

After graduation, Stephen looked around for a job.  He had some inkling of his shortcomings as a soldier, so he took a job as a bodyguard.  He was a very good bodyguard, because bodyguards are supposed to look ferocious and not really do anything unless their charges are attacked.  Stephen looked so terrible his charges were never attacked.

Ten years passed, and the war came.  All the bodyguards were called up first, because they were experienced fighters.  But Stephen’s charge was very high up in government, so he got a pass.  And for the second call, and the third, and the fourth.  By the time they got to the seventh call, Stephen was by far the most experienced soldier they had.  So they put him in charge of a rabble of young apprentices.  He was leading a band of untrained boys into almost certain destruction as the invading army moved over the land.

Stephen was pretty good at marching and teaching other people how to fight.  He was kind and a good listener, and he inspired his troops.  It was even fair to say he taught them about three good ways to kill someone, which was all they could remember anyway.

But Stephen was a coward.  So rather than wait until dawn and charge against his enemy, Stephen had his troops march through the night and attack his enemy at the ungodly hour of three a.m. The seasoned enemy troops were so used to the way things should be they took a long time realizing that things had changed.  By that point their general was captured, their horses were gone, and Stephen’s apprentices had beaten them most soundly with their own weapons.

Stephen hadn’t been in the battle.  He’d been up on a hill, about as far away from the battle as possible.  But when it was done, he was made a general.

Now no one wants Stephen to fight.  They want Stephen to talk to people and to avoid another costly war if at all possible.  And Stephen is very good at his job.  He really doesn’t want to fight, ever.

The Three Brothers

William de Breteuil stands guard over the trea...

William de Breteuil stands guard over the treasury after the death of William II to defend the succession claim of Robert Curthose, the king’s elder brother. The youngest brother, Henry, however, is determined to obtain the royal treasures and succeed as king. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My apologies.  I have neglected to share the various adventures of my son’s favorite character with the world, perhaps to its betterment.

Tonight he allowed me to tell a story of my own:

The Three Brothers

Once upon a time there was a great waterfall pounding down into the earth, surrounded by stunted, yellow-leafed trees.  Where it pounded there was a deep trough full of its frothy waters, and at the bottom of this trough there was a cave.  The cave was reached by swimming down and up, and it was not a cold and damp cave.  Rather it was a dim and soft cave, filled with luminescent moss and warmed by volcanic steam that came up from somewhere deep in the earth.

Three brothers lived in the cave, and had done so for three years.  They had escaped from their uncle, an evil duke, and hidden in the cave for three years.  In all that time they had never ventured out, as the moss was nutritious and the water was there for the drinking.

This was the final day, and all along the wall of the cave there were rows of hash marks marking the passage of time.  The boys took turns gouging out the time and the eldest brother dug out this final day and turned to his brothers.  “It is done.”

The brothers knew that at the end of three years their evil uncle would have established his son, their cousin, as the heir to their inheritance.  Their cousin would have reached the age of maturity today, and they knew their uncle wouldn’t wait a day longer than necessary.

So their cousin had their inheritance, but the brothers were now of no consequence and they were now safe to leave the cave.

The eldest brother looked at the lapping water of the waterfall.  But the youngest brother felt something troubling him.  “Maybe we should wait for a few more days.” The second brother looked at him incredulously.  “I’m not waiting another hour to see the sun, and to walk in the open breezes.  Stay and mold in this cave if you like, but I will enjoy my freedom.” With that, he threw himself into the water and was gone.

The eldest brother looked sorrowfully at the youngest.  “I’d best go and protect him.” He too dove into the water.  But the youngest brother didn’t feel right about it, and so he stayed in the cave.

The two older brothers slogged out of the water and walked back toward the Duke’s village.  The waterfall wasn’t far from the village and the day was warm.  They enjoyed the sun’s light, though it was so bright it hurt their eyes.  Once they reached the village, the brothers looked around for the celebration.  At last one asked a villager, “aren’t you celebrating our cousin’s coming of age today?” “Oh,” said the villager.  “That’s tomorrow.”

The two older brothers looked behind them.  The Duke’s guards were following them.  More stood in front of them.  In bewilderment, the brothers were taken before the Duke.

The Duke was furious. “You disappear for three years, only to appear the day before my son’s coming of age!  You waltz around my village for all to see.  Now I have to postpone his celebration until you tell me where your brother is, and all of you disappear for good.”  The elder brothers were taken down to the dungeons to be tortured.

The youngest brother realized what had been bothering him.  The second year they had been here in the cave had been a Leap year.  They had forgotten to add the extra day, and so his brothers had rushed back to the castle a day early.

The youngest brother knew that the Duke would imprison his brothers.  He knew that the second brother would be silent, but that the eldest brother would tell where he was as soon as they threatened the life of the second brother.  They would do that on the second day of torture.  So the youngest brother dove into the water of the waterfall.  When he came out, he walked in the direction opposite the Duke’s village.

Knowing what he knew, the youngest brother was still helpless against the Duke.  He didn’t even have a sword and the Duke had a small army.  He didn’t even have a hut to call his own, and the Duke had a castle.  He was penniless, and the Duke had a small fortune.  What could the youngest brother do to help his brothers?  He thought and thought as he walked to the first village away from the Duke’s castle.

When the youngest brother entered the first village, he told them what he suspected, that his brothers were being tortured and that the Duke meant to take their inheritance for his own son.  The villagers listened and asked what they could do, and he told them.  They gave him some food and let him borrow an old horse.  He traveled on to the next village and told them his story. On and on traveled the youngest brother.

So while the Duke’s men surrounded the waterfall and dived for the cave, the youngest brother spread his story throughout the villages of the Duke’s realm.  By the time the soldiers gave up on the waterfall, he had traveled throughout the villages and hid himself in the one farthest from the Duke’s village.

The Duke was furious that he did not have the youngest brother.  He had to delay the inheritance of his son.  He fumed and fretted, but thought that sooner or later the youngest son would turn up.

Even though the villagers had listened to the youngest son, what could they do against the Duke and his small army?  The youngest son had told them what they could do.  Don’t go to the Duke’s village.  Don’t bring grain, don’t bring potatoes.  Don’t trade your food for money, keep it in the villages until the Duke changes his ways.

So that Saturday the Duke’s cooks went out to the market, and there was no market.  None of the villagers had come.  There was no food to buy.

The Duke sent out his men to ask where the villagers had gone.  The villagers all had an excuse.  One of them had been sick, another had a lame horse, and a third had been visiting his relatives and missed market day.  None knew why anyone else had missed market, and they were simply apologetic.

No matter. The Duke’s cooks had stores enough, though the Duke missed his fresh meat and vegetables.

The next week the cooks went down and there was no market.  This time the Duke rode out to see what had happened.  He saw that the villagers turned away from him, that they wouldn’t meet his eye when they made their excuses.  They had been turned against him, and though the Duke was evil he was no fool.  He sent out his spies to listen to the villagers and report back to him.

The spies reported that the villagers were angry that the Duke had imprisoned and was torturing the two eldest brothers.  The Duke could only assume that his own guards had told the villagers what he did in the secret dungeons below the castle.  He had a purge of his own guards.  Many were questioned, a few were tortured, and a few ran away only to be tracked down and slain as traitors.

The next week there was no market, and the Duke’s castle was full of hunger.  The Duke sent out an announcement that he was releasing the two eldest brothers.  He did so, throwing them out of his gates.  The sympathetic villagers smuggled them out to the farthest village in a hay cart, where they met their youngest brother.  “What have you done?” They asked him.  “The Duke is terrified.  He released us rather than go hungry.” “I did nothing,” said the youngest brother.  “I just taught the villagers how powerful they truly were.”

The next week there was no market, and the Duke sent out his men to retake the two eldest brothers.  Though they searched, the soldiers could not find the brothers.  Enraged, the Duke had another purge, and many of his soldiers were tortured or killed.

Sitting on his throne, starving, surrounded by only a few dozen terrified guards, the Duke realized he had been beaten.  No one had stormed his gates.  No one had fought his guards.  No one had risked a sword fight with his mighty sword.  But he was beaten.

The Duke announced that he was abdicating his Dukedom.  He left his crown on his throne and left in a carriage for a neighboring kingdom with all the gold he could find.

When they heard about the loss of the Duke, the brothers rejoiced.  They traveled from village to village, and in each they had a celebration.  When they arrived at last in the Duke’s village, the hungry villagers welcomed the brothers and the food and merchants they brought with them.

The people shouted for the youngest brother to become Duke, and the elder brothers agreed.  For he had not been the best in battle or the strongest in arms, but he had brought the people to freedom.

Grumpy Butt Gnome Thwarts the Evil Nose Troll


No-Troll (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My apologies to anyone with any taste or literary sensibility.  The following is a requested follow-up by my seven-year-old. 

Once upon a time there was a grumpy butt gnome.  His arch-enemy, the evil nose troll, was up to something.  Even down in the lower bowels, the grumpy butt gnome could hear noises and gurgles coming from up above. 

The body owner, a fat man named Jack, was having a terrible day.  He felt like someone was hammering in the back of his nose.  If he had known that he was right, and that a tiny evil troll was trying to break down the back of his nose and pour snot down into his throat, it would have made him gibber like a loon. 

The troll had figured out that the grumpy butt gnome was at the other end of the body pipe.  So if he dumped enough snot down the hole it would gum up the whole pipe and end the grumpy butt gnome’s stinky ways. 

Pound, pound, pound!  “Oh, gor, me head!”  The body owner Jack writhed about on the couch.  In his belly he could feel the beginnings of the biggest, nastiest fart he’d ever felt, as the grumpy butt gnome prepared to defend himself from the troll’s attack. 

The grumpy butt gnome could generate a really nasty, full rotten egg and dead lizard style fart in a second.  But he was filling up the lower end of the bowels with fart after fart.  No evil troll was going to snot him out of his domain. 

When the first burp caught the body owner Jack by surprise he practically threw up.  “Gor!  I’ve pooped in me mouth!  That’s nasty, that’s just nasty!”  Jack  tried to keep the burps down by drinking a soda, but the gasses kept getting worse.  “Gor!” 

Up in the nose, the first blast knocked the evil nose troll backwards.  He clawed his way back to his feet, but the next blast almost blew him out of the nose.  He had to cling onto Jack’s nose hairs, pulling one of them free and making Jack scream like a girl with pain. 

At the end of ten minutes, Jack was scrubbing his mouth with toothpaste after every burp, and the evil troll threw in the towel.  He gave up and stopped pounding.  The grumpy butt gnome waiting for three more burps, and then let the gasses out the back door.  Body owner Jack levitated into the air and swirled around the room like a releasing balloon, shrieking in terror as he did so. 

The Farmer

English: Young cattle – the milk cows at the o...

English: Young cattle – the milk cows at the organic farm, eating hay silage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a farmer.  He was a dairy farmer, and the land he didn’t use for grazing he planted corn on.  The corn he used to feed the cows.  He ran a tight farm, and the house and barn always had a fresh coat of paint.  Over the years he’d done well for himself.

One day a fella in a jalopy drove in and tried to sell the farmer on some sprays that would make his corn more plentiful.  The farmer explained that he didn’t need to make the corn more plentiful because he planted enough for his herd.  The man in the jalopy explained that the farmer could sell the extra corn and make money. It sounded good until the farmer asked how the spray might affect the milk.  The man didn’t know, so the farmer said he’d think about it.  He took the man’s card and never got back to him.

The fella called him up a few times, but the farmer wasn’t really interested.  So the fella told him that progress was coming and he should be more forward-thinking.  The farmer told him not to call again, because he had things to do.

A while later on, another fella in a big-finned car drove up and tried to sell the farmer on an injection that would make the farmer’s cows give more milk.  It all sounded good until the farmer asked what might happen to the people who drank the milk.  The fella didn’t know, and the farmer said he didn’t think he’d do that right now.  The fella told him that was just backward thinking and he should know that progress was coming with or without him.

In a few years, the farmer’s competitors were making money on their corn and producing more milk.  It was harder to make ends meet.  The farmer thought about doing things differently, but it just didn’t seem right.

Then one day a bunch of long-haired folk pulled up in a VW bus.  They wanted to buy some milk to make some yoghurt.  The farmer thought that was a bit silly, but he agreed to sell them the milk.

One of the long-haired folk started asking the farmer if he used sprays or injected his cows.  He told her that he didn’t spray the corn because he produced enough for the cows.  He didn’t inject the cows because it didn’t seem right, and he used the cow manure to help fertilize the corn.

“So you mean it’s an organic farm, man?” said the long-hair, seemingly impressed.  The farmer shrugged.  After they left he had to look up the word, and still didn’t figure how they’d added a word to what he’d been doing all along.

More long-haired people came, and some settled up the road. They all came by and admired the farm.  One of them told the farmer he was so forward-thinking.  “You’re years ahead of the curve, man.”

A few years later the farmer was asked to teach some long-haired folks how to farm the way he’d been doing all his life.  They called him a visionary, and a forward-thinker.

When he got home, the farmer told his wife that he figured he must have gotten so far behind progress that it had lapped him and he ended up in front again.  They both laughed and went about doing what needed doing.

In honor of Maine’s Common Ground Fair:

Arnie Leadbetter

Tekening van Carlo Boszhard als Arnie in Pitti...

Tekening van Carlo Boszhard als Arnie in Pittige Tijden pen en inkt door Jan Olijve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When men dreamed of reaching the stars, they looked to great rockets to hurl complex chunks of metal and gizmos far into the space beyond our atmosphere.  But the space missions never got farther than our solar system.  We never created a strong enough fuel or a strong enough astronaut to survive the intense pressures needed to breach our own little star.

What no one expected was that Arnie Leadbetter would find a better way.  Arnie was more interested in -well- cultivating herbs than in space travel. But he had a passion.

Arnie’s passion was music, and he voiced that passion with a lifelong obsession with speakers.  Arnie had collected speakers from the time he was barely crawling and had wretched his first speaker free from the stereo, scratching his father’s favorite vintage vinyl.

By the time Arnie reached college, he could fill his dented Uhaul hover full of old speakers.  He paved the floor of his college dorm room with subwoofers that could beat like a huge heart.  His walls were stacked with speakers in decreasing sizes, and his ceiling was glued full of tiny, iPod compatible mini-speakers.  Arnie even had speakers left over, and dumped them on his bed in a random pile and plugged them into the vast array.  It was a random arrangement, and it took follow-up experimenters several years to get the array right.

Arnie plugged an iPod mini into the middle of the room and sat down for a perfect sound experience.  He was never seen again.  The entire college’s electric grid, including the mini-nuclear power plant under the physics building, was entirely drained.  When they traced it to Arnie’s room, he had created a rift in space and time that whistled and breathed like a living thing.

If you looked through the rift, you could see stars. But the rift itself was on a planet with a similar atmosphere.  Otherwise, the building and possibly the earth would have been emptied of atmosphere.

When the findings were declassified a few years ago conspiracy theorists thought Arnie was being held by the government.  But he was living happily on the other side of the portal, sitting on the palm beach, eating the marshmallow coconuts, and listening to the sound of the stars as their light pinging through the rarefied atmosphere of the new world.  Arnie had found the perfect sound system, and he was happy.

The Velvet Glove

English: George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland.

English: George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a velvet glove.  It held a delicate lace handkerchief.  The handkerchief did not belong to the glove. It belonged to a very sophisticated young lady named Beatrice.  A bribed maid had delivered the handkerchief to the Duke of Armand, who owned the velvet glove.

The Duke wished his cousin, Jason, to inherit the estate of Cumberland.  But his cousin was second-in-line to inherit behind the current Earl of Cumberland. The current Earl of Cumberland was known for his wit, his wealth, and his hot temper. He was also betrothed to Beatrice.

The Duke was known for his cunning, his manipulations, and his ability to kill his opponents during a duel.  He was a crack shot, and two dozen men had fallen to his hand.

At that evening’s gathering, which featured a piano forte and mediocre talent from the Austen sisters, the Duke made certain to pull out the handkerchief at numerous occasions directly in front of the Earl.  The lace B on the handkerchief was quite large, and the Earl could not fail to notice that only his betrothed had such fine lace work.  He inquired of the Duke where he had gotten the handkerchief.

In a brilliant bit of playacting, the Duke looked at the handkerchief as if for the first time.  He told the Earl that he did not recall, but that it had been some loose moraled wench who had pressed her affections upon him in a hallway at their last gathering.

The Earl, incensed, told the Duke a number of things, including the fact that he was a lying villain.  The Duke took the opportunity to slap the Earl across the face with his velvet glove.  It was the classic challenge to a duel, and the Earl accepted.  The Duke’s plan had worked perfectly.

Only as his temper calmed did the Earl realize that he was likely to die in the morning.  Beatrice arrived and told him that her handkerchief had likely been stolen by her maid, and didn’t he realize that the Duke’s cousin would inherit the Cumberland estate if the Earl was killed?  The Earl realized how he’d fallen into the Duke’s trap, but honor would not allow him to run from the duel.

Beatrice, shedding bitter tears, left the stubborn Earl and returned to her home.  She resisted an urge to fire her maid on the spot and instead called the girl to her room.  She confided that the Earl intended to wear a metal undershirt to the duel and that he was to take a speeding draught in the morning so he could outdraw the Duke and fire first.  She showed the maid the precious potion and set it on the bedside table.  In a few minutes she was asleep, snoring softly.  She fully expected the light footsteps that crept across her floor and in the morning the speeding draught was gone.

The maid made haste to the Duke’s mansion and told him of the metal undershirt and the speeding draught.  The Duke considered the draught and asked to be sure this was the only one.  The maid confessed she didn’t know.  Just to be certain of his victory, the Duke decided to take the draught himself.

In the dawn the Earl arrived at the designated spot.  The dew sparkled on the grass, and the thudding of his heart made him feel all the more poignantly that it might soon be stilled.  His second arrived, followed shortly by Beatrice.  They waited while the Duke’s second fidgeted and looked at his pocket watch.  After nearly an hour, the duel was declared forfeit.  The Duke’s honor was lost, and his second made haste to his mansion where he found the Duke snoring like a hive of bees.

As he gratefully left the dueling field, the Earl of Cumberland inquired of his beloved Beatrice about her insomnia and what the doctor had prescribed.  She replied that the sleeping draught given to her by the doctor was as effective as he had advertised, and had put her mind at ease. She would order more that very day.

If you enjoyed this story, you might like the book: Page Turner: Avarice and The Arcane. (I promise that I’m not telling stories just to support the book, this is what is occurring to me to tell each night. I don’t premake up any plot, I just let the story unfold.  Once the boys are asleep if I have time I type in what I told them. The above is unedited.)

The Hem

Elizabeth I as a Princess

Elizabeth I as a Princess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a beautiful hem.  Ruffled, with dainty little flowers.  Below it was a well-formed ankle and a lovely high-heeled violet shoe.  It was a shame no one had ever seen the hem.

The hem belonged to Elizabeth Shaff.  Elizabeth belonged to the sort of society that attended balls, did tea, had lessons, went riding and sent correspondence. She had enough money that she never needed to work.  Her life was spent buying great gowns that swept the floor and attracted the attention of other people, young suitors,  with money.

It was that last ball in August, and everyone was there at the great ballroom.  Elizabeth had arrived fashionably late.

At the time Elizabeth lived it was considered scandalous to show off a woman’s ankles.  The only equivalent today would be to have someone drop their pants.  So Elizabeth had made certain no man had ever seen her ankles.

Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, the workman who had put in the grand stair in the ballroom had used a piece of wood with dry rot in it.  Dry rot is when a wood is eaten away and weakened where the rot has set in.  The spot of dry rot was very small, and it would take an exact blow from a high heel to pierce the stair.

Elizabeth was announced with her aunt Mildred who was there to chaperone Elizabeth.  Tonight two of Elizabeth’s suitors were present, one she liked and one who liked her.  The one who liked her had money, the one she liked did not.  Everyone said Elizabeth should choose the one with money, because matching money with money was the thing to do.

Being announced meant that everyone in the ballroom turned to watch Elizabeth and her aunt descend the great stairs.  Elizabeth did so gracefully, her great golden gown flowing down the stairs like water.  Then Elizabeth’s violet high heel struck the dry rot of the stair precisely and stuck fast.  It stuck so fast that eventually a carpenter had to be called to remove it with pliers. But Elizabeth didn’t know that yet.

Seeing her niece pause, Elizabeth’s aunt inquired if anything was wrong.  Elizabeth shook her head, all the while wiggling her foot madly under her dress to free her heel.

Behind them, another couple was announced.  They also wanted their turn to descend the grand staircase and Elizabeth was holding up the line.  Already people were commenting behind fans all around the ballroom, wondering at the hold up.

The couple behind Elizabeth stopped. To brush by her would have been a social slight, something that would have been talked about for days.  The elderly woman inquired of Elizabeth if anything was wrong.  Elizabeth had failed to free her shoe and half-considered abandoning both shoes and continuing barefoot just to avoid the pile-up. But then her shoes would be left on the stairs, unsightly and the stuff of gossip.  In desperation, Elizabeth turned to her aunt and the older woman.  “My shoe is stuck.”

“Oh dear,” said the older woman.  “We’ll go ahead and send someone up.” The two of them threaded their way around Elizabeth and her aunt.

As they went by, Elizabeth thought she could use the distraction to reach down and free her shoe.  At the time, such an action was as odd as unbuckling one’s pants.  So every eye, particularly every male eye, was drawn to the sight of Elizabeth rummaging in the folds of her dress for her shoe.  They all hoped to catch a flash of ankle, a quick glimpse of that most forbidden of views.

At this point, it should be mentioned that Elizabeth was human.  Like all humans, no matter well trained, she was prone to forget the world around her for the sake of accomplishing the little task she was focused on.

It occurred to Elizabeth that if she could just see her shoe, she might free it.  She failed to notice that the elderly couple no longer blocked her from view.  So she lifted her dress to view her shoe, fully exposing her ankle and the pretty hem above it.

Only when she heard the collective gasp from the ballroom did Elizabeth look up and realize her error.  She had exposed her ankle in public, something that only an ill-bred street hussy would do.  In embarrassment Elizabeth abandoned her shoes and fled back up out of the ballroom barefoot.

Of course, after her display of ankle, Elizabeth could not be wed to anyone with money.  Instead she gratefully accepted the offer of marriage from her penniless suitor.

Together they immigrated to the U.S. where their descendents form part of the workforce for the industrial midwest.  One of her grandchildren worked for an animation company, and penned a version of the Cinderella story for that company based on his grandmother‘s error.  Eventually the part about the exposed ankle was deemed too controversial and the story just mentioned the loss of the shoes.

So sometimes a hem, a simple ruffled hem, can change history.

If you enjoyed this story, you will like the new book, Page Turner: Avarice and The Arcane, available from Amazon.

Page Turner: Avarice and The Arcane.
Page Turner: Avarice and The Arcane.