Then the great old, young, beautiful princess turned to Curdie.
“Now, Curdie, are you ready?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” answered Curdie.
“You do not know what for.”
“You do ma’am. That is enough.”
George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie
Since his departure from the village, Father Caril maintained a preoccupied silence as he considered ways to remain at the inn when they returned. His companions were just as taciturn. Sir Arlan was intent on reaching Lord Lokinvar’s castle before sunset, and Sir Willis was nursing mild heartburn from an excess of sausages at breakfast. Sir Willis was thankful, however, that nothing of consequence happened last night at supper save for Sir Arlan’s unwelcome advances to the serving girl. He reflected that he was getting past the age of foolish adventures and was glad nothing serious came of Sir Arlan’s intemperate behavior.
At midday, the party stopped to rest the horses and partake of some bread and cheese. Father Caril walked away from the rest, making his way toward the sound of a small stream. He stood gazing out over the stream pondering his situation. A sound in the nearby shrubbery made him glance down in search of its source. It was then that he noticed something; he bent down and examined the bush more closely. He smiled. This will do, he thought. This will do very well.
The great hall at Caerleon Castle blazed with light. Abundant candles cast their reflections on the highly polished tables, whose surfaces were laden with platters and bowls of food. This was Lord Lokinvar’s hospitality for his honored guests, Sir Arlan, Sir Willis, and Father Caril. Even Sir Arlan’s squire Stubbs was accorded a place of honor among his peers. Skandar and Alanar had occasionally seen displays such as these, but never was their purpose so keenly felt as this. It was on account of Skandar that these visitors were now sitting here in his father’s hall. At other times, Skandar was content to play a minor role in the festivities—a brief introduction and perhaps a toast as Lord Lokinvar’s son, then freedom to pursue his own pleasure. This evening, however, Skandar was seated between his father and mother, and there was no escaping the fact that he was the center of attention. Skandar craned his neck for a glimpse of Alanar, seated further down the table. Alanar returned his look with a smile and a wink.
If Sir Arlan thought it unseemly to seat the older son at the same table as the younger, he made no sign of it. Lord Lokinvar was a powerful ruler who would not be gainsaid in a chosen purpose. If he chose tonight to acknowledge his eldest son, then he, Sir Arlan, would honor it. When he left for London two days hence, it would be with Skandar, not Alanar. As Arlan considered both of the boys, he admitted to himself that Alanar was the better favored of the two. When they were first introduced upon his arrival at Caerleon, both Sir Arlan and Sir Willis were startled by the resemblance between King Rheynold and his nephew, Alanar. A small wonder it was, seeing as how alike Lady Rhowena was to her brother.
It’s a pity, Sir Arlan thought, that things turned out the way they did. Anyone with eyes can see that Alanar was born to rule—which might not be acceptable to Prince Rhino. The priests say that God’s will be done; perhaps it is so in this case.
Sir Arlan came out of his reverie to hear Lady Rhowena inquire after her majesty, the queen. He made the appropriate comments and then applied himself to his plate. A man of action, he chafed under the required social courtesies such occasions called for. He would be glad to be back on the road to London.
Father Caril had been offered a place at Lord Lokinvar’s table, which he politely declined.
“I am a disciple of Jesu,” he said, “and am not fit for such a place of honor. It would be more fitting for my office if I could seat myself among the humble.”
So saying, Father Caril bowed and wound his way to a quiet corner at the back of the hall. From that vantage point, he could observe the assembly undisturbed. He, too, had been struck by the grace and prowess of Lokinvar’s oldest son, Alanar. He also noted the resemblance to the royal family. But unlike many others, Caril did not envision Alanar on his father’s throne, or on any other royal throne. Alanar was destined for the church and Father Caril intended to make use of that. In Alanar, Father Caril saw a tool, an elegant instrument that he meant to wield in his quest for power. Alanar, with all of his breeding and beauty, would be the connecting link between the church and the kingdom.
The horses stamped and chafed at their bits. They sensed a departure and were impatient to leave. Sir Arlan was as restless as the horses. He fidgeted impatiently in his saddle while the lord and lady of the castle said their final farewells to their son. The other boy, Alanar, was nowhere in sight. Their party had grown by three; Lord Lokinvar had provided two of his own knights, Sir Matson and Sir Berek, to ride with his son. Accompanying them was Sir Matson’s squire.
The escort party was much livelier with the new additions to the group. Sir Arlan and Sir Willis were interested in getting better acquainted with their peers. In their conversations, they compared various aspects of their duties and responsibilities. Sir Matson, in particular, wished to know the training and education the prince and his new brothers would undergo. Having known Skandar since he was a baby and having supervised his training up until the present, he was anxious for Skandar to do credit to his teaching. He elicited from Sir Arlan that the training would begin with the basics, so that all of the boys would have the same foundational knowledge. This he was relieved to hear; his concern was that Skandar would be compared unfavorably with the other young lords if he were not as well prepared.
Father Caril was more talkative than he was the previous journey. He attached himself to Skandar and did all he could to make himself agreeable. He plied the boy with questions about his life at Caerleon and showed every interest in his answers. For his part, Skandar was pleased with the attention and used the opportunity to talk about his brother, Alanar. It provided a measure of comfort to him. On their last day together, the brothers had agreed to make the most of this new adventure and learn what they could from them. By nature, Skandar was a cheerful soul and soon he chatted the hours away with the priest as if he were a lifelong friend.
As the company approached the spot where they had rested the previous day, Father Caril requested a halt.
“I beg pardon, Sir Arlan, but I have a need to take care of. If you would be so kind to pause in our journey, it would be greatly appreciated.”
Sir Arlan looked at the height of the sun and decided that this would be a good time to rest the horses and have a mid day refreshment. The party dismounted and the squires set about preparing the food. Father Caril, in the meantime, had separated himself from the others and made his way toward the stream. A few minutes later, he came hurrying back to the group, a look of distress on his face.
“Sir Arlan,” he panted, “I need Stubbs’ assistance immediately. My crucifix detached from my neck and fell into some bushes. My eyes are not keen enough to see where it is. Could Stubbs come with me?”
“I can go, Sir Arlan,” volunteered Skandar. “Stubbs is busy, and I will be glad to assist the father.”
So much the better, thought the priest.
“Very well,” Sir Arlan waved him off. “Mind that you stay out of that stream!”
Father Caril led Skandar to a place by the stream. He pointed to a nearby bush and said, “I am certain it fell in there, but I cannot see it. Perhaps if you move some of the leaves aside…”
Skandar knelt where he indicated and began carefully parting the leaves and small branches of the bush.
At length he cried, ”There it is! I see it.”
He reached his arm into the bush, almost up to his shoulder, and retrieved the prize with a delighted smile. He handed it to the priest, who held out a gloved hand and carefully wrapped the ornament in a cloth, which he then placed in his pocket.
“There,” he said, patting his pocket. “That will keep it safe until I can have the clasp attended to. Thank you, my lord; you have been most helpful. Now, we should make haste to rejoin the others lest Sir Arlan worry.”
The party had been on the road for about an hour when Skandar started fretting in his seat. His arms were beginning to itch and burn. He scratched his nose and presently it also began to itch. In his frustration, he rubbed his face. Soon a burning sensation assaulted his cheeks and chin. Sir Matson noticed his discomfort and trotted alongside him.
“My lord,” he began, “What is…Great Heavens! What has happened to you?” He stared at Skandar’s face and arms, which were swollen and red with rash.
“Sir Arlan,” he called. “Please attend immediately! My lord is in a poor condition!”
Sir Arlan took one look at Skandar and inwardly groaned. Father Caril joined them.
“We must get lord Skandar to a place where he can be treated,” he said. “If we make haste, we can reach the inn in a few hours’ time. With your permission, I will ride ahead and secure assistance.”
“Yes, yes, by all means,” said Arlan. “Ho, Sir Willis, I beg you accompany the father. We will hurry as quickly as we can”. Turning to Skandar, he said, “My lord, we will take every measure to provide you relief. Can you manage to stay in the saddle if we ride more briskly?”
Skandar turned a face full of misery to the knight and nodded. Already Father Caril and Sir Willis were out of sight down the road.
A few hours later, the rest of the party joined them at the inn. Before Skandar could dismount, Virgil was on hand to guide his guests to a quiet room in which supplies for Skandar’s recovery had already been gathered. Virgil’s sister, Beryl, was sorting through a pile of leaves, and as soon as Skandar was laid on the bed, she began bruising them before gently rubbing them over his face and arms. The men left the room so she could continue her ministrations without interruption. At her touch, Skandar began to feel immediate relief. He turned a grateful face to her and smiled.
Wait until I tell Alanar about this, he thought. Then he fell fast asleep.
Back in the common room, Virgil consulted with the knights.
“It is most likely stinging nettles. They are abundant around here—a plague on us, especially children. We have found that dock leaf cools the skin and heals the rash. My sister, Beryl, is most skilled in healing. The burning sensation should subside almost immediately; however, the rash will take a few days to clear.”
Sir Arlan looked at Sir Matson and frowned.
“We cannot bring Lord Skandar to London looking as he does now. What would his parents think of our care of him! What would the king say? Oh, this is an unexpected and disagreeable situation!”
Sir Matson looked at Virgil.
“You are certain the rash will clear in two or three days?”
“Three days, at the most,” his host replied.
“Then I propose that we remain here until Lord Skandar is fit to be seen. We will send word to London and to Caerleon of our delay. The investiture ceremony is not for three weeks yet. That gives us enough time to wait out Lord Skandar’s recovery.”
Turning to Virgil, Sir Matson asked, “Will you be able to accommodate our party for that length of time?”
“With pleasure, sir,” came the reply.
Father Caril, who had been a silent witness to the conversation, considered the situation neither unexpected nor disagreeable. He had known well enough about the affects of stinging nettles and had taken care not to expose his skin to its fine hairs when he dropped his crucifix in the bush. He now had a small window of time in which to satisfy his curiosity about the village and its inhabitants.
The next morning Skandar woke to the anxious faces of Sir Arlan and Sir Matson bending over him.
“My lord, it is good to see you awake,” said Sir Arlan. “How are you feeling? Is there much discomfort?”
Skandar stirred, stretched, and looked at his arms. They were still a fiery red. But the itching and burning was gone.
“I feel much better. But how do I look? Does my face look like my hands and arms?” he asked.
Beryl walked over with a small looking glass. Skandar squinted at his reflection and then grinned.
“Not such a pretty sight…but at least it feels normal.” He bounded out of bed.
“How long will I have to remain here? Do I have to stay in bed?” He looked at Beryl inquiringly.
Beryl shook her head.
“The rash will clear of its own whether or not you remain in bed. If your guardians will permit, my niece, Amalia, would be pleased to show you around the village and keep you company while you are our guest. And she can show you how to distinguish the leaves of the stinging nettle.”
Both knights nodded their relieved assent. They were not looking forward to playing nurse to an eleven year-old boy. They just wanted to deliver him to London in good health.
After they left the room, Stubbs helped Skandar dress and guided him to the common room for breakfast. Sitting at one of the tables was a girl about Skandar’s age. Also at the table was the innkeeper Virgil.
“Good morning, my lord,” Virgil greeted him. “This is my daughter Amalia. If it pleases you, she will keep you company.”
Amalia smiled, and Skandar decided he was very well pleased. He noticed that she had placed a large serving of sausages, bread and preserves on her plate and followed suit. Virgil left the young people to their occupation. It was several minutes before either spoke. At length Amalia set down her knife.
“I heard about what happened I am very sorry for you,” she said. “I fell into a bush of nettles once when I was five years old. I will never forget how much it itched. I thought I would die.”
“How did you happen to fall into the nettles?” asked Skandar.
“I was climbing a tree trying to catch caterpillars. There was this one beautiful caterpillar just out of my reach. I stretched out as far as I could to seize it and lost my balance and fell. It wasn’t very far to the ground and fortunately, there was a bush to break my fall; unfortunately, the bush was a nettle bush.”
Skandar was duly impressed. She was a person after his own heart.
“What would you like to do today?” asked Amalia.
“Whatever you would like,” answered Skandar.
“Well, then, shall we go?”
Amalia took Skandar’s hand and led him through the common room, into the kitchen, and out the back door of the inn. As they walked, Amalia pointed out the various sights such as the large oak by the riverbank, the blacksmith’s pet rooster, and the village green. The shops were open for business, and the shopkeepers were glad to share samples of their wares with the innkeeper’s daughter and her guest. Amalia told Skandar about her brother, Cyril, her sister, Anna, and her cousins Finn and Bethna. Skandar longed to tell Amalia about his brother, Alanar, but he had strict instructions to no longer speak of him. Instead, he told Amalia that he would reach his twelfth year on the twenty-first of October. She promptly shared that she would be twelve years of age in August, which was in two months time.
Presently, Amalia turned to Skandar and said, “Most people here call me ‘Mole’, short for ‘Amalia.’ You may do the same, if you like.”
Skandar nodded his acquiescence. His companion could have been called anything for all he cared. In his eyes, no name could diminish the sparkle in her grey eyes or the sheen of her glossy brown hair. He considered telling her his nickname; he wondered if she would laugh.
After some hesitation, Skandar cleared his throat.
“I have a nickname, too. It was given me by my bro – by someone at my father’s house.”
Mole looked at him expectantly.
“It’s ‘Skunk.’” Skandar’s heart pounded. His rash covered the deep blush that crept from his neck to the crown of his head.
“‘Skunk?’ Why are you called ‘Skunk?’”
Skandar pulled his hair back from his face, exposing the two golden stripes of color in his hair.
Amalia’s face lit up.
“How wonderful! Of course, now that you’ve shown me, ‘Skunk’ is a very fitting nickname.”
Amalia continued. “I have always thought that skunks were some of the world’s most beautiful creatures and were most unfairly misunderstood. Aunt Beryl says that a skunk’s odor is the best cure for a head cold, so whenever I smell one, I breathe deep. ‘Skunk!’ That is a wonderful name! Does everyone call you that? May I call you Skunk?”
Again Skandar nodded. You can call me anything you like, he thought. Having spent most of his life in the company of his brother, Skandar had never considered that he would encounter another person whose tastes were so similar to his own. And to think that she was a girl!
On her part, Amalia was wondering what the young lord knew about the ‘not-good’ and was looking for hints of it in his speech and actions. Whether or not it was there, she had decided that he was a most agreeable companion, despite his nickname, his unusual hair, and the temporary rash discoloring his face.
Presently, Amalia said to Skandar. “Would you like to see a magic place?”
Skandar and Amalia were not the only two taking in the sights of the village. After an early breakfast in the kitchen, Father Caril quietly stole out of the inn before any of his companions could take note. When Sir Arlan and the others missed him at breakfast, they assumed that he was still in his room in meditation or prayer. Reluctant to disturb a priest’s devotions, they soon dismissed him out of mind.
Most of the inhabitants of the village were just beginning their morning business as Father Caril strolled down the street lined with shops and small, but neat houses. From their opened windows, he could hear the sounds of families rising to breakfast and chores. Occasionally a child’s voice rose above the others in delight, drama, or general protest. In all, it painted a picture of a prosperous community, content with its situation in life and with each other. The village exuded such an aura of peace and security it took the priest a good while to discover that it had no church. He walked the length of the village street up and down again several times in search of any building or establishment that resembled a Christian church.
Is this the mystery that I have been sensing? Father Caril asked himself. Do these people know of the Christ? If not, this might very well be a den of heathens. Perhaps that is why I cannot perceive the thoughts of the innkeeper, the serving girl, and the other villagers. It could be that the darkness of their unredeemed souls is acting as a shield against me. Why, I might be called upon to face the devil himself!
In his mind’s eye, Father Caril entertained a vision of himself doing battle with the forces of darkness, with principalities and powers in high places, casting them down in defeat. He saw himself as a champion of truth, the right arm of the Church, wielding moral, as well as spiritual, authority. The pope himself would be forced to acknowledge his great service to the faith; he would probably insist on a cardinal’s ring and robe for the humble Father Caril.
These happy meditations were brought to a halt by the appearance of Skandar and Amalia approaching from the other end of the village. They were so engrossed in each other’s company they did not see the priest, who slipped into one of the shops. From the window, he watched them pass, noting that while Skandar’s thoughts opened to him like a book, the young girl’s mind was a shuttered room.
“No doubt the darkness begins at a young age,” Father Caril muttered under his breath.
At his words, the shopkeeper walked over.
“I beg your pardon, sir”, she said. “Is there something you require?”
Startled, the priest shook his head. Seeing Skandar and Amalia out of sight, he passed through the door and quickly walked in the opposite direction.
The two youngsters made an appearance back at the inn just long enough to secure provisions for a midday meal and to assure Beryl and Sir Arlan that Skandar was making sufficient progress in his healing. Skandar’s delight in Amalia’s company manifested itself in his countenance to the extent that Sir Arlan found himself thinking his lordship was not unattractive after all.
With bulging satchels, Amalia and Skandar made their way through the kitchen and once again out the back door. This time, Amalia did not direct their path to the village, but continued forward to a thicket of trees. She was taking Skandar to the meadow and the stone.
After a forty-minute trek through the trees, Amalia and Skandar emerged from the edge of the forest into a meadow. It was the same meadow recently visited by her father and mother several nights ago. In the bright sun, there were no moonlit shadows to give it an unusual atmosphere; nonetheless, the air breathed of mystery. Even though the day was warm, Skandar shivered involuntarily. This was the same feeling of magic that he and his brother had experienced in the cave. He and Amalia exchanged looks of delighted expectation; she could feel it too.
Without thinking he blurted out, “This is just like the cave that my brother and I discovered!”
“Brother?” Amalia looked puzzled. “You have a brother?”
Skandar was aghast. What was he to do? He stammered as he searched for words.
“I, uh, I…well, I can’t really…what I mean is…there’s this person who…who…oh, bother!”
“Are you going to tell a lie?” Amalia asked. “Because if you do, tell a lie, that is, I really don’t mind. The lie, I mean. I just want to know what it feels like.” She looked at Skandar expectantly. Perhaps she would perceive his evil!
Skandar stared at Amalia.
“I am not going to tell a lie,” he protested. “I’m just looking for a way to tell the truth. There are some things I am not supposed to talk about, and my brother is one of them.” Skandar threw himself down on the ground and began pulling up tufts of grass. Looking somewhat disappointed, Amalia plopped down beside him.
“So why can’t you talk about your brother?”
“It’s because of the covenant. You’ve heard of the covenant, haven’t you?”
“A little, but what does that have to do with your brother?”
“Because the covenant states that I’m supposed to be the prince’s brother! It makes it rather awkward to already have one. What I mean is, Alanar, that’s my brother, and I had all sorts of adventures together. Just think how that would be if I went around telling everyone how much fun we had; my mother said it would be inappropriate.” Skandar looked at Amalia for reassurance. “Mole, do you understand what I mean?”
Amalia nodded sympathetically. At length she said, “I think it will be alright if you tell me about you and your brother. After all, I am not the prince, and I won’t think it’s ‘inappropriate’, whatever that means.”
With that encouragement, Skandar plunged into a narrative about the covenant and its creation by a group of women who wanted to save the land of Albion. He told Amalia about its precepts by which the four Lords of the Provinces were chosen and how they are the royal brothers to the king. He told her about the law that allowed no rivals to the throne or to the rule of the Provinces, that if there were a second son, the chosen brother would be the one closest in age to the prince. As if a long-suppressed grief finally found its voice, Skandar’s words poured forth in a torrent of joy and sadness as he described his brother, Alanar, and the life they had shared, a life now come to an end with Prince Rhino’s approaching investiture.
“So you see,” he concluded, “that is why Alanar and I went to the cave. It is a place of magic. In fact, we think it is the very cave where the holy sisters created the covenant—it has to be. The old stories say that the sisters did not have to speak aloud to communicate with each other; they could share thoughts across time and distance. Alanar and I thought that if we could touch some lingering magic that we, too, could share our thoughts and our hearts even though many leagues lie between us. You say this is a magic place? Well, it’s the same magic that Alanar and I felt in the cave that day.”
Amalia was silent as she considered Skandar’s words. She had always known the stone in the meadow was special, but she never knew why. As she thought on what he said, it occurred to her that his description of sharing thoughts without speaking was not unlike her own experience with her visions of evil and of Lammet’s compassion. She wondered at this and shared her musings with Skandar.
“You saw another person’s thoughts?” he asked.
“I don’t know if it came from their thoughts or feelings or where it came from. I just know what I felt when I saw the visions.”
Skandar leaped up. “Do you see what this means?” he asked, excitedly. “It means that magic has not gone out after all. It must still be here in this place! You must have experienced it without knowing.”
“Come!” he said, pulling Amalia to her feet. “We can try to touch the magic, the two of us.”
Taking her hand, Skandar led Amalia to the fallen stone. Without a word, they climbed onto the stone and sat cross-legged from each other. Grinning shyly at first and then broadly, they took each other by the hand and gave themselves over to the magic.
Two days later, Sir Arlan and his party were back in the saddle, making their farewells to Virgil and his sister, Beryl. Skandar had fully recovered from his rash and was considered presentable to the king and his court. Amalia watched their going from an upper window of the inn. Skandar saw her and gave her a knowing smile, which she returned. He might not ever see her again, but he left with the knowledge that their hearts were immutably linked together.
Next Week: Where to Find Love