All human interests, combined human endeavours,
and social growths in this world, have at a certain
stage of their development, required organizing:
and Work, the grandest of human interests, does now require it.
– Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present
“Hoy, now, you lads, look sharp! The fires need stoking! Be quick about it!” The overseer yelled above the crash of the waves and the cries of the gulls. Skandar and Trevor ran with haste to the nearest fire and began feeding the flames with dry faggots of driftwood. When the fire was built to their satisfaction, they proceeded to the next one to repeat their ministrations. On the other side of the brine pits, Rhino, Wilfred, and Elbert struggled to keep the pits deep enough to hold the brine when the waves washed over. Sweat from their bodies mingled with salt water as they continually scooped excess sand out of the pits. Rhino glanced over to where Skandar and Trevor were working and noticed one of the fires going out. He leaped up and sprinted over to the woodpile, snatched up an armful of faggots and hurried to where the flames were beginning to sputter and die. He stoked the fire until once again it burned brightly, finishing the task just as Skandar staggered over to him.
“Thank you, Rhino,” he panted. “I did not notice that one going out.”
He turned and called to Trevor, who was following him.
“It’s all right. This one is safe for now.”
Trevor nodded and made his way back to the bank of fires. When Skandar turned back again, Rhino was already gone, to resume his labor at the brine pits. For the last three weeks, the prince and his brothers had been working in the brine field at Middlewich. Every morning they rose at dawn and broke their fast with oatcakes and tea; then they walked from the settlement with the rest of the workers down to the brine field by the seashore. All day they labored at keeping the sand out of the pits, removing the brine from the pits and placing it in large ceramic bowls, boiling the brine water until the water evaporated, leaving the salt behind, and keeping the fires burning. At night when they returned to the settlement for the evening meal, they were so tired and sore they could scarcely bring their food from the plate to mouth. They did not bother to wash the salt water from their hair and skin before retiring; even if they could summon the energy, there was not enough fresh water for the task.
By the end of the first week, Wilfred’s abundant red hair was twisted into crimson, Medusa-like ropes. The second week, Elbert cut his hand on a piece of broken ceramic, and it took all of his willpower to hold his tongue whenever salt water splashed into the wound. All of the boys expressed their admiration for his fortitude. Superior, supercilious Elbert was behaving like a man. The shared hardship was working its magic in transforming five strangers into comrades. In the harsh environment of the brine field, there were no social amenities to protect the inner character. It was as exposed to the eye as their bodies were to the wind and the waves.
Rhino was respected and admired above all of them. True to his word to make no mistakes, he worked harder than anyone else at whatever task was set before him. Moreover, he showed an interest in each of the boys and took care to note their qualities and overlook their defects. Wilfred easily had the best humor, full of witticisms and entertaining anecdotes. The other boys learned early on that, despite his intimidating size, he had a warm and tender heart. Once upon finding a fledging sea bird with a broken back, Wilfred buried it and wept over it. None of the other brothers laughed.
Trevor was the pet of the group. He was sincere and eager to please, but he required constant attending. It was not that he was demanding or self-centered; it was on account of his daydreaming. He would get lost in the beauty of a sunset and fail to notice that a wave was bearing down on him. Once, while bending over a seashell, a high roller caught him unawares and sucked him out into the ocean. Panicked, the other boys plunged into the cold surf after him. Rhino reached him first and fighting against the waves, hauled Trevor onto the shore. After that, the brothers admired Rhino unconditionally.
It was more of a challenge for the boys to warm up to Elbert. At first, it was like hugging an icicle. Elbert could not rid himself of the belief that he was better than the others because of his noble and spiritual ancestry. He was appalled to find himself in such uncouth, unlearned, and irreverent company. However, a healthy dose of physical labor began to work a thaw in his attitude. He eventually admitted to himself that, rowdy though they were, he was glad to be with his brothers. Elbert even decided to befriend Wilfred, if only to save him from his heathen ways.
As for Skandar, he was by far the most beloved of the brothers, even by Elbert. Good-hearted, honest, curious, he had all the characteristics of a true brother. Having known Alanar, he had learned to love universal brotherhood. Skandar’s heart abandoned itself to live in the best interests of his brothers, in a love that is stronger than death—a love that casts out fear. Truly the last few weeks he had spent with Rhino, Trevor, Elbert, and Wilfred was proving to be the happiest of his life.
In order for the boys to experience the life of the workers, they lived as they did. The overseer was given strict instructions to show no preferential treatment of the prince and the young lords. They were paid wages same as the other boys at the brine field, out of which they provided for their food and lodging. Sir Arlan and the king’s men were there to see to their safety, but that was all. The knights dined well and slept in warm, comfortable quarters. As for the boys, the contrast between life in the castle and life in the settlement was unavoidably noticeable. They all remarked upon one evening after their usual scanty meal. Wilfred stared forlornly at his empty bowl and sighed.
“That sure went down quick enough,” he said. “I wonder if there ain’t a hole in the bottom.”
Immediately, Trevor pushed his half-empty bowl toward Wilfred.
“Here, Wil, you may have the rest of mine. I am full to bursting.”
Wilfred brightened and pulled the proffered bowl toward him and shoved a heaping spoonful in his mouth. As he did, he nodded at Trevor. The trusting look on Trevor’s face turned the food to ashes in Wilfred’s mouth. Pushing the bowl back to Trevor, he shook his head.
“No, I think you need to force yourself to eat a bit more; you need fattenin’ up.” Wilfred patted his stomach. “We’ll be back in your father’s house soon and then we’ll all eat full to burstin’.” This announcement was met with excited chatter from all of the others except Trevor.
Trevor stared at the contents of the bowl and made a feeble attempt to take a bite.
“What is it, Trevor? Did Wil spoil the taste?” asked Skandar, giving Wilfred a punch in the arm.
“No,” answered Trevor, “it’s not that. It is that I was thinking about the others, the other boys that is, who work with us in the pits. They don’t have the prospect of returning to homes filled with warmth and plenty like we do. For them, this is all they have. It does not seem fair. Why are we the ones born to ease and luxury while they scratch out a bare existence? Are we any better than they?”
Silence followed his words. His questions had, in some form, haunted each of the boys since they first arrived at Middlewich. Labor in the brine field was their first exposure to life outside rank, title, and privilege. The embryo lords were learning what it was like to survive on scanty resources. At length Rhino spoke.
“We had no choice in our birth just as they had no choice in theirs. But unlike us, the boys we work with have choices we do not. They can choose where they will live, whom they will offer their services to, and even whom they will marry. We cannot. My father used to tell me that because I was the son of the king, I was a servant to all. I had greater privileges than anyone else and that meant that I had greater responsibility. The higher one’s birth, the less freedom one has. When I used to complain about all my daily lessons, he would take me to a door leading to the outside of the castle and say, ‘You are free to go. Whatever you have earned during your time here, you may take with you.’ And I would have to turn back in shame because I could take nothing with me. I was skilled at nothing but in being the son of the king and left to myself, I would starve.”
“You say that the boys we work with have only a cold bed and a half-full bowl? I grant you that that is true; but any one of them could leave here and make their way at other labors. They do not have a noble family that will clothe them and keep them warm but unlike us, they do not need these things to survive.”
“But their labors net them so little,” protested Trevor. “At the very least, their honest day’s work should earn them sufficient for a decent life, not this hard-scrabble existence we daily witness.”
“Then we should do what we can to help them,” said Skandar. “We should learn about how work ‘works’. I mean, find out how it goes between master and servant, between owner and hireling. How much is a fair and just wage? When the owner of the brine field sells the salt to the merchants, how much should he receive for his product? When he sets a price, does he consider how much to give his workers and his overseers as part of the cost? Perhaps if he charged more, then the additional money could be given to the workers. But if he charges too much more, then the merchants would not buy his salt. I think we need to find out these things.”
Elbert frowned and shook his head.
“I do not see the point of bothering our heads about the workers,” he said. “They live a hard life; that’s the way it is. My mother says that if people have a hard time of it, it is the judgment of God. If someone sins, he must be punished for it.”
“Oh, that’s a grand way of lookin’ at it,” said Wilfred sardonically. “I suppose all these poor blokes out there shivering in the brine like us have all done some terrible deed; well, we’re out there too, so what does that say about us? Confess now, Elbert, what great sin have you committed that you’re now bearin’ the punishment?” Elbert looked offended. If there was anyone who put his back up it was Wilfred.
“I did not mean everybody who suffers,” Elbert replied. “The thing is, there are some people who will always be poor, and I do not understand why we should feel responsible for it. After all, what can we do about it? We ourselves have no coin to give them. We own no land that they can work. We have no fields to sow and reap. We do not even own the brine field or any other enterprise through which we could pay decent wages. Until we come into our title and inheritance, we can do nothing for the poor and I say forget about them.”,
Trevor bolted upright. His eyes, usually so mild blazed in indignation. He bore down on Elbert giving every indication that he was going to land a punch on his nose. Rhino leaped up and barred his way.
“Trevor, Trevor,” he said. “Elbert does not mean it the way it sounds. Do you, Elbert?” Rhino put his arm about Trevor and led him back to his seat, giving a stern look at Elbert over his shoulder.
Elbert came over to where Trevor was sitting, unhappy and glowering.
“I am sorry, Trev,” he said. “I did not mean to sound so heartless. It’s just that the need seems so…so overwhelming and I feel powerless to do anything about it.
I grew up aware of a hierarchy and that there were those at the top and those at the bottom but I never knew how the lower classes actually lived. The Church teaches us to have charity toward the poor, and I always thought putting a coin in the collection box was sufficient to meet their needs. Will you forgive me for my ignorance?” Elbert held out his hand.
Trevor raised his head, his eyes full of tears, and gripped Elbert’s outstretched hand with his.
“I am so ashamed,” he whispered. “These people live in Essex, the province of my father. This has probably been their lot in life for years, and I had no knowledge of it. The only thing I bothered my head about was music, art, and poetry. A lot of good that does someone who is starving!”
The brothers sat in silence. Each one was thinking of their own sheltered upbringing and comparing it with that of the commoners. Rhino felt the burden of leadership and cast about for the appropriate words to speak. He did not want for any of them to do or say anything rash. He considered himself responsible for their welfare and, most important of all, that no one made a mistake.
“I think,” he said presently, “that we have all had our eyes opened in the last few weeks. No doubt, this was the purpose of sending us here. Remember what Lord Terlian said? We must learn the ways of Albion before we are fit to serve as its rulers. I suggest that tomorrow after our day has ended we go visit Older Ned. He could answer our questions.”
To this the others readily assented and hastened to bed to rest for another day of work.
Older Ned started life as just plain Ned born in the town of Middlewich. He worked the brine pits as a lad until he advanced to the position of overseer. By then, he had a son also named Ned, so he was christened Old Ned by the townspeople in order to distinguish between him and Young Ned, his son. It was Old Ned who was the overseer when Prince Rhino’s father and grandfather labored on the brine field, but his advanced age would not permit him to do the same for the prince and his brothers. Nowadays he held forth at Bird’s Eye Tavern, like a wizened, benevolent god. With the birth of his grandson, Young Ned, his son inherited the moniker of Old Ned and Old Ned was renamed Older Ned. There was still an overseer by the name of Old Ned; he just inhabited a different body.
Rhino and his brothers discovered Older Ned a few days after coming to Middlewich. His appearance alone made him somewhat of a wonder to the boys; he resembled a human raisin. His mahogany-colored face was creased by leathery wrinkles, and spindly legs supported a wiry frame. He spoke with a dry wit aged in experience and owned a ready supply of tales that kept the boys enthralled for hours. At the age of nine, he was tired of the brine pits and decided to stow away on the next cargo ship that put into the port at Yarmouth. Alas, once on board, Older Ned was no match for the sea. After two days on the ship, the sailors found him in the cargo hold, his skin tinged with green and his clothes covered in vomit. In his anger on finding a stowaway on his vessel, the pilot threatened to cast the lad overboard; a fate that Older Ned gladly welcomed—death was preferable to the misery of seasickness. Once ashore he vowed never to return to the sea and spent the next few years traveling about in foreign lands, barely keeping body and soul alive. Conditions were so bad he eventually decided to risk the sea again for one final voyage home. When his feet once more touched the soil of Albion, he drove down deep roots, never to leave again.
Older Ned also had stories to tell of the young lords who worked under him in the brine field. Rhino, Skandar, Wilfred, Trevor, and Elbert were by turns delighted and appalled by what they learned of their fathers and grandfathers. On whatever topic he deigned to speak, Older Ned was sure to dispense knowledge and wisdom, even if the truth was absent, so it was that the next day after sunset, Rhino and his brothers made haste to Bird’s Eye Tavern to seek out Older Ned. They found him sitting at his usual table surrounded by his comrades. Spying the boys standing in the doorway, he motioned them over.
“Well, now, you look a fair sight,” he said, taking in Wilfred’s wild hair. “You come to see Older Ned? Well, sit down then and buy me a drop.”
At a sign from the old man, his companions left the table, making room for Trevor, Elbert, Wilfred, and Rhino. Skandar got up and procured a round of mead and brought it to the table. Older Ned took a long swallow from his cup and then looked at the faces around him.
“Well then, what’s your business with Older Ned?” he asked. The boys looked at each other, uncertain of where to begin. At length Rhino spoke up.
“It’s like this, Older Ned. We, all of us, could not help noticing how hard it is for the brine field workers to live, now that we are living and working among them. Um…we wondered if it was always like this; have the people here always been so poor? It seems like such a hard life.”
“Aye, well it is a hard life but not much harder than a lot of other ways to go. I did alright enough myself when I was dancin’ among the pits. I ain’t complainin’ about it.
“But, Older Ned,” protested Trevor, “there’s not enough pay to it keep one warm and fed. We don’t understand how the workers manage. We barely make it ourselves.”
At this the old gaffer threw back his head and laughed uproariously. The brothers looked askance at each other. What was so amusing?
“And did you think that your wages were the same as everyone else’s?” he asked. At the surprised looks on the faces, Older Ned slapped his knee and continued laughing. he boys were growing uncomfortably aware of the attention their little group was getting.
“Hoo, hoo”, the old man gasped. “I don’ suppose it occurred to you fine lads that you’re earnin’ what you’re worth. O’ course, you’re barely makin’ it —you ain’t worth that much!”
“Not…worth…that much?” Skandar repeated Older Ned’s words hesitantly, as if unsure of what he had heard.
Older Ned poked Skandar in the chest.
“Lad, think about it for a flea minute. You and your lot ain’t done a day’s work in your whole life, and you gets dumped here in the brine field. You don’ know what you’re about. It takes a heap more work just to train you so as to keep you from gettin’ in trouble. All them lads out there are gettin’ a paid mor’n you ‘cause they know what they’re doin’.” He took another gulp from his cup and pointed it at Elbert. “Your father was such a lad for mischief that I threatened to have him pay me for the honor and privilege o’ workin’ in the pits.” Elbert blushed while the others laughed. Wilfred threw his arm around Elbert.
“I knew you had good blood in there somewhere.” he said.
“Lads,” said Older Ned, growing serious, “it’s right good o’ you to concern yourselves with the workin’ poor and the common laborer. It shows your hearts have eyes. But in truth, a hard life in Albion is one to envy in other parts o’ the world. During my travels in the lands across the water, I saw the worst kind o’ treatment you can think of by one human bein’ to another. In the country o’ Normandy they have a law called ‘Forest Law’. Under Forest Law the crown takes any land it wants and turns it into a private game park for the royals. All those livin’ on the land are driven off and anyone caught huntin’ for so much as a dove on it can have his hand lopped off or his eye gouged out. ‘struth, it’s an unjust world; so as you lads go about learnin’ the ways o’ the realm, remember what you’re seein’ and hearin’. Albion’s been blest with more than its share of goodness, but there’s still those who would steal milk from a babe and not lose a bit of sleep over it. King or commoner, anyone can wrong his fellow man, but a wrong can be set right by any man.”
Elbert stood over Wilfred’s mat.
“Wake up, you lump! The wagons are ready to depart and they will not wait for you. Come to or we’ll leave without you.”
Elbert emphasized his words with a toe in Wilfred’s back. Then he grabbed his pouch and cloak and headed toward the door. Wilfred sat up and shook himself awake. “Wait for me! I’m coming!” he cried, snatching up his cloak as he bolted out the door in Elbert’s wake.
The two sprinted through the town to the edge of the brine field. There, five wagons laden with bags of salt were ready for travel. Wilfred and Elbert joined Rhino, Skandar, and Trevor in one of the wagons.
“Well, it’s high time you got here,” said Skandar. “I was all for leaving you behind but Elbert insisted we wait for you.”
At this Wilfred landed at cuff at Skandar’s head. Then he looked expectantly around him.
“Say, fellows, does any one have a bit to eat?” he asked. In answer to his question, the four brothers leaped on Wilfred and pinned him down.
“I’ll say we do”, exclaimed Rhino, brandishing a small bag in the air. “We have salt!” With that, he dumped the contents of the bag on Wilfred’s head. The boys were going to Yarmouth.
Yarmouth was one of the principal ports in Essex. It headed a major sea route that connected Albion to Normandy and Brittany. Since it was better than eleven leagues from Middlewich, it took the caravan a good ten hours to reach its outskirts. Once inside the gates, it was slow going to the docks; the streets were filled with people, pushcarts, and wagons as sellers and buyers made a steady pilgrimage to and from the ships. It was nearing sunset when the wagons from Middlewich reached the docks but the overseer did not pause. He immediately set those who traveled with him to work unloading the bags of salt while he met with the shipmaster. When Skandar first beheld the loading docks with their massive cranes and cargo ramps, he nearly swooned with delight. Now here were machines!
It took the better part of an hour to unload the salt and see it safely stowed in the cargo hold. Once inside the hold, there were further negotiations about the price and the bill of lading. During this time, Skandar winkled his way into the good graces of the crane overseer and was allowed to help hoist one of the loads into the air and onto the ship. If there was heaven on earth, Skandar had found it. He peppered the overseer with questions about the pulley system, the levers, and the ramps. The overseer, who was an engineer, was glad to share his expertise with such an eager audience. Skandar watched in reverent wonder as a set of pulleys allowed a man to lift several times his weight. Wait until I tell the others, he thought. He never noticed that the “others” in his thoughts did not include Alanar.
Yarmouth at night was a lively place. With money in hand, the newly paid workers were eager to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of the town. It was a given that a fair amount of roistering would take place, and Sir Arlan and his knights were prepared to keep an unobtrusive watch on their young charges. As for Rhino and his brothers, they were champing like restive colts at the bit, listening to Old Ned’s cautionary words to them.
“Now then, lads, have a care,” he admonished them, counting out coins into their itching palms. “There are those that know about a thousand ways to separate you from your money. Keep it close and mark them as try and get close to you. A pickpocket can brush aside like a fly on a horse and you’ll be the lighter for it. And no gamblin’.” The boys assured him they would be prudent. As they walked off, he called after them, “And no women, neither!” The boys looked at each other—women?
Off they went to the waterfront where the lights from the taverns, inns, and curio shops beckoned the thirsty, the weary, and the hungry. Other dwellings offered other delights to the curious and adventuresome. Trevor lingered several minutes in front of one of the houses, trying to discern what wares were sold there before he was frog-marched down the street by the rest of the boys. hey were jostled several times by the stream of humanity traversing the up and down the avenue; each time they were careful to check their coin bags to ensure that they were still attached and full.
Presently they came to a decent looking inn. The aroma of roasting meat promised a hearty meal, and the brothers made for the door. Before he entered, Wilfred spotted a fellow laborer trudging down the street in their direction.
“Hoy, Ulfin,” he called. “Come join us for supper.”
Upon hearing Wilfred’s voice the newcomer hastened his pace.
“Wilfred, Rhino, well met”, said Ulfin, shaking hands.
“Let’s go inside and join the others,” said Rhino. Ulfin held back and shook his head.
“I’m most grateful to you but I can’t sit with you for supper…I have no money.”
“What! You just got paid. How is it soon so gone?”
Ulfin hung his head and made no answer.
“Come now,” said Wilfred. “I’ll stand you for the suppe,r and you come inside and tell us what happened. It’s no good standing out here with our jaws open.” With that he clapped Ulfin on the shoulder and half dragged him to a table in the back at which sat Trevor, Elbert, and Skandar, already deep in their mugs. The others greeted Ulfin and made a place for him at the table.
“Now, lads, keep quiet. Ulfin here has a piece to speak and we’re here to listen,” said Wilfred. Then he gave a nod to Ulfin to begin.
Like everyone else, Ulfin told them, when he got his wages he was eager to spend them. He walked about for a while with his mates, and then his attention was drawn to a loud voice. Ulfin made his way to the source of the sound and saw a crowd of people around a man standing behind a small table, calling for wagers. On the table were three walnut shells. Ulfin inched his way forward until he was in front. He watched as the man rearranged the walnut shells on the table; underneath one of the shells was a pea. The man was taking wagers on guessing where the pea was after he moved the shells around. Ulfin watched for a minute or two and noticed that he was guessing correctly each time, even though he kept his guesses to himself. Presently the man seemed to notice him and challenged him to make a wager. When Ulfin hesitated, the man ignored him and offered a wager to another person watching the action. The person made a wager and lost; Ulfin felt smug. He had known where the pea was. Finally, he spoke up and said he would make a wager. He plunked a coin down on the table and —what luck!—he won! He made a wager again, only this time with two coins, and again he won. Ulfin was feeling confident by now and made a bold wager with five coins, and to his delight he now had ten. He was about to walk away, pleased with his wealth, when the man at the table called to him to try again. The man pointed out that not everyone had the luck like he did; the luck might not be with him ever again and he should take advantage of it. Ulfin saw the sense of it and decided to make more wagers.
“But here’s the rub,” said Ulfin. “It seemed that from then on I won some and I lost some. I didn’t keep much track ‘cause I figured with the winnin’ I would come out even. nd then before I knew it, I had no coin left, even if I wanted to make another wager. Somehow it was all gone.”
In a flash, Wilfred and Trevor were on their feet.
“He was cheated!” They yelled in unison. “Come on, fellows, we got to get Ulfin’s money back”. Wilfred was tugging at hapless Ulfin.
“You just point him out and…”
“You’ll what,” Rhino interrupted.
“Well, I don’t rightly know but it’s got to be done,” said Wilfred. Trevor vigorously nodded his agreement.
“Wil, Trevor, just sit you down…and let go of Ulfin.” Rhino spoke quietly but in a tone that demanded compliance. “Of course, we’ll retrieve Ulfin’s lost wage,s but we’ll do it sosubtly the cheat will never know he’s been cheated. Now let’s think of a plan.”
The man in question, known to his drinking companions as Tadhg, was about to put away his table for the night. He’d had a good haul, and the crowd was beginning to thin. The last of the onlookers drifted away, except for one. A tall, thin youngster with soft brown hair and large, soulful eyes was staring at the table. hinking him an easy mark, Tadhg decided to fleece him for a few last coins.
“Hoy, there, lad, care to make a wager? Just guess which walnut houses the pea and I’ll double whatever you lay down.” He smiled invitingly at the boy.
The boy hesitated and then pulled two small coins from his pocket.
“I dare not, sir, for these are all I have left. My whole pocket emptied but for these and all gone to a magician. Oh, if only I had never set eyes on him! He bedeviled me, he did,, and now this is all I have to show for it. I don’t know how I will break the news to my grandmother that her worthless boy let himself be tricked out of her egg money.” The boy’s lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears. Tadhg was concerned, not for the boy, but because someone else was moving in on his territory. He felt the stirring of resentment. This lamb had been shorn all right but it wasn’t by Tadhg; that would never do.
“Now, boy, don’t cut up. Can you tell me where he is, this devil of yours?” he asked.
“Aye, sir, he’s at the Bullroarer, just over a ways,” answered the boy. “He’s no doubt working his magic on some other fool of a lad.”
Tadhg packed away his wares and patted the boy on the shoulder.
“You take me to him, and I’ll see you get your reward. We’ll catch him at his game. Just lead on.”
Setting a brisk pace, with Tadhg following behind him, the boy Trevor allowed himself a secret smile.
Presently Tadhg and his guide came to the Bullroarer. Trevor pushed through the doors and made his way to the back of the tavern to a table surrounded by a crowd of patrons. Sitting at the center of the table with his back to the wall was Rhino. He spied Trevor, who tried to duck behind the man Tadhg and called out.
“You, there, I told you not to scoff at the magic. Now maybe you will believe.” Rhino surveyed the crowd with satisfaction. “My good fellows, it is as I say. he magic will not be mocked. Only believe.”
Upon hearing these words Tadhg pushed himself forward.
“Magic, you say? What some call magic a good many others call a trick, myself included. Show me your magic, and I’ll show these fine men a fraud.”
“A fraud? A fraud?” Rhino’s eyes nearly popped out in indignation. “Only fools boast of knowing what they do not know. But whatever you say, it makes no matter. The magic knows itself to be true, and I say to you now, if you enter into a wager with the magic, you will lose. You will lose every coin in your purse. That’s what I told the young lad here (pointing at Trevor) and he did not believe. Now he has lost everything. And so will you, so do not attempt it.”
Rhino leaned back in his chair and folded him arms over his chest, the very picture of infuriating confidence.
CHINK! A handful of coins were slammed on the table.
“I’ll take your bloody wager and see you choke on your words,” snarled Tadhg. “Now what’s the wager?”
Rhino indicated three mugs on the table face down. He turned all three over to show that a bean was underneath one of them.
“Know this; you do not wager against me but against the magic. The magic will move the bean from one mug to another. If you correctly guess which mug holds the bean, then you will win double your money; if not, then your money on the table is forfeit. Agreed?”
Tadhg nodded. Rhino turned the mugs over and slowly moved them around the table. At length he stopped and asked, “What is your choice?”
Tadhg, who was an expert in the game, laughed aloud.
“You’ve got to be quicker than that if you want to catch your bird.”
He pointed to the middle mug. Rhino lifted the mug to show there was no bean underneath. Then he pointed to the mug on his left.
“I say that the magic has sent the bean here.” He then lifted the mug to reveal the bean. Tadhg was incredulous.
“That cannot be. I watched your every move. You were slower than a slug on a cold night, and I know what I saw.”
To this Rhino replied, “It matters not at all to the magic what you saw; the magic moves where it will. You have lost a goodly sumpray turn aside before you lose even more. You have no faith in the magic and it will work against you.”
Tadhg held up a clenched fist and shook it in Rhino’s face.
“This is what I believe in and you’ll believe in it too if I find you’ve been cheatin’ me! Now take another wager.”
Another bunch of coins joined the others on the table. Rhino repeated the process of slowly shuffling the mugs with Tadhg’s unblinking eyes following every move.
“Ha, I got you now. The bean’s here…wait!” he said, seeing Rhino’s hand move toward the mug. “I’ll lift it. See now!” Rhino saw, as did Tadhg, empty space under the mug.
“You devil! You cheatin’ heathen!” Tadhg was livid. “What black arts are you in league with?”
He leaned over the table as if to grab Rhino when he felt strong hands on his shoulders. Two burly sailors who had been standing in the crowd held him fast between them.
“Who’s the cheat now?” the larger one said. “We all heard this lad warn you fair enough not to wager and you paid no heed. If that ain’t good enough for you then you can find your way out of here.”
Tadhg looked at the sailors and then at the faces in the crowd. He recognized several that had lost at his table and knew he would find no sympathy here. He shook off the sailors’ hold, made a rude sign at Rhino and stormed from the room. At his departure, the patrons in the tavern let up a rousing cheer.
“Well done, Rhino. Well done, lads.” The tavern keeper bustled over to where the boys were being congratulated. “Tadhg’s been at his game for too long, but nobody hereabouts could catch him at it. Now maybe he’ll set up shop somewhere else. He’s been takin’ a fair amount of coin for a long time now just to fill his own purse, money that coulda been goin’ into the businesses on the waterfront. That was a right clever scheme.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Rhino. He poked his head under the table. “Skandar, you can come out now with the magic bean.” Grinning, Skandar emerged from underneath the table holding aloft a small knife with a bean on its point. Hiding under a pile of cloaks and obscured from view by the legs of the crowd, Skandar was able to hold up the bean through the cracks in the table under whichever mug the unfortunate Tadhg did not choose. Wilfred clapped him on the back.
“How did you manage to think of that?”
Skandar beamed modestly. “It is merely a type of hoist,” he said.
Rhino counted out the coins into Ulfin’s hand. The rest he gave to the tavern keeper for his troubles.
“Now, Ulfin,” he said, “be wary of easy money because there isn’t any. The coin you keep fast is the one you work for by honest labor. On the other hand…Trevor, if you’ve a mind to earn your keep as a traveling performer, you could make us all rich. What I would have given to see the scene you played tonight!”
Trevor laughed. “I’d just as soon work the brine pits.” Elbert looked around.
“If there’s any performance I would like to praise, it would be that of the two sailors that laid hold of that man. Rhino, but for their intervention, he would have landed a mighty blow to your head.” But the two sailors had vanished. In truth, they were not sailors at all, but two of Sir Arlan’s knights who at that moment were reporting to him that the prince and his brothers were doing very well.
Lord Vortimer could not take his eyes off his son. Trevor and the other boys had been at Elmham for over a week and still Lord Vortimer could not recognize his son in the sturdy lad with a keen glance, a confident smile, and sinewy frame. One month ago he had given the realm his only son, gentle and mild with his head in the clouds; he received back a man. The only evidence it was still Trevor was in how he was regarded by the young maidens, be they the daughters of his nobles or the daughters of his servants. As when he was younger, everywhere he went he drew admiring looks. It had always been that way, at first because of his fair face and later, because of his skill with the harp. Trevor was golden-throated and could, if he wanted, elicit tears from the sternest countenance. His father wondered if he still retained his skill. As if reading Lord Vortimer’s mind, several of those gathered at supper began to call for a song.
“Lord Trevor,” said Lord Alun, one of Vortimer’s nobles. “Would you honor us with a song?”
The men of the company joined in the request by banging their cups on the table while the ladies tittered behind their veils. Trevor, sitting with his brothers, nodded his assent and one of the pages rushed over with his harp. His hands had grown calloused and brown since the last time he held his beloved instrument. As Trevor tested the strings, he wondered if he still possessed the skill. His hesitation was noticed by Wilfred, who leaned toward him and whispered, “Don’t you worry, Trev. If you muck it up, we’ll all join in with a rousing chorus.” Trevor looked at his brothers, found his confidence, and began to play.
“My lords and ladies and honored guests. It would please me to tell you the story of another time and another place. It is the tale of a simple brass key.”
“Once there was a merchant with three sons, who had reached the age where they were eager to make their mark in the world and earn their fortunes. One day the father called his sons to him and held out three keys.
‘Each key unlocks the cargo hold on one of my ships’, he said. ‘In the hold are goods with which a man can make his fortune—if he knows how. All of the goods have value, but it takes a wise and skillful man to see it. So take one of the keys; that will be your ship. Then sail away for a year and a day and return with what you have earned. You may keep all but one tenth of your profit and may you prosper.’
“The eldest son chose a key of gold, elaborate in design with a figure of a swan. The eyes of the swan were tiny rubies. The key belonged to the ship christened The West Wind and in its cargo hold were chests filled with jewelry intricately designed. There were broaches and rings, combs and earrings, bracelets, armbands, and torcs. The eldest son rejoiced in his good fortune and immediately set sail.
“The second son chose a key of silver. At one end was fashioned a peacock with an emerald on its crown. The key was from the ship called The Green Haven. Its cargo hold was filled with bolts of the finest fabric: supple leathers, rich brocades, fine linens and woven wools. The second son praised the gods and he, too, sailed away.
“For the third son was left a key of brass. It was unadorned and so was the tiny vessel to which it belonged, The Williwaw—an ill name for an ill-omened ship. Upon opening up the cargo hold, the youngest son beheld sacks of what looked like grain.
On further inspection, he discovered the sacks were filled with salt.
‘O my father,’ said Ralf (for that was his name) ‘I am undone. You have given me nothing, and yet have commanded me to earn my fortune with it. If I have earned your disfavor, you should have told me to my face instead of sending me to my doom.’ Nonetheless, Ralf had little choice but to command the vessel be made ready for sailing and to depart with the morning tide, not knowing where he should go.
“Ralf had been but one day on the sea when a large gull settled on the mast of the ship and gave a great cry. One of the sailors tried to shoo the gull away, claiming it was bad luck. But Ralf forbade him.
‘My luck is starting out bad so it may be that this gull will bring me good.’
As if in response to his words, the gull rose into the air and circled the ship seven times; then off it flew.
‘Follow the gull!’ Ralf cried to the sailors. ‘We will let it be our guide, even to the ends of the earth.’ The sailors were none too pleased at hearing these words; nevertheless they obeyed.
“After seven days of sailing, the Williwaw came to a city with many towers and red-tiled steeples. It was set on the side of a hill that sloped down into the sea. At the foot of the hill was a busy harbor where Ralf moored his ship. Then he went ashore and took with him a small bag of salt. He asked one of the men to take him to the lord of the city (who was called the Rahna), and he was led to the top of the highest hill upon which sat a palace, wondrous fair to behold. When a guard at the gate asked him his business, Ralf told him that he was a merchant with a ship of goods for trade.’
The guard led Ralf into a large chamber richly decorated. At one end of the chamber was the Rahna seated on a golden throne. The throne, his crown, even his robe were embedded with precious gems and outlined in golden threads. Ralf bowed before the Rahna.”
“’My lord,’ he said. ‘I am a merchant from far away and have come with precious cargo.’
The Rahna regarded Ralf with heavy-lidded eyes. He flicked his hand and one of his attendants came over to Ralf.
‘The Rahna wishes to see your wares,’ he said.
Ralf opened his bag of salt and poured some of it into the attendant’s hand.
‘This is salt,’ he said.
The attendant turned and showed it to his master who bent close, and then struck the attendant’s hand, scattering the salt on the floor.
“‘You dare enter my presence to show me a handful of dust?’ the Rahna said. ‘Are you here to insult me or are you merely a fool? Out with you and leave this city!’ At his words, two of the guards seized Ralf and marched him to the palace gates. When he was outside the gates, Ralf found a shady spot under a tree to think.
‘Can it be that the people here do not know of salt?’ he wondered.To discover whether this was true, Ralf once more approached the guard at the gate.
“‘Good sir,’ he said. “I am weary from my journey. May I please have something to drink and a place to rest my body? Then I shall be on my way.’
The guard saw no harm in Ralf’s request and led him to the kitchen. There the cooks and scullions were hurrying about preparing the meal for the Rahna and his guests. Ralf watched as dish after dish was made ready, but he could find no trace of salt in their preparations. When no one was looking, he sampled from one of the pots. It was tasteless. Quickly and quietly, Ralf sprinkled a small pinch of salt on all the dishes. Then he sat in the kitchen and waited.
“At the supper, the Rahna’s guests remarked on the quality of the meal before them.
‘O mighty Rahna,’ said his prime minister, ‘truly the gods have blessed your generosity today by providing a feast of such excellent taste.’
The other guests at the table echoed his sentiments. The Rahna was quick to accept their praises on his behalf. When the meal was ended, and the guests had departed, the Rahna dispatched his guards to the kitchen to summon the cooks and the scullions. When they were assembled, with fear and trembling, the Rahna questioned them.
‘What did you do to the dishes tonight that they were so excellent in taste?’ he demanded. ‘What happened in the kitchen that could account for it?’
The cooks and scullions all pleaded ignorance, declaring that the dishes were prepared as they had always been, with strict adherence to quality and quantity. Their answers did not satisfy their lord as was evidenced by his darkening brow. One scullion came forward and bowed repeatedly.
‘My most exalted master,’ he said. ‘There was one minor difference in the kitchen today. A young merchant begged a seat to rest his feet and asked for a drink of water for refreshment.’
‘Find this merchant and bring him to me at once’, commanded the Rahna.
Two of the guards went to the kitchen and found Ralf seated as before.
‘Come with us and may the gods spare your life,’ they said.
Ralf was ushered to the presence of the Rahna, who immediately rose from his throne and thrust his face into Ralf’s.
‘Did you in any way tamper with the food dishes? Speak truly now and you may die like a man; attempt to deceive and you will suffer most cruelly.’
‘My lord, I do confess that I added a small pinch of salt, the dust you called it, to each of the dishes. If they are to your liking, it is because of salt.’
At these words, the Rahna beamed and embraced Ralf.
‘You have this day brought a treasure more precious than rubies. This magic dust, this salt, is a wonder of the gods. It makes plain food taste savory and makes savory dishes beyond description. I will give you whatever you ask for your salt, even to the half of my kingdom.’
Ralf thought for a few minutes and then said to the Rahna.
‘If is pleases your lordship, for every sack of salt on my ship, I will trade you one sack of gold coins, one sack of silver coins, and one sack of precious gems.’
‘Agreed,’ said the Rahna, ‘and well worth the price. Your salt is worth more than that and besides.’
The Rahna gave the orders and in good time, Ralf’s little ship was returning home laden with a rich cargo. The great gull that guided Ralf to this foreign land was there to see him safely to port, and so it was that Ralf made his fortune. When he returned to his father, he gave him one tenth of his riches and then sailed away to a faraway land, to live a life of ease and comfort and all because of a simple brass key and its treasure of salt.”
When Trevor finished his tale, the hall was silent. Such was the power of his voice and skill with the harp that he was master of his audience. By his will, he had transported them to a world beyond their own and allowed them to walk for a while in a vision. The silence was broken by a loud “Amen” from Wilfred; he then seized Trevor in a headlock.
“Well done, Trev, well done! he shouted. Then Rhino, Skandar, and Elbert followed suit in clapping Trevor about the head and shoulders while the hall erupted in shouts of praise. Lord Vortimer bent his head to hide his tears; his Trevor was home!
Next Week: Why Hedgehogs Need Names