THURSDAY: Beef Stew

BY COURTNEY DANN

Copyright is held by the author.

THE HEAVY weight of the pearls continuously rolled together in the cloth they were wrapped in and made a distinct rattling sound. They seemed to refuse to warm up in the boy’s hands that were warm and damp with sweat, almost like they wouldn’t let him forget they were there. His hands were calloused and still caked rather thoroughly in dirt, despite his lazy attempts to wipe them off in the dewy grass; thus explaining why his aunt insisted on the clean rag to keep him from soiling them any further than from the state he had found them in.

The trip from their home, situated near the peak of the small hill that indicated the end of Norfolk, was a long ways away from the manor that the nobility of East Anglia had lived in for centuries. The great, looming building worked as a landmark that led towards the busy town square that surrounded it like its belt. It was a far enough distance by foot, but with the pony he had been given for travel, it was just under an hour.

It was dark, far too dark than he had anticipated it would be at this hour, but if the cool tingling of goosebumps on his bare arms were any indication, the days would be becoming much shorter. The somber streets, lit up only by a few guards and their torches, were too dark for his intentions to seem good. If his appearance had classed him as a thief in the past, a moth-holed pocket holding the Queen’s pearl necklace wouldn’t do him any favours.

The young shepherd found himself entering the castle right past the guards, his initial plan of action thrown out the window. Shrill cries and demands were heard from down the wide hall, in a voice that the boy vaguely recognized to be the one that spoke for only a matter of seconds at a time during town meetings before succumbing into coughing fits and being carried back inside to rest.

He planned on dropping the pearls here, leaving as fast as physically possible and returning home before he was caught. But as he took one last look at the strung up beads, noting the insignia imprinted on the clasp that was without a doubt made of pure gold, a firm grip caught his wrist and in a fit of panic he stuffed them back inside of his pockets.

“Who let you in here?” A sharp voice demanded, but their tone suggested they knew better. “What are you hiding?” The strangers hands roughly toyed with the various flaps and layers of his dirtied clothes in search of anything stolen, even though the panic-stricken boy knew it would’ve been almost impossible for him to not have seen him shove them in his right pocket and must’ve been searching for anything else.

Finally, he forced his eyes up to see who had caught him. His captor’s clothes were certainly an indication of royalty, but he was far too young to be anywhere near next in line for the crown. The prince—he assumed—had dark hair that was short enough to be seen as neat but still curled around the longer ends in the distinct way that all of the royal’s hair did.

The boy had spent too long standing in fear and awe, which allowed the prince to easily yank his hand out of his pocket to see what he had been trying to conceal. He nearly cringed as the prince spoke again, his voice was almost childishly whiny, which could only have been a result of years of being pampered like an infant with no arms or legs.

“Did you steal these?” He knew he should answer. Explain, deny it, say absolutely anything that would put him in the clear and yet, he remained silent. His lips sealed shut just as his body had tensed up minutes ago.

The prince considered him for a moment and frankly seemed bored, which would have almost been an insult to the boy if he hadn’t been hoping for some brief interaction. The piercing, shaking voice from earlier rang out again shortly after he had spoken: “Edmund? Who are you speaking to?” she cried like a suffering animal. Suddenly, the younger of the two didn’t feel so bad wincing at the noise when he felt the other boy do the same towards his own grandmother.

The younger of the two raised his empty hands to force the necklace into the prince’s possession and hoped to be let go without consequence. The gaunt boy hadn’t even had the time to prepare himself for when the same hand as earlier gripped onto his bony elbow and dragged him towards the room where that dreadful voice came from. He desperately tried to wiggle out of his grip, his feet scraping painfully against the stone ridges in the floor as he attempted to slow down Edmund’s long strides.

The moment they turned into the room, the scrawny boy ceased his efforts in a last ditch attempt to spare some image of innocence. His fear rapidly grew into confusion when he noticed the reaction, or lack thereof, from the queen. She sat with a blank expression and her eyes never focused on him. Edmund stood right in front of her with the boy to his right, his grip still tight. “What is it?” he asked, too much softness in his voice for it not to be concealing irritation.

“Who was out there? Who were you speaking to?” The prince reached out for her arm and her gaze fixated on her grandson, but even then it still seemed off. From so close up, he finally noticed the milky sheen over her previously blue eyes.

The prince glanced over to the boy next to him and the latter tensed up. “One of the guards,” he finally said, probably pausing just to make him itch. “He found your necklace and was returning it to me… because he saw me walking by.” This time Prince Edmund refused to look at the boy to his right, probably avoiding any unwanted gratitude or declarations of appreciation. The rest of the interaction was brief and uninteresting, and it wasn’t long before the shorter boy was being ragdolled away and to another large room.

The two stopped before entering. Edmund let him go and sighed like he would regret whatever he was going to say. “Why wouldn’t you just give it to a guard, you stupid thing?” he said instead, exasperated. There was no room to answer before he continued on, “I feel obligated… morally, at least, to reward you for not keeping it—even though that would’ve probably been your best option… And since you’re an awfully skinny thing,” He grabbed his bony wrist and lifted it for emphasis before letting it fall back at his side, “I don’t exactly think you’d refuse food, would you?”

He didn’t have to reply, he was already being lead to one of the many tables in the otherwise empty room. It was clearly a dining hall, but most likely for the help to eat in due to the lack of effort put into it. The farm boy sat with cooling nerves and had watched the prince leave the door leading to what he thought was the kitchen (if the scents coming through the cracks in the walls were any indication), followed by a woman holding a high bowl with steam coming off the top. The prince sat across from the peasant boy as he ate with rushed eagerness, as though he thought it would be yanked away.

“For someone as thin as a bug you sure do eat like a starved pig,” Edmund commented with no real malice in his voice. The boy offered him a smug smile in return, all too aware of the grease dripping from the corners of his cheeks and the discomfort it would cause the uptight boy before him. The noble seemed nearly offended at his lack of a reaction, and went on with antagonizing him. “Don’t you talk?” The bowl rocked against the table as he nodded without removing his face from it, using it to hide the growing grin on his face as he watched the prince get increasingly more upset with his silence. Edmund, for whatever reason, was intent on getting a word out of him and continued on. “What’s your name?” His pointed nose rose as he tipped his head back like he thought too highly of himself to be caring about such things.

The boy paused this time and contemplated answering. “Thomas,” he tried to reply smoothly,  but his voice came out in a hoarse squeak from disuse. Edmund seemed pleased at the way the tips of Thomas’ ears went pink from the atrocious sound he had just created.

“Ah, so it speaks,” he said, amused. “Poorly, albeit…” he adds in a teasing tone. Despite smiling to himself from his own mild attempt at humour, he was surprised to hear the warm chuckle that traveled from across the table. The prince glanced down at the table and picked at the chipping wood until small splinters formed under his nails, probably finding it to be a safer choice than to let himself dwell on the fact that he was beginning to enjoy the company of this ratty boy.

Thomas slurped at the bowl obscenely as he finished whatever it was he just ate and repressed the desire to ask for more. The stretch of his stomach reminded him he didn’t need it, lest he wanted to be sick in front of a prince, however, he was still conscious of the fact that after he’d be asked to leave, it would be a while before his next meal. He stood up as though to leave and Edmund stood up across from him, looking almost surprised.

“You’re leav-” he cleared his throat quickly and spoke again with a slightly tougher tone. “You’re leaving?” Thomas simply shrugged his shoulders with a perplexed expression, as though to ask what else he was expected to do. If it was already dark upon his arrival it would be a disaster to return at this time; he couldn’t linger any longer and risk worrying his aunt. “Well… I’ve ought to give you something for your trouble. I take it that that joke of a horse outside belongs to you?” Thomas glared half-heartedly at the comment towards his pet but nodded nonetheless. “I’ll have some food brought out for you to bring home for… to bring home,” he corrects himself, probably afraid to assume anyone was waiting on him. “And a coat,” he adds, sounding like he had just come up with the idea a moment ago. “Would be sort of a waste to give you all of that food and have you hypothermic before you even get home,” he explains more for his own sake rather than Thomas’.

Edmund hadn’t been lying, he really had half a dozen large bowls of the same stew he had offered Thomas put into the pitiful, slanted wagon attached to his horse, who had also been fed; not upon request, but because the night watchmen pitied the frail animal. A thick, burly guardsman had wrapped a thick coat around Thomas without announcement, the boy almost shouting in surprise when the thick wool was wrapped around his shoulders.

The young prince had been watching from afar, refusing to step any further than the well-lit arches of the doorway but still trying to observe what was happening. “I suppose you don’t come down here a lot, huh?” he called out, voice barely reaching Thomas as he climbed into the front of the horse cart. He hesitated and shook his head apologetically in reply. “Right . . . you must live up north.” A nod this time. “Then I suppose I’ll see you the next time you have to come down.” And with that, he swiftly turned on his heel and walked back inside the castle. Thomas frowned.

The farm boy nodded in appreciation to the guard that fixed a torch to the footboard to light his way back home. The pleasantness of the gentle roll of the wagon across the flattened dirt would be short-lived as soon as he made it to the gravel roads. He twisted his body around to within the front quarter of the cart to make sure the bowls were fastened down and wouldn’t spill once the trail became rougher. He had been sitting back, hands wrapped around himself inside of the large coat to keep them warm when he was jostled up by the impact of the first rock stuck in the dirt. The steady bumps kept his body bouncing up from his seat, and from the movement he started to feel a distinct rattling from inside of the coat pocket.

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4 comments

  1. Mary Cudney

    I loved it. The characters came to life as the story expanded. The description of the boy holding the pearls is awesome. I was completely blown away by the ending. Great writing.

  2. Dave Moores

    Courtney, an impressive piece of writing. One thing wasn’t clear to me. Why did he go to the castle in the first place? Some very long sentences, and the piece as a whole might be better shorter. But an arresting story regardless. Thank you.

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