A jester who can't tell jokes to save his life!
Sebastian Darke has the world on his narrow shoulders. The son of a human father and an elvish mother, he is desperately trying to become the family breadwinner and has taken on his late Father's job - celebrated jester, Prince Of Fools.
Trouble is, Sebastian can't tell a joke to save his life. Dressed in his father's clothes and accompanied by his talking (and endlessly complaining) buffalope, Max, he sets off for the fabled city of Keladon, where he hopes to be appointed court jester to kind Septimus.
On the way he encounters a tiny but powerful warrior called Cornelius; the beautiful and captivating Princess Kerin; blood-thirsty brigands and enough perils to make him wonder why he ever decided to leave home.
A Boy and His Beast.
The ancient wooden caravan creaked slowly out from the cover of the trees and stopped for a moment on the wide stretch of plain.
If there had been anyone to observe the scene they would have noticed the words, Sebastian Darke, Prince of Fools painted gaily on the sides of the caravan. Those with a keener eye might also have noticed that the word ‘Sebastian’ looked somehow different to the rest of the sentence. It had been added in a rather wobbly, amateurish hand, clearly over-painting another name that had already been there.
The sun was low on the horizon and Sebastian was obliged to shade his eyes with the flat of one hand, as he gazed off into the shimmering, heat-rippled distance. The land ahead of him was flat, arid, featureless, red earth baked by the sun with here and there, the occasional bunch of scrubby grass thrusting tenaciously through the soil. He had no real idea how far it was to the city of Keladon, but a merchant he had met the previous day had warned him to expect to travel for at least three days and nights.
“It’s a good distance,” the merchant had told him. “And those plains are infested with brigands. You’d better sleep with one eye open, elf-man.”
Sebastian was well used to this term, though he didn’t much care for it. He was a ‘breed’ – the son of a human father and an elvish mother. His tall stature and handsome features clearly came from his father’s side of the family, but his mother’s lineage was there too, reflected in the large jet-black irises of his eyes and his long, slightly pointed ears. His gangling frame was accentuated by the striped black and white costume he was wearing, complete with a tall three-pointed hat topped by jingling bells. The costume had been his father’s and hung rather loosely on Sebastian, but he had steadfastly refused his mother’s offers to alter it, saying that in time he would grow to fit the clothing. Fitting comfortably into the role of a jester might take a little longer.
Sebastian clicked his tongue and slapped the reins against the shaggy haunches of Max, the single Buffalope that pulled the caravan. Max snorted, shook his great horned head and set off again at his usual leisurely pace. He had been in the Darke family for as long as Sebastian could remember; indeed, one of his earliest memories was of his father lifting him onto the Buffalope’s mighty back and leading him slowly around the paddock. Max was now of advanced years and had many grey hairs peppering the rich ginger of his shaggy hide. With each passing day, he seemed to grow more cantankerous and he had never been slow in stating his dissatisfaction.
“I don’t much like the look of this,” he muttered now, as he started off across the plain. ‘We’re going to need plenty of water.”
“We’ve got water,” Sebastian told him. “Enough for at least two days. And besides, there are streams out there. That merchant said so.”
Max sniffed disdainfully.
“Why you’d take the word of a Berundian oil-seller is quite beyond me,” he said. “A man like that would sell his Grandmother for a few croats.”
“You suspect everybody,” Sebastian chided him. “According to you, every person we meet is some kind of villain.”
“That’s because they generally are. I noticed the Berundian managed to sell you some lamp oil.”
“So? We needed some!”
“Not at three croats a bottle we didn’t. Daylight robbery! Back at the market in Jerabim, you could get a bucket of the stuff for…”
“We’re not in Jerabim now,” Sebastian reminded him.
They moved on in gloomy silence for a while and Sebastian found himself thinking wistfully about his hometown, the place he’d lived for all of his seventeen years. He closed his eyes for a moment and saw the big bustling market in the town square where prosperous merchants in their embroidered cloaks, shouted their wares as the townspeople moved past them. Suddenly a whole series of familiar images, smells and tastes assailed Sebastian’s senses. He saw the richly decorated textiles and carpets, which hung from wooden frames around the many stalls. He smelled the rich odours of the cattle pens, where people came to barter for Buffalopes and Equines. He tasted the delicious tang of the hot sherbet they served in the cafes and smelled the rich aroma of Elvish coffee, emanating from the many restaurants that lined the square…
Then he had a vivid recollection of his Mother’s face on the day he’d finally left home – her red-rimmed eyes, her brave attempt at a smile that didn’t quite work. Sitting up on the seat of the caravan, he’d called down to her that he’d be back just as soon as he’d made his fortune, that all her troubles would be over… but neither of them had really believed it.
“Take care of yourself, Sebastian,” she’d called to him. “Remember, if things don’t work out for you, I’ll still be here!”
That had been three moons ago. He didn’t like to think of her sitting alone at night in the shabby homestead, while the cold night winds sighed outside the window…
“This is tedious!” Max’s wheedling voice broke rudely into his thoughts. “I mean, look at it. There’s nothing out there, not even a hill or a tree. The least you could do is humour me with a little conversation.”
“I’m not in the mood,” said Sebastian. “Besides, most Buffalope’s know their place. They don’t jabber incessantly at their owners.”
“You’re not my owner,” Max reminded him. “That honour belonged to your father.”
“He’s dead over a year now. I inherited the house and I inherited you. Accept the fact and shut up!”
“Oh, that’s charming, isn’t it!” exclaimed Max in disgust. “Downgraded to a mere possession. Well, at least I know where I stand.”
Sebastian immediately regretted his words.
“It’s not like that. You’re not a possession. It’s more… you’re more of a…”
“I was going to say… a partner.”
Max seemed rather pleased with this. He lifted his head a little and walked with fresh spring in his step.
“A partner,” he mused. “Well, yes, let’s face it, you wouldn’t have got this far without my help. Who was it showed you the path through Geltane Woods? Eh? And it was my idea to take shelter in that pine grove, last night.”
“I’m very grateful,” Sebastian assured him. “Really.” The last thing he needed right now was a Buffalope that didn’t feel like walking any more.
They moved on in silence, save for the creaking of the ancient leather harness, the crunching of the wheels and the tinkling of Sebastian’s bells. He sat there asking himself, not for the first time, if he was doing the right thing.
Sebastian’s father, Alexander, had been a jester, a very successful one. As Court Jester to King Cletus, the Magnificent, he had lived a rich and privileged existence and had been able to keep his wife and young son in relative luxury for many years. But Cletus was already an old man when Alexander first came into his employ. Cletus’s son and heir, Daniel the Doleful, had none of his father’s love of wit and good humour. So it was clear that Alexander’s good fortune was not going to last forever
He had always harboured the wish that Sebastian would follow in his footsteps. From an early age, the boy had done his level best to learn the Jester’s skills. But something wasn’t quite right. He managed to memorise the jokes, quips and stories well enough, but somehow he didn’t tell them convincingly. His timing was wrong, or he got some small detail mixed up. Where Alexander would be sure to get a hearty laugh, Sebastian could coax only a feeble chuckle; where Alexander would hold an audience spellbound by a story, Sebastian’s listeners would quickly become restless and distracted. It was clear to Sebastian that he simply didn’t have ‘the gift,’ as his Father liked to describe it. But Alexander refused to accept this, insisting that practise would make perfect and that it was all just a matter of time.
Then King Cletus had finally died and Alexander had found himself without a patron. Attempts to ingratiate himself with other well-to-do nobles around the court were unsuccessful and with no money coming in, he was soon obliged to offer his services to local taverns and music halls for a few croats a night. The family found itself in trouble as their income slowed to a trickle. Alexander tried everything he knew to find work but it was to no avail. Then one night, in a tavern, a stranger told him about a powerful King in the city of Keladon, far away to the West.
“King Septimus is a fine and noble man,” he had told Alexander. “It is said that his palace is the richest in all the world. He dines on gold plates and drinks from silver goblets, encrusted with precious jewels.”
“Does he have a jester?” Alexander had asked. To which the stranger had replied.
“Do you know, I don’t believe he does!”
Alexander seized upon the notion as a drowning man clutches at a piece of driftwood. He become obsessed with making the long and arduous journey to Keladon, where he intended to offer his services to King Septimus. In preparation for the trip, he devised a completely new routine and practised long into the night, every night, going over it and over it, trying to perfect every word, every nuance, every expression on his haggard face.
He had not realised the toll that the recent months had taken on him. He was undernourished and exhausted. One morning, Sebastian and his mother had woken to find Alexander slumped unconscious on the tiled floor, pale and shivering. They carried him to his bed and Sebastian rode Max into town to summon a doctor, but it was no use. Alexander had been taken by a terrible fever and within a week, he was dead.
For Sebastian and his mother it was a desperate situation. The house and land was theirs but they had no income to speak of and the only option was to go begging in the streets. Unless…
When Sebastian had first mentioned it, his Mother had been dismissive.
He was a mere boy, she pointed out. He could hardly undertake the long and hazardous journey to Keladon all by himself. Sebastian had argued that Max would be with him and he challenged his Mother to come up with a better idea, but she couldn’t think of anything.
And so it was decided. Sebastian would take his father’s costume and caravan, he would take his father’s jokes and stories and he would make the trip to Keladon in his Father’s place to seek employment in the court of King Septimus.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” he’d asked his mother. “If they don’t think I’m good enough, they’ll simply send me on my way and I’ll come back home again.”
And his mother had nodded and forced another smile, but deep down in her heart, she began to wonder if this was the beginning of the end; and she asked herself if she would ever see her beloved son again.