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The Beamish Boy

For Randy Baker's Prompted #4

By Hannah MoorePublished 20 days ago 12 min read
12
The Beamish Boy
Photo by Florida-Guidebook.com on Unsplash

The day dawned chill and pale, muted by the whispering mists that rose from the swampy woods lapping the hillsides, a foreboding sea of green and soupy grey. Down there, between the warped trunks and mossy loam, the fug was thronged with the slimed bodies of creatures that thrive in the murk, the plashes and scurries and screeches of their morning japing sending eddies of animation into the haze, loosening its grip on their world. Further into the forest, where swamp segued to bog, and tussocked fingers of dry land became stretches of solid ground, droplets of sunlight sequined the vapour, shimmying between the trees and into small clearings, a suggestion of something charmed that belied the doleful lamentations emanating from those darker, denser columns of fog moving in still air on the edges of the quagmire.

*

High above, where later, when the mists burnt away, meadows yellowed with buttercups would sing of sunshine and abundance, the castle clambered stone by stone out of the surrounding settlement, and within the castle, the king was at his breakfast.

“You cannot go, boy. It is far too dangerous.” He banged his fist on the table, proclaiming his decision a decree and making the silver jump.

“I am trained for this. Why would you have me work all my days in the training grounds if not for this?” The boy was strong. Long and lean with the open spined spring of youth visible even as he strained against his own better judgement.

“You’re not ready, son.”

“Father, I am of age. I have trained twice as hard as every other boy my age, and since I was tall enough to hold a sword. I have completed every test, every….”

“You are not going Louis, and that is my decision. You have trained twice as hard because you must be twice as good, and you have completed every challenge of readiness because you must be ready, but you cannot go. This isn’t what it is to other boys for you, you must know that. You are a king’s son, you are a rallying point in the camps and a prize to be won on a battlefield, as valuable to them as you are to us. You are the heir, the only heir as things stand, and until such time that that changes, we cannot afford to squander you on a blood bath over a scrap of rocky ground no one really cares about.”

“But father….”

“No. They have to be seen to keep their dignity, and we have to be seen to defend ours, and then we can all go home and resume rivalries comfortably as we did before your idiot brother ran off with their simpering princess and drowned. If he’d had the good sense to sink in one of their ships instead of one of ours, we wouldn’t even be here and I could be eating my breakfast in peace.”

“But the people…”

“The people think we are all idiots son, have you not been listening to the council. They weren’t keen before, not since the drought, like I can govern the weather, and now with Edwin’s shenanigans, the people, as you refer to them, are of the opinion that they might be better off without us. All we need is you paraded as a prisoner of war through a couple of border towns and we’re lost. So you are not going. It is too risky.” The king sighed, and took an egg from the serving dish, regretting his decision not to take breakfast in his chamber.

“Yes father. I understand. Thank you.“ Louis stood down, allowing his body to sink away from the fight and into a hard backed chair at his father’s table. “Do they hate us so much?”

“Louis, we are like the weather – too dry, too cold, too wet. One minute they love us, the next we are the cause of all their woes. We can weather this. We just need a victory, that is all.”

Louis toyed with an apple he had plucked from the bowl on the table, drawn to its blushed skin, but not yet alert to the possibility of biting in. He had lived in his brother’s shadow since he was one year old, and though he had resented him his livelier disposition and his easier manner, Louis missed him terribly. It turned out, too, that stepping out from that shadow was harder than he had thought.

“Father, if I cannot go to war, then let me win you another victory.”

“What is it that you propose?” His father looked tired, but was at least listening.

“The farms on the edge of the forest have been losing more and more livestock lately. So much that the prices of milk and eggs have gone up. You think I don’t hear what is under my nose, but last week you heard a dozen petitions from people who couldn’t afford to feed their families, or from farmers with nothing to sell at market. The talk in the taverns is that the Jabberwock is leaving the forest and encroaching on our lands. People are scared to go into the fields away from the outer villages, they’re worried it will come for their children in the night. Let me hunt it. Let me bring home the head of the Jabberwock. Let me prove that we will do what it takes to defend our people.”

The old king watched his son as he spoke, watched as the passion had stirred in his heart and the fire had lit in his eyes. He reminded him so much of Edwin, beautiful, dear Edwin. A father should not have favourites, he knew, but that boy had outshone his big brother in almost every way from the day he could walk. Poor Louis, with is quiet ways and serious manner, had always faded into the background, heir or no. Perhaps he needed this more than an old man with his bones already stiff from sitting the throne could remember. But it was dangerous in the forest. Louis wouldn’t be the first to venture in seeking glory, and those who had returned had been changed by what they found there. And yet, Louis was right in saying he was trained in combat. He was fast, precise, unbeaten amongst his peers with a sword. “It is dangerous Louis, what you propose.”

“I believe I can do it, Father. Ask my masters and they will tell you I am more than proficient with a sword.”

“I have seen it child. More so even than Edwin. He was always too concerned with how it looked. You have an efficiency that will make you a fine general one day. If you live.”

“I can go?”

“You can go. But Louis, please, beware. Few have seen the beast, many do not even believe it can be real, but I saw it once, when I was your age. I saw it and I will never forget it. The jaws! It bites and snatches and once it has you it will never let you go. The claws, too. Long, curved claws that will snag you and cut through your armour. Do not let it catch you on its claws.”

“You saw it? You never told me this!”

“It does not walk alone, either. Out there, in the swamps, there are other beasts almost as deadly. There is a bird as tall as a boy of thirteen, with blue-black feathers and a beak so hard it would crack your skull if you let it get above you. And it will want to get above you, it will want to get at what lies beneath your skull.” The king was no longer looking at his son, but inwards, to visions of that awful day he had ridden into the swamp, as brave as any prince, or as coddled. His horse, with better sense, had bolted and thrown him, leaving him amidst those reaching trees. “The Bandersnatch! Look out for the Bandersnatch too. They hide in the mud, they lay still, almost impossible to see, waiting, but then when you get too close, they come at you, so fast no man could dodge them. Look for the yellow of their eyes on the ground and stay back. Louis, you must stay back from the Bandersnatch.”

Louis was shaken by the fear in his father’s eyes, but not deterred. The day was turning fine and his limbs felt fresh and ripe. He sank his teeth deep into the apple in his hand, and felt the sharpened sweetness of the juice bring a tingling to his mouth.

Down in the woods, the Jabberwock slumbered.

*

By half past nine, Louis stood with the first water of the swamp soaking into his boots. He had dressed lightly. Speed was his strength, and he wanted to be free to move. Over light wool breeches he wore a leather jerkin and a loose shirt. His armour he had left behind, though he had brought his helmet, proof, he hoped, against the fabled Jubjub bird. Though he had clothed his body simply, he had armed himself with his finest sword. The vorpal sword had been a gift, on his sixteenth birthday, and one befitting his swordsmanship. It sat easily now in his hand, as natural to him to wield as a third arm would have been.

He and Edwin had played here, in their youth, daring one another to go that little bit further, knowing all the time their fear was not the other’s scorn, but the wrath of their father if they were caught. They didn’t give much thought to what lay through the gnarled branches which closed about them only feet from the swamp’s edge, they knew they would go no further. Louis paused, ankle deep now, and looked behind him. This was as far, he thought, as he had ever come, and he would go further yet, this day. Louis stepped over a knobbled root and disappeared into the gloom. Far away, where swamp became bog, the Jabberwock stirred in his sleep.

*

The sun had started its decent before Louis met dry land again. For hours, he had trudged through turgid pools and sucking mud, and he was feeling the fatigue not only of this endless physical endeavour, but of the mental vigilance that had kept him from several deaths already. The stretch of grassy firm ground felt like a homecoming, of sorts, and he dared risk a rest for the first time since he left the breakfast table so many hours before. The clearing was small, and pocked with the shrubby bushes which filled the gaps between the larger trees all around. Louis was as cautious as he was tired, and it was with his back to the largest of these trees, its pale, mottled trunk stretching upwards to a high, compact growth, he stood to rest, scanning as much as the clearing as he could keep in his sight. He was annoyed. There were beasts aplenty in this devilish forest, but none that matched the description of the dreaded Jabberwock, even accounting for hyperbole. He had been an idiot, he feared, coming out here with hopes of covering himself in glory. Now he looked the fool. A childish fool, chasing myths when war was afoot. He knew a night in this forest could mean death, but who would even care if he never returned? If his brother had still been alive, perhaps they would even have been relieved. Pass the crown to the right brother, no awkward contest. Edwin hadn’t wanted the crown, but everyone saw him as the true heir. Now his feet hurt and he was probably lost and had nothing to show for it but ruined boots. He was even going to die a less inspiring death that Edwin.

Self-pity is a consuming task, and Louis had scant energy left to consume. It was unsurprising, then, that he did not at first hear the rustling of bushes, or the wet, rolling call of an animal unafraid of being seen. It was unsurprising that even something that large could pass unnoticed as it foraged for fungi between the moss draped trees edging the clearing, its snuffles and grunts, humming and gurgling unheard in the general hubbub of the wood.

The Jabberwock was a complacent creature. The largest beast in the forest, it had no need to be afraid. Even the Bandersnatch let the Jabberwock pass unmolested, and the Jubjub bird knew that skull was impenetrable even to its mighty beak. So the Jabberwock took no care to hide as it broke into the clearing on the trail of a ring of purple Mortiwok mushrooms. The Jabberwock made no move to flee when it found a creature beneath a tree, when it saw the steel flash in the sun, when it felt the blade piece its shaggy chest, in and out and in and out again.

Louis was quick, efficient, flawless in his execution, quick footfalls and the sucking lisp of the blade as it plunged deep into the creature’s heart the only sounds he made. This creature, enormous, scraggled and clurped with maltiom fur, eyes as red as the flames of the pyre, was undoubtedly the Jabberwock, and fatigued as he was, Louis was cat-quick in claiming it. The beast fell to his knees with a single huff, and was dead before it hit the floor. The sword, wastik sharp, made short work of the sinew and bone, and Louis left that island of dry ground bathed in blood, and the body headless and alone amidst the filtial purple mushrooms.

Though the head weighed him down, the glory of the kill leant Louis a new lease of energy, and he sploshed and bounded through the gloaming, following his instinct for home. The Bandersnatch, appalled, watched him go, and the Jubjub hollered a warning for all to lay low.

*

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?” Though the evidence lay gored on the stone floor before him, base amidst the formality of the court, the king evidently could not believe his eyes.

“The Jabberwock is slain by my sword Father. No more shall our people fear the beast!” The courtiers in silk and satin, looked on in shock. Many had not believed the thing existed, and to see its head here upon the throne room floor seemed incredible. Those who had thought the animal real stood awed and disgusted in equal measure. A child began to cry.

The king rose from his seat, stiff, but still strong. Stepping from the dais he spread his arms wide. “My son, Prince of this land, come to thy father. You have filled my heart with pride this day.” Embracing, he whispered in the boy’s ear, “I am so happy you are alive Louis, my beautiful boy.” Eyes moist, the king turned to face the onlookers. “This is a joyful day for all of us! Let it be known that my Prince Louis has brought home the head of the Jabberwock, that our people can sleep safe in their beds again. Tonight,” he laughed, the relief bubbling over in his chest “is a night of feasting!”

*

Dusk settled over the forest, away from the fires of the castle and the singing in the town which quashed the night to meekness, nearer, but beyond the gaze of the dancers in the villages, whose whirling laughter set the dark aglow. The fog seeped back from where it had rested the afternoon away, filling the spaces that were not already water or mud or organic matter, and obscuring the slithering, slick tongued creatures in their cavorting mischief. Between the twisted, twining trees, a slurking dream flirned and tarbed, and the greyed reminiscences of fearful dread set to their nightly moaning.

In a byre, beyond the firelight, the sheep lifted aquiline heads and shifted in the dark, listening for something silent as it skulked towards the door.

*

Editors note: It is evident from the text, of course, which poem I chose for Randy Baker's May prompt (below), but it was evident before the text, too. Jabberwocky, I think, may be my favourite poem. It is evocative, and playful and dramatic, and complete nonsense all the same, and for me sings of the joy of language. I have always felt language to be a versatile, evolving tool - a tree to clamber upon and swing from the branches, rather than a metal climbing frame with its evenly spaced rungs. I challenge you not to read this poem and find you completely understand it, intuitively, without having the first clue of the details. It felt slightly sacrilegious trying to pin them down to be honest, so, here and there, I did not. Also, can you read this without a Scottish accent? Its not just me, is it?

Short Story
12

About the Creator

Hannah Moore

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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Comments (8)

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  • Randy Baker3 days ago

    This was so well done. Thanks for taking part in the challenge!

  • Novel Allen5 days ago

    I never read the thing, Jabberwocky, now my interest is piqued. I just found this challenge, so sorry I missed it. would have enjoyed writing one. Yours is awesome.

  • L.C. Schäfer14 days ago

    Love the voice throughout this 😁 Tiny typo: with is quiet ways

  • Andy Potts16 days ago

    Nicely done. I felt like you captured something of Carroll's spirit here.

  • Paul Stewart17 days ago

    You wrote the hell out of this and like you, this is one of my favourite poems. From a time when I wasn't a fan of poetry. I loved The Jabberwocky, Ozimandiaz, The Raven and Burn's stuff along with Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gently... Anyway, back to this...you gave a fine tribute to Carrol's poem by including so many evocative and just fun bits of writing. I think you're right. The joy in Jabberwocky is that it feels like a plausible and impossible fable all at once and feels like Carroll just wanted to show how amazing it can be to put words together that fit together, whether they make much sense or not. I mean, Alice in Wonderland is similar in a way. More structure and slightly more sense, but still wickedly ridiculous for the sake of riduculousness. Well bloody done, Hannah...again wowing me with your wordsmithery!

  • D.K. Shepard18 days ago

    Very well done! A very iconic and beloved source of inspiration that you used wonderfully!

  • Christy Munson20 days ago

    I've got to get to bed now. Way past my bed time, but I'm so completely looking forward to reading every delicious word. Back soon with actual comments!

  • I had no idea what poem was this inspired by and even after the mention of Jabberwocky, I still had no idea because I've never heard of that poem, lol. My jaw dropped when Louis stabbed it multiple times, like whoaaaaa. I never thought the kill would be so simple. Even the other two monster thingys let him pass due to fear hahahahaha. Loved your story!

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