(Author note: I've changed the Treagers' inn's name to 'The Clover Inn.' Also, this chapter is longer than the rest but I've still just split it into two parts because it works best)
Chapter 8 – A Trip to the Woods
I met Kaspar by the royal stables in the late hours of the morning, after the stable boys had already been and gone. It was the first time I had ventured out of my house for quite some time, and even though seeing Kaspar had my heartstrings twisting in all sorts of uncomfortable ways, I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. It meant far too much to him for my feelings to sully it.
I slowed my approach when I spotted him grooming Bucky. He was speaking in hushed tones as he stroked his dark mane.
“Whatever he’s telling you about me, don’t believe a word of it, Buck.”
Kaspar hugged the horse’s thick neck. “We’ll finish this up later.” He released his hold and turned to me as if just noticing my arrival. “Ah, Wally, you made it.”
“Sorry I’m a little late. It took me a while to find something to wear that wasn’t so conspicuous.” I gestured to my attire.
Kaspar canted his head. “You think motley is inconspicuous?”
I curtsied and went over my outfit with flourishing hands. “Notice the deep green and browns? Perfect for travelling unnoticed within wooded areas. Take note of the absence of bells as to not draw an unwanted audience. And lastly, the flat cap to replace my signature four-pointed, belled beauty. I’m practically a different person.”
Kasper shook his head. “You are so right; I almost didn’t recognise you.” He smiled broadly. “Very masterful.” There was a bag at his feet. He bent down and pulled something out. “But just in case other people see through your brilliant disguise. Here.” He flung a heavy wad of fabric my way. I caught it and unravelled the brown cloak. How common.
“Stop with that face. It’s only while we’re travelling,” he said. “And speaking of. I’ve found you the perfect ride.”
He disappeared into the stables and came back out holding a rope. With a little tug, out trotted a donkey.
“Her name is Peaches. She may not look like much but she’s a tough one.”
I sashayed over to the donkey and gave her a stroke behind the ears. She whinnied and danced on her front hooves. “I know you’re trying to offend me but the jokes on you, I love donkeys.”
“Then you two will get along nicely.” He smacked my behind as he swaggered back to his huge stallion. Peaches was barely half the size of Bucky, and with a coat that hadn’t seen the likes of a brush in some time. But as I looked into her big brown, carefree eyes, I couldn’t help but smile. She was beautiful.
“You know what they say about men who ride big stallions anyway, don’t you?” I quirked my eyebrow at Kaspar. “They feel like they have something to prove.” My eyes slid to his britches.
He lifted a foot into the stirrup. “You know I have nothing to prove,” he said with a wink, and threw himself up onto the horse with all the grace of a trained dancer.
Kaspar teaching me how to ride will always be a fond memory of mine. It had been the only time the two of us were alone together, and how our fondness of each other became apparent. After the first kiss in his room, every encounter came with a fresh onslaught butterflies filling my stomach. Kaspar’s easy charm had wavered at first, not really knowing what to do with himself, or me. He couldn’t even hold eye contact without blushing. I think him being my teacher helped us get reacquainted with one another. It was clear Kaspar felt at ease when he was in control. We quickly fell back into our easy camaraderie, but with added touching and flirting.
Trekking up to the woods with him brought all those memories back. I hadn’t ridden since I lost my job in the palace and so I was rather grateful Kaspar had given me Peaches to ride instead of a huge beast of a horse. I think he hid his actual care for my safety beneath the guise of a joke. Because, if I fell off Peaches, at least I wouldn’t have far to drop. And by the way she trotted a good five paces behind Bucky, it didn’t seem in her nature to go rogue and gallop off into the unknown, kidnapping a terrified jester in the process.
“How are you doing back there?” Kaspar threw over his shoulder in a stage shout, emphasising our slow progress.
I patted Peaches on her flank, releasing a small cloud of dust. “Don’t mind us. We’re just getting acquainted. Can’t rush these things.”
Once we were out of Cragdale, I pushed back the hood of my cloak and let it pool behind me with a shudder. Never had I look so drab in my entire life. It was a relief to have my motley back on show. Kaspar pointed west. I followed his finger to a stream.
“We’ll stop for a moment. Let the horses drink,” he said.
I steered Peaches in the right direction. Kasper hopped off Bucky and left him to go to the water’s edge while he helped me off Peaches. Not that I needed the help. It was clearly an excuse to hold me.
The sun was still high in the sky and when I inhaled, the air felt so crisp and fresh in my lungs. It struck me that I hadn’t left the town for quite some time. I’d forgotten what non-dung scented air smelled like.
“How far have we got left?” I asked, strolling over to the stream.
Kaspar stayed by my side, his strides long and relaxed. “About another hour or so. We’ll start heading uphill soon so thought it wise to give your girl a rest.”
The girl in question had already drank her fill and was now shaded underneath a nearby tree. When I looked over to her, her tail swished. She lifted her muzzle to me as I approached, then pressed her face into my open palm. Little did I know at that moment that she would later become my sole companion.
The easy trust that passed between us lifted my heart. “I do miss riding,” the announcement came out wistful.
Kaspar was at the stream, washing his hands. “You were an awful student.”
I smiled. “I enjoyed getting on your last nerve. You’re jaw would set and your chest would bloom a rather magnificent shade of red.”
He stood and turned to me, his gaze flat. “You were bad on purpose.”
“Oh no, I was bad. You remember how spindly I was.” I glanced down at myself. Not much had changed. “But you were a great teacher, a much better teacher than I made you out to be. But how else were we supposed to spend time together?” Kaspar arched an eyebrow. I shrugged. “Always a trickster.”
“And here I was thinking I was impervious to your games.”
“It was all just a bit of fun.”
Kaspar seemed to freeze, his eyes casting off to the trees. There was a seriousness in the set of his jaw and the furrow of his brows. Peaches slammed her forehead into my ribs when my stroking ceased. I hugged her around her neck and continued, keeping my eyes on Kaspar.
“You have mastered the art of controlling the way people perceive you.”
My embrace of Peaches tightened reflectively at the directness of the… accusation? A blanket of cold washed over me. The backs of my eyes burned, my heart fluttering in panic. I suddenly felt like I had been stripped. And not in a good way. Like I was laid bare – not my body, but my soul. Was that really what Kaspar thought of me? That I was just putting on a show for everyone who I ever met? Contorting my personality, my being, into whatever they deemed fit for purpose?
But was that not the truth?
Finally, Kaspar’s eyes found mine, and the contact was like a crack of a whip.
We were in dangerous territory. A tiny, aching part of me wanted to ask him why he said that. What his tone meant. Did he feel like I was cheating him? That he was not seeing the real me? But I knew better than to head down that path. It wouldn’t lead anywhere good.
A laugh rippled from deep inside me. It strangled me briefly before it leapt from my mouth, brittle and awkward.
“All part of my charm,” was all I managed to say back.
He nodded, chewing on his lower lip and watching his boot scuff the dry dirt, conceding to my well guarded disposition. A yielding gesture I was used to. Kaspar had been trained well. He was an exceptional knight. He knew not to waste energy on a losing battle.
We mounted once again and I followed him uphill. He was silent in front of me, his spine as straight as a post. I could feel the tension radiate from him like heat, and as the silence stretched between us, it almost felt like no words were ever going to pass between us again. I grabbed at the cloak that was still bunched at the back of my saddle and drew it over myself despite the moisture in the air dampening my skin. Perhaps it had been a futile attempt to cover myself even more from Kaspar’s penetrative thoughts.
It was all just a bit of fun. Why had I said that? I sensed the unspoken words that had died on Kaspar’s lips. Is everything just a bit of fun to you? And the answer was no. Sometimes there was no fun to be had at all. That was why I had to create it for myself.
I shook my head and focused on the soft hoof beats. Unruly roots had begun to invade the path. Bucky passed them with ease but Peaches had to swerve around them with some effort.
It had been quite for some time before Kaspar spoke again. The sun had noticeably dipped in the sky and we had been walking on level ground long enough that everything started to look the same.
The sound of his voice made my heart lurch so violently I had to grip my reins to keep from toppling over. His head moved from side to side, scoping the clearing. He pointed east.
“We’ll set up other there. Get a fire going.”
I nodded, afraid to speak. Why had I suddenly grown so nervous around him?
He dismounted and tethered Bucky to a nearby tree branch. He didn’t help me off Peaches this time and the absence of touch as I dropped to the ground made me feel hollow. I tied Peaches up and when Kaspar finally looked to me, I blurted, “I’ll get the firewood,” and found myself scurrying off into the trees before I even realised what I was doing.
The cloak made the whole ordeal much more taxing than it needed to be. The stiff material kept snagging on branches, yanking me in all directions. I stepped in several boggy marshes as I searched for appropriate bits of driftwood, making the bottom of the cloak soggy. It slapped against my tights as I waddled my way back to Kaspar, arms full of bits of twigs like a peace offering.
When I returned, he was sitting at the base of a thick trunk, knee pulled up with his elbow resting on it. His eyes were low, unfocused on the ground before him. At the sound of my footfalls, his head bounced up and his eyes shone with relief, surprised at my return. He stood suddenly and rushed to aid me. We dropped the wood onto the collection of rocks he had already used to form a base. He got the fire going and I bent to warm my stiff fingers. After a moment, he stood by my side.
“Come. I want to show you something.”
I straightened, eyes trained on his chin. He was closer than I had expected and in that moment, I was unsure if I was able to handle looking straight into his eyes. He lifted his arm to steer my shoulder but didn’t touch me. His hand was so close I could feel the heat from it despite the barrier he was unwilling to cross.
He guided me to the edge of the clearing where the ground dropped into a steep, hilly decline. There was the citadel, far off in the distance. The tall towers of the palace rose high above, waving the flags of Kalmador. The bricks shone an almost magical white in the gleam of the sun. Just below was Cragdale. Smoke rose from the chimneys, their roofs patched with dirt and soot. I had never seen the kingdom from this angle. Never before had I seen such a glaring representation of how my status had fallen. One of those palace towers, so high they seemed to pierce the clouds, had once been my home. From one window I had been able to look over Cragdale, and from the other, I could just quite make out Greysmarsh right off in the distance, like a blot of dirt on a spyglass. And now I was down in Cragdale, among the rabble with no hope at ascending those tight, twisting stairwells and getting another peak of my lowly hometown.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Kaspar exhaled in wonder.
I hugged myself, my arms getting caught up in all the extra material. After a moment, he turned to me. “Wally?”
I smiled tightly.
“This is your moment. You and your mother’s, I don’t want to intrude,” I said.
A soft laugh huffed from his nostrils. “I invited you here. How could you think of yourself as an intrusion?”
I shrugged and wandered back to the fire. His words by the stream still pressed heavily against my heart. It was an irritation I wanted to be rid off but found myself clinging to. He had been right, and now the knowledge that he knew I was being deceitful made everything that passed my lips feel treacherous. My conversation with Lady Delphine had stayed between the two of us. Kaspar had a right to know that his wife knew about us. So why hadn’t I told him? I thought I had been sparing the prince a worry, but upon further reflection, the choice had been an entirely selfish one. If Kaspar knew Lady Delphine had her suspicions, there was only one thing Kaspar could do. It didn’t matter if Delphine was an understanding person, Kaspar’s guilt would eat away at him. Their marriage would suffer in the process, and in turn, so would the kingdom. Kaspar was the prince, one day he would realise that I was just a jester and not worth all this sneaking around.
Back then I often felt like I was caught in an in-between state- a sort of limbo. I wasn’t the silly boy in the Clover inn anymore, and I was no longer the esteemed court jester. In my times alone in my quaint little house, I found myself yearning for Kaspar’s company, if just to prove to myself that I was something to someone. Kaspar was the only thing that kept me grounded. Without him, I feared I’d simply drift away, like a pair of starched bloomers caught in the wind.
Oh, how melancholy I had been. That version of me didn’t know pain. He didn’t understand what real loneliness was. That it sat in you – a ball and chain around your heart. I would give anything to be back there. Or perhaps I still am there, in a way. Don’t I still stare at my door, longing for my prince to come knocking?