C. Dale Brittain

The Wood Nymph, the Cranky Saint



When it was over, the living back where they belonged-or some place else-and the dead buried, I thought again of the day it all began. I wanted to keep Yurt the charming, bucolic, little out-of-the-way kingdom it was, but I had also wished for a little excitement.

A wizard should know better than to wish for something. Sometimes wishes come true.

As Royal Wizard, arrayed in midnight blue velvet, I was supposed to give an air of deep wisdom to the court proceedings. But I no longer had the slightest idea what that day’s case was about.

My king, however, seemed to have an excellent grasp of the details. I leaned against the wall and watched him. King Haimeric bent forward on the throne, pulling his ermine-trimmed cloak tighter around his thin shoulders as the late afternoon breeze came in the open doors and windows of the great hall.

He settled his spectacles more firmly on his nose and looked at the people before him with shrewd eyes. “So even though he struck you, he didn’t try to deny that you had a right to bring your cows into the field?”

“Of course he didn’t deny it!” “I only struck him when he started beating me with his stick!” “Don’t listen to him! You can’t believe someone who’d dig up a grave!” “Listen to his lies!” “Look at my leg, the bruises are there yet!” “His wife was the worst, and she knew she could thump me all she wanted, because I wouldn’t hit a woman!” “Anyone can tell you I cleared every stump out of that field with my own hands!”

Two dozen men and women, all from a village located five miles away, stood in front of the throne. I still hadn’t sorted out which were the claimants, which members of their families, and which the character witnesses they had brought along. A young woman with straight flaxen hair was crying openly. Over to one side, apart from the rest, a man with very broad shoulders was moodily examining the tiles of the fireplace as though trying to dissociate himself from the whole quarrel.

The knights of Yurt, ranged along the wall to help give authority to the proceedings, looked both bored and tired, with an air of having long ago stopped hearing what anyone said. Even the king’s burly nephew Dominic, who used to pay very close attention to legal cases, had wandered off, but then he had been acting somewhat distracted lately anyway.

In pauses in the arguments, I could hear faint clangings from the kitchen. The smells of supper gradually became more pronounced. Several times already a servant had peeked around the door to see if we were done yet.

Abruptly King Haimeric pushed aside his lap robe and stood up. “I’ve heard enough!” he exclaimed. The excited arguing of the group before him stopped short.

“You brought this to me as a property dispute,” he said sternly. “But both your documents of property rights and your witnesses are highly suspect and highly contradictory.”

“We already told you, Your Highness, that they stole our deed and substituted a lying fake!” one woman put in bravely.

“And it’s become clear,” the king continued, not even pausing for the interruption, “that much more than property is involved. This field has become the excuse for verbal abuse and for physical violence, which you know I consider intolerable. Some of you have even claimed that others have dug up somebody’s relative and hidden the body-don’t interrupt me! And now you’ve told me that the quarrel over this field has even been the cause of a serious breach of promise.”

I had missed this final detail amid everything else, but it explained the weeping young woman.

“If those of you who were in the wrong originally,” the king continued, “hoped that by utter confusion you would avoid a ruling against you, you are mistaken.” All of the principal disputants looked jubilant, as though secure in the knowledge that not they but the others had originally been in the wrong.

But the king’s next words took the smiles from their faces. “All of you are in the wrong. This case cannot be settled by a simple determination of right.”

I certainly agreed with him there. I had even had to abandon what would have been my own solution, to divide the field down the middle between the two claimants-if indeed there were only two.

The king crossed his arms and glared. “I have only one option left to me. I am going to swear you to peace!”

The knights all straightened to attention and slapped their sword hilts ritually.

“But in that case-” someone began.

Again the king paid no attention. “You will have to work out for yourselves who has the right to plow and gather, who to pasture cows on the stubble, where your cousin is buried now, and who will marry whom, but you will have to do it without violence!”

He turned and motioned toward Joachim, the royal chaplain, who had been standing on the other side of the throne from me. A dissatisfied murmuring and shuffling began with the king’s words but stopped immediately as the chaplain came forward, carrying a heavy Bible in both hands.

He was as young as I, and didn’t even have my wizardly white beard to give an aura of mysterious wisdom. But the absolute seriousness of his gaunt face and his enormous and compelling black eyes always gave him an air of dignity and authority that I knew I would never be able to equal. This was made even worse by the knowledge that in his case the effect was entirely unintentional.

The chaplain set the Bible on a table beside the king. “Come forward!” the king commanded. “Each of you, put your right hand on the Bible. Swear before God and the saints that you will practice violence no more, but that you will seek peace with these your neighbors.”

With covert glances at the tall and silent chaplain, all the disputants and all their witnesses came forward, abashed, and swore individually. The broad-shouldered young man came over from the fireplace to swear last of all.

“Now take each other by the hands in fellowship,” the king continued. “All of you. Take each one’s hand to symbolize the peace that now exists between you.”

The flaxen-haired woman, her cheeks still wet but no longer weeping, went at once to the young man. She stopped as though abruptly shy two feet short of him, but he reached for her hands and said something to her. She slowly started to smile. While the rest went back and forth, shaking each other’s hands, sometimes with what I thought unnecessary firmness, the two stood silently, looking at each other’s faces. When the whole group left a moment later, they were still holding hands.

The king, the chaplain, and I went out into the courtyard with them and through the gates, to watch them walk down the hill from the royal castle of Yurt. The sun was low and red in the west. The king continued to stare sternly after them until they were out of sight.

“Well,” said King Haimeric in satisfaction, his usual good humor reappearing as soon as they were gone, “I don’t think we’ll hear from them again. And that’s the last of this month’s cases. I don’t know about you two, but I find giving justice hungry work. It’s hard for an old man to have to wait for supper!”

We went back into the great hall, where just in the few moments we had been gone the servants had illuminated the magic lamps that dated back to my predecessor’s time and brought out the trestle tables for supper. Now they were spreading the table cloths and lighting the fire in the fireplace. In the little balcony high on the wall, the castle’s brass choir tuned their instruments.

“In fact,” said the king, “there shouldn’t be any more urgent cases this summer. I think I deserve a vacation, say for a month or six weeks. How would you two like to try running the kingdom?”

The chaplain and I exchanged surprised glances. In the two years I had been wizard of Yurt, I had never known the king to leave his castle for more than a few days at a time.

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