John and Maggie

or The Path of Dead Sparrows
© 2011

Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion
Neverwas: Forgotten Tales of Albion

Once upon a time there was a happy forester, named Will, who lived in the edge of the dark wildwood with his wife, Gwen, and two dear children; the boy called John and the girl called Maggie. They lived in modest comfort in a cozy little cottage made of stone with a cheery iron stove and real glass window! John made a living from cutting wood and, though this is very poor work, he loved the forest and found hidden treasure in gathering nuts and fruit, which he would sell at the market in the village. In this way he made enough to buy a steel bill to cut deadwood and brush and to prune the wild trees till he had made for himself a fine orchard hidden in the forest deeps. He even made enough to give his children each a silver penny on their birthdays and another on feast of Christmas.

His children knew how strong and brave their father was, for hidden dangers lurk within the wildwood, outlaws and gnomes and every horrid wight! Because they loved their father, the children saved their pennies and bought for him a silver watch with springs and gears and when the watch was opened it played Will’s favorite song, which (though you might not guess of such a sober and righteous man) was “Mother Watkins Ale”. Next to his own dear family, Will loved nothing more than his stout bill and his silver watch.

But to pay for such a fine life, Will was a very busy man. Five days a week he must hie to the wood with his bill and his barrow to gather wood or harvest the nuts and fruits which he sold. On the sixth day he was off to the village before the crack of dawn to sell his gleanings and to pay the piper for the feast.

Now, Gwen knew the value of a goodman who treated her well and gave her such a fine house and babes. But such hard work and long hours left Will so tired that most days he would come home and, after a fine meal and a pipe of Merkian Tabac, he would sit in his fine chair by the fire and fall fast asleep listening to the children learning their letters and their maths by the light of the hearth. Poor Gwen met this with good enough cheer, but no matter how she scolded herself, she felt lonely and missed the days when she and Will were young and had no babes underfoot. But she never spoke a word to trouble good Will or the babes, and suffered her lot in silence, till the babes were mucking the barn or away in the meadow chasing the goat.

Then she would stand as she beat the rugs or hung the wash to dry, and bemoan her lot. She cursed the forest and the silence. She wished for other women to talk to and she cursed Will for a fool to work so hard and mind her so little.

One day while Will was away to market and Gwen stood hanging the linens to dry, a man approached who was fair of face and brow. He was a strapping man with a well turned calf who looked for all the world like her Will, till looking a second time she spied the flaw. He bowed with courtly grace and begged a crust of bread and a cup of tea. Being good folk and generous as well, Gwen invited the stranger to stay for tea. While they sat, the stranger asked if Gwen had heard of a man called Will.

“Why my own dear husband is named Will!” Gwen exclaimed. “Perhaps he is the one you seek.”

They spoke further and it was soon established that he was Robert, Will’s own dear brother. They talked and talked and the time fled by, for Gwen had missed the converse of strangers these many years. Soon they fell to laughing and embraced like old friends, though there was something more to that embrace then was proper for a brother and sister in law. And as he left, he asked that Gwen say nothing of his visit, for he wished to surprise his brother whom he had not seen in many years. She was inclined to cast him out and tell her husband all, but Robert plead and importuned so sweetly that she forgave him and agreed to hold her tongue.

Robert continued to return each day while the children were in the fields doing their chores and regailed Gwen with tales of travels to foreign lands and adventures the likes of which few ever dare. The talk was so exciting and the company so sweet that Gwen grew quite fond of Robert, and in no time the brotherly kiss upon the cheek grew into something rather more intimate and not the sort of thing a good wife should ever do! If a woman yields once she’s done for, and so, because she had given in the first time, she was hard pressed to avoid so the second., till nothing was left to withhold.

One day when Will was once again at market, the children returned home for tea and found Robert comfortably seated in Will’s chair by the fire. John was quite perplexed and stood examining the stranger who had invaded their cozy home. Maggie, who was younger, marched straight to the chair and stood with her arms akimbo and her face screwed into a frown. She stared deeply into Robert’s eyes and demanded, “Why are you sitting in my father’s chair!”

“Why because it suits me, don’t you think?” Robert replied with narrowed eyes.

Gwen swept in to gather her babes and, holding them tightly, told them Robert was their father’s brother who had come a great distance to plan a surprise for them all. At that, Robert gave her a wicked smile and Gwen giggled so sweetly that the children were quite surprised, for they had seldom seen Gwen with so light a heart, short of a glass of Christmas cheer.

Gwen announced tea and the children were astonished at the table that was set for them. There were cakes and cheese, even tiny tarts made with strawberries preserved with honey. When they had eaten their fill, the babes cleared while Robert returned to the fire, and (wouldn’t you know) he began to smoke Will’s very own pipe. He sat in the chair and Gwen lit next to him, perched on the arm of the chair. The babes looked on with eyes like saucers as Gwen explained that uncle Robert would be coming to visit whenever Will was away. He would help Gwen in the cottage, John and Maggie would continue to tend the animals and the garden. There were two rules that they must strictly observe, they must not enter the cottage while Robert was there and they must never speak of Robert to Will (for that would spoil the surprise).

“And I’ll have your oath on it, my dears,” Gwen said sternly. “You must swear by thy father’s own head never to tell him what you know, until Robert and I have sprung the surprise.”

* * * *

That night after Will had come home and the babes were abed, they lay whispering of all that had transpired. They worried what Robert’s true intentions might be, yet they had given a solem oath, on their own dear father’s life, to keep silent, so they tossed and turned till sleep finally caught them and resolved to do as they’d been told. For adult affairs are no business of children.

The next day and the next Robert came to the cottage soon after Will had left, and he left again just before tea. This habit continued as the days wore on into weeks and the weeks into months. Yet the children were faithful to their promise and never entered the cottage until Robert had left. They carried pails to work filled with bread and cheese for luncheon and they wanted for nothing. Still they worried. Soon the leaves began to fall and the shadows grew longer. The cold of winter seemed to nip at them though he was still a ways off.

One sunny day the air was warm and butterflies flitted about the meadow, when a wave of clouuds swept accross the sky like a curtain and it grew quite chilly indeed. Poor Jon and Maggie were soon chilled to the bone and sat with chattering teeth, huddled together for warmth.

“We must return home for our cloaks, lest we catch a chill and die,” Maggie said.

“Nay, Maggie, for we have give our oath on the life of our own dear father. Should we break our promise we risk the life of the one who is dearest to us both!” John cried.

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