“Hello, young fellow, who are you?” P. C. felt it wise to take the initiative and keep the boy off balance.
“M-m-my name is Barda, s-s-sir,” the lad stammered, still staring wide eyed. “S-s-sir, are you a Mage? You just appeared from nowhere!” he hunched his shoulders, as though expecting to be beaten.
“Um – yes, I am. Where is the Forester?”
“Gone, sir – he had the flux, and died. I got the priest and he was buried. I’m – I was his ‘prentice, sir. I’ve been trying to look after the forest, sir, but I’ve only been ‘prenticing for four years, sir.”
“Ah, too bad, I was looking to meet him. However, I have come to inspect things so you can take his place. If I am pleased, I will tell the Reeve, and you may become the Forester. I can’t promise, but I will put in a good word. But first, you must help me, and tell no one. I must not be known to be here. Will you do as I say exactly as I say and keep my presence secret?”
Barda nodded, “Yes sir, I will!”
“First, then take me to his home – you and I will stay there until my job here is done.”
Barda led off through the forest and soon they came to a small house, its stone walls and thatched roof almost hidden by the growth around it. Nearby a spring bubbled, flowing clear and cold into a stone lined bowl. The water overflowed and ran off in a small stream into the underbrush.
By the time the important day arrived, P.C. had awed Barda many times. First, because he had insisted on a thorough cleaning of the house, and had liberally sprinkled powders to kill the fleas. Then, much to Barda’s amazement, he had bathed. Not once, but every day! And made Barda bathe, too. And he’d provided Barda with a clean tunic in much better repair than his old one. Barda was totally convinced that this big man was a Mage. Only a Mage would do all of those strange things.
Early in the morning on August second, P.C. gave Barda his orders. “You are to go to where the Royal party will enter the forest, and follow them. Make certain that you are not seen! Remember that! Just follow, and stay with Prince Henry, no matter who might leave him. I will stay where I can see the tree where I arrived.
When Prince Henry leaves the forest, come to me and let me know. Again, you must be quiet, and unseen. Is that clear?”
”Yes, Master, I understand. I will watch, follow and be hidden, and come to you when the Prince leaves the forest. I can move very quietly, I had to earn so as not to frighten the animals.” His face echoed the earnestness of his voice as he looked up at P.C.
“Right, then, off with you.” P. C. watched as Barda slipped away. The lad was right, he could move very quietly. ‘I only hope I can do as well,’ P.C. thought.
Some hours later, P.C. heard the faint sounds of men shouting and dogs barking. ‘Hmm…sounds like royalty has arrived. I hope William the red doesn’t hang around too long. This is getting boring – and uncomfortable.’ He was crouched in a small grove of young trees, where he could see around him, and, he fervently hoped, couldn’t be seen. Still, it was at least another two hours before William and his close friend Walter Tirel, Lord of Poix (pwah) came near, stalking a huge stag.
“Well, Walter,” William breathed, “if we are going to get him, now’s the time. Go you around to his other side. If I miss, you shoot.”
“Yes, Sire,” Walter’s voice was as soft as the King’s, and he slipped quietly away. Soon P.C. could see a slight movement from behind a large tree about a bow shot away, and a flash of red. Walter was in place.
William raised his bow, took aim, and fired. From his hiding place, P.C. was quietly snapping pictures, and watching the action. William’s arrow few true, and hit, but only wounded the stag. It threw its head up, snorted, and started to move just as he heard the twang of Walter’s shot. But this arrow missed the stag, and flew right to William’s chest. William only had time to gasp, then he fell, to lie wounded and bleeding under the huge oak tree.
Walter moved out from cover, and moved softly closer, stopping out of William’s sight. He looked at the king for a long moment, and whispered “now I can return to my states with enough coin to repair the manor, and live comfortable.” He nodded, turned away, and disappeared. P.C. had taken a picture of him as he stood there, a look of sorrow and satisfaction on his face.
‘So, he was murdered, and the murderer left him to bleed to death. From his expression, he was sorry, but from what he said, he was paid well. Half an hour later, he heard the sound of the other hunters fading away, and Barda slipped into sight. He saw the king’s body, and gasped. “Oh, master, what happened?” he asked. “I’ll run and get help, shall I?”
“No, Barda. For magical reasons, he must lie there until Monday. Then you can lead some of your people of Minstead here to find him Do not come directly, they must not know you have already seen the body. Promise me you will do exactly as I say.” He looked sternly at the lad.
Barda looked from P.C. to the dead king and back. “Master, did you shoot him?” he asked.
“No Barda. Look at how he is lying. Could I have shot him in the breast from here?”
Barda looked, thought for a moment, and shook his head. “No master, your shot would have been in the back. All right, I will do as you say, and I will see that men of Minstead find him on Monday. They will know what to do.”
“Fine, Barda. And what of Prince Henry? Did he make any attempt to find or contact his brother?”
“No, master. He just had everyone mount and ride away. Someone called to ask if they should send a messenger, but the Prince said no, William would come back in his own good time. Then they all rode back toward London.”
“Good. You have done well, Barda. My work here is done. I will speak to the reeve about you. Meanwhile, stay in the house and take care of the forest.” He put his hand in his pouch and drew out some coins, “Here, you will need this to buy supplies.” He dropped four silver coins, two coppers, and one gold coin in the lad’s hand.
Barda gasped and stared at what to him was a fortune. “Oh, master, that’s too much! They will say I stole it, to have so much – and a gold piece!”
“It will be all right, Barda, I will tell the Reeve I gave it to you. He will believe me, because he will know I am a Mage.”
Barda stared for a moment longer, then said “Must you leave, Master? I would willingly work for you!”
“I must, lad. And I must go now. Take care of yourself, and remember what I have asked you to do. You will do well here, and the forest will be in good hands. Farewell!” He slipped his time machine from his hidden pocket, smiled at the lad, and pushed the stud. A moment later, he stood in front of the Reeve in Minstead.
“Who are you? And how did you get here?!” The Reeve was angry and shaken.
“Do not fear me,” P.C. said. “I am a Mage from far away. I have been with Barda, the apprentice forester, checking on his work. The old forester is dead, and I wish to tell you that Barda is both well trained and conscientious. You can do no better for the forest and the King than to name him as Forester. Here is a gift for you in thanks.” He gave the Reeve two gold coins.
The Reeve stared at the coins in his hand, then at P.C. “Yes, Mage, I will do as you say. I had only heard of the forester’s death yesterday. Where will I find Barda?”
“In the forester’s cottage. And I gave him four silver coins, two coppers and one gold coin. He needs to buy supplies if he is to continue to live there. Do not let anyone accuse him of theft.”
“It shall be as you say, Mage. May I offer you something? A cold drink, perhaps?”
“I thank you, but no. I must away to my own land now. God be with you.” P.C. lifted the time machine, reset the controls, pressed the stud, and was gone, leaving the Reeve staring at the place where he’d been standing.
“Hello, chaps!” he smiled at his friends where they were gathered waiting for his return. They greeted him happily, and again, Jimbo was too anxious to wait. “Well, did you solve the puzzle? Was it murder or accident?”
“I did, and I have the evidence right here,” he held up the Brownie camera. “If you are patient, I can change and then I will develop the film, and you can look at the pictures while I tell you the story.”
Several hours later, as they all left, G.P. said “I think you are right, P.C. it would do no good to tell anyone about this, they wouldn’t believe you. Not even with the pictures. And if they did, you would have to give your machine to the government. They would insist that it should be only used for military purposes
“Yes, and it’s mine to play with, do research with. I look forward to many more trips, and I’ll work on it so that I can take some of you with me.” There was general agreement.