The One Year Maiden
I was working as an orchardsman in the superstitious city of Ull when the man who’d been pursuing me finally caught up.
I got the gardening job easily, in spite of my desert upbringing and total lack of tree knowledge. I was selling shoes in the marketplace, specifically, my shoes, figuring that without food I was not going to be walking far anyway. I was new in town, desperate and late to the market, so my selling spot was on the unlucky side of the street. Most people hurried past me, avoiding the cracks in the paving and clutching their rabbits’ feet in case of magpies, or ladders.
“Lucky shoes,” I cried. “Get your lucky shoes here!”
Well, optimism is a better salesman than honesty.
A man with a bald head and a beard of curiously stiff grey hairs stopped to look at me. “Lucky, eh,” he said. He pointed a weathered finger at me. “What happened to your face?”
I touched the weal on my right cheek. I hadn’t sought out a mirror lately but my fingers told me it was a whorl like the first curk on a baby’s brow, like the heart of an ancient oak. “Oh this,” I said. “This old thing. -Lucky shoes!”
“They can’t be all that brilliant seeing as you’re stuck here next to the bins with half a face selling the only things you posses,” said this worthy citizen of Ull.
“They have brought me so much luck that I don’t care about a more fortunate spot. I have luck to spare!” I thrust my shoes under his nose.
“Must be lucky to stink, then,” he said, recoiling. “Because these are as rancid as you are ugly.”
We might have gone on in this pleasant way, but then he peered more closely at my scar.
“I’ve seen that mark before,” he said then, frowning.
“No, pretty sure you haven’t,” I said, snatching back my shoes and shoving my feet into them. “I’m new here, just passing through-“
“There’s a stranger looking for you,” he said. He chuckled and scratched his perpendicular beard. “That’s how I know of that scar. The stranger is seeking the man that wears it. So there’s more bad luck, I’d say.”
I stared at him for a moment, and he at me. He had a worried aspect himself. I can tell when a man is haunted by his burdens.
“No no, it’s good luck,” I said. “It is the purest good fortune that I met you and you have given me this warning! So I must thank you, my good fellow, indeed how can I ever repay you? Perhaps by working as a lowly dog in your household, taking on all the inauspicious tasks and generally never being seen outside your sturdy, locked front door?”
He chortled some more. “You can do me a favour, matter of fact.”
And he told me the story of the tree in his master’s orchard which would not grow. “Maybe you and your lucky shoes can come and take a look,” he invited. “The Lord of Ull will have my neck if the tree won’t bear fruit. Says it’s bringing misfortune. Says the Able don’t like what’s not lucky.”
“The Able can be that way,” I said. “One minute it’s all manifest, manifest, the next, blight and destruction.”
He made elaborate signs against bad luck, and then some supplicant ones in honour of the Able. I nodded and smiled as if I had the slightest respect for the Able, and tried to chivvy him to get to the point before my pursuer found me with his.
“I’ve tried all I know but the tree stays barren,” the old boy said at last. “So, shoe seller, if you can cure my tree and save my skin, I’ll forget there’s a tall fellow with a long knife who’s pretty keen to see you.”
“Done,” I said.
“I’m Telemachos,” said my new friend.
“I’m Jack. And this is your lucky day.”
“The tree has never borne fruit”, Telemachos told me, laying his hand on its withered trunk. He did it respectfully, warily.
I’d never seen a man touch a tree that way before. “Lord Ull will cut me down unless I make it carry a crop.”
The tree stood, leafy and graceful, in a long row of similar trees. The hilltop orchard was neat, organised – evenly spaced trees, trimmed grass beneath them, sturdy iron railings all around, to keep out the riffraff.
“Maybe it’s dead,” I said, demonstrating my total ignorance, since the tree had tender green healthy-looking leaves, and birds in its branches.
“It better not be or it’ll be firewood tomorrow,” said Telemachos.
Perhaps I imagined it, but a faint shriek was carried to me on the breeze. “What was that?”
“Childen playing in the streets,” said Telemachos.
“It was the tree and you know it,” I said. Well, there’s no point beating about the bush, even a literal one.
“It’s alive,” I said. “I mean -” My hand fizzled as it reached the trunk of the tree. “Hey!”
“It’s an angry soul,” Telemachos said.
“Hmmn. You’re not wrong. So what, then? Bribery?” I stood, hands on hips, and glared at the tree. “What’s your price, pear tree?”
“It’s not a pear tree,” Telemachos said. “Look at it.”
“I am looking at it. Please remember the biggest tree where I grew up was a cactus.”
“Pear trees have silver bark,” he said patiently.
“So this is what, then? Apple?” I dredged up my knowledge of fruit. “Cherry -“
“Striped bark, idiot -“
“Quince, plum, um, acorn.”
“You truly are a fool,” Telemachos said. “An acorn tree is an oak.”
“I knew that.” Well, I knew it now.
“Right, so to save your tree, we just need to find out what kind it is, and what it wants in order to bear fruit.”
I considered the tree once more. Alone of all its fellows it stood barren, crying out its misery to anyone who might hear. I rubbed my cheek, which ached in the midday sun. “There’s another thing we might as well do while we’re saving the tree and your neck,” I said to Telemachos. “Perhaps we could consider releasing whoever’s trapped in there.”
So that was the situation when the man who branded my face found me. While I worked on the problem of the fruitless tree, Telemachos set me to work also on clearing the orchard of fallen apples and pears. The fruit was poor quality and attracted wildlife, which seemed harmless enough until he reminded me that Ull is home to the fruit rat, an unpleasant creature which becomes drunk on the juices of its dinner and roams around gnawing on sleeping citizens. I gathered small, bruised and wormy fruit and carried it to the reject bin, then walked past that and gave the spoils to the street children playing beyond the orchard’s railing. Well really. A pile of unwanted food and a dozen thin urchins ten paces away. What kind of place was this?
“Someone’s looking for you,” said the chief urchin, licking pear juice from his filthy cheeks.
“Tall bloke. Black cloak. Silver knife.”
“Not a knife,” said the deputy street kid. She bore the toothy scars of fruit rat bites on her fingers. “A needle. No. Like a pin, but giant.”
“When,” I said. “Where?” For this was the man, and the weapon, that had attacked me and left my uncle dead and my face forever maimed. In my head I had named him for his weapon: Pin.
“Last night,” they said. “He was hanging round giving money to people who knew you.”
I went cold all over. “How much money?”
“Loads,” they said, and ran away giggling.
Great. I had one day left to solve the tree mystery, and probably less than that for leaving town and hiding somewhere really far away. My only idea was still of bribing the tree somehow – and the first idea you imagine is almost always the right one – but I could not come up with anything which seemed tempting to a tree.
To help me think, I wandered among the more obedient trees. At the far end of the orchard were some small, fruitless ones. “What are these?” I asked.
Telemachos smiled. “One year maidens,” he said. “New trees.”
“You’re not in trouble if these don’t bear fruit?” I said. A plan was forming.
“No – you are a dimwit. How can a maiden bear a child?”
Good point. I really knew very little about tree marriage.
“The birds and bees have certainly passed you by,” he said. “I suppose your face doesn’t help.”
“Thanks.” Lucky I am thick skinned, quite literally. Though that would not be enough if Pin got hold of me.
I needed a plan, and quickly. Cure the tree, free the person in it for I was certain I’d heard shrieks, save Telemachos, evade my pursuer and while I was at it why not give the urchins a fair chance too? I have a track history in social revolution after all. Ask any Princess.
I looked at the delicate grey stalks of the happier trees, the firm fruit dangling and ripe to drop. And I looked at the one year maidens, free of obligation like any lucky youth.
When the sun began its slide towards the hills, I called once again to the urchins. No reply. Little devils. “I’ve got food,” I said, and miracuously they appeared.
I brought them to Telemachos, feeding them as I went. “You’re advanced in years,” I told him. “You won’t be able to manage this orchard on your own forever.” And I would not be staying.
“Charming! We can’t all be penniless and marked for death,” he replied snarkily.
“Keep your beard on. Or actually, don’t. How do you feel about shaving?” Before he could answer I turned to the urchins. “And how do you feel about stealing a treeful of apples?”
“Now hold on a minute -” began Telemachos.
But I was addressing the tree. “And how do you feel about a little agreeable company?”
None of my audience gave a decent answer, but nevertheless I clapped my hands, said “Excellent,” like a true leader of men, and told them my idea.
“My Lord, this is the man I spoke of. He has even now brought your orchard great good fortune.” Telemachos bowed his head before the resplendent Lord of Ull, and beckoned me forward.
“I have lucky shoes,” I explained to the great man, who was looking a little bemused.
“Jack has made the barren tree bear fruit,” said Telemachos hurriedly, clearly wanting to get to his main objective, namely, saving his skin.
“Oh really,” said Lord Ull, rather skeptically for somebody carrying a bunch of heather and saluting at magpies.
“Yes my Lord,” I said. “You’ll have noticed that the good Telemachos no longer sports his facial adornment.”
Telemachos rubbed his raw, pale chin ruefully.
“And?” said Lord Ull.
“Unlucky, my Lord, I said. “A bearded orchardsman will be cursed with many fruitless trees. It is only through Telemachos’ great skill that more trees weren’t afflicted.”
“Indeed. Show me this turn of fortune.”
“At once, my Lord. It is ready for you – now!” I cried in an exaggerated show of excitement. “Right now!” I yelled, leading Telemachos and the Lord among the trees.
My hollering paid off. Right on cue, a scruff of urchins scrambled past us, their arms laden with luscious fruit. “Come back,” I called unconvincingly. “Right this instant,” I added, but they were through the railings with their skinny little legs and gone.
“All is not lost!” I cried, rushing to the barren tree. “There remain some few, plump apples.”
I stretched out my hand and plucked a shining green apple from its distinctive grey stalk. The thread broke at my tug, with a realistic snap.
Lord Ull picked an apple too, and bit into it. “Hmm.” He nodded. “Very fine,” he said to Telemachos. “You are reprieved. But keep those little thieves out of my orchard.”
“Telemachos has hired a dozen sturdy guards,” I informed the great man. “Streetwise, and fast on their feet.”
“Very good. Well, I must congratulate you. Lucky shoes, you say?” He peered at my feet.
I grinned up at him. “All their benefits can be yours, my Lord. They’re for sale.”
Telemachos said, “They’ll need a lot of cleaning up to pass as guards.”
He stared at the urchins. True to their squeaky word, they had returned at nightfall and brought me new boots as well. They stood in a row before me and Telemachos, beside the barren tree.
“Save the scrubbing for after this,” I said. “All right kids, are you ready to shovel?”
They were. I’ve never seen twelve urchins uproot a tree so efficiently. I guessed the free meal had helped, but it was more than that. They had a happy glow about them as if my plan for their future had uplifted their cheeky little hearts.
The tree did not go quietly, however. As we heaved it from the earth its screams became piercing. “Let go,” I shouted at it, like an impatient midwife. “Just let go!”
At last the thing wrenched free – and we saw the reason for our struggle. Its root ball was encased in a bright silver cage.
“That looks like a,” I said.
“Shackle,” agreed Telemachos.
We exchanged glances.
“A promise is a promise,” I said.
“Not that it kept its half of the bargain,” Telemachos said. “My beard! And my best apples!”
“Your face will thank you for the fresh air,” I said. “And your wiry beard hairs made the perfect stalks for the marvellous fruit of the tree…such a pity the urchins stole the rest before the Lord got a proper look at the crop.”
“Let’s get it done,” said Telemachos. “Reckon those maidens won’t mind one more of their number.”
A large pit lay waiting in the maiden orchard. We struck the shackle in half with our shovels – half each of a mass of silver, a true piece of luck for me and Telemachos! – and set the barren tree in the hole.
“This is your home now,” I told it. “But these ladies are underage. Keep it clean.”
I listened, but if there was a reply, it was only of the faintest, rustling laughter.
“Can we go now,” said the chief urchin. “It’s getting late.”
I frowned. Late? They lived in the street. Did the gutter have closing time?
“Be back at first light,” warned Telemachos. “A full day’s work ahead. Meals included.”
“Yes sir,” they chorused, and raced off smartly, glancing behind them, patting their pockets.
I checked my purse. The coin from my lucky shoe sale was still there. “They’ve robbed you,” I told Telemachos cheerfully. “Still, it’s an ill wind, eh?”
“I still have my cash,” he said.
“So where did our young friends get the gold coins I distinctly saw in their grubby fists?”
Too late I realised my mistake. In this city of good and bad fortune, you made your luck where you could.
A tall, slim figure advanced across the orchard, black against the starlit sky, his terrible weapon raised high. “Jack!” He bellowed.
I spun around too, to dart away between the trees, but the ground buckled and lifted under my boots. I fell lengthwise as Pin bounded towards me. “No!”
Dirt spattered my face. Branches thrashed, and then roots. I covered my head with my arms as whipcord runners sliced the air.
Pin was nearly upon me. I threw myself away from the spasming tree – and straight into Pin’s path.
There was no escape. Typical of the Able and their so called blessings. Half a ton of silver was rightfully mine, and now I would not get to enjoy it because my attacker was going to finish the piercing he’d started on my face all those months ago. “Please,” I said. It was pathetic, but I knew that this time I had really run out of luck.
-Or perhaps not. For Pin was standing, arms limp, goggling at the hole where the barren tree had been. “Jack,” he said, as if he knew me very well, “what have you done now?”
I sat up and watched the barren tree lurching across the hillside and away into the night. My eye went, guiltily, to the silver shackle.
“Oh no,” said Pin, and sank to the ground. He had a refined voice, surprising in a vicious killer. Then he surprised me even more by adding, “I am in so much trouble.”
I wasn’t dead. Things were looking up. I brushed soil off my shirt and assumed a cheery grin. “Then what you need, my friend,” I said, “are some lucky shoes.”
For more from the world of Jack, see these, in more or less this order: