Shoes, shoes, blasted shoes. If he saw one more pair of shiny, leather boots or fine lady's slippers that day he felt that he would surely scream.
Finally, he’d finished the last pair. His toil now toiled and the day now drawing to an end, the young man with the smudge on his forehead began his final task. He walked the length of the palace’s finest wing, that which held the bed chambers of the privileged, the sycophants, the lords and the ladies, the hangers-on, those that laughed at the King’s poor jokes and that feigned fawning over his finery and his looks in an effort to ensure a lifestyle both lavish and lazy, a velvet bag slung over his right shoulder and drawing along a small cart filled with the fine footwear. He paused outside each of the doors as he passed and placed the shoes of the incumbent carefully down, checking and double checking they matched and they shone. Explosive retribution would surely follow should he fail to reunite a dandy with his favourite boot or a courtesan with her cherished stiletto.
Eventually, as the light from the sun was finally snuffed out by the rapidly rising horizon beyond the forest that lay to the west of the castle the young man with the smudge on his forehead reached the final door.
Far grander and more imposing than the other doors, beyond this lay the bed chamber of the King. He reached into the velvet sack and drew out a boot finer than any other, admiring the way the toecap twinkled in the light cast by the chandelier high above. A final polish with the cuff of his sleeve, he knelt and placed it by the jamb as if he were placing a new born into the arms of its mother then reached into the bag for the second time, drawing out the other half of the pair, except…
…this was no fine boot.
He stared at the tattered and torn leather, the fraying eyelets that bore no lace, the hole in the sole and the heel that had peeled itself away from the stitching.
Sweat rolled down the young man’s smudged brow as, frantically, he rummaged through the empty, velvet bag.
“”No, no, no, no…” The world around him span and swam as he dashed back along the corridor and towards the steep staircase that led down to the kitchens and servant’s quarters.
All was lost. He’d been so close to his heart’s desire and now this. He would surely lose his position of chief pot washer and boot polisher at the palace, he’d likely lose his head too should the King be in a particularly petulant mood upon waking. Even were he to keep his head, the loss of his job would bring with it the loss of that which was of the utmost importance to him.
He had several hours before the cockerel would crow his early morning call, several hours in which he should be sleeping but in which he could search for the missing boot and a way to keep his lowly position safe.
The young man with the smudge on his forehead was a substantial chap, a veritable man mountain, and his empty stomach grumbled loudly, reminding him that such a behemoth of a man needed to eat, and needed to eat now.
He muttered words that would have brought a blush to the cheeks of any maiden as he marched back below stairs, cursing and cussing like a drunken sailor.
How? How? How had this happened? It made no sense. He’d always been so careful, never had he mislaid or misplaced any of the footwear in his care. He had systems, checks and balances, he was good at his job, the best pot washer and boot polisher the Kingdom had ever seen. It made no sense.
His footsteps echoed as he entered the kitchen, staring at the ground and shaking his head.
“Ahem”, the faux cough came from across the high ceilinged space and emanated from the throat of
Kate, the Royal scullery maid who was currently engaged in the stirring of the thin soup that she had prepared in the large, iron pot that hung above the great fire. The thin soup was to be supper for all those that worked below stairs.
The young man with the smudge on his forehead looked over at the smiling face of Kate, his own face flushing red.
“It’s polite to say hello, you know?” Kate said sternly, though with a smile on her lips.
“S… S… Sorry”, stammered the young man with the smudge on his forehead, a speech impediment that only seemed to surface when in Kate’s company.
“Something vexes you, Smudgey?” He secretly loved the nickname she had for him, almost as much as he secretly loved the scullery maid herself.
N… N… No, it’s n… n… nothing”
Kate ladled thin soup into a wooden bowl, carefully fishing out a hunk of meat and not one but TWO slices of carrot. Smudgey noticed this kindness in the bowl as she placed it before him on the heavy, wooden table.
Though he tried hard to fight against it, as he spied this kindness he failed to prevent a single, salty tear from seasoning his supper. Kate saw the teardrop drop and bit her lip, returning to her own toil and leaving him to eat in silence.
Finally, once she could bite her lip no more, Kate approached Smudgey, wiping her hands on her apron as she took a seat beside him on the bench. She gently nudged him with her shoulder.
“Would you ever tell me a lie, Smudgey?” Kate asked.
“Only to save you from heartache, Kate.” He remained focused on the bowl before him.
“I see,” She let her weight bear gently against Smudgey’s shoulder, “so tell me, my little Smudgekin, what heartache am I in peril from on a night as fine as this?” She indicated the bright, silvery moon set in the velvet blackness of night and framed by the arched window on the far wall. Smudgey shook his head and shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“You know,” Continued Kate, “I once heard that a problem shared is a problem halved.” Smudgey considered this for a moment before replying.
“That’s simply ridiculous,” He turned his face to hers, “One man’s problem is one, single problem. If he were to share it with another then, surely, that would turn one problem into two. ‘Tis doubled, not halved.”
Kate narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips.
“How did a shoe shiner become so wise?”
“I’m far from w… w… wise, Kate.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” She spoke as she stood and returned to her soup stirring duties, “but I am. And do you know what this wise woman has learned of late?” Smudgey shook his head.
“Would you like to become wiser and have this wise woman tell you?”
Smudgey shrugged and slurped a spoonful of salty soup.
“I have noticed that you, Smudgey, are a fine shiner of shoes, probably the finest shiner of shoes in the land and, what’s more,” She paused her stirring and pointed her ladle at Smudgey, “I have noticed that you never make a mess.”
Smudgey ate more soup.
“Each eve, when you leave the table at which you polish the posh people’s shoes, I never find so much as a speck of polish upon it. Your cuffs, though you never roll up your sleeves on even the hottest of summer days, remain pristine.” Kate dropped the ladle back into the pot and returned to the increasingly bewildered pot washer and shoe shiner, this time electing to stand beside him, and took one of his hands in hers.
“And look, your fingernails are always immaculate,” She said as she inspected his large, strong hand. She reached into the deep pocket on the front of her apron and withdrew a small, cotton handkerchief as Smudgey continued staring at her hand on his, “’Tis as if you were born of finer stock.”
“I like to keep clean, in case I’m ever c… c… called upon to serve the K… K… King.”
“And yet,” the scullery maid smiled as she licked a corner of the handkerchief she held, “night after night a smudge of polish, always in the same place,” She cradled Smudgey’s chin in her hand and tilted his head back, smiling at him as he gazed up into her warm eyes, “If I were not so wise a woman then I might be of the opinion you make this mark on purpose.” Kate went to wipe away the smudge but the shoe shiner prevented her from doing so, feeling the steady beat of her heart trapped within her slender wrist as he held it in his free hand. Kate smiled and raised an eyebrow, straddling the bench in a most un-ladylike manner. She reached back into her pocket and drew out a boot, fine and shiny, placing it between them.
“Now,” she whispered, looking Smudgey straight in the eye, “You can take this boot and place it with the other or”, she leaned in closer, “you can let him come and fetch it himself.” She wiped the smudge from his brow, this time meeting with no resistance and revealing the scar that he’d been hiding since…
…The King sat astride his finest steed outside the castle gates, his son by his side, and consulted with his most senior general. One hundred of his finest troops, all prepared to die for the good, kind and noble King that had reigned over them, had protected them and had treated their families so well, stood in formation before him.
Once his discussions with his advisor were complete, the King turned to his son.
“Watch, learn, but play no part my boy. You are the future of this fine band of men”, he waved a hand clad in a fine gauntlet in the air, indicating his loyal army, the luscious landscape, the peaceful village that lay between the castle and the forest and the magnificent castle itself, “Should this be my day to die, you are to be King.”
The King’s son nodded and took a step back, ushered by the King’s most loyal advisor toward the drawbridge where he watched his father’s steed rear up as the Royal trumpeters signaled the charge and waved as his father sped through the ranks of men before him, leading them into battle.
The general had advised the King well for many a year but, like all men, had begun to covet that which he saw every day. The hundred soldiers that the good King had been advised were necessary to overcome the mysterious army or mercenaries and cut throats that had taken the village were hopelessly outnumbered and, although they were the strongest and bravest fighters the realm had ever raised, they were like lambs to the slaughter when, unexpectedly, they’d been faced with a force ten times larger than that which the general had advised would be waiting.
That general being the same general that had paid for the mercenaries.
The same general that now stood atop the ramparts, his hand on the young Prince’s shoulder, and watched as, at last, his path to the throne was cleared. With the Queen having been dead and buried for many a year, all that now stood between him and the majesty he felt he so richly deserved was this brat, the rightful heir. He drew his sword and prepared to complete that day’s dark deeds.
The brat carried a sword of his own and had been schooled well. Nimbly, he dodged the generals first thrust and countered, slashing high and opening up a deep wound across his wicked brow. Alas, the schooling he had been provided with hadn’t been able to imbibe him with the strength of a fully grown, battle hardened, senior soldier and, although his swordsmanship was more than a match for that of the odious general, his young muscles lacked the strength of his older and larger opponent. As the king lay, mortally wounded, on the blood sodden battlefield the young prince parried a final parry that deflected what would’ve been a lethal blow but did nought to deflect the boot of this evil usurper. The young Prince fell backwards, the general immediately upon him.
Thick, dark blood oozed from the generals forehead and, pinning the child to the floor with one hand, he dabbed at the wound with the other, snarling as he inspected his bloody fingertips. Never a man to let a wrong go unpunished, the general drew a wicked knife from the scabbard on his belt and drew it across the brow of the boy, repaying him like for like.
The boy was a Prince, a soon to be noble warrior, but right now the boy was a boy and the boy screamed a bloodcurdling scream, a scream that brought an insidious grin to the face of this evil pretender. Laughing a laugh that could’ve been born in the very pits of Hades, the general lifted the child above his head and heaved hard, casting him over the battlements and into the moat below.
Presumed perished, the Prince’s life had persevered. He had, eventually, found his way to the village, a village now decimated by the ruthless rebels in their destructive search for the spoils of war, where he was taken in by a woman now made widow.
Eventually, the village had flourished again, though the higher taxes imposed by the new King had meant those living there existed in a state of perpetual poverty. What little work there was in the village was hard to come by and lowly paid. So it was that the young Prince, his face and the tell tale scare concealed beneath a hood, had made his way up to the castle where he had found employment in the stables, an environment in which he had learnt the art of camouflage. It was easy to keep his face hidden from any who might recognise him beneath a veneer of filth. He earned just enough to feed himself and to provide for the widow that all thought to be his mother until, one morning, he spied and did immediately fall in love with a girl that would one day grow into a maiden that would wipe the smudge from his brow.
He left his employ at the stables, much to the consternation of the blacksmith who had been convinced he would one day make a fine tradesman, and began washing plates and polishing boots.
In the scullery.
In the company of the woman he loved.
Smudgey turned the boot over in his hand, examining it as he considered the two options that the woman he had always loved had presented him with. Slowly, he stood.
“You’re taking it to him?” Kate asked, her eyes narrowing as she looked up at the shoe shiner.
“I must, I can’t win and, should I perish, then who would look after my mother?”
“But where is it written that you cannot win, Smudgey? You’re a Prince and a warrior, all know this King is but a coward.”
“Aye, but a coward with an army. A Prince I may be, but even a rightful heir cannot reclaim a stolen throne alone.”
Kate placed a hand on each of Smudgey’s broad shoulders. Rising up on tip toes she planted a kiss upon the scar he’d kept hidden for so long and, with that one action, that one display of love…
…the Prince was no longer alone.