Joan moved toward the door as two more guards entered. Stepping out, she looked back to see them slapping and beating Tim. “Gotta make you perty for the prince,” said one. The others laughed.
Joan hurried to the royal hall where she found Prince Chaz in a great mood. He was too excited to stay seated on his father’s throne and kept bouncing from place to place. Though he had just woken up, he was already drinking and celebrating. The bright morning light beamed in through the tall windows behind the dais as if joining the revels.
“We’ll cut off his head! Then we’ll hang him! Woohoo! We’ll party tonight.”
He saw Joan enter.
“We got ‘im! Have some wine!” Chaz insisted.
Joan felt sick, but the prince thrust a cup into her hand.
“Drink!” he commanded. “Unless you’re a story lover! Ha!”
Joan forced a smile and swallowed the wine. It made her stomach turn sour.
The guards dragged Tim in. Fresh bruises showed on his face and arms.
“Hooray!” exclaimed Chaz. “Our guest of honor.” He walked up to the bedraggled form of the storyteller. “A toast. To no more liars. To no more smart-alecks getting uppity ideas. To no more traitors. To no more threats from peasants.” He looked directly at Tim. “To your last day, storyteller.” He threw the rest of his wine in Tim’s face.
“Cut out his tongue.”
Two guards held Tim tightly, though he did not try to resist, and another guard stepped in front of him with some iron pincers. Joan could not look and closed her eyes. She heard a cry of pain and Chaz laugh.
When she opened them again, Tim had fallen to his hands and knees. Blood poured from his mouth and puddled beneath him.
“Tell a story now!” sneered Chaz. “I command you. Tell me a story I say!”
He kicked Tim in the ribs. The storyteller collapsed sideways into the horrific mess that had leaked from his wound.
“What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?” A sudden idea made Prince Chaz pause momentarily, and his face brightened. “Hey! Feed his tongue to the cat.” He laughed at his cleverness. “The cat will get your tongue!”
Joan thought she would faint. How could Tim endure this? How could Chaz inflict this? How could anyone take any of this anymore?
The prince continued to inform Tim of what would soon happen to him. As Joan watched, Tim began to make strange looping gestures on the floor with his finger. No one else seemed to notice, or at least no one seemed to think it mattered.
When Chaz got bored he told the guards, “You know what to do with him.” They dragged the storyteller off to the church, leaving a smear of blood to mark the passage.
“Ring the bells!” Prince Chaz shouted enthusiastically. “It’s time for a service!”
As the hall emptied, Joan stepped to where Tim had lain. The blood still pooled on the stone floor. She studied the mess for a moment, trying to figure out what Tim had been doing with his finger. And then she saw it, written in his blood: t-e-l-l.
Prince Chaz forced everyone to attend the service in the cathedral. From their special seats, the royal household watched the mass of workers shuffle in as the bells continued to toll. Each chime sounded to Joan like Tim’s voice calling out to the world tell, tell, tell. His body lay motionless on the altar. It remained intact, and Joan couldn’t determine what they had done to him, but he was most certainly dead. Blood dripped down the stone sides and pooled onto the paving slabs. She could not look and kept her gaze on the floor in front of her. In a world of such misery, there was some comfort in not seeing more than her own feet. Joan suddenly felt a kinship with all these dejected field hands.
Tim’s last message had been clearly intended for her. Tell. Tell what? Tell what happened to him? But the listeners would already know. They were all here, in the guise of field workers, silently witnessing this tragedy.
After suffering through the ceremony, Joan endured a meal with Chaz and her meeting with the king. The decrepit monarch was unusually pleased and wanted to hear repeatedly how his son dealt with the traitor.
“Cat got his tongue,” he muttered to himself and giggled.
Joan’s heart felt like it wanted to fall into her stomach. She looked down at the disgusting man everyone called king and remembered her promise never to get caught up in lies. But stories weren’t lies; they were truths. The biggest lie in the kingdom was this king. Joan felt no guilt at all for deceiving him.
That evening, as Rose helped the scribe get ready for bed, the servant informed her, “The listeners will be meeting tonight.”
Well after dark Joan met Rose in the kitchen, and together they crossed the garden, exited the gate, traversed the fields, and entered the forest. At the grotto, they lit candles and Joan crawled into the space behind the tapestry to replace the book. Then they waited. The listeners gathered gradually like falling autumn leaves. They sat in silence, waiting for a breath of air to stir them.
These people already knew what had happened, and Tim wouldn’t want them talking about him anyway. He was a storyteller. He wouldn’t consider himself important. The stories were everything; he just told them. But when she thought of the tales, they came to her in his voice. They always would.
She looked around at the cave. The hearth glowed with a small comforting fire; candlelight filled the recesses. Joan remembered her last visit here and the images those first stories painted in her mind. She recalled the stories she had read recently, and she thought of these listeners and of their need for these meetings. They were all looking at her now; their eyes sparkled in the flickering light.
Joan sat up straight and looked back at each one of them. With Tim’s voice in her head, she took a deep breath and started, “Once upon a time in a land far away…”
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