The morning had been fine and bright, but as the afternoon wore on a stiff wind sprung up, bringing with it clouds and a dampness that heralded rain. Joan, looking out the window of Boscobel House, did not want to go outside. “Please, Granfer... does it have to be tonight?”
Her father cuffed her on the ear before her grandfather could respond. “Don’t question, girl. This is Penderel tradition. A little wet won’t melt you.”
She wasn’t afraid of melting, only of being cold. And of being alone in the dark with her grandfather, who intimidated her more than a little. He was very famous for being a friend of the old king, but he was also older than Methuselah, and exceedingly strict. She would have felt better if one of her brothers had been allowed to come along, but they had already taken their turns, going into the woods outside the house and sitting there until midnight, to see...
Joan didn’t know what. None of them would talk about it—except to say, as her father had, that this was Penderel family tradition.
So she submitted to her mother bundling her in a warm woolen with a shawl over her head and went out into the damp darkness with her grandfather, holding a lantern to light his way. Joan didn’t like the way the shadows leapt and danced as her lantern swung, and she didn’t like the faint grunting and puffing as her grandfather trudged in her wake.
But at least she knew which way to go. The oak tree was famous; travelers stopped by when they were passing through the area, and then her grandfather would rouse himself from his chair and lead them to see it. Sometimes they cut off branches as souvenirs, until the tree’s pollarded head had taken on a lopsided look.
“Here.” It was the first word her grandfather had said since they left the house. Joan turned and saw him nodding at another tree, within sight of the oak, but not too close. “Lay out the blanket, Anne.”
“Joan,” she mumbled, not daring to say it louder. She couldn’t tell if his wits wandered, or if he simply couldn’t be bothered to tell his granddaughters apart. But she did as he said, covering the ground with cloth so he could sit on it and lean his back against the tree.
In the scant light, his beaked nose and weathered face might have belonged to a goblin. She perched at the edge of the blanket, as far away from him as she could get without leaving the fabric, and hoped he would not talk more.
Alas, it was not to be. “Tell me, Anne. Do you know the story of this tree?”
“It’s where you saved the king,” she said promptly.
His wheezing laugh turned into a cough. “Saved him. What a pretty way of putting it.”
It had rained a little after sunset, and when the wind shook the branches of the tree above them, droplets spattered down onto Joan’s head. Her grandfather’s head, too, but he didn’t seem to notice.
He said, “Your own father was just a little boy when it happened. There had been a battle in Worcester a few days before—Cromwell’s Roundheads against His Majesty. They won, and His Majesty was forced to retreat.”
Retreat was a nice word for flee. She knew that much.
“We got him to safety, my brothers and me,” her grandfather said. “But it took days, him moving from house to house around here, staying with Catholics like us, who could be trusted not to betray him. Your great-uncle Humphrey was offered a thousand pounds to say if he’d seen the king.”
She’d heard this plenty of times. And her great-uncle Humphrey had earned more than a thousand pounds for keeping the king’s secrets; once His Majesty came to the throne, he’d awarded yearly pensions to all five Penderel brothers, in thanks for their help. Though of course when Humphrey was questioned, he wouldn’t have known he’d have that someday.
“I hid him in that tree.” Her grandfather nodded at the famous one, its lopsided head barely visible in the gloom. “Gave him a ladder to climb with, and my wife Joan—you’re named for her—she fetched two pillows to cushion him. William Carlis sat there with His Majesty all through the day, while those Roundhead dogs searched high and low, but we never said a word.”
That was why they called it the Royal Oak. And there was an Oak Apple Day now, by order of Parliament; every year Joan pinned a sprig of oak leaves to her clothes, and they played games with the oak apples. But that was in May, timed to celebrate the old king’s birthday. She didn’t know why they’d chosen to name the day after the occasion when he hid in a tree.
“And now,” her grandfather spat, “those damn Roundheads have won.”
Joan tipped her head in confusion. They’d won for a time—England went years without a king, with Parliament trying to rule on its own—but not since long before she was born. “Granfer?”
“This revolution of theirs. Inviting someone else to come sit on the throne! As if they have the right to decide who’s king!” One bony fist thumped the ground. “All because King James is Catholic. They drove him out and put his daughter on the throne, her and that Dutch husband of hers!”
She’d heard people talking about it but hadn’t paid much heed. London was very far away, and although she knew her family was Catholic and most of the people around them weren’t, she didn’t really understand why that was important. Hoping to quiet her grandfather’s fury, she said, “Thank you for telling me the story, Granfer.”
His answer was like the growl of a dog, coming out of the darkness. “You aren’t here for a story, girl. You’re here to see what happens when a king hides in a tree. You’re here to bear witness to why the throne of England has fallen to such disgrace.”
The hairs on the back of her neck rose as he went on. “Come midnight, you’ll see. People tell all kinds of stories about the Wild Hunt. That it’s made up of devils, or the spirits of the dead, or King Arthur and his men. That they’re chasing sinners or unbaptized souls. Maybe on other nights that’s true, or in other places. But here, it’s the faeries that ride. And their prey is kingship itself.”
The following pause demanded a response. But Joan knew it was wrong to lie, so she was forced to say, “I don’t understand.”
“An oak tree!” he shouted, gesturing into the darkness. “Symbol of kings from the dawn of time! And a king hides in one? With his hair cut short, wearing the clothes of your great-uncle Richard, his feet bleeding because we didn’t have any shoes that fit him right. Where’s the nobility in that? He gave up on it. Kingship got its head cut off in ‘49 when Parliament executed his father, and it was on the son to bring it back. But he failed. He ran away, and for nine years we had no king. What got restored after that was just a gilded shell. When I was a boy, Parliament would never have dreamed of voting a king off the throne. But now we’re all supposed to drink to the health of William and Mary!”
She reached out one hand, trying to calm him down. Her father was worried about her grandfather’s heart, even though as near as she could tell, he would live forever. But if she was wrong, she didn’t want it to be tonight, when she was out here alone with him and everyone would blame her.
The burst of vehemence faded. Her grandfather sagged back against the tree, wheezing. “Sit and watch, girl. Come midnight, you’ll see.”
After that he fell silent, and Joan sat and watched. Well before midnight her grandfather nodded off, his snores buzzing gently like a summer cricket.
That was fine. It let her think about what he’d said.
She had to admit it didn’t sound very kingly, hiding in a tree. And she felt bad for the spirit of kingship. Why should it be lost, just because one man couldn’t live up to it?
By now the clouds had torn into patches, letting through the light of the rising moon. The eleven o’clock hour had come and gone, carried on the peal of bells from the parish church. Midnight must be drawing close.
Joan got up and, on cat-quiet feet, approached the Royal Oak.
There was talk of planting another one, so there would always be an oak tree here to show to visitors. For now, though, the tree was the real one. She placed one hand on the bark and leaned her head back, looking up into the branches, wondering which one the old king had sat on while the soldiers hunted for him.
Something stirred beneath her hand.
Joan leapt back with a muffled shriek. The trunk of the tree was glowing—not the cool distance of moonlight, but something warmer and more vital. She backed up another step, two... and a stag stepped out through the bark of the tree.
Its antlers branched magnificently, rising to gleaming points. Powerful muscles flexed and eased, rippling beneath its hide like silk. The stag towered above her, could have trampled her without a second thought, and Joan was afraid—but also not. For she knew, in the marrow of her bones, that this stag was the noblest creature on earth. That against its enemies its rage would be terrible, but with a faithful subject, it would be as gentle as a doe. As a king should be.
Tears pricked in Joan’s eyes. Such a beautiful and perfect thing. Lost, because of the weakness of one man.
Her hair blew into her face. The wind was picking up, carrying with it the thunder of hooves, the baying of hounds. Distant now, but approaching fast.
She couldn’t not turn to look. She didn’t want to, but the animal fright of prey at the scent of predator forced her around.
They didn’t ride along the ground, like ordinary hunters. Instead they were up in the sky, riding a path of moonlight, leaping clouds like hedgerows. Strange creatures, gleaming with their own light, and at their head there was a man with antlers that branched like the stag’s. But in him there was no doe-sweet kindness, only the merciless glory of pursuit.
The Wild Hunt.
Joan clamped her hands over her mouth as terror splintered her heart. That sight promised nothing but death: they would chase this stag, pursue it around the world as it fled, and in the end it would die. As it died every year on this night, when it rose from where King Charles II had abandoned it. Torn to pieces, only to rise again.
The stag took a step toward her. In the radiant depths of its liquid eyes, she saw a plea. She was a faithful subject. Would she not help? Would she not throw herself in the path of the Hunt, raise her feeble defense against them, buy time for her sovereign to escape?
She reached out one trembling hand and laid it on the stag’s neck, feeling the warmth against her skin. A warmth that would stay with her for the rest of her life, like an accusation.
“I’m sorry,” Joan whispered. “You’re beautiful and glorious, and you don’t deserve this. But we—we can’t live up to you. Nobody can be perfect enough. In the end, kings are just men; they bleed and sleep and fear like the rest of us, and some of them are stupid or weak. Even the best fall short. And if we can’t be what you need... then we have to find something else.”
Then she stepped back, her feet tracing the familiar ground without need of her eyes. She made herself watch as the stag sprang into motion, as the howling shadows of the Wild Hunt went tearing past, as the shining beauty beyond any human’s reach fled into the night again.
Only when the air had stilled did she go back to her grandfather.
“Did you see?” he asked, stirring awake. “Did you understand?”
Joan knew her grandfather, and her father, and her brothers. They all believed in the old idea, and mourned its loss. They thought that if they could just get a good enough king, all would be well again.
“Yes,” she said, meaning something else entirely. “I understand.”