You remember Jack. He's the lad who traded a less than perfectly good cow for some magic beans, went up a beanstalk and returned with the means to a fortune. Then he chopped the beanstalk down, without hurting anyone but a wicked Giant who deserved it anyway. And Jack lived happily ever after. And then what?

Jack’s Day Out

by

Maggie Secara

           


Once there were two brothers who went on a journey, setting out before dawn from their mother’s house. After riding for many hours through a meadow and then a wood, and finally a barren heath—none of them enchanted—their path came to an abrupt end at a broad chasm filled with light.
At their feet, a wooden bridge spanned the gilded air. On the other side, low mist gathered white and gold, roiling up from the chasm like a passing storm. Hardly a barrier, magical or otherwise, when they could see from here it was only a few paces deep. The path clearly reappeared on the other side. A kind of stair, perhaps, where the flat faces of trimmed logs cut into the steep rise of a hill, between split poles that made a rail on either side. Too steep for their mounts.

The elder brother, Jack, sighed like a man who knew too much already, but said nothing. Perian, much his junior, laughed with delight.

“We’re almost there! Those are city gates, aren’t they? I can see them shining, just like you said! How hard can it be?”

“Apart from having to lead the ponies across a swaying bridge, a thing they never like?” Dismounting, Jack nodded with hardly a smile at all. “Not much, I hope.”

Perian hardly noticed. “Call on the Lady, admire the architecture, kiss a girl if we’re lucky. Well not you, you’re too old! Back in time for tea!”

“Tea would be nice,” said Jack. Just in front of him, the rump of Perian’s moor pony disappeared into the fog, or whatever it was. “But I wouldn’t count on it.”

The fog was colder than he expected, and quieter except for that tiny snick that made him look back over his shoulder. Watching the very last twitch of his pony’s tail enclosed in the golden light, he grunted. Just as he’d expected, his thumbs were prickling.

He said, “Best look sharp, little brother.” No answer, but then the kid didn’t always. He stopped to listen, but the cloud had swallowed everything, even the sound of hooves that should be only a few feet ahead of him. “Perian? Peri?”

Still nothing. Damn it, what had become of him? His mother would not be happy if Jack mislaid the baby. Instinct was yammering at him in clear, distinct terms to turn back right now and go home. The Lady in her chilly castle could sing for the rent, or come get it herself.

But no, Perian might be a young idiot but Jack had been just exactly that young idiot once, and besides, well, what could you do. He must be fetched before he got into real trouble

The golden fog webbed apart like candy floss at a fair and began to clear. Under his feet the hollow thud of the bridge became gravelly earth. After the magical fog, merely blue sky was a restful change. Or would have been had there been any sign of Perian, or any sound of his fearless, feckless voice. All there was before him under the blue sky was the domed green hill called Graskullen – the Giant’s Skull – and the stairway to the city gates. Soaring above all, the shining towers of the Lady’s castle and at its feet, the splendid town that supported it. And grazing nearby, two spotted moor ponies who had no answers.

Now Jack had dealt with magic before and prevailed. He had also been rather younger at the time. Still, he had come prepared. So he reached into a pocket of the leather budget hanging at his side and drew out a tiny bone. It was the smallest bone of his father’s smallest finger, killed long ago by an ogre, and it was polished to a warm golden color with much handling.

He put the little bone in his mouth and, touching each moor pony’s foolish face with his hands, he chanted,

                By hearth and hall
                Come when I call.
                Fee-fi-folderol!

Then he released the good old pair to wander the summer meadow that surrounded them, and put the bone away.

Jack hadn’t passed the gates of the Lady’s city since before the business with the giant, before the steady supply of gold had allowed his widowed mother to marry a prosperous farmer and produce another child. Awhile later, Jack had himself courted and won the cleverest girl in the parish, whose hair was incidentally as fine a gold as the eggs she took each day from the giant’s former hen. Furthermore, her merry voice was easily as sweet as the voice of the giant’s former harp. Jorinda wasn’t going to be thrilled if he was late coming home, so he’d best be clever and efficient. No time for flourishes.

All right, he thought. What would Jorinda do?

Jorinda would likely march right up and knock on the Lady’s front door and demand a few answers, right quick. On consideration, Jack thought he might just take the long way around on that one. Surely someone had seen something. He should ask a few questions, look for a hint, pick up a clue, sniff out the magic perhaps, before bothering the Lady.

Thinking of her, he loosened the short, stout sword in its sheath and marched into the town.

The city had stood, here or somewhere or who knows where, since time out of mind. At the crown of the hill, the many towers ringed a broad bowl of a courtyard they called the Giant’s Vizard where people gathered for pronouncements from the Lady’s ministers or news of wars and taxes, or sat for concerts and fireworks.

Whimsy and time had given names to landmarks on the hill which old wives said had been the skull of the giant Graugen, and maybe it was so. Trees grew there now, but who could really say? Under a rock-browed ledge, the smallest of the many towers, hardly a tower at all, curved out from the edge of the court between two low caves masked with brambles to keep out the curious and the stupid. These caves were called the Giant’s Eyes, and the squat tower itself, the Nose.

(The Nose also had two windows where people came to pay their taxes or complain about them, or buy maps to the nobles’ homes that rose above them and spilled limpet-like down the opposite side of the hill. When the windows were washed it was said the cleaners with their white cloths were blowing the Giant’s Nose.)

In similar fashion, the thatched half-timbered houses and shops that piled up against the perimeter were the Giant’s Beard, and his Mouth the carved and gleaming archway that led the privileged to the loftiest tower of them all, where the Lady herself lived in grace and solitude.

On market days, such as this one, Owaree travelers camped in the Vizard with their gaudy tents and their wild music. They sang and danced on thick red and blue carpets from the mystic east, and mended pots, and told fortunes, and traded their best horses with the townsfolk. And all was very merry and mysterious, and just a little thrilling.

It was exactly the sort of place his little brother would find fascinating. And someone, without doubt, would find Perian the same. The boy had a fine suit of clothes and two silver coins in his purse, or he had when they set out. By now, who could say?

Shoulders squared, just a touch of a swagger in his walk, Jack dove into the chattering crowds swirling through the lanes that looped and turned through the market. He frowned into the curtained spaces at the back of each burlaped stall. In the shadows, it was easy to see flat breads slapped onto griddles and stuffed with meat before being handed through a gauzy screen to the counter. Or reeds twisted into baskets, wires into cheap jewelry and amulets of questionable virtue. Even the hiss and whirl of glass being blown into earrings and lamps and bowls and intricate…

Lamps? Jorinda had told him to look for some new lamps. He had her list in his pouch along with a few coins. A length of blue silk, she wanted; steel nibs for a pen; some oranges, if they weren’t too dear; and a good quality lamp. He noted the sign swaying from the awning: 

Honest Ivor’s Illuminations 
Let There Be Lux

Then he kicked himself. His little brother missing and he was looking at fancy housewares.

“You look like a man who needs a lamp,” the shopkeeper pronounced before he could get away.

“No, no,” Jack replied hurriedly. “Just got here. Ivor is it? Maybe on the way back. It’s my brother, you...see...”

A gleam caught his eye from behind the gauze curtain. And when the gauze fluttered in a passing breeze, a rainbow shimmer made him blink, and blink again.

A cinder had caught in his eye, and before he knew it, he’d bought a lamp, spare wicks, and a thimble full of oil to be going home with. Also, a bit of emery cloth to shine it up for the little woman, which expression he did not intend to pass on to Jorinda. And a sturdy linen bag with Let There Be Lux painted on it to get them all home – a bargain price of three silver pennies, the lot.

Apparently the foolish look on Jack’s face had not changed all that much since last he was here. He should simply have brought Jorinda, he thought and left Peri home safe.

 “Pardon me,” he said to a pie-man, a shoemaker, and the apple wench after him. “Have you seen a boy about so high and so wide with a feckless grin and a shock of hair like a cornfield gone mad, and a tongue on him like an African parrot?”

They laughed or sneered, or said rude things, and one way and another asked if he wasn’t looking for a girl instead, but he wasn’t, so he moved along.

Up one rank alley, the butchers’ shambles filled the air with flies and a metallic bloody tang. The perfect place, he thought, to hide a body. Too bad he hadn’t brought one. And no one was screaming. There were no signs of a struggle. Each butcher and his boy looked perfectly easy in their skins, though giving a doubtful eye to a man with the sword moving through the thinning crowd. One by one they turned their backs and went back to sluicing down their gutters with clear water. Jack coughed and turned away. 

As he wandered through the market and up and down the steep paths of the town, Jack found everything on Jorinda’s list but little to give him hope until he began almost to doubt if Peri had ever come with him at all. Was there some illusion, some trick at work? But why? 

The sun had touched the tip of the highest tower and started for the horizon. The market must be closing, but no one appeared to be terrorizing a comely youth or holding him captive. And no one had sought Jack out with a request to kindly come along and either ransom his idiot brother or take him off their hands. His growing annoyance, and a grumbling in his stomach were starting to feel a little like fear. He had only one thing left to try.

 “Ahem,” said a man.

Right in front of him, under the notices and announcements pinned to the unfortunately named Nose, a sorrowful-looking man stood holding the tattered end of a rope attached to a thin, spotted cow with a crumpled horn and a white face that looked familiar. That is, the man looked familiar. That cow must be long dead. But the man did seem startled to see Jack, almost as if they had met before and parted under awkward circumstances. He kept gazing at his shoes, at the cow, back over his shoulder, though he smiled to an extreme. A used-cow salesman?

Jack frowned.

“I know you,” he said.

 “Say can I interest you in a fine milk cow, young fellow-me-lad? Five silver pennies. Just five. Healthy, as you can see. Great milker. Five gallons a day if it’s an ounce.”

Even the cow threw the man a doubtful look.

Sarcasm leapt to Jack’s tongue. He longed to say, “How about a nice handful of magic beans instead, eh, my good man?”

But the beans had been a worthwhile trade after all. No point in being rude about it now.

Instead he put his question, but while the man trembled and gave the expected reply, something drew Jack’s gaze on high, and made his spirits rise.

Was that a carpet flying through the air, rippling like a, well, like a carpet being shaken out on cleaning day? And was someone riding it, hooting and giddy as a shepherd on holiday? And did that someone have a shock of hair like a cornfield gone mad, or…

Who knows? Who could see details or hear a word from this distance? The very tallest tower speared a little cloud in icy solitude a thousand feet, they said, above its roots in Graskullen. Not so tall as that beanstalk had been, but what was? What looked like a carpet was probably a scarf, a hat, or an eagle.

“No, thanks,” Jack said instead as he dropped his gaze again. Man and cow had scarpered, though a big-eyed girl in a fringed black veil was leering at him suggestively from a window in one of the lower towers. Framed in brilliant blue, the fringe twitched blood red, her eyes glinted black as two sparks of flint above the veil that tipped her nose. Jack gulped and touched Jorinda’s locket. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen my little brother?”

She giggled. “Can’t you hear?” One bare brown arm emerged from the veil pointing uphill to the Vizard.

A rhythm looped and pushed under the noise of the market, invaded his ear, thumped his 
chest, measured the beat of his heart against the almost languid tom-tom-pop of a drum. Joined to it, the urgent wail of some kind of flute, and he knew exactly where Perian was. In his fourteenth summer, where better should a boy be than dreaming, drooling, and likely getting his purse cut at the edge of a blue-and-red carpet where the Owaree girls danced? Even if the carpets picked him up and flew, he’d never notice.

 Oh yes, thought Jack, the boy had surely been enchanted, but it didn’t take a sorcerer to do it. Disappearing into a golden mist? Just boyish enthusiasm. He’d run on ahead, that’s all

It took no time to find his way back either, crowds be damned. Following the music as it bounced off the walls, Jack ran. With practiced ease, he side-stepped donkeys with panniers on their sides, and women with laundry baskets on their heads.

But the trick of maneuvering through a crowd is keeping your eyes moving and your mind on the goal. If the dusky charms of a beautiful girl with a fine sword balanced on her head are of interest, you keep going, or you stop and watch.

Stop. And watch. You do not move on with your eyes still popping out of your head until you run smack into a pair of men-at-arms in the town livery. They growled something through their helmets as they latched onto his arms.

Oi!” Jack whirled out of their grasp, landed a kick on one of them, and reached for his sword only to see it walking away in the fist of another smug-looking Guardsman. “Bugger!”

“In the Lady’s name,” the first two said, clearly enough this time.

“Sent you to get me, did she?” Disarmed and dismayed, Jack took a defensive stance which he backed up the hill, glancing about for an alleyway or a doorway or a conveniently passing parade or something.

“Very thoughtful, I’m sure. But really, if it’s all the same to Her Ladyship, I’ll be with her just as soon as I locate my brother. I don’t suppose you’ve seen him? Smart-mouth, hair like a… No? All right, well, look. Love to stay and chat.”

The thorny brambles clogging the giant’s right Eye snatched at his coat. A quick glance aside showed him a bronze-bound door and an iron gate behind the shrubbery, and a lock and chain that had long since rusted shut. No help there.

He kept moving. One Guard had a sword out now, the other a rope, but Jack really hadn’t the time.

“I don’t suppose you lads can just tell me what I’ve done?”

“Bad manners,” said the larger of them.

“Nothing personal, Sunshine,” said the other one and lunged for Jack.

Hands and elbows moved. Jack vaulted backwards in some complicated maneuver that fetched him up on the far side of the ivy-covered Nose. Small comfort. They couldn’t see him, but it barely bought him a few second’s grace. Hoping for more, he laid himself flat against the tower wall hoping to become one with the universe, or at least the trailing ivy.

“Psst!”

“What?” he gasped, staring down at a blue black cat with jet black eyes sporting a red collar. It sat back regally and lifted a paw as if it should be kissed. It sneezed, then seemed to shrug and stroll away, tail high, along the curve of the wall.

He was only a scant twenty paces from the other Eye, but what if it were locked up, too? Seconds passed. He’d had a thought before. Something about a last resort. He could hardly hear himself think for the sinuous and insinuating music wreathing his head and echoing from the walls. Not six feet away, Owaree girls were dancing with swaying scarves and every single muscle of their lithe and lively bodies. Such a distraction, when he needed...

A distraction!

Jack thrust a hand into the satchel, now crowded with a lamp, silk, nibs and all, and scrambled until his hand closed around the polished finger bone that was all he had of his father.

“Fee-fi-fo… Damn, what rhymes with vanish? Clannish, Spanish. Mannish… Got it!” Grinning, Jack stepped out where they could see him, and fixed a blue eye on the two men whose attention was already wavering.

                Fee-fi-fo-fancy
                I see Gwenllyn, I see Francie.
                Two big Guard boys get up and dancez!

And so they did. The girls on the carpet opened their arms and their scarves in surprise but without alarm as the two Guards stumbled onto the makeshift stage—surprisingly graceful for dazed men in heavy boots. It wasn’t great, Jack knew. He was no kind of wizard. But it would hold them a few minutes anyway.

The crowd loved the spectacle, even if the Lady’s bully boys were never so nimble as the Jack who’d tricked a giant three times in his own hall. Neither, sadly, was Jack as his ankle reminded him with every clicking step toward the other Eye. Something was leading him to the cave. It was probably a trap, but what else could he do? He had to follow.

 

Weary and drained, and now a fugitive, Jack found the door under a thick mat of ivy. It opened to his touch. He fell through it gratefully.

Ow!

A few short paces from the street, as the light began to fail, he recalled that good old rule about paying attention to your surroundings. He waggled his fingers before his face, and sat down while he could still see them.

The walls were dry and had once been lined, he thought, with painted tiles red, blue, and black. But a few feet in, both walls and floor became dusty earth and gravel with the smell of dead things wafting up from some even darker place.

A rough voice came from the dark, though whether it was a man or a woman he had no clue. “Come along, young master.”

“Who are you?” Jack whispered. With the music in the street and the breeze whispering in the cave, perhaps no one would hear him. No reason to take chances.

“I am Navix. Come along.”

 “What do you want?” He could hear something along the passage, a kind of foolish, wordless humming.

“Come--”

“I have no light. I will fall.”

“There is nothing in the dark that is not there in the light.”

“Is my brother here?” What would Jorinda do?

You bought a lamp, simpleton! said his clever wife, with affection, in the corridors of his mind. Light it!

“Where is my brother?” Jack demanded and folded his legs under him. He felt for the lamp, slid a wick into place, and charged it with the thimbleful of oil that was enough to go home with.

“Perian? Peri boy, answer me!”

“Only steps away, he is. Come!”

“Jack! Is that you?”

Oh, thank goodness. The boy sounded drowsy but well, and perhaps not too deeply enchanted. “Of course it’s me, butt-face. Who else?”

“Be quiet,” snapped the other voice, nastier still.

“Hey, cherub! Are you all right? Are you hurt?”

The polishing cloth next, to buff up the ancient symbols carved in swirling patterns from spout to handle

“Hurt? Not me, I’ve been waiting hours! Have you met Navix? Isn’t she wonderful? She’s the prettiest girl in the world, isn’t she? And really smart. I’ll be she’s smarter than Jorinda! I’m going to marry her.”

“Are you, indeed?”

Sparks flew from flint on steel. 

“Say, Jack, will you’ll give us the Hen as a wedding present? Mother won’t mind. And the Harp, too, okay?”

So that’s what this is about, Jack thought as the lamp flared into life. He scrambled to his feet at once watching the glow fill up the narrow antechamber he occupied. And just beyond it, where there might once have been a ballroom floor gleaming under a vaulted ceiling paved with diamonds, a vast chasm yawned.

Perched on its ragged edge, his only brother danced little steps to his own tune, oblivious to where he was. When he turned eager eyes to Jack, it was clear those eyes looked on some other place, and some other woman than the grotesque creature that crouched by him, patting his sleeve like a pet.

Conclusions came easy at this point. “And what are you? What have you done with my brother?”

“Such flimsy courtesy,” said the hag or gnome or whatever sort of unseelie faerie she was. “But I should expect little else from the brat who killed my godfather and thieved my inheritance.”

“I do beg your pardon, ma’am” Jack affected an elaborate bow, but without taking his eyes off her. “I was distracted by the cat.”

Now that he had a free hand, he smoothed his thumb across the polished bone in his pocket, then picked it out and tucked it into his cheek even as he raised the lamp higher.

“Your godfather? You mean–fee–the giant–fie–who tried to have me fol-de-rol for his supper? That giant?”

The nonsense words meant nothing, but always proved a boost to his slender magics. 

“Step back, thief! Come no further. I want the hen that lays the golden egg that should be mine. I will have the Singing Harp you stole away to sing to me in the dark! Give them to me, or the boy will die. You can see he will do anything for me. I have but to ask him to fetch me anything from across the room, and he will try to do it.”

And fall to certain death in the Giant's throat.

The boy, pouting, heard nothing of this. He cried, “Jack, why are you being so mean to my beloved? Go away if you can’t be kind to her! But give me the singing harp, first, will you?”

Jack glided forward one step, and still one more.

“Didn’t you know, Peri me lad? I freed the harp from enchantment ages ago. It was she that showed me how to find my father’s bones after the beanstalk fell. And a few other things as well. Very clever girl, that harp.”

The light from the lamp swelled and grew, filled up the graven spells with gold even as it crossed Perian's eyes. Jack drew in a breath as he laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and shouted,

                By hearth and hall
                Come when I call!

All at once, two marsh ponies blew in on the wind, their tails and manes streaming. The unseelie creature bellowed a horrible roar. Perian gasped, blinded, and teetered on the precipice. 

In the next breath. Jack grabbed his brother, dragged him back from the abyss, and threw him onto his pony. And in a heartbeat, or maybe two, they were all at home where their mother wept and golden-haired Jorinda greeted them singing for joy.

And the next time Jack took a mind to treat his little brother to an adventure, they went to the seaside. But that’s another story for another time.



The End

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