When he returned to the Palace Beautiful, King Oscar found it more difficult than ever to resume his normal kingly life and forget about what had happened in the Secret Glade. Even more this time, for he had the pain in his ear to remind him of the Scarlet Marquis’ anger and the frequent presence of Lord Henry at the court. Every time King Oscar caught the Harlequin’s eye, images of the black-faced imp came swerving back into his mind with a frightening persistence. The king sat sadly on his throne as Lord Henry danced merrily round before him, aware only of the tickling sensation of the bandage against his face and the continuous space that he needed to be filled by the Crystal Boy. The court seemed to be changed… there were more shadows around the edges of the room, perhaps more Darkmen than ever.
One afternoon, King Oscar was watching absently as Lord Henry performed a strange little dance that involved spinning very fast on the spot – so fast indeed, that the king was forced to look away in order to remain sitting up straight on his throne. He felt the light touch of Robbie’s hand upon his robe. Robbie was standing so close to him that it was hardly necessary to move his head towards the elf to be able to make out his words clearly.
“Oscar, there’s something wrong here… can you see the Darkmen surrounding Lord Henry? Look. I don’t trust them,” Robbie hissed uneasily, “Can you not stop them; make them leave him alone?” Even as he spoke and King Oscar shook his head, the Darkmen around Lord Henry drew closer together so that his little dance was forced to come to a halt, though he continued to wave his jingling stick. The action became more and more frantic until it was like the final wave of a drowning man… as all around him the Darkmen closed in. Very slowly, the figures began to move towards the doors taking the franticly waving jingling stick along with them. King Oscar got to his feet.
“Wait! Stop there at once – what do you think you’re doing?” called out King Oscar in his most commanding voice. He raised his great hand as an additional gesture of authority. “Release that harlequin at once. Do you hear?”
The Darkmen around Lord Henry stared blankly back at King Oscar, continuing to move towards the door. As the King got to his feet, one of the Darkmen broke away from the group and spoke in a tiny voice that was nonetheless extremely clear.
“We are taking the harlequin away. We want to speak to him… There’s nothing you can do.” Even as the Darkman spoke, the great doors of the court swung open and the group of dark figures surrounding Lord Henry moved slowly but surely through them with a gradual motion – very much like the movement of the tide. King Oscar took a few great strides across the room, raising his massive hand so that he hit the great chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and broke one of the candles. All around him, the other courtiers stood back – they had never seen their king so angry before.
“Stop!” the king roared, but the Darkmen took no notice, disappearing through the doors and leaving them to swing closed after them.
King Oscar followed them through, calling out to his courtiers, “Come on! Let’s follow them.”
Some kind of dark magic must have been used by the Darkmen, because there was no sign of them anywhere in the entrance hall when King Oscar and Robbie made their way towards the palace doors, through which they could just see the group of Darkmen disappearing out into the now fading afternoon sunlight. They tried to go down the palace steps, but their way through the palace doors was barred by something invisible, some sort of barrier or gate. With all his strength King Oscar pushed against the invisible force, but it was no use.
“Oscar, look,” Robbie called, pulling on the king’s sleeve, franticly.
King Oscar tore his eyes away from the disappearing Darkmen and turned in the direction of Robbie’s pointing finger. On the palace steps there were more of them, all moving with the same inevitable, sinister motion that left no room for argument. It was several moments before King Oscar realised what they were carrying.
“How dare you touch my picture! Stop right there!” roared the king, feeling panic begin to rise within him as the Darkmen forced him back from the doors with their invisible barrier. The king could only stand there where he was and watch helplessly as the Darkmen carried his painting of the Crystal Boy outside. As they did so, he became aware of a familiar, thumping noise behind him, as Basil the artist came hurrying across the entrance hall, his one boot thumping with a familiar sound across the tiles. Basil was almost beside himself as he realised what was happening – he began to hop around furiously, franticly wringing his hands.
“My painting! Don’t let them capture the light!” He cried out desperately. “We’ve got to stop them!”
“But it’s no use, Basil,” said the king gently, as the artist tried to fight his way through the palace doors in the same way that Robbie and the King had done. “We can’t get through.”
The three figures stood framed in the massive doorway - the giant king, Robbie the elf, and the one-legged artist, Basil, who was by now almost in tears as he watched the Darkmen dragging his painting along the stony ground of the courtyard.
“My painting, my painting! King Oscar, don’t let them take my light from me!” sobbed Basil, as he tugged franticly at the royal sleeve; but the king could do nothing. The sounds of smashing wood came drifting to their ears with such an alarming persistence that they didn’t need to be able to see to know they were destroying the painting. King Oscar watched the Darkmen on the lawn raising the axe blade above their heads and slowly bringing it crashing down as the wood splintered and flew off in all directions. Behind them he could just make out the other group, surrounding Lord Henry. He could just see the tip of Lord Henry’s waving stick, as the group became smaller and smaller, fading along with the sunlight from the day. As the sound of splintering wood eventually ceased, King Oscar watched the Darkmen disperse, leaving the shattered painting behind, on the courtyard floor. The light still seemed to shine brightly, even though the painted image had been destroyed. Slowly, King Oscar reached out towards Basil and laid his massive hand very gently on his shoulder.
“Don’t be too sad, Basil… we’ll go back to the Secret Glade tonight.” He got to his knees beside Basil so that he was on the same level. “Your can catch the light one more time.”
For many hours the sound of splintering wood still came to them from across the gardens, along with the jingling of Lord Henry’s bells.
From the window of the nursery tower, the sea was just visible in the distance. Queen Constance was even able to make out the foamy crests of the waves as they broke upon the shore, and she thought of the days long ago when her husband used to tell stories to the children gathered on the beach… Those days seemed very remote now; almost forgotten completely. She hadn’t even set eyes on the king for quite some time now that she and the princes were isolated in this tower with the drawbridge pulled up so that nobody could get across the moat. With a heavy sigh, Queen Constance shifted her beautiful brown eyes onto the grassy area immediately surrounding the scarlet tower, on which the princes were playing half-heartedly, for they were almost too old to play children’s games now. Nonetheless, Prince Cyril tried his best to indulge his younger brother as much as possible, although it was difficult to find new places to hide in such a small area! As the boys played, their nanny goat continued to bleat on the other side of the moat, though they ignored her. It was all part of their past; all forgotten now, like their father, the king.
Turning away from the window, Queen Constance decided to go to the princes and tell them stories herself – perhaps she wouldn’t be able to tell them quite as well as the king used to… but still, she would try. Moving across the brightly coloured room, with its jungle paintings all over the walls, she stood still for a moment at the top of the winding staircase. The way the narrow stairs spiralled away into the darkness below seemed to fill her with such a sense of unease and foreboding for a moment that she was suddenly too frightened. No sound stirred the air around her; nothing moved. With a little toss of her head, Queen Constance began to descend the stairs, lightly. As she neared the bottom of the stairs, Queen Constance lost her footing and fell… She fell in such a way that her whole body somersaulted so that her spine was crushed against the staircase with a great cracking sound. She lay immobile at the foot of the spiral staircase for several moments, wondering what to do… she could call for the princes, but no sound would come when she opened her mouth; her throat was much too dry. She would simply have to lie there in a heap at the bottom of the staircase and wait… She did not mind doing that now, and she closed her eyes gently. Just then, the door of the tower was pushed open by Vyvyan, the Cloud Prince. The slim, fragile child stood silently beside the figure of the fallen queen, seeming to realise straight away what had happened… It was almost as if he had been aware of the whole thing. The white-faced prince got to his knees beside the queen and spoke to her very quietly.
“Mama… are you hurt?”
Queen Constance tried to move her head, but the pain it caused her was so bad that she gave up and tried instead to force her lips to go upwards into a smile – but the expression didn’t really work, so she simply blinked her beautiful doe eyes and whispered a few words.
“I think… I will be alright… maybe if I just stay here for a few minutes, just stay still…”
Prince Vyvyan took her hand and stroked it gently. Behind him Prince Cyril appeared, bringing with him the brightness of the sun which fell over the queen’s body with an easy sort of radiance. He touched his brother’s shoulder, as if sending his own lifeblood through the Cloud Prince into the queen.
“We will stay with you mama… don’t worry. We’ll stay.” The sun prince sat firmly, his words sounding so filled with confidence that the three figures seemed to be frozen forever in that static image that would never pass away. Even though the hours ticked by and the night began to creep into the nursery tower, nobody moved, not one of them.
The nanny goat continued to bleat, sadly. The sound she made was so hollow and distressing that Robbie the elf knelt down beside her and wrapped his arms around the white creature, trying desperately to soothe her to stop, but it was no use. The nanny goat pulled away, seeming to be almost determined to embrace her fate. King Oscar shook his head very slowly, removing his crown of sunflowers and examining it absently.
“It’s no use, Robbie,” he said gently, “She realises that she’s not needed anymore. And so what more is left to be said? Where do we go now?” On the other side of the moat stood the silent shape of the scarlet nursery tower… a sad shape now, seeming to appear almost crimson, a deep blood red, as the night shadows surrounded and touched it. The doors of the tower were closed, the drawbridge still up. As King Oscar looked on, the distance between himself and the tower seemed limitless; far too great a distance for his giant strides to carry him. He spoke, his voice seeming to have become so hollow and vacant a space. “It has been so long since I’ve seen my boys and even the queen. I wonder if they remember me. I wish I could go to them now – for I feel they need me wherever they are.” Far away in the distance, King Oscar could just make out the outline of the sea and the cliffs – He was suddenly filled with such a great sense of sadness that he found it too heavy to bear… He turned away decisively. “We should go straight away to the Secret Glade… or else I fear it might be too late,” he said, turning to Basil as the artist came hopping across the lawn towards them, carrying a large piece of canvas and his painter’s satchel over his shoulder. “Are you ready, Basil?”
“Yes, of course I’m ready,” replied Basil in a trembling voice, for he was hardly able to contain his excitement as he hopped about manically in the bright moonlight. "Let’s go quickly… I want to catch the light once again.”
“And perhaps we might also be able to find Lord Henry in the woods,” put in Robbie, taking his heavy satchel from his neck, and transferring it to his own. “We might be able to help him too.”
“Yes…” King Oscar agreed thoughtfully, switching his gaze to the other side of the island, towards the woodland deep within it. The moon seemed to throw such a bright light on the trees that the secrets they held were only increased, becoming ever more secret by the moment. King Oscar clapped his mighty hands together with a resounding smack as he began to move away. “Come on then, let’s go!"
The final chapter - Chapter Six will be posted next weekend.