Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sister and Brother

Once upon a time, a very long way from anywhere else, there lived a young prince. He was whippet-thin but athletic, and delighted in weapon-play. He first learned the rapier, practising in the castle grounds surrounded by forest, which grew so thickly in that part of the world. Later he progressed to the hefty broadsword, which could with one blow deprive a man of his head.

The stealthy crossbow also pleased him. He would lie against the trunk of an ancient elm for hours in complete repose, musing on issues philosophic and historic, until a baby boar happened by. Whoosh! Thwack! The bolt would fly home. An infant life, wild and free, transformed into dinner.

Prince Michael had a much younger sister, Gabriella who – all agreed – was perfection herself. Quiet, modest in appearance and demeanour, she devoted herself to the feminine arts: painting, playing the harpsichord, singing the local atonal folk songs, tapestry work, and helping the poor.

The prince loved her absently until the time came to leave his strenuous but comfortable life, to wander and adventure through the wider, unsuspecting world.

He made a start by righting smaller wrongs, killing trolls and maiming goblin hordes. He then progressed to bigger things: the slaying of dragons, the saving of minor female royalty and the leading of morally well-founded protest movements. Finally, after many years and having acquired a modest fortune, he bought a castle somewhat adjacent to the one where Gabriella now lived with her royal consort and family, and re-opened their acquaintance.

Initially he and his sister were strangers to one another, and were guarded in their conversation. Michael would wax enthusiastic about his latest choice of weapons, while Gabriella would mutter asides to her family along the lines of “What was that all about?”

After a while they took to riding round the countryside together in Michael’s open wooden carriage, which he had bought new from a carriage-wright known for his reliability.

Sat next to Michael in the swaying seat, watching his expert hand wielding the reins, and feeling every lurch of the wooden wheels as they bounced at speed from rut to pothole to jut-out stone, Gabriella would make accommodating conversation.

“It is much to your credit that you have devoted yourself to the benefit of our local community.” Gabriella would say.

“Really? Do you think so?” Prince Michael would reply. “You know, I’m full of energy, and anything new really fascinates me. If there’s some novel engine to speedily dispatch an evil-doer, I have to be the first to understand its principles of operation and try it out ...”

‘Will he never stop?’ whispered Gabriella to herself.

“... and indeed I heard the other days of some new kind of bow which literally stuns its victim with a strange electromotive force. I placed an order at once and soon you will see me lurking in vales and droves, the electro-scourge of local ill-doers.”

Prince Michael drove the horses forward down his favourite lane, ducking with pleasure beneath the suddenly-emergent low-hanging boughs which formed such an interesting random canopy over this section of the track.

Dodging this way and that, in imminent fear of decapitation, Gabriella wondered again at the utter obtuseness of her elder brother. God save us, she thought, from those obsessional, self-centred, self-indulgent, mediocre-dressed-as-learned, puppyish, faux-self-deprecatory people, who by position or family connection have power over us.

Michael started a new story about a smoke box which, he claimed, would let the merest peasant have the equivalent of several horses at his disposal. In as short a time as maybe one hundred years?

An unsuspected branch suddenly whipped from nowhere, striking prince Michael a fearsome blow on his right temple, and dispatching him instantly.

After Gabriella had stopped the carriage, calmed the horses and seen to the proper disposal of the prince, she tried to think of a suitable epitaph for Michael.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”?

“Don’t just do something, stand there”?

“Only connect”?

They all sounded appropriate, but surely that last one was a board game?