The rapid clatter of hooves told King Bernardino something was wrong. He threw open a leaded glass window and saw Star, now on the coachman’s seat, whipping the team. He rushed from the room calling for his chamberlain, his physician, his guard, and his god. The first person to hear him was a maid named Gloria who had been dusting a statue of Aeus. She came at a run, her feather duster raised like a club.
Spirited girl! thought Bernardino, who didn’t actually know her name. When she caught sight of the king, Gloria began a curtsy. He stopped her with a flick of his hand. “Come!” he said. “No time for that.” They both rushed to the door.
As King Bernardino hurried down the long white marble staircase, he took special care. A proud forbearer had created a spacious and sweeping approach to the royal residence, an approach that invoked feelings of awe and humility in all who visited Witten Palace. However, the terms “spacious,” “sweeping,” and “handrails” were incompatible. So as King Bernardino aged, as his knees stiffened and his balance grew worse, this grand approach had become a spacious and sweeping deathtrap. The king found himself grasping for the maid’s arm which she blindly and kindly offered.
The situation: Rodney breathing life into William…Robin looking on miserably…Star holding the stamping horses’ reins…resolved itself into a narrative in a flash. But Bernardino didn’t waste time with questions. “Take William to my quarters. Call the royal physician. Have the priests bring the sacred water. Robin and Star! Await me in the Hall.”
By this time two gardeners, a groom, several guards and the castle’s steward, Edelbert, had all descended upon the royal coach. King Bernardino saw Gloria take a swipe with her feather duster at one of the horse’s flanks, now covered with a sheen of sweat and dust. A flash of a smile crossed the king’s face. He added quietly to the groom, “And see to the horses.”
Everyone did exactly what he said.
Later that evening when the blood had been scrubbed from the marble staircase, when William lay in his father’s bed, his breath a whisper that would scarcely move a feather; when Robin and Star had told their stories and been confined to their rooms to await their father’s pleasure (which meant his verdict); when Gloria had finished the dusting and was saying her prayers at a small prie-Dieu the steward had allowed her; when the horses had been brushed and fed, when the priests had departed and William’s brow had been laved with sacred water (which didn’t help at all); after this, Bernardino sat upon his throne in a darkened hall with tears running down his face. He had seen many wounds in war; he’d been the cause of more than a few, and he was pretty sure his eldest son was dying.
After William had been attended by the royal physician, Star and Robin had been allowed to visit. Star had seen his poor forehead with its gash and bruise, his pale face (made paler by the border of jet-black hair). She had seen her brother in an apallic state, a stupor, a “coma” Doctor Ell had called it. Star asked what she could do. The answer: stimulation. So she and Robin began to visit every day. Robin played music and recited his (and other’s) poems. Star brought in her loom and began a new tapestry. She decided to weave a blue sky with bright white clouds and fill it with every manner of bird, both real and imaginary. As she worked, Star worked kept up a steady stream of comments and questions.
“Should I include a griffin? You know, body of a lion, wings of an eagle.” Star laughed. “How about a flock of robins chasing it through the sky? Robins are a type of thrush, you know. They’re brave birds, like you William, brave and strong. And I’ll add chickadees and crows and ravens. No, one raven. An old, wise bird flying across the very top, keeping watch.” Like me, she thought, as William’s chest rose and fell, as he dreamed strange dreams in his new and distant palace.
At Doctor Ell’s suggestion, others were encouraged to visit. So a steady stream of courtiers and functionaries came to pay their respects and make their offerings. Edelbert, the steward, came every day to consult on Witten Castle’s many and complex requisites; the chamberlain showed off a new desk (burnished oak inlaid with lapis and gold); the master of the wardrobe brought in a fine cape (sealskin, trimmed in ermine); the cook offered a steaming joint; the confectioner, a pie. All the castle was alive with suggestion; nothing was too small or too large. By the end, pages were bringing in cufflinks, chandlers candles, and the master huntsman a roe deer, soft and exsanguinating on the castle’s scrubbed floors.
To no avail. William never spoke. William never moved.
A month passed. Prince William’s forehead was clean and healed. Lying in his canopied bed, he looked every inch the royal prince. Clad in rich robes, his face handsome; noble, still. It looked as if he were just about to issue a royal proclamation. Only the faintest puffs of air proved he still lived. Once a day the royal physician poured broth down a tube inserted into his stomach. That was how he ate now.