Wincing, the old man thrust his gnarled hand to his lower back, the pain of his sudden attempt to duck out of sight sending waves of agony through his spine. Too soon! The lad must not see him here before it is time, he thought. He laid out his plans with the utmost care and so dared not risk so much to satisfy his own stupid curiosity!
He stilled his body, intent upon blending with the foliage. His grey brow furrowed and he allowed his eyes to close to mere slits, the better to perceive his quarry through the numerous green branches of the shrubbery. He needed a distraction, and quickly. Something new for them to focus on instead of some crazy old man with a long walking stick who looked as out of place as a daffodil in a pigsty. For his part, he dared not move at all for fear of catching the lad’s keen eye, so it would have to be something else. That, and the pain in his back was sufficient to make him yearn for a bed anyway, a cot even, upon which to topple. He probably could not move if he wanted to.
It would have to be the girl. “Margo,” she called herself now. Now there was a girl always willing to help him. Thus far, being smart enough to carry out his wishes and yet lacking the intelligence to understand fully what part she played. A better foil, he believed, would have been hard to find.
What could a defenseless girl do to distract a lad like John?
Well, of course, it might be a bit melodramatic but he knew the best plans were often the simplest plans. History was rife with examples of men distracted by women in one way or another, often to the great detriment of their futures. A pretty smile or an allowed glimpse of a sculpted calf had served many a harlot, whether a farmer’s wife or a renowned spy. But in this instance, it must involve not only distraction, but also haste and the requisite attendance of her hero.
His narrowed eyes shut completely now, his grip upon the staff tightening so that his bony fingers turned white, the knuckles standing out like marbles beneath his thin, nearly translucent skin. Muttering a single word beneath his breath, he forced the last syllable out between clenched teeth.
“Oh!” Margo fell back against John, forcing him to catch her around the waist to keep her from falling. Caught off guard, he misplaced his trailing foot, thereby stumbling himself and collapsing to the dew-wet grass in front of the bench. In a tangle of arms and legs, John tried to regain his feet as fast as possible and at the same time, assist Margo. But when his nurse let out another yelp, he realized her hand somehow lay underneath his boot and so he simply fell backwards again to quickly get his weight off his foot, and incidentally her hand.
“I’m so sorry!” he blurted. John rolled to his left to get clear and they both managed to regain their feet, albeit clumsily. Wet grass covered his backside and trouser legs and he spent a few moments making a half-hearted attempt to brush off. He moved to do the same for Margo, but thought better of it after catching a fetching glimpse of the damp dress clinging to her various curves. No, it would be best if she attended to her own clean up, he thought.
“Well, you are a sight,” Margo remarked, looking over at John. “Like a schoolboy who’s been in a tussle and the bell has just rung.” She laughed.
John met her gaze with a smile of his own.
“More like a truant who is jealous of all the other schoolboys for always being on-time and clean.”
They laughed again before John turned to stare into the woods. “Did you see him?”
“Who are you talking about?”
“I saw the old man. The one I was just telling you about, the one with the walking stick and the bizarre stories about who I may be. He was over there, in the woods, I’m sure of it.” John started off in that direction, as if his legs were moving of their own accord.
“John,” Margo said, grabbing his arm, “there’s nobody there.”
John’s eyes flared in anger, briefly, and then turned to a more controlled seriousness. “I have to make certain. I saw something, and I have to make sure.”
“How could he be out here anyway? This is the Queen’s retreat. There is no way he could get past the security people. Hell, it was hard enough for me, and I have a pass.”
John’s shoulders slumped. The soft sound of distant thunder filled the silence that now engulfed them. The bright, sunshiny morning turning decidedly grey.
When John finally turned back to face Margo, she felt shocked at the look of despair on his face. He seemed older, as if he aged ten years in the last few minutes. To be without your own history is one thing, she realized. But to have your only hope of recovery resting in the guise of that imaginary old man had to be absolutely draining.
“John,” she began, “I know it’s hard…”
“Do you?” he interrupted, his voice devoid of energy.
“Do you know how it feels to not remember your parents or your childhood? Do you know how it feels to see a plate of spaghetti placed before you and not remember if you’ve tasted it before?”
“And that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that you are not sure if you will get better. I will always wonder who I am. Am I a thief, running from the authorities? Or am I a minister of God?” John looked down at his clothes and then collapsed back onto the bench, defeated.
“I know believe me I do, for we are not all what we seem.” The cool breeze that had gently stirred his hair earlier this morning now turned into a more blustery force, whipping up the branches on the shrubbery around them. She folded her arms in front of her chest, in a vain attempt to ward off the cold.
“I suppose, you believe the old man is the key to your memory, and if you could just find him again, you could somehow shake the truth from him. Well, I don’t think it’s that simple.”
“I’m sure you think my visions of the old man are pure illusion.”
“John, I’m not sure what to think.” She kept her voice low, sympathetic. “He may be a receptacle for all of your yearning for the truth as a way of dealing with your frustration.” Margo looked up into the sky and saw the clouds moving by so fast; they were almost scurrying to get out of the way of the advancing storm.
She was puzzled momentarily. Were they not just standing in the midst of a beautiful spring morning, with birds singing, and the strong scent of flowers almost overpowering in their boldness? But then she remembered. Was it not this way the last time also?
John shook his head slowly as he stared down at the rippling grass.
“No, the old man is not the key to my past. He relates somehow to it, but he is not the key.” Then he brought his head up to stare Margo directly in the eyes. She saw darkness in them,and a cold fire.
“The key to everything is the Prince of Wales. It is he I must follow.”
“Perfect,” the old man dared to say aloud. He moved to a safer area from which he could observe the young couple, yet far enough away to blend adequately with the foliage. For the moment, at least, his spying on John could continue. The wind grew bold now, and he removed his pointy hat lest it blow away and cause further disturbance. Time grew short and Margo would not have much time to spare if the plan was to proceed according to his instructions.
A frown creased his aged features. From his new position, he could make out the front of the cottage as well. For the past few minutes, the security men had been displaying the subtle signs of an approaching event. They paced back and forth, checked their watches frequently, spoke into their sleeves. Security people were the same the world over. But now one group of four moved off toward the eastern side of the compound, through the garden pathway there and toward the “back” gate. They wore dark sunglasses but their heads were never still, continuously looking for signs of a threat. That could only mean one thing. One, or more, of the royals would be coming out soon, and probably would be going on one of their fabled walks. The old man smirked and wondered at the awareness of the queen and the commotion she caused, of the number of people she affected every time she made even the simplest of decisions. He grunted. She probably had three maids to rinse her hanky whenever she sneezed.
Sure enough, here she came now. The queen, along with the young prince, himself, and that odd chaperone fellow that seemed to go everywhere the queen went. They were dressed for poor weather, complete with overcoats and umbrellas. No doubt, they expected coming rain, so common in these parts at this time of year, but he doubted they realized the true extent of what was to come in less than one hour’s time. Or perhaps they did? Could this excursion be as innocent as it seemed? Did they know?
Rubbish! His plans were exquisite, and yes, there was the proof. Margo and John had left their bench with John strolling nonchalantly after the route of the royals. Margo followed on his heels, frantically pestering him with questions. It's working! John would lead him to the hiding place. Whether he knew, where he headed simply did not matter. The storm had done its deed, just as the old man knew it would. And John’s mind responded. The old man clutched his pointy hat firmly in one hand, gave a comforting squeeze to his tall walking stick, and prepared to follow.
The first lightning bolt of the storm cracked nearby sending gushing thunder rumbling across the valley, and the trees began to bow to the power of the gathering winds.