The Youngest Son
by Eildon Rhymer
They blow up hive ships. ("Hey! That's a good thing!") They destroy solar systems. ("Only five sixths!") Now they are trampling rough-shod through all the traditions of fairy tales. What's a miller's third son on the cusp of Destiny to do?
Note: There is a Jack in this story, because that's the sort of story it is. No resemblance intended to any other Jacks in the Stargate universe.
Jack had two older brothers, and his name was Jack. That said it all. Jack was clearly destined to…
(Well, actually, Jack hadn't been called Jack for the first few years of his life. His mother, married at sixteen to a phlegmatic miller, and forced to endure a William and a Harry, had given in to a flight of regrettable fancy, and had insisted on calling her third son Joquintus Sempronus, after the peripatetic prince who had spent a few days in the village before the unfortunate child was born. (Jack was secretly sure that this prince was, in fact, his father, and spent many hours in front of the looking glass, practicing the look of awed surprise that would be required when a regal stranger clapped him on the shoulder and announced, "Jack, I am your father.") Jack, however, had announced at four that he had discovered that his one true name was, in fact, Jack. (He considered Tom, but decided that Jack had more potential.) From that point on, he had refused to answer to any other name. One's destiny was decided by fate, but sometimes fate had to be given a stern but helping hand.)
As a youngest son and a Jack, Jack was destined to have a series of interesting adventures when on the cusp of manhood, and to win both fortune and a fair princess. He was honest, humble, selfless, generous, forgiving and large of heart. It was inevitable that he would…
(Inevitable? Jack sometimes worried about this. When he was six, his mother started looking longingly at other people's babies, and his parents kept vanishing into their chamber to hunt for missing needles. "Mine did that, too," said his friend, whose name was Cecil and so was clearly not destined for anything interesting at all, "but all they found was a baby brother." Jack didn't want a baby brother. Brothers, as everyone knew, came in sets of three. If there were four of them, would Destiny prove fickle and move on to the new youngest brother, or would it stand by Jack, as the third? Fortunately, his mother died when he was seven, and no new babies arrived, so the theory remained untested, and the danger passed.)
When Jack was fourteen, his oldest brother, William, set out to seek his fortune. "You'll come to a sticky end," Jack gloated, sticking out his tongue. Then he remembered that he was selfless and generous, and said, "But don't worry. I'll save you from whatever mess you've gotten yourself into, once it's my turn to make my way in the world."
William did indeed come to a sticky end, if sticky end could be defined as finding a job as a clerk of taxes (grain and pulses) in the big city, and having a girlfriend called Doris.
When Jack was fifteen, his second brother, Harry, set out to seek his fortune. "You're doomed to failure," Jack told him happily. "When they sing the tales of my deeds, you will be the dreadful warning in line three." Then he remembered that he was humble and large of heart, and said, "When I'm King, I'll let you marry one of my wife's cousins."
Harry was indeed doomed to failure, if failure could be defined as becoming a fire-fighter in the second biggest city, and having girls flocking around him, admiring his hose and his throbbing engine.
A year and a day later, Jack knew that his own time had come to leave the family home and achieve his destiny. "Bye-bye, Jack!" said his little half-brothers, but everyone knew that half-brothers didn't count, so Jack ignored them. His Wicked Step-Mother brought him seed cake and keppel berries and a pair of knitted socks, and told him to keep his feet warm, and to send a message home if ever he was short of funds. Jack was on the point of making a harsh response, then remembered that he was forgiving, and said, "When I'm King, and you're a beggar at my gate, I will forgive you all the wrongs you have done me, and give you the seventh-best chamber in my palace."
Jack had not gone very far when he came across a man in outlandish grey clothes, who was rummaging in the root mould, and muttering in a way that told Jack that he was either an eccentric or had lost his mind.
His first encounter! Jack stopped. He waited patiently. The man continued rummaging.
Jack decided that there was no point in getting hungry while waiting for Destiny to lay its first finger on his shoulder. He opened his red spotted handkerchief, and pulled out the evil seed cake.
"Where is it?" The man straightened, saw Jack, and jumped, squawking in alarm. He frowned with irritation for a moment, and seemed about to speak, but then he saw the seed cake. "That's cake?"
"Yes." Jack said it slowly, with exaggerated lip movements, in case the man was slow. "Cake." Then he remembered that he was generous, and that seemingly-random encounters always held some test, and held it out. "Would you like some?"
The man reached for it, then snatched his hand back. "It doesn't have citrus in it, does it? I can't eat citrus. Have you seen anaphylactic shock? It's not pretty, and if you feed me citrus, you'll be getting a front row seat for it, and I'm not afraid to sue, unless I'm dead, of course, which is always a possibility."
"No--" Jack swallowed, and moistened his lips. "--citrus. Just cake. Nice cake. Good cake." Then he remembered that, although humble, he was still the hero, and that much rested upon seemingly-random encounters at the start of an adventure. "Take what little I have, old man," he said, "for thy need is greater than mine."
"Old man?" the man protested through a full mouth. "Old man? At least I don't have a pathetic wisp of hair on my upper lip and call it a --" He seemed to get distracted by chewing for a while. "Good cake," he said, eyeing Jack's pack hopefully. "Unless it was poisoned. It wasn't poisoned, was it? It's just that I ate my last powerbar this morning, just after the incident with… and Sheppard's making us work like… I think he's still mad with me because I… Though, really, what else could I have done? I'd defy anyone not to have done the same. He's asking for it, with that hair, and… Cake?"
"I gave you my all, gentle greybeard," Jack said, deciding to add dignity to his list of qualities, as well as the ability to ignore things that made no sense. "All that I had," he said, with emphasis.
"Oh." The man seemed to lose interest. He turned and walked away.
Jack counted his steps. He would turn back on three. No, he would turn back on seven. Seven worked just as well. Oh. Nine? Seventeen? No, that was a silly number. Twenty-five? Forty-two?
"What about the blessing?" he blurted out. "The travellers who came before me refused to share their cake, but I let you eat mine." The man kept on walking. "So you throw off your grey rags and reveal the shining glory beneath it. You give me a… a magic coin, or a… a… ring, and when I'm about to be beheaded because of the schemings of the jealous chief adviser, you'll come in all your glory and rescue me, because although you look like a crotchety old beggar man, it's just a test for passing mortals, and in reality you're a --"
The man turned round at that, looking faintly annoyed. "Oh. Were you talking to me?
"-- fairy," Jack finished.
"Fairy?" the man said. "You think I'm a fairy? Oh, yes! It must be the pink tutu I'm wearing, or the gossamer wings, and maybe the ballerina shoes and the way I'm flying. Maybe it's the long blonde hair and the fact that I'm – hello?" He pointed to himself with the long fingers of both hands. "Oh yes! I'm a woman! I never noticed." He flapped his hand. "Now, be a good little boy and go bother someone else with your crazy native babbling."
Perhaps he was a bad fairy, Jack thought. Perhaps Jack had only narrowly escaped his grip and avoided being cursed. Things were not going quite the way they were ought to go. Still, he thought, deciding to add optimism to his list of Jack-like virtues, there was no need to be down-hearted.
Shouldering his burden, he set off again. He walked through a meadow full of argosy and chicory, and reached the wooden bridge across the river Tay. A fingerpost showed that the road beyond the river lay to fame, fortune and fair princesses, and that the road back lay to obscurity, humble beginnings and moderately unsettling encounters with people who didn't play by the rules. (It did not, in fact, say it in quite those words, but Jack added reading between the lines to his list of virtues. Heroes had to do that, he knew. Heroes had to know when "Don't sell the capa for anything less than a bag of silver," actually meant "Yes, a single tava bean that the shady-looking peddlar claims is magic would do excellently, thank you very much," and when "You stupid boy!" meant "Well done, stout hero.")
Jack started to walk over the bridge. Trit-trot went his feet on the hard but springy wood. Trit-trot. Trit-trot.
A repulsive monster rose up from under the bridge. It was huge and it was hairy, with a shock of dark tendrils issuing from its head, and terrible weapons gleaming at its waist.
Jack's knees turned to water, and he almost fell backwards off the bridge, before he remembered that bravery undoubtedly featured very high on his list, and was perhaps a joint second with generosity, or perhaps even higher than that. "Are you… are you a troll?" he managed to say with a stout dignity that was marred only by the sudden inexplicable cold that made him shiver and the ague that made him tremble.
"Thought you were Sheppard." The troll shook his shaggy mane of tendrils, revealing a face that was almost human-like, except for something terribly wrong about the expression in the eyes. (Jack's list definitely included an infallible ability to judge others at first sight.)
"Thou shalt not eat me," Jack said, drawing on several properties from his list all at the same time. "I have a brother much bigger than me who…" He remembered that he was honest. "Who might not be coming along any time soon," he extemporised, "but might come along here one day, perhaps when it's father's fiftieth birthday, or when we perform the upping of the mallards on the first day of summer, and he's far tastier than I am."
Water was draining from the troll's shaggy mane, and mud dripped from his hide, revealing it to be cunningly fashioned to look almost like clothes. "Not going to eat you," it said, because there were many creatures in the world who were not Jack and therefore were not as honest as the day was long (which made life somewhat more stressful for Jack during the summer months than during the winter, but a hero's lot was always to suffer.) "I was looking for something. Didn't mean to scare you." Its snarl looked almost like a smile.
"Well…" Jack swallowed hard. "I'm off to… to market." The need for honesty was suspended, he decided, when dealing with monsters, villains or anyone bad. If you were less than truthful to them, it didn't count as lying, but as inspired cunning, and Jacks were supposed to have cunning in abundance. "I'll eat and I'll eat and I'll eat, and when I come back, I'll be twice as fat. Why not wait until then before you eat me?" He smiled brightly.
The troll leapt onto the bridge. Jack took a step backwards. His last thought before hitting the water was to hope that bravery was similarly flexible, void in the face of trolls. His second thought was that the water was very cold, and that he appeared to be drowning. He remained calm, though, because he knew that there was no way that a youngest son called Jack would die in four feet of water with his adventures barely begun.
Sure enough, the troll fished him out. Jack kicked him, twisted out of his grip, and ran awa-- continued on his way, with his head held high. It was a shame about the duckweed in his hair. Duckweed was not very heroic. Duckweed never featured in any of the stories. Neither did the chafing of wet underpants. In fact, underpants never featured in stories at all, and all those heroes who journeyed for days to save princesses never once needed to stop to take a --
He stopped himself, remembering that he was optimistic. He couldn't let himself get his idioms confused. He was the honest young peasant boy called Jack, who triumphed when great lords and noble knights failed. You were allowed to be covered with duckweed when you were called Jack. In fact, it probably helped draw Destiny's attention to you, by making your humility and lack of ostensibility clear. (Jack almost added the last one to his list, but he was suddenly doubtful about whether he had the right word. He had dozed, dreaming of glory, when the teacher had covered poly… polysil… long words. Third sons called Jack didn't need to know such things. Native wit had a place on the list, but book-learning definitely didn't.)
For several more minutes he walked, slowly drying in the light of the suns. Soon his path took him into a dappled wood. And there, in a glade, he saw a beautiful maiden.
Jack stopped walking. Jack stopped breathing. Pressing his hand to his chest, he edged forward, reminding himself that he had a list of virtues as long as his arm, and that princesses were destined to find his honest earthiness and his ruddy cheeks irresistible, even though the simpering little girls at home talked about him in cruel whispers and told their mothers when he pulled their hair.
"Are you…" He swallowed, moistening his dry mouth. "Are you a princess?" No, of course she was a princess. "Are you in distress? Are you in bondage vile? Are you under some enchantment that I can release you from?"
The princess turned to face him, a slight smile on her lovely lips. "No," she said.
Ah! So eloquent! So expressive! Her words were honey, showing the simple purity of her unblemished maiden soul. "I shall rescue thee," he vowed. "Tell me what assails thee, and I shall slay it, or outwit it, or bop it on the head, or chase it is away if it is a squirrel or small wolf that thou art afraid of, or… or untie it, if it is simply a matter of a thorny branch getting entangled in your gown… I mean, in thy… er… leggings." He could feel the nobleness of his statement trickling away like water down a hole, but he reminded himself that eloquence was not required in this idiom, just honest down-to-earth speaking that would charm maidens accustomed to courtly lies and circumwhatevers. "You're pretty," he said, with charming, simple honesty. "You've got a lovely pair of--"
"But I assure you I do not require rescuing." She was still smiling, but there seemed to be a certain coldness behind her smile.
"But princesses always need rescuing." He fought the urge to stamp his foot; tantrums were most definitely not on his list. Patience probably was, though, as was the ability to carry on in the face of disappointment, nay, even heartbreak.
She raised something vaguely threatening that was attached to her curious and unwomanly bodice, and bent elegantly to pick up a stick. As soon as she touched it, it suddenly seemed far less inconsequential than it had looked on the ground. Just looking at it made his head and shoulders hurt. "I assure you I do not require rescuing." Her tone sounded almost threatening, but his only explanation for that was that his masterful insight was wavering. Princesses were many things: attractive, beauteous, beautiful, comely, cute, fair, good-looking, gorgeous, handsome, lovely, pretty, pulchritudinous, ravishing and stunning. In fact, princesses came with a list of adjectives almost long as did third sons called Jack, but 'threatening' was not one of them.
"Ah," he said, remembering the whole optimism thing, that had not entirely been displaced by the duckweed. "I see. You're… I mean, thou art a princess under a fell enchantment, doomed to reject her own true love three times before I discover how to free thee. It is, of course, quite out of the question for me to meet and marry the princess of my dreams so early in the adventure. We have many trials and hardships ahead of us."
She raised the stick. He took that as a fond farewell from one who was not free to speak. "I will be back, my dear one," Jack vowed, as he set his face towards duty and adventure, and continued on his way.
As he walked, he worked on composing a song in his head. (He had agonised over such things for quite a while, because nowhere did it say that youngest sons called Jack were allowed to be musical, but he had decided that this was one of those things that Destiny didn't care one way or the other about. His song On the Fall of the Footbridge over the Silvery Tay had been quite a triumph at home, if by triumph you meant something that caused people to throw boots at your head and threaten to gag you before you sang it again.)
"Oh lovely princess in the wood," he sang, "you say you won't but I think you would. Your eyes are like the shining stars; your lips like…er… drink they sell in bars."
"Huh," someone said. "Would that be a Scotch or a good cold beer?"
It was a man in black. Jack blushed, then remembered that heroes were never embarrassed or discomforted, but always faced Destiny, princesses and villains with dignity and… and stuff. Not that that mattered, he told himself. It was more important to discover who this man in black was, and what role he filled in Jack's adventure. The black clothes suggested that he was probably the leader of a gang of awful bandits, except that bandit leaders usually had swarthy skin and tangled beards. Jealous chief advisors also wore black, but had pointy little beards. This man was clean-shaven, and had heroic hair. "Are you called Jack?" Jack asked, on sudden impulse.
The man quirked a smile, but shook his head. "John."
John. Jack nodded slowly. John was almost as good as Jack as the name for a hero, but less specialised. While some Johns achieved the same sort of destiny as a Jack, they could equally have a Lord or a Sir in front of their name, and get themselves involved in courtly adventures. A Jack had a somewhat limited career choice, but Jack believed in deciding what to aim for, and putting his all into achieving it. Johns cautiously left their options open, and risked losing out on glory by diluting their efforts.
"You failed," Jack said confidently, knowing that he had this man's measure now. "You failed to slay the dragon and the princess refused to be yours. Now you wander the country in an attempt to recapture the glory days of your youth."
The man raised one eyebrow.
"Yes." Jack snapped his fingers. "There were three Jacks in my class alone. I've often wondered what happens to all the Jacks and youngest sons who fail to achieve fame, fortune, fair princesses and Destiny, because there can only be one King, and happily ever after implies a long, long time before another Jack can come and take my place. You're the failed hero."
"Huh." The man grunted, but he didn't look too annoyed; presumably Johns, like Jacks, were forgiving when confronted with the truth. "Failed hero? Tell that to the next Wraith Queen who wants to eat my brain."
What was life like, he wondered, for someone who had missed their chance at greatness? This John was doubtless blind to the potential of the world around him. The man in grey was just a crazy beggar to him; the troll just a man with wild hair; the princess just a woman with an unusual taste in clothes.
"What did you do wrong?" Jack asked him. "This is my time now. You won't begrudge me a few tips, will you? Generous appears on the list, and so does selfless."
"Huh," the man said again. Then he held up his hand. "One moment." He tapped his ear, and said, "Yes, Rodney, I've found it, so you can stop looking. We can go home now." There was a short pause. "Yes, Rodney, of course I knew you were up to your elbows in something unmentionable, that's why I didn't tell you sooner." Another pause. "Hey, don't blame me! You left yours at home. It shouldn't have mattered that I lost mine, because you should have had a spare. One of you should have had a spare… No, Rodney, that won't work: no doormat." He said nothing for quite a while. "Oh," he said, raising his eyebrows. "I've got one, too. Wonder if it's the same one. Why not come see?"
John tapped his ear again. "Sorry," he said, with a smile, turning back to Jack. "Rodney said he'd found himself an idiot native. I wondered if his was the same as mine."
"John!" It was the attractive voice of the beauteous princess. Jack turned round, feeling his cheeks blush red, despite the presence of certain adjectives on his list. "You must respect the people --"
"Oh, I respect the people." John grimaced, indicating a blood-stain on his arm. "But this one… Called me a failed hero."
The beautiful princess looked at Jack, her comely brows lowering. "It is true that I found his attentions towards me quite distasteful, but he is very young. We have to make allowances."
"He's not right in the head." Jack snapped his head up. It was the troll! The troll, walking on two feet in the open air! The troll! He gaped, and reached for his weapon, then remembered that he had forgotten all about the little detail of needing weapons as well as seed cake when he set off to find fame, fortune, fair princesses, Destiny and monsters with sharp teeth.
John looked at Jack consideringly. "That's a little harsh."
"He called me a… Well, it wasn't kind and it wasn't clever," said the man in grey, coming up from behind.
"The fairy!" Jack gasped.
"Why, thank you," the man in grey said. "Thank you very much. And don't--!" He rounded on John. "If you dare…"
"Wouldn't dream of it, Tinkerbell" John said, his eyes twinkling.
Jack decided that he had had enough. They were clearly in league, the four of them together. The princess (who was still fair, but didn't deserve any of the other synonyms), the troll, the fairy who didn't play by the rules and the failed hero were all in league, trying to confuse innocent boys who were out to seek their fortune etc.
"It really isn't fair," he told them. "I'm off to the city to seek my fortune and --"
"The city?" John interrupted him. "Big place with towers, and severed heads on the gate?"
"I wouldn't go there," said the false fairy. "We… uh… kind of…"
"Broke it," said the troll.
"You can't break cities!" protested the fairy.
"Like normal people can't break solar systems," John said.
Jack looked from face to face. He found himself thinking of his own little room at the top of the mill, and the comforting smell of fresh bread.
"This one was your fault!" the fairy said, jabbing his finger at John.
"Hey! I don't recollect haranguing the King about his primitive customs and telling him that his most sacred shrine was a unholy marriage of engineering ineptitude coupled with shocking taste in colour and ambient music."
"But it was!" The fairy's moving finger moved on. "And Ronon was the one who--"
"Didn't encourage her," the troll said.
"But she's still declared she's going marry no other until the day she dies, so unless you plan to return here and become king, there goes the royal succession. Kirk."
"Teyla said she understood their ways," John said, looking pointedly at the princess who no longer deserved any adjectives. "'Let me take the lead,' she says."
"I was six summers old when I met traders from this world," the false princess said stiffly. "Words can entirely change meaning in a generation."
The fairy snorted. "And this one has sure changed its meaning. Way to get us arrested, Teyla."
"We were not arrested for very long."
"Like that makes everything okay? No, we weren't arrested for very long because Colonel Spartacus here decides to --"
"Didn't hear you complaining when I rescued you from certain death."
"It wasn't certain death. I had it under control."
"You mentioned certain death twenty-three times. Loudly."
"And you were counting? The Neanderthal was counting?"
"Being imprisoned with you is quite stressful, Rodney."
"Well, luckily for everyone, there's no prison any more, because Colonel Spartacus and Ronon Kirk blew holes in --"
"At least we didn't just sit there panicking, Tinkerbell. We were proactive."
"Although I did not mean to start a rebellion when I talked to that laundry maid about standing up to the man who gave her those bruises."
His room at the top of the mill. Seed-cake from a step-mother who was perhaps not that wicked after all. Step-brothers sloppily kissing him and asking him to play with them. Letters from William and Harry. Blue skies and soft days.
If people like these were what hero had to contend with on a daily basis, Jack was going home. No, he thought, as he mentally abandoned his list of virtues. Joquintus Sempronus was going home. He'd set out to find fame and fortune another day, perhaps when he was a hundred and three.
Note: Thanks are due to Diana Wynne Jones for general inspiration, although my more specific inspiration was a set of three short stories I wrote, inspired by Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle, in which three separate cliched fairy tale and fantasy types are cast into disarray by meeting the wizard Howl. I deliberately didn't reread those until after I finished writing this, so was quite perturbed to discover that I've used almost exactly the same final line in this story as I did in the first of those stories, some three years ago. I don't know whether to put this down to distant memory, or to my brain working the same way.
******You can leave a comment on LJ here