Charles in Charge
“By order of his majesty, King Charles Stuart,” the town crier yelled. “To honor the approaching millennium, an extended Yule commenceth today! For one week, all manorial obligations are suspended! Your gracious Earl hath also decreed that peat shall burn in the Town Square every night until the arrival of Anno Domini Two Thousand!”
Elly cheered with the others in the village square, thoughts focused on the coming week. He would not step near his baron, his plow, or even his hovel for a week. Mead and a cheeky lass were all he needed.
“Verily,” the crier continued, rolling up the scroll he was reading, “Feast, frivol, nay… Party like ‘tis Nineteen Hundred Ninety-and-Nine!”
If only he could tinker with his new seed drill while off the manor. Sharpness wasn’t a problem. The iron was too weak. Heat was needed, he was sure, to make iron into steel.
“What burn hotter than peat?” he asked himself.
“Nice shirt,” came a whisper in his ear, barely audible amongst the crowd. “Be that cotton?”
Elly turned toward the voice, saw a short, surly man standing there. The man had black matted hair that drooped almost to his eyes, dark eyes that bore into Elly.
“Aye, ‘tis,” responded Elly.
“Cotton be expensive,” the man responded, scratching at his own woolen clothing to emphasize the point. “And time consuming.”
“I devised a contraption,” started Elly.
“A machine?” the man responded.
“Know not that word, good man. It removes cotton seeds. I can trade excess food or peat for raw cotton, make the clothes me’self.”
“Cotton gin?” The man asked, and received a blank stare back. “Ye are a regular Eli Whitney.”
“It’s pronounced Elly,” he responded, getting the same confused stare back from the man.
“Ha’n’t seen ye ‘round.” The man changed the subject.
“Bartholemew’s my baron. ‘Tisn’t often I can make it all the way to the village.”
“Aye, Bartholomew’s almost to another Earldom. Tell me, who was your baron before Bartholomew?”
“His father, Obediah, naturally,” responded Elly, not sure what this stranger with the intense dark eyes was getting at.
“And do you remember when Jonathan became Earl?”
“’Aye. I was eight years old. ‘Twas the last time we’ve had a week off of the manor.”
“And the king?”
“Charles,” answered Elly. “Has always been Charles. At least as far as I can remember.”
He scratched his head, thinking back.
“I’m only in my twentieth year,” he continued. “My father must have had another king, though I do not remember a name.”
“I be twice yer age,” the odd man continued, eyes and head darting in multiple directions while he spoke. “Charles has always been king. Talk to anyone and-“
“Stop! Cromwellite!” Elly turned to see two knights, wearing chainmail emblazoned with the red Cross of St. George superimposed on a field of yellow below the blue-and-white checkerboard pattern of the House of Stuart, barging through a group of peasants. Pointing in his direction, they began to run. The sound of swords scraping from scabbards scattered the crowd.
“Don’t mention your machine if ye want to avoid the Taser,” the stranger said, turning to run.
“And wood burns hotter than peat. There still be wood in England.”
Before running, he snuck something into Elly’s hand, a clear bag with a piece of paper clearly visible inside. But the bag was not made of any substance he had ever seen, feeling both filmy and slick simultaneously. The clearness was also unquantifiable, neither opaque nor creamy, but unnaturally see-through. The top was fastened together with inter-locking ridges.
“What’s in the plastic?” a knight asked, sword pointing at Elly’s chest. The other knight raced after the man who had disappeared into the crowd.
“Plastic, sir?” Elly was turning the odd new word over in his mouth when the knight ripped the clear bag from his hand.
“A cotton shirt and a plastic bag,” the knight addressed Elly. “What have you to say?”
“I,” Elly began, then remembered the stranger’s admonition. “I traded some extra peat for the cotton, sir.”
“What does this say?” The knight held up the bag, allowing Elly to see the writing on the paper inside.
“I know not, sir. I’ve not learned my letters. King and Charles re the only two words I recognize.”
“Yes,” the knight responded, sounding both suspicious and annoyed, “I know it says ‘Who was King before Charles?’ And then it has a meeting time. I need to know what this is at the bottom.”
Elly looked more closely. Underneath the wording were some shapes and symbols. Two circles, one with lines inside, the other with a jagged edge, separated by two triangles facing opposite directions, bordered on either side by a thick line. The entire design was entwined in two leafy vines.
“Maybe a noble crest, sir?” Elly offered.
“This serf’s illiterate,” the second knight said as he returned. “No comprehension in his eyes.”
The first knight grumbled, sheathing his sword and placing the pamphlet in his large coin purse. He then struck Elly in the gut with a gauntleted fist.
“Watch yourself, peasant,” the knight said after Elly crumpled onto the ground. “We find you anywhere near any Cromwellites again, we might not assume you are such an idiot. You wouldn’t want us investigating where you got this alleged extra peat from.”
“Come,” the second knight said. “Let us find someone who can interpret these symbols.”
As the knights departed, Elly slowly got up on his knees and dusted himself off. The crowd appeared to be returning to normal, yet everyone avoided coming to close or even looking at him.
So much the better, he thought. He had to get out of the village square. His plans for the Millennium Holiday had just changed.
His tinker’s mind already knew the significance of the symbols.
They made a map.