Jack left for his tree as soon as they reached the ground level, and Valanice retired to the library, rereading the spell in “Trans-Time Management and Precautions.” Yes, the spell seemed simple enough, but Jack had lost the skull that was definitely from a creature of the future, and how could they find another with those rats down in the dungeons?
Valanice sighed and looked more closely at the spell. She noticed that although the ingredients were listed as clear as day, but there was no procedure on how to make the spell work. Had it been left out by accident? Did the author presume the reader was fluent enough in magic to know what to do? She couldn’t say which answer was correct, or even close to correct, and finally she left the library, frustrated and unfulfilled.
As soon as she stepped into the throne room, Roland came running up to her, his brown eyes filled with terror.
“What is it, Roland?” she asked.
“That…that cat creature that arrived in the kingdom about a week ago,” panted Roland. “Something’s gone wrong with him!”
“What? What has gone wrong with Jack?”
“Well, from what I could figure, he wasn’t doing well to begin with, and had tried eating some grass, you know how cats do that when they feel ill…”
“Spare me the details, what happened?”
“He must’ve not been seeing very well, your highness, he…he’d eaten about two of your lilies by the time I found him sprawled out in the garden.”
“What?” cried Valanice, her eyes widening.
“I know you love those flowers, my queen, I’m sorry I didn’t arrive sooner, I would’ve…”
“Forget the flowers, Roland! Lilies are poisonous! I’ve seen cats eat them and die a few hours afterward!”
“Do you want me to get that animal inside, Valanice?”
“Yes, and find the doctor at once! Jack might die if we don’t act quickly!”
Roland and another servant carried Jack into the throne room, where Graham and Valanice were waiting, Graham concerned, Valanice almost hysterical. Fredrick, the castle’s doctor, came running into the room just as Jack was being laid down on the red carpet. The room was quiet as Fredrick examined the cat’s body, and then forced a small bottle of potion down his throat. Turning around, the doctor said:
“The toxins have begun to work their powers on this creature. There’s not much I can do at this moment, highnesses.”
Valanice looked ready to cry as she rose from her throne and walked over to Jack, kneeling down beside him.
“Jack…” she whispered. “Can you hear me?”
Jack squinted his closed eyes and strained to nod in response.
“Don’t worry, Jack. We’ll take care of you until you get better. I promise.”
Jack opened one brown eye and looked up at Valanice.
“When did you start caring for a rapscallion like me?” he gurgled hoarsely.
“I’m not a woman that allows beautiful individuals like you to suffer and die,” Valanice sobbed. “Why did you eat those lilies anyway? Don’t you know they are poisonous?”
“I was feeling sick after our run with the rats. I didn’t know those things were lilies.”
“Well, they were, and look what they’re doing to you now!”
Jack opened his other eye and sighed, a slow, rattling exhalation. “I just need to rest, Valanice. Then we can get to work on that spell.”
“How? You lost that rat’s skull, didn’t you?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“No? What do you mean? You reached into your pocket and said all you felt was a hole!”
“I reached into the wrong pocket,” said Jack, putting his hand into his right pocket and pulling out the now familiar skull. “I must have lost my head to forget something this large.”
He put the skull back into his pocket and coughed heavily. “But now is not the time to talk about things like that. Could you…” his voice dropped in volume. Valanice moved her head closer to his mouth. “Could you have those servants take me back to my…”
“To your tree, Jack?”
“Yeah. Just lay me at the base of it. I’ll see if I’m any better tomorrow. Good night, your highness.”
“Good night, Jack,” Valanice sniffed. She rose to her feet and told the guards to take the sickly cat out to the large oak tree that had a scrap of paper resting by its base. After they had left the room, Valanice looked at Graham and hung her head in misery.
“It was nothing you could’ve prevented, Valanice,” said Graham.
“I know…but I feel so responsible. I don’t want to see Jack die.”
Graham put his arms around her and stroked her reddish brown hair. “Don’t speak of death and it won’t come, love. It’s starting to get dark. Let’s go to bed and pray for Jack’s condition to get better.”
Valanice nodded and allowed Graham to lead her out of the throne room and up the stairs to their room. She managed to sleep for a few hours, but she repeatedly awakened in tears and it was a long time before she could finally rest in peace.
The air was even worse the following day as Valanice awakened from a terrible nightmare about watching Jack’s corpse being eaten away by worms. She woke up sweating and, for a brief moment, unable to remember what had happened the previous night. Then she remembered how ill Jack had been, and how upset she had grown. In the months that followed, she would wonder why she was so grief-stricken over a near stranger such as Jack, but at the moment, she could only think of seeing him again and praying that he hadn’t died.
She jumped out of her bed, waking Graham as she did so.
“What are you doing?” he asked as Valanice was stepping into her slippers.
“Jack,” she said, and before her husband could ask her anything more, she had darted out of the room, down the stairs, through the long hallway of the main hall, and, flinging open the heavy double doors, ran out into the sunwashed gardens of Daventry.
It was much earlier than she had expected, the sun had barely risen, but was still lighting the landscape as brightly as if it were midday. She calculated the direction of Jack’s tree by the position of the sun over the hills, then took off again, running down the sandy paths, almost crashing into the garden gate before flinging it open and running through, not even bothering to close it behind her.
The wet grass had soaked her slippers through to her skin by the time she reached Jack’s tree. The scrap of paper that had been there two nights before was gone – and so was Jack. Had he died? Had a wolf or some other beast dragged his body away? Valanice could not force herself to think such an awful thing. She glanced up into the vast branches above her.
“Jack? Jack? Are you up there? Please say yes…”
Before she had even finished her sentence, a light, furry body had leapt to the ground just five inches from the tip of her nose. It rose to its feet and smiled as if nothing had ever happened.
“Jack!” she cried, throwing her arms around his neck. “You’re alive! You’re well! You’re…”
“Don’t get yourself all worked up this early in the day, Valanice,” Jack said. “But I’m grateful for your sympathies, nevertheless.”
“How did you…how did you get well so quickly, Jack?”
“That’s just another of the Great Unanswered Questions of Jack’s Voyage to Daventry,” Jack said. “But if you really want to hear what I think…”
“I would have probably died last night if I was born and raised in Daventry. But I wasn’t. In fact, in actuality, I won’t be born for several centuries. I didn’t die because I haven’t lived yet. So as long as I stay in my past and your present…I can’t die?”
“Even if someone cuts into you with a sword?” asked Valanice.
“What if someone cuts you into small pieces with it?”
“Valanice!” Jack said, blinking in surprise. “I didn’t expect something like that to come from you.”
“I was just wondering. So you can’t be killed…”
“Unless I’m dismembered in the manner you mentioned or otherwise,” Jack said. “I think.”
“Jack, you never cease to amaze me,” sighed Valanice. “I’m so glad you’re alive.”
“So…do you still have the skull, Jack?”
Jack reached into his right pocket and displayed it proudly. “That I do, my queen. We’d better pore over that book again though, and start putting things together.”
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