The Fool’s War
Excerpt from The Fools’ War
[From Chapter 13: Shiefelbine. My novel for young adult readers was published in 1992, by Harper-Collins. I got numerous letters from young readers after publication. I always thought the book would make a good movie, so I waited right beside the phone for about ten years. Ah well.]
“I saw you coming, boy,” he said quietly.
“But how?” Clemmy asked in astonishment.
“There are many kinds of seeing,” Shiefelbine said.
“Did you live in a cave, really?”
“I did. I was unworthy of the light. I ate moss and toads and drank sour water and waited a lifetime for another chance. And then I woke up one morning on the stone floor of my dwelling with a clear and certain command to come to this sunny place and save a foolish king. One hears and one must obey. God has spoken!”
Clemmy wondered if it was madness or holiness that brought the man. And he could see for miles but was blind! Toads? Could a man live a lifetime eating toads?
“You ate toads?”
“I ate toads, yes. I ate ten thousand toads and”—he paused and appeared to be counting on his fingers—“and seventeen snakes!” Clemmy made a horrible face.
“And I said a prayer before each one. And then my prayer was answered and here I am. Maybe it was the toads’ prayers that were answered, I don’t know! I am old and stupid and about to die, but before I die I will save your King.”
“From the Turk?” Clemmy asked.
“From whatever,” Shiefelbine answered. “From whatever it is that he needs saving from I will save him. So. There it is.”
In the parlance of modern times, Shiefelbine’s promise could be compared to a blank check. Or a coupon: good for one king saving (from whatever), by a blind old man who eats toads. So. There it is.
“I might die any day, lad, so we’ve got to get on with it. Are you ready?” Shiefelbine made odd faces with his lips. He puckered into kiss position, then sucked his lips inside and made a sort of low humming noise that usually ended with a whistled bird call.
“I might die tomorrow or I might die next week. I might die lying down or maybe even standing up! I might die right here on this bench. Who knows? Look at this!” he demanded, loosening the string on an old furry bag.
The bag appeared to have mange. The fur was falling off under Shiefelbine’s bony fingers. He pulled it open and began withdrawing bits of bone, small pouches of powder, dried roots and moss. Clemmy was half afraid he would pull out a snake. The old man piled these treasures on the bench, making whistling noises all the while. Finally, he pulled from the bag a book with a black cover, set it gently aside and swept all the other odd items back into the bag. The air hung heavy with cave dust until a light breeze swirled it away.
Watching the old man, Clemmy wondered again about madness and holiness. He wondered if being saved by Shiefelbine might actually be worse than being killed by someone else. He was curious about the tattered old book, however.
Shiefelbine blew the dust from the book and wiped the front cover with the sleeve of his robe, revealing a title in gold letters:
EN SUPPLICO MIRABILIS
“Do you know what it means?” Shiefelbine asked, holding up the book.
“I think it means Marvelous Prayers,” Clemmy answered.
“That’s right!” Shiefelbine cackled loudly and stamped one bare foot. “But before you look at the book, you have to know about prayers, Master Clemmy. And I will teach you! But we must hurry, because I might die any second. I might die before lunch!”