Rose and Coal

Rose and Coal

A Kingdom Come Short Story

By Jim Doran

Coal Whisper entered Rose’s house without her shoes, and Rose, her best friend, knew it had happened again. Coal had been in a hurry and had left her slippers behind. Rose looked down and gasped. Kingdom’s uneven paths and root-entangled trails had turned Coal’s feet black and blue. She threw her arms around her best friend. “Again?”

Coal nodded and started crying.  Rose surmised the pain of running three miles in bare feet was nothing compared to the hurt inside.  She escorted her friend to a worn-out divan with goose feather cushions, helped her sit, and crouched down before her. “Why this time?”

“There was no reason.”

Rose shook her black curls at the answer. At fourteen years old, she believed everything happened for a reason. “There must be something, Coal.”

“Honestly,” she said. “I was washing the floor when she stormed in. She was angry about something. You have seen her moods.”

Rose nodded.

“I did not say anything after she hit me. At first, I thought I had missed a spot, but she focused on me, not the chore. She hit the back of my head and I lay there, not daring to move.”

Rose frowned. “’Tis like you Coal to take punishment without responding.”

Coal wiped her face. “No one crosses you, Rose.” She hitched her breath. “She struck me and then lifted me by my face. Her eyes terrified me.”

Rose put her hand tenderly on Coal’s pale arm.

Coal said, “She had murder in her eyes, but she released me. I turned and ran.”

“You came here?”

“Where else?”

“You will stay here. My parents will be glad to have you again. Do you want my father to talk to her?”

Coal trembled. “No! Remember the last time they spoke?”

Rose hadn’t seen her friend for days. Coal’s mother had locked her away for over a month, starving her. The incident had taught them that Rose’s parents could shelter Coal for a short time but not protect her indefinitely.

Rose furrowed her brow. “Rest. I am making supper. We shall eat and talk. There must be a way to restore sense to your mother.”

Coal’s eyes became dreamy. “Oh, she was a noble woman. I admired her when I was a small child.”

Rose attended to her supper as Coal leaned back on the divan. The curly haired girl cut carrots with her dull knife and threw them into the pot. She needed water from their well but didn’t want to leave Coal.  She noticed her dark-haired friend had her eyes closed, praying, and she picked up her pail.

Rose left her cottage into the pastoral world she knew and loved. She was a farmer’s daughter, a loyal subject of the world of Kingdom—a world of fairies and monsters, of kings and queens.

On the way to the well, Rose reflected on how her friend’s mother’s comportment toward her daughter continued to deteriorate. When she and Coal had met as children, Madame Whisper, while never a warm woman, took care of her daughter. A rich woman with sharp features, Coal’s mother had changed the past two years.  Her smile, no longer patient and gentle, appeared conniving.

Rose drew water from the well, reflecting on Coal’s plight when a thought struck her. Perhaps there was no way to change Madame Whisper’s mind. Coal’s only way out of her situation was to run away. She thought for a moment of sheltering her friend but knew that Coal couldn’t live with her. Madame Whisper, even if she was cruel to her daughter, did not want her to leave. It didn’t make sense. Rose knew her mother wanted to keep Coal near though she didn’t love her any longer.

Coal would have to leave another way.

If Lol were here, he would know what to do. He was the third point of their triangle of friends. Perhaps they could leverage Lol’s ability in some way. Rose reflected on this and snorted, picturing little, gentle Coal and square-framed, hairy Lol. However, sometimes odd thoughts lead to useful ones, and an idea flitted across Rose’s mind. There was an answer to Coal’s problems.

Lol must marry Coal.

 

Rose distracted Coal by asking her to help with dinner and the young maiden with the dark tresses busied herself cutting up vegetables. She wiped her eyes as she worked, but Coal was nothing if not a hard worker. She cut the eyes off of a potato carefully so as to take as little skin off. As everyone knew in Kingdom, potato eyes in stew brought the worse sort of luck.

When Rose’s parents came home, they greeted Coal fondly. Coal told her story and her parents sympathized but only offered their home temporarily. They sat down as a family and shared their meal. Afterward, Rose asked Coal to join her in a walk around the farm to ward off Tardalongs, hairy beasts of the forest. She gathered her bow and held out her hand.

Coal and Rose walked in the gathering darkness hand in hand, looking for any sort of vermin daring to cross the farm’s boundaries. Rose hummed a tune while Coal peered into the distance.

“Lol said he would drop by tomorrow morning,” Rose remarked.

Coal released Rose’s hand for a moment and clapped them. “I cannot wait to see him. It has been too long a time.”

“I am sure he feels the same way,” she said. “This will spare him the trip to your house.”

“My house? He never comes to my house.”

“Yes, he was adamant about seeing you. It is, of course, natural.”

“What is natural?”

Rose snorted. “Dear Coal. You must have noticed.”

“Noticed?”

“The way he looks at you. ’Tis as if he is looking toward heaven’s gates.”

Coal halted while Rose continued on without looking back. Her friend gasped. “You jest.”

“And why would I do that?”

Coal caught up. “Because he favors you. I have seen his look of longing.”

“You are mistaken,” said Rose. “You know as well as I that it is you who have won his heart.”

“Not me!”

Rose tossed her hair backward. “Perhaps not. Why would he be attracted to the most beautiful maiden in the land?”

“You are beautiful too, Rose.”

“A far cry from you, my dear. Do not deny it! The devil takes your tongue if you suggest you are not one of the most beautiful girls around.”

Color rose in Coal’s cheeks. She did not reply but looked down as they began to walk again.

“Beautiful, rich, eligible. Lol would be a fool not to notice you.”

“I was so sure…” said Coal, mostly to herself. “But perhaps…?”

“He will be here tomorrow. I think the two of you should take a walk without me, and you will see what I see.”

Coal smiled and blushed all at once.

“There’s a fox a few yards off. Let us be quick and scare him.”

Rose let go of her friend’s hand and unstrapped her bow.

 

Rose lay in bed thinking about her fib to Coal. It was done for her benefit so was it really a lie? No, Lol would be a fool to ignore Coal. He would receive a dowry from Coal’s mother and betroth the prettiest girl for miles. Rose, in comparison, was barely noticeable, even if she was the second-most eligible bachelorette. Furthermore, Lol needed to rescue Coal from her mother. Rose was not in peril.

True, Coal mentioned Lol was attracted to her, but it was a silly idea. Lol was no more interested in her than the stars were larger than the sun.  She was poor, she was plain, she was headstrong. Lol would want a compliant sweet-mate, not a hard egg like her.

Yet, she had to show him. Men were so ignorant about the ways of the heart. If left to themselves, they choose the wrong girl nine times out of ten. Lol would end up married to a female sprite without her intervention. She needed to talk to him before Coal woke up the next morning. A few moments alone and Lol would request to court Coal before midday tomorrow.

 

Rose spotted the broad-shouldered form of Lol through the kitchen window while her friend Coal was busy sewing. Rose excused herself, ran across the muddy farmyard, and intercepted Lol. Greeting him, she took his arm and directed him away from her house.

“Where are we going?” asked Lol.

“To the orchard. I want to tell you a secret.”

Lol smiled. “Am I worthy of a secret?”

“We have been friends for four years. Ever since Coal and I saved you from the dwarf.”

“You did not save me. I was at a disadvantage and needed time.”

Rose wrinkled her brow. “Anyway, I wanted to let you know Coal spent the night last night.” She turned to him and stopped. “Is that not wonderful news?”

Lol seemed puzzled. “I enjoy Coal’s company.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Lolander Fyrekilm. Are you telling me this is ordinary news?”

“Begging your pardon, but Coal seems to be at your house more than she is at her own.”

Rose took his arm again, and Lol looked down. She led him through the orchard, bursting with ripe apples, plums, pears, and olives. The fragrance of each tree mixed with each other pungently. Rose stroked a branch as she entered.  “Her mother treats her horribly. It is awful. Perhaps one day a knight will come and woo her away.”

Lol nodded. “’Tis a sweet ending for a worthy maiden.”

“She is beautiful. I think she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

“Agreed.”

“And she is the daughter of a rich farmer.”

“She is fortunate.”

“The man who wins her heart shall be fortunate, not Coal. She has enough grace to be nobility. Who knows? If her farm has a few good seasons, she may enter the upper caste.”

Lol laughed. “The next thing you will say is she will be queen.”

Rose sucked in her breath. “Lol, you muttonhead. Have you not been listening to anything I have said?”

“I have absorbed every word.”

“Then why have you not figured out you could be her knight? You could be the one for Coal.”

Lol rubbed his beard. “I am no knight. You know this better than anyone.”

Rose waved her hand. “You focus too much on the wrong things. What is a knight anyway? Chivalrous, kind, respectful. Are these not your qualities, Lol?”

Lol ducked under a branch of a pear tree. “I thank you for thinking so highly of me. It is undeserved, I assure you. And there is another obstacle with your fantasy.”

“And what is that?”

Lol said, “The maiden does not favor me—an insurmountable problem.”

Rose stopped and swung Lol to face her. The six foot, muscle-bound man with the tawny beard towered over the slight girl, yet she was the one in control. “How men do not pay attention. Her face lights up when she sees you. She becomes awkward and quiet, shy.”

“This is Coal’s nature.”

“Not in this way. I am her best friend and wished I was her sister. I tell you that she favors you. How could she not? You are someone who would lay his life down for her, would you not?”

“Of course, but—”

“No, listen to me. Whatever you may think, you are as smitten as she. You are never completely yourself in front of her.”

“I am not?”

“Of course not. You are completely taken with her. I see it in your eyes. They reveal the truth.”

Lol peered at the tip of his boots. “She is beautiful.”

Rose took his arm again and led him out of the orchard. “You are a lucky man. The two of you favor each other. It is your destiny to be with her.”

“But, what would I say?”

“Ask her name.”

“Her name? I know her name. ’Tis Coal Whisper.”

Rose stared at him through her curls. “Coal is the name her mother gave her. She says she named her because her hair is coal black, but I have my doubts. Coal has another name, her real name. Ask her. She will only tell you if she is attracted to you.”

Rose knew Coal would tell her real name to anyone who asked, but this duffer needed a little encouragement. It would be a good way to start the conversation. Once they started talking, Rose knew that the two would fall in love. They didn’t know it yet, but they were perfect for each other.

They emerged from the pear trees, and Rose brushed back her curls. “I will return home. Wait here for a moment and make it look like it was your idea to come for a visit.”

Lol pouted. “It was my idea to come for a visit.”

“It was not. I will return first and then you arrive in five minutes time. I will make an excuse for you to talk to Coal alone.”

 

When Lol arrived, Rose asked both what they thought of the king’s current mistress, a universally despised woman.  It was painful to hear the shaggy man try to talk to Coal. He was all stutters and unfinished sentences. Coal wasn’t much better. She spoke in a voice an octave higher than her regular voice. She giggled at everything Lol said. When he mentioned his dwarf friend had broken his leg, Coal erupted in a snicker ending in a snort. Rose wanted to put her cooking kettle over her head.

She looked out of the window. “Would the two of you travel through the orchard to collect water from the stream for dinner? Take the kettle. Lol can carry it back.”

Coal looked puzzled. “What should I do?”

Rose wanted to slap her head. She didn’t know what to say so she said the first thing that came to her mind. “You always collect the sweetest water, dear Coal.”

“Oh,” chirped Coal. And then it dawned on her what Rose was trying to do. “Oh,” she said again, this time understanding. When Lol offered his arm, Coal looked at it in surprise, and then she said “Oh” a third time, this time with more sentiment.

They left, and Rose watched them go, a grin plastered on her face. This was the beginning of a love story bards would sing about for years in Kingdom, and she would be able to say she was there at the start of it. Even better, she was the one that brought them together. She was the reason for their love story.

Rose’s reverie faded when she had a horrible premonition. She pictured Lol leaning down too fast to kiss Coal and smacking his head against hers. No, Lol would be gentle, would he not? Was he the one she should worry about? She pictured her friend standing with her back to the stream, lips pouted, shaking in anticipation. While waiting, her foot slips and there she goes, down into the water.

Rose shook her head. “I have to do everything.”

They had disappeared into the orchard, and Rose left the cottage and ran after them. She didn’t want to be seen but wanted to be near enough to observe them. If Lol was clumsy or Coal acted like a ninny, she would have to interrupt them and set them right. First impressions were too important.

She ran through the grove while dodging tree branches. As she came to the boundary of a line of pear trees, she spotted the two of them at the edge of a stream. She slipped behind a tree after she saw them standing before each other, Lol’s hands on her arms.

Rose smiled to herself with her back to the tree and then peeked around the trunk. As Coal spoke, Lol seemed focused on her, taking in every word. He smiled and nodded in agreement with the winsome maiden. Rose was sure her friend had told him her name and he approved. The awkwardness had passed and the courting had begun.

Her plan was working! The two of them knew they were right for each other, but she couldn’t help but feel something wasn’t right. They were in each other arms, good. They were staring at each other with love in their eyes. Check. So what was missing?

Lol leaned toward Coal and Rose sucked in her breath. What was he doing? He was going to kiss her, but it was too soon. Surely Coal, being a lady, would pull away. She would never let him kiss her.

But she surprised Rose. Coal tipped her head back and closed her eyes. Rose reached up without realizing what she was doing. How could Coal allow him to kiss her? They hardly knew each other. Untrue, but he was too forward and she was too agreeable. It was going too fast! Right?

She plucked a pear and watched as Lol moved as slow as an indecisive caterpillar toward her. Rose couldn’t help it—this was wrong. Everything she had told Coal and Lol escaped her head. She realized this was a terrible mistake and had to stop it.

Rose was an excellent archer and her aim was true with more than arrows. She hurled the pear with as much force as she could muster. When the fruit escaped her hand, Rose immediately regretted it. When the pear struck Coal on the shoulder, it caused her to lose her footing, and she screamed and fell into the stream.

Rose ran to them as Lol entered the stream and helped Coal out. When Rose arrived, a dripping wet Coal stared at Rose in surprise. “Did you throw it?”

Rose stopped before the two and looked back and forth. She pressed her lips together and nodded. “I do not know what I was doing, dear Coal.”

Coal frowned and looked at her shoulder that was covered in pear pulp and water. She crossed her arms over her body. “I need to change my clothes. The stream did not wash out all of the pulp. And to think, pear used to be my favorite fruit.”

“I will help you,” offered Rose.

“I would rather you remain here and apologize to Lol.”

Rose looked puzzled. “But I did not do anything to Lol?”

Coal’s eyes flashed. “Are you sure?”

She walked away and the two watched her leave. Rose turned to Lol. “What does she mean?”

Lol shook his thrummy hair. “Why did you throw the pear, Rose?”

“I thought…I thought you and Coal were going too fast. Imagine the two of you, kissing so quickly.”

“I thought I was her knight?”

Rose shuffled awkwardly. “Not very knightly.”

“A knight should kiss his true love, should he not?”

Rose’s brows creased. “Of course, but…”

“But?”

“But…”

“But she is not my true love, is she not?”

Rose frowned. “Of course she is. She’s beautiful, charming, lovely. How could you not like her?”

“Coal is all of those things, true. But perhaps my maiden should be stubborn and headstrong. Perhaps should she be less a rich farmer’s daughter and more of a matchmaker?”

Rose looked sharply at him. She went to say something but couldn’t find the words.

“Do you feel the same way, Red?”

“Only my best friends may call me Red.”

“Am I not a best friend?”

“A friend? Yes.”

“You are more to me than a friend. I made up my mind to tell you when I came to visit until you led me astray. I…You…I…”

Rose’s pear-launching arm was suddenly around his waist. The other arm, envying the first, followed suit, and Rose found herself hugging the hirsute man. She was looking up at him. No, it wasn’t that he was moving too fast. It wasn’t that there shouldn’t be a kiss when true love appears. The problem was the people kissing were not the right ones. She had always felt for Lol but wasn’t paying attention. Now she understood and she wanted it to happen.

Lol leaned down and pressed his lips to hers and Rose floated heavenward like a dove. Tingles raced up and down her body. She breathed in deeply, shut her eyes, and lingered in the moment.

When they parted, Rose’s smile faltered. “But poor Coal. You need to save her from her mother.”

A voice came from the orchard. Coal was standing against a tree in the shadows. “I am not the one who needs saving, Red.”

“Coal, how long have you been standing there?”

“Too long. Next time, fall in love a bit quicker.”

Coal winked and bit into an apple.