It was All Hallows Eve as Thorkell pulled out a hunk of bread and some mouldy cheese from his three-pronged hat. Eyeing it with great delight. He hadn’t eaten for 300 years and it wasn’t often that visitors to the spring forgot to pick up their food stash, as they rode off on their horse. The horse rider would be most annoyed when he realised later on, too late to turn back and search for his food.
Thorkell picked up the pig’s bladder flask and gave it a sniff. It was full to the brim with honey mead, and a very fine batch at that. The rider had indeed looked like a noble man, and the quality of the honey mead, and craftwork on the flask confirmed it. Thorkell had a little sip.
‘Ahhhhh. Jobs a good ‘un’.
Thorkell smacked his lips together, savouring the taste for as long as his dead body would allow. Being dead was definitely a hindrance when you loved food and drink as much as Thorkell did. Still, it was the closest he’d been to sustenance in a long while and at least he had his memories of banquets and feasts and Christmas with the King. His memories would fill in the gaps where his taste buds now failed.
Of course, he hadn’t REALLY got to enjoy the big royal banquets. Not PROPERLY. He was normally too busy entertaining the palace guests with jokes, music, and stand-up-comedy. But he did get to finish off the scraps in the kitchens afterwards, ONCE his comedic work was done.
He loved being a court jester, but it wasn’t all showbiz and glamour. It was a hazardous and important vocation, particularly when the king was your best friend.
Once, Thorkell had been in battle alongside the king. Aethelstan was his name and a fine king he was too. Firm but fair. Everyone said it.
The jester and the king had been stood shoulder to shoulder, preparing to fight off the Vikings, but the English soldiers were dropping like flies, afraid of what was to come in the fight.
Those Vikings were fierce, especially the berserker ones in their bearskins and being all…well, the only word for it was ‘berserk!’ Crazy men they were. Pure evil. And they spoke in such a strange language. The English soldiers were afraid of them with good reason for it.
With the bread and cheese in his hands, and honey mead and flask by his side, Thorkell’s mind was flowing with a torrent of memories. (Mainly connected with food!).
‘Ahhh those were the days. Great days’.
Thorkell nibbled on the bread as he recalled his most important day of all.
One by one, the soldiers started to step back from the front line, trying hard to stand behind other soldiers. No one wanted to be the first to die on the battlefield.
Thorkell the jester and King Aethelstan could sense the fear creeping up from behind them. Things were not looking good. King Aethelstan’s army was larger and stronger than their Viking enemy, but the Vikings had the upper hand, what with being more brave and all. There was only one thing for it.
Thorkell sprang into action. Riding his fine horse (a gift from the king), up and down the ranks of soldiers. He sat proudly, one hand on his sharp sword, the other on the reigns of his mighty horse.
It was up to Thorkell to jolly the troops. To get their fighting spirit back. Without Thorkell, they would all die on the battlefield today. He HAD to do SOMETHING to raise their spirits.
Thorkell mustered up the biggest, deepest, most powerful, and confident voice he could summon, as the King nodded his head at him - awarding him the royal seal of approval for his plan.
Thorkell cleared his throat. ‘Men.’ He boomed. Commanding the attention of EVERY SINGLE soldier for hundreds of miles around. ‘Where does the king keep his armies?’
The soldiers looked at each other for a moment. Trying to work out the answer.
‘Oooh. That’s a tuff ‘un. I dunno? Where does the king keep his armies?’ A tall soldier tried hard to see the man on horse back through a chink in his oversized metal helmet. Looking around him to see if the others had worked out the answer yet.
Thorkell smiled at the men. ‘Up his ‘sleevies’ of course’.
There was a roar of laughter from the soldiers. Some of them got the joke faster than others.
‘I don’t get it?’ One soldier said, looking at the soldier next to him with a very serious face. He was clearly puzzled.
The soldier next to him did his best to try and explain the joke but it was all in vain.
‘Look, it’s like this, Thorkell asked the question “where does the king keep his armies” right, so obviously, the answer is “up his sleevies”. It’s a play on words’.
The soldier waved his arms at the confused soldier as he said ‘armies’ before grabbing the sleeves of his uniform and repeating the word ‘sleevies’ several times.
The soldier didn’t get the joke at all. He simply shook his head. He had a blank, lost, expression on his face.
‘Oh never mind’ said the soldier. He knew which battles were worth investing energy in, and this was not one of them.
Only later on the battle field, as the soldier died from a spear through his chest, did he finally get his light bulb moment. As he breathed his final breath, his last words were ‘oooh I GET it. Up his sleevies. Ha-ha that’s brilliant’.
Thorkell rode his horse along another line of soldiers. They were looking braver already. A couple more jokes should do it. Take their mind off things.
Thorkell was careful to project his voice in all directions so as many soldiers as possible could partake in the battle field entertainment. Those soldiers at the back might end up with a bit of a ‘Chinese whispers’ version of the joke, BUT the laughter of the rest of the troop would lift their spirits regardless, AND get them ready for war.
Thorkell waited until he had all eyes upon him, and the soldiers hanging on his every word.
‘Why didn’t anyone react when the king farted?’
The soldiers looked briefly at King Aethelstan, not sure whether Thorkell might have gone a bit too far with his king jokes. But the king simply beamed with joy as he sat on his horse in his fine armour, his crown perched up on his head at a jaunty angle.
It was one of the king’s favourite jokes. But he wasn’t sure that ALL of the soldiers would understand the answer to the question. Chemistry wasn’t a popular subject amongst the soldiers. It wasn’t even popular with the knights at knight school. But if it got the troops ready to beat the Viking invaders trying to take over the kingdom, then it was worth a shot.
With the joke given the royal seal of approval, the soldiers thought long and hard for the answer. Thorkell suddenly concerned that this joke might be over the heads of the majority of the soldiers.
Thorkell’s favourite topic of conversation was chemistry and this joke was one of his best science jokes of all time, even if people did think him a geek for it.
The soldiers looked up, still not guessing the answer. It would be a huge tragedy if a jester could not make people laugh at times as serious as this.
Thorkell put them out of their misery. ‘Because it was a noble gas’. He spoke slowly; to give the soldiers chance to process the answer. A few of them got it, much to Thorkell’s relief, and those who didn’t, couldn’t help but laugh anyway for deep belly laughter was completely contagious.
‘OK, OK’ boomed Thorkell. ‘I’ve got one more for you. WHEN is a piece of wood like a king?’
‘Oooh, I KNOW this one, I know this one’. An overly enthusiastic young soldier was jumping up and down on the spot, raising his arm as high in the air as he could. He was desperate to attract Thorkell’s attention. It was his first battle, and he’d been so excited about it that he had barely slept a wink. He had high hopes for promotion and had studied EVERY SINGLE aspect of soldiering he could, much to the annoyance of his classmates at soldier school. He’d even read up on Thorkell what with Thorkell being one of the most famous jesters in England. The young soldier couldn’t believe that he was REALLY here on the same field as his hero Thorkell. He hoped that one day he could be a jester on the battlefield just like Thorkell and he didn’t mind how hard he had to work or study to get there.
Thorkell spotted him in the crowd, keen to give him a boost. ‘Go on’.
The young soldier looked like a cat that had got a bucket load of cream for Christmas. Now was his time to shine and the king was watching him too. It was the BEST moment of his life.
‘When it is a ruler’ the young soldier answered.
He was a bit star struck at getting to ACTUALLY speak to his hero Thorkell. His parents would NEVER believe it when he told them about today, - that was of course, IF he LIVED to tell the tale.
War was an unpredictable beast; all you could do was hope for the best. The young soldier had waited his whole life to be in the king’s army and he rather hoped that the king might one day take him on as Thorkell’s young apprentice.
Thorkell praised him. ‘Exactly. When it is a ruler’.
There was a huge roar of laughter spreading like a tsunami across the sea of soldiers