They called him Jack Simple, because everyone thought that he was a simpleton who had never learned how to talk.
Jack, a woodcutter by trade, had three problems with this. Firstly, Jack did not talk because he chose not to talk. The things that interested the folk in the village of Brecht held little interest for him. Secondly, Jack was actually quite intelligent. He owned four bound volumes of Macione's Compendium, an encyclopedic collection of History, Grammar, Mathematica, and Alchemy, which he studied daily. Lastly, the villagers wrongly equated stupidity with simplicity, and Jack knew that the happiest people were those who derived pleasure from the simple things in life. The last reason was the ultimate reason that Jack had allowed the nickname to take root. It was not so bad to be considered Simple.
Although he never exchanged more than a few words with the people of Brecht he did talk to his dog, a black and white Kentish Shepherd. Lightfoot was his name, because he loped and padded through ferns and over pine needles with all the gracefulness of a golden fox. He had the special skill of being able to sniff out the most valuable herbs and mushrooms, items that Jack could sell for a substantial profit when he traveled to town every other Fralefday with his handcart full of new-cut wood. And they called him stupid. Stupid, as far as Jack was concerned, was paying for something that Mother Earth gave away for free.
Jack had lived in the woods ever since he he'd run away from the church house where he was left as an infant. The old woodcutter, a man named Jassin, took him in and taught him his trade in exchange for a strong young back to assist in the loading and lifting that the man was becoming too old for. Jassin hit him a few times when he was drunk but all in all he was a decent man. He'd kept Jack fed and given him a warm place to sleep in the dark of winter.
After Jassin died Jack was left with both his cottage and his trade. All of the villagers suspected him of somehow cheating the true inheritor out of the land but when the Constable came along with his clinking chains Jack had all of the proper papers to show him. No one had bothered him much since then.
Although Jack lived a solitary existence he loved his life. The seasons became his companions; young lady Spring with her crocuses and new leaves, Summer with her long days and bright starlit nights, Autumn with her falling leaves and bounty of vegetables, old man Winter with his snowy cold and hoarfrost. He loved the rough-hewn wood of his home, the brook that babbled on peaceably beside it and the water wheel that he kept for grinding grain under the shadow of the ivy that grew heavy on the northern wall. He would perhaps have been happy to live in such a way for all the rest of his days, and it might have been so had he not met her.
She approached his wagon in the village square on a particularly pleasant Fralefday. The wind was cool and the sun was hot. It was a beautiful spring day, and Jack did not mind that there was little custom to be had. He was reclining on top of his woodpile, basking in the sun and enjoying the feel of the breeze in his clothes and hair, when he heard someone approaching with a tip tap of cobblestones.
"Excuse me," a woman's voice said. "Are you doing business today?"
Jack sighed. He sat up and looked at who had come to nuisance him. She was a young woman, perhaps three or four years his junior. Nineteen he would have ventured if were asked to guess. She was not particularly beautiful, but was striking nonetheless. Her hair was blonde and long under her white gather cap, a golden braid laid over the shoulder of her periwinkle-colored shortgown. Her body had an alluring softness to it, her curves accentuated by her flowing grey petticoat.
"What do you require, miss?"
"Pardon?" she replied. Jack was so unused to speaking to people that when he did speak it was often quite low and very much as if he hadn't said anything at all.
"What do you require," he repeated, a bit louder this time. "Miss?"
"Do you have any Sweet Woodruff?" she said, looking down shyly as he met her gaze. Jack was used to people, especially women, being frightened of him. There were many stories about him circulating in Brecht. Some even thought that he was a werewolf or some other creature of Fay.
"Nay," Jack replied, reclining once more among his wood. "You'd have better luck inquiring at the Apothecary or Perfumery."
Jack decided that he would ignore her until she left. He closed his eyes.
"But I have been to both those places, sir," she said, obviously annoyed. "Reiswald at the Apothecary has none, and Madam Switz has only a few dried sprigs that would be quite inadequate for making springwine. They referred me to you."
"Inquire at the Vintner's then," Jack said without opening his eyes. This woman was becoming quite bothersome indeed.
"He also does not have any. He says that all of the places where he normally harvests it are picked clean." She swung her empty basket back and forth impatiently.
Jack sat up again. "The old boozer just doesn't know where to look. Woodruff is secretive, elusive. Some might even say shy." As Jack finished the sentence he realized that he was revealing a bit too much of his whimsical nature. He had never talked this way before, not even to Jassin.
"You know where to find it, then?"
"Perhaps," he said, surprising himself.
"I would be willing to pay you quite handsomely if you could bring me a good supply of it." The woman's eyes wandered across the square. She was eager to move on to the rest of her errands, and probably even more eager to be away from Jack.
"It would have to be very handsome indeed, miss -or is it 'Mrs.'?"
"I am unmarried," the woman proclaimed, with a little grin. Or perhaps he was only seeing things. She had deep dimples, he noticed. "And why would the price be handsome?"
"I will need to travel two days deep into the wild to find it. That's two days in which I am earning no revenue from cutting wood and subsiding off of my own supplies."
"If you brought me enough to make two barrels of Wine I would be willing to pay three golden marcs."
Three golden marcs were more than enough, but Jack didn't actually want to go. "I could do it for no less than six marcs," he said, sure that she must turn down such a lavish fee.
"Agreed," she said, her tone somewhat exasperated. "But only because it is on the Mayor's dime."
"It will need to be paid in advance," Jack demanded. This would certainly send her off in a huff.
"You're mad!" she declared. Now she had moved from annoyance to anger. Good, Jack thought, amused by her exasperation.
"Perhaps we are all a little mad, but I would be mad indeed were I to undertake such a venture without even one glimpse of a glint of coin," Jack proclaimed. He suddenly realized that he was actually enjoying this little interaction. He was forced to admit that the woman was pleasing to talk to.
She let out a sigh that would have stirred a breeze in a well. Reaching down to the belt that girdled her pleasant waist, she pulled three coins out of the leather purse that was tied there. The gold glinted prettily under the sun. "This is all I have at the moment, I can deliver the remainder tomorrow morning. Satisfied, you unrepentant bounder?"
There was a hint of something in her voice…could it be flirtation? Jack was very inexperienced with such matters, and decided that he was imagining things. "Very well," he said, snatching the coins from the soft palm of her hand. "You can find my 'cot on the west side of—"
"I know where you live," she interrupted, a terseness in her tone. It was almost as if she was upset that he'd not offered a fitting rejoinder to her playful accusation of his character, but that could not be. This was turning into a peculiar conversation for sure. "Will midmorning suffice, or will you still be befuddled in bed with three marcs worth of beer at that time?"
Another attempt at repartee? Who was this woman and why did she not reflect the posture that the other villagers maintained toward him? He could not remember the last time he had a conversation so agreeably flippant, and had certainly never spoken this way with a member of the gentler sex. He had the unpleasant sensation that a shoe-shaped shadow was hovering over him even now.
He wracked his dome for an appropriate reply, and found nothing. He was mindful of his hopeless inadequacy in such situations. "Midmorning will suffice."
She sighed again. "Very well, Woodsman. So it shall be." She turned on her heel, skirts swishing, and made her retreat. Her shortgown tapered her shape alluringly.
"Its Jack!" he called out after her, and immediately wondered why.
"I know!" the woman called back without turning. Her form receded, but just as she was about to leave the square she turned back around. "And I am Eidna!" she shouted, and then was gone.