Jack Britten is thirty-three and, to his pride and satisfaction, a reasonably prosperous farmer; and he cannot quite believe that he is truly looking at John Uskglass. The Magician King is young, and handsome, and he burns with a supreme confidence, an incandescent authority; his hair falls around his pale face like black water, and there is a far-seeing depth to his eyes.
Jack kneels almost without thinking, and behind him he can hear his farmhands doing the same; this young man in his black clothes has an air of command which would make it impossible to do anything else.
'Rise,' says the Raven King. His voice is surprisingly quiet; there is a faint hint of irony to it, as if John Uskglass finds it mildly amusing that people should kneel in his presence, and his words are rounded with a slight French accent. 'I have need of your help.'
'Of…course, your majesty,' Jack says as he gets to his feet. 'Yes. Anything you have need of, I will be happy to supply.'
'I require a horse, to continue my journey,' the King says - not a demand, but a statement - 'and perhaps some food.'
'Yes, your majesty,' Jack says quickly. 'We have only draft horses here, strong animals for farm work, I am afraid. I can't offer you a noble's riding-horse.'
'That,' says John Uskglass, 'will be perfectly adequate.'
Jack gives a few hasty orders to his farmhands: to find and saddle one of the horses, to bring whatever of their food is fit for a king, which does not seem likely to be much, to fetch his family from the house, that they may meet the Magician King. He finds himself turning back to the Raven King, like a compass drawn inexorably to north, and says, 'And what of the people on the road, your majesty?'
'On the road?' the King says with faint surprise. He turns to look at the slightly forlorn-looking group of travellers, standing clumped together at the boundary of Jack's field with weary, lost expressions on their white, smudged faces, and closes his eyes for a moment as if in recollection. 'Oh, yes. No, they have no need of your help. You may safely leave them there .'
'But where are they going, your majesty?'
John Uskglass looks at Jack with a tolerant smile, as of a parent with a child who has failed to grasp something entirely. 'You need not fear them,' the King says with finality.
'Yes, your majesty,' says Jack respectfully. 'Your majesty, my wife and children are coming…'
'Yes, I will bless them,' the Raven King says lightly; he does not look at Jack, but glances absently around him, at the stretching fields and cool grey sky, as if he wishes to take in every detail of this corner of his kingdom. 'You all will be granted good fortune for your help to me on this day.'
Jack pauses, not sure what to say, and hedges with 'Thank you, your majesty.'
John Uskglass pays no attention but gazes over Jack's left shoulder, and he turns to see his wife Anne with their two children hurrying across the hayfield, beside a farmhand leading one of his horses.
The Magician King gives Jack's wife and children his blessing, as well as the families of two farmhands who also thought their wives would like to meet their king. He swings easily into the saddle of a sturdy grey carthorse, thanks Jack and his family for their help, spurs the horse on and rides away.
Jack watches him - with his faded black clothes and his grey horse, he quickly blurs into a shadow, and then he is no longer visible at all - then takes his wife's hand and turns to look at the group of people standing still and silent in the road. One of them, he thinks, is a child of perhaps ten or eleven. What she is doing with a group of strange people on a fairy road he does not know.
'The King said we should ignore them?' his wife murmurs.
'Yes. I think so.'
'Well,' Anne Britten says briskly, 'we should, then. Will you stay in the hayfield?'
'Yes,' says Jack. 'Yes, I think I will.'
She nods, kisses him on the cheek and takes the children's hands to lead them back to the house, murmuring to them about the honour and the good fortune they have had to meet the Raven King himself.
Jack calls his farmhands and returns to work, but every few moments it seems he finds himself glancing up at the people standing in the road - they seem to be staring back at him whenever he looks at them - and he is glad to leave the field that evening.
He shudders slightly every time he sees them for the next few days, with their still quietness and their pale, anonymous faces, and after three days he looks to the road and they are gone, faded away with the mist; and he does not know whether to be glad or afraid.