The King's Memories
I enjoy awaking to the sight of the smooth purple velvet underside of my four poster canopy. It is a pleasant sight in the rising sun, the folds rising up like mountains darkened in shadow. It is therefore unsettling that, this morning, I see no purple at all. Have I developed some infection that darkens my vision? No, that wouldn’t explain anything. I can see as fine as I should in this hazy darkness, well enough to see that the hewn stone ceiling rises gently up towards the center of a copala like the inside of a tomb. I must therefore be in a room other than my royal chamber, for that room is rectangular. Isn’t it? Am I still dreaming? I know that I had just been elsewhere, perhaps in both time and space, and someone had been in trouble. As to whom or why or where -- I can no longer tell. The churning knot in my stomach, however, tells me it was urgent, and with a pang I’m suddenly enveloped in a shadow of despair.
Where am I?
I raise my head and sit up, pushing down against the cold stone. Stone? No feathered bed? No sinking pillows? A hundred tiny daggers seem to stab every muscle and sinew, alighting them with sharp bursts of pain. Pushing myself backwards, I make contact with a wooden headboard -- no, it's a door -- and lean up against it. As I wipe the drool from my cracked lips, work the stiffness from my wrinkled neck, my breath halts from the stench.
Something is rotting.
Turning around I sniff the door: cedar, and very old. It smells faintly of death, but not of decay, as would a freshly made coffin. Is the door, then, keeping death in, or out? The metal handle does not budge. I call for my servant, but the sound goes unanswered.
I shiver, and hug myself for warmth.
Redirecting my gaze forward, I’m greeted by a window framing rolls of smoke-grey clouds. Five iron bars guard the outside -- you can’t have your king falling to his death. “For King and Queen the brave shall rise, but fall, they might, as death’s great prize.” I fail to finish reciting the poem as I double over with a fit of guttural coughing that leaves me lightheaded. There’s no visible pitcher of water, nor a flagon of mead -- only empty space to my left, and straw to my right. And an overflowing bucket of shit in the middle, centered perfectly with the window. Why hadn’t that been cleaned?
I roll onto my hip -- the pain could wait -- and force myself onto my bare feet. Hobbling over to the window, I let the cool air caress my face and ruffle the few silvery wisps of hair left from my once famous curls of golden locks. Somewhere, far in the cosmos, there might be another king trapped in his aging body, bothered by a dream that he too could not remember.
Underneath the canopy of stars and glimmering moon, the city-state of Venkos lays partly obscured in the mist, a scattered remnant of my former empire. From up in my tower, the hamlets look like fallen autumn leaves. In daytime, my subject can be seen from this very window. Miles of dirt-brown hamlets snake across the horizon, a sand bar slicing through a sea of light green. Peasants and simpletons, but hard workers and loyal. I try to reach out to the them from time to time to show them I haven’t forgotten about them -- but I’ve been forgetting. Though I can’t remember why, I know instinctively that the broken images remaining from my dream contain the answer.
My arthritic fingers wrap themselves around the wrought iron bars of my window. They feel like the handle of my sword when I could wield such a thing. I had been decades younger the last time I had fought. The scavengers had come from the east, sailing across the Unassailable Sea in swarms of black ships. I had acted instinctively. Within hours, every fighting man was armored and in position, guarding their families, their homes, and their ways of life. Me? I on horseback leading the charge. It gave my men pride to see me fit, and me pride beyond them all.
I had been an even younger man -- though exactly how old I cannot say -- when that had happened. My father insisted I learn the lay of the land from the northern forests of old oak trees to the pale ponds teeming with coy and frogspawn. It was during the final leg of the exploration that we passed the sprawling hills of lush grass that shimmered a thousand shades of green in the blowing wind, beyond the Hunter’s Orchard that brushed your hair as you rode by. We traced the Pinebelly River upstream as it wound its way across the acres of farmland and meadows, carrying snowmelt to shallower shores where the woodlarks mate in peace. Eventually, the land gives way to the deadly snow-capped Frosted Fingers, the mountain range that marks the edge of security as the piked gate do for my castle.
I remember the chill of terror that crept down my spine as the mountain range had drawn nearer. My father had made me memorize the lore of the mountain so that I gain respect for its power to lure great men from hiding and swallow them whole. All had the same goal in mind: to conquer. It was folly, my father believed. Mountains weren't created to be defeated, but to humble men before God. I felt that only humble men would feel humble, and humility was born from fear. I could see only a wide, smooth climb that was not scary in the least.
I spurred my horse and began to ascend without a moments pause so that no one could ever claim that the future King is a coward. My father called for me to stop, saying that I had nothing to prove, begging for me to respect the Lord's will! "Be humble, son!" he had called. "A good King is humble before God!" I raced up the slope, the thumping of my steed crushing the loose pebbles along with his meek warnings. If my father was considered great because he hadn't tried to summit the Frosted Fingers, I would be hailed as superior to him for trying and crowned superior to all for succeeding! The Gods will become humble before me! With my pulse pounding in my ears, I let out a roar of triumph! I was flying! Flying towards the ground! The sky was tumbling. I couldn't hang on to my horse. The ground rushed up to meet me. The mountainside had cast me down!
Someone was crying. Someone was in trouble, yet I could not help. The all went dark.
The fall that ensued spread across the kingdom like a plague. The Prince had broken two legs and killed his pony, and Billy the Baker swore he may never walk again. It is better to be a coward than a cripple, said Susan the wizened Innkeep. "At least cowardice can be obscured."
But I had walked again and I had ridden many times more. I needed to prove I could. To whom? Not the Gods, for they had no patience for pride. My father? As he had stood over me that day on the hill, wiping away my muddied tears as I was lifted onto a makeshift wyn, he told me that he had done the same thing when he had been young. “One can survive a lapse in judgement, my son. Life is too fleeting to survive a second.” That memory, I realize as I tighten my grip on the bars, was buried forgotten in an unmarked grave for years in the recesses of my mind. Meadows sprouted out of spite on the site, blocking out any chance of revisiting it to learn. Until now, the only other time I had remembered my father's warning had been exactly thirty years later, as I sat on my horse unassisted, preparing for battle, moonlight sparkling off of my brandished sword. Then, as the fear of death overpowered me, my father’s warning had suddenly arisen like Christ reborn. Then I had finally understood what he had meant to teach me.
My lack of diplomacy cost half of my father’s great kingdom. Fifty thousand men died, twice that wounded. Women were raped. Crops and cattle burned. And I had been sentenced to die by the rulers the Gods had sent to reign me in.
I sigh and move away from the window. I look for my bed once again, for beside it always stood my desk with parchment and quill poised. Hoping to find that I had simply missed it during my previous search through the dark room, I focus on the corners of my room. But I’m distracted -- the heavy pine door is ajar.
A squat friar stands still in the doorway. “It is time,” he says, and I suddenly remember who had be in trouble in my dream, except it had been no dream at all. It was I who was in trouble, it was me that was rotting. It was me who had brought death.
My shiver vanishes. The whistling of the wind is extinguished, leaving behind only the lingering scent of death. I nod steadily and allow myself to be led from the room. I must show someone that, despite all I hadn't done correctly, at least I can remember to hold my head high until the very end.