My eyes darted to the ceiling. I expected to see the taught velvety fabric of my four-poster as I lay beside my wife, or perhaps the vastness of the heavens as I warmed my aging body with the dying embers of a campfire. Yet I felt no warmth from either female or flame, and, as my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, I found myself staring at hewn stone, curved and dreary, rising upwards into a cupola. The room was awash in a weak pale glow that spread equally to all corners - the moon was full, and all torches were extinguished.
Was 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 could no longer tell. The churning knot in my stomach, however, told me it was urgent, and I was suddenly enveloped in a shadow of despair.
I sat up, pushing down against the cold stone, exerting as much force as my gnarled hands would allow. My back felt like it was being stabbed by hundreds of tiny daggers, every muscle and sinew burning. I felt a sudden rush of pity for Caesar - at least during his final moments, anyway. Pushing myself backwards, I made contact with a wooden door and leaned up against it in order to wipe the drool from my cracked lips, work the stiffness from my wrinkled neck, and take a deep breath. I coughed.
Something was rotting.
Turning around I sniffed the door: ceder, and very old. It smelled of death, but not of decay. Or, perhaps, it didn’t smell of death at all; perhaps I simply associated it with mortality as it was the preferred material for coffins, of which I had seen my fair share. In this particular example, though, was it keeping death in, or out? The metal handle would not budge. Was it locked, or have I gotten that weak? I called for my bedtime servant, whatever his name, but the sound went unanswered. It eventually died into a whisper deep within the caverns of my parched throat.
I redirected my gaze forward and was greeted by a window framing rolls of clouds, moonlit and smoke-grey. If the moon was full, as I had assumed, it was currently concealed. Five iron bars guarded the outside - you couldn’t have your king falling to his death. I was reminded of a poem taught to those facing battle for the first time: “For King and Queen the brave shall rise, but fall, they might, as death’s great prize.” I tried to say the poem aloud, but was doubled over with a fit of guttural coughing that left me lightheaded. There was no pitcher of water, not a flagon of mead - only empty space to my left, and straw to my right. And an overflowing bucket of shit in the middle. Why hadn’t that been cleaned?
I rolled onto my hip - the pain could wait - and forced myself onto my bare feet. Hobbling over to the window, a warm spring breeze soothed my windburned face and ruffled the few silvery wisps of hair left from my once famous curls of golden locks. The starry sky was twinkling unusually brightly - millions of stars and planets and galaxies, each with their own problems. 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. Perhaps those men had better recall, or longer life spans.
Underneath the canopy of stars and glimmering moon, the city-state of Venkos was partly obscured in the misty darkness. In daytime, the entirety of my kingdom could be seen from this very window - miles of hamlets zig-zagging in a maze across the horizon, a veritable ocean of the poor and destitute. 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 that the broken images remaining from my dream contain the answer.
My arthritic fingers wrapped around the wrought iron bars of my window. It felt like the handle of my sword - or how it had felt 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 Impassable Sea in swarms of black ships so numerous, they appeared as a swarm of locusts. I had acted quickly. Within hours, every fighting man was armored and in position, guarding their families, their homes, and their ways of life. Me? I was where the King should be - in front, down on the beach on horseback. It gave my men pride to see me fit, even if I wasn’t.
I had been an even younger man - though exactly how old I cannot say- when that had happened. My father was keen that I learn the lay of the land that would, one day, be mine. This was the final journey. We passed the sprawling Doughbread hills of lush grass that shimmered a thousand shades of green in the blowing wind, beyond the Hunter’s Forest of pine and oak and weeping willows that brushed your hair as you rode by, tracing the deep-blue Pinebelly River upstream as it wound its way across the acres of farmland and meadows where the shores were shallower, allowing the woodlarks to sing while bathing. Eventually, two hundred leagues beyond the keep of my family’s castle, the land gave way to the deadly snow-capped Frosted Fingers, the mountain range that marks the edge of civilization.
From the empty cell in the highest tower of Devonlion Castle, where dethroned kings once awaited their deaths, the Frosted Fingers rose like the bony hands of a massive demon piercing through the dungeon of hell. I remember a chill of terror lurking within my heart as the mountain drew nearer, nothing but open land between me and the supposed cursed foothills, where those who lay their limbs on its base would forever be destined with ill-fortune. My father had made me memorize the lore of the mountain so that I gain respect for its immensity. When I finally arrived at the base, however, that fear and all the stories that came with it, had vanished. I could see only a wide, smooth climb that was neither scary nor cursed; I knew the former from experience, and the latter through smell. A cheerful scent of pine and earth and running water caused by the snow melting filled the warm, spring air. No supernatural evil had ever happened here.
Without a moment more hesitation, I spurred my horse and began to ascend as quickly as possible, so that no one could ever claim that the Prince had been frightened. My father called for me to stop, but I could not at the time remember why. I raced up the slope, the thumping of my steed crushing the loose pebbles. As quickly as I had ascended, I was falling - the mountainside crumbled, and I came down with it. The fall that ensued spread across the kingdom like an invading army. The prince had two broken legs and killed his pony, and may never walk or ride again.
But I had walked and I had ridden. I needed to prove I could. As my father 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 one could survive one lapse of judgement. Not two. I never told him that I hadn’t chosen to ignore his warnings, for being foolish was preferable in a ruler to a weak mind. Little did I know how weak mine would get.
That memory, now so clear, was for a time lost to me. Thirty some years later, as I sat unassisted atop my horse, moonlight sparkling off of my brandished sword, all that raced through my mind was how to defeat the approaching horde, not the treaty we had agreed to sign. My mistake cost half of my father’s great kingdom. Fifty thousand men died, twice that wounded. Women were raped. Crops and cattle burned. And all that, too, would be lost to me like a steam rising from breath on a cold day.
I sighed and moved away from the window; the past is not a healthy place to dwell, even though I may never remember to return. I looked for my bed once again, hoping to find that I had simply missed it during my previous search through the dark room, but was brought to a halt - the heavy pine door was ajar, basking the room in a crimson light the color of fresh blood. A squat friar stood taut in the doorway, silhouetted by the twinkling of a freshly-lit torch that was carried by someone just outside my scope of view. “It is time,” he said. And I suddenly remembered who had been in trouble in my dream.
Except, it had been no dream at all.
A shiver that had been building since I stood up, the kind that chilled your bones, was gone. The whistling of the wind was extinguished; in fact, all feeling was. All that accompanied me at the moment was a sudden flooding back of memory and time. I nodded steadily, and allowed myself to be led from the room. I was determined to show my people that, despite all I had once forgotten, and all the foolish mistakes I had unwittingly made, their king would at least remember to hold his head high until the very end.