A SHORT STORY -- "The King's Memory"
I enjoy awaking to the sight of the smooth purple velvet underside of my four poster canopy. It is a pleasant sight in the moonlight, the folds rising up like mountains darkened in shadow. It is therefore unsettling me to currently 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?
So I sit up, pushing down against the cold stone, exerting as much force as my gnarled hands will allow. 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 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.
Redirecting my gaze forward, I’m greeted by a window framing rolls of clouds, moonlit and smoke-grey. 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. The starry sky twinkles unusually bright -- millions of stars and planets and galaxies. 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. In daytime, my subject can be seen from this very window -- miles of dirt-brown hamlets zig-zagging in a maze 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. It feels 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 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 was where the King belongs -- 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 Doughbread 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 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 to the south of my family’s castle, the land gives way to the deadly snow-capped Frosted Fingers, the mountain range that marks the edge of civilization. It lays behind the window out of which I am looking. Even when I look at what is ahead of me, I cannot avoid thinking of what lays behind.
I remember a chill of terror lurking within my heart as the mountain range drew nearer. My father had made me memorize the lore of the mountain so that I gain respect for its immensity, for the scores of brave men who had perished trying to conquer it. All had the same goal in mind -- to see what lay on the other side. It was folly, my father believed. When the time comes, we will know. 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 from a sudden fit of bravery.
I spurred my horse and began to ascend as quickly as possible, 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. Why then did I wish so deeply to prove him wrong? I raced up the slope, the thumping of my steed crushing the loose pebbles. As quickly as I had ascended, I was suddenly falling -- the mountainside had cast me down. It was not yet my time.
The fall that ensued spread across the kingdom like an invading army. The Prince had broken two legs and killed his pony, and may never walk or ride again. It is better to be a coward than a cripple -- 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 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. Vanity isn’t worth a second.” That memory, now so clear to me, 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 memory like that one that looked to reign in my pride. Thirty some years later, as I sat on my horse unassisted, preparing for battle, moonlight sparkling off of my brandished sword, my father’s warning suddenly rose up like Christ reborn, preaching peace. I had not considered that. I had not considered offering a treaty. My mistake cost half of my father’s great kingdom. Fifty thousand men died, twice that wounded. Women were raped. Crops and cattle burned.
I sighed and moved away from the window; what point is there in digging dark tunnels to a painful past? Ought I not to build bridges towards a happy future? It is what my father had done. It is what I was born to accomplish. 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.
Silhouetted in the doorway stands a squat friar, his shadow jumping around nervously on account of the flames from his freshly-lit torch. “It is time,” he said. And I suddenly remember where I was and 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.
The shiver that had been building since I had woken, the kind that chills your bones, was gone. The whistling of the wind was extinguished; the smell of death was all that was left. I nod steadily and allow myself to be led from the room. I must show someone that, despite all I had once forgotten to do, their king would at least remember to hold his head high until the very end.