by Liam Hogan
I’ve been counting the days and yet, when the light of the rising sun spills through the narrow cleft in the steep escarpment as it does every year on this date, my stomach still twists itself into knots. I take one last look over my Kingdom – the single valley, bounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a small lake that empties out into a deep ravine – before hurriedly descending to the Great Hall to conduct the morning’s census and allocate the days’ tasks.
I count 23 men, 12 women and two – no, three children. There used to be more. More men, more women, more children. My wife, the Queen, is not present. Some days she clings to my side, never more than a pace away from me. Today is not one of those days. Today, she is in bed, wracked with fear. She too has been marking the passage of time and though it grieves me to see her this way, I must leave her to battle her own demons, for I have much to do and little time to do it. I must prepare for our visitor.
The woodchopper’s assistant was also not at the census. I check on him after lighting the fires in the kitchen. He’s feverish and in his delirium he cries out in a guttural, foreign tongue. I dress his wound but there is little else I can do for him and the stench of decay foretells his doom. I wonder if there will be another brave enough to take his place?
It is at least a worry for another day, there is wood enough for the feast and I have given the woodchopper other duties.
Around noon the bell by the lake rings, a short, impatient peal and I carefully hand the sharp knife to one of the three cooks. King Ulfred, our neighbour in every direction and for many leagues beyond, is early. I quickly wash my hands and throw the fur-trimmed robe around my shoulders. By the time I swing open the heavy oak doors he is already there, bounding up the steps, lustily pulling on a rope.
“Nathaniel!” he cries, “Greetings, old friend! I bring you new subjects.”
I mumble my thanks as he hands me the tether and the three men attached fall to their knees, cringing and forlorn. I rub the scarred tissue above my eye-patch. Two of them will not, I think, last to the next spring. The third, though his head is bowed, holds his shoulders erect despite the heavy pack he is carrying. The board around his neck proclaims him to be a counterfeiter. Very well, let us hope he is good with his hands.
King Ulfred claps me on the shoulder. He’s beaming, his cheeks rosy from the row across the lake. “A fine spring day! I should warn you, I’ve worked up quite an appetite. How fares the feast?”
Ulfred descends upon us each year at the spring equinox, when the ice has melted and the mountain lambs are young. He likes his lamb milk-fed; barely a month old. To my mind, the meat is too lean and the cost to our small herd too high. But they are the King’s favourite and so half a dozen of our precious lambs are crammed into the ovens and onto the spits. A glut of meat of which only the choicest will be offered to Ulfred.
“It is still being prepared, my liege. Perhaps some mutton stew while you wait?”
He screws up his face. “I didn’t come here for stew, Nathaniel! A refreshing goblet of water and then let us beat the bounds. We have much to discuss, fellow King.”
He gives me a narrow look and I silently berate myself for my careless slip. “My liege” is not how Kings refer to one another.
“Certainly, King Ulfred,” I say as I pour his drink. “I’ll just check on the kitchen…”
He downs the goblet and casts it aside, the still tethered prisoners cringe at the sudden noise it makes. “Come now, I’m sure they can do without your ministrations for an hour. And I have need of your expert knowledge.”
We talk about his campaign in the South and his need to raise funds. I advise against the grain tax he proposes – last year’s harvest was not a good one – and suggest a few alternatives. He harrumphs and says he’ll think about it.
I fall silent. I was his advisor once; a trusted and loyal subject, my judgement valued. Until pride got the better of me and I began to think that my wisdom was such that I could do a better job than the King himself. My pitiful coup collapsed before it had even begun.
Too close to the court, I misjudged the level of fear that the King inspired outside of it. I know that fear now. I had thought my life forfeit, instead, it amused the King to banish me to this make-believe Kingdom along with my co-conspirators and our families, a lesson for others foolish enough to contest his might.
The day is warm and as we walk the thin trail that skirts the valley I slip the robe from my shoulders and carry it over my arm.
“Nathaniel,” King Ulfred tuts, “Your shirt is threadbare and by the looks of the needlework you must have darned it yourself. Perhaps I should send you my tailor?”
I shrug, neither accepting nor rejecting his offer, wondering what the tailor has done to displease him. Perhaps no more than the ox Ulfred sent when I asked for help to plough the fields, the beast mewling in terror and bucking at the slightest touch. Had it done anything to justify being the butt of the King’s cruel humour?
We pass the ruins of the stables. “Improvements?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.
“A fire,” I reply simply.
“Any… casualities?” He seems eager for the gruesome details.
I nod. “Seven. It took hold too fast for them to escape. We… also lost the ox.”
A lie. The ox was dead long before the disaster that followed the first of the winter’s snows.
“That’s a shame.” King Ulfred shakes his head. “They were fine stables. You will rebuild them, I hope.”
I look at him aghast. It was not a question. Was it an order? He’s holding my gaze, the smile frozen. “Ah… yes. Now that the weather is better…” I fluster.
“Good! I do so enjoy our walks, Nathaniel. It is such a pleasure to be without my usual retinue, even if it is only for an hour, and it warms the heart to see what a fine King you have turned out to be. Long may you reign, hey?”
I shudder, a momentary weakness, but the King’s back is turned and he fails to notice. We are at the rear of the hunting lodge that serves as my castle, near the kitchens, and the smell of roast meat fills the air.
“Ah, now I am truly ravenous,” he says, licking his lips. “Let’s eat!”
King Ulfred inhales deeply from the plate of tiny lamb chops. There is little to go with it: the last of the winter root vegetables, a few leeks, but he ignores these anyway. “Exquisite!” he says as he pops a morsel of moist pink meat into his mouth. “I’m really not sure the wine I have brought will do it justice.”
I eye the bottle enviously and he laughs and pushes it across the table. “Here. For you and your lovely Queen.”
The Queen seizes hold of my hand, her grip fierce. I wait a moment, but she says nothing and as her grasp weakens I fill and pass her the goblet. She takes it eagerly, quickly draining the blood red liquor, a thin dribble escaping down her chin.
King Ulfred watches intently and calls for another bottle, but the Queen has slumped back into her seat and ignores the refill. Ulfred shrugs in disappointment and starts his feast in earnest. I sip my wine cautiously and watch him eat, remembering tales my wife once told me of exotic poisons the King employed to dispatch his enemies, catching them unawares during a feast such as this.
When he finally pushes back from the table, a satisfied look on his face, his plate is brimming with the slender white curves of stripped bones. “I do believe I might have broken my record. Perhaps the Queen will do me the honour of counting?”
The Queen stiffens, clenching her jaw, and then after a long moment’s pause she slowly reaches out to the plate I have placed in front of her and begins, her lips moving silently.
“38,” is all she says when she removes the last bone.
King Ulfred strokes his grease slicked beard. “38 hey? Two more than last year. My compliments to your cooks,” he says. “And now, I have a gift for you.”
“A gift?” I echo in trepidation. The King’s largesse is not to be trusted.
The King roots through the packs that were brought with him, pulling out a small parcel wrapped in white muslin.
I open it gingerly and then stare like a fool at the tiny embroidered tunic contained within.
“Fit for a Prince, no? And where is the little tyke?”
“Your Majesty…” I begin and then quickly stop.
“Come. You think I did not notice that the Queen was with child on my last visit?” King Ulfred waits until my head slowly dips in reluctant confirmation. “So you have a child. A joyous occasion and one to be celebrated! A boy, I trust? Bring him to me.”
The Queen makes as though to stand, but I squeeze her thigh under the table and she shrinks back into her chair. I call for the woodchopper. The wait seems eternal before he enters, gently shielding the infant.
I stand and take the smiling babe from his scarred arms.
King Ulfred is at my side and quickly takes my burden from me, holding the small bundle aloft. “A bonny child. And such beautiful eyes. His mothers, I believe?”
There’s a quiet sob from the Queen and then Ulfred hands the child back. “You’re a lucky man, Nathaniel. You have what God in his infinite wisdom has denied me: an heir. Three wives, all young, one distinctly comely, and not a single blessed child.”
Ulfred reaches to his belt and pulls a dagger from its sheath, laying it down on the table next to his empty goblet. “For a while, I thought I might groom a successor anyway. Some brilliant young man, plucked from obscurity, humbled by the unexpected honour, grateful for the opportunity. Not, as it turns out, one of my brightest ideas.”
I stare down at my feet, until I feel his grip on my shoulder and I slowly raise my head to look into his impassive face.
“As you know, Nathaniel, you owe me an eye. And I think it is time to collect, don’t you? But I am not an unreasonable man. I will let you keep your sight if you offer me another’s. Perhaps someone not yet tainted by your betrayal?”
The screams have finally stopped, the child has exhausted itself and sleeps fitfully. At long last the hall is silent, littered with the remains of the feast that none dare clean up.
I do not know where the Queen is, she wasn’t to be seen when I returned from escorting Ulfred back to the lake. That was hours ago. Hours of pacing the slowly darkening hall, rocking my son back and forth as I held his tiny grasping hands away from the blood stained bandage wrapped around his head.
How much can you be punished for one stupid mistake? And what if the sacrifice is not yours? What if it continues, year, after year, after year? Sometimes the sacrifice cannot be borne, and I dread what I might find when I seek out my wife.
When Ulfred next visits, shortly after the lambs are born, should I poison his meat in suicidal vengeance? Ah, but to what purpose, revenge? I should have wrestled the dagger from the King, or allowed him to take my sight, rather than that of my infant son. But what then? Who would look after him?
I shake my head, blinking the tear away. These are not options open to me. I have a duty to perform and though it rips my soul from me, it is not one I can shirk, I do not have the luxury of escape. My subjects, my wife, and my son – if he survives that long – they can choose for themselves whether they live or die.
But not I. For if I die, they die too: unsighted, they would not survive long without me. Thus am I destined to remain: the reluctant King in this, the land of the blind.
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