24 December 2017

The Fall of the King

The king awoke to the metallic caw of ravens, and a sharp stabbing pain in his left arm. He struggled to open his eyes through the crust of dried blood caking them shut. A raven sounded loud in his ear, and he started in spite of himself. The heat ebony bird hopped away and took flight. It had been pecking the the king's exposed arm. The vambrace was missing, lost somewhere on the hill above the beach.

The king groaned. A throbbing in his head sent forth waves of nausea, threatening to spill out on a flood of bile. He gritted his teeth. Bloody, groggy, he determined that he would not embarrass himself by spewing the little contents of his stomach in front of his men.

His men. Where were they? he wondered. The only sounds he could hear were wind on the grass and waves on the strand. No human noises met this ears. Only ravens and the earth. The king struggled to sit up. Rolling over, he braced his arms against the turf and pushed. He made it to his knees before a lancet of pain shot through his head. He trembled. He spat blood onto the emerald grass.

Slowly he lifted his head. The helmet he began to lift off. His hands trembled but managed to slide the iron with a bit of tugging. Blurry eyes focused on the inside of the helmet, dark and slick with blackening blood. One side of the piece was deeply dented. It was only by grace that whatever had struck his head had not split the helmet asunder. 

The blow had perhaps knocked him unconscious. Gingerly he felt around the top of his skull. Sure enough, there was a knob about the size of a small goose egg, split slightly across its middle. His fingers came away damp with blood, a few graying hairs sticking to his flesh. The king sent up a prayer of thanks to the war god that the wound was not worse. 

But his men. In his field of vision he could see what seemed a carpet of corpses, strewn about the hillock, entrails and blood bright and obscene against the deep green of the grass. Not a soul stirred while the ravens feasted. He saw them. They hopped and pecked. They ceased to pay the king any deference now that he appeared to be alive. Their feathers shone dully nacreous under the pewter overcast sky.

"I am alive", said the king, "yet the world appears to be dead. By what fortune is this?"

The king struggled to his feet. A cool wind sprang up, bringing with it the smell of blood and ocean, iron and salt. His sword lay in the grass. The tip was broken. The oyster colored steel shone through a film of blood. Notches in the blade gave testimony to a hard fight. On instinct, the king reached for the sword. The dread eased as he wrapped his scarred hand around the grip.

The sky was swirling with ravens. A cloud of jet broken only by patches of gray sky a few brave seagulls flitting in and out of the crowd. Death saturated the air, barely kept at bay by the ocean breeze. It was clear to the king now that he was apparently the only survivor. The captain of his guard lay a few feet away, his skull split by the axe still lodged in the bone. The sword of the captain jutted from the ribcage of his killer, both unseeing and stiff beneath the sky. The rest of his guard and the cohorts of the barbarians were splayed about the hill. Not one appeared to breathe, or make a sound.

Wind picked up, gusting, bringing with it the scent of rain. The king turned to face the sea and found himself wishing the drops would fall, if only to wash the blood and failure off his broken armor and battered body. He felt the specter of sadness nosing about his mind. So many lives lost of those who had believed in him, had made him king. But now he felt there was no kingdom, unless the territory was defined by the shell of his body alone. The king wept.

Hours may have passed. Maybe days. The king grew insensate to time, or so he thought. It was the creeping chill of sundown that finally roused him from his despair. Behind him the birds had settled down, some in a nearby copse of trees, others walking stilt-legged through the grass pecking at insects and the bodies. 

The king stood. The sun, peeking fitfully through the clouds, neared the horizon. Waves beckoned to him, and he resolved to wash himself clean in the saltwater. A staggering walk downhill along a rutted path, he divested himself of his armor and padding, piece by filthy, bloody piece. He clutched the sword by habit, but when he reached the tide line he thrust the pitted blade downward into the sand. As he did so, he pierced the body of a crab that had washed up in the wrack.

Fitting, he though darkly, that no respect is accorded to the living or the dead. He stood naked before the sea. Cold wavelets lapped his feet and ankles. A few sluggish strides forward found him knee-deep in the surf. The waves were gathering height and force, now, and he wondered of the sea god knew he was here. He wondered if the sea would reject him, now that his kingdom seemed lost, his body wracked and bruised.

The king raised his arms and leaned forward to plunge into a tall wave that rushed up the strand. The shock of the green water evoked a roar from the king's ragged throat. Seawater ran over his body. The salt stung the myriad cuts and scrapes that webbed his flesh. Pain and cold galvanized the king. He struggled further out into the surf, scraping blood and the flesh of others off his aching frame. He roared again, anguish and shame pouring from his soul. Out in the water came an answering voice, which to the king sounded like a command.

The king swam deeper into the sea. Up on the hill, in the company of birds and the night, the remnants of the kingdom  slowly faded from sight. He swam on, not knowing if it could be saved or if it would rebirth itself, and he would once again know the feel of a crown bestowed by the heart of another.

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"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...