Monday, May 7, 2012
Happy Birthday, Sire (full text)
King Coluim stood at the top of his castle wall and watched the sunrise mark his 32nd birthday. All that I see is mine. The fruit of every tree, the meat of every animal, the hills and even the water. I want for nothing. And yet. And yet.
Coluim's court mage Eadwulf stood at his side, motionless. The old man had been with the royal family for three kings, but remained as impenetrable to Coluim as he did to Coluim's grandfather Aelred. Coluim knew Eadwulf could be thinking of his waiting breakfast, the mysteries of the afterlife, or nothing at all.
As the sun rose higher beyond the eastern hills, Coluim looked over the fields surrounding his castle. The Bloody Plain. How many years of peace until that name fades? Not a sword has been raised against an enemy since I rode out as a child king, leading my father's army against the savages from across the sea. There have been drunken brawls, of course; secret knives of jealous lovers too. But no soldier has had to kill in the now 16 years I have reigned. Since that bloody battle. Since the heinous act that made me a king, an orphan, and a man. And how vile a deed it was, to make that name last for most of my life. Images of blood, wings, the sound of a man screaming. Coluim swept them from his mind out of habit, like flies.
Eadwulf broke his silence. "Anglia has now been your domain for the majority of your life. Happy birthday, sire."
"Tell me, Eadwulf, have you added the reading of minds to your secret knowledge? If so, I may demand your presence at court more often."
Eadwulf chuckled, a rasping cough. "No, my lord, just the reading of faces and bodies. A rare benefit of living this long. And yours tell a story as plainly as a traveling bard."
"Are you happy, Eadwulf?"
"Of course, sire. Your majesty has provided more than enough to help an old man ease into the sunset."
"You needn't be so formal, old friend. The guards are well out of earshot."
"Yes, Coluim. Yes, I am happy. And you are not. What puts you ill at ease?"
"Would that I could say. I have a kingdom. A queen. An heir. I will be remembered, at least longer than most."
It was Coluim's turn to chuckle. "You do little to dissuade me that you cannot read minds. Yes. And yet. And yet I do want. What, I do not know. I just...want. If the ruler of a peaceful kingdom cannot be satisfied, how does the common man ever rest?"
"The common man has more pressing concerns, sire." Coluim gave him a sharp glance. "Yes, you spend your day settling disputes, treating with neighboring and foreign rulers, and accounting for your kingdom's wealth. Matters that would make most men shrivel. But you do these things knowing there will be a meal on your table, your son's table, and his son's table. Being freed from such concerns, your mind can become restless. You can lose perspective."
"And how do I gain perspective? Spend a day as a commoner? Have you any perspective spells? Perhaps you could show me the world through their eyes."
"Perhaps. I do have an idea. Has your majesty leave to visit my quarters today?"
"My majesty has leave to do as I wish. But yes, my only royal duty today is the requisite feasting and drinking after sunset."
"Excellent. Please make your way to the dungeons after breakfast, then." Eadwulf gave a brief bow, then turned and walked along the wall. His long white hair seemed to scatter the morning sunlight in all directions.
Having eaten in his private chambers with his family, Coluim made his way through the buzzing keep to the dungeon stairs. He was only stopped twelve times by his aides, all with questions regarding the night's festivities. Completely ambivalent toward the color and quantity of decorations, seating arrangements, and food, the king nevertheless made a show of pausing at each question, considering the choices as if they were a treaty with an aggressive nation, then giving his answer. He had found early in his reign that relinquishing control over even the smallest details was the top of a steep hill that ended in revolt. He also enjoyed giving his servants the same attention as visiting dignitaries. It elevated his servants and deflated the dignitaries.
The interruptions ceased once he began descending the stairs to the dungeon. Despite years of benevolent service to the king, Eadwulf was still held in quiet awe by most of the castle's inhabitants, and the dungeons belonged to him. Perhaps it was that ancient fear of the unknown that kept them at a respectable distance. Coluim thought it could have more to do with the gouts of fire and the terrible, booming voice that accompanied his victory over the barbarian Torfjald those sixteen years prior, when a younger, taller Eadwulf rode at his side commanding awesome powers against their enemy. That image will be as tenacious as the name Bloody Plain. Again, flashes of blood, wings, screaming. Swept away without thought.
Coluim made his way through the narrow dungeon passages to Eadwulf's quarters. In any other keep, these halls would be filled with prisoners of war, spies, and vicious criminals. In the peace of Coluim's Anglia, they were filled with old tools, surplus food, and Eadwulf's various arcana he had been collecting over the years.
Coluim found Eadwulf's door ajar, a soft glow emanating from within. He eased his head into the opening. Eadwulf was seated in the middle of the room, in front of a small bubbling cauldron. He sat erect on a small chair, eyes closed. Candles scattered throughout the room lit various plants, bottles, and giant tomes in a dozen languages with warm light. An identical chair was next to Eadwulf by the cauldron. "Come in, sire. Not that you need my permission."
"We've ridden, dined, and wept together, but I'm afraid I may always think of you as my father's mage, Eadwulf. Thank you." Coluim crossed the room to the empty chair and sat. The odor from the bubbling cauldron was strong, but not unpleasant. "Is this potion for me?"
"Yes, sire. I believe it will be helpful in altering your perspective, as we discussed. Rest assured it is simply plant-based, and I have taken it many times."
"If I were in danger at your hands, Eadwulf, I doubt I would have made it this far."
"Indeed, your majesty. Please, make yourself comfortable while I prepare a mug for you. You'll find a chair more suited to your liking in the corner."
Coluim saw that there was in fact a large chair with cushions and arms waiting for him and went over to it as Eadwulf busied himself with a misshapen mug and ladle, stirring the potion to cool it. He sat the mug on the table next to Coluim. "Before we begin, there are only two things you must know, sire. While this will take most of the daylight, it will not last forever. And what you see will only be as real, and as dangerous, as the thoughts in your head right now. For your safety, I think it best for you to stay here for the duration."
"That's all I need to know? What effect does this have? How will it change my perspective?"
"I find the less you know beforehand, the more rewarding the experience. Please, drink."
Coluim lifted the mug of steaming liquid. The smell seemed to have abated somewhat, but an earthy odor remained. He sipped. Bitter and hot, but not terrible. "What now?"
"Now, we wait for the potion to take hold. As that would be extremely tedious and likely to make you tense, I suggest we discuss grain allocation for the coming winter."
Coluim was calculating wheat tonnage when he noticed the walls breathing, a soft rise and fall in sync with his own breath. He wasn't sure that he had actually seen it, until the surface of the table began undulating like the sea. He brought his hand up in front of his face and watched as a shadow hand followed it up from the table and joined it. Coluim realized he didn't know how long he had been staring at his hand. Was Eadwulf watching him?
"I believe you may be feeling the effects of the potion, sire."
"Yes, most...curious. Curious. Hm. Yes."
Eadwulf leaned forward and gathered the scrolls they had been looking over. "I believe the farm reports can wait, then. Please, relax into the chair." Coluim sank back slowly, relishing the sensation. "I will stay in the room, but I will not disturb you. I have work to tend to. Remember, this will end. And remember, you will be in no true danger. Now, let the potion take you where it will."
Danger. Work. Tend where it will. Coluim closed his eyes as the words echoed through his skull. He still felt the breathing sensation of all the surfaces around him, but a leaden ball of foreboding began growing deep in his belly. Just as he was about to speak his misgivings, he felt motion, as if he were riding on the back of a bird. He smelled earth, felt sunlight on his face, and saw its glow through his closed eyelids. He opened them onto a patchy, uneven field. He recognized the eastern hills, though little else seemed familiar. There was no castle to speak of, but a large wooden hall. What few other shelters he could see were crude huts, not the sturdier houses that populated Anglia now. The Bloody Plain. But is this before or after it earned the name? There were several men spread across the field, fighting to tame it into something that would yield sustenance. They looked as ill-natured and tough as the soil they were working. The man nearest Coluim saw him and straightened up. He remained motionless, neither beckoning to Coluim nor moving towards him. He just waited.
Coluim looked around once more, and could see no one else who had noticed him. What's a king without his castle? I suppose I'll humor the man. He began walking towards the farmer. He was dressed, like his fellow laborers, in colorless roughspun fabric stained with sweat. Coluim stopped in front of him. The farmer appeared to be several years older than Coluim. His features were familiar, yet Coluim was certain he had never seen his face. The man began speaking in a thick, strange tongue. Coluim understood several words, but the inflection was odd enough to distort the farmer's speech beyond comprehension. Just as the king was about to interrupt, the man's language resolved into words he could understand.
"-to meet you. I've been waiting."
"Waiting. For me? Have we met before? Who told you to expect me? Eadwulf?"
"I do not know this Eadwulf. We have not met, though your bones may know mine. I am Aethelmere. You, Coluim, are of my line. I am the last of your forefathers to submit to another man, and the first to lead them."
"Aethelmere? Yes, my father told me of you. You led your men in battle against the merchant lord Doromon and installed yourself as regent in his place. But why then do you work the fields in such crude clothing?"
"That battle will not take place for another two years."
"Then how did you know it will happen?"
"This is a place of no time. But you are not here to learn of what lies beyond the plane of the normal, or to learn history. You are here for perspective, yes?"
"Yes. Eadwulf seems to think that will cure me of this unnameable compulsion."
"Tell me, my son, how did you become king?"
"My father...died. And I rode out and avenged his death."
"The vengeance made you king? Or were you king before you rode?"
"I became king as soon as my father's final breath left his body. I was his only child and rightful heir. Do you question my legitimacy?"
"No, Coluim. I created your legitimacy. I simply want you to examine how you received it. You know the facts of my rise to rule. You obviously know the facts of your own. But facts are one thing. Their causes and effects are something else. You have not known the struggle for survival, the need to justify your own humanity. Your battle was with an army, for revenge. My battle will be with these crude farmers, so we may feed our families."
Coluim looked around and saw that the other laborers had stopped working, and stood in their places watching the parley unfold. Aethelmere continued.
"You are an admirable king. You rule by justice, not force, which is what I set out to do myself. I am proud of my line, and you have done much to ensure that you will be proud of yours. But remember the generations of men who gave you this gift. Remember me, and this talk. Remember your father."
"Not a day passes that I do not think of my father."
"But how? How do you think of him?"
"As a smiling man." Blood. "I sit at his knee in council." Screams. "He teaches me with a wooden sword." Hideous wings.
Aethelmere smiled sadly. "You cannot lie to someone who knows you so well. Go then, for your lies. Go, and see your father as you truly remember him."
Coluim's chest constricted with dread. Suddenly he was surrounded by the farmers in a tight circle. Expressionless, they grabbed him at fifty different points with fingers that dug into his flesh like iron. They flung him upward with rough hands. He once more felt the sensation of flight, but this time it was the cold wind of a night sixteen years prior on his face. He smelled Anglia burning, heard the hoarse cries of the invaders outside the castle wall. He opened his eyes. His father stood in front of him, armored, sword in hand.
"You'll be safe in the castle, Coluim. These barbarians will never get near the gate. My men and I will see to that."
Eadwulf spoke from behind Coluim, spoke words Coluim knew by heart. "Your majesty, I beg you, let me ride with you. You do not know the savagery that these men-"
"Enough, man. There's no need for your fireworks tonight. I will speak to these beasts in the only language they know. I will speak to them in steel." The king had always trusted Eadwulf's advice, but not his powers.
The king put his mailed hand on Coluim's shoulder and looked at him as if about to speak. He paused, smiled, and strode out of the room. Coluim tried screaming out, but the sound caught and died in his throat.
Coluim stood motionless as his father left the room, powerless to stop him. What use is revisiting these horrible events, if I cannot change them? Eadwulf spoke, as if responding to Coluim, though he had said nothing. "No, young prince. I will not disobey the wishes of your father. He is headstrong, but an excellent warrior and leader. I am certain he and his soldiers will be victorious."
"Eadwulf, please, I know more than you think. You must ride. Help him instead of me!"
"Yes, Coluim, I agree. These barbarians lack the training your father has given his knights. They will regret this lack before the night is over." Eadwulf was engaged in a conversation that happened sixteen years ago. Coluim couldn't break through, couldn't break the pattern. And what if I could? As Eadwulf told me, this is in my head. I can save my father countless times there, HAVE saved him countless times. It does not matter. Eadwulf left the room, talking to a Coluim that was not there. "Come, young prince, let me show you the spell I'm working on..."
Now what? Am I to live this night out in real time? What purpose does that serve? Coluim was too restless to stay in this room alone, so he made his way to the top of the castle wall. He found himself standing in the same spot where he stood this morning, watching the sun rise with an older Eadwulf. The same spot where he came to stand on this night he was being forced to relive, waiting for his father's return. Anglia burned. There were still a few small skirmishes outside the castle walls, but most of the savages had ridden after the king and his men as they made their way directly to the enemy camp over the hills, intent on crushing this invasion at its heart. The battlefield was quiet. Coluim waited. He waited, and he thought.
My ancestor was right, but also wrong. I do remember my father as a happy man, alive and well. I remember his teaching. I remember his laughter. But these memories are weightless. They are as feathers to the sack of iron that is this night. The battle, my father's ride, the waiting...and what follows. Damn Eadwulf and his potion. I did not need his help to remember this. Always it hovers outside my mind, ready to slip in, ready to hold me hostage. Always I fend it off. But now I've nowhere to turn. Why would he torture me so?
After what felt like an eternity, a lone scream ripped through the silence from beyond the hills. Coluim could not move. A rider crested the horizon, pulling a wooden frame on a litter behind him. He rode to within earshot, out of bowshot, and climbed down from his horse, lit by the burning houses on the field. Even from this distance, Coluim could see that he was a hulking man, clad in tattered furs. "Fools of Anglia! Come forth and see your broken king! Come, and bow to your new king! Bow to Torfjald! Bow to the power of the Norse! Bow to my blood eagle!" Torfjald quickly propped up the square frame. The king was lashed to it hand and foot, stretched into an X, stripped of his armor. Torfjald moved behind him and drew his axe. He hacked into his prisoner's back. The king let out an anguished scream. Torfjald chopped a few more times; with every downward swing, Coluim felt unspeakable agony bloom in his back. In my head. Chop. An illusion. Chop. Not to father. Chop. Torfjald threw his axe to the ground. He yanked, and the sound of the king's ribs cracking open echoed across the plain. The king screamed once more, then fell silent as his head slumped forward. Torfjald reached into the king's wounds and pulled his lungs from his chest, stretching them to the top of the frame and tying them there. At that moment Eadwulf burst forth onto the castle wall. Torfjald was mounting his horse and turning to ride off. Eadwulf's arm shot out as his voice boomed across the countryside in a language Coluim didn't recognize. A geyser of flame erupted where Torfjald had stood, but it was too late. The butcher had escaped. Coluim's father remained motionless, tied to the frame in a vile parody of the eagle on their coat of arms. His ribs and lungs made hideous, bloody wings at his sides. Eadwulf broke the numb silence.
"He...I...underestimated these men. These animals. Coluim, young...king, what is your will?" Coluim neither moved nor spoke. "Yes, sire. I will retrieve him at once."
Coluim felt a pull from behind his navel, and suddenly flew across the Bloody Plain. He found himself standing in front of his father's body. The gore was unspeakable, but the king's face was unharmed and peaceful. Suddenly he raised his head and smiled. "My dear boy. It is so good to look upon you once again."
"Father...are you in pain?"
"No. No, Coluim, I am at peace. I have been, and I will be forever. I want you to remember that."
"I try, father, but always...this..." Coluim gestured at the frame.
"I know. And I am so sorry, my son. But you must let this go. Let me go. You could not have stopped my death if I fell from a horse, or if my heart burst at dinner. Nor could you stop this. You did more than anyone could expect at sixteen, and more than enough to make me happy. You rode out as a king with Eadwulf and your countrymen. You conquered Torfjald and his Norsemen so thoroughly that never again has anyone from their land sailed across our sea. You have maintained peace and justice in Anglia, and that has made my life worth living."
Coluim's eyes brimmed with tears. "Father, I feel so selfish. I have everything I want and yet-"
"And yet you feel like you should get more. I know, son. I had the same feeling. I was glad when the Norsemen appeared on our shores. I was eager to join in battle with them. You see where that led me. Be thankful. You have your family. You have your honor. That would be true if you were a farmer or a king. Wanting for nothing is a very good thing. Remember that, my boy."
Coluim nodded. As his father smiled upon him, he was pulled once more through the air into the night. A room materialized in front of him, brilliant with sunlight. Several people were gathered around a bed. The mood was subdued, but not sad.
These are my chambers. And that old woman-my wife? That man is my son!
Coluim then looked at the person lying under the covers.
That ancient man-me. And I appear to be dying.
Coluim found himself wound into a complex knot of emotions. Real or illusion, he was captivated by this scene from the end of his life. He was saddened to see his queen so aged and frail by his bed and proud of the man his son Mael would become, bearing this event on upright shoulders. The prince had a kind face, and Coluim was relieved when he saw this. Good. Good that Mael should enter his reign naturally. Good that we led him this far with love, not discipline or fear. My son in waking life is so young, his future so open. Please let him become this man.
The Coluim in his deathbed stirred and looked at the people surrounding him. He smiled faintly. He reached a hand out to his son, and one to his wife. He began speaking, too quietly for the young Coluim. The queen leaned over her husband to hear his words. Tears streaming from her face, she nodded. The old king settled his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. His hands fell to the bedclothes and he took his final breath. The room was quiet and calm; there were neither the mourning wails that followed the tragic death of a king too young nor the cold buzz of business that followed the death of a despised ruler who outstayed his welcome. This was acceptance of the end of a life well-lived. Mael spoke.
"My first act as king will be to create a holiday in father's honor. Anglia will feast for a week."
"But your father hated feasts," said the queen. But I love having you there by my side, wife.
"I know. That's more for the people. For father, I will plant an oak tree over his grave. His grave on the plains outside the castle."
"But that's where-"
"And they will hereafter be known as the Plains of Peace."
Coluim was overwhelmed. Of course. The tree will live a hundred years, so that it will grow over the memory of where my father fell. When people look to the eastern hills, they will no longer think of the king who was butchered there, but see the tree marking the king who sleeps there. Thank you, my son.
The queen smiled. "That is a beautiful idea, Mael. Your father would love it."
I do. And you. All of you. The room dimmed and receded. As it drifted away, Coluim felt sleep coming over him. It enfolded him like a blanket, and he rested. Soon, he heard Eadwulf's voice. "Sire? Can you hear me?" A gentle nudge at his elbow. Coluim stirred.
"Yes. More importantly, can you hear me? How old am I?"
"I can, sire, and you are 32 today."
"Yes I am." Coluim looked around at the familiar surroundings of Eadwulf's chamber. The candles were lower, but nothing else had changed. "Is it finished?"
"I believe so, sire. It has been six hours, though you slept for the last hour. I trust it was...satisfactory? Did you find your perspective?"
"Time will tell. I saw the most terrible and wonderful things." Coluim shot out of his seat. "The queen! Where is my queen? Where is my prince?"
"I believe you will find them in your chamber, sire, getting ready. As should you."
"Of course! The feast! Eadwulf..." Coluim put his hands on the old mage's shoulders. "Eadwulf, thank you. For what you did. For what you do."
"It is my duty and pleasure, sire."
Coluim rushed out of the room. Eadwulf watched with a knowing smile as his king hurried away.
The keep was empty, since everyone was gathered in the banquet hall for the feast. Coluim sped through the passages and burst into his quarters. The queen was putting the finishing touches on young Mael's outfit. "Coluim! We were going to surprise you! Where have you been?"
"Very near and very far, my lady. I missed you." The queen looked puzzled. She was more puzzled after Coluim's brief but passionate kiss. "And you, Mael? How has your day been?"
"Good, father. I can't wait for you to see what I made for your birthday!"
"Neither can I, son." Coluim embraced his wife and his son, and thought of his father. He remembered his smiling face.