The Good King
by Simon Kewin
“How much further?”
“Not far, my lord, less than a league now.”
“Hold the torch higher! I can barely see. It’s bad enough trudging through all this snow without walking into trees too.”
“Yes, my lord. Sorry, my lord.”
Besz held the torch higher as instructed. Not that they really needed it. The cold, blue light of the full moon gave them more than enough illumination to see the trees. They skirted around a pool of dark water filling a clearing. A low waterfall, frozen to spiky ice, dangled off the rocks at one side. They said Agnes' Pools had healing properties if you swam in them. He wasn’t about to try them out now.
“This whole escapade is madness,” the king continued. “We’ve passed three hamlets already. They’re all my subjects aren’t they? What difference does it make?”
Besz, ploughing through the snow three paces behind, didn’t reply immediately. His feet were numb and the cold crept up the bones of his shins. His face ached from the chill of the night air and from his clenched jaw muscles. Did he have to spell it all out again? Did the king really not understand? He was worse than a child. His feet wouldn’t be cold of course, and not just because of his fine, fur-lined leather boots. Besz glanced back at Lucian, the court minstrel they’d brought along with them, slipping and leaping through the snow-drifts ten yards further back. Lucian looked to be in an even worse state. His thin, multicoloured costume was utterly unsuited to an expedition through the forest at the dead of night, the dead of winter. Perhaps it was just the moon, but his skin looked blue.
“This far from the castle is safer, my lord,” said Besz. “No-one comes this way. No-one will know.”
“I don’t see that it matters. They’re all just peasants.”
“It avoids...difficulties, my lord. We’re nearly there now, I assure you.”
“Light,” shouted Lucian. “I see light through the trees.” They were the first words the minstrel had spoken since they set out. Up ahead, a smudge of yellow shone between the shifting boughs.
“This is it?” asked the king.
“He’s lived out here for years,” said Besz. “Never sees anyone. He’s perfect. No-one even knows his name.”
“Very well. Follow me to the hovel but stay outside. Make sure no-one else comes in while I’m … busy.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Besz and Lucian sat together on the step of the ramshackle hovel. The sweet smell of pine woodsmoke from the peasant’s fire inside filled the air. The shadowy bulk of the mountains blanked out the stars to their left. In the moonlight, Besz could just see the line of footsteps they had made, winding between the trees to lead up to the peasant’s door.
He talked, louder than necessary in the muffled hush of the winter night. He talked to drown out the sounds from within: the scuffling, the blows, the sobbing, the screams.
“So you know what you have to do?” he said to Lucian.
Lucian nodded, breathing into his clenched fists. Besz just hoped he wasn’t frostbitten. He’d be useless as a lute player then.
“I’ll do what you need, don’t worry. I’ll make sure the right story gets out. A simple tune and some pretty words and people will soon think that’s what really happened here.”
“Just make it good.”
“I could have stayed back at the castle and done that, you know.”
“I think the king wanted you to be very clear about what he’s capable of. To those he doesn’t like.”
Lucian nodded, but didn’t reply.
The king emerged from the hovel, then, wide eyed, breathing deeply. He wiped blood from his mouth. Blood that was not his own.
“Bury the body,” he said. “What’s left of it. Then we return to the castle.”
“You are sated, my lord?”
“Until the spring, when the roads out of the kingdom open again. Now dig.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The effort of digging the grave warmed them up. The minstrel, not used to hard work, merely scraped away at the frozen surface. The king sat some distance away against a tree, impervious to the cold, of course, not watching them. Perhaps he slept.
“What will you call it?” asked Besz. “Your song.” He had to stand on the spade, the peasant’s own spade, to force it into the frozen ground.
“The Good King,” said Lucian, breathing hard. “Something like that.”
Besz nodded. That would do. People would believe that.
Once they had buried the remains they trudged their way back through the snow to the warmth of the castle, following the footsteps of Wenceslas, the king.
Simon Kewin's fiction, poetry and computer software, although usually not at the same time. His fiction and poetry has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. He lives in the UK with Alison and their two daughters Eleanor and Rose. His web site is http://simonkewin.co.uk and his blog is http://spellmaking.blogspot.com.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I don’t think there’s any great mystery about that. I think we all make sense of the world through stories. We gossip our experiences to each other in the form of little tales. The media calls events in the news "stories". I think our brains have evolved to form narratives and all a writer does is set them down. And, I suppose, jumble up ideas and associations from a variety of different places to form something new. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about doing so.