The king was a popular monarch, one loved by peasant and noble alike for his generosity, his courage, and his dedication. His taxes were the lightest in all the world, his patronage of the arts and trades made the kingdom rich and cultured to a degree hitherto unseen. Yet when war came to the doorstep, the King of Poets and Song would transform into a Devil of War and Death, as his blade sang a grisly dirge through the bodies and souls of those who would dare threaten his people. This was an age of empires, and the king was ever ready to ensure that his land would be vassal to none.
The story of how the king came to rule has been told and retold so often, many a child of the kingdom could recite it by heart. Reams of parchment charting the king's early years as a thief, adventurer, mercenary, pirate, bandit and general comprise an entire wing of the Royal Library; minstrels sing sagas of his wars and quests on street corners, some composed by the king himself; frescos and reliefs of his adventures in far-off climes and long-lost ruins adorn city walls, his greatest accomplishments of strength and heroism rendered in marble and bronze statues, re-enactments of his legend performed in street theatre. More than any king the land had ever seen, the present king, called the Lion by many, was a living legend.
In his palace in the capital, the Lion lay dying.
In the mountains of the Border Range lies a plateau, through which runs an ancient road, one of the vital trade routes among the many kingdoms. So prized and strategically valuable it is, the blood spilt over it would fill lakes and oceans: bandits raided caravans bearing jade from the far east; roving tribes of blond-haired barbarians sacked the outlying guard towers; armies clashed over control of the pass, territory exchanging hands back and forth over the centuries. The king's final battle was fought over this plateau.
The kingdom's eastern neighbours were ever mindful of their failed invasions over the last hundred years, and the avaricious eyes of the nobility were ever cast westward. The king had united all the nations against an empire from the shores of an eastern sea - but without a common foe to strive against, those same kingdoms returned to their petty feuds and imperial ambitions. So it was that two of the proudest kingdoms of the world battled over dominion of the heartlands.
This battle was like many the two nations had fought before: the king always fought alongside the infantry, their hearts swelling with pride. The arbalesters of the eastern kingdom were formidable, but the vassal longbowmen of the western kingdom had greater range and armour, keeping the arbalesters from entering the killing range. Nonetheless, they continued to rain their bolts upon the infantry, the missiles mostly rattling harmlessly off the broad shields and strong caps of the pikemen. Volley after volley would come, and the arbalesters would continue to launch until the battle was over.
One bolt found its mark.
None knew which of the archers had loosed the bolt which felled the mightiest king of the age: the matter would be cause for endless and futile debate and speculation. All that is known is that as the eastern infantry started to route, the western infantry began to pursue and break formation. The king sprinted to the cavalry wing, and mounted his great black stallion, leading the cavalry into a charge. Even with the mounting panic at seeing the infantry fleeing, the arbalesters kept firing into the enemy mass, desperately hoping that a bolt may find a gap in the nigh-impenetrable armour as the knights and men-at-arms started to enter the killing range. As the knights thundered across the battlefield, many of the arbalesters started to flee: some remained, resolute and resigned to their fate. The final volley only saw a handful of bolts fly skyward. It was enough. The king suddenly reined in his stallion, losing momentum fast. He slumped backwards. The commander of the bodyguard later recalled seeing the crossbow bolt had struck between the gorget and the helm. The bolt was lodged in the king's neck.
The battle was won: for all the remaining arbalest's bravery, it was all for naught, as they were run down by the raging cavalry. Any hope of identifying the man who felled the Lion was crushed under the hooves of the western destriers.
The Lion was never truly at ease with the soft trappings of civilization. Born and raised in a naked land where survival was bought by sword and sinew, the silken luxuries and voluptuous comfort afforded by his station felt artificial and false. Yet now, surrounded by his queen, his sons and daughters, his seraglio, his friends, his most trusted nobles and advisers, his squires and pages: his dark, scarred face was younger than it had been for decades. His body ached with exertion and blood streamed from a ghastly wound in his neck, yet he felt more alive than he had in months - years, even. He knew he would not savour the sensation for long, but he was not done with the earth yet.
He beheld the congregation. The captain of the guard faced the door, ever mindful of his duty, though a subtle acknowledgement only the king could recognize betrayed his true focus. His closest confidant, still young and lithe after all these years, smiled broadly despite the pain evident in his eyes. His seneschal, son of an old friend and just as taciturn and gloomy as his father, did not meet the Lion's gaze. The councillor, a newcomer - the stress of the position has seen many come and go over the years - wrung his hands in characteristic nervousness. An olive-faced priest in black robes stood quietly, nodding slightly. And in the shadowed recesses, an old woman stood, her heel firmly planted on the black outline of some apish shadow. She had been old for a long time.
Closer to the royal bed were his family. Several infants crawled among the covers, curiously quiet and agile for their age; a girl of eight, all of steel springs and whalebone, leaned on a training sword; a boy of twelve clutched his mother's hand. Few of these were legitimate heirs to the throne in the eyes of the kingdom's laws of succession, but to the king, blood is thicker than ink, and all those he sired were raised as he would were he still a pantherskin-clad barbarian of the north. All were brought up as he was - at least, as well as one can be brought up to be independent and strong of will in a civilized land - regardless of what some antiquated custom said. To think that this pack of half-wild wolves were the ruling dynasty of the proudest civilization in the world! This pleased the king mightily, as much for the irony of the situation as for his pride.
Two faces among the gathered held the king's attention most firmly. His wife, closest to him, was stronger than anyone he knew. He never endured slavery; he never bore indignity upon indignity as she was forced to for much of her life; he never truly knew what it was to be powerless as she did. Yet a slave who was once a nameless seraglio girl took to royal life as if it was her birthright. So great and genuine was her love for the king that she did not seek to exploit or manipulate him. What lack of sophist guile or diplomatic deficiencies the king suffered, his queen compensated for effortlessly.
The other face was that of the king's eldest daughter, and heir to the throne. The princess and the king rarely saw eye to eye, and the walls of the palace often trembled with the thunder of their disagreements. The queen had a hard time acting as mediator between the enraged tiger and the strident she-wolf. Yet the frequent contentions between father and daughter belied the truth: that they were most alike of all the family. Her independent spirit, her thirst for learning, even her disdain and incompetence in matters of civilized etiquette and courtesy reminded the king of himself. All the more frustrating for him to feel compelled to temper that fire with a respect for the kingdom that he himself sometimes wonders deserves such an honour.
There were others crowding around - ambassadors, priests, nobles, barons, counts, and various gentry - making quite a display of their grief. If any of the king's closer friends noticed how the songs of grief they sounded now were of a somewhat different cadence than the spiteful and venomous tunes they twittered not a few days ago, they did not deign to acknowledge the occurrence. The king noticed, and ordered them out. He had no time for their nonsense in life, and he did not intend on wasting any of his last moments.
The blackness came more frequently now, claiming the king's consciousness for longer durations. And upon each awakening, the world seemed stranger to him: the once vibrant gold and blue lapis lazuli of the throne room drained into brass and slate; the rich tapestries and velvet hangings faded like cobwebs in mist; the faces of those he loved seemed obscured by the ever thickening veil between worlds. As the faces of his wife, children and brothers-in-arms became blurs, other faces formed and sharpened. Blond-bearded warriors in mail and horned helms roaring and laughing in a great hall; a tousle-headed youth and stalwart mongrel accompanied by saints and a long-bearded sage; an ivory goddess with a black night of hair and burning black eyes, side by side with decadent black-bearded gods.
Blackness again. When the king awoke this time, he was faced with a new phantasm. All the world seemed grey and grim, shrouded in perpetual mist and night. But populating that realm was a seemingly endless host of dark, black-haired figures, wandering cheerlessly in the fog. Foremost of them all were two men and a woman. The king recognized them, at least as they were in life. In life, the woman gave birth to a boy in the midst of a battle. The older man told a boy of the wonders of the lands south of his home, regaling him with tales of adventures and mysteries that inflamed his young mind. The younger man was once a blacksmith without a drop of noble blood, whose son became a king.
Visions of what awaited the king when the final blackness claimed him forever? The delirious fever dreams of a dying man? The king knew not, nor did he care. Whatever lay in wait for him in the world beyond the world, he was not finished yet.
The king heard many legends of his reign over the course of his life. As is often the case with legends, any resemblance to the truth is largely coincidental. He listened to bards, minstrels and skalds recite grand and frequently contradictory tales. He heard the saga of a doe-eyed barbarian waif sold into slavery, who undertook a lifelong quest to avenge the murder of his family and slaughter of his people; another - altered for the benefit of those with a genteel temperament - befuddled the king with inanities like talking phoenix chicks, "star-metal" and a lizard-sorcerer; yet another tale told of his village's destruction by a warlord seeking a mask with which to resurrect an ancient kingdom. The king laughed greatly and deeply at these stories, for who could possibly mistake these just-so stories for those of the true king?
He did not care for the accuracy of the legends, so long as the true chronicles were made available for all, and placed separately from the tall tales. Let the poets and minstrels have their fun, so long as they do not claim to be historians. But the king realised that it was not just he who would be affected by the dilution and confusion of history with legend: what of the kingdom, his family, his friends? What of all those for whom he spilt his blood as freely as that of his enemies?
The eyes of the king rested on his eldest daughter. The king spoke, a rivulet of blood starting fresh from the wound in his neck, a hoarseness evident in his speech. All in the room fell silent. He did not drown his daughter with compliments or praise, nor did he bestow upon her any fine heirlooms or treasures. All that he asked was that she listen to his final commands as king. He recited a litany of demands: foreign policy, domestic affairs, laws, amendments, decrees. She listened intently, wondering why her father was so determined to ensure these trivial concerns would be carried on after his death.
At the end, the king sighed deeply. He grasped his wife and kissed her fiercely. He gathered the infants and children close. The king sighed again, and lay still. He did not breathe again. For a moment it seemed all the warmth and colour in the world drained away, as if the sun closed its eye on the earth. The queen's face twisted in a contortion of grief. After an eternity, the king's daughter walked to the balcony. A hush fell on the gathered crowd outside.
None in the king's chamber looked at the late monarch's face, overcome with grief as they were. The queen buried her face on her husband's shoulder, the youngest children huddled around the king, like wolf cubs settling down for the night. They heard the princess address the throng of mourners, but could not understand the words through the sheets and grief. They did not hear the Princess disobey her father's last wishes: she resolutely ignored or reversed every one as she saw fit. The king heard every word.
As the princess continued to speak, breaking more and more of her father's laws, the Lion finally passed - with his weary and tired expression melted away, revealing a countenance brightened with the proudest of smiles.
*This piece was inspired by Steve Tompkins' outstanding and deeply moving semi-fictional piece on the 75th Anniversary of a certain Texan's most famous creation: in the year of that barbarian's 80th anniversary, I thought it would be nice to post it on his creator's 106th birthday to tie the two together.