Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



Today, we present a melancholy fable of swordplay and honour, with a hint of a Shakespearian-flavour in the prose style...

 

The Blind King

by
Haris Anvar


 T HE RIDER DISMOUNTED BEFORE the crackling fire, a dozen men crouched around its ruby glow. To the north, the binery suns just broke the slaty horizon.

"How played the battle?" asked the rider. "I saw no K'Tangs upon the field, yet everywhere is there a melancholy air. Is the day ours or theirs?"

A man with a beard of silver answered solemnly, "Ours, herald."

"And Arzidoth?"

"The K'Tang king is dead," said another of those by the fire. "His men have either fled or provide victuals to the ravens."

"Then we are victorious?"

"Oye," agreed Silver-beard.

The herald crossed his arms and surveyed the small group with a wry grin. "Then why the dour mien? Has victory such a sour taste?"

"It is the king," said a cherub-faced man, his right arm in a sling.

The newcomer's features grew slack. "What has happened? Speak! Is he dead?"

"Worse," said a dark haired man.

A stern look from Silver-beard stilled his tongue.

"Worse?" persisted the rider. "How so, Cutter?"

Cutter maintained a grudging silence, as did Silver-beard. It fell to the cherub-faced man to say, softly, "He is blind."

"Blind?" The blood drained from the rider's face. "How?"

"He wrastled with Arzidoth in the wreck of the K'Tang encampment. Arzidoth smote his face with a burning torch. He would have been killed had not the Salamander arrived and slain the K'Tang king." The young man sighed.

Almost as one, the thirteen men slowly turned their eyes toward the grand tent at their backs, wherein resided their lord.

**************

The king sat upon a stool before his fire, crimson light licking shadows across his features, clinging black smoke drifting lazily toward the hole in the ceiling. Around his broad shoulders was wrapped a blanket to ward off the morning chill. He was a surprisingly young man, and not unhandsome, though the flesh of his cheeks and forehead was red and flaking. He sat quietly, as if alone in all the world.

Two figures stood in the shadows by the entrance. An ancient woman, garbed in a cowled robe, and a man, younger by comparison though his close-cropped hair was flecked with snow, dressed in the remnants of battle gear.

"What news, medicine woman?" the latter whispered.

The old woman shrugged. "The king is in good health," she responded, equally muted. "The flesh will mend, Salamander."

"And his eyes? Will he see again?"

The physician hesitated.

"Answer him, medicine woman," came a quiet voice, a trace of dry irony to the tones. "Will the king see?"

Surprised, the two looked to the seated figure, still facing the dancing flames.

The old woman cleared her throat. "I would, uh, hesitate to...presume, my lord. You are the king, after all," she glanced uncomfortably at the Salamander, "and the gods favour our kings," she finished lamely.

"I see," muttered the young man. "Short of divine intervention then, I am blind?"

The old woman grimaced then, pleadingly, began, "My lord, I-"

"Enough." The king waved a hand dismissively. "Tend to those who can still benefit from your learned maintenance."

"Oye, my lord." She bowed toward her blind lord and, gratefully, exited the tent. The Salamander remained.

After a moment, the king turned milky eyes in his direction. A vague smile touched his lips. "And what can I do for you, old friend?"

"Your eyes may be faithless," said the other with feigned good humour, "but your other senses do not betray you."

"A fine consolation."

The Salamander shuddered at the melancholy irony in his voice. "I should fetch your servants."

The king shrugged. "Before you go, another blanket if you would. A chill runs through my bones."

The Salamander stared. Was he not already so enwrapped and seated by a roaring fire? Then he sadly shook his head. "Of course, my lord." Gathering another blanket, he drapped it about the king's shoulders in a stifling silence.

**************

Outside, the Salamander found the thirteen soldiers murmuring in subtle voices about the fire. As he approached, they fell silent. The Salamander motioned to two youths huddled by another fire. "Your king has need of you," he said. Then he crouched beside Silver-beard.

"How is the king?" asked the rider.

"In good health," the Salamander replied wearily.

"But blind," grumbled Cutter.

The Salamander glanced at him sharply. "Blind eyes have seen again."

"Not when kissed by flame. Bah! What would a peasant know of such matters?"

The Salamander stood. "I like not your tone, friend Cutter."

"You have no place among noble-born warriors," insisted he. "Your place is among the foot-soldiers." Cutter motioned vaguely in the direction of the main army. "Only a sentimental fool would elevate his childhood servant to the position of an advisor."

"That is enough," commanded Silver-beard, stoking the fire with a long rod. "The king saw fit to make the Salamander his aide, and I, for one, am content to abide by our lord's wisdom."

"His decisions must be honoured so long as he draws breath," Cutter reminded them all. "Then it is for a new king to say who will stand at his side."

"The king is in no danger of dying." Silver-beard's voice was soft, almost resigned.

"Not from his wounds."

"You go too far, you treasonous cur!" The Salamander made as if to circle the fire, but Silver-beard's out-stretched arm halted him.

"We have had fighting enough, methinks," he said. "But you are too bold by far, Cutter," he added.

Cutter threw up his arms. "I say only what we all are thinking. Oye, even you, Salamander, for all your sanctimoniousness. By all the gods of heaven and earth, our king is blind! He can lead us no more into battle, plan no strategies." He scanned the circle of brooding listeners desperately. "Our king is our signature. If he be healthy, then we are viewed as a strong nation, if he is not, then every kingdom from Dar'jion to the Walkintons will be at us to test our mettle."

"There is more to ruling than battles," the Salamander said.

"Of course," Cutter sneered. "Our young lord, so much the reformer his father never was. He can provide medicine to the sick, education to the poor...like yourself. Things that would destroy our wealth and show us as all the weaker to our enemies!"

"And who would replace him?" asked the cherub-faced man. "He has no wife, nor progeny."

The Salamander laughed mirthlessly. "I think we know whose shoulders Cutter fancies broad enow for a royal mantle."

"And why not?" Cutter demanded. "Am I not the finest swordsman here? Was it not my blood-steamed blade which won the war?"

"You praise the garnish and curse the goose," intoned Silver-beard. "The king's strategies made the day."

"And, regardless," the Salamander insisted. "he still spews treason."

"Treason is to bring him home! The people will not follow a blind king. They will turn on him...and us. It will tear our land apart!"

The Salamander waited for the others to raise voices in protest. Silence alone greeted the breeze. "Are you so faithless?" he demanded. "We speak of our king, and you propose to dispense with him like dinner scraps? Where is your honour? Your loyalty?" He knew something of the truth, though. While the old king reigned, his son had had little taste for the court, spending scant time there. He had only worn the crown a short while ere war broke. These men -- thirteen warriors, so brave and true -- did not know him. Their loyalty was to his position, not necessarily to the man who held it.

A one-eyed man coughed. "Consider it from his shoes, friend. What life could he hope to live if blind?" He motioned to his own scarred face. "I know something whereof I speak. It would be mercy, perhaps, to draw closed his sightless blinds."

"Your compassion tugs my heart," sneered the Salamander, "and turns my stomach."

"We cannot deny it would make things simpler -- less painful -- for us all if he were not to return with us," spoke another.

"He led you to victory! You owe him!"

"Perhaps," came the gentle voice of Silver-beard, "it would be wiser if you left us."

The Salamander turned, mouth agape.

"You have made your position clear, adding greatly to our insight," he continued, refusing to meet the other's gaze. "Now, we must decide the matter in an atmosphere more conducive to free debate."

The Salamander made to speak, then, realizing the futility, turned and stormed away.

**************

The king was dressed now in a soft robe rather than uncomfortable battle- leather. One servant sorted his bloodied gear while the other poured a glass of hot wine. Goblet in hand, the lad stared unsurely at his king.

"My lord? Your drink."

The king held out a hand aimlessly and the youth took his wrist and placed the goblet securely in his palm.

Observing this awkward scene, the Salamander allowed the doorflap to settle behind him. Hearing the rustle, the king turned. "Who is there?"

"I, the Salamander."

The king's features softened. Motioning with his free hand, he said, "Leave us."

The servants glanced up, then quietly departed.

"Come, warm yourself."

Dragging a stool over to the flames, the Salamander settled with a grunt.

"All is well in the camp, I trust?"

The Salamander shrugged, then remembered his companion's handicap. "Oye," he said aloud. "Considering the heavy loses."

"The dead would have weighed heavier had the K'Tangs crossed the border."

"True. Your battle wisdom will be the stuff of sonnets for generations."

The king laughed. "I hope I will inspire gentler bards than those, my friend. Have you forgotten our plans? A meal in every home; a lord of every peasant? When we return, we will set the establishment to rout. I will forge the most just kingdom the world has known."

Was there a touch of bitterness in his voice? wondered the Salamander. Was he, even now, aware of the scene that was playing just beyond his door?

"I had meant," continued the king, "to break my blade upon returning -- a symbol of our new reliance on intellect and commerce and not on a cutting steel." He stared blankly at his cup as the firelight modeled his face with dancing shadows. "I suppose it would be a pointless gesture now... considering." A smile tugged at his lips.

"There is more to ruling than a strong arm."

"Is that sentiment shared by all? I doubt Cutter would concure, nor many of the others. They thought me weak enough when I made known my intention of reform. What must they think now, eh?"

The Salamander said nothing.

After a long moment of quiet contemplation, broken only by the hissing and cackling of the flames, the king threw backed his head. "Oh, gods!" he moaned. "We had such hope. Such determination."

Startled, the Salamander stared at his old friend. Belatedly, he realized the king's use of the past tense. "What-?"

"Do not condescend to me!" the king snarled. "That is the one blow I could not withstand."

The Salamander fell silent, his hollow commiserations left unsaid upon his tongue.

"Think you I am unaware of what my 'brave' troops must be thinking? Perhaps even discussing boldly, as though mere comments upon the weather? Gods take those hypocrites!" He leapt up, overturning his stool and losing his goblet to the hungry flames. "They see me blind and, therefore, think I have no mind with which to think, no arm with which to fight!" He took a step but, in his unseeing state, stumbled and would have fallen had not the Salamander caught him.

"Easy," said the older man.

The king stiffened, perhaps only then truly recognizing his helplessness. After a moment, he whispered, "Will it be an accident? Or shall I be boldly plucked as if a distasteful weed?"

The Salamander stared at his friend's rigid features.

"Answer me, damn you!"

"They had not decided. They had not even decided to remove you." He sighed. "It was just talk."

"One does not 'just talk' of a king's murther unless one is confident there will be no objectors."

"I objected."

His features softened. "Oye. But you stood alone, I take it?"

The Salamander looked down.

Then a queer look played upon the king's face. "Have they decided who will sit upon my throne?"

"Cutter, in all likelihood."

The king nodded, as if thinking it inevitable. "Take me to them: I would confront my court."

The Salamander hesitated, then led him out into the grey morning's cool breeze. Those around the fire looked up in surprise.

Stopping before the fire, the king said proudly, "How does the morning find you all?"

Mumbled grunts and averted eyes was their response. So, thought the Salamander, it is decided. The king dies.

"Where is Cutter?" inquired the king.

Cutter shifted his gaze from the king to his companion. "Here."

"I understand you think your blood runs more blue than mine now does."

Cutter stiffened, then shrugged. "It is no personal slight. A strong man must rule, that is all."

"Naturally." The king's sightless eyes scanned the horizon. "It is not an easy chore, kingship. The hardest ordeal must, I think, be the ascension. You did intend to meet me in a duel, I trust?"

"A duel? What honour is their in fighting a sightless man?"

"More honour than slitting his throat while he sleeps!" the king snapped suddenly.

Those around the fire were silent as this sunk in, then Cutter snorted. "Absurd. I will not fight you."

"Wait," interjected Silver-beard. "The king is correct. If you wish to be a king, Cutter, you must first beard one."

"It would be like butchering a new-born babe," protested Cutter.

"If the king wishes it that way," he insisted, "then we can honour that desire."

"Good," said the king abruptly. "Let us be done with it at once. Salamander, lead me to my tent."

**************

"Your audacity is second only to the gods, my lord, but your wisdom is weak." The Salamander looked upon the seated king. "Cutter is our finest swordsman."

"I am not unfamiliar with a blade," he said dryly.

"It is madness!" insisted the Salamander.

"Better than awaiting a knife in the back, a bitter taste in my food."

"There must be another alternative. You could resign. Leave the kingdom."

The king chuckled quietly. "Only a madman would sit astride a throne under the shadow of the righful king. One dynasty must end ere another can begin. Otherwise, there remains the potential for uncivil war."

"Then allow me to stand as your champion."

The king shook his head. "You are a competent swordsman. But against Cutter?"

"I would have a better chance than would you in your...condition."

"If you lose, we both die. If I lose, only I shall be slain. Logic dictates, therefore, that I fight. Your nobility does you credit, old friend, but I will not have you discard your life for love of me."

"That is your decision?" he asked in a voice that struck an odd note of finality.

"It is."

The Salamander hesitated, then raised a trembling fist. "Forgi-"

"Conversely..."

He stopped, unclenching his fingers.

"...perhaps truth does dwell in what you say. Mayhap you are better suited to the duel than I."

The Salamander grinned. "Oye, my lord."

"You would honour me, however, if you would carry my own blade against him."

The Salamander gasped. "It is you who would honour me, my lord. I-"

"It was left with the blacksmith," he explained, "to be cleaned."

"I will fetch it." The Salamander turned quickly, eager that the king not have time to reconsider.

"Send in my servants," the king called.

"Oye." He ducked out into the morning air. In the northern sky, Stakla, the sun, and her sister star, Mir, stared mutely upon the camp. Most of the soldiers had gathered for the duel, choking the grounds with the press of bodies. Spying the king's servants, the Salamander motioned them to their master. Then he squeezed through the crush of men, in the direction of the blacksmith's tent.

**************

It took him all of five minutes to reach the blacksmith's tent using, as he was, a leisurely gait. Like the rest of the men, the blacksmith had gone to witness the duel. He was not needed, though. The Salamander could readily recognize the king's sword.

He scanned the table of mended swords, then sifted through the heap of damaged and bloodied blades upon which the blacksmith had been working. The Salamander peered into the shadows, but saw no overlooked glint of steel. Shrugging, he headed back whence he'd come. The king was becoming absent-minded, he concluded. It took almost a minute before another possibility occurred to him.

The Salamander broke into a run.

**************

Shouldering through the press of bodies, the Salamander heard the clang of steel on steel. He pushed to the front of the crowd and saw in the circle formed by the spectators the king, dressed only in leather, standing silently as Cutter, wrapped in heavy chain-mail, circled warily. The king bled from a gash in his thigh, but it was the torn mail and bloody wound stitched across Cutter's abdomen that shocked the Salamander.

"The gods must favour him greatly," muttered Silver-beard.

The Salamander, not having recognized the man at his side, turned. "Why is the crowd so quiet? I'd have expected a-cheering and a-jeering from the lot of them."

"The king's edict. We must remain quiet as a morning dew."

Cutter lunged, his blade cleaving downward, but the king leapt sideways. Hitting the ground, he swung his broadsword, catching Cutter across the shin. Cutter's mail held and no blood spouted, but he grimaced visibly as he stumbled back from his uncanny foe.

The Salamander watched amazed as the king rose and turned, unerringly, toward his opponent. What sorcery was this? he wondered.

Cutter charged, mail rustling. The king side-stepped and the thrust meant for his heart tore open his arm instead. As Cutter's momentum carried him past, the king slammed his pommel into the man's face and Cutter tumbled to the ground. The king, stopping not to nurse his grievous wound, smote down upon Cutter's mailed back. A rib cracked audibly.

Snorting with pain, Cutter heaved to his feet and swung a hasty blow at the king's head. It connected, but with the flat of the blade only. Battered, both men stumbled away from each other.

"Of course," the Salamander muttered suddenly.

"Eh?" asked Silver-beard.

"The king fights with his ears, not his eyes. That is why we are ordered to be silent, why the king wears no mail. Cutter betrays himself with every step."

His eyes widening, Silver-beard mumbled, "He is a canny one."

The combatants faced each other unsteadily.

The king stared downward, ears intent on stripping every nuance from the sounds he heard. Cutter's ragged breathing, the shuffling of sand beneath his feet, the clink of mail.

Cutter studied his foe with something akin to nervous fear. With a roar, he charged, blade high, confident the king would side-step like before.

He was wrong.

The king held his ground. As Cutter charged, the king thrust his sword forward, allowing his foe's own momentum to finish the matter. The point tore through the opening in the front of Cutter's mail, sank into his entrails and, in a gout of crimson, erupted out the other side. But in his waning seconds of life, Cutter hacked down upon the king's unprotected shoulder, tearing through bone and flesh.

They fell.

Rushing to his king, the Salamander crouched and cradled his head in his arms. "My lord?" he choked.

"Sal-Salamander?" gasped the young king, his blank eyes staring skyward. "How-how went the fight?"

The Salamander spared a glance at Cutter's still form. "Cutter is dead," whispered he, his eyes shimmering. "You are still king."

The king tried to chuckle, but dark blood issued from between his lips. He spat.

"My lord, it is I, Silver-beard," came the other's voice. "You have proven yourself truly worthy of your kingdom's fidelity."

"I am...warmed by your confidence."

The irony in his tone was not lost on Silver-beard. "Can you forgive us our doubts?" he asked, aware the king's grasp on life was waning.

"Regrettably..." -- he choked up more blood -- "..a-a cha-change of heart after the fact is...rather beside the point." He attempted to wipe the blood from his lips, but found that neither arm would respond. "The deed is duh-done. I have bes-bested the kingdom's greatest swordsman. Now I die. I, uh," he winced, "I ha-have no intention of salving your...con-conscience by forgiving you your prejudices. Sa-Salamander?"

"I am here."

"Would you...turn me toward the suns?"

"The sisters light your face as we speak," the Salamander whispered.

"Good. I have always fan-fancied the sight of the morning sun..." His head slumped lazily against the Salamander's chest. With a gurgled sigh, the king issued his final breath.

The End.



 
 

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