The Prodigal King
The king lay on his deathbed, his thick silver beard heavy upon a chest that rose and fell in shallow motion. It swelled slightly only to fall with an exhausted sigh, the bellows of his strength weaker with every cadence of his breathe. In allargando tempo it prepared for the moment when spirit of necessity would leave the flesh to find its fate.
Forty years he had reigned on a throne older than recorded history itself. It had held more of his ancestors than that same history could number. He, faithful to the high birth of his blood and the royal house of Yrret, had been a good sovereign. The land and its people flourished under his rule, suffering little; even during the great drought of a decade before. Admired by his subjects, he was respected as a wise leader in all matters of state and a discerning judge in all matters of justice. He was the latest and some say greatest of kings over the land of Smaerd.
He was not to be the last however, and with his remaining minutes in the world he stared at his son, Rialcnis. The strength for ought else was gone. So he simply stared… stared and hoped and wondered —mainly wondered.
For all his efforts the king had not been able to instil within his son the importance of what was soon to become his –the Crown of Smaerd. Not only the weighty responsibility and duty of leadership it entailed, but the privilege and honour of having such a power simply given to you. Rialcnis would never know need, would have the opportunity and resources to meet almost any want he imagined. Yes there would be sacrifices and demands, but all great blessings required of you that; and the crown was of the greatest of blessings.
Why can’t my son see that?
The king wheezed a frail sigh. He wanted to let the thought go, allow his last minutes to be spent dwelling on peaceful thing; but peace eluded him. The crown had been his life and he could not have peace with so many details about its succession lingering in the cold grey realm of doubt. He had failed to make his son understand. Rialcnis forever seemed to be looking on the other side of the fence, as if fearful to miss out on some greener pasture of possibilities, blind to the abundant prospects that were his to wade through every day.
Just like his mother! The king thought to himself, and a tear formed at the corner of his eye as he remembered a more favourable trait of his late wife. How he longed to see her again. Does she watch me now?
Questions on the fast approaching afterlife begun to populate his thoughts, and with effort he suppressed them with a mentally held fist. Bit late to start thinking about that, you old goat. You’ll find out soon enough.
He forced his thoughts back to his son, realising then that it was also a mite late to do anything more about him either. In fact, it was a bit late to do anything more at all —with anything. With that thought the king of Smaerd closed his eyes and gave up the ghost.
Rialcnis felt the life drain from his father, the sudden limp hand seeming to chill in his own. He shed a few quiet tears then, having held them back until this moment, knowing his father would have wanted it so; the late king had possessed some rather antiquated notions about being a man. As they fell the tears formed a darkened patch on the purple silk sheets.
The priest who’d sat the death vigil placed the white and barely opaque burial mask over his father’s face; believed by some to stop demons from claiming the vacant body.
It was a startling thing to grasp; the death of his father. Rialcnis had believed the man indomitable. He could never recall his father being sick nor injured, never even weary. Not that he’d admitted anyway; though the eyes had at times spoken differently. Now he was gone. It was a heavy thought and weighed like an anchor upon Rialcnis’s soul.
‘Gone’, He thought aloud, and was surprised when the priest answered. ‘Yes, Prince Rialcnis, gone, and I would feel better within if he’d been as good servant to God as he was to the crown. He gave just too much thought to this world with all its cares and deceits I fear, spared not enough for the next. But…’ The priest’s words trailed off into a murmur.
Rialcnis stared at the man as he finished his sacred rites, most surprised at the priest words, spoken so ominously of his father's soul. ‘But, what?’ He asked in a mixed tone.
The priest almost seemed to jump at Rialcnis’s voice, his slack-jowled chin continuing to wobble long after the rest of his face composed itself.
He was the Chief Priest within the royal city of Neveah, but a man Rialcnis had never spoken more than a greeting toward in all his years. He realised with some surprise that this man had been priest for the royal house for at least as long as Rialcnis was old.
‘But what?’ He repeated. He couldn’t remember the priests’ name. Tobeus, he thought it was.
‘Ah. My prince, I am terribly sorry. With age has come the tendency to speak aloud thoughts intended only for the heart. Please do not take offence I pray.’
‘I take no offence, Servant Tobeus-’ he hoped that was his name, ‘-but what were you going to say? Answer your prince.’ Rialcnis was practiced in the art of soft-spoken insistence.
Tobeus sighed, vibrating his lips as he did so, resulting in a sound not unlike a snorting horse. He looked intently at Rialcnis for a moment as if trying to foresee the young mans response. Then with a palm raised gesture of resignation he said, ‘Prince Rialcnis, what I was going to say. Well in fact, I wasn’t going to say it, I just wanted to think it, but it appears I started saying it and therefore I suppose now is not the time to wish back words-’. He noticed Rialcnis' lowered eyebrows. ‘-I was thinking, aloud, a rhyme I am often prompted to remember as Chief Priest and therefore vigil keeper over many deathbeds. It is one I say to myself so as not to be brought down by things beyond my control. It reads; ‘Once is but our life here lived, a chance of hope in living; when once tis gone hope unattained the next life won’t be given.’
Rialcnis blinked in the old mans face, his mind chewing over what it’d just heard. It might as well have been chewing on his sword. ‘What on earth is that supposed to mean?’ He raised his hand before the priest could add conundrum to confusion, ‘And please don’t answer me with another riddle. My father always said getting a clear answer out of a priest was like milking a starving cow.’ Rialcnis did feel a mild sympathy for Tobeus, regardless of his tone, but his emotions were a tad raw at the present and he felt little desire to restrain them, wherever they flowed. To his rankled surprise, the priest merely smiled at his words.
‘My prince, it is true that your father often rebuffed our council as being, how did he put it? Ah, yes, “About as useful as a discarded foreskin”. However it was more, if I may speak freely?-’ Rialcnis nodded with a frown, ‘-More the fact he didn’t ask us what we meant than there actually being a lack of meaning to what we said.
'He was a good king in many ways-’, his eyes drew the princes to the still form on the bed, and Tobeus continued in a whisper as if afraid the departed king might hear ‘-but he found it far too easy to reject what he didn’t understand the first time, without giving it its proper regard. Do you agree?’ Tobeus spoke like a man picking hornets from his wife’s hair, wary of the fact that they could sting him. More concerned, however, that they might sting her; and what she'd do to him if they did.
It was Rialcnis who felt like smiling now, but the thought reminded of his hearts heaviness and kept the grin from touching more than his lips. He still admired the man’s openness though. In fact he was amazed at the man's courage, to speak such of a just dead king in front of a mourning prince.
While the priest rattled on, Rialcnis considered his father. He knew what Tobeus spoke was true. His father did have –had- a rather shallow approach to the bigger questions of life, not unintelligent, just lacking depth. Rialcnis looked with mixed feelings at the white mask; about as deep as a puddle, he thought to himself.
‘Did you hear me, prince Rialcnis?’
Rialcnis reviewed what his ears had heard but not yet registered; but it seemed he hadn’t heard it very well either. ‘No, I am sorry Tobeus, could you repeat that.’
‘Yes of course. It’s quite simple. We each have only one life within this world, therefore it is up to each person in their time here to prepare for the time to come. In other words: to establish a hope for themselves.’ Tobeus looked sombrely at the king, ‘For once this life is over, so too all possibility of establishing hope.’
‘How so? Are you telling me there’s no hope in the next life?’
‘Well, not quite. This life is for hope my prince, the next for the final reality. Hope is for those that have yet to attain what they desire. But when reality at last greets us, either we shall have what we hoped or not... forevermore.’ Tobeus emphasised the unpleasant prospects of those words with a heavy frown, before adding, ‘Therefore reality will remove the need for hope, either joyously or...’ He left the other unsaid.
At least the man had some tact. Rialcnis had never given much thought to theological questions. A legacy of his father’s influence, he guessed. Thinking of them now, on top of his father’s death, was too much of a sobering thought; Rialcnis not liking at all the possibilities his mind evoked. In fact, thinking about it agitated him enough to say, ‘Well, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you’ve made out, and I’ve had about enough of your riddles. So if you’d close the door on the way out Tobeus, I’d like to be alone with my father for a while.’
‘Why of course, my prince. I apologise for raising these things at such a time,’ he shook his head in genuine self reproach, ‘but it’s just that your father and I were, well, close... in some ways, and I…’ he sighed, ‘Never mind. I’m sorry. Peace be upon you Prince Rialcnis.’ With that the large priest shambled off.
Now alone, Rialcnis turned to his father. He didn’t think he believed in demons, but let the mask remain all the same. Taking a seat a good arm length away from the bed, he simply sat and stared. Stared, hoped, and wondered —Mainly wondered.
He was of mixed emotions. Part of him grieved a lost father, one who’d raised him largely alone with but the help of court attendant's; Rialcnis’s mother having died while he was still young. Another part grieved over a father never known beyond that of authority figure; the prince having always felt more the vassal than royal heir apparent. However the greater part of him, and the loudest, bullied grief and regret aside to affront him with a fear he couldn’t repress, and a desire he couldn’t deny; the fear of the throne and the desire to be free of it.
‘I never asked to be born a prince.’ Rialcnis whispered to the mask. ‘I don’t want your crown, your throne, or your kingdom. I just want to...to... Aghh! I don’t know what I want!’ A frustration, old, deep rooted and long suppressed heaved within him, like a wild horse bucking, attempting to throw off its encumbrance and be unimpeded again. Only this time it succeeded.
Rialcnis looked at his father almost bitterly and said, ‘I’m sorry father, but I cannot follow you. You never understood me, but all I wanted was to have the freedom to do what I want, only freedom, that’s all ..., just freedom.
Rialcnis stood on the stub of rock jutting from the mountain path and looked down upon the city of Neveah; it’s surrounding countryside to north, south and west. The dawn sun shone from behind to illuminate the cities composite shapes and structures in the dazzle of morning glory. From the dark basalt and hard limestone wall that ringed the city to the slate, terracotta, copper and shingled roofs with white marbled columns and arches of the palace imperial, all shone in the morning light with newness disputing its nine centuries old existence.
It was a beautiful city, and large; seven hundred thousand people resided there. Rialcnis had many good memories centred round this place. A childhood filled with not only adventure but the possibilities open only to royal offspring. He had tried most of them, and even stretched a few beyond his royal right; a right designed to counter the responsibility his heritage would one day demand.
Looking down he felt a pang within, knowing the wrong of what he did.
His years till now were those of indulgent privilege. Having taken full advantage of his station, he’d given little thought to why such blessings were his and treated them as mere entitlement; not privilege; not concessions to the burden he was intended to bear, but rather simply perks of birth.
Now he did give thought to it, however unwillingly; conscience holding his peace as ransom to the decisions he was making.
You’ve taken all and given nothing. Even in running away, you’ve taken without giving, conscience whispered.
Rialcnis looked over at the fine stallion grazing contentedly behind him; from the royal stables. He'd taken it upon himself to claim it his own, along with the many provisions in its saddlebags. He felt the weighty amount of coin hanging from the purse at his belt; all from the treasury.
You are a selfish man, Rialcnis. Why do you think only of your wants? To now only run when the price for all those years of ease and abundance is called upon is nothing more than...
His conscience continued its muted clamour, diffused like light through velvet by the shadow of princely self-absorption. Resembling a Town Crier on a busy market day, his moral character wasted its breath ...almost. Rialcnis became slowly aware that, yes, he was indeed doing what he always did, running away from commitment. Now, like a lyre, its string ends pulled in tension to one another, his sense of responsibility resisted an equal aversion to putting that sense to action. Like the string he remained uneasy, wondering why his discernment was so often at odds with his intentions. With a sigh he turned from the lookout. Leading his horse by the reins, he continued along the wide mountain path.
The string tightened.
A week later found him in a pleasant clearing adjacent to a stream. The day was not unlike that on which he’d overlooked his home for what he’d thought the last time. Rialcnis lay on his back, his feet dangling in cool water while hard thoughts negated the soft thick moss beneath him. For a budding adventurer the past week had been anything but adventurous. The tedium of travelling mile after mile on a road if one could call it that that saw few travellers zero, by his last count left the wanderer to do little else but think; the last thing Rialcnis had wanted to do. Mainly because his conscience persisted in running a debate with him every time he did.
Growing up as royalty there had been few things he’d not been allowed to do; few adults having the authority or nerve to discourage a prince from his actions, or rebuke him when he was wrong. That being the case he'd rarely had to battle with the correctness of his choices, nor face up to them when they proved less than wise. Therefore to have his conscience prick him so now, was a fairly new and raw experience. Though he’d learnt while growing up to quite successfully side step convention he’d thought most convention as stupid and burdensome that had always proven easy. Such was not the case with the contention within him now. This wasn’t about etiquette or form but responsibility, need and destiny; both his own and the kingdoms.
For a week he’d tried to out-walk the inner voice of guilt, to crush its arguments with the sound of his footfalls in the opposite direction, to quail its protests by distancing himself from its point of reference. But walking wasn’t enough. Though it distracted the birds of the forest, it failed to even slow his conscience. So, at last, he’d arrived at the stream and lay down, resolved to face this voice one on one, man to man. Of course, his goal was to prove once and for all that he was doing the right thing, and trounce this voice back to where it belonged, a sleeping midget in the recesses of his head....
...That was an hour ago, and he’d lost. Now he lay there in a posture suggesting complete calm; guise to the total frustration within.
As loser he now had a choice. Accept his guilt, do the right thing and return... Or thumb his nose at the small wee voice and presumptuously carry on. Both choices required a sacrifice. Now he was just deciding which one it would be his freedom or his self-respect.
Murmuring a mild profanity, he stood up and spat on the ground as if to curse the spot on which his decision had been made. For a moment he looked longingly up the forest track toward where he had been going. Then, with a sigh that spoke volumes of resignation, he mounted his horse and went the opposite way, believing he could hear that voice singing jubilantly as he did so.
The dulcet tones of the minstrel's voice were at one with his lyre, carrying far on the crisp morning air with an acoustical balance unmatched by any amphitheatre he could recall performing in. The timbre of it quite thrilled him. Unfortunately for the minstrel, as for those who missed hearing it, the sweet refrain reached no human ear; unless one counted the poor near-dead fellow that lay to his left.
Keval had tried to cheer him with a merry tune when they’d first met, approximately four hours past; and would have succeeded if not for the near death experience the man was having; a fact still not having made its way into Keval’s awareness.
The Court Minstrel of Neveah, or ex Court Minstrel as things stood, Keval Levup played only for himself and those few vultures that for some reason had gathered on the rocky perch to his right.
Music was most certainly the first love of the mistrals life, surpassed by only one greater ardour: breathing; which as luck would have it was still his to enjoy, the mountain air not only sweet but resonating marvellously past the larynx.
However, presently it was his third greatest love that pestered by its absence. Eating and drinking; in particular drinking. He’d noticed that with the suns rising that drinking was edging toward love number one. A rarely experienced thirst had him realising he'd soon have to stop singing. Ever the interminable optimist, though, he cheered himself with the thought that at least he could still go on breathing.
Contented, Keval turned to his fellow breather, slapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘All’s not lost friend. At least we can still breathe this beautiful air!’
The reply was a rattling cough followed by the man's eyes rolling up and his head falling limp into Keval’s arms.
Keval held it for a moment before gently laying it to one side. An unpleasant thought had, at last, managed to beg its way through to the minstrel's consciousness. Once there it tentatively whispered, ‘Yes, the air was sweet and the view was indeed spectacular, but had he by chance considered he was slowly running out of life's loves? That "yes", drinking could for a time be put off and singing refrained from, to do so with breathing, however, presented a few greater problems — it being a permanent condition and all.’ Having had its say and feeling at odds with such a new environment, the unpleasant thought bad farewell and dissipated back to where it had come from. However the bad taste it had left behind remained and the perpetual laugh lines upon the bard's cheeks migrated, briefly, to crease his brow in a rare frown.
Keval was caught in an impasse. He struggled to understand what exactly it was he was feeling. It definitely didn’t feel good. He pondered it for a whole hour before finally coming to the conclusion that it was some form of inspiration and he needed to compose a song.
Having subsided to a distant dull throb, his headache had also abated other contentions within him -an underappreciated aspect of pain- and he now walked in a pleasant numbness, his eyes flitting with the butterflies from one side of the woodland path to the other. Therefore it was some moments before his ears distinguished the incongruous sound from those of the forest; singing.
The voice was especially pleasant, though scratchy in places; at which the voice would pause, cough, and then continue as before, pitch perfect.
Rialcnis got the distinct impression the singer was practicing a new tune, or composing one, for there was a definite start-stop-start repetitiveness to it. Pivoting his head to determine direction the prince finally gazed up, following the cliff face he’d mindlessly been walking alongside until he saw two legs overhanging it, one crossed over another as it beat out the rhythm against the granite wall. Some stringed instrument was also played, but Rialcnis saw only the legs.
Calling up between cupped hands, Rialcnis attempted to hail the songster; inquisitive of why and how he’d attained such a perch. It was no small surprise, then, when leaning out to see who hailed him, the singer overextended himself and tipped into space. Odder still to hear him continue to sing as he rapidly descended; the final notes staccato explosions of breathe as his breakneck fall was cushioned by a spruce’s branches and the thick covering of needles at its roots.
Recovering from an initial surrealistic pause, Rialcnis ran to the man’s side expecting nothing less than gore and twisted limbs. Instead he witnessed the man sit up at his approach, shakily and with a decided pallor to his face, yet smiling.
‘Are..., um, are you alright?’ Rialcnis asked hesitantly, presuming the smile a prelude to the finale grin of death.
Blinking, the man noticed the prince and seemed to gain more colour, ‘Brilliant! I couldn’t be better. That was incredible. Did you feel that?’ The last was said as his eyes glazed and he fell back unconscious.
Again it was singing that alerted Rialcnis of his concussed companions rousing; a slurred tune of garbled lyrics and lewd connotations. The prince thought he recognised the man, though from where escaped him. Going by his dress, Rialcnis guessed it likely some royal ball or other courtly function; the style and clothe attesting, if not wealth, to at least a standing well above commoner.
With the songster’s gradual return to reality, the incoherent singing was replaced with moans that escalated quickly to groaning misery. Rialcnis, knowing little-to-nothing of healing, stood waiting to see what happened, until at last the groans turned to whimpers and then words.
“A drink... by means vice or virtuous, someone give me a drink.” The man emphasised his need by smacking his dried lips together, tongue darting between in search of moisture.
Holding his water skin gently to the man’s mouth, Rialcnis was startled when it was ripped from his hands and, raising to his elbows, the thirsty man poured the contents down his throat swallowing the hurried stream like a fish. Only when emptied did he turn his attention back to the prince.
“My undying gratitude to you sir, I believe you may have just saved my life,” he stopped then, looking around with a jolted wide eyed expression before saying, “How did I get here, wasn’t I at the top of a Dead Man’s Crag?”
Rialcnis explained their unique introduction to the bewildered and obviously still concuss singer before asking his own questions.
“My name is Rial,” he thought it wiser to hide his identity for now, “what would your name be sir? For I guess you are a bard, a minstrel, or jongleur of some note.”
As if the prince’s words had enamoured the man, he jumped up, lyre already in hand and was away singing again as if magically restored.
Rialcnis stepped back then, suspecting the strange character either quite mad or infected with some mania inducing disease. However it was the ditty being sung that kept the prince from making more distance between them; the words as surprising as they were guilt inducing.
...few can compare with the sound in the air that my voice has been blessed to invoke,
But fewer those worried though maliciously hurried; the jury that made me a joke.
For in Smaerd I was smeared though my name was revered, in lacking all proof I was tossed. For the theft of a horse, a purse and sword, for this I was set up to rot.
But innocent I, I never gave up, no never, no never gave up,
For twas not I did the deed, this I swear, yes indeed, by my name, which is Keval Levup.
For I sang for the king, bless his soul, when he lived, and my lyre did the king lull to sleeping. Yet unfortunate I, twas me that was seen with said horse, purse and sword while in weeping.
For his horse and his sword and his purse was my care, the honour of one royal befriended.
However — Kingly amity, when lost, spells calamity, for jealous men’s hearts seek reprisal,
And innocent I was their target of spite, for in I he confided while mortal.