The King was dead.
Of that, there could be no doubt. He had donned his gilded armor, attached a flowing red cape, and mounted Darkstorm, his strongest warhorse. He had stood before his army at the onset and delivered an inspiring speech to all within earshot. He spoke of honor and duty. He spoke of the horrors of war and how, if they did not stop them, the enemy would visit those horrors upon all the loved ones waiting back behind the wall. There were cheers and swords were held high in celebration as he’d ridden Darkstorm back and forth in front of his army to rally their spirits one last time before he turned and led the march towards the enemy line. He led his special guard at the front, and they were at the head of his mighty army as they covered the distance between the great walls of the castle and the horde of waiting warriors. Indeed, he led bravely that day. And then, even as the enemy horns sounded their retreat, the King had died. Of that, there could be no doubt.
How the King died, however, was a source of much debate. He was brave, of course, in all the versions, but there were many colorful and opposing accounts. Some narratives suggested he had been killed by his treacherous nephew, though his nephew was leagues away on a mission the King himself had placed in his charge. Still, there would be suggestions that his nephew had fallen in with a dark sorceress with the powers to enable him to be in two places at once. Others insisted it was the rival King to the South that had struck him down. The kingdoms did have their issues, as all do, but it had not been the well trained and well armored army of the southern kingdom that was seen from the ramparts on that day. Like the King’s nephew, the southern King was far, far away, safely behind his own walls on the day the King fell. Another account had the King die in the hands of the unnatural. It was whispered in the court, and in the streets as well, that a dark and powerful magician was clearly at work for no mere weapon of man could have inflicted a mortal wound on the king, regardless of the wielder. The King was, after all, protected by the will of God… and a magic sword, were the rumors to be believed. So, no regular man possessed the power to strike down the King; certainly not while he was wielding his sword. The darkest magician in the realm had, on multiple times, been blamed for the calamities that beset the kingdom. If he controlled the great floods and the disease plagues, as he was said to, surely, he had the power to reach out from this cave and bring the King to his end. But, he hadn’t been seen in ages and no one knew where his cave even was. The bravest knights had been sent to find him, but none returned. Worse still, word had spread that it was a foul betrayal by the Queen that had distracted the King on the battlefield; a distracted warrior is, after all, often a dead warrior. Or perhaps it was a different woman, as another tale told, that had been the King’s ultimate downfall. And not the Queen, mind you. Some believed that he had died the night before in his bed, poisoned by a murderous mistress in his own chambers. That certainly would have explained why he didn’t have his sword in his hand at the time, thought Hamish. At least not the right one. He laughed at the thought. But it didn’t matter, none of it.
Hamish knew the truth.
He was there.
Hamish had joined the King’s Royal Guard at the age of nine; that’s how they did it in the Kingdom of the Round. His father was a noble by birth and a peasant by fortune. He had squandered all Hamish’s inheritance well before his ninth birthday. Since the Royal Guard paid for young recruits, his father sold him and did not look back. But, it was a great honor, thought Hamish, and a chance for a better life. He would serve the King, a just and powerful leader known all throughout the world as the hero who had pulled a great sword from an imposing stone when he was only about Hamish’s age. It was an honor and it was a good life.
By age 18, Hamish was a great fighter and a loyal friend and guard to the King. He wasn’t allowed in the Hall of the Round during the King’s meetings with his inner circle, but he was always close to the King, willing to sacrifice his life for his leader when needed. He would not get that chance. When the invaders from the North sieged the first few villages along the coast, Hamish was sent along with the Royal Guard leadership to ascertain the threat. It was an army the likes of which Hamish had never seen. It was a larger army than he was expecting, but they seemed disorganized and crude. They wore simple armor made of animal leathers and used axes and short swords instead of the elegant weapons he had trained with all his life. He was filled with fear as he took in the death and destruction they had left in their wake. Men often die in battle; it was part of a hard life that most endured. But these monsters had killed women and children as well. Brutally and without mercy, they laid open the small and helpless with sword and spear. Nothing was left a live. They even killed the pets; what manner of man kills small dogs and cats? Killing big dogs that might be trained to attack, he understood. But these were not a threat to anyone save the unlucky field mouse that wondered into their home. These men were surely from the depths of hell, thought Hamish. But, they had chosen the path of doom when they chose to challenge the goodness and strength of the Kingdom of the Round. His King would teach them the value of life and of justice, before he rid them of one in the service of the other.
Two days later, the horde of outsiders were camped just outside the castle lands. The villagers, the young and old alike, had been evacuated to behind the great stronghold’s walls and gates. The castle set upon a great stone mountain, with sharp cliffs on three of the four sides. The only entrance was kept inaccessible due to a great retractable bridge and strong iron gates that stood thirty feet tall. They would be safe enough while the King handed down his judgement on the men from the North.
“Today we fight for our wives and our children, our fathers and our mothers. We fight for the love of God and of our very way of life. Today, we also fight for those to the South of us. And to the East and to the West. Because if we do not stop these animals here, today, they will spread across our country like a disease. We must cut that disease from our land and send it back to the hell from which it came. We fight for things these madmen cannot fathom. They only know hate and greed. Well, this day they will know fear. They will know pain and above all, they will know defeat. For the glory of God!” The King sat proudly on Darkstorm and held his sword high above his head.
“For the Glory of God,” the mass shouted in unison.
It was a good speech, thought Hamish. But then, the King was good at rhetoric. He always seemed to know what to say and when to say it to inspire all to the greater good. The men that had just been fearful and unsure a moment ago were now standing fully upright with their swords held high and with confidence and bravado shining through their helmets. They were now more than an army, they were a force for good marching to drag evil back to the pits of purgatory.
That’s how it started; it ended bloody with the screams and wails of a thousand dead and dying men echoing through the valley. War is not pretty words or righteous actions. It is men killing men. It is the smell of blood and excrement. It is fire and smoke and fear. There was much carnage and the ground was slick with blood making it difficult for Hamish to stand, let alone swing his sword. But the battle was won, and the invaders were either dying or retreating towards the coast. The did indeed have fear on their faces and it was obvious it was something they were unaccustomed to. Hamish took stock of the butchery around him and fell to his knees. But it was not faith that brought him there, it was the heavy sickness that all men feel after battle. He wretched and begged God for forgiveness. Over his shoulder, he heard a mighty battle still ongoing. What heathen could still be holding onto a chance at victory?
Hamish turned, still on the ground, and saw the King engaged in brutal combat with Ferin the Untarnished, the enemy chief. Hamish was too far away to get there in time to save his King. He watched helplessly as the fatal blow was struck through broken, gilded armor. It wasn’t sensational; it wasn’t awe inspiring. It was bloody and horrific. There was no majesty. No glory in the eyes of God. It was raw and feral. It was final. The King was struck hard with his enemy’s axe and Hamish watched in disbelief as the King’s life left him just as the blood left his body. There, with an axe buried in his chest, the King fell. There was no magic incantation invoked or dark magician to blame. There were no great flashes of heavenly light that illuminated the field around the dying king, as one storyteller had fancied. It wasn’t all the forces of hell that had risen up to destroy the great, glowing good that the King represented, as the priests would have you believe. It was just a man with an axe. A tall, dirty man with a long-braided beard that swayed back and forth as he and the king struck at each other with their weapons. In the end, both men had been exhausted, and both struggled to hold their arms up to defend against the other’s blows. And then the King missed. The dirty man with the axe did not.
For a moment, when the dying hero dropped to his knees, Hamish’s eyes met the King’s. They stared at each other. The King smiled.
It was sudden and brutal and tragic.
The King was dead.
Of that, there could be no doubt.
About the author
I fight the good fight. I still believe that good beats evil, everytime, and the good guys are humble and brave. Old fashioned? Maybe. Delusional? Probably. Just imagine if we all lived in that delusion...come on, join me here in the sun.