Three days since the great hall has been swept; three days since the mirrors, portraits and glass bowls draped in black; three days since the nightingales, choirs and trumpets were silenced; three days and the King still holds himself in a ball–no one has shaved him, no one has washed him.
The Knight of Forests and the Knight of Dragons take tiny gold spoons and force feed the King puddings, then push their hands on his mouth. The puddings squirm back through their fingers like red and white worms. The King, refusing all nourishment, refusing all light, refusing all sound, glows faintly in their candles, which he tries to blow out. His eyes burn like little coals. ‘The prince, the prince, the prince, the prince, the prince,’ is all the King will say.
Who has taken the prince? Who has kidnapped him? How many pieces is he in? It’s all too hard for the King. Time has stopped for the King. The sun hasn’t set for the king, but has only remained up above, totally still, hovering high like a sword over the Kingdom. If the sun won’t go to bed, then neither will the king.
The Knight of Forests and the Knight of Dragons close the double doors and the King sits in the darkness of his throne, as if it were inside an egg. Somewhere else inside the castle, the only princess plays with dolls.
The King’s man’s only function was to know about the prince. He accompanied the prince on all his journeys, and joined in all the prince’s leisure. Four feet tall, the King’s man was the perfect shadow to the prince. If he did not find the prince, the King’s man would be hanged. This was decreed. This, everybody knew.
The King’s man walked down the hill from the castle to the barracks.
When he reached the great leather flap of the barracks, he took up the cudgel and knocked the steel plate. This was a place of great secrecy, the barracks. A massive tent with no windows and only a hole in the top. Smoke dribbled out day and night.
A bear emerged from the flap. He was not a bear, but a man. He glared at the sun. ‘Who’s there?’ he said. He looked down. ‘Ah, King’s man,’ he said, then pulled the little man in.
The inside was lit by other torches. Knights wrestled in various rings throughout the tent. At center, two knights wore black bags over their heads and wrestled naked. If they stepped out of the ring, they were pushed back in by other knights.
‘I am in search of the prince,’ said the King’s man to the Bear Knight.
The Bear Knight nodded, escorting the King’s man to a table with two older knights pushing little wooden horses around a map too big for the table.
‘Who’s that?’ said the King’s man.
Behind the men with the map, there was a tall wooden post. Tied to the post by his wrists was a young man. His face was swollen and he was covered in bruises.
‘Don’t pay any attention to him,’ said the Bear Knight. ‘Some villain we pulled out from the forest.’
The young man on the post, as if sensing the attention, bent his blue neck toward the King’s man. His eyes were puffy like fruits. His hair, though discolored and dirty, was still somewhat blonde; his eyes glowed blue like hot springs; and his eyelashes sparkled like gold.
‘You know,’ said the Bear Knight. He was arranging two mugs to fill them with beer from a barrel on stilts. ‘I’m glad you came to us first. We, the Knights Order, serve only the King.’ He set the first beer full on the table, then took the second up. ‘We know everything about the King. We kill who he wants, when he wants. But then who kills the King?’
Two flagons filled, the Bear Knight returned. One for himself and one for the King’s man. They clinked and pulled in long gulps at foam.
‘They’ve not killed the King,’ said the King’s man. ‘They’ve just killed the prince.’
The Bear Knight shrugged and leaned back. ‘Granted,’ he said. ‘The King is not dead. But now, who will carry his name? The princess?’
‘She’s only seven-years old. The King’s got what five years, six years? And now, after this assassination of the prince…’
‘You’re saying,’ said the King’s man. He leaned forward and spoke quieter. ‘You’re saying the Knights Order will not honor the princess after the death of the King?’
‘I’m saying,’ said the Bear Knight, shifting his elbows and leaning as close. ‘I wouldn’t count on that princess either.’
Both men were flushed red. They had finished their beers.
The King’s man leaned back. ‘I want to talk to that young man on the pole,’ he said.
‘He does not speak our language,’ said the Bear Knight.
The King’s man left the table and came to the young man tied to the post. ‘Are you the prince?’ he said.
The blue in the young man’s crystal-blue eyes drifted slightly. He was not like a man in his nakedness. His body was raw. He writhed like a spider.
‘Are you the prince?’ said the King’s man again.
The young man was suddenly splashed with a bucket of water, the Bear Knight behind it. The blonde hair became liquid. The dirt disappeared. The young man wiped his eyes with his wrists like a child. His hair and skin as white as an orchid, he opened his eyes. They were pink and not blue. He spoke three words in an unknown language, a language like rocks clacking and sliding.
‘Why was he disguised?’ said the King’s man.
‘I don’t know,’ said the Bear Knight.
‘I have no idea.’
Throughout the knight’s tent, men pinned each other in the various rings. There were screams of ecstasy, screams of pain and screams of commitment. The shadows of these men grew in the tent by the flames.
‘If it is bodies you want, then go see the surgeons,’ said the Bear Knight. ‘We the Knights Order serve-’
‘-only the King,’ said the King’s man.
The Bear Knight bowed royally and the men exchanged goodbyes. Then the Bear Knight turned back to the creature on the post.
As the King’s man made his way to the leather flap, he passed the two blinded knights, still wrestling naked. They grunted and squeezed. One came from behind the other and hugged from his back. It seemed he would win, until the other lunged to his knees and his aggressor lifted off the ground, his torso stuck to the man’s back, limbs struggling in the air like the legs of a crab.
The King’s man pulled open the flap. There was the sun, a faint colorless lemon.
The King’s man is a short man. He is a man of immense wit. He is blameless, and yet he is set to be hanged if he does not find the prince. This is the way it is, he thought. To make us live well, we are threatened with death. I am to be hanged.
The King’s man walked down the hill to the barn.
The surgeons’ barn was very different from the knights’ barracks. It was full of free-flowing air, of windows and doors, so it seemed anyone could walk in or out. There was no theory of germs. This was not a precaution. It was only because they loved letting screams fly. The screams of surgery rang clear through the kingdom.
Outside on log benches, a number of surgeons rested against one wall of the barn. The conscious surgeons among them played a game throwing a leather-handled knife into a pumpkin. The King’s man approached them.
‘What’ll it be?’ said the one in the middle, after he sunk in the knife. ‘I can’t make you any more than a couple finger’s-width taller.’
‘I’m looking for the prince,’ said the King’s man.
The surgeon turned still. ‘I wouldn’t know anything about that,’ he said.
‘He’s been missing three days,’ said the King’s man.
‘That’s too bad.’ The surgeon led the King’s man inside. They continued to talk, but were momentarily distracted. From a wooden tub near the barn entrance, two white arms splashed up screaming. The man’s face was covered in leeches. He braced himself, gripping hard the edges of the tub. A number of surgeons rushed back over to force him back down.
‘Look, if anyone asks, I know nothing.’ The surgeon led the King’s man to a man on a pile of straw. He was wrapped head to toe in white bandage. ‘He came in yesterday morning. Nearly every bone broken.’
The man’s eyes started through a slit in the bandage. They were as blue as hot springs, bordered by eyelashes that glittered like gold.
‘This is the prince,’ said the King’s man.
‘No,’ said the surgeon. ‘The eyes are the same. The hair is the same. But believe me.’ He began shaking his head.
When the bandages over the young man’s lips stirred, the King’s man moved closer. The same incomprehensible language, like a very quiet landslide. However this time, as the King’s man listened more closely: That clacking, he thought, like something’s hitting his teeth.
‘What language is that?’ asked the King’s man.
‘It is the King’s language,’ said the surgeon. ‘Only-’ He rustled through the bandages, trying to locate the lips. Finally, he parted the bandages and peeled open the mouth. The tongue raised up and waggled, the wooden clamp clamped around the end of the tongue, clacked around its teeth. ‘I can’t remove the clamp without removing the tongue.’
The surgeon let go of the mouth and the bandages slowly closed over the lips. Inside the closed mouth, the tongue went clacking. It was as though a woodpecker had been trapped in a cave.
‘This is the second man I have seen like this,’ said the King’s man. ‘What is going on here?’
The surgeon wrung his wrists in his hands. ‘I don’t really know,’ he said. ‘But I bet it’s the swineherd.’
The King’s man made his way to a doorway, in a barn of many doorways. On his way, he saw a hunch back surrounded by surgeons.
The hunchback met the eyes of the King’s man. It was as if, under the curve of his back, his head was coming out of a shell like a turtle. His back was covered in plum-looking boils.
The surgeons took their blacksmiths tools from the fire. When they fit them over the boils, they split and drained a grey liquid. The barn filled with the smell of sweet licorice.
The King’s man is a short man. A man without fear. I am to be hanged, he thought.
He walked down the hill to the pigs.
Every board of every wall swelled outwards. Boards were broken and left walls full of gaps. When the King’s man stepped close to a wall, the wall immediately jutted with snouts, pink, brown, black and white, snorting and grunting into the air.
Here was the swineherd, staring through a hole.
The swineherd heard the King’s man and motioned him over.
The King’s man obeyed and, coming, he too looked through a hole.
There was a pale yellow pig. It glowed in light from a crack in the roof.
‘She trampled her own children,’ said the swineherd. ‘I won’t describe it. They’re scattered now in the dark.’
The pig stood so stiffly like its legs were wood dowels and it breathed as if its lungs were a bag full of rocks. As it stared back at the swineherd and the King’s man, its mouth produced dollops of foam.
‘I had planned to feed her to the King,’ said the swineherd. ‘And now the King’s starving himself.’
‘I am looking for the prince,’ said the King’s man.
The swineherd swallowed. ‘I can’t help you,’ he said.
‘Where is the prince?’
‘He was taken.’
‘Taken by who?’
‘I don’t know.’
The boards around them were snapped outward, some of them inward. There were holes all through the wall. The pig must have been ramming its head through the walls. But there it stood motionless, breathing and attempting to growl. Its teeth had grown up through its snout and it could not fully open its mouth.
‘The King always eats,’ said the swineherd. ‘He must always eat. He is in charge of the Body. What he does not eat, he gives to the criminals. This is the means by which the kingdom may function. The King must share with criminals his food.’ He turned away from the pig and saw the small King’s man. ‘I cannot tell you anything which is not already obvious.’
The last light rolled away from the building and the pig drifted away into darkness. In a hole in the clouds, the King’s man found the faint tracings of the moon, like an impression left in paper. The King’s man thanked the swineherd and left, the pig’s breathing faded and faded.
The King’s man is a short man. He will be hanged.
He walked down the hill to the tavern. The tavern is dark and full of men with long beards and various appendages missing, eyepatches, empty pant-legs, hooks, black spaces where once there were teeth. They compared their knives, stabbing their huge shares of meat on the table.
The King’s man orders a solitary beer and drinks alone in the dark.
Two impostors. One for the knights and one for the surgeons. Who are the impostors? Are entities of a foreign power? Or are they our own traitors? Further, why make the King’s man go to all the effort of going farther and farther down the hill? Was everyone in concert?
The King’s man thought nothing about this. He thought only, I am to be hanged.
He had walked around this world alone, and was determined to leave it alone, yet still the criminals drew his attention.
‘King’s man!’ one said. He had two different colored eyes and an enormous black beard like a suspended explosion of soot. ‘Will they really hang you tomorrow?’
The King’s man nodded solemnly; his beer was amber colored.
‘Too bad,’ the bearded man said. ‘We need more short men around.’ He riled up the rest of them: one man with a bald head, one eye and sharpened teeth who had been deep in thought; a woman with no nose, no ears, and two beautiful eyes, sharp and dark, like a Sphinx; and one man with a red beard equally as bushy as the black beard, only this man had no teeth at all and a scar that ran around his face like the ring of a planet.
‘Here’s to the King’s man, loyal and tiny,’ said the black-bearded man. ‘May we see him in Hell when he rests.’
They bash their stone mugs so beer scatters the table and soaks into their meat, which they share readily with the King’s man. In places it is warm, in places it is cold. The King’s man gnaws on a rib.
‘We used to be knights,’ said the blackbearded man. ‘Believe it or not. Even her.’ He pointed at the woman. ‘We stayed for the King. We the Knights Order-’
They said in unison, ‘-serve only the King.’
The bone pile on the table was so immense it was as if they could reconstruct the full animal.
‘That is,’ continued the black-bearded man. ‘Until we were dragged back into life by the surgeons.’
The four criminals all became downcast. Finally, the bald man spoke. ‘I killed fifteen men for the King,’ he said. ‘Then I took an axe in the head.’ He ran his finger quickly around the great scar running at an angle down his face. ‘He hit me up top, then dragged in the blade all the way through the back just to finish the job. And now I’m alive.’ He turned dour again and tore a strip of meat off a bone with his teeth.
The woman spoke with an accent. ‘I poisoned ten women for the King. But the tenth did not fully die. She took revenge with a cleaver.’ She traced her fingers from her ears to her nose.
The red-bearded man beside her put his hand over hers, almost like a brother. He began to open his mouth, but it appeared that it caused him great pain to speak. He made only clicks full of spit. He eventually held out his hands and uncurled his fingers. Both thumbs were missing. He nodded to the black-bearded man who uncurled nine of his own fingers.
‘Seventeen?’ said the King’s man. ‘You killed seventeen men?’
The red-bearded man nodded. Thankful, he withdrew his fingers.
‘It is the prerogative of the King to keep knights alive,’ said the black-bearded man. ‘But it is the duty of the knight to die for his King. We believe we die gracefully, spilling out life on the battlefield, but then we wake up in the surgeon’s tent, monsters, bandaged, useless to the king. It is too shameful. I cannot wield a sword.’ With effort he tried to reach his own shoulder. His face contorted as if possessed by demons but made little progress toward his shoulder. The bald man reached it for him, pulling the black-bearded man’s shirt down to reveal only scar tissue and what might have been a dislocation that had never properly healed.
‘The King needs every man he can get,’ said the bald man. ‘But the Knights Order will not take us. Still, the King sends his compliments.’ He gestured at the pile of bones and meat on the table.
‘So, what is it you do now exactly?’ said the King’s man.
‘We steal,’ said the black-bearded man.
‘And murder,’ said the bald man.
The woman made a circle with two fingers then ran another finger in and out. The toothless man painfully nodded.
‘And the King pays you in meat?’
‘No,’ said the black-bearded man. He took a rib and held it like an ear of corn to his lips. ‘Our crime is inevitable. That cannot be stopped. And it is the same for our King.’ He closed his eyes, as did the others. Then they all put their hands on their hearts. ‘Our King cannot be stopped. We the Knights Order serve only the King.’
They opened their eyes and resumed eating the meat.
But the King’s man continued. ‘Stopped from what?’
‘Whatever he starts.’
‘What does he start?’
The black-bearded man paused. ‘A King is compelled to do what he wants, to whomever he wants. If what he starts he can’t finish, we finish. And then we call it a crime.’
‘What is the King’s crime?’
They were taken aback. ‘A King does no crime.’
‘Then what is your crime?’
They laughed and continued gnawing the bones, flesh spilling from their lips and the bone pile growing. They did not close their mouths and the splashing of meat sounded like pigs having sex. The King’s man was going to be sick.
He emptied his stomach outside the tavern, then stared at the moon. It was huge now. Like some terrible face of some terrible god.
The King’s man is a short man. But atop the gallows, he was the tallest man in town, aside from the executioner. Every shop and street was empty. They had left their homes to see the execution of the King’s man.
The King sat in a throne arranged before the gallows, with the princess in his lap like a cat. She wore the special jewelry, the gold which once belonged to the prince.
The Knight of Reason stepped through the crowd and stood before the gallows. From the dirt, he looked up at the King’s man on the high platform of the gallows. ‘You are accused of high treason, not fulfilling your duties as to the protection of the progeny of the King. How do you plead?’
The King’s man did not pay attention, only watched the princess and the King. The King was kissing her fingers.
‘I plead as guilty as the King,’ said the King’s man.
There was quiet laughter of delight in the crowd. Even in his execution, the short man was cracking jokes. The King did not notice however, as he was busy now biting the fingers of the princess, popping them into his mouth, where they disappeared like olives.
‘We have lost the prince,’ he said. ‘And look,’ his hands bound, he gestured at the King and princess. ‘We will lose the princess in a matter of days when our hungry King sneaks into her room and puts her piece by piece into his mouth. What the King himself cannot devour he will give to the criminals to suck clean at the bar.’
The King’s man had never said such witty barbs. A man-eating King! A King with designs on his daughter! Truly reaching his highest point now, it was a pity to see the joke man go.
‘I the King’s man-’ began the King’s man.
They dropped the King’s man through the floor. The rope caught tight and the King’s man’s little feet dangled fairly high above the ground.
It began slowly, the rain of applause. But as it grew louder, the princess cried out. The King had bitten a hole in her finger.
Ben Crowley is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is happy to get back to writing because he has already paid a kidney, a finger and a thumb to Deep Overstock and is considering dishing out three molars. Ben used to sort books for the Amazon warehouse, in our beautiful backcountry of western Pittsburgh. Now he drives a truck, but he’s still selling books at whatever diner, truckstop or seedy hotel he finds himself in.