Storytime: The Long Autumn.

October 25th, 2017

Once upon a while there was a warlord. But he didn’t war so much as pillage, and no noble line would claim him. A funny title, for a funny man.
And he WAS a funny man. He had a sense of humour, and a good one. Every time he and his army came to a new village, he would stomp into the center of it and challenge them fair and square: a wrestling bout, two falls out of three, for who would own the place. This was always completely hysterical to his sensibilities because he stood eight foot four inches, and was broad to match and then some. And so his realm expanded, along with his good humour.
One day that good humour was sorely tested. The warlord had just finished wrestling a stubborn old coot, and had been forced to break his arms and legs in three times as many spots as normally required just to get him to stop wriggling at him. Even now his bristly little jaws worked, fixing to chew at the warlord’s toes as he raised his foot high above his head.
“Good fight,” said the warlord grumpily. “Any last words?”
“Yeah,” said the old coot. “Twenty years ago I would’ve been biting you right now. But now I’ll settle for the next best thing. See that tree over there? The moment the last leaf drops off that thing, my ghost is going to jump out at you and eat your heart right out of your chest.”
The warlord finished stomping, but his heart was already troubled even un-eaten, and consultation with his best astrologer confirmed his fears.
“He lived a good clean life,” said the astrologer as she traced the lines on the old coot’s limp palm. “No swearing. Lots of surplus curse-juice. It’s all bound up in that one. Wow, you’ve sure had it.”
“No,” said the warlord. “I was getting sick of wandering around anyways. Time for everyone else to come to me now.”
So he crowned himself king, in the traditional manner of brutishness. And as his first command, blacksmiths were brought.
And a great chain was wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And a strong chain was linked to the great chain
And a sturdy chain was linked to the strong chain
And a thin chain was linked to the sturdy chain
And a slender chain was linked to the thin chain
And a fine chain was linked to the thin chain
And a little needle-thin chain was linked to the fine chain
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite care.
Each chain was locked, and the king proclaimed himself pleased.
Then he had all his blacksmiths killed and began a long and happy reign of terror.

The years passed. The tree’s leaves turned grey and shrunken. The chains grew a little dusty, but the king prohibited their cleaning. And under that tree, in his court, in his castle, he would partake in his greatest sport and joy: every summer of every year every village would send him someone to wrestle. If they won, they didn’t pay taxes. If they lost, the king collected double. This pleased him immensely, and it often pleased some of the older villagers too, because there was always at least one strong young person who was too much trouble by half as far as they were concerned.
And then once upon a few whiles later, a young woman with a particularly stubborn and surly jaw came to the king’s court in mid July.
“Hello you miserable bastard,” she told him. “I’m here to wrestle. Let’s go.”
“Excellent,” said the king.
And they did. And the woman twisted and heaved and turned and spun and ducked and bit at least once, giving the king the time of his life for a good half-hour, but in the end he simply fell over at her and succeeded in breaking her left leg like a dry twig.
“SHIT,” she said shortly.
“One to me,” said the king. “The next will come tomorrow, at noon. You know, you have a familiar sort of stubborn jaw. Did I wrestle your grandfather?”
“You did,” said the woman.
“He only had the one grandchild?”
“My oldest brother is far away, studying. My middle brother is deathly ill with Lumps. My youngest brother is three. So they said ‘you do it.’”
The king laughed at that, and as he took his leave of court he rang for one of his servants to come and give her some splints. The servant was an extremely earnest boy of maybe-seven, and from the fixedness of his gaze and the care in his movements the woman saw that he was blind.
“We’re all blind around here,” he explained to her. “I was born with it. Some people have to learn it. There’s a sort of red-hot poker.”
“Ouch,” said the woman.
“No, I was splinting my leg.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, it could be worse and it likely will be. Tomorrow he’ll probably break the other one and then my head, just like grandfather.”
“You can’t beat him?”
“You can only wrestle so hard when you’re wrestling a bear,” said the woman. “He’s just too big for anybody. Grandfather couldn’t beat him, I can’t beat him. The only thing he thinks can beat him is that stupid tree, and it’s tied with seven chains and bound with seven locks, so at this rate the leaves won’t come off it until the whole castle’s ground down to sand and bones.”
They talked for a while after that, but the servant boy was distracted. In a way he’d ended the conversation there, because now he had some ideas, and he had those ideas because now he’d had a friend.
Both were very new to him, but he was an eager learner.

That night the warlord snored.
This was normal and extremely loud.
That night the servant boy slipped through his master’s door.
This was abnormal and extremely quiet. And so all was well, until he opened the great cupboard of royal keys and found that – by his rough estimate – there were seven hundred and seventy-seven keys inside of varied size and ostentatiousness.
If he’d known any swears, he would’ve made the old coot blush.
Instead, he thought. And he thought. And he wished the king wouldn’t snore so, because it made thinking extremely difficult.
Then he thought about the king and smiled. He padded up to his bedside and breathed in.
“Gross,” he whispered.
Then he went back to the royal cupboard and followed his nose to the smell of greasy palms and pig-thick sweat.
It wasn’t easy. The keys had been closed up for a long time, with nobody dusting them. But faint as a whisper, as stinking as sepsis, they came to his nose and hand one by one.
Then he snuck out again.

Early that morning the woman woke up, tightened her splint, and faced breakfast.
Breakfast was a single half-loaf, crumbly.
Breakfast was wrapped in a white cloth.
Breakfast clinked softly as she held it, and when she half-unwrapped it glimmering metal revealed itself.
“Well,” she said. “Aren’t you clever.”
The servant boy nodded.
“Hah. Well, let’s just oh damnit why’s he up so early.”
And indeed the king had not stirred at that hour for decades. But uneasy dreams had rustled his pillow, full of creaking, rustling leaves – and he’d awoken in a fit at the sound of his creaking key cabinet, one door flapping wide.
He was in a bad mood. But he knew what made a bad mood good.
“Round two, it was?” he said.
“At noon,” said the woman.
“It’s close enough,” he said. And he went for her.
“Hold my breakfast,” she told the servant bot. And she went for him. Hopping.
The servant boy shrank back into a corner of the court with appropriate awe and terror. Then he picked up breakfast and ran around the wrestlers, ran to the center of the court, and hurried like a little squirrel up into the tallest branches of the chained tree.
And he unlocked the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk
And he unlocked the strong chain linked to the great chain
And he unlocked the sturdy chain linked to the strong chain
And he unlocked the thin chain linked to the sturdy chain
And he unlocked the slender chain linked to the thin chain
And he unlocked the fine chain linked to the thin chain
And as he unlocked the little needle-thin chain that was linked to the fine chain, the tiny, needle-thin dusty key snapped in the lock.
Which held every single leaf of the tree in place with exquisite and quite permanent care.

There was no time to panic. There was no time to swear. Instead the servant boy dropped. He dropped and caught and fell and snatched and clawed his way down that tree again, and he grabbed hold of the great tree wrapped around the tree’s trunk and he heaved as mightily as he could and because he was only maybe-seven it did absolutely no good whatsoever. He might as well have tried to move the castle.
But from the corner of her eye, half-blind with sweat, the woman saw him strain. And as she hobbled and dodged and grunted and shifted she hopped closer and closer to the tree, where she did a complicated thing.
With her stiff splinted leg’s toes she seized the great chain.
With her body she ducked underneath the hurtling mass of the king.
With her right leg she stuck herself right in front of the king’s descending foot.
And as the king went “WOOPS,” and her right leg went ‘crack’ and he went sailing by, with her hands she looped the last link of the great chain wrapped around the tree’s trunk over his foot.

THUD, he went on the ground.
GlinlglinlglinkglinkglinkglinkglinkPOP went the chains and the seventh lock.
Creak, mentioned the tree.

And the leaves fell in a single mass with the clattering rattle of a thousand dry throats, and every single one covered the warlord’s face like a shroud.
Oh, he screamed at that! He screamed and screamed and screamed all at once in a single breath and he screamed so hard that his heart JUMPED out of his chest and into his mouth and he ate it by mistake.

They probably didn’t get married, the servant-boy and the woman. Too much of an age gap. I’d think they’d have stayed friends after that, though.
What do you think?

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