[Fiction] The Dead King's Stories, Chapter 1

His grasp of the Firstblade slowly loosened as his senses returned. Although he'd been conscious for almost twenty minutes, only now could be feel himself breathing. Only now could he feel the shaking of the carriage. Only now could he smell the patchroot and bitterfrond he'd been marinated in. He felt himself breathe a sigh of relief.
For twenty minutes, he'd stared motionless at the dragon clutching the ceiling. A bronze depiction of Mnir, the smallest and craftiest of the gods, pruning with shears of lightning his own tail's spikes. As the legend goes, once he'd gathered a thousand thousands, he plummeted from the sky and threw them like javelins into the ground. Protruding upright from the earth in neat rows, he'd brought the people agriculture. Every seed since planted came from those spikes, and every plant—even the leaves of the witch's tea that still coursed through his veins—was a descendant of those first crops Mnir flung from the heavens.
He heard a voice, but could not turn to look. It was the voice of the High Smithy, the man who'd helped him escape the fires of Kingsfeast. "Your Majesty can hear me now, I'd wager? We're nearly to Quarantine. Just try and relax."
Immobile, he idly considered whether such ill humor could be construed as treason.
Stinking of herb and smoke and livestock, the king could barely remember his escape. There were no memories, only images, since he'd taken the tea two days ago. Lots of music, lots of candles and oil and scowling ritual, not enough grieving. He'd realized just how little his people loved him.
The Ledger fell to the ground, no longer held firmly beneath his folded arms. He saw the Firstblade begin to lean towards him, quivering up and down. In his waning grip, it dipped alarmingly close to his face.
"I told you the brew wasn't permanent," the smithy said. He leaned forward, plucking the old relic from the king's hands. "Try and sit up if you can, lord."
The High Smithy pulled the king up by his shoulders, gently. He sat next to the king, holding him upright. "The nausea will pass, eventually."
They sat in silence for minutes, rocked by the carriage's sway, until it began to slow. The king wondered if his companion even knew about the Glass Men. He hadn't mentioned them yet. The smithy was either ignorant or kind.
The carriage came to a stop, and he propped the king up against the corner. "Quarantine-Keepers. I'll get us through." He retrieved the ledger from the floor. "This should help."
The sound of hoof on gravel. Muffled talking. Haggling? The door opened suddenly.
"A tithe," said the smithy. "A tithe and a blessing. Their scouts saw you, somehow, and they want the blessing of the king.
The king blinked forcefully, grunted, shifted a shoulder. A nod.
"I'll make arrangements, then. Compose yourself. Have some water." The smithy closed the door, said something to the carriage driver, and then there was the fading sound of hooves. At least a score of hooves, five Keepers or more.
Most Keepers chose the double life of a centaur, but the prospect of full-grown horses and armored men wasn't uncommon. There could easily be a dozen riders out there, and with two dozen bows. Their malleable anatomy was what kept the plague at bay all those years ago, and they were given the land between nations so long as they kept the borders intact, kept the plague-ridden nomads and wanderers from crossing.
All at once, the king's body began to ache, a good sign that he was regaining control. He tried to focus on his individual limbs, one at a time. He flexed what he could, but there was so much resistance. The paralytic witch's tea would be in his system for a fortnight, but the worst of it was already over. He could move, he knew, if only he could concentrate.
But all he could think about now was the Glass Men. They would've discovered the treachery by now; the false ledger, the roasted bishop. And their prowess for killing silently was greater by far than the Keepers' prowess for guardianship. Where blade and poison failed, the Glass Men had coin and favor.
With some effort, he looked up again at Mnir.
Mnir, too, had once faked his death. Mnir, too, had once stolen from his brothers. But Mnir was dead now, if he had ever really existed at all.
Further, the Keepers hated Mnir. In the king's land, the gods had changed, become legend and festival. The same was true, he'd heard, of the great cities on the other side of Quarantine. But the Keepers, in their forest nation of bowmen and physicians, had kept their faiths, and Gael was their favored god: the father of the forest, the smokeborn prophet, the dragon that shattered curses beneath his feet.
Even so, kings learn all the blessings, not just their own. The blessing itself would be easy, and the tithe, he left to the smithy. But walking, kneeling, pouring the oils - that would be the hard part. Muscles aching, he stretched his arm slowly towards the Firstblade, resting his hand on the hilt.
He wasn't looking forward to the blood sacrifice, either. He called for the carriage driver.

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The Dead King's Stories, Chapter 01 by John Dowda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at johndowda.blogspot.com.

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