New Life

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: New Life.

**

Each morning I get up, walk to the looking glass, and inspect the King’s face. I spend some minutes prodding these podgy cheeks, ruddy with horn after horn of mead, running a finger along the square jaw hidden under a roll of flesh, staring into these grey eyes. The royal pot-belly, the monarch’s hairy feet. Then I dress in the finest furs, and find some business to attend to.

One morning I went to see the court sorcerer add to the zephyr cavalry. Lord Belmont accompanied me to a meadow outside the capital. Princess Elise rode far ahead. She dismounted, hitching her horse to a post and crossing her arms, ignoring Belmont and I as we caught up. All the princesses avoid meeting my eye. Their mother had been executed for failing to produce a prince.

The sorcerer, Selwyn, garbed in black robes with silver trim and a rope belt, stood beside a black foal. He always has the look of a man intently focused on something else, and as Belmont and I approached he broke off a conversation with Elise, having been speaking to the air over her left shoulder.

‘Your Majesty,’ Selwyn said, nodding. ‘You don’t normally attend these events.’

As I replied, my voice began in my natural downcast tone before I shifted into the King’s rumbling bass. ‘Your duties here are vital to the realm, Selwyn. Proceed.’

He nodded again, turning to the foal and stroking its neck. It calmed, whinnying quietly, as he took a flask from his robes, a soft silver light glowing through the crystal. Selwyn removed the stopper and a cool breeze rustled through the heather. I stole a glance at Elise, then looked back to Selwyn as he touched the liquid with his forefinger, returned the stopper, and streaked each flank with silver light.

The foal whinnied, prancing, shaking its head from side to side as moonlight sprouted from its flanks into the form of two translucent wings. The new pegasus’s wings fluttered for a few moments then withdrew, a hair-thin silver line marking each wing’s sheath. We watched Selwyn whisper to the animal, then turned to leave.

‘Sire,’ Selwyn said, ‘I have a matter we must discuss in private. Concerning the war.’

Elise and Belmont mounted their horses and rode back to the protection of high walls. Selwyn met my gaze, the first person to truly do so, and I shivered to feel the sorcerer’s complete attention rest on me like the point of a sword.

‘Come now,’ he said. ‘There’s no need to pretend with me.’ I laid a hand on the pommel of my sword. ‘I know you are not the King.’ He stepped close to me, grabbing the ruff of my cloak. ‘You fool. You’re putting the realm in terrible danger. How long did you expect it to be before someone noticed your shadow?’

I looked down to my shadow, and saw the narrow, short silhouette of a peasant laid out on the heather.

*

I’d been setting traps in the river by my village when I came across a stranger with an arrow in his side. We brought him home and treated him as best we could, wondering at the silver arrowhead, and he made a remarkable recovery. Before long he was ready to leave, and I accompanied him along the road a little. At the end of the village, he stopped and asked if there was anything he could do in return.

I’d started to say only that he might return some time with stories from his travels, falling silent as his eyes flickered from brown to a deep lavender.

We spoke about my life, and he offered me a new one, laughing at some secret joke. I looked back on the ramshackle village, down to my dusty scarred hands, and nodded. As I raised my head the stranger was gone, and, moments later, so was I.

*

I looked down from the balcony and saw the city burning. Belmont was furious. He prodded my head, the only place not covered in plate armour.

‘We nearly lost the capital!’ he roared, pounding rock with a gauntlet fist. ‘Saved only by the zephyr cavalry. Thank heavens Selwyn had taught his apprentice Pegasus lore before you had him carted to the dungeons! That was the only stern thing you’ve done in months, and it nearly cost you the crown. What happened to the king I know, the one who laid waste to Belspire and Ford’s Crag? You have become a dove, and almost doomed us all.’ He turned back into the castle.

‘If I had always been king,’ I murmured to myself, ‘we wouldn’t be at war in the first place.’

*

Belmont happened to mention, one evening moving figures around a map, that a commoner had repeatedly tried to barge into the palace, ranting and raving about the ‘true King’. I knew I could leave him, let the mad peasant be ignored, but I found myself compelled to seek him out. I tracked him to a small farm outside the walls, insisting on going alone.

He was hoeing when I came upon him, struggling with the earth as I had done. I felt dizzy, watching him from behind as he straightened and rubbed his back, seeing the body I had been born with toiling without me.

‘Saul,’ I called out, the King’s rich voice with a peasant’s tone.

‘Your Majesty,’ he said, my voice more charged with power than I’d ever heard it, bowing sarcastically. I walked closer, drinking in every detail of my gaunt face. It was twisted with suppressed fury. ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to get here, while dodging your draft?’

‘Some time.’

‘You thought you’d be a friend to the commoners, didn’t you? Your softness almost cost the realm. You wanted to save the people, but your weak tactics leave you no choice but to thrust swords in their hands. Though I suppose it was Belmont’s idea. He’s never afraid of tough choices. You’re losing my war.’

‘Yes. Your war.’

He grinned, descending to his knees, and hung his head, tapping the back of his neck. ‘Go on, sire. Get it over with.’ I gripped the pommel of my sword. I drew it, sun glinting on the straw-coloured hair of a peasant’s head, Saul’s head, my head. I sheathed the sword and pulled him up. ‘Coward,’ he said.

‘You’re going to win your war. By royal decree, the peasant Saul shall have a new life. A general. And when you finish the war you started, I shall reign over a kingdom at peace.’

‘Peace never lasts,’ he sneered.

I slapped him backhand, knocking him down. ‘Show more respect to your King, peasant.’ He grinned, starting to laugh.

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