The King's Orders
Thunk. Thunk. the burlap bag sagged against the floor. It oozed and squished. It buzzed and wriggled. The smell wafted, reeked and rotted. As it passed through the halls, the servants, subjects and guards pinched their noses. One guard fainted.
Swiff lugged it to the doors of the King's chambers with a dizzying intake of rotten air and stopped before the two men who guarded them. In the corner of his vision he could see servants down the hall, watching him and shaking their heads.
They had once been kind to him, they had asked him what the stars would bring and had told him about their children. Now they watched with guarded nervousness. They had heard the stories by now, they had no way of knowing that he was innocent.
"Oi, what is that?" asked one of the big, burly guards with an added gag as he and his partner slapped hands over their noses. "Are you trying to make the king ill all over again?"
"It's... part of the king's treatment!" Swiff explained. "The king's doctor has requested it."
The guards looked at each other, but they couldn't very well tell Swiff off. The king -or rather, who they thought was the king- had ordered them to let Swiff do as he pleased.
They opened the doors and Swiff lugged the bag with a thick, squelching noise through them. He came into the room where the king was currently jumping up and down upon the bed, the crown jostling about the top of his head.
In the corner was the dark, robed figure of the bird. Completely still and unmoving. It could have convincingly passed for a coat hanger in an unlikely amount of shadow.
"My pet!" the King who was not the king, exclaimed, voice wheezing- sallow, yellow eyes wide with excitement as he bounced up and down. "See what I can make this toy do? Listen to how his old bones rattle!"
"Yes," Swiff forced a smile, though it pained him. The king, once a respected figure of pride and power, was reduced to tumbling around on his bed like an amused child. Swiff hoped for a small mercy; that the king was not conscious of the bird's brutal puppetry. "I've brought you your breakfast."
He kicked at the bag and the contents came tumbling upon the floor with a fresh wave of stomach turning wretchedness. The pile was that of small, dead things that Swiff had managed to find rotting upon the forest floor. Matted furs and maggots tumbled around his boots.
The King stopped jumping and took off his crown. Suddenly, with a sigh, his old body fell limp upon the bed in a crumpled heap- the crown toppled upon the mattress beside him. The shadow of the bird in the corner came forward eagerly and tilted its head to appraise Swiff's work.
"Maggots.. yes, yes.. you have done well, my pet.. you may share in my feast."
"Oh..I.. ate on the way," Swiff lied, backing away from the festering mound of flesh.
Thankfully the bird didn't press the matter. Swiff was very suddenly engulfed in a flock of crows as the bird's body dispersed and the makeshift cloak fell to the floor. A crow sat upon his shoulder, another on his head- while others flocked to the carcasses on the floor. Swiff waved the crows away from him as he went to the King's bedside. Gingerly he arranged the wilting, unconscious man so that he was once again tucked beneath the covers of the bed, his head soundly upon the pillows.
He caught sight of the crown and reached so that he might put it away somewhere but a crow flapped onto the bed and snapped at his fingers with its beak. It took the crown and a sinister gleam into its beak and flew up to the top of a wardrobe on the far wall, watching Swiff guardedly as if he might follow.
There was a knock on the door and suddenly the crows mobbed up, massing back together beneath the cloak. Put back together the smoke and feathered form of the bird hovered by the bed to replace the crown upon the king's pale brow before pulling back into the corner.
Swiff looked about the morbid scene of dead things and quickly threw the discarded bag over it, doing very little to conceal the flesh and new feathers scattered about.
"Enter," he said- with a gasp, struggling not to be sick with the stench.
Beyond the door a guard's voice said, "Prince Draumaus."
Then the doors were opened and the brave faced son of the king came storming in.
"Father-" he began before stumbling back and putting a hand across his mouth. "Gah- what IS that smell?"
"The king is still getting well- this is for a remedy." Swiff hurried for a likely explanation.
"A remedy for what, life? Get that out of here! Father! I have to speak with you."
The prince's gaze went beyond Swiff to the king upon the bed, who took in a rasping gulp of air as if only just waking up.
"...Speak," he said in an unlikely hiss as he settled a brooding glare onto his son.
Draumaus studied his father for a moment but continued on. "Your knights have received word from those of Knights Haven. A prisoner has escaped. The traitor, Niarosa. Will we pursue?"
There was a silence. The king was absolutely still. After a moment he said, in a slithering whisper, "My Knights?"
Again the prince seemed perplexed by his father. He glanced suspiciously at Swiff and then the cloaked shadow of the bird in the corner. Swiff wondered what the young man was thinking. He had always been a clever boy, spoiled to high heaven, but clever nonetheless. "Yes. Sir Marcos rode in this morning from Knights Haven. I didn't think you would see him yourself in this.. state."
"Sir Marcos?" The king's voice was a tremble as his brow furrowed.
"Yes, Father- he suspects the sorcerer, Fritz, of helping her. If this is true then it could mean serious trouble for the realm."
The king was silent now. His pale face hardened, expressionless. Anyone might have thought that the King had become distracted. But Swiff knew that it was the bird- and the bird was nothing if not focused on the Prince's words. Magic was a strong bond, and Swiff could feel the bird's anger coursing through it. The cloaked shadow of the bird, in the corner, seemed darker and bigger- growing blacker with every word the prince said. Swiff felt the unmistakable trickle of terror down his spine.
The words slipped from the king's lips, colder than ice.
Prince Draumaus stopped explaining the situation to consider his father. "Pardon?"
"No knights," the king repeated, in a hiss. Then he balled his fists and his eyes took on a fiery rage. He yelled, "Burn them! Kill them all! I will not have knights in my castle!"
"You're not well, father," said Prince Draumaus, his eyes wide with shock.
"Monsters, all of them!" the king snapped. "I am the king and you'll do as I say!"
The prince shook his head and said, "This is a mistake, father. Your knights have been nothing if not loyal-"
"Loyal?" the king scoffed. He then repeated, "I am the king and I will have no more knights- none in this castle and none in this realm."
Draumaus was staring at his father again, hands balled into fists. After a moment he stepped back and said, "You're not well, father. I won't let you do this. When you are well you will thank me-"
"No knights!" the King screamed it now. Desperately. Then he sat back and a whimsical smile spread upon his face. "I think this prince is getting bold, the powers going to his head... place him in a dungeon cold, or we will see him dead."
Swiff saw the madness of the bird reflected in the king's wild eyes. With out hesitation he grabbed the prince by the arm and declared, "I'm sure there's no need for that... Draumaus is your son. I'm sure he will dismiss the knights himself. I'll see him on his way."
He urged the shocked prince out of the room and into the hall beyond. He led him away from the ears of the guards and said in his quietest whisper, "Prince Draumaus.. I know you cannot believe me but I am not a traitor. Your father is not well-"
"Why is he doing this?" the prince murmured. He didn't seem to mind who he was standing next to at the moment, as his confused gaze was locked on the floor. "Has he gone completely mad?"
"He's-" Swiff stopped before he could say more. He wanted to tell the prince what had happened, and that his father's madness was the mischief of a vengeful bird. But he could not. The magic that kept him in service to the bird was tightening around his tongue whenever he so much as thought about telling the truth. So he had to settle for something vague and less than comforting. "Humor him, Prince... it's better than losing your head."
Finally he seemed to have the prince's attention. Draumaus lifted his eyes and gave Swiff a quizzical look. Before he could answer there were footsteps striding down the hall. Swiff was not familiar with many of the knights but Sir Marcos had a way of being remembered. He owned a loyalty and devotion to his duties as a knight that few heard of past tales and legends. As the young man came to bow before them the prince looked at Swiff one more time and nodded, reluctantly. He was resigned to his father's demands, despite disagreeing with them. The king was still the king.
"What are the king's wishes regarding the traitor Niarosa, Prince Draumuas?" asked Sir Marcos, rising again. "Has he accepted my apology for this mistake? I will correct it as he sees fit."
Prince Draumaus sighed. "Leave us," he said, hollowly, in Swiff's direction.
Swiff stepped back and retreated to the room of the king and the bird once more, relieved in a way. He didn't want to see the shock and insult on Sir Marcos' face when he realized what was happening. It was a sad day when a king would dismiss his knights.