This is a preview of my upcoming short story “A Peasant Pledges His Life to a King”. Title and content are subject to change in editing.
A Peasant Pledges His Life to a King
AZRAEL GAZED upon the crimson velvet baldachin draped high over the throne, its gold tassels and garnishing alight in the flickering flames from torches mounted along the walls. From a dome ceiling of wooden coffers gilded with gold leaf hung an enormous bronze and crystal chandelier upon which so many candles burned they gave the impression of a single glowing orb—or had Azrael’s eyes glazed over at the sight of King Ubel?
At the bottom of the steps, two sentinels in plated armor crossed their swords to bar Azrael’s passage. He stopped, his final footstep echoing from the stone walls and pillars to call forth an utter and deathly silence. A sweet, balsamic scent lingered in the air, though no incense burned and the origin of the smell eluded him.
His journey had been long and arduous and lonely, rowing across the Sea of Memories, riding a stubborn gelding through the rocky hills and cliffs of Death’s Passage, losing the horse to the depths of the Sorrow Swamplands, and finally enjoying reprieve at Hope Springs before approaching the gates of Ubel’s Kingdom, taluses on either side slippery with moss, archers at the battlements high on the crenelated walls surrounding the bailey, from which he could faintly hear the chattering of lords and ladies at market, the squeal of wagon wheels, the neighing of cart horses.
Azrael had traveled far to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance for a peasant to compete in the Knight’s Tournament and win a pouch of gold, a dozen roses, and an audience with the king himself.
Now, at last, he peered between two crossed swords and met King Ubel’s squinted ocean-blue eyes.
Ubel shot a glance at Sir Donovan, Head of the King’s Guard, and spoke with a raspy voice and slurred words. “Are we about done with this shit, Don? I’ve got a little prima nocta waitin’ for me in my quarters. Beautiful young lady. She walks down the aisle tomorrow mornin’, and by God it’s my kingly duty to make sure she walks funny.”
The king laughed and backhanded Sir Donovan’s chest, gauntlet clanking against the metal eagle emblem on his leather cuirass, which he wore over a chainmail hauberk. Sir Donovan was otherwise unarmored, though the other knights of the guard wore full plated suits to intimidate those who came to address the king.
“The peasant Azrael is the last in line today, your majesty,” Sir Donovan said.
King Ubel turned back to Azrael with a grimace. “A dirty peasant comes before me? Tell me who let this happen so I can chop off his head.”
Sir Donovan cleared his throat, then said, “This is the peasant who won the jousting match at the Knight’s Tournament three moons ago.”
“Oh,” King Ubel said, eyes lighting up with recognition. “So you’re that mysterious fellow who came forth with a homemade lance and no armor and killed one of my best men.”
“I am, your majesty,” Azrael said, bowing his head as he spoke.
“Well shit. That was quite a show you put on. How I do love a good surprise, though I must say it’s an act of treason for a piece of lowborn scum like yourself to kill a knight. I ought to have you executed right here and now.”
“If it pleases the king,” Azrael said.
King Ubel shifted in his seat, leather cushion squealing beneath him. He raised a golden goblet to his lips and slurped several gulps of its contents, never taking his eyes off Azrael. “You’re from the Drearyn Hills, aren’t you?”
“Correct, your majesty.”
“Am I good or what?” the king asked his head of the guard.
“Impressive, my king,” Sir Donovan said.
“I’ve got an eye for it.” King Ubel sneered at Azrael. “That rotten olive skin of yours gave you away. I can smell the goat piss on that tattered smock you’re wearing. I’d bet all the gold in my teeth your father is a farmer.”
“Yes, your majesty. He was.”
“He’s dead, my—”
“And your mother,” the king interjected, “is some kitchen wench he bought off an innkeep—or maybe she’s a whore.” A smirk crept onto Ubel’s face as he awaited Azrael’s response.
“Do I smell myrrh, your majesty?” Azrael asked.
The king grunted, raised his goblet, and took a drink. “I put it in my wine. Trying to ward off a toothache. I’m surprised you can smell anything besides your own filth, peasant. Now what do you want?”
Azrael took a knee and bowed his head once more. “Your majesty, I come before you today to pledge my life to you. To serve you in any way you see fit. To protect you, if you so desire, from foes far and wide.”
Laughter erupted and filled the throne room. Even Sir Donovan, a statue of a man, emitted a faint chuckle. It all died down when Ubel fell into a wet coughing fit.
“Protect me?” he said. “You?”