Of the death of kings; of a sorcerer's revenge.
|"Sing for me!" King Cormack boomed. His voice echoed the length of the feasting-hall, and Bart the Bard cringed to hear it.
"Aye, my lord," Bart said, tuning his harp from his place at the King's feet. "I have new verses tonight, if it please you."
Cormack lifted a leg of mutton to his gaping maw and bit away a hunk of steaming flesh. Grease ran down his beard. "We shall see if it pleases me or not." The King laughed when he saw Bart go pale. "Play on."
The guards began slamming the butts of their spears upon the dais; and quiet hushed down the warped oak mead-benches like a wind. Jarls and knights and serving wenches all turned from their ale and fish toward the soapstone throne of their King. The only sound was the soft crackle of torchflame.
And Bart the Bard sang:
"As you all ken, our glorious liege
Not always was he King.
Not 'til good Cormack won by siege
This castle where I sing.
"Whilst his stalwarts fell upon this keep,
Painting with cowards' blood,
King Norbert hid, too frighted to weep –
For he had stepped in mud.
"Fat Norbert was the boy of old Alfred
And a scullery bitch.
He took a wife and a kitten to bed,
Yet knew not which was which.
"It's said that when the castle fell,
And they told Bert the news,
The fool asked if it was down a well,
Like a toy he once did lose.
"'Twas then brave Cormack burst through the door,
His blooded flail a-bright.
He roared, 'I'll see this boy-king's no more!
And claim my ancient right.'
"Norbert wet his trews, and wailed most brave,
And cowered on his throne.
Cormack crowned him with his morningstar,
And ceased his dreadful moan.
"So there victorious Cormack sat,
His enemies struck dumb.
Old King Alfred's seed died like a rat,
Still crying for his Mum."
The song amused King Cormack exceedingly, and by its end he rocked with gales of laughter. The court howled only after their King, tossing back their mead cups. After a long while – too long a while, in truth – the uproar subsided, all save the slow clap of two hands.
The high lords all turned to the shadows near the door of the hall, where sat a guest none had invited. He wore sable robes fringed with purple, thick from chin to toe. The stranger's face was fair, unmarred by pox or years – though his hair was shock-white, and he had the spotted, wrinkled hands of a frail old man.
The captain of the castle guard stepped forward and loosened his sword from its scabbard. "Name yourself," he demanded.
The stranger stood. "I am Ulrich," he replied, "called the Black, called the Were, called Eater of Men."
At once the hall came alive with murmurs, for Ulrich the Black was a sorcerer of some renown and considerable power, and many of the Kings of the Skryelands held him in infamy. No one knew how long he had wandered the face of the Earth. It was said he communed with the fanged devils of the Liflands, and that his longevity and power were due to his mad need to dine on human flesh.
Many of the feasters trembled; some even fled, so great was their terror. But King Cormack cried out with delight from atop his soapstone throne. "You do us honor, Ulrich, called the Black! What's the reason for your visit?"
"To hear Bard Bart's song, of course." The sorcerer strode toward the dais and down the length of the benches. Those he passed roiled with sudden shudders of revulsion.
The captain spat, and his guardsmen laid hands upon hilts. "The conjurer will step no further," he said. "And if it please my lord, I'll have his entrails on a dish for the hounds."
Cormack only chortled. "The day I fear a magic trick is the day I stop drinking mead and fucking wenches." A laugh, albeit a nervous one, rose among his retainers. "He may approach."
Ulrich smiled. "I do find myself more than partial to Bart's verses. However – and it saddens me, my good King Cormack – tales of your conquests are so little known amongst us smallfolk. Tell me yourself how you slew King Norbert."
"The little bastard was in my chair," Cormack said, "so I cudgeled him out of it."
"On your throne." Ulrich edged onto the dais. "As you are now?"
"Aye, how else?" A flicker of annoyance crossed the King's face. "Or near enough as to make no matter."
"Near enough?" Ulrich echoed. He crept closer still.
"Aye," Cormack said again. "A tub o' guts brat and a true King don't sit a throne the same. Every fool knows that."
"And you heft your morningstar... like so?" Ulrich held his hands aloft in the mock grip of a weapon. The captain shot his guards a look.
"Like so." Cormack's brow began to furrow – his face began to darken.
"And what were the boy-king's final words? Do tell. I so love a good death scene."
"He spoke no words. Step away from me at once!" The King could not hide the tremor in his voice.
The sorcerer took a final step. The tips of his boots brushed against Cormack's. "He could not speak words he had not learned."
"Because, my King, as you well know... King Norbert was eighteen months old."
Cormack shrieked, a noise to rent a castle wall. Swords screeched free, guardsmen rushed forward cursing, and Ulrich swung his empty hands toward that howling, bearded maw, and smote the King, and watched his crown crack, his eyes pop, his skull split and his brains wriggle free, then fall with a splat upon the soapstone – as if bludgeoned by a morningstar.
Yet Ulrich the Black killed good King Cormack... with thin air.
Every man in the hall was on his feet. Ulrich whirled on the guards and they fell, one by one, their hearts bursting into flames in their chests like so many bales of hay. The captain threw a spear, headlong – Ulrich caught it, twirled it about in his fingers and hurled it back, straight down the poor man's gullet.
The hall cleared in a stampede of brave knights, high thanes and low serving girls, of shouting and shoving and cursing, of loyal friends and liege lords alike trampled underfoot and left to die.
Only one cowered in the feasting-hall when it had emptied, his only company the sorcerer and a pile of corpses: Bart the Bard.
Ulrich considered the carnage encircling him for a long while. Then he remarked, "It was a good song. Clever."
Bart's sphincter betrayed him, and a warm, reeking goop filled his trews. "C-clever, muh-muh-my lord?"
Ulrich nodded. "I'd say so. Perhaps you could sing of how Black Ulrich ended vile King Cormack. Don't forget to include the story's most crucial element: that once, when old King Alfred was young... he was Ulrich's friend.
"Anyway," he continued, "I love your early work best. 'The Mortal Wraith of Luxåtum' is outstanding, but 'The Yellow-Eyed' is my favorite. That is where you found your voice, my friend. Your recent ballads – and I know better than most, there comes a day when a bard looks wistfully out the tavern window, up, up, up to the high lord's castle – but your recent ballads seem tailored to a specific audience. 'Good King Cormack' was verily comparable to 'The Victories of King Cormack' and 'Cormack Annihilates the Orcish Rebellion.' So in my own way, I've aided in your artistic growth. I sometimes fancy myself a bit of an artist. Ah, I sound like a popinjay. But do you know what I'm getting at?"
Bart looked up at him. "Yes? I think so. May I go now, my lord?"
"Off with you," Ulrich said, and Bart the Bard never ran faster in his life.