by Mike Finley
There was a king in a land far from this place, where the moon sat purple on the edge of night, and the tall corn praised the golden sun.
This king, whose name was Thomas, was rich with gold and treasure, and a splendid court, and a great house, and shopkeepers, and farms, and cathedrals, and armies, and thousands of loyal subjects. The nations feared him. The people revered him, though they never saw his face.
For he seldom left his castle, and his people did not know him. He was thought to be cold, and aloof. He wanted very much to be a good king for them, to govern his people wisely. To him that meant working long, hard days, exhausting his scribes, and burning many candles to the nub. He worked tirelessly to serve his people, but he was not happy. He did not feel he knew his people, or that they knew him.
Now it happened that one day, King Thomas grew impatient with the long hours and rustling paper and the thick castle air. He decided to venture out into his domain. He canceled his appointments, and telling no one, he dressed in ordinary clothing, as a traveling seller of silks, taking only a purse of gold, a letter of recommendation, and a ruby ring. He slipped past the guards at the castle gate, and out into the city.
The city bazaars were a rainbow of color, and voices, and music. What will you give me for this fine lamp? a vendor cried. Ribbons! I have ribbons of scarlet and gold! cried another. Onion pies! Hot from my stone oven! cried a third.
Thomas was glad to see the merriment and prosperity of the booths. People were buying and selling, and laughing and talking. It meant he was succeeding in his efforts as king, that his people should be so happy.
He wandered through the square, where the children of the city's merchants were playing ring-o-leary. He walked down streets where the grand houses of his administrators gave way to the smaller houses of the ordinary people, and beyond them, the hovels and shacks of the city's poor.
He stood by a lamppost and watched a man beat a donkey with a stick. He saw a woman drag her daughter by one hand into the sagging doorway of an open hut. He saw a famished child sitting listlessly in the shadow of the cathedral wall. He heard the wail of a baby from one of the houses, sounding frightened and miserable.
A tear rolled down his cheek. He had not known such unhappiness existed. He was ashamed he had let his country slip into such misery.
As evening drew near, he was walking in the shadow of a dark bridge when two men accosted him. Your money or your life, one man hissed, and he felt the other man's arms encircle him.
"Take my money," said Thomas, thinking of the poverty he had seen that day. "Take it, and buy what you need. I want you to have it."
The thieves took his purse from the king's belt and shook it to hear the clink of gold coins. The one thief threw the purse to the other, who snatched it away and laughed.
The two men turned and glowered at Thomas. "You never saw us," they told him. Thomas watched as the two thieves skipped away down the cobbled street.
Troubled, he wandered down the alleyways. He was hungry, and cold, and sad. He stopped in the doorway of a humble home. Inside he saw the embers of a warm fire glowing, and a woman sitting by it, wrapped in a shawl. Summoning his courage, he knocked.
"Excuse me, missus," he told the woman who peered at him from the window, "can you spare a traveler a piece of bread, and a place by your fire?"
“How do I know you are not the brigand Milan, come to kill me in my sleep?” the woman demanded. “A poor woman cannot open her door in these dark times. Begone, and God's grace with you.”
Begging forgiveness, the king slipped away. Walking in rapid strides, he hastened back to the palace. He must sit down with his advisors at once and plot ways to do away with the poverty and crime he had witnessed. He must enlist the help of his armies to put an end to injustice and uncaring.
The moon's rays found him beside the great palace gate. A trickle of rain dampened his head and shoulders. His agitation was plain on his face. He presented himself to the officer of the hour.
"I am the king," he said. "Let me enter."
The officer approached, along with another dragoon. "The king? At this hour? Be away with you, fool!"
"I tell you I am your master the king."
One of the dragoons held a lantern to his face and torn clothes, saw the dried tears on his face. "The king, eh?" he sneered. He turned to his companion. "You recognize the king, don't you?"
"Oh, indeed I do. All hail his highness the king!" the dragoon said, and spat.
"Lunatic," the officer said, "have you your papers?"
The dragoons went through his pockets. They found no identification, but they did find his letter of recommendation, stamped with the king's private seal. One dragoon read it to the other:
Who bears this letter is our sovereign king.
The dragoons hooted with laughter. "You, our king?" one of them said. "Our king is a great man, noble of countenance, all-powerful. You are a madman, an imposter. Shame on you! I should have your ears cut off. In fact, I think I will," he said, and drew his sword.
But the other dragoon held him back. "That's a fine cotton coat he wears," he whispered. "And the night is wicked cold."
While one dragoon snatched the cloak from the king's shoulders, the other tore his letter into bits.
"If you are truly king you will have no trouble replacing a simple cloak," they said. And they pushed him to the ground, and laughed, and strode away.
Cold to his bones, Thomas made his way back down the unfamiliar streets, past house after house. Every house was dark, now. Even the chimney of the frightened woman was cold and still. He shivered and walked on in the drizzle, across the city bridge, out into the open farmland and up into the hilly pastures surrounding the city.
Thomas was furious that his own soldiers were brutes. His entire kingdom was a kind of lie. Its king was good, but its people were in pain. He needed time to think, to plan a course of action.
He walked for hours across meadows and through trees. An owl taunted him from the branch of a fir tree. "Who? Who?" Finally he came to a rude lean-to with a thatch roof. Inside it smelled like animals, and the sound of water dripping from holes in the thatch. He found a piece of rotted burlap and wrapped it round his shoulders. He removed his shoes and set them aside, and brushed the mud from between his toes. He lay in the damp straw and he slept.
He woke in the morning to a strange sensation. A ewe stood next to him, licking his hair. He could smell the sheep's wet wool.
Bewildered, the disheveled king sat and rubbed his eyes. He was halfway up a tall hill. Below him a dozen sheep grazed, and not far from them, stood a boy, perhaps eight years of age.
"Hello, there," he called. But the boy did not look up toward him. "Hello," he called again, "I am lost, could you tell me where I am?" But the boy gave no sign of acknowledging him.
Thomas rose and, shoeless, began stumbling down the path toward the boy. The stones and thistles stung his soft feet. Even when he drew near the boy did not turn around.
"Boy," he said, touching the boy's shoulder. But the boy whirled around, astonished, as if he had not heard him approaching. The boy's eyes were wild and dark, they fluttered with alertness. His face bore the marks of many beatings.
Thomas looked at the boy's startled expression and understood. "You cannot hear, can you," he said softly. The boy shook his head. "And I am very lost," the king said.
The boy broke a piece of bread in half and shared it with the king. Then he led him to a brook, where he satisfied his thirst. As the king looked into the water in his cupped hands, he saw his face, chapped and bruised. He no longer looked like any sort of king. He looked like a man of no great account. The only sign of his identity was the ruby ring on his right hand, the ring of the realm.
As the day wore on, the boy led his flock to the next hill to graze, and Thomas followed. All day they walked along the rocky ridge, following where the sheep led them. When the sun began to set, the boy took him by the hand and led him over the hilltop and into the next valley. They walked along a copse of poplar trees until they came to a tent of skins and cloth.
Inside Thomas heard men speaking loudly. "Where is that boy?" "Why was water not fetched?" "I'll teach that dreamer a lesson with my knout!"
Thomas pulled the boy aside. He wanted to tell the boy not to go in. The boy patted his hand, as if to say, he had no choice. Thomas waited under a tall tree. He listened as the men took turns shouting. "Lazy idiot!" "Hit him for me, too!" "The dolt kicked over my wine!"
He heard a crash, as if something had been thrown to the ground and broken. Someone cursed, and the king could just make out against the lantern light, the sight of an arm raised against the boy.
Thomas rushed in, and confronted three men in rough attire. The boy was on the ground, trembling, his hands over his head. One of the men was striking him again and again with a knotted scrap of leather.
"Stop!" the king cried. In a rage, he held up his ring, the red ruby glinting in the candle light. “Take this, and let the boy be!“
The men looked crazily at him in the dim light. His hair was bedraggled, his face was haggard, with dried drops of blood on his brow. The red jewel glittered magically above him.
"Get the ring!" one man cried, and they gathered around him, and pushed him to the ground, and struck him with their fists. Thomas moaned. He curled into a ball and groaned.
He awoke in the dark. The tent had been packed up and taken away. The men were gone, as were their sacks and their donkey. His ring was gone. All that remained were the king and the boy, sleeping bare-legged on the open ground, with a handful of sheep bleating around them.
Thomas sat up, and knelt by the boy, gathering him up in his arms. The two together were warmer than each apart.
King Thomas sat in the darkness, rocking the boy in his arms. Perhaps this was enough, he thought. Perhaps kings cannot really be kings, he thought. They are too far away from the people, what they were thinking and feeling. People dream of kings, but kings don't matter. High above them a star shot briefly across the sky, then disappeared. And they rocked, and rocked, and rocked.
Back in the city, the word went out that the king had abdicated and fled. From what, no one was certain.
Some said he had run away with a princess to her country. Some said he had lost his mind, and was in the towers still, muttering to himself and playing with his fingers. Perhaps plotters had poisoned him. Perhaps he had taken the crown jewels and betrayed his own country. Clearly he had never been a good king.
And so, in the kingdom where the moon sits purple on the edge of night, and the corn plants praise the golden sun, a new king was installed, a cousin of the old king. The new king was praised far and wide. Unlike his predecessor, he would be a good king.
At the coronation procession through the city, people from all over the kingdom filled the streets to cheer their new leader. The new king commanded that coins be thrown to the cheering people, and the imperial trumpets blared.
And no one took notice, among the roaring throng, of a shepherd boy on an older man's shoulders, shouting louder than all the rest. For he had caught a royal coin, and he had shared it with his father.