“I am an innkeep.” The boy affirmed forcefully.
The clangour of metal wares from inside the inn brought the silent night to life. The constant buzz of drunken chatter mingled with the warmth of the air; coarse male voices, often interjected by high pitched feminine ones. The boy inhaled the sickly sweet fragrance of strange flowers covering the stench of spilled ale and the odour of unkempt customers – sailors, spies and the filth of men. But this rough, lowly place was his home. He had been born here, and had lived here all his life. Couldn’t the guard just see that?
The guard couldn’t. He stood on the threshold of the inn, face to face with the boy, glaring at him, incredulous that anyone would reject an offer such as the one he had been given. Behind the guard’s back the cold winds of the night howled, and behind the boy the inn stretched out, warm, congenial… and homely.
“You are more than just an innkeep Jaden,” the guard inched closer, his garlic tinted breath right on Jaden’s face. “You can become the king. You have it in you,” he whispered, his words scarce louder than the whistling winds. “Princess Myah will take care of everything; you only have to consent, boy. There is no one stopping you except yourself. No one who can.”
Jaden stepped back, one leg inside his father’s inn. “I am not coming. And there is no one stopping me from that either,’’ he asserted and then turned his back to the outside world and walked into the inn.
“No wonder the princess is sick of talking to this dolt. But she can stay back in her castle, while I go around in her place, persuading this headstrong boy…” he heard the guard grumble behind him.
Jaden didn’t care about being a king though. He hated this country anyway. Starved men swarmed the streets like fleas; children were whipped mercilessly and taken away as slaves; girls had to live their lives in fear. And each day, more homeless men crawled over the alleys like maggots. The only real homes belonged to the rich; and they only got fewer each day. And richer.
There used to be a time when Jaden used to toss and turn sleeplessly in his bed each night, disturbed by all the atrocities he saw in the city. He would cry for all the weeping children left cowering on the streets, and his blood would race with the need for justice. But those times were long gone…
He made his way through the jeering group of drunken gangsters and past the sweartoad sailors to the narrow wooden staircase that had been cramped into the corner of the inn. The quiet of his bedroom was two flights above.
“Jaden, you look worried today. Could I help you with something?” Clarence’s shrill voice floated over to him. The timid looking girl with clops of brown clutched the railing of the staircase, somewhat nervous, the way she always was when talking to him.
“Nothing Clarence. I just… need some rest.” he declared and rushed upwards without another glance. She was his second cousin from his mother’s side, taken into their family when her parents had died. For four years now, she had been with him and his father yet could never get used to being confident around him. He wondered how she would be if he became the king. Maybe, she would be too shy to look him in the eye even furtively; maybe she would stutter while talking to him. The idea made his smile a little. Silly little half-sister.
He landed on the second floor and dashed into the first door on the right. His room was small with a rough cot stuffed into a corner with grey tatters of bedclothes. Other than that, he owned four pairs of clothes, a pair of shoes and a small chest of odd little trinkets. But that was more than most people in the country could hope for in all their lives.
The sky outside his window was turning a dirty, sad grey. The shouts of the poor children racing one another reached up to his window, and the call of a lone raven echoed from the sky. Jaden slumped into his bed. Clarence was pretty in her sort of way, but she wasn’t Princess Myah with her red, plump lips, dove colored skin, and ice blue doe eyes. He had first met the princess half a year ago when a group of his uncle’s soldiers had burnt down a house because they had refused to marry their daughter to one of those drunken soldiers. In the end, the only child left of the family had been a little boy who had gone out to play and returned to find his house in embers and his parents and sister as ashes. The soldiers were coming for him too, wanting to take him to the already overcrowded prison and starve him in the dark dungeon. That’s when Jaden couldn’t take it anymore. Before even he could realise what he was doing, he had shoved the soldier down and was on top of him, driving his butterknife through his arm, hysterically shouting.
Then, everything had been a daze. The other soldiers were yanking him free and someone hit him on his head with a wooden club. He might have met the same fate as the family that day had it not been for princess Myah who had come riding that way. She had ordered the soldiers to scram and taken him to the royal healer,
It had been a complete weak before he had been given leave from the healer’s. Apparently, the hit had broken a bit of flesh at the back of his head, and he had lost a little river enough of blood. But all that had been worth for meeting the princess.
The king had been much opposed to having him in the castle’s healing room for a week, despite that he had known not who Jaden really was. “If my father knew about you,” Myah had whispered in hushed tones one day, “he would probably have you killed.”
“Why do you save me princess? What of you if he finds out?” he had asked her. That had been his sixth day of enjoying her hospitality. His bed was large enough for two of him and yielded to his will like water, unlike his rough stone cot. Every now and then she would come over surreptitiously to keep his company.
When he had asked her that question, she had left his bedside and walked the length of the room, past the two other empty beds, to stare outside the jet framed window at the other end. A moment had passed. Then she had glanced outside the door anxiously, and replied, “what if I want him killed?”
Jaden could feel her musical voice filling his ears like it were all happening now. He tossed in his bed, clutching the dirty bedclothes absently.
“But… but, what do you mean? You are his daughter. Why would you want him killed?” he had asked her in disbelief.
Myah had turned her head, pain writ over her lovely face, her short raven curls fanning about her, stark against the cold white marble walls.
“Any other girl would be a daughter, Jaden. But I am to be a queen one day soon. And it’s either my cruel father, or the people,” she sighed. “And call me Myah, not princess.”
Then she had walked back to his side and seated herself there. “Old dynasties… are like cold meat. Once full of life, but too long left on the Earth to become cold and harmful. I want a new king, someone who is alive. Someone who dares to care.” Her delicate fingers had traced tiny circles over the seams of his grey duvet, an inch from his fingers. Then she had pulled back and left.
But even she hadn’t known the truth about him that day. And neither had he. They had found out only on the seventh day – the last. He often wondered if that was the reason she had sent him back home immediately. After that, she had always come to meet him only undercover and disguised, accompanied by her guard alone. They met in unused alley corners or among the throngs of men, passing messages when no one would notice. Sometimes she would pretend to be a young boy- Wern, her fair face chalked with olive powder, and her guard would play her father, half hidden behind a bush of grey beard and an eye patch over his one eye. On those days, they would come to the inn and communicate mostly in gestures and partly with paltry words. There was always only one thing she wanted from him. But he had never agreed. Overtime, Wern’s father got to talking to Jaden frequently while Wern would sit at the table, a flagon untouched before him, observing them from the corner of his eyes. Even if the guard did all the talking, she had been there; until today…
Suddenly, a great cry went up from down on the streets. The scrape of steel swords being removed from their scabbards rung into the dusk.
At once Jaden sat up and hung his head out of the window. At first sight, only a great splash of moving colors lay scattered far below him. And then he understood the soldiers in their green coats, the cold blades of their swords winking with bloodthirst. Women and children ran screaming. Someone was pinned to the ground – or many, he couldn’t exactly tell except that he noticed a body twitching on the gravel. An old woman clutched a soldier’s feet, begging him for mercy. He kicked her and she went sprawling on the ground; then she wasn’t moving anymore. Everything was screams and steel and an undistinguishable blur. Then from its midst came four soldiers, dragging his father out of the inn by his dirty brown locks. They thrust the dishevelled man onto the floor. A soldier came down on him with a whip.
“Father,” Jaden shouted into the air and at once pushed back from his window and raced down the staircase blindly. The inn seemed deserted, mugs of beer left unfinished on the table and articles strewn across the floor. Not stopping, he rushed across the maze of wooden tables and pushed his way outside, into the alarmed crowd. At the center crouched his father, blood streaming in places, breathing heavily. Across from him a skinny man lay moaning, shackled and doused in blood till he looked more like a piece of meat that a man breathing.
A piece of meat, cold meat, thought Jaden in Myah’s voice.
A soldier with one grey eye and one black rounded up on his father and kicked him in his chest. His father spilled out onto the gravel.
“Entertain such mongrels again,” the soldier growled, pointing at the man who lay whimpering across, “and you will be forced to shut down your filthy business.”
“What’s the point of closing down his pub, Alan? Just one more homeless on the street. No, he does it once more and we increase his taxes threefolds.” laughed another soldier coldly.
“No!” His father pleaded, shaking his head frantically. “Not tax, please no more taxes. We haven’t got much already. Please.”
The soldier who had suggested the tax increment stepped forward with a sly grin. “If you can’t pay threefolds, then pay four. Or,” he stooped down to his father’s level, “pay with your daughter. I heard you have one.’’ he rose, his greedy eyes scanning the inside of the inn.
Jaden woke suddenly, like someone had slapped him. Clarence!
He stepped out of the circle of watchers and marched to the soldier. “Boy. He has a boy,” he proclaimed boldly.
The soldier named Alan turned from his father and scrutinized Jaden. Jaden’s head began to throb with the force of a phantom wooden club. But he stood fearlessly and looked the soldier in the eye unwavering.
“Ah! Let’s see. What have we here? A little insolent whelp,” he threw back his head and laughed. “We’ll see how strong this one is when he is beaten numb and red.” He smacked his whip on the ground and advanced, its tip trailing behind. Jaden’s breath quickened, but he stood as a stone, not letting a trace of fear escape into his face.
Just then a voice boomed from behind. “The king is in need of you all right away,” Myah’s guard announced.
Alan and his party cursed and retreated. “Some other day boy,” he spat. “And you,” he added, turning to his father, “Remember what we told you. I don’t want to be fishing out filth from your inn one more time. Treat traitors once more… and you’ll know.”
With that, they all rode away. Myah’s guard threw a quick glance in his direction, then turned back and rode behind the soldiers. In moments, the crowd scattered and everyone went their way. Jaden helped his father into the inn and into his room, laid him on his bed and came out again. All their customers had fled and the inn was empty. Somebody had moved the other man in shackles too.
Red piece of meat. Cold red piece of meat, he thought, recalling Myah’s words. Distaste filled his insides like raw acid.
Night had fallen dark and steady above him and the street was left unusually silent. But he didn’t want to go back into the inn again, so he set off along the shadows clawing at the street corners. The whip, his father, the meat of a man, the wooden club, the burnt house… all of it danced fresh before his eyes. The chilly wind slapped his bare arms, but he was burning with the need for justice. Cruel; the king was cruel and so was his rule.
“You are the only way this could end, Jaden,” he heard Myah plead in his mind. What if she was right about him? What if he could become the king? Was he strong enough to rule?
He shook his head. I am an innkeep, he recalled.
Then Myah’s words returned. “Your great-grandfather was the rightful heir to this kingdom, until his brother – my great-grandfather imprisoned and killed him and banished his son. You have the royal blood in you, Jaden. That’s why you throb for justice. That’s why you are stronger than other men. You are meant to be the king. Then you can end all of this,” she had begged when she had discovered his true identity in her family tree.
If I become the king, will she be my queen? He felt empty.
“Child, you seem troubled,” an old woman called out from behind, her voices cracked yet soft.
He had blindly followed his feet, not paying attention to where he was going. Now he found himself in the inner core of the city. This street was calm with crisp houses lining both the sides. The king’s castle loomed large and silhouetted in the backdrop.
The crone who had called him sat weaving on the dark threshold of a small house behind him.
“I… no, it’s nothing,” he shook his head.
The hag beckoned. Uncertain, he inched towards her.
“Here, I have something to show you,” she crooned, and taking him by his hand, led him inside her house.
The interior of her house was warm and rich with strong, queer incense. Strange diagrams and charts covered every corner of the wall. An assortment of weird instruments – misty orbs, metal goblets, jars of sticky, shifting…substances- were stacked on the shelves.
“Come,” the crone cooed and walked him through the vortex. He was starting to feel dizzy and his eyes were beginning to sting and water. She lead him into a room in the end of the hall and then another, then stopped in a dark, small room draped with velvet hangings. Lighting a lamp, she shuffled towards the wall and pulled down its hangings. Behind it was a tapestry, dark with gleaming rivulets of strings glowing here and there in the faint light. The crone lifted up her lamp to show him what lay ahead. The tapestry came to life depicting a series of events.
A withered village… men being made to carry goods like donkeys, kids kicked into the fuming darkness of a mine, widows weeping… a miner’s son… A wizened wanderer encountering the miner’s son…
“It’s the tale of Racathth the miner king. An old story that talks of a miner’s son who goes from being a coward to raising an insurgent against the unjust kingdom and finally becomes the king himself,” the crone narrated.
Jaden traced the tapestry with his finger gingerly. “How…”
“How did he? He had a power, child; a power that is in everyone’s heart but no one’s hand. He believed that he could,” the old women exhaled, “He didn’t doubt his strength; because if he hadn’t thought himself worthy, no one else would have.”
She took in a deep breath then went on, “His biggest secret was his confidence in himself and his boldness to act. That’s how you change the world, child, by simply believing that you can.”
A quarter of an hour later, he walked into the cold night again, the guard’s words ringing inside his head. There is no one stopping you except yourself. No one who can.
Two streets away the castle stood, large and unconquerable. Jaden drunk in its power. A gust of energy sparked inside him. His blood was racing a thousand miles.
Myah, he thought, you’re not alone in believing in me. I’m with you now.
He breathed in deep. It’s time to regain my great grandfather’scrown, he resolved, rushing towards Myah’s castle.
Lousy first attempt. XD
© 2018 Sahana Narendran