Fairy Tale Endings: Hail to the King, part 1

All right then, boys and girls, it looks like it's that time again. Your boy Johnny Despair, Esq.'s back with another story for you. Ya'll remember last week, when Mr. Happy and I rounded you lot up and crammed a big ol' mess a fairytale what-have-ya-s down yer throats, and I mentioned we had one extra-strength fantasy queued up fer ya. Well, put down yer Gameboys and yer smartphones and settle in. Cuz it's here, baby, and it is not taking your crap. I'd do what it says. It's crazy.

Hail To The King
—written by: Johnny Despair, Esq., with illustrations by Mr. Jack Happy

hey say that, the day our Queen died, it was the saddest of days our land had seen for a generation; however, I myself was, I'm ashamed to say, quite pleased. I was a carpenter, and royal caskets were quick and profitable work, if you could get it. Besides, what did I care? Carpenters rarely rubbed elbows with royalty. We were supposed to love the monarchy, for taking care of us, but I was never the type to look up to a man who was simply standing on my back. Still, I knew my place, and I could endear myself to my “betters” when need be. So I built a fine casket, and I delivered it on time. They asked if I would not also bear the casket to the grave. My curiosity got the better of me, and I consented.

My role in the ceremony was much smaller than I had expected; I suppose that was why it was deemed suitable for a “mere commoner.” Several of the King's servants assisted me, and then they hurried me back the servants' quarters. The others gossiped among themselves while I reflected on my brief glimpse into the funeral. Our King sat at the front of the gathering, near his two sons and the Bishop. They all looked solemn, but the King...it was curious. It was the first time I had ever actually seen him, so his ways were unfamiliar to me, but his did not seem to be the face of a grieving man. He seemed, I suppose, at peace somehow. Where most bowed their heads in respect, he sat up boldly and fixed his attention on the casket. Though as we sat the casket by the grave, I thought that the King's eyes had actually been resting on me. I wondered why it was that the king seemed so...

The servants persuaded me to linger in their quarters. The King might have need for me, should there be some issue with the casket, or even better, perhaps in his grief, he would feel compelled to reward me for the work I'd done setting his poor wife to rest. I remembered his face, the hard-set lines standing out remarkably next to fresh faces of his sons. It was not age alone that left such marks. I doubted very much that I should want anything to do with our King, but I was also sure that if I left now, after being asked to wait, I would be all the worse for it when the King did summon me next.

Hours passed and the funeral went on. I wondered if perhaps it would be made into a whole week of mourning. The sun was nearly setting when the funeral ended and the feast began. As the servants had said, the King did summon for me. I was brought before him as he sat in his customary position of honor before the gathered revelers. Once more I felt that hardened old face fall watching me. It seemed as though there was something distasteful on his tongue. Finally he spoke.

“Though this is a day of somber remembrance, it is also a day, much like any other. Worthy men and dutiful service are valued especially on these difficult days. Sir carpenter, approach me.” I did as I was told. “Kneel.” I obeyed my lord. I felt his sword upon my shoulders. “Now rise, a knight in your King's personal service.” Applause filled the massive chamber. I was confused. Only noblemen could be knights, and not before years of service. Then I realized that I would also be expected, as a knight, to maintain my own tools of warfare. This was meant to be quick and profitable. But of course the King had to show gratitude. The favors of the nobility.

I was allowed to sit at the feast, and afterwards, lead to some chambers that I might stay for the evening. Fine chambers they were, with a large, comfortable bed, and expertly-wrought silver candlesticks, and a beautifully carved wardrobe. I wondered why they needed a casket from a man such as me when they could get the man behind such lovely work. I let out a sigh, wondering what damned luck the morrow would bring. I'd never even made such a large bed before, let alone rested in one, but now I suppose I would have to accustom myself to silk sheets and purple robes. Despite the many luxuries, it was a fitful sleep.

In the morning, I found that I was summoned before his highness once more. “I hope you rested well, sir knight. For you shall be escorting me on a hunting expedition. I need...time, alone with my grief. After breakfast, we shall leave.”

“Would you highness not prefer to be escorted by his veteran retainers on his trip?”

“It is not your place to question my orders nor motives.” His expression hadn't changed, but he grew slightly flush. “And no, I would not prefer more veteran retainers. For the record, I am not that old that I need my most valuable knights just to take in a leisurely hunt! My sons need the aid of trusted men-at-arms far more than I do. Now away with you. Make ready to leave.”

He did not speak to me again until we had stopped for our mid-day meal. I spread out a thick blanket and set to unpacking one of our baskets of provisions. The King unceremoniously began snatching up whatever food caught his fancy as soon as I'd set it down. “Hungry,” he growled around a mouth full of chicken. I was unsurprised to find that he was apparently unaccustomed to not immediately getting whatever he desired. How like a child this father of the kingdom could be. I could not contain my amusement, and let out a brief laugh as I finished setting out the meal. “Whaff funny?” he demanded. I shook my head, saying nothing. “What's funny?” he asked again, struggling to enunciate clearly around his checks bulging with food.

“Nothing,” I assured him. He looked me in the eye. I silently cursed myself for my indiscretion. Just make it through all this, I thought, and then he'll forget about you and let you get back to your life. Anger him every time you speak, and who knows how long...

“Laugh,” he told me.

“I beg your pardon sir?”

“Laugh. Again. Like you did a moment ago.” His face was turned towards the picnic. I wasn't sure what it was he wanted, but I managed a laugh. He turned back towards me, devouring a slice of pie that was smeared into his graying beard. I laughed harder.

“What a dashing figure you cut, Lord!” I was sure that it would anger him, but I simply could not hold back.

He stiffened. “Of course! It this natural poise of one selected by God to rule! The inborn grace of royalty!” He was being completely serious! He had no idea...I laughed even harder, now. Finally, it dawned on him that my joy was at his expense. His harsh face further darkened. “You over estimate your boyish charm, sir.”

In a moment his sword was drawn and held to my throat. “You also underestimate the capacities of your King!” He slashed at my chest, slicing with such speed and ferocity I could hardly register if I was being taught a lesson or simply murdered on the spot. I was frozen, not even daring to breathe lest that slight motion somehow tear open a dozen expertly-placed wounds and ruin me. After a few terrifying moments, he let his sword return to his side. The King stepped towards me and tore away the tattered strips of fabric that just moments ago had been a fine shirt. He stared at my chest, then began examining it with his hands. I still could not move.

After a few moments, he stepped back and once more looked me in the eyes. “It appears that I have not wounded you.” He moved his face closer to mine. “This time. In the future, you would do well to remember your place. Now pack up this mess.” I had not yet had a chance to eat. I did as I was told.

The sun was just beginning to set as we came upon a small house. It was nothing much, no stately manor, but it seemed handsome and sturdy enough. A surprisingly practical choice for a hunting lodge, actually.

“Who built you this lodging, Highness?” I asked, curious as to the modest abode's origins.

“I could not say. It is irrelevant.”

“Do you commission many homes in this fashion, Lord?” I continued, unsatisfied.

“Commission? Do I look so common as to commission homes of this caliber?” he answered, in one of his colder tones. “Now cease your ignorant questions and stable the horses while I go make myself at home.” I did not understand what exactly was going on, but I took the horses to the stable. I found there was already one horse in the small barn. Was there a servant already here? I returned to the house and passed a middle-aged couple carrying burlap sacks. I asked the King who they were.

“Oh, the people who built this place.”

“Where are they going?”

“I never thought to ask,” he said, clearly bored. “When shall dinner be prepared?”

Had he not already convinced me that he was capable of slaying a man for the slightest offense, I would have found his current conduct completely unbelievable. “I...as soon as I change my shirt,” I said, suddenly feeling quite exposed.

“Oh? So you think your own comfort comes before that of your King?” I couldn't stand to look at him.

“No, your lordship. I shall see to the victuals.”

He stretched himself out in what appeared to be the nicest chair of the household. “Good.” It was the first time I had seen him smile.

Dinner was tense. After our picnic, I was afraid to say or do anything that might set him off. We ate in silence until the King , tearing into a turkey leg, finally deigned to speak. “Do you know,” he mumbled, “why we have come here?”

“To hunt, lord?” I answered with what I hoped was simply “timidity” and not “fear.”

“Yes, but do you know what we seek?” I wondered if I was supposed to know. I decided it would be better not to answer. “No, I suppose you wouldn't, would you?” He took a deep swallow of wine. “They say that the beastman of the woods stalks through these parts.” Of course, everyone had heard rumors of the beastman, but people never spoke of him as something to be hunted. He was like an animal, ferocious and wild, but with the cunning and posture of a man. Who would want to match themselves against such fearsome prey?

“And my liege hopes to slay him?” I ventured.

“Hmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I am curious to see if the rumors are true. You know that they also say that he is foreign royalty, afflicted with a ghastly curse. I wonder...” His gaze seemed distant; I did not care to guess what he might be contemplating.

I finished my meal with haste, lest his mood suddenly change and once more dash my chance for sustenance. My desperation was not lost on the King. “Or perhaps,” he said, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin, “I have already found my beastman, and foolishly invited him to dinner.” I could not tell if he was amused or disgusted. “Yes, it looks like a man, but it is clear from the bared, primitive chest, from the wild, unintelligent eyes, and the complete lack of grace or restraint that this cannot be considered a man. No, it is but a beast, a low creature fit only to serve,” he said, rising. “Its crude imitation of a man is quite insulting to me, in fact. Beast!” he boomed. “Cease this ignoble facade!”

I was dumbstruck. What did he want? He took a step forward, hand on his sword. “Drop your pretensions of civility, beast! Strip yourself of those stolen, ruined garments!” I sat frozen. He couldn't be serious. “Do as I command, beast! The only use for a disobedient beast is meat!” I knew that he was not one for idle threats. I stood, and somehow my numb, trembling hands managed to work my clothing off. I could tell that my humiliation was only beginning.

Okay, kiddies, we're gonna call it here for this evening. This thing's still goin' strong, no doubt, but I know you kids can't sit still that long without needing a snack or going potty or twittering or someshit, so you know what? Tune next week for the exciting conclusion!

Till then, kiddies, stay away from strange monarchs, and the even stranger

Johnny Despair, Esq.

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