Hi everyone, this was a piece of flash fiction that I wrote for a creative writing course a while ago, and I had published it as such previously, however, having edited it to within an inch of its life, I have decided to republish it as a slightly longer short story.
I hope you enjoy it.
THE COST OF LIVING
‘You have to do it now, your Majesty.’
The king’s aid sat slumped and exhausted on the rotting, wooden bench of the castle dungeon with his back against the damp, mouldy wall. His white hair, speckled with dirt, hung down over his lined face in a tangled mess and his once pristine, silver robe now hung in tattered shreds about his person.
The king, who was sitting on the dirt floor with his back pressed against the bench, got up onto his haunches and put a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
‘I cannot and will not do it, Aurin. Not only are you my loyal aide as you were my father’s before, but you are also my most trusted friend.’ He squeezed Aurin’s shoulder gently and smiled sadly before adding, ‘you are my only friend as of late.’
So many had renounced him as their king so that they might live, though he did not blame them. The Southern Ice Folk had been cunning and promised to spare the lives of all those who swore their loyalty to them. They also promised that those who would not renounce their king would burn alive in the central courtyard of the castle for all to see.
When they had come for him, the king, abandoned by his guards and with only Aurin at his side, fought as best he could but there were too many of them for his small army to fight, and he had had no choice but to admit defeat.
A tortured scream from somewhere above ripped its way through the castle, echoing off every stone wall. It was horrifying.
The king took a long breath in an attempt to steady himself and to force down the rage that threatened to burst from his insides. Standing up, he moved across to the door and leaned his head on the cold iron bars.
Aurin staggered to his feet and followed him.
‘Your Majesty, please I beg you, do it now!’
‘You must. It is the only way, surely you understand that?’
‘I won’t do it, Aurin!’
The old man stared at the king. He had always been stubborn. As a small prince, he had wanted to learn how to swim, and even after having almost drowned three times, the boy had refused to give up until he had mastery over the water. He had never been idiotic, however, and to accept things how they were now – to give up fighting – was just that.
‘You’re letting your personal feelings get in the way of your duty,’ said Aurin. ‘If you do nothing, those still loyal to you will die and who knows what will become of the others.’
The king looked away. ‘I said no.’
‘You mean to say that the great king of Varlo, the bravest man I know, will just wallow in this dank and festering, hole that smells of excrement and decay when he is needed most? Your father would turn in his grave if he could see you now.’
The king squeezed his hands around the bars of their cage in frustration.
‘Were there another option, Aurin, then I would take it, but as things stand right now, there are only you and me here, locked up like feral creatures needing to be caged, like barbarians!’
He slammed his hands on the bars. ‘To think, the real barbarians are out there, in Varlo, occupying our lands, taking our possessions and harming our people, and all because I am of the Mother and I believe in the magical gifts which she bestows on to those she deems worthy, and they do not.’
The king had grown up with the stories of those in the farthest northern and southern territories who did not believe in the Mother, the creator of all things. His father and mama would tell him tales at bedtime of their wild nature and of their lust for the blood of all living things different from themselves, but he had never really believed them.
He had thought his parents told him the stories of the savages from afar to frighten him into staying in Varlo to learn how to be the king he would eventually become, instead of going off to explore the vast sea surrounding the kingdom, which he had always found fascinating.
The king looked to Aurin who now clung to the bars for support. He was getting weaker, and if they could not find a way out soon, then they would both die.
‘I wish that this was just a nightmare, one from which I will awaken at any moment to find that I am still in my own warm bed and that The Southern Ice Folk have not crossed the great sea and made landfall in our kingdom.’
Aurin waved a pale, calloused hand, swatting away the king’s foolish and fanciful notions.
‘They would believe you, your Majesty, if only you would show them; do it, give them definitive proof, that which they can see with their own cold eyes – before they are burned out of their skulls.’ Aurin wobbled back on his feet, his strength ebbing away quickly, but the king was quick. He caught him and led him back to the bench.
‘Aurin, doing that would require that I drain the life essence from another living soul, and since you are the only soul here with me, you’ll understand my hesitation. Besides, if you were to give up your life, I would be alone.’ As he spoke, he realised that his mouth was getting dryer. They would pass out from dehydration soon. Aurin was halfway there already.
‘You’re Majesty,’ said Aurin, his voice becoming hoarse from the lack of lubrication,
‘you would risk the whole kingdom for the life of a tired and worn out old man, just because you would be lonely?’ he looked at the king for a response, but he gave none.
‘That’s ridiculous! When everybody else is either dead or under the rule of the Southern Ice Folk, how will I live with myself knowing that I am the reason you did nothing?’
‘I would be alone, Aurin,’ the king said, his eyes fixed on the ground. ‘If you were not here, I might be lonely, yes, but moreover, I would be alone. I have no parents, no wife or children. You are all the family that I have.’
Aurin smiled weakly and patted the spot next to him on the bench. It groaned and creaked as the king sat.
‘My king, you are not alone now, and you never were. Even without me. The people of this kingdom love you so much – perhaps even more than they loved your father and you know what he meant to them.’ He turned and looked into the king’s eyes. ‘Save them, and they will show their devotion to you.’
‘I don’t think I could carry on, knowing what I’d had to do,’ said the king.
‘My life will end soon enough anyway. I’m tired, your Majesty, and weak. Allow me this, so that my end may mean something?’ Aurin clasped a hand over the king’s and gave it a reassuring squeeze before letting go.
Looking up at the stone ceiling, the king clenched his fists so tightly at his sides that his knuckles turned white. ‘Dear divine Mother,’ he called out, ‘why must you imbue me with only half of what I need to save my people?’
He knew that the Divine mother was not at fault for the bigotry of the Southern Ice Folk, but it felt good to direct his anger somewhere, to blame someone.
He stood up and began to pace about, his whole body trembling with vexation. It was an impossible situation.
‘I have it,’ he said finally, ‘we shall wait for an enemy guard to return to the dungeon, and I shall extract what I need from him.’
‘Your Majesty, how many of our people will die while we wait?’ asked Aurin, ‘we have been down here for a little over a day and a half without food or water. What makes you think anybody will return?’
The king stopped pacing. It had not occurred to him that their captors had abandoned them, leaving them to die. He had assumed that at some point, there would be an interrogation, or that a show would be made of him, where they would force him to beg for his life, making him a public spectacle.
‘ They’re torturing us to death with thirst and starvation,’ he realised.
Aurin lay his head back against the wall. The coolness of it offered him a little refreshment but he was so thirsty, and his mouth was so dry. He knew he was dying.
‘Your Majesty, our circumstances grow even grimmer by the moment, and there is little to no chance of them becoming less so. You must do it now.’
‘I can’t,’ the king replied. ‘I have never taken a life before; I do not think I could bear it.’
‘You must do it, your Majesty; you must bear it because I cannot perform the act myself.’
The king came and sat back on the bench with him.
‘It’s not fair,’ he said flatly.
‘Life, as they say, your Majesty, is never fair. However, we must do as we must.’ Aurin put a hand on the king’s arm. ‘I think it’s time.’
The king’s eyes had begun to fill with tears as the realisation that the old man was right, and he could only nod, stifling a sob that threatened to turn in to an animalistic roar should it escape.
After taking a moment to compose himself, he turned to face Aurin.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ he whispered, ‘we’ll find another way.’
Aurin smiled. ‘There is no time, your Majesty and we both know that there is no other way.’ He nodded his head at the king. ‘You’re a good man; I’m pleased that I lived long enough to serve you.’
‘I know what you’re about to say, your Majesty, but please, say nothing. I already know in my heart anything you could say to me now.’
The king smiled sadly and nodded. Without another word, he got up and helped Aurin to lay down on the bench, then knelt beside him with his hand hovering over the old man’s chest, just above his heart.
Aurin closed his eyes.
The king, forcing any thoughts of hesitation from his mind, slammed his open hand down, feeling his friend’s ribcage shatter as the heel of his palm collided with bone.
Aurin made no sound, and in a matter of seconds, the king felt the old man’s heart stop beating as he held his fingers closed around it.
For a moment, there was nothing but a crimson mess of blood and bone before him, but then, his hand started to glow. Dimly at first. Then brighter and brighter as white energy began to travel up his arm, making its way to his heart. Aurin’s life essence.
It felt cold, and every inch of his skin tingled and prickled as his body absorbed it.
The entire process took just seconds, and when it was over, the king stood over Aurin’s bloody, lifeless body. He would grieve for him deeply, but not right now. First, he had a job to do. He had to be the ruler his kingdom needed him to be.
He moved to the door, placing a hand on the iron bars and as his skin touched the metal, a blast of white energy shot from his palm. The door blew outward with a rattling clank, leaving behind a smell similar to that which follows immediately after a thunderstorm.
Looking briefly back at Aurin, the king made a silent promise to end the war, ensuring that the old man’s sacrifice would not be in vain, and then he looked upwards, towards the sounds of torture and death and with his mission clear, he was gone.
Thanks ever so much for reading all the way down to here if you, I really appreciate it.
Until next time,