The smell is what I love the most. The smell of wet fir and pine and cedar. They assault my nostrils and I draw them in. They remind me of simpler days, of childhood days playing in this self-same forest.
I inhale deeply and keep running.
I love this land.
The land, however, seems to be, at best, ambivalent.
The brush is tearing at my soaked clothes, the chill of the air is beginning to pierce what is left. The rain is coming down in sheets, obscuring my vision. They are conspiring against me.
I run harder.
Perhaps, somehow, I will outrun my pursuers. But I am not hopeful. They are on horseback and I am leaving a trail as clear as a red carpet. And they are not fools.
I run past a tree, and then step behind it. I need to catch a moment’s breath – and I need to listen for my enemies.
I hear nothing.
Then, with frightening stealth, an arrow strikes the tree, just above my head.
How can they be ahead of me?
I look up, but I see nothing. The forest is empty.
I step away from the tree and pull my sword from its scabbard.
They will kill me, I know. But at least I will choose how I die.
My body will not fall hiding behind some tree.
Whoever shot at me is slow with a crossbow. So death does not come immediately.
Instead, I hear the horses coming. Moments later, with fogging snorts, they draw up in front of me. Lord Phillip and two of his soldiers.
Phillip nods his head in mock courtesy, “My Lord,” he pronounces.
I nod in return.
Only the day before, the man was my most loyal vassal. The Kingdom had rested on him. And I had rested on him – enjoying the privileges of royalty, occasionally wielding its power, but rarely watching the politics of court. They had never interested me.
A fatal error.
I heard a rumor – Phillip was raising an army to dispose of me. But I knew it was too late. The man would have spies everywhere. I had abrogated to him without even knowing I had done so.
So I changed my garments, to commoners clothes. And I fled.
I was King. I could build my own support. I could raise my own army. Or at least I hoped so.
I got as far as the gate of the city. As I ran towards it, I saw a group of horsemen approaching: Lord Phillip had arrived.
I felt naked as he rode through the gateway. Common clothes were suddenly no disguise. I could have bowed my head, but my pride held me back. I was King, not he. So, instead, I tried my best to stealthily slip my way through the crowd – and to the gates of freedom.
I was almost there when Phillip saw me.
They could have killed me then and there. But I was King. To commit regicide in the public square would have undermined Phillip himself. He could arrest me. He could charge me with treason. And then, in time, he could hang me. But he could not execute me.
I was not going to die in the noose, and so I ran. And Phillip gave chase.
I ran for the forest and disappeared into the brush moments later.
It felt like a lifetime ago – but it had only been a few minutes.
Hours before, I’d been King. Now, everything had changed. Everything, even the Land, seemed to be conspiring against me.
I had been a weak King. But I was not going to be a weak man.
“On your knees,” I command, solidly.
Phillip laughed. He seems pleased with his position.
“My Lord,” he says, “You want to die a King. But you are no longer a King. And for my part, I harbor no desire to kill you.”
I hold my ground.
“Think about it,” he states, “I could dress up in the Articles of State; I could don the crown, the royal garments and the scepter. But I would never be legitimate. Such heights are beyond a man like me.”
“So why betray me?” I ask.
“My Lord,” says Phillip, “I might not desire Kingship, but I do seek power. And I do seek wealth. An so I just want to modify our old relationship. You will be King, and I will be your vassal – de jure. But de facto, I will rule. I will collect the tax, I will command the Lords of the Kingdom, and I will provide you with a bodyguard to keep you and your family safe.”
In other words, I was to live as his hostage, under the watchful eyes of his servants.
“I am King,” I state.
“Of course,” says Phillip his cheerful demeanor unaltered, “You may still be King. The terminology will just be altered some. You wouldn’t be the first King to serve in title alone.”
style=”font-family: Times, ‘Times New Roman’, serif;”>”I am King,” I repeat, “And this is my Land and my People. I will not betray them with falsehood.”
Phillip leans forward in his saddle, and his cheerful expression disappears. His eyes turn threatening..
“Betray them?” He asks, “Your weakness has already betrayed them. If you will not be King – my King – then I will rule without you. But there will be uprisings. There will be battles. There will be wars. And your beloved People will be slaughtered by your pig-headed stubbornness.”
“I am King,” I repeat.
And so Phillip draws his sword.
“If it is your will, then that is how you shall die.”
He spurs his horse forward and raises his weapon. I resist the urge to cower or cringe in anticipation. I extend my blade in defense.
With a deft stroke, he disarms me. He raises his blade for a final sweep. I hold my ground.
And then he stumbles back, a silent arrow suddenly protruding from his chest.
Phillip falls from his horse, gasping for air.
Moments later, a look of fear and confusion in his eyes, he is dead.
His soldiers, confused, frightened, and suddenly without a commander, stay as they were.
I order them to dismount and disarm. And they do. I pull their weapons from them.
And then I turn to the forest.
It still appears empty.
“Reveal yourself!” I command.
There is a rustle amongst the brush and then a serf rises from the forest floor. A crossbow is in his hand. I could not imagine how he had laid hands on such a weapon, but I push the question out of my mind, and ask another.
“Why?” I ask.
He drops to one knee, bows his head, and then solemnly pronounces, “You are King.”