Once upon a time, there was a prosperous kingdom. The people lived in peace and abundance, all thanks to the even-handed rule of the wise king. His door was always open, and he made himself available to hear the troubles of everyone, from lofty noblemen to even the lowliest peasant.
One day, however, the members of the king’s court found that the door to the throne room was closed. This, of course, was absolutely unprecedented, and the court swiftly descended into a panic.
“Friends, friends, calm down!” said the archbishop. “We must have faith that our king has a good reason for this.”
“This cannot be good for the markets,” said the members of the Merchant’s Guild, panicking amongst themselves.
The noblemen eyed each other shiftily, but said nothing.
“I have a solution, fear not,” said the Grandmaster of the Knights, and he proceeded to push the door. To his surprise, it wasn’t locked, and it swung open to reveal the same greathall that had always been behind it.
However, the King was absent.
The Grandmaster stifled an uncharacteristic gasp, then immediately issued orders to his guard to sweep the palace. The tension that had been steadily building in the room reached a crescendo, and the court descended into chaos.
The Fool began to cackle and dance, singing, “The King is dead, long live the King!”
After the initial outcry subsided, the members of the court met in an emergency session within the council chambers. None spoke for what seemed like ages, until the Grandmaster began his report.
“The King was not in his chambers, nor in the stables, not even in the mead hall. The knights of my guard have found not even a single trace of him in the keep, nor anywhere else within the castle walls. I have gathered the best and most virtuous among my men, and at daybreak on the morrow, we will take up our cloaks and extend our search to the ends of the earth, and we shall not return until he is found. This, I pledge to you all on my honor.”
“Godspeed to you and your men,” said the Archbishop, who was thumbing his prayer beads at a slightly less frantic pace than earlier. The Grandmaster stood, regarded the table politely, then left the room to prepare himself.
The noblemen waited until they were sure the Grandmaster had left, then began to inquire,
“What are we to do? Of course, I’m sure our King will return, but… perhaps he doesn’t, what then? We expect he will make a swift return, to be sure, but… who will lead us in the meantime?”
The noblemen looked uncomfortable as this was said, and the Archbishop spoke next.
“We must have faith that this is all a part of the plan of our King, there must be some greater purpose to his… absence,” he paused, briefly, before increasing his resolve,
“and I’m sure that everything will be just fine, we must simply… have faith.” He seemed satisfied with this after a moment’s thought, and eased back into his chair.
The members of the Merchant’s Guild began to rattle off a long list of figures that not a single member of the council, including the Master of Coin, could honestly say they followed or understood. Sensing the glazed looks across the room, one who had been quiet before shouted,
“None of this works if people do not have confidence in the market! Who will pay the debts?”
The room was quiet for a moment, then the Queen lifted from her contemplation before a nearby window, and weakly, said,
“Aside from the disappearance of my husband, nothing of substance has actually changed. We will carry out business as usual, and I will act in his stead. There may be merit in our agreement to proceed as if nothing is wrong, don’t you think?” This sounded confident to most of the room, but it was clear she was weary- the Queen had never been much for political life, and this seemed to be no exception.
The room fell silent for a second time, but the members of the council nodded, and they went their separate ways, spare the fool, who remained in the empty room, cackling to himself.
The kingdom continued to prosper (much to the surprise of the nobility, who remained decidedly uncomfortable), and things carried on much as they ever did. The capital city grew, the walls stood taller, the farmlands stretched wider, and trade multiplied- it seemed the Merchant’s Guild somehow managed to keep the market’s confidence intact, but no one of any sense really understood how.
The Grandmaster and his band of devoted knights had scattered far across the land, seeking, and no one had heard more than rumors and hearsay as to the progress of their mission. The rest of the Grandmaster’s battalion, those who remained to guard the kingdom, were largely decent men, but none of any great character like select who had become seekers.
The Archbishop had been becoming a bit more orthodox with time, and he had taken up the habit of meeting parishioner’s inquiries with simple exhortations to “have faith,” more often than not. He seemed oddly unconcerned to most of the laity, but the priesthood began to notice the odd tics in his speech, and the growing list of his aches and pains that seemed to arise without cause, which he readily dismissed comments about with a hand wave and wistful mumbling.
The Queen had risen to the position left to her, and she catered to many of the demands that the King once resolved, but she had no love for the work, and it was becoming noticeable. She often delegated critical decisions to the council, even on issues that would traditionally be handled by the Crown. Her kind concern for the townsfolk had all but vanished, and she became increasingly concerned with the security of the borders, for no obvious reason.
None spoke of it, but all could feel a sort of chill descending over the hearts of the kingdom.
In the meanwhile, an old man had taken up shop in one of the newer parts of the city. He was a blacksmith, by trade, though he didn’t have the stature one would expect for a man of such labor. His craft, however, was nigh impeccable, and citizens- largely young men, the lost, and the disempowered, began to flock from far and wide to gaze on his wares.
Each day, he would open his doors to reveal a cavalcade of glittering swords of all makes, shapes, and sizes-
“A tool for every situation,” he’d say, with the practiced inflection that called to mind a carnival barker or the town crier. Initially, he’d had less of a flair for the dramatic, but the types who came to him, whether they had sought him out or stumbled upon him, seemed to like the spectacle of it all.
Some days he would brandish a flamberge, thrusting towards the crowd with a flourish, and explain the way that the undulations of the blade were perfect for casting uncertainty into an attacker’s heart, and vibrations into the parrying weapon upon contact. Others, he’d hurl a zweihander– a beast of a sword, meant to be held with two hands, up upon his shoulder, and demonstrate that the size made it more akin to a polearm than a standard longsword. He even had a collection of swords meant for various forms of duels, each with a specific scenario that favored one blade over another.
Each one in the crowd had their own reason to be there.
One man had been struck lame when he lashed out at the man he found laying with his wife. Another was no more than a boy, sickly and fearful, looking for a means of facing what he saw as an unbearably cruel world. Others were once strong fighters who found themselves unable to keep pace with the changes on the battlefield, or knights who found that the rules of their profession offered little protection against those who paid no mind to ethic or code. Some were there simply for the art and the logic of the weapons themselves, and they tended to stand further from the head of the crowd.
It wasn’t long before the court and the council caught word of this Blacksmith. The first to learn were the members of the Merchant’s Guild, who were more than happy to see an emerging market open in the town. As was common with the Guild, they had no strong feelings regarding much of what they sold, so long as there was money to be made, so they began to position themselves so as to take a piece of the market.
Perhaps inspired by the Queen’s growing paranoia, whispers of invaders along the border or bandits roaming the wild began to rise from what seemed like the morning mists themselves. The silent chill yet hung over the kingdom, and a mass of clouds coalesced around the highest tower of the keep, where the Queen had taken up residence. She rarely attended meetings of the council any more, and what communication she did have with the affairs of ruling were oblique messages sent via servants and those few who came to visit.
The Master of Coin was concerned by these developments, but he had enough trouble keeping up with the growing sprawl of the kingdom (and, subsequently, the kingdom’s coffers) to offer more than token worry for the emerging industry. He developed a persistent look of tight lipped restraint, as if the gods had stretched his mouth shut for his own good.
The Archbishop had all but given up on coping with whatever crisis he claimed he wasn’t having. His hair had thinned, and he looked to be a decade more aged than he was. Certain members of the council had begun to question whether he was going senile, as his sermons were often repetitions of those he had done years before, but the changing crowds in the town cathedral did not seem to notice. Perhaps they no longer cared. When one monk pressed him, the Archbishop conceded that, “the familiar becomes a source of comfort when the changing world offers none,” and he trailed that thought off into his now trademark mumble-and-gaze-at-nothing-in-particular.
The Nobility had been busy in what looked like councils of their own- hushed conversations held in passing through the bailey, or in the quiet wings of the castle chapel. Both were acutely aware of the growing influence of the Blacksmith, though there were two distinct camps emerging.
The first was, strangely enough, somehow affiliated with the Archbishop, though whether he was aware of this or not was beyond anyone’s guess. They saw the utility in the pleasant nostalgia of his decidedly traditional sermons- perhaps they were comforted by them, as well, though these were the sorts of men who were yet uncomfortable on even the most pleasant of days. These sorts saw the Blacksmith’s tools (and, more notably, the demand for them) as a chance to move back towards the halcyon days when the King handled everything, and when there was none of the great uncertainty that lingered like the clouds about the tower. These men were the same types who chafed the most against the Queen’s permissive style of ruling, and who longed for a stronger hand to rule.
The second were the more intellectually inclined among the nobility. These were those who were genuinely enthralled by the Blacksmith’s words, and they would often be found in the crowd (cloaked or concealed, mind you, they have a reputation to uphold within the court) becoming as enthused as the most devoted of his customers. It was with this group that the Merchant’s Guild found more purchase as a means of feeding the unease, as they were happy to consider the future implications of the conflicts the Blacksmith’s displays only teased at. Beyond that, this lot was decidedly less concerned with ethics, as they thought the whole subject to be outmoded and a hindrance to what they saw as “purely intellectual exercise, not something so mundane.”
The Blacksmith, through it all, was enamored with the attention. Before the untimely disappearance of the King, there had been no such attention paid to his craft, which he truly was passionate about. The fact that crowds now swarmed to hear him speak about his life’s work was unprecedented, and, frankly, something he found a bit overwhelming. However, he felt it was his duty to educate the people about these fundamental tools, so that they might be protected- just in case.
He was a bit confused when the Archbishop began to mention him, as he had never been a man of the faith, but it seemed to draw more to the crowds, so the Blacksmith felt that perhaps he could teach them as well. There was a growing number of members of the Merchant’s Guild with whom he would meet in the evenings, and they would dine, talk shop, and discuss the sorry state of the kingdom together. Sometimes, they would even be met by the Archbishop, or members of the nobility, and these strange bedfellows found a unique sense of kinship in their company.
All those who came by the Blacksmith, whether by chance or by charge, were in agreement that, whatever was happening in the kingdom, this man was central to it. His speeches grew more vast, and, after some productive discussions with the Guildsmen, began to incorporate elements of the rumored threats to the land.
“A war,” he began to say, “was not far away, and all men must need be ready. The sword, whether the slender rapier or the happy dagger, is the tool that may yet save us, and what else could? Not the queen, who has not the concerns of our men in her heart! Not the Grandmaster, and his good men, the Knights, who have abandoned us along with the King! There is none to lead us, none yet fit to wield this tool, the blade, in defense of the kingdom!”
With this, the crowd was pushed into a frenzy.
By now, each man had himself a sword, for whatever reason as he saw necessary. The congregation, including members of the cloth, the nobility (some even without concealment), the Guildsmen, and even some of the remaining Knights, swarmed around the Blacksmith and his words. Without any direct prodding, the mob somehow took it upon itself to swarm the castle keep, which offered no resistance without the King to lead them.
The cacophony reached a peak as the chaos entered the throne room, and they pushed the Blacksmith forward to the Throne, where they found the fool sitting.
“What hand yet holds the sword?
What heart yet drives the tool?
If the king is dead, who takes the throne?
The Blacksmith, or the Fool?”
The Blacksmith cut him down where he stood, as the Fool cried out in his last breath,
“The King is dead, long live the King!”
The crowd was frantic, but a hush fell over the room when the Blacksmith began,
“Reason once again rules the land, by our understanding and by our mastery of this tool, the Sword, we have cut the chains from our hearts and the shackles from our wrists. No longer may we be swung by the whims of emotion, nor will we be led by the dispassionate rule of a Queen who is out of touch with those she claims to represent. No, today, we are united under the Blade!”
The crowd cheered, and, for a while, there was peace.
The Queen had barricaded herself in her tower, and the Nobility thought it best to leave her be, as they could convince those who still cared that this was in line with her wants, that she desired to have “strong leadership.” Some, who were quietly sympathetic to her situation, knocked at the door, but no response was ever heard.
The Blacksmith did very little different after being placed upon the throne, surprisingly to some and unsurprisingly to others. Most did not notice or care, as it wasn’t the Blacksmith they came to see. They came for the words, and the performance, and, whether they’d admit it, or even knew, the way they felt when he explained the blades and the world to them.
“Tools don’t feel, and swords don’t care about feelings,” he would say, and that comforted them. They listened with rapt attention as he explained the coming conflict, and they all continued to purchase swords, long after they ran out of hands to hold them in. There was an element of vanity in the process, but that wasn’t mentioned in polite company these days.
The Master of Coin, at this point long past any hope of speaking out, grew more and more uncomfortable with the state of the Kingdom’s industry, but the debts were paid, and he could not complain about that. The Guildsmen, however, were reaping unprecedented riches.
“Who knew,” they would ask each other, with varying degrees of sincerity, “that swords sell better when there is a war to use them in?”
The Archbishop and his congregation, realizing that this new regime was no closer to the good old days he spoke for, began to grow discontented.
“These young men and women haven’t got the moral fortitude we had in my day. Back when I was their age, we did things different, and we followed the rules. What happened to all the good Knights? They had the right idea.”
The Grandmaster and his Knights, of course, had not been heard from in many moons, and they were assumed to have either died, been lost, or simply to have given up.
By this point, the Nobility had split completely in all ways except in the public eye. Those who had aligned with the Archbishop had begun to scheme against those who stayed with the Blacksmith, and tensions started to rise again. The members of the Merchant’s Guild, perceptive as ever, began to distance themselves from the Blacksmith’s industry, and laid low as they waited to discover how to continue their business if, by some offhand chance, things were to change.
All the while, the Blacksmith carried on, as eloquent as ever but with the grandiosity that the resources of the throne provided. He had begun to grow a bit too old, and a bit more frail, and some elements of the crowd seemed to sense this on an instinctive level.
Then, in a moment of painful lucidity, the Archbishop could no longer maintain his wistful state. He met one night with his portion of the nobility, and announced that they could not support such a blatant lack of ethical behavior, that such a faithless man could not be permitted to hold such sway over the impressionable youth, that they had to find a leader of some moral fortitude, someone of the cloth, of course.
They came for the Blacksmith at his weakest point- in front of the crowd. He was no stranger to hecklers, but it’s hard to take down a man with so many weapons for so many scenarios, especially when the crowd was behind him. Now, with the dissent growing, they came in force. Many of the clergy, and those of the Nobility, even those who publicly supported him and broken bread with him so long ago, descended en masse upon the throne room.
There was a great deal of commotion, and each side presented their own slanted variation on why the other side didn’t understand the role of tools, or ethics, or the coming conflict (which they surprisingly still both could agree was coming). However, the Blacksmith’s portion of the Nobility, sensing the shifting sands of opinion, all but abandoned him, barring those who still retained their cloaks.
The Blacksmith fell from the throne that day, and rather than accept his defeat, he returned to his shop, enfeebled, but still determined, and he continued to speak to those few who still cared to listen. The Nobility, most being the sort unable to commit to anything strongly, felt that his pseudo-exile was punishment enough, and some even paid token acknowledgement to his demonstrations in a cruel attempt to maintain their place with those who still resonated with his words.
The Archbishop, not the sort to take charge of anything, let the throne remain empty. He continued to exhort the kingdom to have faith, and the picture he painted of a better time when the King was around were enough for some people. However, the skies continued to darken, the chill increased, and winter fell without remorse.
After what seemed like ages, he finally saw it on the horizon. It had grown considerably since that last backwards glance so many years ago, but it was unmistakably the same castle and keep. The land was barren, and cold. No crops grew in the field, no animals grazed, and no people walked the streets. The flame of the torch in his hand even seemed to shrink against the chill.
He tugged at the reins, and his horse carried him slowly through the streets, once full of life. Snow crested the roofs of houses, some caved in from the weight. He continued forward until he came to the cathedral that he had come to see the Archbishop speak in each Sabbath.
The room was filled with the frozen faithful, hunched over in an eternal, desperate prayer. At the altar lay what was once the Archbishop, collapsed across the platform with a chalice in his hand. The Grandmaster shook his head, and left the bitter tomb.
He continued to the center of the Kingdom, and entered the throne room. The corpses of the nobility littered the floor, though these did not appear to be victims of the cold- rather, it seemed they had turned on each other. Many lay with knives in their backs.
He proceeded into the council chambers, where he found the former Guildsmen- emaciated, sickly bodies, and surrounded by towering piles of gold. The Master of Coin was among them, and he shared their withered fate.
From here, he continued up the staircase to the highest tower, where he came upon a closed door. To his surprise, it pushed open without resistance, where he found the body of the Queen, dressed all in black, and laid out neatly in her bed. Fate had been kind, as she was hardly touched by the horrors that had consumed the city below.
The Grandmaster found a note clenched in her hand-
To my love, lost,
I have tried to mend the kingdom, but I cannot mend my heart. My only wish now is to find you on the other side, for there is no love to be found in this world.
The Grandmaster said a short blessing, and left the tower.
It took many years, and by the time it was done, the Grandmaster was an old man, but he had reunited his group of virtuous Knights from the far corners of the land. They had learned of many foreign ways and peoples in their time, and some had even established their own following. All had been changed by the process, none less than the Grandmaster.
There was one thing they had all come to understand in their search for the King- it was not the King they truly needed, not really. What mattered was that they cared to search, and it was in the searching, the striving, and, at times, the strife, that they discovered what truly mattered.
The band of Knights, weary and wiser, returned to the remains of the Kingdom with their Grandmaster. For the first time in countless ages, the clouds parted above the broken city, and hope burned in their hearts.
They would build a new kingdom.