An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”
Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.
Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.
“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”
Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.
Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”
He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”
Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.
He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.
“Are you looking for something?”
A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.
“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”
Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”
“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”
Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.
A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.
Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.
Without thinking Palanor nodded.
“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”
Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.
“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”
Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”
Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”
“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.
The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”
Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”
The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”
“I said give me—”
“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”
Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?
Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”
The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”
Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”
The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”
“Not at all.”
“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”
That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”
The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”
“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”
“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”
“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”
Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”
Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”
“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”
The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”
“Nobody knows that.”
The pixy smiled. “I do.”
Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”
By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.
The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”
“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.
“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”
“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”
Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.
“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”
“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”
Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”
“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”
Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.
“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.
His brother Roth.
Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.
Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”
Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”
Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”
“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”
Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.
Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”
Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”
“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”
Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”
Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”
“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”
The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.
The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”
“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”
“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.
“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.
Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”
“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”
Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.
“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”
“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”
Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”
“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.
Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.
He smoked his pipe.
And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.
A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”
Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”
The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”
Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”
For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”
Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.
* * * * *
In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.
In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.
Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”
The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”
The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.
She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.
“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.
“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”
The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”
The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”
“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”
The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”
“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.
Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.
The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”
The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”
“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”
“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.
Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.
The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”
Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.