Flash Fiction Month 2014, Day 6
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom, rich in gold and grain. None went hungry nor slept without a roof, and with great gifts the king secured the friendship of his neighbours. In truth, these treasures offered freely were mere boast, for in his youth the king had often fought, and all nearby remembered his campaigns: few would care to make an enemy of that good friend. But though the king was noble, strong and wise, his one small weakness could tear the city down.
Though the king made good use of his enormous wealth—hiring guards to make his kingdom safe, and learned judges to make it fair—and was not miserly, he began to despair at the thin band atop his head. It was no secret that he was the greatest king in all the land, so why should he have any but the greatest crown? And so the king commissioned ten master jewellers to cast his crown anew, and set it round with many precious stones. The king took his new crown, and found it good. But being a wise king, he sought the thoughts of another.
“Ingrith,” he began, “most loyal of my servants, and most honest. Tell me, is the new crown good?”
“It is good, your Highness,” answered Ingrith, “and suits you well. But the mark of a good ruler is not in his crown. I think the old one served you well.”
So the king was satisfied, and his thoughts returned to the service of his people. But it was not long before his neighbours heard of this new crown, and so the ten master jewellers had not far to go to find more work.
“I must have a sceptre,” the king declared. “This will be the symbol of my rule, and in time it shall be passed down to later kings, so their noble glory is plain to every eye.”
And so the king commissioned a legendary staff-maker, his skill beyond compare. Learning from his error with the crown, the king paid a goodly sum for the artisan’s assurance that no sceptre like it would be made for any ruler in any other land. For such generous payment, the staff-maker was happy to accept. The king took his sceptre, and found it good.
But as before, the king did not trust only his opinion. He called Ingrith the servant girl once again.
“Honest Ingrith,” he began, “you were wise to say the measure of a king is not his crown. But some token must I have of my station over lesser kings. Tell me, is the sceptre good?”
“Highness,” answered Ingrith, “you must know that even should there be a time when lesser kings have sceptres such as these, it is neither polished wood nor burnished gold that mark your glory over them.”
So the king was satisfied, and once more he turned his mind to the stewardship of his fine nation. But though the staff-maker had kept his word to the king, each lordly neighbour soon had a sceptre that, while by no means a copy, was easily the rival of his own.
“Bah!” cried the king. “These pale rulers seek to mock me? I shall have a treasure they cannot. Ingrith, what think you of this?”
“I think this is folly, Highness.” The servant shook her head. “Your grace and your wisdom: these are jewels that cannot be bought. Do not cast them away for mere gold.” And she took her leave.
The king decided at first that she was right, and resolved to forget these schemes. But then, what could a servant girl know of the glory of kings? And so he called upon the jewellers once again, and bade his subjects double their work in the mines.
Keen to please their kind ruler, the people of the kingdom dug deep into the earth, bringing up buckets of gold that the jewellers used to cast an enormous throne. But this great undertaking unearthed something mightier than iron, more ancient than gold. For as the king’s greed had long slumbered beneath his glory, so too had a terrible dragon slumbered beneath his kingdom.
Clawing its way from the mine and burning all in its wake, the dragon crawled to the palace, drawn by the scent of gold. “I claim this city as my own,” the dragon hissed, “and all who dwell within.”
But the king would not yield. Casting down his sceptre, he took up sword and shield and jumped from his high throne. He fought valiantly, but no man can stand against a dragon, and soon the serpent’s flames drove him back. The jewels had fallen from his melting crown, and the throne served only as a shelter from the beast’s hellfire.
“Face me!” the dragon screeched as it approached. “Do not die cowering behind your gaudy chair!”
But though wounded, the king still had strength. Taking up the sceptre once more, he set it beneath the throne, toppling that great golden weight onto the serpent’s head. As the body lay thrashing, he drove his sword into its flesh, spilling the flames from its distended belly.
The king’s servant rushed to tend his wounds, but his next words were his last: “Ingrith, you were wise when I was not, and the only of my subjects not to flee when the dragon came. In happier days I might have made you my queen. Now, in this sad time, you are to become my heir. Take this sword. Should any challenge your right to rule, you will need nothing else.”
Ingrith took the sword, though the blood of the dragon had melted the blade like ice. She brought the hilt to a common blacksmith, and had it reworked into a simple crown. This she wore for many years, and though no neighbour mimicked it, neither did they dare to claim her land, nor ask why this queen did not give gifts, as the old king had done before.