“No Iona,” said King Sigmus as he sat back in his chair and prepared a pipe. “I would not speak to you about The Red King.”
“Are the legends true then?” Iona responded.
The King looked at his mistress and smiled slightly before answering. “I am afraid that the story is too horrible for your ears,” he said.
“Oh, please Sigmus,” Iona begged. “Tell me the story of The Red King. I promise to stay close to you,” she said coyly. “You will surely protect me.”
The King pondered her words, for Iona could be very persuasive. “All right Iona,” he said. “I will tell you, but do not be afraid in the middle of the night when your mind begins to play tricks on you.” And then the King composed himself and began his story.
The Red King
The King, whose name has been long forgotten and buried, was a good king in the beginning, and the people loved him for his discipline and his kindness. There was peace, for the King did not like violence, even avoiding all forms of corporeal punishment, and some people even thought that was the reason there was no crime. But they were wrong, for the people do not understand the nature of evil, and that is why we must always have a King, for the throne of a King changes the nature of a man, his very thought. Evil can sometimes be borne on the wind or sweep across the land like a pestilence or rain down upon the earth like a deluge. But other times it may be borne by a single man, for the devil also brings evil in this way, yes the devil may meet out evil even as a handful of seeds to tiny birds. In truth, pure evil is spoken, and even as the word of the Lord does bring death and misery and terrible wrath, so too can pure evil be called into existence as a word brought our world into existence. His name was never spoken, for to utter his name was a capital offence. In time his name did fade away and become lost, for all traces of him were removed and with it even his semblance was destroyed. He came to be called The Red King, as his envy and his anger turned this once noble and gentle king into a monster of explosive violence and mercilessness.
And so it happened that a great evil did come to pass through our very kingdom in the form of the Black Death. The Queen would not leave the village and stayed behind to care for the sick and dying and helplessness brought on by the terrible plague. The Queen burned incense and placed garlands of garlic on the doors of the stricken people and she thought that she would be safe. The King was away at the time and did not know of the sickness within his own country, for he was visiting with noblemen and powerful barons on the continent. When news reached him he rushed back across the sea to his home as fast as possible to be near his precious wife, but sadly, the Black Death had already taken her. That is the moment when the King ceased to be a King, for his grief was too great for him to bear.
Many other villagers had died from the Black Death at this time, but the King could feel only his own loss, his own pain. In truth, the King partially blamed the villagers for his loss, for had they not succumbed to the Black Death, his wife would not have been there to care for them, and perhaps she would have been spared. But the King would not listen to reason and saw the harvest of death as a sign. He could not understand the meaning of it all however and made himself sick trying to understand the incomprehensible fate that could take a small child and yet leave an old woman undisturbed.
The King had a requiem mass sung for his beloved wife. The entire village mourned together, for the Queen was loved and revered by all. But the King continued to mourn even when the time for mourning was long past and his duties as a King continued to go unaccomplished. The King neglected even the most essential and customary duties and the people along with the deemsters feared for the kingdom and knew not what to do. Many nights the King would spend in the cemetery gazing at the headstone, and his tears were endless. Now, in truth, the people felt sorry for the King and the loss he had suffered . . . but they too had suffered greatly.
The King was not interested in their suffering however, but only that they should commiserate with his own terrible loss, even against their own families, which in some instances were totally obliterated in the harvest. But there came a time at last when the good people could no longer satisfy the King with their own suffering and that it was too late and too little. The King demanded more, and that their suffering should be in line with his own, and only then could he be satisfied, for he was a greedy man and he wanted to own their own grief even if it had to be continuously fashioned by any and all means he deemed necessary.
At first he forbade the good people to eat meat on Sunday, and that instead they should pray for his dear wife and for her to ascend into heaven. The good people were unhappy, but they dare not to defy the dictates of the King openly. So the people prayed, and secretly they ate their meals by candlelight and with an element of guilt. But after a time, even this was not enough to satisfy the needs of the King, for the people, and though they be poor, still had enough time to smile and to enjoy the little time that they had left at the end of the day. The people met in taverns and in ale houses and they listened to stories and hoisted flagons of ale and were happy. But why should they be happy when the King was sad? So the King imposed further measures so that they could more easily share in his ongoing grief.
Next the King required the people to dress in black on Sunday to help the King focus his sorrow. After that, the King next ordered that at least two people should be together all through the night in the chapel, praying for the intercession of the saints, for that when two or more people were gathered together in prayer the Lord would be there also. And when the King’s sorrow still was not assuaged, he became convinced that the people were not praying hard enough for the Lord to take notice. He ordered the bells in the steeple to ring out during the night hours for a week so that the people would remember his terrible loss.
The people talked amongst themselves in secret. In the end, they sent a representative to the Church to speak with the Bishop and to tell him about their grievances against the King. They were becoming burdened with such an ongoing expression of grief that seemingly had no end and they begged the Bishop to intervene. Within a week the Bishop had disappeared. It was said by people that knew that he had been locked away inside a tower. The next day, the representative of the people too had disappeared.
Some of the people revolted from the King’s austerity measures and were punished, at first with veiled threats, but soon afterward, brutally. It was said that during the long nights the people in their beds could hear the sounds of wailing, and they were gripped with fear lest the King send for them also. And so the King’s grief increased with each increasing measure of austerity because he loved his people even through their continuing disobedience. Each new measure would prompt small acts of further disobedience until the punishments became more profound, and more disturbing. The King cried during the floggings of his people, and he prayed for them, but soon he began to weary from his own punishments and the added pain that they caused him. The people in the King’s retinue feared for the King, but they feared retribution should they displease him in any way. The storm clouds were near.
And at last it happened on a cold and rainy Sunday morning during mass which the King always attended. Even as the priest was slowly walking up to the altar casting wisps of the sweet smoke with his slowly swinging censer, the people attacked from all sides at once. The King didn’t even have time to move before they were upon him. No one would attack a King during mass, so the King was unguarded and easy prey. Twelve men participated in the ambush which was carefully planned and orchestrated. They wrapped him in cords and ushered him out into the street where he was thrown into a waiting carriage. Within seconds the carriage stole away even as the people looked the other way and pretended not to see. They took him a short distance to a boat that was waiting, pulled up along the calm sea. No words were spoken as the men unceremoniously dragged the King from the carriage and threw him into the dirt before them. The King was stunned, and merely looked at them in disbelief.
Suddenly the carriage door opened again and the Bishop calmly stepped out. He was dressed in a long, black cloak. He stood silent, accusing, as a passive observer for what happened next. The men carried an object out of the carriage and threw it down in front of the King. It was the cracked and broken headstone of his wife. A ringlet and chain had been drilled into the stone. The men quickly attached the ringlet to the King’s leg, and with powerful strokes, hammered it closed. Then they picked up the King and shoved him into the waiting boat, and without a single word spoken, they cast him out to sea. The King slowly drifted further and further from his shore even as his last words reached them.
“When the green serpent rises from the deep, I will haunt your lands and I will haunt your sleep.”
As the King’s defiant curse faded into the wind the men fired flaming arrows at the boat to sink it. The flaming arrows whizzed past the King, but he did not move and he did not try to avoid them, for he was disgraced and he was taken down, and he would go to his watery grave attached to the only thing he loved. But it was not to happen, for something strange and horrifying happened that would set in motion the curse of the Red King, from which he was to get his name. A mist rolled in from further out to sea, a white mist with a tinge of red. The mist covered and completely obscured the boat in which the King was imprisoned, and as the mist became brighter and redder, it carried the boat away from the flaming arrows and the conspiring murderers, never to be seen again.
“Does this sound like a happy story to you Iona?” King Sigmus said. “Are you happy to hear it?”
Iona clutched the King’s hand and he could feel her trembling. The curse, Iona, you heard the curse, did you not?”
Iona was terribly frightened by the story, but she only said: “But this is just a story, Sigmus.”
“No, Iona. This is more than a story, for the Red King speaks to me through my dreams. The Red King haunts me and I cannot escape.”
“Stop, Sigmus! Please stop, for you are frightening me even more. Surely this is but a story.”
The King started to speak, but the words failed him as his expression changed to one of horror. Now his hand had become cold and he brought it to his face with a look of uncertainty. He looked the beautiful Iona in the eyes, but then his eyes seemed to glaze over, and his icy stare went though her like a cold dagger.
“We are cursed, Iona,” he said softly. “Oh, my God, what have we done?”
Iona started to cry, but the soft sobs could not penetrate to where the mind of the King had gone, and he continued to speak without hearing her.
“Two months past, the green serpent was spotted by fishermen outside Peel Harbor. The size of the serpent was incalculable, for the men were too frightened to look at it. Its eyes, Iona . . . they said that its eyes were impossible to look away from, and that to see them was to become lost. Lost, Iona, think about that. The man that looked into its eyes will not go back on the water again because of those horrendous and terrifying eyes. The Red King has returned at last.”
“Why did you tell me . . .?”
“We must right the wrong that has been done to this man, Iona. We must right this terrible wrong or be cursed forever. And we must restore the headstone of the King’s wife, and only then can this ominous curse be lifted from our people.”