Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Illegitimate Heir

In Zuro, custom and tradition make it illegal for the king to marry, so his progeny consists solely of children born out of wedlock. I am a son of the king, and I am a bastard. I am neither one of the oldest of my father’s children, nor am I among the youngest. Age has no bearing on who will be the next king. His heir is whomever he chooses.

My mother was the daughter of a miller whose smile and hips pleased my father, and though she was betrothed to another craftsman, law decreed my father could take her if he so chose. And he did, only the once. I was born of that union, and there is no doubting my paternity. A prominent stamp of my father’s feature is evident my face... as well as the faces of at least a dozen of my brothers.

I am not the heir. As my fifteenth birthday came and went and my sixteenth approached, no heir had been named yet. In a single chamber of the keep, I slept in a small cot surrounded by cots holding a handful of my half-brothers. No one was given special treatment, lest he get cocky, believing himself the favorite son and eventual heir. It’s simply not the way things are done.

Zuro is the name of both the kingdom and the capital city. The kingdom boundaries extend but a dozen miles or so outside the city walls, so the lands are fairly pathetic, and the kingdom– in my opinion– doesn’t truly deserve to be called such. Yet, like so many others, I was desperate for the throne and the power to command those lands. I wanted to be the heir, to be the next king, to be the favorite chosen son and become ruler over the kingdom.

What else had I to live for?

On the eve of my sixteenth birthday– a day that would mean no gifts or honors or even acknowledgment form my father– I lay on my cot, poring over an old sheaf of paper bound by leather lace ties. It was a recounting of the founding of Zuro and the first king. He had conquered the city with an invading force, and as a virile and lust-driven man, chosen to take the entire female population of those he conquered as his concubines. Dozens of children were born to him in that first few years, and he chose the son who most pleased him to take over the ruling of the kingdom he’d carved for himself. His son followed his example, except he was more choosy about the women he took to his bed. So began the tradition that I had been born into. There were few people in the little kingdom that I was not, at least distantly, related to, through my father’s father’s father’s exploits or the like. It’s possible that I could even be related to my own mother... if the loose breeches of another king had fathered her mother or grandfather or something on some unknown woman.

We do not think over such things.

I was alone in the room, for it was but mid-afternoon, and the brothers I shared the room with were out and about. It was a fine late summer day. The whole summer had been mild and pleasant, the summer planting fruitful. The air practically stank with the sweet aroma of the wildflowers that grow in every patch of grass. We do not plant decorative gardens, but cherish every flower that grows naturally in a place of its own choosing– except in functional farmlands.

The black smoke ribbon that rose in the northeast was an unwanted surprise. It curled up, staining the picturesque sky with its foreboding taint. Had I not been reading of the first king’s conquest, I may not have known what the smoke meant: attack. At the keep, we were simply not taught such things. But I knew what it meant.

There must have been some sort of oral passing-down of the knowledge by those who lived outside the keep, for once the sighting of the smoke signal was passed from mouth to mouth and became common knowledge, panic struck.

Eight of my brothers were in the tower by the time I got there, and as they were crowded around the only viewing scope, I was unable to get a peek through the lenses. Father came soon after, and wordless, all nine of us backed away so he could use the scope. Ages passed as we watched our father and king stare through the glass and toward where invaders must be approaching. I itched to know what he was seeing. In those silent ages that passed, we were joined by more of my half-brothers, who immediately picked up on the mood and stood aside, adding to the silence.

“Take up arms, my sons,” my father the king said, pulling away from the eyepiece. “Whosoever best serves Zuro in defense against these invaders will be my favorite. Do me proud.”

The scramble out of the tower room resulted in at least one of my opponents falling down the stairs and breaking his leg. As I puffed my way to the armory, I was startled at myself. How quickly had my brothers become my enemies, my rivals. I had grown up with these men, so many of them older than me. So many of them had helped me learn reading and taught me to first use a sword. And now I would be rushing into battle with them, hoping to outdo them and become the man they would all one day bow to. As I armed myself, I looked sidelong at these other men, my rivals, wondering if they were thinking the same thought I was, if I was suddenly an enemy to them. An even more frightening thought gripped me:

What if one or more of them sought not to best the rest of use, but to eliminate us. To eliminate me?

Zuro has no active military. It is simply expected that in times of crisis, able-bodied men will take up arms and defend home and keep. Men were rushing out of the keep and into the city, out of the city to the farms, and out of the farms to the plains where the invaders were apparently approaching.

I retreated. Never before had I considered myself a coward, but the thought of being impaled on the sword of an invading stranger or worse, of a half-brother, sent my toes back to the inner keep and eventually back up to the tower.

My father was still there. He turned upon hearing my approach and looked me up and down, taking in my heavy leather clothing and the weapon I held. Never before had I felt so weighed and measured, and strain for height as I might, I fell short even to my own self-appraisal.

“I must be elsewhere, to give orders,” he said, his mouth twisting slightly as bit back what was surely a comment on my cowardice. I withered in my shoes. “If you are staying out of the fighting, use the scope. Keep watch on your brothers. I expect full reports on their deeds during this defense.”

A murmured acquiescence tumbled past my lips as he brushed by me and began descending. I shed my leather padding quickly and laid the sword atop them.

Before that day, I had no experience of battles, except the accounts I have read in scrolls, so I had no real practical comparison to what I watched. It might have been one of the most spectacular battles ever fought, or the dullest and tamest, but I had no way of truly knowing. I do know this: Their numbers were larger. My brothers– how surprised was I to suddenly realize I did not think of them as rivals!– fell alongside craftsman and farmer. They felled others, paired up with allies to fight off a single man and were ganged up on themselves. Through the lenses of the scope, I was able to see blood spurting from slashed throats in all too much detail. More than once I felt the urge to lean away from the scope and empty my stomach. I saw a brother decapitated by a man he had already run through, and both fell together. Hands and arms I saw severed, legs made useless by heavy mauls and spiked maces, faces ruined by flails and axes. The ground was being churned into bloody mud before my very eyes, and still the fighting went on.

As well as I could, I kept watch on my brothers, cataloguing their advances, their kills, and then their deaths. How I wished for a paper to write down what I could, fearing I would forget something, someone. But I had none.

As suddenly as it had begun, it was over. I had watched as our smaller, less-disciplined men fell, rose wounded, and set upon the invaders again. The opposing army’s numbers dwindled gradually, each of their men falling one by one to the stubborn blades of the people of Zuro. Deep in the fray, I watched as one of my elder brothers, alone and bleeding heavily from several wounds, launched a frenzied attack on what I assumed was the leader of the enemy force.

And defeated him. That one death marked the end of the battle, so abrupt it was shocking. At seeing their leader defeated, the enemy soldiers dropped their weapons almost as one. Knelt they then, surrendering to whomever happened to be closest.

I made my way down from the tower then, to where my father was waiting to accept the surrender and the prisoners. Our survivors returned with their prisoners in tow, some with one man, others with three or more. Several of my brothers actually returned with lines of a half dozen or a dozen or a score trailing them as the tail follows the dog. I kept a tally in my head of prisoners each of my half-brothers brought in, so that when the time came and my father asked for my report, I would leave nothing out.

Once the surrender was finalized and the prisoners escorted away form the king’s presence, the surviving men left to return to their loved ones for healing and care. I was left alone with my expectant brothers and quietly contemplating father.

There are those who, I am sure, are wondering at this point if I have sisters. I do, of course. The king has sired many daughters. But tradition passes the throne from father to son, and my sisters are given to their mothers for care and raising. I have sisters, but very few do I actually know.

“I promised you,” father began of a sudden, his voice booming through the chamber. “My sons, I promised that whoever best serves my kingdom in defense will be my favorite son and my chosen heir. The time is to hear what service each of you made to Zuro.”

My eldest brother stepped forward and opened his mouth to speak. As eldest, it was his right, but before he could even begin to detail his endeavors on the battlefield, our father’s hand forestalled him.

“Rather than hear blathering and boasting and attempts to outdo one another, fabrications of what happened while weapons flashed and men died, I will hear all your actions told by one who watched.”

At this, he motioned to me and bid me make my report. Throat dry and voice cracking, I began my telling of the battle. I could not help but look into the faces of my brothers as I stood before them, making no omission nor embellishing the deeds of one over the other. What little was left of the evening faded into night as I talked, until I was even hoarser than I had begun and my throat felt scratched raw.

The king considered my words for a long time as I remained before them all, bearing the varying looks of my audience. Some brothers glared furiously at me, no doubt feeling themselves slighted by my report, others looking surprised at things I had credited to them, few with pleased looks, as if what I had said was the same as they would have. I fear I suffered more glares than any other.

My father did not consider my words long. “And who, in your opinion, best served Zuro?” he asked, never taking his eyes from me. Again I felt weighed to the ounce and measured to the inch under my father’s gaze. It was without hesitation that I named the brother I had seen slay the enemy commander, who had ended the battle with a fierce stroke.

“You have it by your own words. Son, come here.” My brother looked shocked as he staggered to the king’s feet. His wounds were bad and had been no more than hastily and crudely bandaged after the battle. Still, he stood straight under the weight of his injuries to accept the blessing given only to the heir to the throne. In that act, I saw the hopes I’d had dashed to pieces. Only there was a voice in me telling me that wasn’t the act that had sealed it. It was turning away from the battle. No act but my own had damned me to mediocrity.

I am the son of a king, and a bastard. I cannot be more.

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